LIBERAL CHRISTIANITY IN EUROPE
Christianity and even Judaism were themselves in origin religious reform movements; and, like all such movements, were essentially liberal in the beginning. Moses was a Unitarian and so was Jesus and his nearest disciples. “During the first two centuries of the Christian era, the religious teachings of Jesus came into contact with the speculative thought of Alexandria and Greece, gradually a systematic dogma coiled itself round the primitive faith of Christians and an elaborate ritual fastened itself on the observances of public worship. The Trinitarian doctrine suggested by Tertallian (150-230) developed by Apollinaris (d390) and Augustine (354-430) became an established ecclesiastical creed by the edict of the council of Nicasa (325)”. Michael Servetus, born at Villanueva in Spain in 1511 was the first to emancipate religious thought from the crust of Christology thus accumulated through twelve centuries. His important work was a Book “Restoration of Christianity”. For this great service to humanity he had the great man’s reward, slow death on the pile of burning greed wood at Geneva on the 27th of October, 1563-Fausto Sazxing born at Siena, Tuscany, Italy, 5 December, 1539 followed Servitus in this great service and died in seclusion at Luclawise 3 March, 1604.
The honour of developing the liberal faith or organized life belongs however to Hungary, where Francis David conducted the first Unitarian service in the open air from a large stone in the streets of Thorda. Curiously enough Fansto Sozzini helped in (The theistic Directory by V. R. Shinde published in 1912 pages 90 to 99) persecuting David who died in prison in 1579; but his church survived. “It had the good fortune through the influence of Prince Sigismund who adopted Unitarian view, to aid in the establishment, in Transylvania, of religious liberties unknown to any other country at this early period. An ordinance was passed that every one might embrace, without restraint, that religion which he preferred to hold… and that the members must not intermeddle either openly or secretly in things tending to the oppression of another religion. This fact is the explanation of the perpetuity of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania from 1546 to the present time… Notwithstanding this law the Unitarians have been subjected to the rulers of Austria who have held dominion over Transylvania. At one time the Unitarians were in possession of no less than 400 Church buildings, eleven colleges and three Universities. They were deprived of two-thirds of these from time to time by the Jesuit-ridden Govt. of the Country. In 1721 the school buildings were violently taken from them. Not until the close of the last century were they permitted to print for themselves their own list-books for the instruction of their students in Theology. In 1791 Joseph Prince of Transylvania once more confirmed the equality of their rights.
By the intrigues of the Pope, the Austrian Government renewed its attack in 1857 on the liberties of this Church whose ranks were thinned. Austria in Hungary should be handed over to the Catholic Church. But for the help given in England and America to raise funds and the indignation excited against the unjust exaction of that period, 1857 the Unitarians in Hungary would have suffered a serious loss. Mr. J. Fretwell rightly compliments “The position of these poor churches among the Transylvanian hills is of supreme importance to the cause of peace, of morality, of all that we call Christianity, at a time when all Eastern Europe is inflamed by the conflict between the Mohameddans and a people who calling themselves Christians, are if possible, more inhuman than the Turks”.
Since the last Austrian attack, there has been a gradually closer intercommunication between the Unitarians in Hungary and those in England and America. Unitarians in Hungary have not only sent their young men to be educated in England but have translated into their own language the works of Channing and other Unitarians. A traveler in Hungary observes “I attended a religious services of the Unitarians. The Church, was small, perfectly plain, painted white and evidently several centuries old. The peasant women occupied one side and the men the other. They all sang in common. The prayers were extempore : The serman was without notes. I resided subsequently among villages of the Unitarians. The populations are all remarkable for their intelligence and morality. As a general thing they are redicals in Politics. I also learned from my companions that there was not a Unitarian child through the whole region who could not read or write. This was remarkable in a country where 75 percent of the total population can neither read nor write. Then I asked how as to criminal offences, drunkenness, immorality of the sexes, theft and the like. He answered “Oh! They are almost unknown; we have no illegitimate children the people are very sober and hard working.”
The above account of an eye-witness is doubly interesting as it indicates that a liberal living religion in neither confined to the intellectual aristocracy nor to the other upper classes residing in towns and other crowded centres of modern civilized life. Secondly, it shows that a religions belief and life freed from the excesses of dogma and ritualism, is not merely one-sided intellectual growth, as some may suppose, but has its healthy moral as well as civic effects naturally arising from the intellectual emancipation and stimulus. In 1876 the situation in Hungary was described “at the present time in Hungary” there is a Unitarian population of about 60,000 who have among them about 120 churches. One of our friends informs as that in their schools, the children are taught very distinctly the way of both defining and sustaining their Unitarian position.
The progressive movements was crowned in 1896 by the Bill off Religions Freedom which secured freedom and tolerance for every religious sect and finally the Civil Marriage Law passed in 1897 dealt a serious blow to the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary.
The first Unitarian martyr who suffered at the hands of his Protestant brethren was a Swiss by name Hetzee who was executed at Zurich on the 4th February, 1529. Twenty-four years after, Servitus above-referred to, was caught and publicly burnt. Notwithstanding these sad events Switzerland soon became a kind of retreat for heretics from Itlay. The members and ministers of the Swiss Church, not being committed by any declaration to the belief in orthodox doctrines, the Pastors of Geneva and other places soon of honour, holding a loft the banner of liberalism since Dr. Strauss settled in that city in 1839.
