Religious freedom edict from centuries ago resonate today

Elizabeth Greene
Elizabeth Greene Idaho Statesman

We Unitarian Universalists are celebrating the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda, a proclamation of religious freedom issued in 1568 in Transylvania, the lovely northwest corner of Romania. (No vampires in this story.) The Edict is at the root of our heritage, and we cherish it.

It seems that in those days people just loved to attend theological debates, and would spend days at such assemblies, called “Diets.” (Sixteenth-century binge-watching?) This one, the Diet of Torda, was held in the court of young King John Sigismund, an ethnic Hungarian. What was at stake was a question with profound implications for people’s lives: what should be the official, court-sanctioned, religion of Transylvania?

This was an age in Europe in which the Inquisition flourished, when heretics were tortured and burned, when Luther spoke of letting heads roll in the streets, and when one massacre wiped out 30,000 Protestants in France.

The Unitarian minister, Francis David (also Hungarian), made the radical argument that people should be free to choose the faith that speaks to them, and that no one should be persecuted by the government for their faith. The Lutheran, Calvinist and Catholic clergy made raging cases that their faith was the one true one, and that everyone should be required by the crown to follow it, or suffer the consequences.

David was eloquent in his preaching and disputation. King John was convinced by the Unitarian argument for freedom of religious faith and practice. He issued the Edict, foreshadowing Unitarian Universalism to come centuries later:

“Preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere, each according to his own understanding of it. If the community wish to accept such preaching, well and good; if not, they shall not be compelled, but shall be allowed to keep the preachers they prefer. No one shall be made to suffer on account of his religion, since faith is the gift of God.”

What a concept. What an affirmation of the dignity of worshiping communities. What a humble acceptance that the Holy is genuinely mysterious, and that it is felt and perceived and worshiped in different ways by different human beings.

Unfortunately, King Sigismund died a very few years after the Edict of Tolerance was enacted, and Europe generally fell into the religious intolerance, persecution and fighting going on all over Europe. We current-day Unitarian Universalists celebrate the brave and perseverant Hungarian/Transylvanian Unitarians who have practiced their faith all these centuries, through all kinds of oppressions — including the 20th-century Romanian Communist regime, which sought to wipe out our religion. Many American UU congregations — including Boise — have a partner church in Transylvania, so the bonds of religious freedom are strengthened across the world. (The Boise UU choir is touring Transylvania this June, celebrating 450 years of affirming religious freedom, and partnership across boundaries.)

We celebrate them, and we seek to practice the principles of the Edict of Torda. We continue to hold that faith does not rely on outside authority, but on each person’s experience of the Sacred, the Holy. We honor our clergy’s right to speak their minds, and our congregations to do likewise. We do our very best to respect all faiths, knowing that the Sacred dwells in all, and is expressed in many ways. We are grateful to our ancestors.

[Boise UU Gwyn Reid contributed much of the research informing this column. Thanks, Gwyn.]

Rev. Elizabeth Greene is Minister Emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.