Socinianism: Unitarianism in 16th-17th Century Poland and Its Influence

Key dates

1539 - Faustus Socinus (Fausto Sozzini) b. in Siena (in Italy)

1542 - Catholic Inquisition begins.

1552 - Faustus publishes first book, declaring Jesus divine but not God

1553 - Michael Servetus, unitarian theologian, burnt at stake by John Calvin in Geneva

1552-64 - Faustus spends 12 years as secretary to the sister of the Duke of Florence.

1579 - Faustus moves to Poland

1585-1638 - Most brilliant period of Socinian movement, centered in Racow, Poland

around 1600 - Death of Faustus

1660 - Socinians expelled from Poland by hostile Catholic king John Casimir

Late 17th century - Socinians influential in Netherlands and England, where, among other things, they inspires the development of Deism (a view more radical, because less tied to Scripture, than Socinianism)

Late 18th century - Joseph Priestley brings Socinian unitarianism to the United States, where it becomes a major strand in early 19th century American unitarianism

Some Notes Toward a History of Socinianism

Laelius Socinus was a renowned Italian writer and theologian of the early sixteenth century who was friends with most of the Protestant leaders of the time.

His nephew Faustus Socinus was born in Siena, Italy, in 1539. Faustus aspired to follow in his uncles footsteps, but because the liberal attitude of the Renaissance had begun to give way to the repression of the Counter-Reformation, Faustus wrote his books anonymously. In his anonymous first book (1552) he declared Jesus divine but not God. Following this he spent twelve years in the court of Florence as secretary to the Duke's sister. He left in about 1564 so the Duke's family wouldn't be tainted by their association with a heretic. As long as he wrote anonymously, the Duke continued to support him financially.

He moved to Poland about 1579 and remained there until he died more than two decades later. At this time Poland and Transylvania were the safest places in Europe for religious reformers. Socinus became the leader of the Anti-Trinitarians who as a result became known as Socinians, but also occasionally as the Racovians because their greatest center was in Racow. The Polish Reformation was remarkable because during this period heretics were being tortured and killed all over Western Europe from Spain to Germany, Denmark and England.

The most brilliant period of the Socinian movement in Poland was 1585-1638. At the height of the movement there were 300 Socinian churches. The Socinian academy at Racow in Poland once numbered over a thousand students. Its press published theological works read in many languages and countries. The movement spread to the Netherlands and eventually to England from which it gradually made its way to the United States (primarily through Joseph Priestley) and became a strand in early American unitarianism.

The Socinian movement was crushed in Poland in 1660 but many Socinians moved to the Netherlands. From here they influenced the development of the Western enlightenment that was just beginning.

Faustus Socinus and his followers held that

1) All religious authority depends on applying reason to Scripture

2) The doctrine of the Trinity is false because there is no Scriptural evidence for it

3) The ethical teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, are the main guide, not the words of Paul

4) Jesus was human, though an exceptional human; though not God, he was endowed with divine attributes of wisdom and virtue.

5) The resurrection was significant because it demonstrated the possibility of immortality

6) Jesus' death was not an atonement for our sins nor did God demand that someone suffer for our sins.

7) The following doctrines are false: original sin, predestination of the elect, the inherent depravity of human beings, and eternal damnation

8) We can have faith in the good and loving nature of God

9) Though well aware of how sinful human beings can be and often are, we can have faith in the human capacity for reason and goodness.

10) Religious thought should be free, and all creeds should be tolerated.

Protestant and Catholic leaders reacted by terming (10) "that Socinian dogma, the most dangerous of the dogmas of the Socinian sect."

There was a strong social justice commitment among the Socinians. They spoke out against the enserfment of the peasantry and were the first Christians to advocate separation of Church and state. Early on they seem to have been pacifists and opposed to participation in public and judicial office, but they gradually adopted a more moderate position advocating mutual love, support of the state's secular power, active participation in social and political life and defense of social equality. (Hillar, p. 1)

The Socinians' defense of religious toleration and freedom of religious thought probably influenced the great British political philosopher John Locke. Locke's library included many Socinian works and his posthumously published work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, was close to the Socinian position in its emphasis on Jesus as an ethical teacher. However, Locke was probably an Arian rather than a Socinian Christian in the sense that he held Jesus to be a supernatural being dependent on but less exalted than God. (For more on whether John Locke was a Socinian, see note 2 at the end of my talk on John Locke on Reason and Faith.)

Some Socinians were materialists. The religious significance of their being materialists is that they denied that human souls were immortal by nature. Humans could be saved by the power of the spirit enabling them to follow the commands of Jesus. These Socinians may have believed that there would be selective immortality of the saved in celestial bodies. (Obviously this particular teaching about a sort of special physical immortality could not survive a full acquaintance with later developments in modern scientific physics and astronomy.)


Hillar, M., The Philosophical Legacy of the 16th and 17th Century Socinians: Their Rationality. (appears to be a paper presented at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy]

Roshaven, Rev. C. The Heresy of Faustus Socinus. Delivered at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church (Ft. Worth, TX), February 19, 1996.

Kot, S., 1957. Socinianism in Poland. The Social and Political Ideas of the Polish Antitrinitarians. Translated by E. M. Wilbur. Boston.

Marshall, J., 1998. "Socinianism." In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Version 1. London and New York. Itself contains a list of references that appear to be useful for further research, including the following two items.

McLachlan, H., 1951. Socinianism in Seventeenth Century England. London: Oxford University Press.

Williams, G. H., 1980. The Polish Brethren. Missoula MT: Scholars Press. 2 vols. (Collection of Socinian documents).