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Socinian Precursors of the

American Constitutional Separation

of Church and State

Part II: Socinian Ideas on the Separation of State and Religion

Marian Hillar

Houston, Texas


Socinian Philosophers on Religious Freedom


The specific characteristic of Antitrinitarians in the XVIIth century was the assertion of the principle of freedom of religious inquiry and emphasis on reason, and absolute tolerance in matters of faith. That attitude stemmed from the develop­ment of humanism (based on the neo-Platonic idealism) and the study of the Bible itself. The first probably who formulated these ideas was Sebastian Castello (1515-1563), friend of Faustus Socinus, professor of Greek at Basel. He was the author of De haereticis, an sint persequendi (1554) and Contra libellum Calvini (written in 1562, published in 1612). His work was popularized by Giacomo Aconzio (ca 1520-ca 1566) in the treatise Satanae stratagematum libri octo (1565). On the Polish soil the first Antitrinitarian synod at Węgrów in 1574 established firmly freedom of conscience, confirmed later by the Catechism of Raków. Socinus himself was the first who claimed on the theological ground that church and state should be separated. He was not, however, so tolerant as later Socinians.1


Polish Brethren Krzysztof Ostorodt (d. ca 1611) and Andrzej Wojdowski (1565-1622) were persecuted during their stay in Holland in 1598. After returning to Poland in 1600 they published an Apologia ad decretum Illustrium et Amplissimorum Ordinum Provinciarum foederatarum Belgii, editum contra Christopho­rum Ostorodum et Andream Voidovium, die tertio Septembris anno M.D.XCVIII. They forcefully spoke against accusations by theologians whom they described as guided by a "subversive diabolic spirit," zealous in spreading idolatry and in implementing tyranny. They condemned persecutions claiming that the state does not have any right to control the religious beliefs of individuals or impose any religion at all. They passionately appealed for peace and mutual toleration among various religious groups and freedom in exercise of all religious practices. They pointed to the inevitable danger: if one of the group gains the favor of the state, it will attempt to influence it in order to exterminate all other groups.2


Jan Crell (1590-1633), the aforementioned rector of the Socinian school, an immigrant from Franconia, a philosopher and minister at Raków, in his Junii Bruti Poloni Vindiciae pro religionis libertate, a book published in Amsterdam in 1637, called for complete freedom of conscience for everybody.3 He stated that coercion is against the nature of Christianity and morality. To the contrary, religious coercion and persecution leads to the stifling of conscience. If religion is forced upon people, they pretend only to be believers. Coercion thus leads to atheism. Crell argued for peace among various beliefs making an appeal to common sense and nature. He also supported his arguments with quotes from the New Testament (Heb. 12,14; Mt. 5,9) proving that coercion is against its spirit and teachings. He maintained that religious coercion represents the severest form of slavery, supp­ression of conscience; that persecution of dissidents is a form of theft of someone else's property and domination by the clergy. The action of the Catholic Church is contradictory to the advice given by Gamaliel to the Jewish community to stop the persecution of the apostles (Acts 5,38). To the argument of Catholics that there is no need for any legal guarantee of peace, Crell answered with the historical evidence of persecutions by the Catholic Church in Poland and other countries. "There is no true peace where there is no security. And there will be no peace as long as Catholics refuse dissidents a legal guarantee or agreement and simultaneously act against them and threaten the peace."


The most prominent among the Polish Brethren was Samuel Przypkowski (1592-1670). In his treatise published in 1628 in Amsterdam, (second edition, enlarged in 1630), Dissertatio de pace et concordia ecclesiae, he demonstrated the absurdity of intolerance among Christians and appealed for mutual love regardless of their religious differences: "We must not impose spiritual censure on anybody, for each of us has a right to his own individual evaluation ... We do not grant anyone the liberty to violate, in private or in public, the freedom of conscience, nor the liberty to propagate religion by force and violence."4


He wrote in 1646 a magnanimous response  to the pamphlet of Jesuit Starowolski entitled Braterska deklaracja na niebraterskie napomnienia od autora pod imieniem szlachcica polskiego ad dissidentes in religione uczynione.5 Przypkowski calmly and rationally argues that the law guaranteeing peace among dissidents in religion (the Statutes of 1573) is a constitutionally approved law of the nation and basis for liberty and equality:


