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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 19 — Protestantism in Poland and Bohemia

Chapter 2 — John Alasco, and reformation of east Friesland

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No One Leader — Many Secondary Ones — King Sigismund Augustus — His Character — Favourably Disposed to Protestantism — His Vacillations — Project of National Reforming Synod — Opposed by the Roman Clergy — John Alasco — Education — Goes to Louvain — Visits Zwingle — His Stay with Erasmus — Recalled to Poland — Purges himself from Suspicion of Heresy — Proffered Dignities — He Severs himself from the Roman Church — Leaves Poland — Goes to East Friesland — Begins its Reformation — Difficulties — Triumph of Alasco — Goes to England — Friendship with Cranmer — Becomes Superintendent of the Foreign Church in London — Retires to Denmark on Death of Edward VI. — Persecutions and Wanderings — Returns to Poland — His Work there — Prince Radziwill — His Attempts to Reform Poland — His Dying Charge to his Son — His Prophetic Words to Sigismund Augustus.

We see the movement marching on, but we can see no one leader going before it. The place filled by Luther in Germany, by Calvin in Geneva, and by men not dissimilarly endowed in other countries, is vacant in the Reformation of Poland. Here it is a Waldensian missionary or refugee who is quietly sowing the good seed which he has drawn from the garner of some manuscript copy of the New Testament, and there it is a little band of Bohemian brethren, who have preserved the traditions of John Huss, and are trying to plant them in this new soil. Here it is a university doctor who is expounding the writings of Wicliffe to his pupils, and there it is a Polish youth who has just returned from Wittemberg, and is anxious to communicate to his countrymen the knowledge which he has there learned, and which has been so sweet and refreshing to himself. Nevertheless, although amid all these laborers we can discover no one who first gathers all the forces of the new life into himself, and again sends them forth over the land, we yet behold the darkness vanishing on every side. Poland's Reformation is not a sunrise, but a daybreak: the first dim streaks are succeeded by others less doubtful; these are followed by brighter shades still; till at last something like the clearness of day illuminates its sky. The truth has visited some nobleman, as the light will strike on some tall mountain at the morning hour, and straightway his retainers and tenantry begin to worship as their chief worships; or some cathedral abbot or city priest has embraced the Gospel, and their flocks follow in the steps of their shepherd, and find in the doctrine of a free salvation a peace of soul which they never experienced amid the burdensome rites and meritorious services of the Church of Rome. There are no combats; no stakes; no mighty hindrances to be vanquished; Poland seems destined to enter without struggle or bloodshed into possession of that precious inheritance which other nations are content to buy with a great price.

But although there is no one who, in intellectual and spiritual stature, towers so far above the other workers in Poland as to be styled its Reformer there are three names connected with the history of Protestantism in that country so outstanding as not to be passed without mention. The first is that of King Sigismund Augustus. Tolerant, accomplished, and pure in life, this monarch had read the Institutes, and was a correspondent of Calvin, who sought to inflame him with the ardor of making his name and reign glorious by laboring to effect the Reformation of his dominions. Sigismund Augustus was favourably disposed toward the doctrines of Protestantism, and he had nothing of that abhorrence of heresy and terror of revolution which made the kings of France drive the Gospel from their realm with fire and sword; but he vacillated, and could never make up his mind between Rome and the Reformation. The Polish king would fain have seen an adjustment of the differences that divided his subjects into two great parties, and the dissensions quieted that agitated his kingdom, but he feared to take the only effectual steps that could lead to that end. He was surrounded constantly with Protestants, who cherished the hope that he would yet abandon Rome, and declare himself openly in favour of Protestantism, but he always drew back when the moment came for deciding. We have seen him, in conjunction with the Diet of 1552, pluck the sword of persecution from the hands of the bishops; and he was willing to go still further, and make trial of any means that promised to amend the administration and reform the doctrines of the Roman Church. He was exceedingly favorable to a project much talked of in his reign — namely, that of convoking a National Synod for reforming the Church on the basis of Holy Scripture.