In 1870 was founded “the Swiss Union of liberal Christianity” and has branches in Bale, Berne, Aargan, Sobure, Aphenzell, St. Gall Zurich and, Geneva; it is a great force of Protestant liberalism in Switzerland. “The General Society of Protestant Missions; whose present headquarters are at Berlin, but in whose foundations Swiss Liberal Protestantism played a prominent part, was created in 1884. This Society has striven to establish missionary enterprise on liberal lines, inculcating respect for the religions of non-Christian peoples, and spiritualizing the elements of truth which they contain. So far this society supports missionaries in China and Japan only.
The German people have had the honour of not only producing Luther but also of the earliest of the Unitarian Reformers. During the last 350 years the scholars and divines of this country have often lent their help towards the rationalization of Theology. Still there is as yet no distinctly named Unitarian Movement in Germany. However as early as 1861 there were 3,25,077 persons who called themselves Unitarians in the Government statistics. Dr. Julius Ruppa a very virtuous and learned man was dismissed by a judgement of the consistory for his preaching at Koenigsberg, the city of Kant, against the use of the old confession of faith. But his numerous friends and scholars stood faithfully by him and founded the first Free Religious Congregation in 1846 at Koenigsberg. “Soon afterwards Free Religions Congregations were founded in other cities of Germany, in Magdeburg by Uhlich in Halle, Nordhansen and others. Two years later there was a similar movement in the Roman Catholic Church of which Ronge and Czerski were the leaders. These communities were subsequently united with the free evangelical communities.”
Dr. C. Schieler, representative of the Free Religions Congregations in Germany said in his address before the International Council of Liberal Religion in London in1901.
“Dr. Ruppa, the first preacher of F. R. Congregations, was several times imprisoned because he was more obedient to his conscience than to the laws of the State. The religions services were watched by policemen and more than once dissolved, and even private assemblies were broken up.
In 1851 the Church was closed by the head of the Police at Koenigsberg. The position began to improve under the regency of the Prince of Prussia, afterwards the German Emperor William I. Now the congregation is at liberty to celebrate its divine service and festivals, but in defiance of the constitution”.
“We have no confession of faith and do not prescribe any dogmas for the acceptance of our members. Everybody is expected and urged to further refinement and to perfect his religious knowledge to order his moral life according to his religious convictions. We do not want to be free from religion but from the constraint in religions questions and life. We do not believe that religions is morality, only; but that the morality is the best fruit of religion. We esteem the Gospel highly because it contains the doctrines of the greatest teacher of mankind, Jesus Christ. But we also respect the results of modern criticism and those of other sciences as they concern religion”.
“We are not members of Church. We have no Pope, or Bishop or Priest : We are a free association. Our aim is to erect the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus, the free Kingdom of free children of God….. emphasizing the great Commandment : Love to God and Love to Man… And if there are some who want to have a Church I accept a word I have heard here : The only Church of the future is the Church of religious liberty of humanity”.
About the year 1875 it was estimated that there were about 20,00,000 of Protestants in France. The great majority of these belong to what is called the French Reformed Protestant Church nearly equally divided between what are called the Orthodox and the Liberals. There does not seem to have been any continuous Unitarian Movement. Stephen Dolet, born at Orleans in 1509, was burnt alive at Paris for his Unitarian opinions in 1546. The Methodist Movement in France has had the effect of making more orthodox the orthodox party, and the translation of Dr. Channing’s works in French has tended to liberalize and make more Unitarian the opposite party. The writings of Theo, Parkar, Renan and the rationalists of Germany have widened this breach. Mr. Guizol and his party called a general synod of the Reformed Church of France in1872 but it failed to bring the great parties to any common basis of belief. The English and the American Unitarians have long been in friendly relations and much fellowship with the Liberals.
Anyhow, we fail as yet, to discover any continuations and organized attempt at Church life as distinct from the ancient and medieval established churches of the Catholicism and Protestantism in France. Perhaps the specific French temper of mind may have been responsible for this lack of systematic attempt at some sort of a separate Liberal Religious Church in that country. We must therefore satisfy ourselves by quoting a few observations from the learned address delivered before the International Liberal Religious Council at London in 1901 by Rev. Ernest Fontances of Paris.
“The increasing attention given to social questions has produced among the younger orthodox Clergy, an expansion of view which neither past ecclesiastical conflicts, nor critical efforts, succeeded in achieving. Just as missionaries whose contact with non-civilized races has convinced of the necessity of stripping the Gospel of its dry dogmatic hust, discovering its powerlessness to feed the spiritual life, so those, who are desirous of reaching the multitudes, who wander like sheep without a shepherd, and to whom too long a stone has been offered, instead of bread, have been led inevitably, to relegate to the museum of antiquities many formulas and practices and to concentrate their efforts and their propaganda upon the inner moral nature of men. Then again the number of lapsed clergy goes on increasing and the motives of these lapses are highly praiseworthy….
We cannot report any conversion of the intellectual classes to Protestantism, nor even to Theism, but it is quite evident that the positivist systems with their exclusively determinist philosophy have lost their prestige and there audacity”.
The abstract Psychology of Ecclecticism stands condemned, but on the other hand no one imagines that a man can be entirely accounted for, in a chemical report…. MM. Renovier and Dillon, starting out from an agnosticism more or less vague, have ended by establishing in the name of moral consciousness personal Theism. It cannot be exactly said that they have created a following, but their neocriticism has rallied to them the sympathies of all those who are concerned, to uphold the dignity of human personality. It is allowable also to expect from the Peoples’ Universities our equivalent to the University Extension Movement in England, an expansion of thought and initiation into the moral problems which prepare the ground for the germination and fructification of the spiritual life and its asperations”.