1. The freedom to dissent "is not only the right but also the fundamental right on which is based the integrity and the freedom of the Republic." He makes reference to official statutes and decrees that confirmed this right;


2. "It is a foundation of the unity of nations" since the Republic is  composed of various nations and various religions that need tolerance, equality and peace;


3. "It is a foundation of the praesentis status Reipublicae" as a guarantee of the equality of its citizens (i.e. nobility). Abolishing the freedom of conscience would destroy equality if one could imponere iugum et servitutem conscientiae;


4.  "It is a foundation of liberty." A foundation of the true liberty is a guarantee that people can do  what they consider useful and needful  without fear of any persecution or punishment. Everybody has the right to choose his way to salvation. In hell or in heaven everybody will answer for himself;


5. "It is a fundamental guardian of liberty." Civil rights and liberties are safeguarded in Poland by law. A religious pretext is the only one that can completely ruin and eradicate these liberties. With the abolishment of the libertas conscientiarum will return the ecclesiastical jurisdiction and religious pretext to eliminate the rest;


6. "It is equal in importance and stature with the highest laws." It was confirmed at least by 30 other laws. It is specifically listed three times in the formula of swearing in of the Polish kings. These laws cannot be changed by any other decree or any institution. Under the influence of foreign Jesuits,      Catholics attempt to destroy the Republic and civil liberties. He argus that as long as liberty is preserved in Poland the Catholic religion will flourish as well.


Przypkowski continues: It is absurd to give the Catholic Church and clergy in a free country the dominion and power over everybody else. This leads only to such inhuman and barbaric laws as the decrees of the Korczyń Confederation of 1438. Under the pretext of piety other European countries were turned into ashes. He points out the phony piety of a king who does not fulfill his obligations when he swore to respect the Henrician Articles. He ends his reply with a sincere and passionate Christian appeal to his Catholic brothers for honesty, sincerity, good faith, and peace.


In a work published ca 1650 De iure Christiani magistratus et privatorum in belli pacisque negotiis Przypkowski developed a novel concept of complete separation of church and state which was not discussed before in Christian societies: "As one should not mix together matters of religion with matters of state, so one should not allow for religion and state to be in opposition to one another", ... and "Thus one should not bring into conflict religion and state nor should they be mixed together."6


Przypkowski clearly distinguished two authorities: that of the church and that of the state. Dominion and coercive authority are forbidden in the church, but not in the positive law of the state which limits natural freedom and equality. Both are mutually incompatible:


"The Church did not take the place of the State but strengthened it. The rise of the authority of the Church did not set aside the secular authority, but brought about the establishment of such mutual limits that the one did not encroach on the sphere of the other. Both, when the State with com­pulsory authority encroaches on the gov­ernment of the Church, and when the Church takes the sword out of the hands of the civil authority, which God himself has entrusted to it, there is a violation of justice."


And further:


"But kingdoms so different in kind as a spiritual one without compulsion and a secular one with coercive authority may exist in the same nation without conflict of jurisdiction; if both so separate, remain within their own limits, each may exercise its functions without hindrance."7


According to Przypkowski both authorities, the spiritual defined in a very broad sense and not identified with any organized Church, and the political authority of the state, may have points of contact and should serve each other. The political authority should not be subject to the spiritual in that which would destroy it, i.e., which would undermine the spiritual authority itself as its essence is to direct the "inviolable freedom of minds". But political authority can be of service by securing to each man his rights, safeguarding the goods of the human spirit, peace, liberty, defense against oppression, and especially liberty of conscience. Also it would be absurd to exclude a man from political public life because of his religious association.


