Heretics in the House -- Polish Tolerance

By Janusz Tazbir

Institute of History, The Polish Academy of Sciences


Poland faced the problem of the co-existence of confessions as early as the 14th and15th centuries.  In contrast to the states of Western Europe, where it was the Reformation that brought about confessional fragmentation, Poland had long numbered among her inhabitants, in addition to Catholics, members of other branches of Christianity (the Orthodox) and even other religions (Muslims).  The Teutonic Order, which had forcibly annexed a portion of the Polish state’s northern territories, posed a deadly threat to her existence.[1]  In her combat against the Teutonic Knights, Poland enlisted the aid of for-a-time-yet-pagan Lithuania, as well as Tartar reinforcements.  Small wonder the peak of her struggle with the Order at the turn of the 15th century is the time when the so-called Polish doctrine of dealing with misbelievers gains increasing support.  It condemns forcible propagation of the faith and states that pagans, too, are our neighbors who must be treated according to the principles of the gospel.


The Dawn of the Reformation:  Rome May Have Her Way—We Have Our Own


Both this doctrine and the peaceful co-existence within the same state of many confessions could not have remained without impact on the later development of religious freedoms for Protestants.  Sixteenth-century supporters of the Reformation repeatedly appealed to those deeply rooted traditions.  They insisted that, if the Orthodox and the Muslims could at one time have been tolerated alongside the Catholics, similar treatment must now be accorded to the Lutherans, Calvinists, as well as Anti-Trinitarians, who called themselves the Polish Brethren.  This attitude found support in the foreign policy of Sigismund I (1506–1548), which in practice took little heed of the missionary goals of Rome.  The Polish monarch, despite the Papacy’s fervent protests, was the first among Europe’s rulers to recognize as his vassal a Lutheran duke, the Prussian Albrecht von Hohenzollern.[2]  Instead of the anti-Turkish crusade, for which the Church had repeatedly called, a life-long peace agreement was concluded with the High Porta in 1535.  Finally, Polish nobility were forbidden to take part in the religious wars in Germany, regardless of the side.

The Reformation movement was headed by the szlachta (lower nobility), who, in the reign of the last Jagiellon king, Sigismund II Augustus (1548-1572), enjoyed their golden age.  Their estate had won extensive political privileges, among which was also the freedom of confession.  At that time the szlachta were involved in a bitter conflict with the spiritual nobility (the bishops), the princes and, in part also, with the king himself, who only towards the end of his reign decided fully to affirm their political aspirations.  Combat is ruled by solidarity: since the Parliament (Sejm) had Calvinist and Arian leaders, one could not allow the Catholic Church to deprive the szlachta camp of its most active leadership on the pretext of their “heretical” confession.  In vain, therefore, did the Catholic clergy strive to maintain ecclesiastical jurisdiction over secular courts—as early as 1552 Sigismund II Augustus abolished it in matters concerning faith, only to have the Parliaments of 1562-63 extend the abolition over all juridical cases.


The Sixteenth Century: Without the Inquisition


The Inquisition never became particularly active in Poland; in 1572 the institution itself was dissolved de facto.  The following year, during the interregnum following the death of Sigismund II Augustus, the szlachta assembled in Parliament and adopted the celebrated Warsaw Confederation (28 January 1573).  Its signatories pledged never to impose a faith by force.  And if the secular authorities ever attempted to stir up religious persecution, the szlachta who signed the act vouched decidedly to oppose this.  The Confederation gave the nobility full freedom in the choice of confession.  And because the document did not define what confession was meant, it allowed for the existence within the nobles’ republic[3] of a variety of religious groups.  At that time it was the most tolerant act of this sort in all of Europe, considering that in France after the Edict of Nantes (1598) freedom of confession was granted only to the Calvinists, known in that country as the Huguenots.  Even in Transylvania only four precisely specified confessions were allowed to exist.

