Four Centuries of Struggle for Tolerance and Human Rights

 Reflected in Transylvanian Unitarian Sermons


                                                                                                          --by Dr. Judit  Gellérd

Gellérd, Imre had conceived of a new discipline within practical theology, that of the history of literature of sermons.  He became the first person to read through hundreds of handwritten manuscripts from the founding of Transylvanian Unitarianism in the sixteenth century through the present.

I have gone through (and translated into English) my father's research on the four hundred year intellectual history of Unitarianism in Transylvania and have found evidence in each century for the preaching of tolerance and respect for human rights.  After a brief presentation of the historic framework in which the preachers lived, I will trace the evolution of these notions in Unitarian preaching.  A factor analysis will be utilized.  A uniquely Transylvanian Unitarian attitude toward those issues can be demonstrated. 

The Transylvanian historian Pokoly, József characterized the religious debates:  "While each of Melius’ (Juhász Péter) writings is full of the most passionate attacks, while he wants to punish, to burn, to stone his opponents, the Unitarian works emphasize that in matters of faith any coercion should be avoided..." [1]  One does not become human by coercion.  All reforming churches preached toleration until they had enough power to use coercion.  Toleration was a necessary strategy of the weak; for the strong toleration was considered indifference toward religion and meant weakness.  Just coercion of deviants (heretics) was meritorious.  John Sigismund's reign did not demonstrate the political worth of pluralism as such.

  Nowhere in Europe had the tone and the atmosphere of religious debates been so passionate as in Transylvania in the time of King John Sigismund.  The ideas of the Reformation spread all over Europe in different ways, by school, print, religious disputes, the pulpit and apostolic zeal.  The reformers used all the means for the propagation of the faith.  They founded schools, published books, organized disputes, wandered around the country, sowed the seeds of the new religion. The experience of a few decades taught them that the pulpit, the power of the living word, was perhaps the most efficient means.  As a consequence, a vigorous development of preaching occurred.

With Dávid, Ferenc--though in a medieval form through theologizing questions--a new anthropology was born:  a free use of reason and inquiry of a free and rational being.   There is a shift from the medieval group-salvation administered through the church and protected by the rulers to the right and responsibility of this new personality, to become liberated human beings in charge of their own souls, facing God for their own salvation.  An independent value-system started to evolve: the pulpit rather than sword; faith in reason to defend truth, faith in laity to respond to reason, faith in free conscience to be persuaded by reason.  

The Church is a spontaneous institution, Dávid said, consequently it is free.  "What is a Christian congregation ? - God’s people gathered "in the unity of faith, and held by God’s holy spirit  and not by force".[2] 

It is relevant that Dávid never mentions names of his opponents.  In his whole volume Melius' name is written only three times.  This proves that Dávid debates ideas and principles rather than attacking persons.  "If they argue better, I am ready to learn from them."

Dávid, Ferenc's respect for the loser is quite extraordinary.  He asks John Sigismund not to punish, but to pay all the respect and reward to the loser who should be allowed to write and teach; to be given full freedom as a right to persuade and continue reasoning.[3]  Though Dávid's adversaries accused him with heresy and threatened him with sword and burning him alive, he never became intolerant toward them. 

Unitarian orators in Transylvania carried on Dávid, Ferenc's notions of freedom of conscience as human right.

Enyedi, György, a prominent Unitarian thinker, whose life falls to the 16th century, and yet he represents a different time and spirit.  Dávid, Ferenc and his contemporaries had been fighting against Protestant dogmatism.  A new enemy arose: the Catholic counter-reformation.  Calvinism, though impatient, as a Protestant religion, recognized and allowed the human spirit be expressed.  The counter-reformation, with its commitment to just coercion fought with the means of political power and not any more with reason.  The task of the pulpit, consequently, would shift from seeking for truth with dialectical methods to merely maintaining and defending the passive resistance of a minority.

Enyedi taught compromise, combining Dávid, Ferenc's idealism with Transylvanian reality as a condition of survival.   He was fully aware, already at the end of the l6th century, that the Unitarian church could only survive in the storms of Transylvanian history if it accepted quality as its life-principle.  He thus conceived Unitarianism as a quality of spirit and not a matter of power.     

By creating of this spirit, Enyedi gave Unitarianism a weapon to support it through centuries of persecution.  The prophetic dimension of Enyedi’s focus on quality instead of quantity arises from its being preached in a time when Unitarians were the majority in Transylvania. 

