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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 19 — Protestantism in Poland and Bohemia

Chapter 4 — Organisation of the Protestant church of Poland

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Several Church Organisations in Poland — Causes — Church Government in Poland a Modified Episcopacy — The Superintendent — His Powers — The Senior, etc. — The Civil Senior — The Synod the Supreme Authority — Local and Provincial Synods — General Convocation-Two Defects in this Organisation — Death of Sigismund Augustus — Who shall Succeed him? — Coligny proposes the Election of a French Prince — Montluc sent as Ambassador to Poland — Duke of Anjou Elected — Pledges — Attempted Treacheries — Coronation — Henry Attempts to Evade the Oath — Firmness of the Polish Protestants — The King's Unpopularity and Flight.

The short-lived golden age of Poland was now waning into the silver one. But before recording the slow gathering of the shadows — -the passing of the day into twilight, and the deepening of the twilight into night — we must cast a momentary glance, first, at the constitution of the Polish Protestant Church as seen at this the period of her fullest development; and secondly, at certain political events, which bore with powerful effect upon the Protestant character of the nation, and sealed the fate of Poland as a free country.

In its imperfect unity we trace the absence of a master-hand in the construction of the Protestant Church of Poland. Had one great mind led in the Reformation of that country, one system of ecclesiastical government would doubtless from the first have been given to all Poland. As it was, the organisation of its Church at the beginning, and in a sense all throughout, differed in different provinces. Other causes, besides the want of a great leader, contributed to this diversity in respect of ecclesiastical government. The nobles were allowed to give what order they pleased to the Protestant churches which they erected on their lands, but the same liberty was not extended to the inhabitants of towns, and hence very considerable diversity in the ecclesiastical arrangements. This diversity was still farther increased by the circumstance that not one, but three Confessions had gained ground in Poland — the Bohemian, the Genevan, and the Lutheran. The necessity of a more perfect organ-isation soon came to be felt, and repeated attempts were made at. successive Synods to unify the Church's government. A great step was taken in this direction at the Synod of Kosmin, in 1555, when a union was concluded between the Bohemian and Genevan Confessions; and a still greater advance was made in 1570, as we have narrated in the preceding chapter, when at the Synod of Sandomir the three Protestant Churches of Poland — the Bohemian, the Genevan, and the Lutheran — agreed to merge all their Confessions in one creed, and combine their several organisations in one government.

But even this was only an approximation, not a full and complete attainment of the object aimed at. All Poland was not yet ruled spiritually from one ecclesiastical centre; for the three great political divisions of the country — Great Poland, Little Poland, and Lithuania — had each its independent ecclesiastical establishment, by which all its religious affairs were regulated. Nevertheless, at intervals, or when some matter of great moment arose, all the pastors of the kingdom came together in Synod, thus presenting a grand Convocation of all the Protestant Churches of Poland.

Despite this tri-partition in the ecclesiastical authority, one form of Church government now extended over all Poland. That form was a modified episcopacy. If any one man was entitled to be styled the Father of the Polish Protestant Church it was John Alasco, and the organisation which he gave to the Reformed Church of his native land was not unlike that of England, of which he was a great admirer. Poland was on a great scale what the foreign Church over which John Alasco presided in London was on a small. First came the Superintendent, for Alasco preferred that term, though the more learned one of Senior Primarius was sometimes used to designate this dignitary. The Superintendent, or Senior Primarius, corresponded somewhat in rank and powers to an archbishop. He convoked Synods, presided in them, and executed their sentences; but he had no judicial authority, and was subject to the Synod, which could judge, admonish, and depose him. [1]

Over the Churches of a district a Sub-Superintendent, or Senior, presided. The Senior corresponded to a bishop. He took the place of the Superintendent in his absence; he convoked the Synods of the district, and possessed a certain limited jurisdiction, though exclusively spiritual. The other ecclesiastical functionaries were the Minister, the Deacon, and the Lecturer. The Polish Protestants eschewed the fashion and order of the Roman hierarchy, and strove to reproduce as far as the circumstances of their times would allow, or as they themselves were able to trace it, the model exhibited in the primitive Church.

