Polish Protestants in Changing Times

Talking about Poland, the first question, that has to be answered is, what Poland actually is. There is probably no other country in Europe, which borders have changed so drastically over more than a millennium of its history. If you look at a plain map of Europe and draw in all the borders of Poland starting with the year 966 up to today you will probably be astonished by the result. Reaching from Meissen in the west till Smolensk and Poltava in the east and from today´s central part of Estonia to the Black Sea shore, including Moravia and today´s Slovakia. There were times of territorial power in Polish history and 123 years of absence on the maps. For that reason the Rzeczpospolita, uniting Polish, Lithuanian and Russian lands since the Union Treaty of Lublin from 1569, as the official name of the country should not be translated as Republic but more as Commonwealth – a community of people sharing aims and values.
Even when the official historiography puts the beginning of Christianity in Poland into the second half of the 10th century, the first signs of presence of Christian faith in the country are much older. Since the 9th century Lesser Poland with Cracow and also Silesia were parts of Great Moravia and a missionary field of byzantine, orthodox monks from Thessaloniki St. Cyril and Methodius. Also eastern parts of Polish lands were influenced by eastern Christianity at that time. The fall of greater Moravia and growth of the position of Greater Polish dynasty of Piasts made this chapter of the history forgotten.
It is Mieszko I, duke of Polans, who decided to make his country a part of western, Latin influenced Europe. An ambitious monarch and a good diplomat saw himself as a possible leader of Central-European Slaves. The problem was that the Markgrafs of Brandenburg were expanding towards east at that time. In 965, Mieszko married the Czech princes Dobrava. He and his court were being baptized in 966 and the duke invited Czech missionaries and bishops to organize the western Church in his country. The first missionary bishop Jordan worked in Poznań since 968 and in 999 pope Sylvester created an archdiocese in Gniezno (Greater Poland) with bishoprics in Cracow (Lesser Poland), Wrocław (Silesia) and Kołobrzeg (Pomerania). In 1025, Boleslaw the Brave became the first king of Poland.
The medieval history of Poland ruled by the Piast dynasty is very turbulent: marked by splitting, internal and external conflicts, invasions, but also by growth and modern open politics represented by the last of the Piast kings – Casmir the Great (1310/1333-1370).
Poland opened its borders for Jewish refugees from England, France, Czech and Germany already since the 11th century, but it was Casmir who granted Jews legal position and invited Italian, German, French and Dutch migrants to his country establishing more than 100 new towns and hundreds of villages. This made Poland probably the most liberal country in medieval Europe. In 1341, Casmir granted the orthodox the monophysitic Armenian Christians equal rights. Since the Union in Krewo signed the Polish-Lithuanian Monarchy in 1385 it was also a home of a Muslim community – the Tatars still living mostly in the north-eastern part of the country.
The spiritual and political atmosphere of Poland in the beginning of 16th century made it – together with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a good ground for the Reformation. The first worship services in the spirit of the Reformation took place in Silesia (which was at that time not a part of Poland) already in spring 1518; the same took place more to the east. Martin Luther`s Theses arrived also in the capital and university town of Cracow, but also in Toruń, Gdańsk, Poznań and others. They were also read by the Polish and Lithuanian nobility. Admittedly, king Sigismund the Old issued the Edict of Toruń in 1520 forbidding distributing Protestant texts, this and other royal edicts against the reforms were not able to stop the Reformation in Poland.
The nobility sent its sons to study abroad – also to Wittenberg and to other Protestant universities. In 1525, Albrecht Hohenzollern the nephew of Sigismund and the last Great Master of the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem became a Duke of Prussia – the first Protestant country in the world and a vassal of his uncle. At the same time, Königsberg/Królewiec with its university established in 1544 became one of the most living centres of Polish Reformation. The printers in Królewiec but also in the Silesian town of Brieg/Brzeg published Protestant books also in Polish. 1545 the Polish translation of the Small Catechism was published and 1552 Stanisław Murzynowski´s polish translation of the New Testament preceded by a treaty of the Polish orthography was printed. Following translations of the Bible into Polish were the Brest Bible 1563 and Gdansk Bible 1632.
Like in other European countries the Reformation in Poland was the factor for the development of language, literature, arts, schools and science but also democracy. This made Poland – connected by marriages with almost all royal families in Europe – one of the most important players on the political scene of the continent.
While the cities in the north-western part of the country (with Toruń, Elbląg and Gdańsk) were more influenced by Lutheran Reformation since the 1520s and 1530s, the Lesser-Polish and Lithuanian nobility was more open to the Swiss and Southern-German model of the Reformation. Since the 1520s but especially after 1548 Western-Polish towns became also a home of the refugees from the south – the Czech Brethren, who settled down in the southern part of Greater Poland with a centre in Leszno. The only region of Poland where Protestantism was not allowed at all since 1525 was Mazovia with its capital Warsaw. An important issue is also that with the exception of Silesia and the Duchy of Prussia the Reformation had never reached Polish peasants, who stayed Roman Catholic; except for in Silesia and Eastern Prussia the Protestant Church has never become a people`s Church. Poland never implemented the cuius regio eius religio rule.
