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"Faith of the Larger Liberty: The Message of Torda"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 29, 2017

Listen or Download the Sermon as Audio by clicking the link or using the embedded player, below.

Our ancient reading is an adaptation from the Hebrew Book of Isaiah (35:8-10):
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
…it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
[and] everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Our modern reading is from the person widely known as the Father of Unitarianism in Transylvania, Francis Dávid. The reading consists of two quotes by him:
There is no greater mindlessness and absurdity than to force conscience and the spirit with external power, when only their creator has authority for them. (As quoted in "The Transylvania Journey" by Rev. Michael McGee (25 July 2004), and in Whose God? and Three Related Works (2007) by Benjamin C. Godfrey, p. 61)
The second quote is his last message, which was carved by him onto the walls of his dungeon cell, shortly before his death in prison.
Neither the sword of popes, nor the cross, nor the image of death — nothing will halt the march of truth. I wrote what I felt and that is what I preached with trusting spirit. I am convinced that after my destruction the teachings of false prophets will collapse. (As quoted in For Faith and Freedom by Charles A. Howe, (1997) p. 109)
Before we get into the topic of the Edict of Torda and its potential meaning for us, as Unitarian Universalists in the here and now, there are a couple of questions that I wonder if you might be curious about. I had some questions, myself, before making a pilgrimage, back in 2008, to Transylvania, the birthplace of Unitarianism. my questions were regarding political and theological matters that I had a hard time grasping, as I tried to make sense of our UU relationship with Transylvanian Unitarianism. I thought it might be helpful to raise them here.

The first one is in regard to political boundaries. It seemed to me that Transylvania, Romania and Hungary were names of countries that, for some reason, seemed to be used interchangeably in discussions of early Unitarianism. So, here’s the scoop.

Transylvania was once a nation that was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, Transylvania is the largest of ten provinces that make up the country of Romania. Many, if not most, Transylvanians are less than thrilled to be a part of Romania. That animosity is largely reciprocated. But that’s how things worked out in the geopolitical divisions that were created following World War I.

While they are a part of Romania, Transylvanians maintain a strong Hungarian ethnic identity including the use of language, dress, food and the arts. The country Hungary is the largest remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a referendum, about ten years ago, its citizens made clear that they didn’t want to incorporate Transylvania into their nationhood, as that might cause a glut on the Hungarian labor market. The rejection was something of a bitter pill for the Transylvanians to swallow.

My other question was theological. Our Unitarian Transylvanian partners scte the brotherhood and the teachings of Jesus as a central metaphor and symbol of their belief system. American Unitarian Universalists embrace the principle of freedom of conscience so adamantly that we are willing to consider the thought that the great mystery underlying this universe can as reasonably be thought of as God as it might be thought of as not God. Jesus is an important figure in that mix for many of us, but less so for many more of us. So, how is it that we can we say we are of the same faith tradition?

We have to look deeply in order to see the underpinnings of our common foundation. Listen again to these words, used earlier in our Responsive Reading, that were written by Francis Dávid, the preeminent clergy person when Unitarianism was born in Transylvania in 1568. If you must, please substitute the phrase not God for the word God, or use whatever word you might in reference to the mystery which is at the core of our being. I can find no better articulation of our common Unitarian heritage than these words: In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation
You need not think alike to love alike. (While this particular line is very often attributed
to Dávid, there is some debate as to its origin) There must be knowledge in faith also.
Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith…
The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.
Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice…
Salvation must be accomplished here on Earth...
Egy Az Isten. God is one. Do we believe exactly the same? We don't necessarily articulate our beliefs in the same way, but we do indeed share a theological emphasis in the application of reason, in the quest for truth and justice, in the primacy of conscience and in the practice of religious tolerance. We need not think alike to love alike! We are equally dedicated, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the same religious principles, principles that are particular to this faith tradition that we share.