Besides the Clerical Senior each district had a Civil Senior, who was elected exclusively by the nobles and landowners. His duties about the Church were mainly of an external nature. All things appertaining to faith and doctrine were left entirely in the hands of the ministers; but the Civil Senior took cognisance of the morals of ministers, and in certain cases could forbid them the exercise of their functions till he had reported the case to the Synod, as the supreme authority of the Church. The support and general welfare of churches and schools were entrusted to the Civil Senior, Who, moreover, acted as advocate for the Church before the authorities of the country.

The supreme authority in the Polish Protestant Church was neither the Superintendent nor the Civil Senior, but the Synod. Four times every year a Local Synod, composed not of ministers only, but of all the members of the congregations, was convened in each district. Although the members sat along with the pastors, all questions of faith and doctrine were left to be determined exclusively by the latter. Once a year a Provincial Synod was held, in which each district

was represented by a Clerical Senior, two Con-Seniors, or assistants, and four Civil Seniors; thus giving a slight predominance to the lay element in the Synod. Nevertheless, ministers, although not delegated by the Local Synods, could sit and vote on equal terms with others in the Provincial Synod.

The Grand Synod of the nation, or Convocation of the Polish Church, met at no stated times. It assembled only when the emergence of some great question called for its decision. These great gatherings, of course, could take place only so long as the Union of Sandomir, which bound in one Church all the Protestant Confessions of Poland, existed, and that unhappily was only from 1570 to 1595. After the expiry of these twenty-five years those great national gatherings, which had so impressively attested the strength and grandeur of Protestantism in Poland, were seen no more. Such in outline was the constitution and government of the Protestant Church of Poland. It wanted only two things to make it complete and perfect — namely, one supreme court, or center of authority, with jurisdiction covering the whole country; and a permanent body or "Board," having its seat in the capital, through which the Church might take instant action when great difficulties called for united councils, or sudden dangers necessitated united arms. The meetings of the Grand Synods were intermittent and irregular, whereas their enemies never failed to maintain union among themselves, and never ceased their attacks upon the Protestant Church.

We must now turn to the course of political affairs subsequent to the death of King Sigismund Augustus, of which, however, we shall treat only so far as they grew out of Protestantism, and exerted a reflex influence upon it. The amiable; enlightened, and tolerant monarch, Sigismund Augustus, so often almost persuaded to be a Protestant, and one day, as his courtiers fondly hoped, to become one in reality, went to his grave in 1572, without having come to any decision, and without leaving any issue.

The Protestants were naturally desirous of placing a Protestant upon the throne; but the intrigues of Cardinal Commendoni, and the jealousy of the Lutherans against the Reformed, which the Union of Sandomir had not entirely extinguished, rendered all efforts towards this effect in vain. Meanwhile Coligny, whom the Peace of St. Germains had restored to the court of Paris, and for the moment to influence, came forward with the proposal of placing a French prince upon the throne of Poland. The admiral was revolving a gigantic scheme for humbling Romanism, and its great champion, Spain. He meditated bringing together in a political and religious alliance the two great countries of Poland and France, and Protestantism once triumphant in both, an issue which to Coligny seemed to be near, the united arms of the two countries would soon put an end to the dominancy of Rome, and lay in the dust the overgrown power of Austria and Spain. Catherine de Medici, who saw in the project a new aggrandisement to her family, warmly favored it; and Montluc, Bishop of Valence, was dispatched to Poland, furnished with ample instructions from Coligny to prosecute the election of Henry of Valois, Duke of Anjou. Montluc had hardly crossed the frontier when the St. Bartholomew was struck, and among the many victims of that dreadful act was the author of that very scheme which Montluc was on his way to advocate and, if possible, consummate. The bishop, on receiving the terrible news, thought it useless to continue his journey; but Catherine, feeling the necessity of following the line of foreign policy which had been originated by the man she had murdered, sent orders to Montluc to go forward.

The ambassador had immense dimculties to overcome in the prosecution of his mission, for the massacre had inspired universal horror, but by dint of stoutly denying the Duke of Anjou's participation in the crime, and promising that the duke would subscribe every guarantee of political and religious liberty which might be required of him, he finally carried his object. Firley, the leader of the Protestants, drafted a list of privileges which Anjou was to grant to the Protestants of Poland, and of concessions which Charles IX. was to make to the Protestants of France; and Montluc was required to sign these, or see the rejection of his candidate. The ambassador promised for the monarch.

