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Peter Gonesius

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Piotr of Goniądz (c. 1525-1573), most commonly known by his Latin name Petrus Gonesius (he was also known as Giezek, Goniędz, Gomesius, Gonedzius, Gonetus, Conyza, Koniński, and Lithuanus), was a minister who contributed to the establishment of the Minor Reformed Church in Lithuania, also known as the Lithuanian Brethren, one of the earliest Unitarian denominations. He led it briefly and served as its leading theologian, advocating radical theological and social positions. Although his theological views found acceptance among his Unitarian contemporaries and supporters, his social views led to excommunication from the church that he helped to create.

Little is known of Gonesius’s early life. He came from a peasant family in the Polish-Lithuanian border town of Goniądz. (It was in Lithuania at the time. Today it is in Poland.) He became a Catholic monk, graduated from the University of Krakow in 1546, and was ordained to the priesthood. In 1550 he represented the Catholic position in a debate against the Reformation. In 1551 the bishop of Vilnius, Paweł Holszański, sent him to Padua where ca. 1554 he graduated with a doctorate in theology. University of Padua He was appointed to the faculty. In 1555, after lecturing in defense of the antitrinitarian theologians Michael Servetus and Matteo Gribaldi, he was dismissed from the university. In the course of his return trip to Poland-Lithuania, he visited the Anabaptist Hutterites and Moravian Brethren, who influenced his further theological development.

Most information about Gonesius and his ideas comes from observations by his contemporaries and from synodal records. Gonesius participated in a number of Polish synods, developing and defending his Arian and Unitarian views. At the Synod of Secemin, 1556, he is recorded as saying that “the Trinity is not God and that the Son of God is certainly God, but lesser than the Father.” He also told the synod that “God the Father is the only true God” and that “the Logos, or invisible, immortal Word, was at the proper time transformed into flesh in the womb of the Virgin.” He “attacked the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father,” saying that “Christ the man was transformed into God and that God, or the Word, was transformed into a man.” Saying that Jesus is not the same as God, but was made of a subordinate substance, having received power from God, is the traditional Arian theological position.

The synod sent Gonesius to Wittenberg to have his antitrinitarian views corrected by Philipp Melanchthon (the second leading Lutheran theologian, next to Martin Luther). But this did not solve the problem. For Melanchthon rejected him as a heretic. Calvin’s disciple, Theodore Beza, commented that Gonesius’s heresy was strikingly similar to the antitrinitarian theology of Gribaldi. Back in Poland, Gonesius found a publisher for a book, De filio Dei homine Christo Iesu (On the Son of God, the Man Jesus Christ), 1556. It proved to be both influential and controversial. Shortly afterwards he was excommunicated and banished by the Pińczów Synod. Gonesius travelled to Ełk to defend his views against the Lutheran reformer Pierpaolo Vergerio, who also declared him to be a dangerous heretic.

Although King Sigismund II August ordered his imprisonment, Gonesius did not serve any time in prison. (Poland’s king was the first cousin to King John Sigismund of Hungary, who in 1568 passed the first European decree of religious freedom, the Edict of Torda, and supported the establishment of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania.) Gonesius quickly became a leading cleric and a controversial theologian in the Reformed Church (Calvinist). He operated under the protection of Mikołaj Radziwiłł; the Black, marshal and chancellor of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. The support of regional gentry was necessary, because they built and financed the churches and provided protection from the Catholic hierarchy and from other secular rulers. As the head of government in Lithuania, the Protestant Radziwiłł managed to convert most of the country to the Reformed Church, even though the head of state in neighboring Poland was Catholic. In all likelihood, it was Radziwiłł who saved Gonesius from imprisonment.

In 1558 Gonesius participated in the (Calvinist) Reformed Synod of Wodzisław. His followers succumbed to pressure and reluctantly signed a Reformed confession. Later in the same year, at Brest-Litovsk, he argued against infant baptism. His propositions were received with hostility. In 1560 the Pińczów synod condemned him.

Gonesius’s book De primate ecclesia Christianae (The Primacy of the Christian Church) was published around 1563, with help from Simon Budny. In this he claimed that true belief resides with the authority of the laity and that individual conscience supersedes civil authority.

Gonesius had support from various members of the Reformed clergy and the backing of some of the lesser gentry. In 1565 he led the Radical Reformers to break with the Reformed Church. The synod of Brest-Litovsk discussed the problem of infant baptism. A few weeks later the synod of Węgrów accepted anti-Trinitarian views. This created the Minor Reformed Church, with independent synods in Lithuania and in Poland. They were commonly known as the Lithuanian and Polish Brethren. They were modeled in name and synodal-congregational polity on the Moravian Brethren. The Lithuanian and Polish churches were in full communion with each other. They were the first denominations with Unitarian beliefs, preceding the Transylvanian Unitarian church by two years. Gonesius and his colleagues became the first Unitarian clergy in modern history.