Successor of Sigismund the Old is was his son – Sigismund Augustus – a tolerant and open minded king. 1555 the Polish nobility called the king at the Sejm in Piotrków Trybunalski to call a national council for creating a Polish national Church based on English pattern. They asked the king to call Philipp Melanchton, John Calvin and the Polish reformer Johannes a Lasco to implement the Reformation in the country. Unfortunately, the king – open for that idea of the nobility – surrendered pushed by the aristocracy and the papal nuntio cardinal Commendoni.
Already in 1564 in Braniewo in Warmia the Jesuits created they first college. Soon there were more than 50 of them in the whole country. The counterreformation in Poland had begun. 1577 the Synod in Piotrków accepted the documents of the Tridentinum.
Just before that, in 1570 representatives of Lutherans, Reformed and Czech Brethren came together in Sandomierz and called a joint synod. After a long discussion the synodals decided that each of the confessions kept its own dogmatic, liturgy, piety and confirmed a joint understanding of the Lord`s Supper based on the Lutheran theology. The Synod issued a joint confession of faith – the Confessio Sandomirensis. Even if the counterreformation was on the march the Protestants in Poland were still strong.
On July, 7 1572 Sigismund Augustus died without leaving a legitimate successor. The Jagiellonian Golden Age of the Rzeczpospolita – the Res Publica – the Commonwealth of the Both Nations, an age of peace and development ended.
The next kings of Poland were elected by the Sejm – the nobility of Poland and Lithuania. Before the first election Polish nobility created a significant document – the Confederation of Warsaw of 1573. This act granted the Christian inhabitants of the Rzeczpospolita of all denominations (excluding the so called Polish Brethren – the Unitarians) a unconditional and eternal religious peace. The noble people, the townsman and all free people had been granted a full equality in public and in private life. 2003 the text of the confederation, as one of world`s first human rights documents has been honored by UNESCO`s Memory of the World Program.
Poland was with local exceptions like 1526 in Gdansk or 1556 in Wieluń never a place of internal religious fights but it became a battlefield of international dynastic conflicts with religious background. The Polish Vasas Sigismund III and his sons Vladislaus IV and Jan Casimir, a former Jesuit and cardinal, who gave up his ecclesiastic career for the Polish crown but even as lay man remained a Jesuit had tried to get back the Swedish throne being in the hands of Lutheran Vasas. On the other hand, the Kings of Sweden of that time (Vasas and Wittelsbachs) were trying to extend their power in the Baltic Sea region and were protectors of Central-European Protestants involved in the 30-Years-War with the famous Gustav-Adolf Vasa.
The culmination of the conflict was the so called Swedish Flood of 1555-1560. One of the most important battles of that war was the siege of Częstochowa in November and December 1655. The Protestant Swedish soldiers were surrounding the Pauline Monastery at Clear Mountain where the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna was kept.
At the latest since that time Polish Protestants are standing on a curve of dilemma how to combine being Protestant Christians and being Poles – Polish patriots. But even more problematic is it to prove that to the Catholic society, for which a Protestant as well as an orthodox always is a stranger, an alien. This is the time when a stereotype was created: A Pole is a Roman Catholic. This is also a reason for Polish defeats in the east: Vladislaus IV asked by the Russian boyars to accept the crown of the tsar under a condition of becoming orthodox was forced by his father to reject the proposal, what moved the Russians away from the Poles forever. Religious background was also a reason for a turn east of the Cossacks finding their Ukrainian national and orthodox identity in the 17th century which was not acknowledged by the Polish aristocracy and the king.
There were many different reasons for the fall of the Reformation in Poland, but this Catholic-national idea was probably the strongest factor forcing that. This was also probably one of the strongest factors stimulating the fall of the Polish politics and democracy.
After the period of government of kings coming from the Polish aristocracy like Jan Sobieski, the winner of the battle at Vienna 1683 and the Saxon Wettines, who became Catholic to get the Polish crown, Rzeczpospolita slowly disappeared from the map of Europe and Polish and Lithuanian lands became parts of Russia, Prussia and Austria after the 3 partitions of the Republic of 1772, 1793 and 1795.
After the Napoleonic period and the Congress in Vienna a new time began for the Polish lands, especially under Prussian and Russian administration: the industrial era. Textile industry developed in the area of Łodź, coal mining started in Prussian Upper Silesia and in neighbouring Russian Zagłębie. This development attracted many people of different nations and denominations. Many of them were Protestants. A very interesting development can be observed in the Russian ruled Kingdom of Poland called also the Congress Kingdom or Congress Poland. Many settlers with German, Swiss, Dutch or French background, among them a lot of Protestants, received Polish (and not Russian) national orientation. They accepted the language, culture and lifestyle, but at the same time kept their denominational identity. Families like the chocolate makers Wedels, or Church and society leaders Bursches are good examples for that.