And now a bit of history leading up to the Diet of Torda and the Edict of Toleration that came from it... Approaching the mid-sixteenth century, Transylvania was a border state between the Ottoman and the Roman empires. Over the years and depending on the realms in power, its national loyalties swung back and forth between the two empires. The pressures for her allegiance were great. Dr. Giorgio Biandrata, having escaped a slaughter of religious liberals in Poland, landed in Transylvania, where he established himself as the Royal Physician to Queen Isabella, who had been placed on the throne by the Ottoman sultan Suleyman. Her reign was that of caretaker until her son, John Sigismund, would be old enough to rule.

Sigismund and Isabella became greatly swayed by Biandrata’s anti-Trinitarian teachings. So was Francis Dávid. Together they created the foundations of the Unitarian Church for all of Transylvania. The local princes who were loyal to the Roman Church challenged this new religion. A Diet (or assembly) was convened, the Diet of Torda, where a great debate took place. Representatives of the Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran religions participated against Dávid, but they were no match for this leading scholar. Dávid argued:
God is only one, that Father from whom and by whom is everything… Outside of this God there is no other God, neither three, neither four, neither in substance, neither in persons, because the Scripture nowhere teaches anything about a triple God…
The debate was punctuated by occasional bursts of temper from all sides but it proceeded generally in good order. By the ninth day, the three more orthodox representatives asked that it cease, but the king insisted on continuing for a tenth day. He gave no decision, leaving that for the judges to determine at a later time. Nevertheless, it was conceded that Dávid had won.

The result of the debate was not that one of the four denominations was superior to the other three, but that religious freedom was to be the firm law of the land. In the subsequent Edict of Toleration, John Sigismund declared all four faith traditions to be valid and to have equal protection under the crown. (Source: "A Questing Pilgrim’s Progress," by Rev. Dr. Margaret K. Gooding, UUA)

Unfortunately, Sigismund died at a very early age just a few short years later. He was replaced by a cousin, Stephen Báthory, whose loyalty was to the Church of Rome. Stephen did everything within his power to rescind the Edict of Toleration. Failing that, he modified the edict to limit the theologies of the four accepted religions to what had been declared at the time of the Diet. Nothing new could be added to the written or the spoken word. This had little impact on the other three, but to the newly emerging Unitarian theology it was a death threat.

Francis Dávid was the ultimate theologian of the new faith community. There were now Unitarian churches throughout Transylvania and Dávid was their recognized leader. He was determined that the new religion would not be reduced by political interference. Freedom of conscience was an ideal of the highest order, and his would not be compromised. Neither would his preaching.

Giorgio Biandrata’s commitment and devotion to Unitarianism was no less. But because of Biandrata's earlier experiences in Poland, he knew that it was possible for the new religion to be completely eradicated. He pleaded with Dávid to bide his time, to work with what he already had, and not to risk further interference from the throne by violating the new conditions of the edict. He felt that in time the situation would ease, and then Unitarianism could move forward into its fullest potential.

A challenging and definitive chapter in our history followed. But that was the point of my sermon on Partner Church Sunday last year. (That sermon is available on the church website at: This year I want to hold up the edict itself, because I think there is a message that might be helpful during this time of division and uncertainty in our country, as well as in this time when you, the members of this church, are in search for a new minister. This edict, which is a relic of our past and a tie that binds us with our fellow Unitarians around the world, speaks to both of these issues today.

The edict is short and I'll read it for you now. There are actually three published translations of it. I've chosen the one most similar to language we might be accustomed to.
Translation II, from Transylvanian Unitarian Church, p. 52
Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, good: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any [one's] soul; but let each parish keep a minister whose teaching is acceptable to it. Let no superintendent or anyone else act violently or abusively to a preacher. No one may threaten another, on account of his teaching, with imprisonment or deprivation of office: for faith is a gift of God; it comes from listening, and listening is through God’s word.
The edict establishes religious tolerance in two ways, First, preachers are free, even encouraged, to speak the truth according to their conscience, and not according to anyone else's dictates. Second, congregations are responsible for obtaining and maintaining a preacher whose teachings are in sympathy with the congregation's. Freedom of conscience is for everyone, pulpit and pew alike. So then, how does Torda speak to us in the here and now?

