Poland is known today as one of the most Catholic of European countries. The native land of Pope John Paul II, the faith of its people helped bring down the Soviet empire. There was a time, however, when it appeared that Poland might become Protestant.
Thirty-nine year old King Sigismund I took the throne in 1506. He was a humanist--that is, one who appreciated the arts and literature. As such, he corresponded with Erasmus (everyone of importance corresponded with Erasmus!) the humanist whose writings had precipitated the Protestant Reformation. The permissive Sigismund allowed a variety in faith. On the one hand, Nicolas Copernicus flourished as a Catholic canon during his reign, writing his theory that the sun is the center of the universe, while on the other John Laski preached reformation.
If Sigismund did not persecute, it was partly owing to the power of his nobles, many of whom had embraced the Reformation. The nobles of Poland gained significant rights during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sometimes their power paralyzed the nation, because the king had to win regional approval for taxes and wars. They pushed for limitations on the established church. However, there was no unity among the nobles in what should replace the Catholic church. Lutherans, Anabaptists, Calvinists, United Brethren and other sects flourished alongside traditional Catholicism.
Protestants went too far in some cases. At Danzig they threw the town council out with threat of arms and appointed their own representatives. They seized Catholic churches and other church properties, some of which they converted to use as hospitals. Sigismund eventually beheaded a number of Protestant leaders in that city.
The most significant accomplishment of Sigismund's reign was the defeat of the Teutonic Knights who had long troubled eastern Europe. When their grandmaster, Albert of Brandenburg, became a Lutheran, Sigismund made him Duke of Prussia.
Sigismund died on this day, April 1, 1548. His son Sigismund II ruled in his stead, but died suddenly and the throne passed to a nephew. Jesuits, working to restore Catholicism to Poland during the counter-Reformation, were successful because Poland's Protestants were badly divided. And they were helped by the fact that Sigismund had married his nephew into the royal family of the Catholic Hapsburgs, which brought Poland more firmly into the Catholic sphere.
- Wylie, James A. History of Protestantism. http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/ Voice/History.Protestant.v3.b19.html #CHAPTER2
- Various internet and encyclopedia articles.
Last updated June, 2007