For Przypkowski the fundamental criterion in judging people should not be the adherence to the invented dogmatic or ritual demands of the church, but to the fulfillment of moral evangelical precepts. Those who demand blind belief in the dogmas of their religion and blind obedience to their orders in fact protect their own interests. Being aware that their absurd interpretations and views cannot be defended by the light of reason, they slyly hide behind the protection of authority, deceptively usurping it from Christ himself. At the same time they forbid inquiry into the truthfulness of this authority and impose blind obedience and servitude under the false pretext of obedience to God, praised as a virtue. The devil could not invent anything more mischievous since in that way our conscience is destroyed. Przypkowski advises that whenever we find in the presented doctrines and views anything that contradicts reason, it is our obligation to inquire, especially in matters concerning our behavior and actions. False dogmas like a disease destroy the church and piety. We can give up our rights and liberty only in matters which are morally indifferent. However, we cannot restrict the rights of others, and especially so the church has no authority to interfere with the rights of individuals or the rights of other groups or societies. Such an interference works against the wellbeing of mankind, contradicts divine justice and wisdom. Following the example of monks, the essence of piety is placed in external gestures, dress, life style. This is a false piety, easy to practice and more wicked than pagan superstition. Such a piety led to the most perilous suppression of conscience, persecutions and even wars.


Jonasz Szlichtyng (1592-1661), another leader of the Polish Brethren, traveled abroad as a mentor to Zbigniew Sienieński, the son of the owner of Raków. He studied in Altdorf and settled down in Raków where he became minister and lecturer in the lyceum. He was sentenced in absentia in 1647 by the Sejm to infamy, confiscation of his estate, and to death for publishing a book in Holland containing a confession of faith of the Polish Brethren (Confessio fidei Christianae, 1642, translated into French, German, Dutch). The sentence in 1647 applied not only to Szlichtyng but to all the members of the Brethren community. He had to hide and in 1655 during the pogroms organized by the clergy in the Sądecz region, he found refuge in Cracow under the protection of the Swedish garrison. In 1650 Szlichtyng published Epistola apologetica as an answer to a pamphlet of Jesuit Cichowski and his defense against illegal sentence.8 This letter is a clear and dramatic presentation of the violation of law and justice, also a defense of the Socinian credo. It ends with a passionate appeal to the gentry nation for truth and justice. After 1657 he sought refuge in Silesia and Pomerania.


In the work published in 1654 in Amsterdam under the pseudonym "Eques Polonus," Apologia pro veritate accusata ad illustrissimos et potentissimos Holandiae et West-Frisiae Ordines, Conscripta ab Equite Polono, Szlichtyng postulated, just as Przypkowski, the novel concept of complete separation of church and state jurisdiction as incompatible institutions.9 His treatise was prompted by an edict issued in Holland in 1653 under the influence of Calvinist theologians which forbade the propagation of Socinianism under penalty of banishment. The treatise was a defense of the Socinian doctrines against accusation of heresy. His arguments follow thus:


To be a heretic is not a political but ecclesiastical infraction. The matters concerning the church are different from matters concerning the state. Their fusion leads to disasters and wars. The function of the State is protection of all religious groups - pagans, idolaters, heretics, apostates…. The State flourishes when an accord and harmony reigns among the citizens as it was recommended by Moslems and not by Christians. Among Christians, the clergy use the pretext of God's glory and salvation in order to satisfy their own interests, obtain offices and wealth. They defend dogmas since they are afraid of the truth. If their dogmas are true, they should stand on their own and not be supported by tyranny and armed force. According to the parable of the weeds and wheat the Catholics should allow the weeds to grow until harvest. But the civil authorities did not follow the message given in the parable: "They murdered untold multitudes of innocent people as heretics, and instead of pulling out the weeds they extirpated the wheat." Szlichtyng warns "A similar thing may happen if the heretics grow in number and consider themselves the wheat."  The gravest heresy invented is the harassment of heretics with civil punishment. The civil authority seeing the quarrels among the church groups in matters of faith and dogmas should not support any, but should judge all according to the same law and watch so that they behave honestly, and should safeguard peace in the state. The scripture itself gives examples of such an attitude (Acts 5, 38-39; Acts 18, 14-15).


We find arguments used by Przypkowski, Szlichtyng, and Crell repeated later in the works of John Locke, Pierre Bayle and even Voltaire, and their echo in writings of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Przypkowski's ideas were the most original and his work the most exhaustive Polish study on the mutual relations of church and state.