On a congregational level, you are about to call a new minister to your pulpit and to the shared ministry of this church. Let me share some words with you that are similar to words spoken in most of our UU congregations at the time of installation of a new minister, words that will likely be similar to ones you may well share with your new minister sometime this coming autumn.

We gather today to install the Reverend Dorothea Emerson as the minister of our congregation and to re-dedicate ourselves to the values and ideals of this religious fellowship and the association of Unitarian Universalist congregations of which it is a member.

Dorothea, following the deliberations of our Ministerial Search Committee and a vote of the members of our congregation affirming their recommendation, we have chosen you as our minister. We have called you to live among us, to make our concerns your concerns, and to provide leadership in the maintaining and building of our religious community. We would have you speak your truth to us in freedom without fear or favor of persons or position, to minister to us alike in our joys and our sorrows, and to set forth, by word and deed, a rich life of the spirit.

With freedom comes responsibility. The declaration made in the Edict of Toleration that came from Torda, will be invigorated and claimed once again as you inaugurate your new ministry and reestablish your connection to the very roots of our beloved religious tradition. We are called by those early and shared roots to speak our truth with one another through love.

Religious tolerance and freedom of conscience are not private or even local matters, though. So, what might Torda mean for us now, as we seek our reckoning in the midst of our national political and moral upheavals? We are guided by the spirit of love in the application of reason, in our quest for truth and justice. No one's understanding of the truth should be a threat to anyone else's. You may well know that these values of religious freedom were written into the US Constitution by Unitarians Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Today, our religious values are once again being called upon in response to our national direction. I received an email over the weekend from First Unitarian member Marcia Lieberman. She forwarded a post from the New York Times to me. It read:
Friday, January 27, 2017 11:03 PM EST

President Trump on Friday closed the nation’s borders to refugees from around the world, ordering that families fleeing the slaughter in Syria be indefinitely blocked from entering the United States, and temporarily suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.

Declaring the measure part of an extreme vetting plan to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists,” Mr. Trump also established a religious test for refugees from Muslim nations: He ordered that Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims.
"Surely," Marcia added to her email, " Surely, Unitarian [Universalist]s cannot be silent about this.
I don't want to spend time parsing the language of President Trump's edict of in-toleration. Clearly this executive order is opposed to most of what our nation and our religious tradition have upheld as central over the centuries. Religious tests are intolerable! Religious preference is intolerable!

Yes, Marcia, you are right! Unitarian Universalists cannot be silent about this! The religious values of our tradition, from its inception, call upon us now, as much as ever, to promote the application of reason in the quest for truth and justice. Those values assure us of the primacy of conscience, and they do indeed implore us to practice religious tolerance. We have crossed the Rubicon into a national religious landscape that has great need for us to be true to the values of our tradition.
Religious toleration means that we allow, and even defend, freedom of conscience for others. It means that we have the courage to recognize that there are many valid manifestations of the religious impulse to find and make meaning in our lives. Are we willing to walk as kindred spirits with others who are seeking to achieve this balance? An opportunity to walk that talk this afternoon, I'm told, will take place from 1 to 3 o'clock at the Statehouse. Another opportunity will occur a week from tomorrow night when we will host a statewide interfaith meeting of congregations and organizations exploring the a pathway to the creation of Sanctuary locations throughout the community and state in order to protect individuals and families who may be put at risk by these insane policies.

Our Partner Church Program reminds us of values that are common to all of humanity. It's good to recognize and to celebrate our forebears who struggled to create a religious tradition in which we, here, find our religious home. Francis Dávid said, "Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice." It's good to know that we are supported in our challenges and in our struggles by the legacy of those who went before us, and in the company of our partners around the world.