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 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Faustus Socinus defined early Unitarianism

by Phillip Hewett

Four centuries ago in Siena, the Italians would have burned Faustus Socinus at the stake. But now that his call for reason in religion no longer sounds as threatening as it did, his native city has named a street after him. Time has also mellowed ancient animosities over other beliefs that for more than two centuries were known as Socinianism: optimism about the capacities of human nature, emphasis on a moral life rather than correct beliefs, the claim that human beings have freedom of the will enabling them to live such a life, and disbelief in post-mortem punishments in hell. If this sounds familiar, it should: Socinianism later came to be known as Unitarianism.

Socinus (Fausto Sozzini in Italian) was born in 1539 into a prominent family in Siena, where the atmosphere of Renaissance humanism encouraged free inquiry. Three years later, the Inquisition began to make Italy unsafe for those who questioned Roman Catholic dogma, and his uncle Laelius—who had first broken with Catholicism before raising questions about Protestant orthodoxy in letters to John Calvin and others—went into exile. When Laelius died, young Faustus inherited his uncle's heretical writings, then went into exile himself in 1574. He went first to Switzerland; then to Transylvania, where a Unitarian, John Sigismund, had been king from 1540 to 1571; and finally to Poland, where he lived until his death in 1604.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was at that time the largest and most tolerant country in Europe, often called the “heretics' asylum.” In its capital city of Kraków, Socinus found a large Italian colony as well as a congregation of nonconformists. They were part of a movement that had begun in 1565, the year the Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur considers “the historical beginning of organized Unitarianism.”

Socinus rapidly became an influential figure among the proto-Unitarians, though paradoxically enough he was never a formal member: Under Anabaptist influence, they had come to require baptism by total immersion as their initiation rite, and to this Socinus would not consent. His views on this debated question, as on most others, eventually prevailed, but not until after his death. Consequently, he led the movement from the outside—so effectively that by 1596 his position was unchallenged, and during the remaining eight years of his life he set his stamp upon its thinking.

Even in the tolerant atmosphere of Poland his unorthodox beliefs made him a marked man. In 1598, while he was sick in bed, a mob of drunken students invaded his apartment, dragged him out, made a bonfire of his books and papers and threatened to do the same to him if he would not recant his heresies. When he refused, they were on their way to throw him into the river when he was rescued by professors from the Catholic faculty of theology, whose humanitarian concerns outweighed any religious prejudices. After this episode, Socinus left the city and was a guest on the remote estate of a friend until his death in 1604. There, in 1933, largely through the efforts of the historian Wilbur, a monument to his memory was raised by Unitarians from the English-speaking world.

Still, modern Unitarian Universalists would find some of Socinus's beliefs strange. He lived only a generation or two removed from medievalism, and he shared its belief in the absolute authority of the Bible. It was his interpretation of what he found in the Bible that made him a heretic—no Trinity, no original sin, no Atonement through the death of Jesus. Such ideas are still anathema to most Christians, even though the movement he pioneered has evolved much further since his time.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
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