A report from Sheryl Abrahams of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Brussels, Belgium
We Unitarian Universalists take pride in our faith’s legacy of acceptance and freedom of conscience. This year, we celebrate the 450th anniversary of one of the world’s first declarations of religious tolerance, and the first official recognition of Unitarianism as a faith. In the current global climate of religious conflict, escalating military tensions and debates over the legal treatment of immigrants and migrants, we all have the chance to consider this legacy and reflect on how it can help shape our future.
January 13, 2018 marked the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda. UUs will join together throughout the year to celebrate and reflect, from Nepal to Romania to the U.S. As a member of the UU Fellowship of Brussels, Belgium, I had the chance to attend a special Torda450 event here at the European Parliament on January 23, hosted by MEPs Csaba Sógor, Lászlo Tökés, and Gyula Winkler, in cooperation with the Hungarian Unitarian Church. The event featured talks by UU clergy and historians, as well as the unveiling of a new exhibition in the Parliament building.
The What of Where?
Issued in Transylvania, in what is now Romania, the Edict of Torda was the end result of years of religious debate overseen by King Zsigmond János (John Sigismund). The Transylvania of the 1500s was a place of religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity. Once part of the Kingdom of Hungary, it housed populations of Hungarians, Romanians and Germans, including Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans and Orthodox Christians.
The region also occupied a precarious position between two Empires- those of the Catholic Hapsburgs and the Muslim Ottomans.
Within this context of religious plurality, King Zsigmond convened the Diet of Torda and appointed to it his court preacher, religious reformer, Dávid Ferenc (Francis Dávid). In 1568, the Diet issued its Edict, which proclaimed 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 . . . no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone . . . and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment. . . . For faith is the gift of God. . . “
The Edict of Torda was still a far cry from what we would today recognize as religious freedom. It provided little protection for non-Christian faiths, and stressed freedom of the pulpit rather than freedom of individual conscience. It officially recognized only four “legitimate” denominations: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Unitarianism. Yet the Edict was radical for its time.
In an era of violence against religious minorities, it chose tolerance over bloodshed. As the Rev. Level Molnár, archivist of the Hungarian Unitarian Church observed, the Diet of Torda was nearly contemporaneous with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France, which in 1572 saw the murder of an estimated 10,000-70,000 minority French Protestants. Dr. Enikö Rüsz-Fogarasi further pointed out that the Edict of Torda laid the groundwork for religious freedom even before the ideals of the Enlightenment caused people to see religious freedom as a moral and philosophical issue, rather than a merely political one.
Giving Our Faith Historical Context
The Edict of Torda was an important historical milestone; not only in the history of our UU faith, but to the history of Europe. For a continent historically torn apart by war, and now united by the EU, the Edict is a powerful symbol of the power of peaceful coexistence. At the Brussels event, MEP Sógor reminded guests of the Edict’s important place in European political history, quoting German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that “…tolerance is the soul of Europe.”
The Brussels event also reminded us of the work still in store to assure the legacy of Torda- work to ensure tolerance, radical acceptance of all peoples in our communities and in our churches, and the search for common ground despite differences. May we all take this year to reflect more deeply on this legacy and on our own role in its future.
Sheryl is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Brussels, Belgium where she lives with her husband and sons. She is also a Patron of the I Am UU project!