The necessity of such an assembly had been mooted in the Diet of 1552; it was revived in the Diet of 1555, and more earnestly pressed on the king, and thus contemporaneously with the abdication of the imperial sovereignty by Charles V., and the yet unfinished sittings of the great Council of Trent, the probability was that Christendom would behold a truly (Ecumenical Council assemble in Poland, and put the topstone upon the Reformation of its Church and kingdom. The projected Polish assembly, over which it was proposed that King Sigismund Augustus should preside, was to be composed of delegates from all the religious bodies in the kingdom — Lutherans, Calvinists, and Bohemians — who were to meet and deliberate on a perfect equality with the Roman clergy.

Nor was the constituency of this Synod to be confined to Poland; other Churches and lands were to be represented in it. All the living Reformers of note were to be invited to it; and, among others, it was to include the great names of Calvin and Beza, of Melancthon and Vergerius. But this Synod

was never to meet. The clergy of Rome, knowing that tottering fabrics can stand only in a calm air, and that their Church was in a too shattered condition to survive the shock of free discussion conducted by such powerful antagonists, threw every obstacle in the way of the Synod's meeting. Nor was the king very zealous in the affair. It is: doubtful whether Sigismund Augustus was ever brought to test the two creeds by the great question which of the twain was able to sustain the weight of his soul's salvation; and so, with convictions feeble and ill-defined, his purpose touching the reform of the Church never ripened into act.

The second name is that of no vacillating man — we have met it before — it is that of John Alasco. John Alasco, born in the last year save one of the fifteenth century [1] was sprung of one of the most illustrious families in Poland. Destined for the Church, he received the best education which the schools of his native land could bestow, and he afterwards visited Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium in order to enlarge and perfect his studies. At the University of Louvain, renowned for the purity of its orthodoxy, and whither he resorted, probably at the recommendation of his uncle, who was Primate of Poland, he contracted a close friendship with Albert Hardenberg. [2] After a short stay at. Louvain, finding the air murky with scholasticism, he turned his steps in the direction of Switzerland, and arriving at Zurich, he made the acquaintance of Zwingle.

"Search the Scriptures," said the Reformer of Zurich to the young Polish nobleman. Alasco turned to that great light, and from that moment he began to be delivered from the darkness which had till then encompassed him. Quitting Zurich and crossing the Jura, he entered Basle, and presented himself before Erasmus. This great master of the schools was not slow to discover the refined grace, the beautiful genius, and the many and great acquirements of the stranger who had sought his acquaintance. Erasmus was charmed with the young Pole, and Alasco on his part was equally enamoured of Erasmus. Of all then living, Erasmus, if not the man of highest genius, was the man of highest culture, and doubtless the young scholar caught the touch of a yet greater suavity from this prince of letters, as Erasmus, in the enthusiasm of his friendship, confesses that he had grown young again in the society of Alasco. The Pole lived about a year (1525) under the roof, [3] but not at the cost of the great scholar; for his disposition being as generous as his means were ample, he took upon himself the expenses of housekeeping; and in other ways he ministered, with equal liberality and delicacy, to the wants of his illustrious host. He purchased his library for 300 golden crowns, leaving to Erasmus the use of it during his life-time. [4] He formed a friendship with other eminent men then living at Basle; in particular, with Oecolampadius and Pellicanus, the latter of whom initiated him into the study of the Hebrew Scriptures.

His uncle, the primate, hearing that his nephew had fallen into "bad company," recalled him by urgent letters to Poland. It cost Alasco a pang to tear himself from his friends in Basle. He carried back to his native land a heart estranged from Rome, but he did not dissever himself from her communion, nor as yet did he feel the necessity of doing so; he had tested her doctrines by the intellect only, not by the conscience, He was received at court, where his youth, the refinement of his manners, and the brilliance of his talents made him a favourite. The pomps and galeties amid which he now lived weakened, but did not wholly efface, the impressions made upon him at Zurich and Basle. Destined for the highest offices in the Church of Poland, his uncle demanded that he should purge himself by oath from the suspicions of heresy which had hung about him ever since his return from Switzerland. Alasco complied. The document signed by him is dated in 1526, and in it Alasco promises not to embrace doctrines foreign to those of the Apostolic Roman Church, and to submit in all lawful and honest things to the authority of the bishops and of the Papal See. "This I swear, so help me, God, and his holy Gospel." [5]

