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Socinianism is the theology and the doctrines projected and drawn up by Laelius (Lelio) Socinus and in particular by his nephew Faustus Socinus, and taught in the Socinian or Polish Brethren Church. This theology is best known from the Racovian Catechism (first edition Polish 1605, then German 1608, Latin 1609, Dutch 1659; revised reprints Latin 1665, Dutch 1666). Socinian doctrine differs from the main Protestant theology, both Lutheran and Calvinist, by (a) its anti-Trinitarianism, (b) its rejection of the deity of Jesus Christ, (c) its rejection of the atonement by the blood of Christ (satisfaction), (d) its strong emphasis on the free will of man, his reasonableness and his natural knowledge of God. The center of Socinianism is its denial of the Trinity. This doctrine is rejected by arguments borrowed from the Scriptures (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 24:36; 27:46; Luke 18:19) and from the reason (ratio). There is but one divine Person, not three. Christ is not a person of the Trinity, but a human being, though His birth was supernatural and His resurrection a historical fact. He performed miracles, because God had given Him the ability to prove His godly mission in this way. Much stress is laid upon Christ as a moral teacher; as such, men should be His disciples and followers. Men are sinners, but have preserved liberty to choose the way of righteousness. The justification of man is principally an act of the grace of God. This is, however, to be understood in this way: Christ died for men, to awaken them from sin and (moral) death. Justification is not the direct result of Christ's atonement, but the indirect consequence of His death. The main doctrine of Protestantism, namely, justification by faith, is formally upheld, but essentially undermined by the concept that faith really means obedience to the commands of Christ. Of course it is admitted that man's human good works never are satisfactory, but God by His endless love and goodness attributes complete justification to those who earnestly strive to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord.

The church is a body of believers who are converted; in it strict discipline is to be exercised according to Matthew 18:15-17. Baptism and Communion are not mysteries with sacramental overtones, but merely acts of confession. Though infant baptism was not quite abolished in the Brethren church of Poland, it was not considered strictly necessary to their salvation and baptism (by immersion) was regularly administered to adults.

The Socinians were opposed to taking oaths for the same reasons as the Mennonites. One of their principles was also nonresistance; the members of the Brethren church did not take military service and also refused to take government offices.

These Socinian views have widely influenced modern thinking; their theological and philosophical principles are the common possession of the philosophies of the 18th century; Unitarianism has also borrowed much from Socinianism. Socinian doctrines are the backbone or at least the background of modern Liberalism. Yet there are striking differences between Socinianism and Liberalism (Modernism) in particular as compared with present American Modernism. Both Socinus and the Racovian Catechism as well as later Socinian theologians consciously built their dogma within the framework of the Scriptures; they accepted the Bible as the Word of God, His revelation, and did not yet apply subjective criticism, which is fundamental in modern Liberalism and Unitarianism. Moreover religion was limited to and identical with Christianity.

It cannot be denied that in the theological system of Socinianism there is a strong element of intellectual ambition and speculation, which often strains the very heart of religion. This was felt by Socinians themselves at times. The later revised editions of the Racovian Catechism (from 1665) are much less rationalistic and much more orthodox than the first editions; for example, in the 1609 Latin edition, the question why it was necessary that Christ suffer so much is answered, "Because all whom He might save are subjected to such a death and suffering," but in the 1665 Catechism is found the answer, "Christ by the will of God suffered for our sins, and resigned Himself to the shameful death as an expiatory sacrifice." Also in the writings of later Socinian theologians like Sandius (1644-1686), Jeremias Felbinger (1616-c1690), Daniel Zwicker (1612- ?), and Andreas Wiszowaty (1608-78) the accent is more that of evangelical piety. All these authors lived in the Netherlands and approached more or less the Remonstrant views.

Yet the strong emphasis in the Socinian writings put upon Christian morals as a fruit of conversion according to Matthew 7:17-23 was wholesome in a period in which the large Christian churches neglected the problem of Christian ethics and usually paid little attention to "good works."