Polish tolerance in the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries also impacted mutual contacts between the leading branches of the Reformation movement.  This is exemplified by the Consensus of Sandomierz, adopted in April 1570 and named after the town where it was signed.  The Consensus outlined the chief principles for the co-existence of and co-operation between Lutherans, Calvinists and the so-called Czech Brethren, who were successors to the teachings of John Hus.  The Warsaw Confederation then extended this principle of peaceful co-existence to all the inhabitants of the republic.  In contrast to Germany, France or the Netherlands, it did not put an end to religious wars because those had never flared up in Poland.  Neither did it grant religious freedom to the nobility for the simple reason that the nobility had long enjoyed this freedom.  There already were no obstacles to the calling of synods or the founding of schools or printing presses by non-Catholics.

And whereas in the West toleration edicts, which usually were in force for short periods of time, were typically issued by the monarch, the Polish act of 1573 was a collective effort.  It attested to the highly-developed political maturity of the nobles’ society, which—concerned for the well-being of the commonwealth and its citizens—was able to rise above religious squabbles.  Half of its signatories were probably Catholics, who no less than the supporters of Wittenberg or Geneva were intent on preserving confessional peace within the republic.

In early-modern Poland (a period commonly referred to as the country’s golden age), confessional differences did not encroach upon the social community, let alone the familial.  Children were sent to those schools which enjoyed the best reputation.  Thus one encounters sons of Protestant nobility at the Vilnius Academy, founded by the Jesuits, while Catholic youth attended schools that belonged to the Polish Brethren, of which the foremost was the Racow Academy.  Among the students of the latter, a great many came from Germany.  They were attracted to Poland by her reputation as the “heretics’ asylum,” as the Polish Republic was referred to throughout the 16th and 17th-century Europe.  The country had become a safe haven for religious minorities persecuted in their own fatherland.   Thus Poland was the settlement choice of German Lutherans, French Huguenots, Italian Anti-Trinitarians, Russian sectarians, English Quakers, Dutch Anabaptists (Mennonites), as well as Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula.  All of them were never in any way discriminated against on account of their religion or nationality.  On the contrary, they enjoyed extensive self-government and made use of many economic privileges, not to mention nearly absolute freedom of worship.  Kraków and Lublin were noted in 16th-century Europe for the printing of Hebrew books, and Jewish schools of higher learning (Yeshivas) attracted students from far-away countries.  Little wonder Jewish poets wrote hymns praising Polish tolerance.


The Aftermath: Still Not like the West


It was only the victory of the Counter-Reformation that brought about the exile of the Polish Brethren (1658), known in other parts of Europe under the name of Socinians, and the adoption of a ban on the renunciation of Catholicism (1668).  Thus the Warsaw Confederation became in practice null and void.  It would not be prudent, however, to look at Polish tolerance, as it flourished in the 16th century, through the lens of later times.  It is worth keeping in mind that, in spite of everything, Calvinists were never exiled from Poland, which was their fate in France, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  In the second half of the 17th century, Lutheranism spread unhindered in the cities of Royal (Polish) Prussia, where Catholics were often the persecuted side.  Until the fall of the Polish State (1795),[4] the authorities abided by the privileges granted to the Prussian cities, among which the foremost were Danzig, Thorn and Elbing.  In the 17th century, Greater Poland[5] saw a mass influx of Lutherans from Germany, which was then in the throes of the Thirty Years War, as well as of Czech Brethren, mentioned above, who were refused the right to remain in their fatherland.  All of the newcomers, in keeping with the long-established tradition, were granted freedom of worship, the right to build schools and churches and to convene synods.  As before, there existed Orthodox churches and—in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania[6]—Turkish mosques.  Neither were any of the Polish Brethren, who had remained in the country and gone into hiding, harmed in any way.  Those were no longer the times of tolerance, but one cannot see them as characterized solely by religious persecution.

