The Story of Francis David and King John Sigismund: The Establishment of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church


Many Unitarian references note in passing the works of Francis David, the founder of the Hungarian Unitarians and the proclamation of Edict of Torda by King John Sigismund Zapolya II, the first time religious freedom was established in modern Europe. These events of the second half of the sixteenth century are however a fascinating story, deserving of more attention, and provide some valuable insights for the treatment and expression of religious views today.

Historical events are largely creatures of circumstance, just as human behaviour is demonstrably varied by social class and cultural background. Within these statistical probabilities there are always exceptional individuals whom, by fortune, will, foresight or a combination thereof will adapt to circumstances in an innovative and exceptional manner. Francis David, King John Sigismund Zapolya and some others mentioned in this presentation, are certainly deserving of this recognition. This is their story, their actions and the results of their actions.

The Background

The sixteenth century was a fascinating, if dangerous place, for the people of Transylvania. Geographically, it is a plateau of uneven ground, some three to five hundred metres above sea-level, drained by several tributaries of the Danube with the magnificent Carpathian mountains bordering on the north, east and south reaching above 2500m in some place. The weather is cold in winter and mild in summer, the rainfall modest.

Culturally, the people where very mixed with strict social classes applied. The single largest population group were probably the Romanians who were invariably working people; peasants and craftsmen and so don't feature significantly in the intrigues of Court and State. The other three main cultures in the region were the Hungarians, the Szekely, an indigenous Hungarian subculture and dialect, and the ethnically German Saxons. These three groups formed the "Unio Trium Nationum", the "Union of Three Nations", a coalition of the three estates. The Hungarians largely controlled the nobility, the Szekely, the warriors, and the Saxons the burghers.

Politically the region was a largely independent Principality at the crossroads of major powers. To the north and the east was the nascent development of the Polish-Lithnunanian Commonwealth, which would become the largest and most populated Kingdom in Europe for its time. To the North and East was the Royal Hungarian Kingdom, ruled by the Hapsburgs and to the South and East the Ottoman Empire of Sultan Suleiman.

Warfare plagued the region for most of the first half of the century. The Ottomans attempted to expand northwards and came into conflict with the Kingdom of Hungary, defeating the Kingdom at the battle of Mohacs in 1526. After their defeat the Hungarian orders chose two kings: the majority of the noblility chose John Zapolya and a minority chose Ferdinand Habsburg, the Holy Roman Emperor. King John lacked the military strength to defeat the Emperor, so he allied with the Sultan who responded by taking the central region of the Kingdom, leaving the Zapolya dynasty with the Principality of Transylvania, nominally a vassal state of the Ottomans, but with an extraordinary degree of independence. Hungary was now divided into three parts (Hapsburg Hungary, Ottoman Hungary and the Transylvanian principality) and remained so for the next 150 years.

The wider context however was even more dramatic. The movable type printing press had been invented less than a hundred years beforehand, providing the technical impetus to the great religious and political debates collectively known as the Reformation. The Byzantium Empire, had been invaded the same period beforehand, which effectively broke the political basis for the theological conflict between the European and Orthodox faiths. The discovery of the 'New World' by Columbus (or more accurately, the discovery of the Atlantic) and the development of deep-seas ships opened the minds and scope of European thought to new lands to exploit and colonize, as did the development of the musket and cannon. A new world was being born; a modern world where the secular nation state would become ascendent over theological empires.

Francis David and Janos Zapolya Sigisumund

Francis David, or in the native Hungarian Ferenc Dávid was born in Kolozsvár, or Cluj, around 1510. He studied in Wittenberg and Frankfurt and trained to become a Catholic priest in Kolosvár for four years and when he returned was appointed rector of a Catholic School. However in 1555 he joined the Reformation, aligning with the Lutherans, becoming their superintendent. When the Lutherans split following the Helvetician reforms, David joined the Calvinists as was appointed the Calvinist bishop of the Hungarian churches in Transylvania and was appointed court preacher to the King Janos Zapolya Sigismund.