The church of the Brethren in Poland contributed much to education and scholarship; its university at Rakow, Poland, was led by capable and learned professors, and students from every part of Europe attended its lectures in great numbers. There is an important body of literature by Socinian scholars. Among these scholars should be mentioned besides Faustus Socinus: Christoph Ostorodt ( died 1611), the author of popular theological books, the medical professor Ernst Soner (died 1612), the systematic theologian and philosopher Johannes Völkel (died 1618), the polemist Valentinus Smalcius (Schmalz, died 1622), Johannes Crell (Crellius) (died 1631), the author of dogmatic and ethical writings, the Bible exegete Johann Ludwig von Wolzogen (died 1661), the apologist Jonas Schlichting (died 1661), the Prussian statesman Samuel Przypkowski (died 1670), Andreas Wiszowaty (died 1678), the historian, theologian, and editor of the well-known Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum (1656 ff., 8 vv.), and his son Benedictes Wiszowaty, the historian and man of letters Christophorus Sandius (died 1686), particularly known as the editor of Bibliotheca Anti-trinitariorum (1684).

There were about 300 Polish Brethren congregations. In 1603-1637 an annual synod of delegates was held at Rakow. Until 1638 the Brethren church could meet undisturbed, protected by independent and liberal noblemen. In this year, however, through the machinations of the Jesuits, the parliament of Poland resolved to stop Socinian education by closing the Rakow University and even demolishing its buildings. Also their printing shop was closed. From then the suppression of the Brethren church began. A number of its preachers were banished from the country; others voluntarily went into exile. The congregations only secretly and with great danger could meet for worship. This too came to an end in 1658. Then the parliament forbade the Socinian confession on pain of death. Only those who were willing to embrace the Roman Catholic creed were allowed to remain in the country. Thereupon most of them left Poland, emigrating to adjacent countries like Hungary (Transylvania) and Germany (predominantly to Silesia, but also to Prussia), but also England, where they in spite of much interference prepared the way for an important Unitarian movement, at the same time feeding the 18th-century philosophy of Deism, whereas the Netherlands also gave shelter to the expelled Brethren. The elector of the Palatinate, Germany, permitted them in 1663 to settle at Mannheim, but by 1666 they were forced to leave the country. It was particularly in the Netherlands that most of its scholars and theologians settled. -- vdZ

Socinianism in the Netherlands: Polish Brethren in the Netherlands

Soon after Socinianism had risen in Poland two of its representatives, namely, the preacher Christoph Ostorodt and Voydovsky, a nobleman, visited the Netherlands in order to look after some Polish students at the University of Leiden, and probably also to make contacts with Dutch theologians. They arrived at Amsterdam in August 1598; soon their books were confiscated and in October of the same year they were banished from the country, though they did not leave until 1599. During their stay at Amsterdam they met the Mennonite elder Pieter Jansz Twisck, and visited Hans de Ries, the elder of the Waterlanders at Alkmaar. In the course of time some other missionaries from Poland clandestinely stayed in the Netherlands, but they apparently had little success at that time in spreading their doctrines in this country. There was a rather large increase of Socinians when their seminary at Rakov was closed in 1638 by the Polish government. Some of their scholars settled at Amsterdam, and often had their books printed there. Their ideas (see Socinianism) found acceptance with some circles of the Collegiants, some of whom—Camphuyzen, Joachim Oudaen, Adam Boreel, Daniel de Breen, Joan Hartigveldt, Frans Kuyper, and more or less Johannes Bredenburg—appropriated Socinian ideas; the Socinian practice of baptism by immersion became common among the Collegiants. Among the Mennonites too they had some influence (see II), Also a few Remonstrants were accessible for Socinian concepts, though later on (from about 1650) Socinian theologians, such as Wiszowaty and Sandius, learned more from the Remonstrants than the Remonstrants did from the Socinians. Samuel Crell (1660-1747), a grandson of the early Socinian professor of Rakov, Johannes Crell, was trained for the ministry at the Remonstrant seminary at Amsterdam, and after having served as a minister of a Socinian congregation near Berlin, Germany, returned to Amsterdam in 1727.

