Many, perhaps most, Unitarians have probably never heard of the Edict of Torda. But the relative obscurity of this event, which occurred some 450 years ago this month in what is now Romania, makes it no less significant. The edict marked a pivotal moment in both Unitarian history and the broader issue of religious toleration, and its anniversary is a chance to reflect on the continuing importance of freedom of faith.
At the time of the mid-16th century, the Protestant Reformation had made significant gains in Europe, including the once largely Catholic Transylvania. Transylvania was then ruled by a Polish queen, Isabella Jagiellon, who had taken the throne following the death of her Transylvanian husband. Isabella learned about religious tolerance from her personal physician, the Italian Giorgio Biandrata.
Inspired by his teachings, the Queen issued the “Decree of Religious Tolerance” in 1557. It called for “each person to maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while We at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.” Isabella died shortly thereafter and her son John Sigismund became king.
In 1563, meanwhile, Biandrata met with Francis David, Transylvania’s court preacher (famous for proclaiming “we need not think alike to love alike”). This eventually led to his preaching a sermon in 1566 in which he rejected the dogma of the Trinity, the belief in “one God in three Divine Persons” (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
Inspired by Biandrata and David’s work, the King called for three debates with Catholics, Lutherans, and anti-Trinitarians to discuss the Trinity. The first debate in 1568 was theologically inconclusive. However, Francis David made an eloquent case for religious freedom, arguing for it on the grounds that “faith is a gift of God, not of men”. This argument prompted the king to issue the Edict of Torda. It concluded with the key statement 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.”
The edict is described by historian Susan Ritchie as “the first modern articulation of the principle of religious toleration by Europeans at the level of state rule”. It did not mean people could believe absolutely anything they liked, and thus falls short of our idea of religious freedom today. However, the co-existence of the four “received” (or officially recognized) denominations – the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian Churches – was not questioned, and the Orthodox Church was tolerated.
This relative tolerance made Transylvania a rarity in Europe at the time, where people were sometimes killed for following a religion other than that of their ruler. And its significance extended beyond religious freedom — as Unitarian minister David A Johnson observes, “In that day freedom of religion was essential to all other freedoms, and denial of religious freedom often meant denial of every other civil freedom as well”.
The third debate organized by the King occurred in 1569, and discussed the universality and unity of matters of eternal truths. It was important because it convinced the King and virtually the whole city of Kolazsar to become followers of the “The Transylvanian Ecclesia of One Accord” as Unitarians were then known. Some five hundred congregations throughout the Principality converted in subsequent months, and Francis David became the first Unitarian bishop in 1576.
John Sigismund died in 1571, and the religious tolerance he had ushered in eroded under the reign of his successor, Stephen Báthory. Báthory sought to stop the spread of the Reformation in Transylvania, and issued a decree in 1572 prohibiting “religious innovations”. Francis David, meanwhile, was becoming steadily more radical, preaching against the adoration of Christ and the practice of infant baptism. He fell out with Biandrata, and was imprisoned for his views in 1579, dying in prison that same year.
Even after Sigismund and David’s deaths, however, the ideas that formed the basis of the Edict of Torda lived on. As Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt observed, ever since the edict, Unitarians have affirmed that “that the sacred is too important to belong only to a single religion or to speak only with a single voice, or to remain the same for all time”.