With the schism, Gonesius lost the backing of Radziwiłł, but found protection from another nobleman, Jan Kiszka. Kiszka made him pastor on his estate in Węgrów.

Gonesius participated in the 1568 Pałecznica Unitarian synod that discussed infant baptism and the preexistence of Christ. He also attended the 1569 synod of Bełżyce. Gonesius and other leading Lithuanian radicals moved to Rakow in 1569 to defend their radical position at the famous three-year long Unitarian synod. He returned to Lithuania to participate in local synods, where the moderates eventually prevailed.

Kiszka’s press published four of Gonesius’s books in 1570. So that they might be circulated widely, three were in Polish. Nobles and clergy who could read could use them to instruct the mostly illiterate peasantry. These works include Doktrina pura et clara de praecepuis Christianae religionis articulus (The Pure and Clear Doctrine of the Principle Articles of Christian Religion) (one copy of this book survives), O ponurzaniu chrystiańskim (On the Baptism of Christians), and O trzech t. j. o Bogu (On the Trinity i.e. On God), and O Synu Božym (On the Son of God). The last book is dedicated to Kiszka.

The socially radical positions of the Moravian Brethren—egalitarianism, pacifism, and a disregard for the mundane world—influenced Gonesius’s progressive views. He opposed holding public office, serving in the army, and carrying arms. He carried a wooden sword to advertise his pacifist views. He taught that the Sermon on the Mount was to be obeyed literally. Gonesius questioned the feudal order under which peasants were bound to the land. This included the right of persons of rank to punish those deemed of a lower order. He advocated equality for all people. Even more radically, he questioned the right of any person to live off of the work of another. He, therefore, promoted the abolition of serfdom. Likewise, he proposed that ministers ought to derive their income from congregational offerings, rather than from gentry patronage. He found only minimal support for his social views. Very few of the gentry released their serfs.

A test case of this radical position was that of the nobleman Jan Tyskiewicz from Bielsk. He was a Unitarian convert from Russian Orthodoxy who sided with Gonesius’s radical social views. As the result of a complicated political intrigue, he was executed in 1611 after he refused to take an oath of office that included a Trinitarian phrase.

The Lithuanian Brethren had limits to their tolerance. Some sources indicate that Gonesius was excommunicated (date uncertain) and simultaneously lost Kiszka’s support. He died of plague in Węgrów in 1573.

Gonesius’s legacy includes two younger ministers who rose to lead the church after his departure, Simon Budny and Martin Czechowic. The town of Węgrów lists him as one of its most famous historic residents.

Books written by Peter Gonesius are listed in the text. For more on Gonesius and early Lithuanian Unitarianism see Vilius Rudra Dundzila “The Radical Reformation in Lithuania: The Minor Reformed Church (The Lithuanian Brethren), 1565-1617” in Lituanus (2008) which is available online at lituanus.org. For recent Eastern European scholarship see Zenonas Ivinskis, Krikščionybė Lietuvoje (1987) and Rinktiniai raštai (1987); Ingė Lukšaitė, Reformacija Lietuvos Didžioje Kunigaikštystėje ir Mažojoje Lietuvoje: XVI a. Trečias dešimtmetis – XVII a. Pirmas dešimtmetis (1999); Kiaupa Zigimantas, Juratė Kiaupienė, and Albinas Kuncevičius Lietuvos istorija iki 1795 metų (2000); J. Kulbis, et al., Protestantizmas Lietuvoje: Istorija ir dabartis (1994) and Antanas Musteikis, The Reformation in Lithuania: Religious Fluctuations in the Sixteenth Century (1988).

Information about Gonesius can be found in Peter Hughes and Peter Zerner, ed.and trans., Declaratio: Michael Servetus's Revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and other Antitrinitarian Works by Matteo Gribaldi (2010). Gonesius is also mentioned in Charles A. Howe, For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe (1997); Stanislas Kot, Socinianism in Poland: The Social and Political Ideas of the Polish Antitrinitarians in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Earl Morse Wilbur (1957); and “Polish Brethren and the Problem of Communism in the XVIth Century,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1958?). Earlier works include Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, Socinianism, and its Antecedents (1945); George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (1992); Stanislas Lubieniecki, History of the Polish Reformation and Nine Related Documents, trans. George Huntston Williams (1995); and Robert Wallace Antitrinitarian Biography (1850).

German and Italian sources include Stefan Fleischmann, Szymon Budny. Ein theologisches Portrait des polnisch-weißrußischen Humanisten und Unitariers (ca. 1530–1593) (2006); Zdzislaw Pietrzyk, “Piotr Gonesius.” Bibliotheca Dißidentium, ed. André Séguenny (1987); Christopher Sandius, Bibliotheca Anti-Trinitariorum (1684); and letter 2374, Beza to Bullinger, in Calvini Opera, vol. 16.


Article by By Rudra Vilius Dundzila • posted August 8, 2011

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