Edict of Torda

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“Religion is a present reality;  it is also an inheritance.”  These words are found in the Preface of this hymnbook, The Living Tradition.  This morning I am going to talk about an inheritance that is uniquely Unitarian and shapes our present reality as Unitarian Universalists. On March 18, 1568, The Edict of Torda, otherwise known as the Act of Religious Freedom and Conscience, was issued by King John Sigismund assuring religious freedom in his principality of Transylvania. The Edict of Torda was revolutionary for its time.  And the spirit of this liberating document is present today.  The Edict invites us, the ministers, as well as you, the congregation, to interpret the Gospels according to one’s conscience.  Of course Unitarian Universalists in the North America interpret not only the Gospels, but also sacred texts of other faith traditions as well as secular literature that invoke the sense of the holy.

We are a people who are seekers. Today’s message to the children was about the often hidden gifts of nature.  The Children’s Benediction reflects the practice of being seekers;  we affirm having open eyes, an open mind and an open heart.

We, the congregation, are also seekers beyond Sunday Services.  Covenant Groups meet at First Parish, as well as in Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout North America in the quest to understand one’s truth more deeply and to appreciate a larger reality. In addition to the Covenant Groups, First Parish as a large active Humanist group, as well as the women’s Circle group, whose focus is earth-centered spirituality.

Unitarian Universalists are often criticized for not having beliefs that endure beyond a generation.  But that is not where the discussion should begin because it is the practice that has been consistently present:  the practice of freedom, tolerance, and reason in the spirit of compassion/ generosity.  The practice of freedom, tolerance and reason are the three cardinal values, which the Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified as unique to Unitarians.  It has always bothered me that he did not include the practice of compassion or generosity. As we heard this morning, it was Francis David who said, “We do not need to think alike to love alike.”  To understand the evolution of this four-pronged practice in Unitarianism, we need to go back in history.

In 1517 The Reformation began with Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.  It was not long before the Protestant Movement splintered along doctrinal lines.  For the general populace, this meant they were ordered to practice the faith of their ruler, which was usually Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism.  The failure for a member of the populace to do so often resulted in the charge of heresy and the punishment of death.  So as Judit Gellerd, whom you will hear more about, wrote,  “It is to the everlasting credit of those early Unitarians in Transylvania that they guaranteed religious freedom of conscience at a time when Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe were killing each other over their religious difference.”

The Edict of Torda of 1568 stated:   “His majesty, our Lord [meaning King Sigismund], in what manner he - together with his realm - legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that 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, according to the previous statutes, 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 and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.”

But the Edict of Torda was not just a protector of tolerance, it also affirmed the birth of the spirit of inquiry in regards to one’s faith.  Tolerance and freedom invite inquiry.  Even before Sigismund’s death, the Trinitarians (Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists) continued to challenge the doctrine of Unitarianism. So to insure that Unitarianism enjoyed equal constitutional status with the Trinitarians, the Transylvanian Diet recognized Unitarianism as one of “the received religions.”   This constitutional recognition is probably what allowed Unitarians in Transylvania to survive to the present in spite of a long history of oppression.

Tragically, three years later in 1571, King Sigismund died.  With his death, a new ruler who was Roman Catholic, Prince Stephen Bathory, came to the throne.  He was friendly to the Protestant faiths but not to Unitarianism. The spirit of religious inquiry was immediately challenged through censorship and the seizing of Unitarian printing presses.

To lift up the spirit of inquiry, which is the life and breath of Unitarianism, is to remember Francis David, whose words were cited by Jenny and me.

He was the court preacher under King Sigismund and successfully debated Trinitarians, resulting in the Edict of Torda and the constitutional recognition of Unitarianism.  David is called the Father of Unitarianism.

David’s life illuminates how integral the spirit of inquiry was to his spiritual journey as well as to our own.  In a previous sermon I said Unitarian Universalism  history is an on-going or living tradition ofholding our faith firmly but our beliefs lightly.  David’s life is an example of this.

During the Reformation, he believed religious truth needed to be questioned; therefore he saw the Reformation as a process, instead of a one-time event.

