Marian Hillar


Poland has made a unique contribution to the development of modern humanistic societies in the political, social, religious and moral arenas. This occurred during the Reformation in Poland, which inspired the most advanced legislature in Europe of its time to allow freedom of conscience. This legislature was composed of a powerful and enlightened nobility who were anxious to defend their individual rights against a centralised authority. However, their legislation was a short-lived phenomenon, as the Catholic church organised a counter campaign that systematically eliminated religious freedom and culminated in the church's having one of its own, a cardinal and a Jesuit, ascend the throne in 1648.

It was a reaction to the counter-Reformation that gradually resulted in formation of the advanced moral ideas on religious freedom and church state relations. It was a group known under various names as the Polish Brethren, anti-Trinitarians, Arians, Unitarians, or abroad as Socinians that contributed most in this respect. Members of this group (to be referred to interchangeably as Polish Brethren or Socinians) was particularly singled out for persecution and later expelled because its anti-Trinitarian beliefs and ideas on religious freedom were abhorrent to the church. They were forced into oblivion for three centuries, forgotten in a country that continued to be dominated by the Catholic church.

The Polish Brethren lasted in Poland for about one hundred years, from the time when Peter of Goniądz delivered his credo at the Calvinist synod in Secemin on January 22, 1556, to the death of Samuel Przypkowski in 1670. But they made an outstanding contribution to Polish literature and gradually developed the most advanced and pioneering ideas in the social, political, and religious fields. About 500 treatises are still waiting to be examined. The Polish Brethren were committed to a sincere application of original Christian teachings to personal, social and political relations. Their ideology was characterized from the beginning by: freedom of religious thought; applying reason to the interpretation of the scriptures, the revelation, and theological matters in general; absolute tolerance of all creeds and separation of church and state; the struggle for social equality among people.2

At their first synod in Węgrów in 1565, the Polish Brethren settled the matter of freedom of conscience: "Everyone has the right not to do things which he feels to be contrary to the word of God. Moreover, all may write according to their conscience, if they do not offend anybody by it." Protestant and Catholic reaction described freedom of conscience and tolerance propagated by the Polish Brethren as "that Socinian dogma, the most dangerous of the dogmas of the Socinian sect."3

The ideas of the Polish Brethren on religious freedom were later expanded, perfected, and popularised by John Locke (1632-1704) in England, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) in France and Holland, and Spinoza (1632-1677) in Holland. It should be noted, however, that neither Locke nor the Socinians tolerated atheism: "Lastly, these are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God." They believed that "Promises, covenants, and oath, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist." The ideas of the Socinians and John Locke were transplanted directly to America by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who implemented them for the first time in the American Constitution. They were philosopher-statesmen who shared a strong conviction in absolute freedom of conscience and distrusted any kind of established ecclesiastical institution. They believed that the established churches create only "ignorance and corruption" and introduce a "diabolic principle of persecution," and that the exercise of religion should be completely separated from government. To them, toleration was not enough; only absolute freedom could be acceptable. Democracy was an institution that erected a "wall of separation" between church and state, and protected the liberties of the minority against the imposition of the majority. Both were broadly educated and Jefferson had a keen interest in studying religions including that of the Socinians. Their writings follow Locke's ideas and echo the Socinian literature.4

The Polish Brethren were forerunners of the later thinkers who developed the ideas of the Enlightenment and humanistic modern times. The Socinian doctrines, if allowed to develop, would probably have brought true enlightenment to Poland. Their achievements were the highest in Europe of their time and originated all modern trends in political, social and moral sciences, in biblical and religious studies, and in concepts of the absolute freedom of intellectual inquiry, liberty of conscience, and complete nonantagonistic separation of church and state. They put to practice the highest ethical ideals.

Towarzystwo Humanistyczne
Humanist Assciation