King Sigismund hardly had a normal childhood. His father, King Zapolya I died two weeks after his birth in 1541, and was left in the care his mother, Queen Isabella with the Catholic Paulian monk, and skilled politician, Brother Gregory Frater. Taking an oath on Zapolya's death-bed to protect the interests of dying king's children, Gregory moved the Court to Transylvania and governed the Principality with Queen Isabella, effectively managing the Treasury, acting as chief judge, and bishop of Varad. Whilst maintaining good relations with the Ottomans, Gregory believed that ultimately Transylvania's future had to lie with a integration with the Holy Roman Empire and signed a secret deal to hand over the Principality to the Holy Roman Empire. This proved to be his downfall however, as the Emperor Ferdinand had him murdered in 1551 because of his suspicious relationship with the Turks.

Queen Isabella herself is very worthy of note. She was the daughter of the King of Poland and the Princess of Milan and was brought up in the Polish royal court. Highly educated she was well versed in Renaissance culture, and the Classics, and spoke four languages fluently. An extraordinarily strong-minded woman, she managed to retain control of the nobility as a widow-queen with Gregory. However following Gregory's death and in accord to a treaty signed with Ferdinand, the family fled Transylvania to Silesia in Poland in 1551. However, Ferdinand was unable to govern the Principality effectively, with both local revolts, financial difficulties and Turkish attacks, she returned with Sigismund in 1556 and ruled until her death in 1559.

At this point Sigismund took over as a the young King, but was confronted by conquests by the Hapsburgs, and lost three regions. He also put down a revolt by the Szekelys against limitations to their political liberties and increased taxation. In 1563 Giorgio Blandrata, an Italian physician who had worked in Poland and had been influenced by anti-trinitarian reason was called to the Hungarian court. Discussions with Francis David led to him preaching at a sermon on January 20th, 1566 where he rejected the dogma of the Trinity, and for his own part Blandrata published a paper of seven propositions rejecting the doctrine.

The Debate, The Conversion and the Edict of Torda

Such radical statements from within senior members of the court and the most important bishop in Transylvania had profound effects. The King called for three debates with Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and the new anti-Trinitarians present to discuss the issue; the first two were held at Gyualafhervat in 1566 and 1568, and at the final one Nagyvarad in 1569. Whilst first debate was theologically inconclusive although the argument for religious freedom convinced the King, and so issued the Edict of Torda. It was the first expression of religious freedom within modern Christian States. It declared that:

"Our Royal Majesty, as he had decided at the previous debates within his country about matters of religion, confirms as well at the present Diet that every orator shall preach the gospel by his own (personal) conception, at any place if that community is willing to accept him, or if it isn't, no one should force him just because their soul is not satisfied with him; but a community can keep such a preacher whose teachings are delightful. And no one, neither superintendents nor others, may hurt a preacher by this or by the previous constitutions; no one may be blamed because of their religion. No one is allowed to threaten others with prison or divest anyone of their office because of their profession: because faith is God's gift born from hearing and this hearing is conceived by the word of God."

Apart from the profound importance of allowing religious debate and tolerance the political matter means that Francis David could retain his existing title, and transfer the episcopate from the Calvinsts to the new anti-Trinitarians. Such an environment of religious freedom and with institutional power provided an advantage for the in the second debate of 1568 on the eternal divinity of Jesus. The opponents of Francis David were quite unsuccessful in this discussion and resorted to abuse, which simply help confirm the King that David's arguments were geniune; it was also at this time that the writings of Michael Servitus were smuggled into Transylvania, translated into the local language, printed and circulated.

The third synod resulted in a decisive victory for Francis David and his allies. Presided by the King and the attended by the leading civil officials, the debate discussed, in their theologically-inspired language, the concept of the universality and unity of matters of eternal truths. As a result of the debate the King and virtually the whole city of Kolazsar became followers of the "The Transylvanian Ecclesia of One Accord" as the Unitarians were then known. Some five hundred congregations throughout the Principality converting in subsequent months.