From the very beginning Calvinism vigorously fought Socinianism. Repeatedly Calvinist synods expressed their deep horror of "Socinian errors," and "Socinianism" became for more than a century and a half the epitheton of heresy in general, as "Lutheranism" had been a common name for all kinds of deviation from Roman Catholicism in the early 16th century. Calvinist polemicists for more than a hundred years wrote thorough refutations of Socinian doctrines. The Calvinist preachers and synods induced the Dutch government to issue numerous mandates particularly from 1639, forbidding their teaching and the printing and sale of their books in 1651,1654,1659,1662 (Friesland), 1674, 1685 (Friesland). Yet Socinians could live in the Netherlands rather freely; for example, Andreas Wiszowaty (born 1608 in Poland, died 1678 at Amsterdam), a grandson of Faustus Socinus and editor of the revised Racovian Catechism (1665), who lived in Amsterdam from 1666 until his death, and Christophorus Sandius (born 1644 at Königsberg, Prussia, died 1686 at Amsterdam), who lived at Amsterdam 1668-80, where he had his Bibliotheca Anti-trinitariorum printed (1684). Numerous other Socinian books were printed at Amsterdam, though rather secretly. The places of publication named in the books, Irenopolis, Eleutheropolis, Freistadt, Stauropolis, all mean Amsterdam. The most important of these publications was Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum (8 vv. from 1656), edited by Wiszowaty, containing the theological, ethical, and philosophical writings of Faustus Socinus, Johannes Crell, and other Socinian leaders. Socinian books were secretly sold in the noted Mennonite bookshop of Jacob Aertsz Calom.

During the 18th century Socinianism in the Netherlands disappeared from the scene, but left a distinct trace in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and in the theology of the non-Calvinist churches and groups, such as Remonstrants, Mennonites, and Collegiants.

Socinianism Among the Mennonites

Socinianism undoubtedly had some attractions for Dutch Mennonites: its emphasis on practical Christianity and Christian morals was in the spirit of Mennonites, and they liked the Socinian doctrine of the freedom of the will. Moreover their practice of adult baptism, nonresistance, nonswearing of oaths, and their reluctance or even refusal to accept government offices—none of which were found in the surrounding Christian churches—deeply impressed the Mennonites. Though the conservatives like the Zonists and the "fijne Menisten" all rejected Socinianism because they wanted to hold Trinitarianism and the deity and satisfaction of Christ, the more progressive groups, the Waterlanders and particularly the Flemish and later the Lamists, were in sympathy with some (not all) of the Socinian doctrines. They usually did not adopt the Socinian anti-Trinitarian views; they mostly did not deny the deity of Christ, though they emphasized His commandments as the Polish Brethren did. And as to the doctrine of satisfaction (atonement by the blood of Christ), which dogma was rejected by the Socinians, this doctrine was not expressly denied by the progressive Mennonites, even not by Galenus Abrahamsz, but the idea that "good works" are necessary to obtain the grace of God largely undermined the strictness of the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ. As a whole, Socinianism was never accepted by the Mennonites, probably partly because they wished to avoid the punishments threatened by the mandates issued by the government against those "who were infected with the errors of Socinus"; but mainly for these two reasons: (a) The Mennonites did not want and did not like to have a theological system of any kind; Socinianism was a system, a dogmatic creed, and Mennonite spiritualism "conflicted with every kind of dogmatic theology; (b) Socinianism, being largely intellectual and rationalistic, generally lacks the real piety and devoutness so much honored by the Mennonites. Granting these facts, Joh. Hoornbeek's statement in Summa Controversiarum (1650) can be admitted: Anabaptista indoctus Socinianus, Socinianus autem doctus Anabaptista (A Mennonite is an unlearned Socinian; a Socinian, however, is a learned Mennonite). This, of course, concerned only the more progressive liberal Mennonites.

