While Poland is usually thought of as a staunchly Roman Catholic country, the founding of another popular Christian denomination, the Unitarians, can be traced to that nation. Unitarians' main belief is a rejection of the Trinity, that is, belief that God is incarnate in three forms, namely the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, is rejected. Instead, they believe in God as a single entity and in Christ as a divine teacher but not as a God. Freedom of religious thought and rationalism are hallmarks of Unitarianism.
Anti-trinitarianism existed from the beginnings of the Christian church but gained momentum during the Reformation of the 1500s. With its tradition of religious tolerance Poland in 1579 drew one of the leaders of the movement, Faustus Socinus, who had been persecuted in his native Italy. Though Unitarianism as a religion is considered to have existed from the year 1569 in Poland, it was Socinus who succeeded in uniting like-minded religious leaders, both Polish and foreign born. A branch of Unitarianism also established a strong presence in Transylvania.
Known also as the Polish Brethren, Racovians and Socinians, the Unitarians made their headquarters at Rakow, about 100 miles northwest of Krakow, where they flourished for 100 years, establishing a university and a printing shop. Some prominent Polish Unitarians were Samuel Przypkowski, Piotr z Goniadza and Grzegorz z Brzezin. Though never great in numbers, the Polish Brethren were very influential through their radical teachings on separation of church and state, equality and liberty.
Unitarians began to be persecuted in Poland in the mid-seventeenth century after the Swedish invasion when all Protestants were considered enemy collaborators. They were finally expelled in 1660 and dispersed to other countries, mostly to Holland and England where congregations were formed and their style of political thought gained influence. Their philosophies were known to America's Founding Fathers through writers like John Locke, whose liberal views had an effect on the thinking of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin.
The first Unitarian congregation in America was established in Boston in 1785. Joseph Priestly, a famous English scientist, the discoverer of oxygen and a leading Unitarian, came to America in 1794 and became friends with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He had a significant influence on their thinking.
Some famous American Unitarians were John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, William Howard Taft, Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1961 the American Unitarians merged with the like-minded Universalists and the denomination is known today as the Unitarian Universalist Church with about 500,000 members in North America. From its beginnings in Poland until today, the church has had a significant impact through its liberal, sometimes radical and controversial stances, despite its relatively small size. It is currently a leading proponent of gay marriage and is actively involved in the anti-war movement.
The Unitarian Church was re-established in Poland in the inter-war years and at present has a very small number of adherents there.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers