Sermon: None Shall Be Compelled-A Celebration of Torda (audio only)


Edict of Religious Toleration, decreed at the Diet of Torda, January 6, 1568:

“His Majesty, our Lord, 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, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.”

“The Edge is Where I Want to Be” Lisa Martinovic


Ours is a young religious tradition. We date the founding of the two movements that joined to make us who we are today –Unitarianism and Universalism – just 200 years ago in colonial New England. Yet, from our earliest days scholars and historians have located tendrils of the faith we live now in exemplars who paved the way for liberal religion, who posed questions that challenged orthodoxy, who declared the primacy, the natural right of all people to free faith, centered in what their own yearning hearts and their own searching minds declare.

It is, as you might imagine, a tumultuous story with no common through-line. Looking at the history of religion in the West, what we see tends to be one faction or another striving to establish a prevailing orthodoxy. Free faith has few advocates. Yet, here and there it emerges: a brief light that opens a path and offers an example for those who follow.

Today, at the start of a new year, we turn to one story, one of the oldest we know, where for a moment the possibility of free faith raised its head. We go back to a time and place that have been largely ignored by the history books, a small province in Eastern Europe in the 16th century that we know as Transylvania, in present-day Romania.

Though outside the mainstream of European culture, it was a geopolitical hot spot at the time, where the Muslim Ottoman Empire was vying for influence with the Holy Roman Empire. So, both politically and religiously the whole region was boiling with controversy for several centuries. But that controversy together with periodic warfare and shifting religious factions also set the stage in the middle of the century for an unprecedented experiment in religious tolerance.

The stage was set in 1540 with a royal succession –  the death of Transylvania’s king, John Zapolya, two weeks after the birth of his son, John Sigismund. It was a time of shifting loyalties and Zapolya was worried that at his death the Hapsburg empire would seek to take over the country.

So, he had asked Suleiman, the Ottoman Sultan, to watch over his wife, Queen Isabella, and son, and to protect his country’s independence. At Zaploya’s death, Then the two-year-old Sigsmund was named king,  Queen Isabella served as his regent, and Suleiman’s protection preserved the tiny nation’s brief independence of Catholic rule.

Religiously, it was a time of great turmoil. Lutheran and Calvinist reformers were pushing out Catholics, and Greek Orthodox expanded their presence. Amid this, Isabella and her son found solace in a friend, Giorgio Biandrata, an Italian physician who brought news of a newly emerging religious reform movement, one that rejected the doctrine of the trinity and declared that God is one. He called it Unitarian.

Hoping to avoid conflict over religion, Queen Isabella decreed in 1557 that every person may maintain whatever religious faith they wish without offense to any. The Queen died two years later, leaving the throne to her 19-year-old son John Sigismund.

Despite her decree, though, disputes heated up among contesting religious sects. So, in January 1568 John Sigismund called an assembly called the Diet of Torda where he issued the edict that you heard James read earlier.

 Though it never circulated far from Transylvania, it still stands as one of the most remarkable documents in the contentious history of religion in Europe:the first decree of religious tolerance.

It proclaims room for preachers of whatever stripe to make their case without being threatened or reviled. But even more amazing is what it says about the listeners: having heard the preachers speak members of the congregation can judge for themselves  if they like it.

If so, “well.” “If not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied.”

To our modern ears, these words are unsurprising. Well, of course, right? It’s easy to miss how revolutionary they were. After all, religious coercion at the time was widespread. The purpose of preaching was not to persuade or argue. It was to lay out what its speaker believed to be God’s holy truth. Often, to dispute or argue with the preacher was to risk personal ruin, even torture.

But John Sigismund said, no. Our souls will never be satisfied by a faith that is forced down our throats. Freedom is at the heart of a true and vital faith.

And 450 years later we UUs celebrate this edict because it marks a nascent moment when principles at the center of our liberal faith were established in this out-of-the-way kingdom. For John Sigismund didn’t just invent this notion. I told you that he was influenced early in life by this doctor friend of his mother’s, Giorgio Biandrata. Biandrata, in turn, was part of a network of humanist and liberal religious thinkers ranging from Italy to Poland.

Perhaps his most important contact was with a spiritually restless, one-time Catholic priest named David Ferenc, or Francis David. David was a brilliant preacher and scholar who had been converted to Lutheranism and then Calvinism, serving at different times for as bishop of both faiths. Eventually he shifted to a Unitarian perspective, and Biandrata arranged for him to be appointed court preacher under Sigismund.