This fall was meant to be the first step towards the primacy. Ecclesiastical dignities began now to be showered upon him, but the duties which these imposed, by bringing him into close contact with clerical men, disclosed to him more and more every day the corruptions of the Papacy, and the need of a radical reform of the Church. He resumed his readings in the Bible, and renewed his correspondence with the Reformers. His spiritual life revived, and he began now to try Rome by the only infallible touch-stone — "Can I, by the performance of the works she prescribes, obtain peace of conscience, and make myself holy in the sight of God?" Alasco was constrained to confess that he never should. He must therefore, at whatever cost, separate himself from her. At this moment two mitres — that of Wesprim in Hungary, and that of Cujavia in Poland — were placed at his acceptance. [6] The latter mitre opened his way to the primacy in Poland. On the one side were two kings proffering him golden dignities, on the other was the Gospel, with its losses and afflictions. Which shall he choose? "God, in his goodness," said he, writing to Pellicanus, "has brought me to myself." He went straight to the king, and frankly and boldly avowing his convictions, declined the Bishopric of Cujavia.

Poland was no place for Alasco after such an avowal, lie left his native land in 1536, uncertain in what country he should spend

what might yet remain to him of life, which was now wholly devoted to the cause of the Reformation. Sigismund, who knew his worth, would most willingly have retained Alasco the Romanist, but perhaps he was not sorry to see Alasco the Protestant leave his dominions. The Protestant princes, to whom his illustrious birth and great parts had made him known, vied with each other to secure his services. The Countess Regent of East Friesland, where the Reformation had been commenced in 1528, urged him to come and complete the work by assuming the superintendence of the churches of that province. After long deliberation he went, but the task was a difficult one. The country had become the battle-ground of the sectaries. All things were in confusion; the churches were full of images, and the worship abounded in mummeries; the people were rude in manners, and many of the nobles dissolute in life; one less resolute might have been dismayed, and retired.

Alasco made a commencement. His quiet, yet persevering, and powerful touch was telling. Straightway a tempest arose around him. The wrangling sectaries on the one side, and the monks Oh the other, united in assailing the man in whom both recognised a common foe. Accusations were carried to the court at Brussels against him, and soon there came an imperial order to expel "the fire-brand" from Friesland. "Dost thou hear the gowl of the thunder?" [7] said Alasco, writing to his friends; he expected that the bolt would follow. Anna, the sovereign princess of the kingdom, terrified at the threat of the emperor, began to cool in her zeal toward the superintendent and his work; but in proportion as the clouds grew black and danger menaced, the courage and resolution of the Reformer waxed strong. He addressed a letter to the princess (1543), fit which he deemed it "better to be unpolite than to be unfaithful," warning her that should she "take her hand from the plough" she would have to "give account to the eternal Judge." "I am only a foreigner," he added, "burdened with a family, [8] and having no home. I wish, therefore, to be friends with all, but... as far as to the altar. This barrier I cannot pass, even if I had to reduce my family to beggary." [9]

This noble appeal brought the princess once more to the side of Alasco, not again to withdraw her support from one whom she had found so devoted and so courageous. Prudent, yet resolute, Alasco went on steadily in his work. Gradually the remnants of Romanism were weeded out; gradually the images disappeared from the temples; the order and discipline of the Church were reformed on the Genevan model; the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was established according to the doctrine of Calvin; [10] and, as regarded the monks, they were permitted to occupy their convents in peace, but were forbidden the public performance of their worship. Not liking this restraint, the Fathers quietly withdrew from the kingdom. In six years John Alasco had completed the Reformation of the Church of East Friesland. It was a great service. He had prepared an asylmn for the Protestants of the Netherlands during the evil days that were about to come upon them, and he had helped to pave the way for the appearance of William of Orange.

The Church order established by Alasco in Friesland was that of Geneva. This awoke against him the hostility of the Lutherans, and the adherents of that creed continuing to multiply in Friesland, the troubles of Alasco multiplied along with them. He resigned the general direction of ecclesiastical affairs, which he had exercised as superintendent, and limited his sphere of action to the ministry of the single congregation of Emden, the capital of the country.