Henry of Valois having been chosen, four ambassadors set out from Poland with the diploma of election, which was presented to the duke on the 10th September, 1573, in Notre Dame, Paris. A Romish bishop, and member of the embassy, entered a protest, at the beginning of the ceremonial, against that clause in the oath which secured religious liberty, and which the duke was now to swear. Some confusion followed. The Protestant Zborowski, interrupting the proceedings, addressed Montluc thus:~"Had you not accepted, in the name of the duke, these conditions, we should not have elected him as our monarch." Henry feigned not to understand the subject of dispute, but Zborowski, advancing towards him, said — "I repeat, sire, if your ambassador had not accepted the condition securing religious liberty to us Protestants, we would not have elected you to be our king, and if you do not confirm these conditions you shall not be our king." Thereupon Henry took the oath. When he had sworn, Bishop Karnkowski, who had protested against the religious liberty promised in the oath, stepped forward, and again protested that the clause should not prejudice the authority of the Church of Rome, and he received from the king a written declaration to the effect that it would not. [2]

Although the sovereign-elect had confirmed by oath the religious liberties of Poland, the suspicions of the Protestants were not entirely allayed, and they resolved jealously to watch the proceedings at the coronation. Their distrust was not without cause. Cardinal Hosius, who had now begun to exercise vast influence on the affairs of Poland, reasoned that the oath

that Henry had taken in Paris was not binding, and he sent his secretary to meet the new monarch on the road to his new dominions, and to assure him that he did not even need absolution from what he had sworn, seeing what was unlawful was not binding, and that as soon as he should be crowned, he might proceed, the oath notwithstanding, to drive from his kingdom all religions contrary to that of Rome. [3] The bishops began to teach the same doctrine and to instruct Henry, who was approaching Poland by slow stages, that he would mount the throne as an absolute sovereign, and reign wholly unfettered and uncontrolled by either the oath of Paris or the Polish Diet. The kingdom was in dismay and alarm; the Protestants talked of annulling the election, and refusing to accept Henry as their sovereign. Poland was on the brink of civil war.

At the coronation a new treachery was attempted. Tutored by Jesuitical councillors, Henry proposed to assume the crown, but to evade the oath. The ceremonial was proceeding, intently watched by both Protestants and Romanists. The final act was about to be performed; the crown was to be placed on the head of the new sovereign; but the oath guaranteeing the Protestant liberties had not been administered to him. Firley, the Grand Marshal of Poland, and first grandee of the kingdom, stood forth, and stopping the proceedings, declared that unless the Duke of Anjou should repeat the oath which he had sworn at Paris, he would not allow the coronation to take place. Henry was kneeling on the steps of the altar, but startled by the words, he rose up, and looking round him, seemed to hesitate. Firley, seizing the crown, said in a firm voice, "Si non jurabis, non regnabis" (If you will not swear, you shall not reign). The courtiers and spectators were mute with astonishment. The king was awed; he read in the crest-fallen countenances of his advisers that he had but one alternative the oath, or an ignominious return to France. It was too soon to go back; he took the copy of the oath which was handed to him, swore, and was crowned.

The courageous act of the Protestant grand marshal had dispelled the cloud of civil war that hung above the nation. But it was only for a moment that confidence was restored. The first act of the new sovereign had revealed him to his subjects as both treacherous and cowardly; what trust could they repose in him, and what affection could they feel for him? Henry took into exclusive favor the Popish bishops; and, emboldened by a patronage unknown to them during former reigns, they boldly declared the designs they had long harboured, but which they had hitherto only whispered to their most trusted confidants. The great Protestant nobles were discountenanced and discredited. The king's shameless profligacies consummated the discontent and disgust of the nation. The patriotic Firley was dead — it was believed in many quarters that he had been poisoned — and civil war was again on the point of breaking out when, fortunately for the unhappy country, the flight of the monarch saved it from that great calamity. His brother, Charles IX., had died, and Anjou took his secret and quick departure to succeed him on the throne of France.


Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, June 23rd, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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