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The Earliest Religious Freedom Law

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

What would you count as the earliest law establishing religious freedom? Is it the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786? The 1689 English Act of Toleration, recognizing the rights of dissenting denominations? Or perhaps the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, upholding the principle of liberty of conscience for everyone in the colony?

Each of these enactments represents an important step on the long historical journey to the religious freedom we enjoy today in the United States. But the earliest Western law on religious freedom – probably the earliest such law anywhere – appeared in 1568, more than two centuries before Jefferson's famous Virginia Statute. The unlikely location for this law was the Kingdom of Transylvania in Eastern Europe, and its story constitutes an important episode in the history of religious freedom.

The two central characters in this story are minister and theologian Francis Dávid (Dávid Ferenc), and King John Sigismund (János Zsigmond), who ruled Transylvania from 1540 to 1571. Once part of the old Kingdom of Hungary, Transylvania was an independent state during most of the 16th and 17th centuries. These were years of intense theological and political struggle throughout Europe, due largely to the upheavals caused by the Protestant Reformation.

Francis Dávid (c. 1510 – 1579) was born in the city of Kolosvár, the capital of Transylvania. After being educated in Catholic schools, he went off to study theology in Wittenberg, Germany, the very city where Martin Luther had posted his famous 95 theses in 1517, setting off the Protestant Reformation. While in Wittenberg, Dávid became familiar with Reformation ideas, and this seems to have stimulated years of personal religious searching. After returning to Kolosvár around 1555, he renounced Catholicism and became a Lutheran minister. By 1559, however, having become convinced that the Calvinist understanding of the Lord's Supper was preferable to the Lutheran, he converted to Calvinism, eventually becoming Bishop of the Reformed (Calvinist) Church in Transylvania.

While the controversy between Lutherans and Calvinists intensified, Dávid began harboring doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity. Antitrinitarian views were springing up all over Europe during this period, from Spain to Italy to Poland, and Dávid became an important voice in this movement. As his theological views developed, he increasingly rejected Calvinism, finally preaching his first public Unitarian sermon in 1566. This led to a period of intense and highly popular public theological debates, often held at the behest of the King. Dávid's eloquence and debating skill led the King to appoint him to the post of Court Preacher. The Calvinists, however, denounced Dávid's views as heretical, and religious controversy threatened to split the state.

Eager to end the controversy and restore stability, King John convened a diet, or assembly, in the nearby town of Torda, in 1568. After listening to the various religious views, the King formally issued an Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience, commonly known as the Edict of Torda. Here is its most significant language:

"In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God."

This decree also marks the founding of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania. Unitarianism's position was solidified in 1571 when, on the day before his death, the King formally recognized Unitarianism as one of Transylvania's official or "received" religions, along with Catholicism, Calvinism, and Lutheranism. The faith grew rapidly, and by the end of the 16th century there were approximately 400 Unitarian congregations in Transylvania.

Over the years, however, it has suffered much persecution at the hand of rulers less enlightened than John Sigismund. Sigismund's successor, Stephan Báthory, a Roman Catholic, affirmed the decree of religious freedom, but also imposed measures to slow Unitarianism's growth. At the end of the 17th century, Transylvania was reunited with Hungary, now under the rule of the Catholic Habsburg Monarchy. For the next two centuries, Unitarians and other Protestants experienced cycles of tolerance and persecution. Perhaps the most significant challenges were to come during the 20th century. After World War I, Transylvania was given to Romania, separating the Unitarians – and other ethnic Hungarians, including Catholics and Calvinists – from their Hungarian roots. This was followed by the economic and physical devastation of World War II, and then four decades of Soviet occupation.

Today, the Unitarian Church in Transylvania, the world's oldest continuous Unitarian movement, is recovering. It has some 70,000 members in about 125 congregations, though it remains a small minority in the larger Romanian culture. Ironically, more than four centuries after King John Sigismund's decree, Transylvanian Unitarianism is one of the religions now officially recognized by the post-Soviet Romanian government.

This past July, I made my first visit to Transylvania. I had been invited to deliver the keynote address at an international theology conference in Kolosvár, now called Cluj-Napoca, hosted by the Unitarian Church. My visit made this history come alive for me. I was able to meet and talk with many ministers and church leaders for whom this history is part of their own story. And in the chapel of the Unitarian School where our meetings were held, likenesses of Dávid Ferenc and János Zsigmond gazed down on us throughout our deliberations.

(More information about this early religious freedom law and about Transylvanian Unitarianism can be found in Charles A. Howe, For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997).

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