The Protestant Reformation as a whole tells a compelling story, with many intricate twists and turns. With the established goals of purifying the way people practiced Christianity, the movement and subsequent counter-movements by the Catholic Church grasped Europe in the 15th century. Many people know the stories and successes of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, Germany, England, and other portions of Western Europe. Lesser known is the story of Poland. Poland’s narrative of religious reform is as peaceful as any, but equally gripping as any other nation’s saga.
The Polish Protestant Reformation was never as successful as in other countries, due to a few key factors. This essay explains the context in which the Protestant Reformation attempted to gain a foothold, its limited success, reasons for subsequent failure, the Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church, and both movements lasting legacy in Poland and Europe as a whole. In order to fully understand Poland’s tale, it is important to understand the context and culture of Poland when the Reformation movement first attempted to break its way in the state.
In the late 15th – early 16th century, Poland was a place of religious toleration. Hussites coexisted peacefully with an Islamic Tatar population, both minorities to the overwhelming majority of Catholics. (Reformation in Eastern Europe 1) King Sigismund I, a devout Catholic, was the monarch of Poland, the Polish Parliament (Sjem) was successfully operating in coordination with the King, and the regions of Poland and Lithuania – which were overseen by the same government- were flourishing.
The Protestant Reformation was burning like a wildfire in the mid-1500s in some parts of the European continent, but it Poland the stage was just being set. In 1520, King Sigismund had banned the possession and sale of Lutheran materials (Frick). This was an unusual development for the Polish country, as it had previously been seen as one of the more tolerant states. One would guess that as a devout Catholic, King Sigismund I felt threatened or turned off on behalf of his countries for such radical materials. As the years progressed, differing factions of Protestantism had begun to filter into Poland.
The Academy of Cracow slowly, but surely morphed into the “Cradle of the Polish Reformation. ” (Reformation in Eastern Europe 1) While Poland was infinitely more tolerant of the Reformation movement than France or Spain, the operations of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anti-Trinitarians were mostly carried out overtly as King Sigismund I was still not super receptive to religious reform. (Frick) When King Sigismund I passed away, King Sigismund II Augustus took over the throne of Poland in 1548. With the switch in monarchs, a switch in attitude toward the Reformation followed.
King Sigismund II Augustus was a close friend of John Calvin – who dedicated a commentary on a Biblical book to the King- and Philipp Melanchthon. (Frick) With the change in paradigm towards the movements, Protestantism started to flourish outside of the Cracow Academy and a few other universities. As the numbers joining in the movement continued to rise, the sub movements – Calvinism, Lutheranism, followers of Zwingli, and the Anti-Trinitarians – grew at different rates. Calvinism was the most popular, due largely to King Sigismund II Augustus’ friendship and affiliation with John Calvin and the Polish people’s growing distaste for Germans. Reformation in Eastern Europe 2) These movements (or collective movement) transformed from secretive, covert efforts intro a systematized, overt system of belief. (Frick) Churches were erected, public service efforts were coordinated, and worship was conducted with government acceptance and support. Conversions from Catholicism were definitively happening, but limited in the scope of people they were reaching. A large majority of the converts were political office holders and nobility. (Reformation in Eastern Europe 1) This is seen as a consequence of King Sigismund II Augustus openly supporting Calvin and his movements.
It is probable that many of these converts attempted to use the new found religion as a political tool, with varying degrees of success. Later along in the 16th century, the Reformed Church of Poland began to take shape. It was largely consisted of members from the Lutheran and Calvinists sects, as they had previously signed the Concord of Sandomir (a treaty which joined the Calvinists and Lutherans as one Church) – boycotted by the Anti-Trinitarians. (Frick) It had a Presbyterian governing structure, with its theological foundation built on the ideas of Calvin and Zwingli. Reformation in Eastern Europe 2) This Church endured moderate growth until the year 1580 or so. In the year 1573, the Confederation of Warsaw was signed. This document, according to some, started to signal the decline of the already struggling Polish Protestant Reformation movement. (Frick) The document was enacted after the death of King Sigismund II Augustus’ death, and all future kings were going to be forced to sign it. (Frick) The Calvinists and Lutherans both signed this treatise, but the Anti-Trinitarians did not, similar to the Concord of Sandomir and further showing signs of fragmentation.