Another Socinian, Jan Sachs (1641-1671), studied political science abroad. From 1670 he was in the service of Holland and died in a shipwreck. His ideas on religious freedom and church-state relations are formulated in a scholarly manner and thus are very close in form to those of John Locke. He wrote in 1665 a treatise De scopo reipublicae polonicae ... dissertatio10 in which he described the history of religion in Poland. He postulated that religion was the foundation of the state. At the same time, however, he stated that Christianity is not necessary for a state. Moreover, since religion is a matter of reason which cannot be dictated by laws, state and the church have no right to impose it or force citizens to follow it. Even Christ forbade his apostles the use of any force or coercion, the less so should they be used by bishops or clergy. The state can promote religion only in its natural, general form, as a basis for morals. This can be done only by persuasion in order to eliminate atheism. It cannot decide which particular religion the citizens are to select and which rituals they are to follow. He concludes that the diversity in religious beliefs is not only harmless but is beneficial for the state. As an example he cites the Republic of United Provinces (Holland) where religious freedom guarantees peace and prosperity. Disturbance is produced not because of diversity and discord between religions, but because of the suppression of the religious freedom and punishment of dissidents.


He considered the expulsion of Socinians by the Sejm in 1658 a breach of the law and a bad omen for religious freedom. It "reveals the secret that not only can one deprive the right to public peace to a certain group of dissidents, but also that it depends on the whim of the clergy who have the decided majority in the jurisdiction, which group of dissidents should be deprived of this right." He prophetically warns not to ask about the secrets of government operations in Poland: "It is dangerous in the Commonwealth to try to fathom the secrets, even if you tried very hard, rarely would you succeed; and having succeeded it is better to remain silent."


Significance of Polish Brethren's Ideas in History


Although the spirit of religious liberty was one of the elements of the Socinian doctrine, the persecution and coercion they met as a result of the Counter Reformation led them to formulate the most advanced ideas in the realm of human freedom and church-state relations. And it is in this respect that they made their great contribution as they broadened the impact of the Reformation into the political arena as well. These novel, rational ideas were opposed by both the reformed churches and the Catholic Church.


The ideas propagated by the Antitrinitarian Church and so convincingly expressed in their writings were very credible, as noted by Stanislas Kot, for political reasons as well. They had the advantage of coming from a small church, that could not aspire to influence the government and at the same time they were free from any sectarian spirit or bias, characterized only by independence of rational thought, absolute religious liberty, and profound patriotism and devotion to the state. The intellectual ferment Socinian ideas produced in all of Europe determined the future philosophical trends and led directly to the development of Enlightenment.


The precursor ideas of the Polish Brethren on religious freedom were later expanded, perfected and popularized by John Locke (1632-1704) in England and Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) in France and Holland. Their ideas on religious freedom, toleration, their philosophical and religious arguments, coincide with those used by the Polish philosophers. Locke possessed in his library works of earlier Antitrinitarians, works of Szlichtyng, Socinus, Smalcius, Wolzogen, Wiszowaty, BFP, Racovian Catechism, Przypkowski's Dissertatio de pace ... etc. He certainly read them and was influenced by them.11 Grandson of Jan Crell, Samuel Crell, was Locke's friend. Locke went further presenting a detailed analysis of toleration and state church relations from a political point of view, obviously under circum­stances in England. Bayle makes numerous references to Socinians and their rationality. He was the first in the Christian world to separate ethics from religion and to defend atheism on a rational basis: "la foi n'influence pas sur la moralité" and "la moralité est indépendante de la religion."12 Locke's views on religious freedom  were expressed first in 1667 in an Essay on Toleration that was not published during his life, and later in his four Letters on Toleration.13 The first Letter Concerning Toleration was written in 1685 in Amsterdam and published by his friend from his stay in Holland (1683-1689), Filip van Limbroch in 1689. The same van Limbroch edited the compilation of Przypkowski's works in the last volume of the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum. Locke, however, did not develop the concept of complete separation of church and state. The other severe weakness of Locke's thought as well as of some statements of the Polish Brethren, was the exclusion of atheists.