In the 17th century Arkosi, Benedek represents the synthesis of Dávid, Ferenc's dialectics and Enyedi György's empirical-historic view.  Arkosi was a graduate of the Academy of Padua in art, medicine and theology.  His life and activity falls at the time of the Accord of Dés (1638) with all its disastrous consequences for Unitarians in Transylvania.  Many churches were confiscated from Unitarians by the power of the majority, and the publication of Unitarian books was forbidden until the end of the 18th century.  Arkosi's life is full of persecution: exile, political prisons in Vienna. 

This is a time when all the Unitarian forces had to be concentrated on the struggle against the oppression of Calvinism.  Arkosi is a combative theoretician of this time.  His main work that makes him one of the most important writers of the Transylvanian sermonic literature is the Contemplations.  

Dealing with the right for confessional pluralism, he affirmed: "There will be no peace in the countries until there are many religions in one country."[4]  It is wishful to put an end to the variability of religions, but this is not a human task but that of God.  Is there any human solution for this problem? he asked, and his instant answer is: "Granting religious freedom as right.  The problem, eventually, is not religious plurality but persecution."  He reminded the people of Transylvania of their right to claim tolerance from the public officers, and reminded church officials of their obligations under the law: to respect pluralism of religion in Transylvania. 

From the time of Arkosi, the flower language of the pulpit gradually became a code of protest against persecution.   There was no open protest against the Accord of Dés, but a passive resistance. 

In the 18th century Ujszékely Buzogány, Mózes preached the dignity of human reason and freedom of conscience over against the new credalism arising in the Protestantism.  Buzogány is the lamentator of the persecutions by the King Charles III and Empress Maria-Terezia.  Yet Buzogány's grief is not a passive lamentation but a conscious spiritual attitude; in the face of persecution he urged activity for quality, in the spirit of axiological Christianity.

Geyza, József's theology of suffering and Kozma Mihály's teaching of general patience toward each other instead of strife added new elements to the arguments for toleration.  And toward the end of the 18th century eventually the idea of martyrdom is added: one must be ready to die for freedom of conscience.  One dies for truth rather than revolts, kills others or teaches revolution.

Kozma, Mihály junior preached toleration through patience: "Change your attitude.  Be more patient toward each other... Try to realize, if we are not able to hold faithfully together, destruction comes onto us."

The main cultural-historical movement of the 19th century is the Enlightenment.  It liberated the European spirit from feudal "spiritual bondage";  it opened the way for the free inquiry and the free expression of opinion;  it prepared the French Revolution, carrying its ideas later on;  in philosophy it replaced metaphysics with the idea of relation and function;  it broke off any kind of social restrictions: dogma, tradition, title, rank, privilege;  it formulated and spread the natural rights of the human: equality, fraternity, liberty and democracy;  in literature and art it brought realism and naturalism;   in ethics it presented the new interpretation of humanism;  in pedagogy it introduced principles of a liberal, naturalistic education;  in the religious area the Enlightenment raised arguments from human nature, science and evolution.  Rationalism, religious toleration and the issue of human rights gained right once again.

Molnos Dávid preached self-affirmation which requires freedom for oneself and implies toleration of others.  These are the basis for co-existence of nationalities, so they can work together for Transylvania.  As national differences are concerned, he affirms that any discrimination by historical criteria is unjust, leading to false conclusions.  National differences do not justify anybody to prevent some nationalities from their human rights.  National differences are natural and it is an absolute misinterpretation that some of the nations or nationalities qualify according to the criteria of being human while others don't.

Füzi, Ferenc, the martyred minister, taught a love for humanity - one without prejudice regarding race, culture, sex or religion.  Commenting on the Edict of Toleration by Emperor Joseph II in 1781, he emphasized the main requirement of keeping its spirit alive would be that every bishop must respect and tolerate other denominations and be ready to sacrifice comfort, even his life, for his church.  The word, tolerance, for Hungarians is fundamental after their persecutions,  especially in Transylvania and especially in the Unitarian church.  “In order that this spirit to be maintained, every bishop needs the soul of the toleration,” Füzi taught.  “This manifests any time they prove it by being respectful toward other religions and denominations."[5]  

For Szilveszter, György the dignity of Christian religion surpasses time, space, ceremony, race, national conditions, and even particularities of dogma.  It is a toleration for particularities based on the universal.

