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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 19 — Protestantism in Poland and Bohemia

Chapter 5 — Turning of the tide of Protestantism in Poland

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Stephen Bathory Elected to the Throne — His Midnight Interview — Abandons Protestantism, and becomes a Romanist — Takes the Jesuits under his Patronage — Builds and Endows Colleges for them — Roman Synod of Piotrkow — Subtle Policy of the Bishops for Recovering their Temporal Jurisdiction — Temporal Ends gained by Spiritual Sanctions — Spiritual Terrors versus Temporal Punishments — Begun Decadence of Poland — Last Successes of its Arms — Death of King Stephen — Sigismund III. Succeeds — " The King of the Jesuits."

After a year's interregnum, Stephen Bathory, a Transylvanian prince, who had married Anne Jagellon, one of the sisters of the Emperor Sigismund Augustus, was elected to the crown of Poland. His worth was so great, and his popularity so high, that although a Protestant the Roman clergy dared not oppose his election. The Protestant nobles thought that now their cause was gained; but the Romanists did not despair. Along with the delegates commissioned to announce his election to Bathory, they sent a prelate of eminent talent and learning, Solikowski by name, to conduct their intrigue of bringing the new king over to their side. The Protestant deputies, guessing Solikowski's errand, were careful to give him no opportunity of conversing with the new sovereign in private. But, eluding their vigilance, he obtained an interview by night, and succeeded in persuading Bathory that he should never be able to maintain, himself on the throne of Poland unless he made a public profession of the Roman faith. The Protestant deputies, to their dismay, next morning beheld Stephen Bathory, in whom they had placed their hopes of triumph, devoutly kneeling at mass. [1] The new reign had opened with no auspicious omen!

Nevertheless, although a pervert, Bathory did not become a zealot. He repressed all attempts at persecution, and tried to hold the balance with tolerable impartiality between the two parties. But he sowed seeds destined to yield tempests in the future. The Jesuits, as we shall afterwards see, had already entered Poland, and as the Fathers were able to persuade the king that they were the zealous cultivators and the most efficient teachers of science and letters, Bathory, who was a patron of literature, took them under his patronage, and built colleges and seminaries for their use, endowing them with lands and heritages. Among other institutions he founded the University of Vilna, which became the chief seat of the Fathers in Poland, and whence they spread themselves over the kingdom. [2]

It was during the reign of King Stephen that the tide began to turn in the fortunes of this great, intelligent, and free nation. The ebb first showed itself in a piece of subtle legislation which was achieved by the Roman Synod of Piotrkow, in 1577. That Synod decreed excommunication against all who held the doctrine of religious toleration [3] But toleration of all religions was one of the fundamental laws of the kingdom, and the enactment of the Synod was levelled against this law. True, they could not blot out the law of the State, nor could they compel the tribunals of the nation to enforce their own ecclesiastical edict; nevertheless their sentence, though spiritual in its form, was very decidedly temporal in both its substance and its issues, seeing excommunication carried with it many grievous civil and social inflictions. This legislation was the commencement of a stealthy policy which had for its object the recovery of that temporal jurisdiction of which, as we have seen, the Diet had stripped them.

This first encroachnlent being permitted to pass unchallenged, the Roman clergy ventured on other and more violent attacks on the laws of the State, and the liberties of the people. The Synods of the diocese of Warmia prohibited mixed marriages; they forbade Romanists to be sponsors at the baptism of Protestant children; they interdicted the use of books and hymns not sanctioned by ecclesiastical authority; and they declared heretics incapable of inheriting landed property. All these enactments wore a spiritual guise, and they could be enforced only by spiritual sanctions; but they were in antagonism to the law of the land, and by implication branded the laws with which they conflicted as immoral; they tended to widen the breach between the two great parties hi the nation, and they disturbed the consciences of Romanists, by subjecting them to the alternative of incurring certain disagreeable consequences, or of doing what they were taught was unlawful and sinful.

Stretching their powers and prerogatives still farther, the Roman bishops now claimed payment of their tithes from Protestant landlords, and attempted to take back the churches which had been converted front Romanist to Protestant uses. To make trial of how far the nation was disposed to yield to these demands, or the tribunals prepared to endorse them, they entered pleas at law to have the goods and possessions which they claimed as theirs adjudged to them, and in some instances the courts gave decisions in their favour. But the hierarchy had gone farther than meanwhile was prudent. These arrogant demands roused the alarm of the nobles; and the Diets of 1581 and 1582 administered a tacit rebuke to the hierarchy by annulling the judgments which had been pronounced in their favor. The bishops had learned that they must walk slowly if they would walk safely; but they had met with nothing to convince them that their course was not the right one, or that it would not succeed in the end.