But the time was come when John Alasco was to be removed to another sphere. A pressing letter now reached him from Archbishop Cranmer, inviting him to take part, along with other distinguished Continental Reformers, in completing the Reformation of the Church of England. [11] The Polish Reformer accepted the invitation, and traversing Brabant and Flanders in disguise, he arrived in London in September, 1548. A six months' residence with Cranmer at Lambeth satisfied him that the archbishop's views and his own, touching the Reformation of the Church, entirely coincided; and an intimate friendship sprang up between the two, which bore good fruits for the cause of Protestantism in England, where Alaseo's noble character and great learning soon won him high esteem.

After a short visit to Friesland, in 1549, he returned to England, and was nominated by Edward VI., in 1550, Superintendent of the German, French, and Italian congregations erected in London, numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 persons, and which Cranmer hoped would yet prove a seed of Reformation in the various countries from which persecution had driven them, [12] and would also excite the Church of England to pursue the path of Protestantism. And so, doubtless, it would have been, had not the death of Edward VI. and the accession of Mary suddenly changed the whole aspect of affairs in England. [13] The Friesian Reformer and his congregation had now to quit our shore. They embarked at Gravesend on the 15th of September, 1553, in the presence of thousands of English Protestants, who crowded the banks of the Thames, and on bended knees supplicated the blessing and protection of Heaven on the wanderers.

Setting sail, their little fleet was scattered by a storm, and the vessel which bore John Alasco entered the Danish harbor of Elsinore. Christian III. of Denmark, a mild and pious prince, received Alasco and his fellow-exiles at first with great kindness; but soon their asylum was invaded by Lutheran intolerance. The theologians of the court, Westphal and Pomeranus (Bugenhagen), poisoned the king's mind against the exiles, and they were compelled to re-embark at an inclement season, and traverse tempestuous seas in quest of

some more hospitable shore. This shameful breach of hospitality was afterwards repeated at Lubeck, Hamburg, and Rostock; it kindled the indignation of the Churches of Switzerland, and it drew from Calvin an eloquent letter to Alasco, in which he gave vent not only to his deep sympathy with him and his companions in suffering, but also to his astonishment "that the barbarity of a Christian people should exceed even the sea in savageness. [14]

Driven hither and thither, not by the hatred of Rome, but by the intolerance of brethren, Gustavus Vasa, the reforming monarch of Sweden, gave a cordial welcome to the pastor and his flock, should they choose to settle in his dominions. Alasco, however, thought better to repair to Friesland, the scene of his former labors; but even here the Lutheran spirit, which had been growing in his absence, made his stay unpleasant. He next sought asylum in Frankfort-on-the-Maine, where he established a Church for the Protestant refugees from Belgium. [15] During his stay at Frankfort he essayed to heal the breach between the Lutheran and the Calvinistic branches of the Reformation. The mischiefs of that division he had amply experienced in his own person; but its noxious influence was felt far beyond the little community of which he was the center. It was the great scandal of Protestantism; it disfigured it with dissensions and hatreds, and divided and weakened it in the presence of a powerful foe. But his efforts to heal this deplorable and scandalous schism, although seconded by the Senate of Frankfort and several German princes, were in vain. [16]

He never lost sight of his native land; in all his wanderings he cherished the hope of returning to it at a future day, and aiding in the Reformation of its Church; and now (1555) he dedicated to Sigismund Augustus of Poland a new edition of an account he had formerly published of the foreign Churches in London of which he had acted as superintendent. He took occasion at the same time to explain in full his own sentiments on the subject of Church Reformation. With great calmness and dignity, but with great strengh of argument, he maintained that the Scriptures were the one sole basis of Reformation; that neither from tradition, however venerable, nor from custom, however long established, were the doctrines of the Church's creed or the order of her government to be deduced; that neither Councils nor Fathers could infallibly determine anything; that apostolic practice, as recorded in the inspired canon that is to say, the Word of God — alone possessed authority in this matter, and was a sure guide. He also took the liberty of urging on the, king the necessity of a Reformation of the Church of Poland, "of which a prosperous beginning had already been made by the greatest and best part of the nation;" but the matter, he added, was one to be prosecuted "with judgment and care, seeing every one who reasoned against Rome was not orthodox;" and touching the Eucharist — that vexed question, and in Poland, as elsewhere, so fertile in divisions — Alasco stated "that doubtless believers received the flesh and blood of Christ in the Communion, but by the lip of the soul, for there was neither bodily nor personal presence in the Eucharist." [17]