Szilveszter demonstrates how the conflicts resulted from misunderstanding undermined the dignity of Christianity.   The most wonderful expression of Christian dignity is love.  Love for the neighbor is the most dignified commandment and principle because it excludes any hostility, intolerance and impatience, these being the causes of failure of dignity.  "Don't use religion for any other purpose than for making life sacred.  How much hostility could have been avoided by being aware of this principle!  If the goal of religion is to sanctify life, than all that time is wasted time which had been dedicated by the scholastics for explanation of Jesus' divine and human nature."[6]  Here the seeds of the axiological Christianity in the beginning of the 19th century, inherited from the previous centuries: religion shouldn't be for theologizing but for life, deeds, personal responsibility. The orator examines religion from the viewpoint of universal human evolution, searching for its social role.

Benczédi, Márton contrasted religious freedom and mission.  He analyzed the conditions to harmonize different confessions in order to live together in peace.  He found pluralism in human nature, so religious pluralism reflects human nature.  Mission tends to force humans to act against their nature and their conscience.  There can be no persuasion for conversion, only an example lived out in love.

His 48th sermon of the volume is a great dissertation about respect of difference--about the right to be different.   The idea of one fold and one shepherd had been forced into Christian practice for centuries.  Is it possible at all, to bring into one fold the different religions?--he asks.   It is possible but there are many difficulties.  For example:

1.  People differ from each other by their very nature.  And these habitual differences implies differences in their principles.

2.  People live in various natural, environmental, social and historical conditions. 

3.  Union of religious conceptions is held back by the fundamental differences among the peoples and races, particularities of one religious form correspond better for some of the people than to others.

4.  An impediment in the way of union is the tradition-sticking, conservative   human nature, which urges people to keep the belief and traditions of their ancestors.

5.  This problem becomes unsolvable also by the question of predominance of one religion in case of actual religious union; which religion would be acceptable for everybody?

Diversity of religions, consequently, originates from our nature, any forceful conversion would be equivalent with denial of our nature, with its aggressive transformation.  

Benczédi also demonstrates how harmful the discord among religions is for the national unity.  If it is impossible to bring the religious denominations into a Christian unity, with what else can the integrity of a pluralistic people be assured?  National consciousness--he answers.  With this consciousness the citizens of different denominations in a homeland unite into such community which is superior to the narrow horizon of the confessionalism: and this community is the nation.  The progressive national spirit includes the spirit of tolerance and recognition of human rights.

Kis, Mihály in his sermon "Our relation with God" highlights the most characteristic features of religion: universalism.  We are God's people without any discrimination--he affirms based on the biblical text from Psalms 79:12.   Opposing this truth, historical Christianity has produced another view sustaining that God had chosen some (individuals, peoples, churches, races) for salvation and let others in perdition.  We wouldn't condemn this doctrine unless it generated other harmful doctrines like that of the only true church or the theory of chosen races.  Kis, Mihály warns us against denominational quarrel.  "If we are God's flock, all of us pasture together in peace".  Though the sheep are different from each other, yet from the viewpoint of their function they are the same.    And he adds an argument from history and evolution: "It is good to know that the green carpet of the fields must not and cannot be pulled out from under us neither with force nor envy or jealousy... Today any fight against human rights is in vain, it would mean facing the waves of history which sweeps away even its most powerful enemies.  Thanks to God we have the luck to live in the world of such ideas which are shining high above the rotting atmosphere of prejudice" (157).  The orator believes in a victory of the new ideas over the conservative, anachronistic ones.  The quotation is an eloquent example how great the experience of spiritual liberation offered by the enlightenment was for Unitarians.

Later Unitarian preaching of the nineteenth century would differ little from the arguments and pleadings for toleration and freedom found in the popular secular culture.

The central concern of the Enlightenment was society.  The human was examined by the preachers through the prism of his or her social character and no opportunity was missed to emphasize the most fundamental human right:  freedom.  Koronka, Antal wrote in one of his sermon before 1848:  "If freedom is our natural right, let freedom be!... The mission of religion is to give a divine aspect to the civil rights, to make citizens aware of their rights, to support all the social struggles of the nation".[7]  In another sermon he said:  "The supreme obligation of Christianity is to present the new social ideas to the believers, to awaken ardent love for them in their soul...[8] The ideas of freedom often are just clothed in theological notions.