As David pursued religious truth, he left Roman Catholicism to explore Lutheranism.  His continued explorations brought him to Calvinism.  Finally his quest brought him to Unitarianism.  His faith in the on-going pursuit for truth was done in a spirit of generosity. David’s generosity of spirit was not reciprocated.  When he continued to seek his vision of religious truth and to share it with others, he was imprisoned.  In 1579, David died in prison a religious martyr and a national hero.

If we speed forward 400+ years to 1993 (and 4 years after the overthrow of Ceausescu), we can observe Unitarians in Transylvania meeting in Turda to celebrate the anniversary of the original 1568 edict. They issued a new statement of religious tolerance, which said in part:

"In this solemn moment of remembrance we reaffirm that faith is the gift of God; we promote religious freedom and strive for the respect and implementation of human rights. …  Nothing is more important to us than tolerance.”  Erdo, Janos (Translated by Gellerd, Judit). [http://www.unitarius.hu/english/dates.html "Major dates from the History of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church"] . Retrieved 2008-01-23.]

When I was doing research for this sermon I read Judit Gellerd’s paper “My Father’s Silence.”  When I told Gary about Judit, he said she visited First Parish a few years back and her nickname is ZiZi.  “My Father’s Silence” is a riveting story about her father, Imre Gellerd, his life and imprisonment for 6 long years of severe deprivation and torture.  In 1959, Romania was under Soviet control and the Communist Party used any pretext to eradicate intellectuals, who were considered dangerous to a communist society.” Her father’s crime was his thesis for his doctorate, in which he traced Unitarian thinking from Francis David’s time to the late 1900’s using hand-written Unitarian sermons.  Communist Romania did not recognize Hungarians as full citizens and denied they lived in Romania since the 1500’s.

Because Unitarians in Transylvania are of Hungarian descent and still speak Hungarian, Imre Gellerd’s doctoral thesis was considered a treasonous document.  Gellerd was 39 years of age when the Securitate arrived in the dark of night, searching for his thesis.  Although they did not find it, they arrested him and he was sentenced for 7 years.

On the day of his release, Judit writes of their reunion: “Finally, the great moment arrived.  Our door opened and there was my father!  My heart stopped.  I barely recognized him.  At 45 he was a broken old man.  His hair had turned white, he was emaciated, his face gray and wrinkled.    And his eyes!  There was no shine, no life in his eyes,only pain, suffering, and fear.

His movements were slow and cautious; he struggled to keep his balance.

In fact he was not able to walk by himself.”

Imre Gellerd lived 15 more years, alone and marginalized.  He wrote a new doctoral theses, his first was not found; and for a second time was prevented from receiving his doctorate.  With the threat of a second arrest, Imre Gellerd took his own life on his 60th birthday.

In spite of or maybe because of the oppression Unitarians experienced,  Rev. Imre Gellerd was still able to write, “Our religion was able to produce one of the most optimistic, constructive and humanistic systems … .  Through suffering, special powers and qualities are born in us: unity, solidarity, strong faith, adequate self-knowledge and a sense of historic orientation.”

Again, like Frances David before him, Gellerd, in spite of deprivation and torture, is able to name the strength and spirit of Unitarians.  It is a spirit we need to nurture.

In 1993 following the collapse of Communism in December 1989, The Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council was founded to focus and coordinate the enormous grassroots energy of dozens of UU churches in North America to support Unitarian congregations in Transylvania.

Certainly members of this congregation will tell you how enriching our relationship has been as a partner church.   I will end with a quote about the Partner Church relationship from Rev. David Bumbaugh, who at the time was minister of a UU church in Summit, NJ:

“We are the people … whose religion is based on the practice of reason, freedom and tolerance [and I add, “in the spirit of generosity].  Whether we are talking about Unitarians in Transylvania, or in England, or in New England; whether we are talking about Unitarians in the sixteenth century or the eighteenth century or at the end of the twentieth century, that is our distinguishing mark – not the answers we give from time to time to theological conundrums, but the style of our religious life:  a fierce and abiding commitment to reason and to freedom and to tolerance.  And that religious style, which is our hallmark, was created and crafted in Transylvania over four centuries ago, and is still cherished there by the people who have suffered for their faith more than we can imagine.  Someone needs to witness their struggle, and care about its outcome.  If not we, who have inherited their religious method, then who?  If not now, when?”

BENEDICTION:  As we go out into the world, may the practice of freedom, reason and tolerance in the spirit of generosity open our hearts and minds to what is.