The first Polish Brethren leaders who visited the Netherlands in 1598, Ostorodt and Voydovsky, made contact with some Mennonite leaders; for example, Hans de Ries, Pieter Jansz Twisck, and probably also Jaques Outerman. Twisck at once and completely rejected their teachings; de Ries, though politely and discreetly, rejected them too; only Outerman (according to Kühler's view) was open at least to some aspects of Socinianism. Charged with Socinianism by the Reformed synod in 1625, he was compelled by the magistrates to write a confession of faith, in which he formally repudiated Socinian concepts. Shortly after 1610 Jan Gerrits van Emden, the elder of the Waterlander (also called Frisian) congregation of Danzig, Prussia, requested the aid of his Dutch brethren, for example, Hans de Ries and Leenaerdt Clock, to help them resist the advances of the Socinians, who wanted to merge their congregations in Danzig and elsewhere with those of the Mennonites (see Moscorovius and Smalcius). A married couple (according to Jan Gerrits) had already left the Mennonites to join the Socinians at Danzig; it was probably Matthis Radeken, who after joining the Polish Brethren, promoted the union. The Danzig Waterlander church and the neighboring churches, however, were not in favor of this attempt and finally retired from Socinian obtrusiveness. About 1625 a serious dissension arose in the Amsterdam Waterlander congregation, in which Nittert Obbesz opposed the other preachers of this church. Hans de Ries clearly pointed out that the teachings of Obbesz, so different from those of the other preachers, had their roots in Socinianism. In 1663 Galenus Abrahamsz, accused by his Mennonite opponents of teaching Socinian views as early as 1655, was summoned by the Reformed Church Board at Amsterdam to answer to the Court of Holland; but the Court declared him to be a "good Mennonite." Yet Galenus, who at this time had many contacts with the Amsterdam Collegiants, among whom Socinianism found a rather favorable reception, may in some respects have been influenced by Socinian doctrines. His statement in opposing his co-preacher Samuel Apostool that the doctrine of satisfaction as taught by Apostool was dangerous for a sound moral life, in any case smacks of Socinianism. Foecke Floris was imprisoned at Leeuwarden in 1687 by order of the government of Friesland, on a charge of having taught the doctrines of Socinus. Jan Klaasz van Grouw openly avowed about 1700 that he was a Socinian; others, though usually with more caution, admitted their sympathy with Socinian ideas. The notorious mandate against Socinians, Quakers, and Dompelaars issued in 1662 by the States of Friesland and repeated in 1678 was sometimes used against the Mennonites. Jan Thomas, a preacher of Knijpe, Friesland, was suspended in 1719 because of Socinianism, and nineteen years later three other preachers, Wytze Jeens (Brouwer), Pieke Tjommes, and Wybe Pieters (Zeeman), were suspended for the same reason. Johannes Stinstra, the noted preacher of Harlingen, was also charged with Socinianism, but unjustly, and was suspended from his office by the States of Friesland in 1742; he was not allowed to preach again until 1757. In 1771 the Reformed Church in Friesland was still exhorting its synods "to guard against and oppose the pernicious doctrine of Socinus among the Mennonites." Outside the province of Friesland the magistrates were apparently more tolerant from about 1650. Only in Deventer, province of Overijssel, Abraham Willemsz Cremer and his colleague Jan Lambertsz ten Cate had some difficulty with the magistrates in 1669-1670 concerning supposed Socinian teachings. In the province of Zeeland there were also some difficulties. Adriaan van Eeghem of Middelburg was summoned before the city magistrates in 1665 and suspended for a time; in the same town Gerardus de Wind, a preacher of the same congregation, had to answer for his "Socinianism" in 1726-1728. Twelve questions drawn up by the Reformed minister Cornelis Gentman (see Geuzenvragen) were used as a basis for the questioning of the Mennonite preachers.