It is probable that it was this publication that led to his recall to Poland, in 1556, by the king and nobles. [18] The Roman bishops heralded his coming with a shout of terror and wrath. "The 'butcher' [19] of the Church has entered Poland! " they cried. "Driven out of every land, he returns to that one that gave him birth, to afflict it with troubles and commotions. He is collecting troops to wage war against the king, root out the Churches, and spread riot and bloodshed over the kingdom." This clamor had all the effect on the royal mind which it deserved to have — that is, none at all. [20]

Alasco, soon after his return, was appointed superintendent of all the Reformed Churches of Little Poland. [21] His long-cherished object seemed now within his reach. That was not the tiara of the primacy — for, if so, he needed not have become the exile; his ambition was to make the Church of Poland one of the brightest lights in the galaxy of the Reformation. He had arrived at his great task with fully-ripened powers. Of illustrious birth, and of yet more illustrious learning and piety, he was nevertheless, from remembrance of his fall, humble as a child. Presiding over the Churches of more than half the kingdom, Protestantism, under his fostering care, waxed stronger every day. He held Synods. He actively assisted in the translation of the first Protestant Bible in Poland, that he might give his countrymen direct access to the fountain of truth. He laboured unweariedly in the cause of union. He had especially at heart the healing of the great breach between the Lutheran and the Reformed — the sore through which so much of the vital force of Protestantism was ebbing away. The final goal which he kept ever in eye, and at which he hoped one day to arrive, was the erection of a national Church, Reformed in doctrine on the basis of the Word of God, and constituted in government as similarly to the Churches over which he had presided in London as the circumstances of Poland would allow. Besides the opposition of the Roman hierarchy, which was to be looked for, the Reformer found two main hindrances obstructing his path. The first was the growth of and-Trinitarian doctrines, first broached, as we have seen, in the secret society of Cracow, and which continued to spread widely among the Churches superintended by Alasco, in spite of the polemical war he constantly maintained against them. The second was the vacillation of King Sigismund Augustus. Alasco urged the. convocation of

a National Synod, in order to the more speedy and universal Reformation of the Polish Church. But the king hesitated. Meanwhile Rome, seeing in the measures on foot, and more especially in the projected Synod, the impending overthrow of her power in Poland, dispatched Lippomani, one of the ablest of the Vatican diplomatists, with a promise, sealed with the Fisherman's ring, of a General Council, which should reform the Church and restore her unity.

What need, then, for a National Council? The Pope would do, and with more order and quiet, what the Poles wished to have done. How many score of times had this promise been made, and when had it proved aught save a delusion and a snare? It served, however, as an excuse to the king, who refused to convoke the Synod which Alasco so much desired to see assemble. It was a great crisis. The Reformation had essayed to crown her work in Poland, but she was hindered, and the fabric remained unfinished: a melancholy monument of the egregious error of letting slip those golden opportunities that are given to nations, which "they that are wise" embrace, but they that are void of wisdom neglect, and 'bewail their folly with floods of tears and torrents of blood in the centuries that come after.

In January, 1560, John Alasco died, and was buried with great pomp in the Church of Pintzov. [22] After him there arose in Poland no Reformer of like adaptability and power, nor did the nation ever again enjoy so favorable an opportunity of planting its liberties on a stable foundation by completing its Reformation. [23]