In 1864 long after the revolution of 1848 Unitarian Bishop Kriza, János in a representative sermon offers his view of coexisting nationalities in Transylvania.  In his heart he nurtures the ideal of a common brilliant future to build together.   He also distinguishes two kind of authority: one is tyrannical, pagan authority.  Another is a moral one, pursuing, convincing through arguments, with moral superiority... This is Christian authority, that of Jesus...[9]

Péterfi, Sándor deals with kinds of freedom.  In practice there are personal, physical, spiritual, economical, national, religious freedom and our responsibility for it.  He consecrates a sermon to each of them.  The human is supported by God's help and by his own power [aptitude].  Even if we cannot influence the first, we still are responsible for the second. 

Péterfi, Sándor humanism has four main practical principles: 

a. overcoming the denominational differences; 

b. not taking in consideration the national status.  "If you see people suffering never ask him which nationality they belongs to... see the human in him" (8,25); 

c. liquidation of the worldview based on exploitation and forming ideas of a society without classes.  "Some people pretend to be forced by nature--just like other animals--that the big ones to exploit the small ones and the powerful ones to oppress the weak ones without any other consideration" (8,24) 

d. The human is an unfinished creature of God.  Humanity is not a state but an ideal.  In fact, we can only be named as human sometime in the future when our human nature will be accomplished, in its perfection.

Freedom of a people depends on three factors:  self-confidence, cultural level and solidarity.  Self-confidence means having an objective opinion about ourselves, a view free from either complex of superiority or inferiority.  The second condition is culture.  The best example for this is the revolution from 1848 which never could have born without the culture of the Enlightenment.  The third factor is solidarity in interest of a better accomplishment of the work but also in order to defend ourselves against the "foreign deities" which looted the country.  

Rédiger, Géza consecrated the church at Mezöörményes which was the fruit of the denominational solidarity.  It should remain its symbol in the future, too.  "I insist in calling your attention to the fact that the first congregation here was founded by a Unitarian minister, a Catholic man raised the funds for building a church, the architect was a Lutheran and it is given to the Reformed church as their property".[10] 

Koronka, Antal preached that liberalism is the religion of the future.  He raised the issue of one fold, one pastor once again and pointed out the imperialism of Rome behind this idea.  Mission must not be confused with a tendency of domination.  Only one form of mission has a right to existence: the inner mission.  The churches have to serve this mission.  "We don't build churches in order to be starting points for conquests but to safeguard our identity and ours heritage.”[11]

Ferencz, József at the end of the last an at the beginning of our century, witness to fulfillment of the idea of religious freedom.  The liberal spirit of the epoch accomplished the dream of the ancestors.  What does freedom mean in religious life today? he asked.

1.  Giving up the principle of authority first of all.  Besides God we have only one single authority: common sense.

2.  Freedom of the interpretation of the Bible.  "The purpose of interpretation of the Bible means not to attribute the seal of divine inspiration and infallibility on its every letter but to discover those truths in it which facing the critique of reason, prove to be valid for all times and all peoples".[12]  An interesting historical exchange of roles has happened: during the Reformation religion came to help civil [political] freedom to be achieved, the same way   that politics were of great help to religious freedom.  The liberal spirit has more in its favor.  Ferencz, József doesn't link freedom of conscience exclusively to Unitarianism, he presents it as a universal human need.  Unfortunately there still are some people unable to shake off a spirit of intolerance and denominationalism.   For them freedom is nothing more than hobby just like democracy, he noted.

 Religion as any other ideas gain a sense only if it represents value for the individual.  "Let the human spirit develop freely, don't limit the conscience of the individual.  Anybody trying to make everything after the same patterns or to invent a religious formula acceptable for all people fights against that nature which doesn't even create two blades of grass totally identical"[13] (20).  Here is theological individualism!  Ferencz, József is the representative and apostle of the characteristic individualism of the nineteenth century.  In an optimistic tone, expressing his strong belief in the future, he exclaims and these words have become adage:  “The hour of victory approaches!  Our ideas are the ideas of the cultured humanity, our religion is religion of reason and of the future!”[14]