The Confederation of Warsaw ensured mutual toleration by all belief systems and was supposed to protect the safety and right to practice religion among all groups. (Frick) By signing this, many agree that this was eventually the long term death sentence of the Polish Protestant Reformation movement. As I have said, the movement eventually turned out to be a failure and this section elaborates on that statement and explains the logic behind it. When I say the Protestant Reformation movement failed in Poland, I don’t mean that the movement made no inroads or had no lasting impact.
The movement also didn’t have an abrupt capitulation or one occurrence that shifted the fortunes of the Reformed Church from good to bad. The failure of this movement was a slow, peaceful, and predictable fizzling out. The main factors, according to the Frick are: fragmentation, weakness of cities, no attractive school building, it was largely an “affair for the nobles”, Sigismund III would only appoint Catholics to office, and the Counter Reformation movement by the Catholic Church in Poland. Frick) First, and already l discussed this in detail, the movements were largely separated from one another (until the Concord of Sandomir, but even that drove a further wedge between the Lutheran-Calvinist groups and the Anti-Trinitarians). When facing and trying to break away from a force as organized and powerful as the Catholic Church, it would have been in the Reformers best interest to settle their differences and work together. In the Counter Reformation movement, as I will point out later in this essay, the Catholics had strong leadership and made a strong, united push against the Reformers.
Another downfall that has been identified in the Polish Reformation movement is the segment of the population who it most appealed to. The common Polish man would have more than likely not joined in the Reformation movement for several reasons. First, it was initially spread the universities. The average man would not have gone to university in Poland, and never would have heard the ideas of the Reformation under King Sigismund I, as he outlawed the materials that would have allowed the poorer people of the nation to hear about the movement.
As the movement spread, the poor people of the country still did join the Reformation for several reasons. One, there was a sense of growing distaste for Germans among the Polish, which would have greatly limited their capacity to be influenced by German ideas. (Frick) Two, the relations between the nobility/government of Poland and its people were generally seen as agreeable, but there were some instances of civil unrests. (Reformation in Eastern Europe 1) The poor could use holding on to Catholicism as a sense of rebellion against those who ruled them.
I would argue that the Counter Reformation movement in Poland was more important to history and the Reformation movement as a whole as it was the one which provided the most serious and lasting legacy across Europe. In order to understand the Counter Reformation movement in Poland, it is essential to provide some information about the man behind it. Stanislaus Hosius came from the influential city of Cracow, and was born on May 5th 1505. Hosius quickly ascended through the ranks of the Catholic Church, eventually earning the title of Bishop.
Eventually he rose to the head and most respected bishop in all of Poland. (Contemporaries of Erasmus 206) Having the foresight to see the coming challenge from the Reformation movement, Hosius asked all the bishops in Poland to take a statement of faith that he wrote up at the Piotrkow. The statement of faith mirrored something that could be identified with Erasmus, as the bishop was a well know follower of Erasmus. (Contemporaries of Erasmus 205) With Rome acknowledging the bishop that it had on its hands, Pope Pius IV asked Hosius to precede over the Council of Trent for several years. Contemporaries of Erasmus 207) Upon his return to Poland, he along with several others, essentially declared war on the Polish Protestant Reformation movement. In 1963, he founded the first of several Jesuit schools. His lasting legacy was that he is seen as the organizer of the Polish Counter Reformation movement, and provided a model for the Catholic Church to work with going forward. (Contemporaries of Erasmus 208) The Counter Reformation movement was aided by failures of the Protestant Reformation, but the force put together by the Catholics was undeniably formidable.