The ideas of John Locke were transplanted directly to the American continent by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who implemented them for the first time in the American legislation. They were philosophers-statesmen who shared a strong conviction for absolute freedom of conscience and distrusted any kind of established ecclesiastical institution. Their conviction was that the established churches create only "ignorance and corruption", introduce "diabolic principle of persecution." The exercise of religion should be completely separated from government, toleration was not enough only absolute freedom could be acceptable. Democracy understood as the institution erecting a "wall of separation" between church and state, and protecting the liberties of minority groups against the imposition of majority views was for them the best guarantee of religious freedom. Both were broadly educated and Thomas Jefferson had a keen interest in studying religions including the Socinians. Their writings follow Locke and quite echo the Socinian literature.14


The Polish Brethren were forerunners of the later thinkers who developed ideas of the Enlightenment and humanistic modern times. Their doctrines, if allowed to develop, would probably bring true enlightenment to Poland. Their achievements are the highest in Europe of their times and originated all modern trends in political, social and moral sciences, in biblical and religious studies, and in concepts of the absolute freedom of intellectual inquiry, liberty of conscience and complete nonantagonis­tic separation of Church and State. They put to practice the highest ethical ideals. Their weakness lay in the neglect of political application. Stanislas Kot summed up their role in these words:


They did not live to see the time in which their ideas, principles, and methods of thought began to exert an influence on the intellectu­al life of the world. They died out while dispersed as exiles, grieving that their own nation had rejected them, although to them its spiritual and moral elevation was of the greatest conse­quence. Only after centuries of oblivion  have students of the Polish past discovered them. But the consciousness is precious to us that in the remote past such an unusual flower grew up on Polish soil, that the nation produced within itself a group of such moral elevation, such critical spirit, and such gravity of life.15



The author expresses his thanks and gratitude to Mrs. Claire S. Allen for reading the manuscript and her comments.




1. BFP Vol. 1, p. 13, p. 700.

2. In Ogonowski, op. cit., part 1, p. 455.

3. BFP Vol. 7, pp. 521-531; in Ogonowski, op. cit. part 1, p. 540. This treatise was translated for the first time into Polish only in 1957, O wolności sumienia, (On the Freedom of Conscience).

4. BFP Vol. 9, pp. 371-386; in Stanislas Kot, op. cit., p. XXV. This treatise as translated into German in 1651 and into English in 1653.

5. In Ogonowski, op. cit., part 1, p. 527 &ff.

6. BFP Vol. 9, pp 683-736; in Ogonowski, op. cit., part 1, p. 540 & ff.

7. Samuel Przypkowski Animadversiones in Libellum cui titulos De qualitate Regni Domini nostri Jesu Christi, ubi inquiritur, an Christiano sive Regni eius subdito terrenae dominationes convenianti (written ca 1650), but published in Amsterdam in his collected works in 1692. BFP Vol. 9, pp. 619-681; quoted in Stanislas Kot, op. cit., p. 185-186.

8. In Ogonowski, op. cit., part 1, p. 656-673.

9. Ogonowski, op. cit., part 1, p. 570.

10. In Ogonowski, op. cit., part 1, p. 584 & ff.

11. H. John McLachlan, op. cit., p. 327 & ff.

12.  Pierre Bayle, Pensées diverses écrites à un Docteur de Sorbonne à l’occasion de la Comète de 1680 (1682). In André Lagarde, Laurent Méchard XVIIIe Siècle. Les Grands Auteurs Français du Programme (Paris: Les Éditions Bordas, 1969), p. 19. Also Commentaire philosophique... ibidem, p. 21. Selection of writings in English - The Great Contest of Faith and Reason. Translated and edited with an introduction by Karl C. Sandburg. (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963).

13. Letters on Toleration I - IV, published between 1689 and 1704, in The Works of John Locke in Ten Volumes (London: T.Tegg, 1823), reprinted in 1963 (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1963), Vol. VI.

14. Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary Philosopher. A Selection of Writings, edited by John S. Pancake with N. Sharon Summers (Woodbury: Barron's Educational Series, 1976). The Complete Madison. His Basic Writings, edited with introduction by Saul Padovan (New York: Harper & Brothers Publish­ers, 1953).

15. Stanislas Kot, op. cit., p. 219.

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