In conclusion, a survey of four hundred years of Transylvanian Unitarian preaching has identified that the notion of toleration was populated with the following factors--as it evolved and sought expression in life:

a. One does not become human through coercion but by the free exercise of conscience and reason;

b.  just coercion is self-refuting;  coercion denies one the exercise of personal responsibility which is a prerequisite for becoming human;

c.  the only weapon of faith is truth and not the sword;

d. the willingness to endure all manners of persecution is a practical strategy to achieve toleration through outlasting the persecutor;

e.  focus on the quality of your example

f.  persecution because of intolerance is the problem not pluralism;

g.  pluralism unites, persecution destroys the nation;

h.  respect and honor the accords from the past which grant religious freedom and toleration;

i.  promote patience toward one another instead of strife;

j.  be willing to suffer for the right of religious freedom;

k.  be willing to face martyrdom for religious freedom

l.  freedom and toleration are necessary because life is an evolutionary process;

m.  freedom for oneself implies toleration of others;

n.  love of humanity excludes prejudice regarding race, culture, sex or religion;

o.  religious pluralism reflects nature’s pluralism;

p.  difference is useful and necessary, likewise religious difference;

q.  Christian internationalism manifests in love and impartial respect for all nations of the earth;

r.  toleration for particularities is based on love of the universal;

s.  religion must liberate human dignity

t.  the most fundamental human right is freedom;

u.  the only just authority rests on persuasion through convincing arguments;

v.  freedom of conscience is a universal human need


Works of Rev. Imre Gellérd


1.  Gellérd, Imre:  Az erdElyi unit·rius prEdik·ciUirodalom t^rtEnete a 16. sz·zad Es a 18. sz·zad vEge k^z^tt.  Kolozsv·r, 1956.  [Masterís thesis:  The History of the Transylvanian Unitarian Literature of Sermons between the 16th and the end of the 18th century.]

2. Gellérd, Imre:  Az unit·rius egyh·z szUszEki Es szertart·si szolg·lata a 19. sz·zadban.  [Doctoral dissertation submitted at Kolozsv·r, 1970 and withdrawn after threats of a new imprisonment:  Homiletical and Liturgical Service of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church in the Nineteenth Century.]

3. Gellérd, Imre, Truth Liberates you:  The message of Transylvaniís First Unitarian Bishop.  Translated by Dr. Judit GellErd.  Chico, CA, Center for Free Religion, 1990.

4. Gellérd, Imre,  A Burning Kiss from God to Preach the Truth:  Four Centuries of Transylvanian Unitarian Preaching.  Translated by Dr. Judit GellErd.  Chico, CA, Center for Free Religion, 1990

5.  Gellérd, Imre,  BeszEdek.  Chico, CA, Center for Free Religion, 1990   











[1]Pozsonyi Szentm·rtoni K·lm·n: J·nos Zsigmond erdElyi fejedelem Elet Es jellemrajza.  I.G. Duca, 1934. 317. lap, quated from an unpublished paper by SimEn Domokos, NReform·tus - unit·rius egy¸ttElEs a SzEkelyf^ld^n a 16. - 17. sz·zad fordulUj·n Es ma.i 1. lap.

[2]D·vid, Ferenc: Sermon nr. 23 Chr.

[3]One does not go too far in seeing a foreshadowing of what Gandhi would also attempt in Nfighting for truthi without coersion or violence.  Cf. Mark Juergensmeyer, Fighting with Gandhi  (New York: Harper)

[4]This attitude combines a tenacious resistance to coercion, non-reolt, non-violence, willings to suffer.  Its strategy rests on the effectiveness of wearing down the opponentís use of violence and coercion while exercising the power of persuasion and reason whenever there is an opportunity.

[5]F¸zi Ferenc: The positive impact of the bishop on its church, funeral sermon for his eminency the Bishop K^rm^czi J·nos.  Kolozsv·r, 1837


[7]GellErd Imre: Homiletical and Liturgical Service of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church, pp. 144.


[9]Kriza J·nos:  Be Prophets.  KeresztEny Magveti, 7,263

[10]REdiger GEza:  What does our new church warn us?  Unitarian Pulpit, 553

[11]Koronka Antal:  Belief in on God, 1867

[12]Ferencz JUzsef:  Freedom of belief and conscience, synodial oration held at the 300 year anniversary of the Unitarians at Torda, 30 August, 1868. (Kolozsv·r, 1868).