To get a flavor of David’s influence, here are a few famous quotes from his work:

“Salvation must be accomplished on this Earth.” “The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.” “Conscience will not be quieted  by anything other than truth and justice.”

David’s urging led Sigismund to call the Diet of Torda, and a year after the Edict was decreed Sigismund declared himself a Unitarian, making him the first – and only – Unitarian king. By all accounts, the first few years after the decree was a rich and prosperous time in Transylvania. The range of religions that found protection under Sigismund’s decree is astonishing: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Unitarian as well as  Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims.

But even more it gave birth to a new religious movement first under Francis David’s leadership then as an independent network of churches. Sadly, two years after Sigismund’s conversion he died in an accident under clouded circumstances. His successor was Catholic who had no interest in David’s experimental theology. David lost favor, was charged with heresy and died in prison.

The Unitarian Church of Transylvania, though, endured and still does in the hill country of Romania, despite many campaigns of persecution over the years. It still maintains more than 100 parishes and tens of thousands of worshippers.

So, ancient history, right? Uplifting story, inspiring people – Yay! But I want to suggest that there’s more than that for us here. The anesthetizing distance of history tends to push all the struggles of times past far away. “Yeah, it certainly was amazing what they endured,” and then we move on.

 Well, hold on a moment. We don’t have to dig too deep into the circumstances surrounding the Diet of Torda to see some eerie parallels and sobering lessons for our own time.

Like the hill country people of 16th century Transylvania, we live at time of turmoil and transition.  It’s different for us, of course. We have less cause to fear being persecuted for our religious beliefs. More troubling are global trends that are dividing people not so much by faith but by income, by class, by race, by ethnicity, by nationality, by gender.

And it’s not just the fact of these splits that is the trouble but the way that they contribute to and reinforce a culture of privilege and entitlement, a kind of Darwinian grab game that serves those that get and leaves the rest in the dust.

And religion? Where is religion today in the midst of this? Well, it’s hard to say. Forms of religion certainly exist. We can count the edifices and total up the clergy. But it’s plain that as a force religion is shrinking: its numbers are declining and its influence is waning. We liberals are not exempt. We, too, are struggling.

So, what are we to make of all this? Lisa Martinovic’s poem that you heard earlier is one that I shared with you some years ago, but it seems all the more apropos as we enter this new year.

What’s ailing us? I think she’s right: We’ve moved away from the edge. It’s not that we’re not troubled by the state of the world, but we so enjoy being cozened by comfort  or the aspiration for comfort that we turn aside. Faced with the ache of compelling moral crises, we compromise, dither, deny and delay.

We may not frame it that way,  but “the great mushy middle”, as she calls it, has come to feel like a pretty OK place, where homogenized culture is piped into our homes, heck, into our ear buds or the watches on our wrists, where the gig economy gives us just enough to get by. There’s not much security there, but it’s safe enough, warm enough to survive for a while.

Yet, let’s face it, it’s hardly a place where our souls are satisfied. And here is the message of Torda for our time: It matters that our souls are satisfied.

The pursuit of pleasure is nice, but it doesn’t satisfy our souls.

Walling our lives off among people who agree with us,

who look like us, sound like us, feel like us may feel safe,

but it doesn’t satisfy our souls.

Of course, it’s true that once we venture outside of our cocoon, take off our virtual reality visors we’re on uncertain terrain: we’re on the edge. And, as Lisa Martinovic reminds us, the edge is a place where “There are no disguises, everybody is naked, all bets are off, and the game’s not rigged.”

Yeah, it’s uncomfortable: “Your heart’s pounding, you’re shaking, you’re scared because everything is initiation.” At yet it is there that our souls, that beautiful wholeness, that profound integrity at the center of our beings comes alive.

Somewhere, somehow there needs to be someone who speaks up for the soul, who honors it, not just in ourselves but in every person, and who commits to creating the conditions that can bring out its flourishing.

This is the work of religion, our religion, that cherishes freedom because it is the condition by which people come to life so that they might celebrate the wonder, the beauty, the inherent worth of our original blessedness and join in the creation of beloved community.

And here’s the thing. It doesn’t happen in some safe hideaway: it happens on the edge. Seeking to shelter ourselves from change doesn’t mean that the change isn’t coming. It’s here. Now.

So, friends, let us take this time of resolutions to rededicate ourselves to the lessons our forebears teach: that even in a time of turmoil it matters that we take the risk to act, to affirm and live into a hopeful faith that gathers us in gratitude and points us toward the work of reclaiming human dignity and compassion. Join me, won’t you?

Let go of your misgivings, whatever is holding you back, and run, don’t walk, to the edge.