“Reflections on the 450th Anniversary of the Edict of Torda”

Written by Rev. John Gibbons
“Reflections on the 450th Anniversary of the Edict of Torda”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on January 21, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford

Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you
as the native among you, and you shall love her as yourself,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.


Como á un natural de vosotros tendréis al extranjero que peregrinare
entre vosotros; y ámalo como á ti mismo; porque peregrinos fuisteis
en la tierra de Egipto: Yo Jehová vuestro Dios.



Wednesday night I returned from 8 days in Transylvania where I visited our small partner village of Abásfalva before going to the city of Torda where more than 1500 people gathered to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the first Edict of Religious Freedom, issued in 1568 by the only Unitarian king in history, John Sigismund.

First, the briefest of overviews. Then my Abásfalva travelogue. And finally some reflections about the Edict and its meaning today.

Circled by the Carpathian mountains, rich in agriculture and forests, Transylvania (which means “land beyond the forest”) is now in the country of Romania. For centuries it was semi-independent, later a prized part of Hungary, and then, after the defeat of Hungary in the First World War, Romania was awarded 2/3 of Hungary’s land area. Imagine what it might be like if our country were to lose 2/3 of our land area! Tens of thousands of Hungarians went to bed one night in 1921 and awakened to discover they now lived in Romania.

The partner church movement, which links UU congregations here with congregations there has its origins in the aftermath of that war when North American congregations raised funds to replace steeple bells that had been melted down for armaments.

The Second World War was also devastating. Hungarians sided with the Axis powers; Romanians with the Allies. The brutal communist dictator Ceausescu came to power after that war, and when he was overthrown in 1989, the partner church movement was reborn.

Today, more than 50,000 Unitarians still live in Transylvania. They are a double minority. Amidst the Romanian majority, they are ethnically, in culture and language, Hungarian. Amidst the dominant Orthodox religion, they are Unitarian. As you might imagine, the Hungarian/Romanian relationship is difficult.

Just to make matters more complicated, Abásfalva is in the land of another sub-ethnicity, the Szeklers, known in Hungarian as the Székely (S-Z-E-K-E-L-Y). Louis C.K., the comic, is a Szekler, a Székely. Historically, the Székely were the fiercely independent defenders of the Transylvanian border against the Turks.

There is even a blue-and-gold Székely flag and just a few weeks ago, the Romanian Prime Minister declared that anyone flying a Székely flag should also be hoisted and hung from the flagpole. Hungarians around the world and their friends, including me, responded by adding a Székely flag to their profile picture on Facebook.

The Transylvanian Unitarians are Christian, though by other Christians they were often mistaken for (or accused of being) Jews because their founder, Francis David, insisted that, however respectful they were of Jesus, prayers were to be addressed directly to God, not through any intermediary. “Egy Az Isten,” he said, “God is one!” Those words are carved on the kopjafa (totem pole) there in our Memorial Garden.

For ideas like this, after the death of John Sigismund, Francis David was charged with the crime of religious innovation – the idea that the church should change and improve over time. Convicted of innovation, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in a mountain dungeon in Deva where he died in 1579, now one of the most important places of Unitarian pilgrimage.

Abásfalva is small (population about 400, now 80% Gypsy, or Roma), the streets are unpaved, the number of horse-drawn wagons nearly equal the number of cars, though both horses and cars are washed in the Homorod River. While there I visit elderly parishioners, exchange gifts, and inevitably return with an ample fresh supply of pálinka (plum brandy) which you are welcome to sample.

New in Abásfalva this trip was a villager who, in addition to goats and pigs and sheep and chickens, now also keeps a llama and a herd of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. Talk about innovation!

The land-owners association has purchased one of the many vacant houses and is turning it into what’s called a tajhaz, a village museum with antique tools and clothing, furniture, and artifacts.

Over the years, our congregation has built a water system that brings water to all homes, including many gypsy homes that never had water. We also made possible the renovation of a room into a cozy winter chapel so people do not have to be in the large and unheated church building. Often we bring ibuprophen and other simple but not-readily-available medicine. Since our first pilgrimage in 1994, more than 100 of our parishioners have gone to Abásfalva. We go every other year and we plan to go again for 10 days or so at the end of June and the beginning of July. Speak to me or Partner Church Committee members (raise your hands) if you’d like to know more. Our partnership with Abásfalva is among the strongest and most important partnerships in our denomination

Oh yes, some of the Abásfalvans work in a nearby wooden tool-handle factory (axes, hammers, shovels, that sort of thing) and I paid a visit. And another works in a plastic bag factory which I also toured. And I spent some time with the gypsies helping to shoe their horses. I know this is making you jealous.
The celebration of the 450th was my principle reason for going and, before commenting on that, I’ve asked Lisa to proclaim the 1568 Edict of Torda:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, 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 and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

“Faith is a gift of God” and cannot be coerced. That’s the most famous line of the Edict and I’ve heard it about a thousand times in the last week. My favorite line, however, is that “the preachers shall not be abused!”

But here’s the point:
How many of you have changed your religion at least once in your life? This is a thoroughly modern possibility because in the ancient world the principle was Cuius regio, eius religio, a Latin phrase which literally means “Whose realm, his religion”, meaning that the religion of the ruler was to dictate the religion of those ruled.