The conservative Zonists not only repudiated Socinianism, but also attacked the Lamists, censuring their sympathy with Socinianism. Lambert Bidloo did so, bitterly, in Onbepaalde Verdraagzaamheyd de Verwoesting der Doopsgezinden (1701), and Douwe Feddriks in Mennonitische Onderzoek op de Korte Grondstellingen . . . (1700), mildly and cautiously Herman Schijn did so in Onderzoek op de Rynsburgsche verdraagzaamheid (1703) and Ontwerp tot Vereeniging (1723), one-sidedly and rudely J. Rijsdijk did so against Eppo Botterman in Verdediging van de Regtzinnigheid der ware Mennoniten (1729) and Zedige Aanmerkingen (1735). Besides these, attacks on true or putative Socinianism among the Dutch Mennonites are numerous in (mostly anonymous) pamphlets published by Mennonites, like Jan Theunis Der Hanssijtsch' Mennoniten Socinianismus (1627) against Hans de Ries, and Commonitio (1655), Sociniaense Hooftpyn (circa 1600), and Theodorus van der Meer, Het Gekraay van een Sociniaanse Haan, onder Doopsgezinde Vederen (1663), all against Galenus Abrahamsz during the “Lammerenkrijgh.” The "Socinian" Mennonites were moreover heatedly attacked in a number of books by Calvinist authors like J. Hoornbeek, J. van den Honert, and D. Gerdes. -- vdZ

Socinian (Polish Brethren) Relations with the Hutterites

Since the Polish Brethren practiced adult baptism and favored a communal form of living, as the Racovian catechism of 1605 expressly indicates, it was but natural that these Brethren wanted to study the communal way of life in the concrete, in particular the Hutterite way in Moravia. Polish Brethren made at least four extended visits to Moravia in the 16th and early 17th centuries. In one case several young Poles spent a year on a Bruderhof as apprentices, in order to report their experiences later to their church at home. But in spite of friendly words no real rapprochement was possible, due to basic differences in genius and in their understanding of the Scriptures. Stanislaus Kot of Paris has recently published a Polish Brethren document of 1570, which gives a rather unfriendly picture of the Moravian Bruderhofs. At about the same time the Hutterite Chronicle includes the correspondence of the Vorsteher Peter Walpot with the Polish elder Simon Ronemberg, apothecary in Cracow (English translation in Mennonite Quarterly Review for 1945).

Other contacts between the Polish Brethren and the Anabaptists and Mennonites are connected with the name of Christoph Ostorodt, a Unitarian minister in Poland before and after 1600. He had tried very hard to establish contacts both in Germany and Holland with the Anabaptists, trying even to convert them to his way; but this endeavor ended with totally negative results. It was not until the later 17th century, when the Polish Brethren were expelled from their home country and were thereupon kindly received in the Netherlands, that closer ties developed between them and Mennonites (see Socinianism in the Netherlands, Ostorodt).

A truly rare case was that of Dr. Daniel Zwicker , a physician and Polish Brother, in Danzig, circa 1650. He had met some Hutterite missionaries from Slovakia, liked their way of life, visited the Bruderhofs in Slovakia which were under Andreas Ehrenpreis, and was so well pleased that he joined the Hutterite brotherhood. With certain mental reservations on both sides he was accepted. But soon he left again for Danzig, only to drift away from all religion. There are also epistles by Ehrenpreis to a Hans Martin and a Jost von Stein, both of Danzig, German-speaking "Polish Brethren." For the interesting exchange of letters, 1591-1592, between Ostorodt and the Strasbourg Swiss Brethren, see Strasbourg Conferences. -- RF


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Author(s) Nanne van der Zijpp
Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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Zijpp, Nanne van der and Robert Friedmann. "Socinianism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 24 Jun 2024.

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Zijpp, Nanne van der and Robert Friedmann. (1959). Socinianism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 565-569. All rights reserved.

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