After John Alasco, but not equal to him, arose Prince Radziwill. His rank, his talents, and his zealous labors in the cause of Protestantism give him a conspicuous place in the list of Poland's Reformers. Nicholas Radziwill was sprung of a wealthy family of Lithuania. He was brother to Barbara, the first queen of Sigismund Augustus, whose unlimited confidence he enjoyed. Appointed ambassador to the courts of Charles V. and Ferdinand I., the grace of his manners and the charm of his discourse so attracted the regards of these monarchs, that he received from the Emperor Charles the dignity of a Prince of the Empire. At the same time he so acquitted himself in the many affairs of importance in which he was employed by his own sovereign, that honors and wealth flowed upon him in his native land. He was created Chancellor of Lithuania, and Palatine of Vilna. Hitherto politics alone had engrossed him, but the time was now come when something nobler than the pomp of courts, and the prizes of earthly kingdoms, was to occupy his thoughts and call forth his energies. About 1553 he was brought into intercourse with some Bohemian Protestants at Prague, who instructed him in the doctrines of the Reformation, which he embraced in the Genevan form. From that time his influence and wealth — both of which were vast — were devoted to the cause of his country's Reformation. He summoned to his help Vergerius [24] from Italy. He supported many learned Protestants. He defrayed the expense of the printing of the first Protestant Bible at Brest, in Lithuania, in 1563. He diffused works written in defense of the Reformed faith. He erected a magnificent church and college at Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, and in many other ways fostered the Reformed Church in that powerful province where he exercised almost royal authority. Numbers of the priests now embraced the Protestant faith. "Almost the whole of the Roman Catholic nobles," says Krasinski, "including the first families of the land, and a great number of those who had belonged to the Eastern Church, became Protestants; so that in the diocese of Samogitia there were only eight Roman Catholic clergymen remaining. The Reformed worship was established not only in the estates of the nobles, but also in many towns." [25] On the other side, the testimony to Radziwill's zeal as a Reformer is equally emphatic. We find the legate, Lippomani, reproaching him thus: — " Public rumor says that the Palatine of Vilna patronises all heresies, and that all the dangerous innovators are gathering under his protection; that he erects, wherever his influence reaches, sacrilegious altars against the altar of God, and that he establishes pulpits of falsehood against the pulpits of truth." Besides these scandalous deeds, the legate charges Radziwill with other heinous transgressions against the Papacy, as the casting down the images of the saints, the forbidding of prayers to the dead, and the giving of the cup to the laity; by all of which he had greatly offended against the Holy Father, and put his own salvation in peril set about writing a work against "the apostates of Germany," which resulted in his own conversion to Protestantism. He communicated his change of mind to his brother, Bishop of Pola, who at first opposed, and at last embraced his opinions. The Bishop of Pola soon after met his fate, though how is shrouded in mystery. The Bishop of Capo d'Istria was witness to the horrors of the death-bed of Francis Spira, and was so impressed by them that he resigned his bishopric and left Italy. He it was that now came to Poland. (See McCrie, Italy.)

Had the life of Prince Radziwill been prolonged, so great was his influence with the king, it is just possible that the vacillation of Sigismund Augustus might have been overcome, and the throne permanently won for the cause of Poland's Reformation; but that possibility, if it ever existed, was suddenly extinguished. In 1565, while yet in the prime of life, and in the midst of his labors for the emancipation of his native land from the Papal yoke, the prince died. When he felt his last hour approaching he summoned to his bed-side his eldest son, Nicholas Christopher, and solemnly charged him to abide constant in the profession of

his father's creed, and the service of his father's God; and to employ the illustrious name, the vast possessions, and the great influence which had descended to him for the cause of the Reformation.

So ill did that son fulfill the charge, delivered to him in circumstances so solemn, that he returned into the bosom of the Roman Church, and to repair to the utmost of his power the injury his father had done the Papal See, he expended 5,000 ducats in purchasing copies of his father's Bible, which he burned publicly in the market-place of Vilna. On the leaves, now sinking in ashes, might be read the following words, addressed in the dedication to the Polish monarch, and which we who are able to compare the Poland of the nineteenth century with the Poland of the sixteenth, can hardly help regarding as prophetic. "But if your Majesty (which may God avert) continuing to be deluded by this world, unmindful of its vanity, and fearing still some hypocrisy, will persevere in that error which, according to the prophecy of Daniel, that impudent priest, the idol of the Roman temple, has made abundantly to grow in his infected vineyard, like a true and real Antichrist; if your Majesty will follow to the end that blind chief of a generation of vipers, and lead us the faithful people of God the same way, it is to be feared that the Lord may, for such a rejection of his truth, condemn us all with your Majesty to shame, humiliation, and destruction, and afterwards to an eternal perdition." [26]

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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