450 years ago, following a series of religious debates and influenced by Francis David who argued that “faith is a gift of God and cannot be coerced,” King John Sigismund declared himself a Unitarian. That’s Sigismund in the chair on the left and David in the center. They’re in the church at Torda and it was in that church that I joined the celebration last Saturday.
The Edict of Torda was one of the earliest departures from the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. And so, for the first time in Europe, people could choose their religion regardless of their ruler’s religion.

To this day, our faith – Unitarian Universalism – is our chosen faith.

In 1568, the Edict of Religious Freedom applied only to four Christian faiths: Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Unitarian. It should be noted, however, that at that time Transylvania was part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Unlike the Christian denominations that were busy burning one another at the stake, the Muslims were more tolerant of the Christians than the Christians were of one another! Ironic, eh?

Subsequent to 1568, of course, Transylvanian religious toleration expanded to other Christians, like the now dominant Orthodox and, intermittently, to Jews and other non-Christians. In the modern world, religious toleration is most fully enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though of course it is still not universally observed.

Last Saturday in Torda was a festive occasion with music and a succession of bishops, archbishops, and politicians proclaiming the Edict’s importance. A statue was dedicated, a postage stamp will be issued, and the European Parliament is being urged to declare January 13 as an annual day to honor religious freedom.

But I must tell you that all this festivity takes places amidst an ominous background. Around the world, globally, there has been a rising right-wing epidemic of fear that scapegoats refugees, immigrants, foreigners, Jews, Muslims, other minorities, and LGBTQ persons. Perceiving themselves as squeezed between the imperiums of East and West, those in east central Europe – the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Czechs, the Poles, the Slovenians, Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians and others – all are fearful of losing their national identities and, thus, have become among the most xenophobic and hostile to outside influence or perceived interference. The Hungarians already have their border wall!

While all other religions in Romania have affirmed that marriage must only be between a man and a woman, a few courageous Unitarians refused to go along…that is, until a synod was called about a month ago and the few courageous Unitarians were indeed a very few and 84% of the Unitarians affirmed a traditional definition of marriage. In response, some in the minority have resigned their jobs with the church (some even plan to leave the country) and others expect imminent retribution. I have friends on all sides of this and, while no one is triumphant, many are discouraged, despondent, and apprehensive.

So fraught with tension was the atmosphere that, prior to Saturday’s celebration, a planned conference was cancelled for fear that some foreigners – myself included – might be disruptive. Yes, I did wear a rainbow flaming chalice pin, and yes, I did discover the gay bar in the city of Kolozsvár (which we must visit on our next visit!) but, seriously, I am saddened.

I find a metaphor in, of all things, Hungarian cuisine. While creativity and innovation in the kitchen is celebrated in some places and perhaps in your home, in Hungary it is not. There’s a right way and a wrong way to cook things, and so – for better or worse – Hungarians say let’s not mess with how things have been done for centuries. Just as Francis David’s religious innovations were ultimately condemned by the authorities, condemnable now are notions of multiculturalism, LGBTQ and immigrant rights, religious reforms or anything that diminishes the authority of the status quo.

Of course, it is quite ironic when church authorities call us to celebrate an edict of toleration when the same church authorities are increasingly rigid and intolerant.

Did I mention that the only Unitarian “king” in history is also the only Unitarian gay “king” in history? Or that the most famous Hungarian Unitarians, Francis David, was but half-Hungarian and raised as a Saxon? All of us have our beloved mythologies.

History shows that Transylvanian Unitarians have had an ambivalent relationship with their own founding document, the Edict of Torda. Prior to the Second World War, for example, the Edict of Torda was an impediment to the persecution of Jews. Many Unitarians distanced themselves from its mandate of toleration; and, with few exceptions the church was complicit with anti-Semitism.

Toleration is a circumscribed virtue in Transylvania and it does not extend to gypsies, or to Romanians, to LGBTQ folks, or to any who are perceived as “other.”

I am aware that my words would be deeply offensive to many of my friends in Transylvania, an interference in their internal affairs. So let me be quick to acknowledge that the founding documents of our nation – be they the Declaration that “all people” are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or the Bill of Rights that ennobles the freedoms of speech, and press, assembly, and religion – as well as the freedom from religion and the separation of church and state – these documents too – like the Edict of Torda – often remain too hot to handle, reminders that we have not yet fulfilled the promise of America.

That we so often revile the stranger, oppress the immigrant, despise the poor, abuse the dignity of women and children and all who are marginalized; that we “celebrate” diversity but do not practice it; and that we sometimes celebrate and practice the most vulgar, debased, and exploitive of human behaviors – all this too is an affront and contrary to our ideals and our foremost religious affirmation of the worth and dignity of every human being.

I do not beat my breast in self-righteousness. Indeed, I confess our sinfulness. There, I said it! “Sin,” in Greek, is “hamartia,” missing the mark in the way an arrow shot from a bow may miss its mark. Regularly, all of us miss the mark.

The Edict of Torda, like other declarations, proclaims our intentions and aspirations: “For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

And yet, ultimately, it is written in the epistle of James, Chapter 1, verse 22, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”

May we not deceive ourselves.
Amen and may it be so.