Nevertheless, under the appearance of having suffered a rebuff, the hierarchy had gained not a few substantial advantages. The more extreme of their demands had been disallowed, and many thought that; the contest between them and the civil courts was at an end, and that it had ended adversely to the spiritual authority; but the bishops knew better. They had laid the foundation of what would grow with every successive Synod, and each new

edict, into a body of law, diverse from and in opposition to the law of the land, and which presenting itself to the Romanist with a higher moral sanction, would ultimately, in his eyes, deprive the civil law of all force, and transfer to itself the homage of his conscience and the obedience of his life. The coercive power wielded by this new code, which was being stealthily put in operation in the heart of the Polish State, was a power that could neither be seen nor heard; and those who were accustomed to execute their behests through the force of armies, or the majesty of tribunals, were apt to contemn it as utterly unable to cope with the power of law; nevertheless, the result as wrought out in Poland showed that this influence, apparently so weak, yet penetrating deeply into the heart and soul, had in it an omnipotence compared with which the power of the sword was but feebleness. And farther there was this danger, perhaps not foreseen or not much taken into account in Poland at the moment, namely, that the Jesuits were busy manipulating the youth, and that whenever public opinion should be ripe for a concordat between the bishops and the Government, this spiritual code would start up into an undisguisedly temporal one, having at its service all the powers of the State, and enforcing its commands with the sword.

What was now introduced into Poland was a new and more refined policy than the Church of Rome had as yet employed in her battles with Protestantism. Hitherto she had filled her hand with the coarse weapons of material force — the armies of the Empire and the stakes of the Inquisition. But now, appealing less to the bodily senses, and more to the faculties of the soul, she began at Trent, and continued in Poland, the plan of creating a body of legislation, the pseudo-divine sanctions of which, in many instances, received submission where the terrors of punishment would have been withstood. The sons of Loyola came first, moulding opinion'; and the bishops came after, framing canons in conformity with that altered opinions-gathering where the others had strewed — and noiselessly achieving victory where the swords of their soldiers would have but sustained defeat. No doubt the liberty enjoyed in Poland necessitated this alteration of the Roman tactics; but it was soon seen that it was a more effectual method than the vulgar weapons of force, and that if a revolted Christendom was to be brought back to the Papal obedience, it must be mainly, though not exclusively, by the means of this spiritual artillery.

It was under the same reign, that of Stephen Bathory, that the political influence of the Kingdom of Poland began to wane. The ebb in its national prestige was almost immediately consequent on the ebb in its Protestantism. The victorious wars which Bathory had carried on with Russia were ended, mainly through the counsels of the Jesuit Possevinus, by a peace which stripped Poland of the advantages she was entitled to expect from her victories. This was the last gleam of military success that shone upon the country. Stephen Bathory died in 1586, having reigned ten years, not without glory, and was succeeded on the throne of Poland by Sigismund III. He was the son of John, King of Sweden, and grandson of the renowned Gustavus Vasa. Nurtured by a Romish mother, Sigismund III. had abandoned the faith of his famous ancestor, and during his long reign of well-nigh half a century, he made the grandeur of Rome his first object, and the power of Poland only his second. Under such a prince the fortunes of the nation continued to sink. He was called "the King of the Jesuits," and so far was he from being ashamed of the title, that he gloried in it, and strove to prove himself worthy of it. He surrounded himself with Jesuit councillors; honors and riches he showered almost exclusively upon Romanists, and especially upon those whom interest had converted, but argument left unconvinced. No dignity of the State and no post in the public service was to be obtained, unless the aspirant made friends of the Fathers. Their colleges and schools multiplied, their hoards and territorial domains augmented from year to year. The education of the youth, and especially the sons of the nobles, was almost wholly in their hands, and a generation was being created brimful of that "loyalty" which Rome so highly lauds, and which makes the understandings of her subjects so obdurate and their necks so supple. The Protestants were as yet too powerful in Poland to permit of direct persecution, but the way was being prepared in the continual decrease of their numbers, and the systematic diminution of their influence; and when Sigismund III. went to his grave in 1632, the glory which had illuminated the country during the short reign of Stephen Bathory had departed, and the night was fast closing in around Poland.

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