Together with those, who kept their faith since the Reformation they built new Protestant Churches – Lutheran and Reformed in the Congress Kingdom. At the same time Polish national thinking woke up among inhabitants of the Duchy of Cieszyn as well as in Eastern Prussia.
On November, 11 1918 Poland became an independent country again – a democratic republic fighting for its lands, borders but also for its joint identity. There were several Protestant Churches in the 2nd Rzeczpospolita: The Evangelical Reformed Church of the Warsaw Consistory and The Evangelical Reformed Church of the Vilnius Consistory. The Evangelical-United Church in Western Poland in Poznan and the Evangelical-United Church in Polish Upper Silesia in Katowice being successors of the Prussian Church. There is the Evangelical Church of Augsburg and Helvetic Confession in Lesser Poland – a successor model of the Austrian Church. There is also an Old Lutheran Church and the strongest Evangelical-Augsburg Church in Poland in former Russian part of the country and Polish part of Cieszyn Silesia (2/3 of that land with almost 50 thousand of Polish Lutherans became a part of Czechoslovakia).
According to the census of 1931 69% of the population were Poles, 14% Ukrainians, 9% Jews, 3% Belarusians, 2,3% Germans; 65% were Roman Catholics, 12% Orthodox, 10% Greek Catholics (Uniats), 10% Jews and 2,6% Protestants, that makes round 900 thousand people. Although the constitutions of Poland granted its citizens full religious freedom, the Roman Catholic Church became the privileged Church and all the state ceremonies received their religious, Catholic rite.
Worth to mention is here the person of Juliusz Bursche – the bishop of the Evangelical-Augsburg Church in Poland, who tried to raise the position of the Protestants in Poland by presenting them as Polish patriots. Unfortunately this caused also bad blood among the Protestants themselves – between those representing Polish and German orientation.
On September, 1 and 17 1939 The Third Reich and the Soviet Union attacked Poland. The World War II had started. Thousands became victims of nazi persecutions und died in the KZ`s. Thousands were disposed by the Soviets to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Those who survived joined the Polish army formed in Russia by general Władysław Anders, a Protestant, who led his army via Iran and Palestine to fight at the western front in Monte Cassino and other battle fields of the war.
On July, 22 1944 the communists proclaimed an independent Republic of Poland, but it was obvious that this would not be an independent country, but a vassal country of Stalin`s Russia. Poland lost a big part of its territory in the east and was moved more to the west. Official propaganda spoke about a return to the ancient lands of the Piasts. German inhabitants of Eastern Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia were forced to leave their land and even those, who wanted to stay like 250 thousand of Masurians, who identified themselves with Poland had to leave the country because of their Protestant faith. But German inhabitants of western Upper Silesia were allowed to stay because they were Catholic.
Between 1945 and 1990 thousands of Protestants left the country – most of them to Germany, but also to other countries like the USA or Canada. The Church in ruins, without clergy and properties tried to start its work from the very beginning after the war.
The communists in Poland were very nationalistic and their mentality was deeply defined by a Catholic way of thinking. In fact the Roman Catholic Church cooperated or operated freely and undisturbed taking over Protestant churches and other properties. Many of them were also taken over by the state. The aim of the Polish communists was to create a nationally homogeneous Polish country. This meant also that in 1968 thousand of Jews were thrown out of the country.
In 1980, Poles – encouraged by pope John Paul II – started a solidarity movement. The problem is that this movement was deeply connected with the Roman Catholic Church. Every demonstration started with a Holy Mass. This made many of the Protestants unsecure and they distanced from that movement because of a certain fear of how the further development was going to be. For that reason post-communists and liberal parties still always win in the Protestant fortes, which is the Cieszyn Silesia.
But of course the political change of 1989 brought also many positive developments for Protestant churches like the possibility to establish Protestant schools, to develop mission and evangelism, to establish diaconal work, to have Protestant chaplains return to the Polish Army, to set up mostly good relationships with local and countrywide politics.
Protestant Churches in Poland – the Lutherans (70.000), Reformed (4.000), Methodists (5.000) and the free Churches like Baptists and Pentecostals – have about 100 thousand members. There are different challenges of the time, which Polish Protestants have to face. The processes of secularization but also the fight for implementing ecumenical rules for marriage and the upbringing of children of religiously mixed couples. We still or even more now have to fight for our identity created now more and more by the Catholic fixed media and social media.
Last Year we celebrated 500 years of Reformation. This was a big event for us, even if some politicians in Poland, who did not study enough the history of their country, Europe and even their Church and don’t know the ideas of their last three popes have a different understanding of the reality. This anniversary made us in my opinion stronger and even more prepared for the future – prepared and open to changing times.