One interesting side effect was the profound effect this also had on national identity in this multi-religious and multi-ethnic region. For many years Transylvania considered itself a competing landscape with power balanced between the Saxon, the Hungarian, and the Szekely estates and with the Romanians always in the background. The establishment of their own political doctrine of religious freedom and their own religion of Unitarianism provided the impetus for independence and in 1570 King Sigismund negotiated a treaty with the new Habsburg Emperor, Maximilian I where Transylvania was recognized as an independent state.

After The Treaty and Long Term Effects

The victory for both Unitarianism and religious freedom however was short-lived. King John Sigismund died in 1571 and his replacement through election of the estates fell to Stefan Bathory of Poland. John Sigismund's preferred replacement, Gaspar Bekesy, was driven out of the country in a brief civil war. A wily politician who, through threats of civil war and strategic marriages eventually led Bathory to achieve the coronation of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1576 in addition to the Principality of Translyvania. His full title upon this coronation was King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Duke of Ruthenia, Duke of Prussia, Duke of Masovia, Duke of Samogitia, Duke of Kiev Land, Duke of Volhynia, Duke of Podlachia and Duke of Livonia, and Prince of Transylvania.

Stefan Bathory had little time for the heresy or religious freedom, preferring the stability that come with the vested power of the Papacy. Francis David, in a very principled but not particularly politic way refused to tone down his arguments that Jesus was human, not divine, despite the recommendations of his Blandrata who even went to extent of bringing the anti-Trinitarian theologian Faustus Socinus from Poland who urged him to make subtle distinctions for his own political safety. David's reactions were increasingly bitter and he had a serious falling out with Blandrata eventually providing the King the opportunity to place David under house arrest. Tried as an "innovator", David died in prison in 1579 and was buried in an unmarked grave. According to some, a poem was found scrawled in his cell with the final lines:

Nor lightning, nor cross, nor sword of the Pope,
nor death's visible face,
No power whatever can stay the progress of Truth.
What I have felt I have written, with faithful heart
I have spoken.
After my death the dogmas of untruth shall fall.

Further restrictions followed. In 1638, the commission of the Diet forced the Unitarians to worship Jesus as God, and that their ministers had to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and their books on ecclesiastical matters had to be submitted to the office of the Prince's censor. In 1691, Counter-Reformation actions witnessed the confiscation of Unitarian schools and churches. Finally however, some two hundred years after the original, an Edict of Toleration was passed in 1781, allowing the Unitarian Church to rebuild, with approximately forty new schools and churches established in the following twenty five years.

Thus, the Hungarian Unitarians has survived, particularly in Transylvania. The Treaty of Versailles was particularly unfortunate for the Unitarians, as it dismembered Hungary resulting in the Unitarian Church finding itself on Romanian territory and thus subject to Romanian ecclesiastical authority, even though its members were primarily Hungarian and Szekelys. The official title is the Hungarian Unitarian Church, with a membership as of in last century was of approximately 50,000 in Transylvania, especially among the Székely population, and with some 15,000 in Hungary itself. Fraternal international relations operate between the Unitarians of Hungary, the English-speaking Unitarian churches and the international Unitarian community.


It must be noted that the establishment of Unitarianism in Transylvania and the Edict of Torda did not lead to a revolution throughout European politics. But it could have, and many lives which died in subsequent religious-motivated wars and violence could have been prevented. It may have lead to a political distinction between State and ethnicity where people with different languages, appearance and culture could have lived alongside each other in the same independent States. But this did not happen either. Instead, there was a brief and troubling flowering of freedom in a distant and isolated corner of Europe that was quickly crushed by powerful vested interests and by those who saw the opportunity extend their own power and control over people.

What it did provide however is the idea of freedom and reason and the idea of national unity built on principles of freedom and reason, rather than ethnicity. This idea would be repeated in both the French and American revolutions and they remain the core principles by which one judges whether a society is modern, secular and democratic. Individually however, the story of the uncompromising genius of Francis David, the bravery of young King Sigismund, and the clever management of Queen Isabella, inspire one to realise that despite terribly oppressive circumstances it is possible to adapt to such environs in a manner that is remembered a victory for humanity in centuries to come.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, Sunday February 19, 2006