The Catholic Church put together an attack strategy that pounced on the collective failures of the Protestants. The Catholics worked together as a unified unit, making a collective push to argue and debate Protestants, appeal to the common workers, found schools, encouraging reconversions, and using government influence. (Frick) After Sigismund II Augustus’ death, the Catholic Church was able to help install a Catholic king, King Sigismund III.
This was crucial because it created a fertile ground for the Counter Reformation movement to take hold. In order or either the Reformation or Counter Reformation movement to take hold of a country, it had to ally itself with a nation state’s identity. Hosius and the Church were able to identify the Catholic system of belief with the identity of the Polish people. By framing Protestantism as a religion for the nobility and pompous, the Counter Reformation movement identified itself with the people of Poland, giving them the chance to feel relevant, important, and useful. Hosius also went to work doing things that the Reformed Church of Poland simply wasn’t able to.
By building and staffing Jesuit schools in the area, the Catholic Church inserted itself into the minds of young people. I had previously mentioned that one of the failures of the Protestant Reformation movement in Poland was its inability to build respectable schools, and the Catholics were well aware of this at the time. This opportunity was too good to pass up for those in leadership positions in the Counter Reformation. Securing quality education for young adults help cement in several generations the types of opportunities that being Catholic could provide.
The Catholics successfully positioned themselves to have the brightest and best that Poland had to offer on their side. These students would go on to debate Protestants, serve in the government, and generally help restore credibility to the Catholic name. (Frick) The importance of these two movements is simple and obvious. The Reformation Movement in Poland showed the flaws of the movement across Europe. In other nations, the movement had gained enough traction with the general population to overcome these flaws or was well-funded enough to not repeat some of the mistakes the Polish Protestants made.
By the year 1627, there were no longer any Protestant churches in urban centers in Poland, which shows how effective the Catholic counter push really was. (Frick) The Catholics provided themselves with a blueprint moving forward to attempt to combat the wave of Reformation sweeping over Europe. By doing things for the people (building schools, appealing to the common man, etc… ) the Catholic Church was able to almost completely eradicate Protestantism from a nation.
The outstanding success of the Catholic Counter Reformation movement, however, is the longevity in which Catholicism has stayed the dominant religion in the country. George Mason University’s study on the fall of communism states, “Poland is, at first glance, one of the most religiously homogeneous countries on earth. Almost all Polish children (99%) are baptized into the Roman Catholic Church; 93% of all marriages are accompanied by a church wedding; and depending on how you formulate the question, between 90% and 98% of the population will answer “Roman Catholic” when asked about their religion. (GMU)
The Catholic Church has long since been the dominant force (aside from Communism for a period in the 20th century, but that was not by choice) in the nation of Poland. (GMU) This was especially solidified by the election of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland. The Polish people took great pride in their Catholic heritage, which traces back to the most successful non-violent Counter Reformation movement. In summary, the story of the Polish Protestant Reformation is almost a non-story due to the success of the Catholic Counter Reformation, but its value is in the lessons that both sides learned from the experienced.
The Reformation movement learned that allying itself with a state’s identity is crucial for success, without it reforming people most deeply seeded beliefs are next to impossible. Also, organization and planning are important for long term success and captivating people. Martin Luther famously hated the Epistle of James for its line, “Faith without works is dead. ” Reformers found out the hard way that the phrase, as it applies to the Reformation Movement, should have said “A reformed church without public works is dead.
Catholicism utilized the inability of the Polish reformers to build infrastructure and gather support to reconvert members who had left the Catholic Church. The lessons learned by the Catholic Church for future Counter Reformation pushes were: reform itself to be less corrupt, use the organization and power of the Church structure and funding to do things Protestants couldn’t, and have a central, respected leader from the area in which they are trying to make a push. Both sides took the lessons learned here as a guide, ultimately aiding both sides’ efforts for change in the long haul.