Moreover, religious tolerance in Poland at the time embraced something far broader than the question of confessional differences alone.  Freedom of public worship and of propagating one’s faith could not but have affected other areas of public life.  Hence already in the 16th c. a tolerant stance in religious matters was associated with an attitude of openness to new things coming from abroad, not only religious but also cultural, from fashion to literary and artistic influences.  This partially disappeared when, at the turn of the 18th century, the Counterreformation triumphed, only to be fully revived during the Enlightenment.  Later on, the tradition of Polish tolerance was often, readily and proudly invoked during the time of the Partitions.[7]  The nation, deprived in those days of its statehood, showed a lot of sympathy for other oppressed nations.  This open and tolerant attitude, in turn, facilitated Polonization,[8] which impacted both the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, now under Russian rule, and the descendants of those Austrian officials who had come to Galicia[9] to Germanize its population.

As one studies further the history of tolerance in Poland during the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries, one must not forget that the state was feudal and decentralized.  The weakness of the central government could not prevent occasional confessional pogroms in some cities which saw the plundering of Protestant homes and shops, and the burning of Protestant churches.  The history of dissenters in Kraków, Lublin and Poznań is a case in point.  At the same time, however, the cities of Royal Prussia, headed by Danzig, refused to grant Catholics full tolerance, forbidding, for example, the organization of public processions.  Likewise, in Leszno, which was the headquarters of the Czech Brethren, in Racow, the main (Unit-)Arian center, and in Kiejdany, which played a similar role for Lithuanian Calvinism, the Papists were not permitted to erect their own churches for quite some time.

It must also be kept in mind that the uniqueness of Poland’s religious character stemmed from a different order of events relating to the introduction of tolerance.  In Western Europe this was precipitated by the publication of pamphlets that called for compliance with the principles of tolerance.  In sharp contrast to them stood conflicts, now and then escalating into years-long religious wars.  To put an end to those, edicts of tolerance were issued which granted to religious minorities the right to erect churches.  In Poland, on the other hand, places of worship and printing presses were founded first, only to be formally legalized later on.  The philosophy of tolerance followed last as the fruit of confessional agreement.


[1] In an attempt to safeguard his lands from plundering raids by the pagan Prussians, Duke Konrad of Masovia invited the Knights of the Cross, as they were originally known, to settle on the northern border of Poland in 1225.  Taking advantage of the political weakness of the fragmented Polish state, within decades, the knights had turned against their southern neighbor.

[2] After his defeat by the Polish army, Albrecht, the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, dissolved the Order on Martin Luther’s advice and in 1525 paid homage to the King of Poland in the Kraków marketplace.

[3] “Nobles’ republic” is a direct translation of rzeczpospolita szlachecka.  Although officially called a ‘republic’ (Polish: ‘rzeczpospolita’ from the Latin ‘res publica’), Poland was, in fact, a parliamentary monarchy, whose nobility had over the centuries won far-reaching freedoms and privileges. 

[4] As increasingly new privileges were granted to the nobility, decentralization of power became a major weakness of the nobles’ republic, a weakness which was all too readily and, needless to say, successfully exploited by the neighboring states.  This eventually led to the partitioning of Poland by Prussia, Austria and Russia (1772-1795), depriving the republic of independence and statehood for 123 years.

[5] Historical region encompassing the western-central part of the country.

[6] In 1386 Lithuania was joined to Poland through a personal union when the Grand Duke, Vladislav Jagiello, married Hedwig, Queen of Poland (whose official title was actually rex Poloniae).  In the centuries to come, many other acts of union followed, culminating in the Union of Lublin (1569), which established a real union of both the states, which from then on constituted what was officially the Republic of Both Nations, or the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania.

[7] 1795-1918.

[8] The adoption of the Polish language and culture.

[9] South-eastern Poland.

This article appeared in Polish in the weekly Polityka no. 51/2381 (18 December 2002), pp. 114-117.  English translation copyright by Piotr J. Malysz.  The footnotes have been supplied by the translator, who has also modified the section subheadings.

See also: Poland, Reformation