Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black – the leader of Lithuanian Reformation

Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black (1515–1565) broke away from the Rome Catholic church and initiated an intensive process of spreading Reformation as well as the establishing the Protestant Church in Lithuania. Having gained leadership of the Reformation process, due to his political power and influence he did not experience any persecution, as was the case with members of the petty gentry. As pioneers of Protestantism, they were forced to flee the country.

A church established “in the midst of politics and war”

Born to the castellan of Trakai Jan Radziwiłł and his second wife Hanna Kiszkowna, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was granted the highest position in the country from 1550 to 1551, that of GDL Chancellor and Voivode of Vilnius. His conversion, which eventually changed the history of the Radziwiłł family, became more and more pronounced. The protestant way of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black’s life, lasting about fifteen years until his death, introduced significant changes in the situation of GDL culture and Christian state of consciousness. Having become one of the most prominent converts and advocates of Reformation, he established an independent Reformed Church in Lithuania and introduced the tradition of Lithuanian press and printing books in his manor in Brest in 1553. It was here that the first Lithuanian Bible and many other books were published. He also developed and substantiated an independent doctrine of Evangelism.

Thanks to his immense efforts, Lithuania started a religious dialogue (on equal grounds) with the most prominent Western thinkers for the first time in the history of cultural thought.

Do You Know?

Regarding the analysis of cultural and religious activities of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, one should highlight the fact that he was not an intellectual of the 16th century but a Lithuanian noble and a statesman. He never studied at the university (lack of special education was often mentioned by his opponents) and received only home schooling. He claimed himself that writing to him was merely an activity in between military and political affairs. However, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was declared a dangerous enemy of the Rome Church. Radicalism of his religious thought, manifested toward the end of his lifetime, made the heads of Swiss Calvinism revise some of their dogmas and stabilize Reformed Orthodoxy.

The first signs of Protestant identity manifested by Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black were witnessed by Evangelical services held in his Vilnius manors (Lukiškės) and Brest in 1553, as well as by the output produced in the first Lithuanian printing house using Latin font (which continued to function even after his death until 1568). In his manorial holdings, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black started the expropriation of Catholic churches for Evangelical needs. The first building of Evangelical church was finally completed and properly adjusted in 1560–1562, in the Great Street (Didžioji Street), Vilnius. His wife Elzbieta was buried in this Protestant chapel in 1562. Later, following his last will expressed in the testament drawn in 1565 in Lukiškės, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was buried here as well (his remains were re-buried in Dubingiai).

The “diabolical” critique of the Church

Due to the message spreading in the West about Mikołaj Radziwiłł’s the Black conversion and its influence on the King Sigismund Augustus (Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black being a close friend to the King), the Pope started to carefully follow the events in Vilnius. In the winter of 1555, the Pope sent to Vilnius the first papal nuncio Bishop of Verona Luigi Lippomano, whose mission of returning Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black to Catholic faith was a failure. In 1556, Lippomano left the country noting the following: All the world had witnessed that His Holiness and myself did the best we could, therefore it is with clear consciousness that we can say: Curavimus Babilonem et non est curata  [The Book of Jeremiah, 51, 9].

The first and most famous piece of work, the reply to nuncio Lippomano (Duae epistolae, 1556), printed in Königsberg, made Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black the first and actually the only Lithuanian to be included into the Index librorum prohibitorum drawn by the Universal Church of Roman Catholics (1559). In this text, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black criticized ecclesiastical ceremonies and its hierarchical system, detached from the teaching of the Gospel. He also declared Rome Catholic Church a corrupt system, a ‘totally irreparable evil’, and confirmed the establishment of the true Christian (Evangelical) Church in Lithuania. Among the most important priorities of this Church he identified the significance of Evangelical values, national languages and printed books, aimed at strengthening the faith. The reply was shortly published. Upon receiving it, nuncio Luigi Lippomano declared to the Pope the following: “His Holiness and the whole Church has been attacked with such impudence, insolence and arrogance which even the Devil does not possess. Generally speaking, this reply summarizes all the treachery and artfulness of the Lutherans. I swear to your Holiness that upon receiving it I lost all hope that I can still accomplish any good deeds in this Kingdom…”

The reply drafted by Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was the first Lithuanian Reformation text, widely spread all over Europe. It was published several times not only in Latin, but in German and Polish languages as well.

The defender of the freedom of religious thought

In 1557, the first Synod of Evangelical Church was held in Lithuania, thus marking the institutional beginnings of the Church. Having successfully and quickly broken away from the Rome Church, Mikolaj  Radziwiłł the Black, regardless of the active encouragement from outside, had no plans whatever to subject himself to the Lutheran Wittenberg or execute the instructions delegated by the Swiss Reformed Church proponents. To the contrary, he sought to establish an independent version of the doctrine, combining the elements of Lutheran and Calvinist system with the local thought. From 1555, Jean Calvin started writing letters to Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, trying to convince him to follow the Helvetian doctrine. However, in 1560, due to the worsening tension arising from Trinitarian polemics, Jean Calvin had to critically evaluate the nonchalant behaviour of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black and publicly condemn his friendship with Italian Heterodox supporters, who had been banished from Switzerland and actively spreading their ideas in Lithuania and Poland. Jean Calvin demanded loyalty to the Helvetian doctrine, first and foremost, regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.

Jean Calvin failed to change Mikołaj Radziwiłł’s decisions and attitudes with regard to Italians and religious doctrine as such as well as perception of its freedom.

During the fifteen years of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black’s Protestant activities, an independent Lithuanian Evangelical church was not only established but managed to split as well. During the schism of 1563, the group which broke away from the Evangelical Church was not united but actively involved in Antitrinitarian polemics. This fact gave rise to the myth, which became established in later historiography, namely about an instability of the Duke’s religious state of consciousness and his tendency to convert to different confessions. The image of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black as a religious character of heterodox state of consciousness was influenced by Mikołaj Radziwiłł’s the Black polemics with Jean Calvin. In 1564, the leader of Swiss Reformation movement died, not having read the last letter sent to him by Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. The letter contained a discussion position on the issue of Trinity.

A multicolored religious life in GDL in the 16th century is witnessed by the fact that upon the death of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, the founder of Evangelical Church in Lithuania, his descendants did not remain Protestants but converted back to Catholicism and became the most influential cultural force of counter-reformation. Such a turning point in the family history was determined by Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan, the eldest son of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black oldest son who had been raised as a Protestant. Upon his father’s death, Radziwiłł the Orphan went to Italy and converted to Catholicism (about 1566). He became a generous patron of Catholic, particularly Jesuit, activities. The son’s conversion to Catholicism was supported by the highest hierarchs of the Rome Church, thus compensating for his father’s previous loss, when he had converted to Reformation.

Literature: D. Pociūtė, The Rebel Cathedrals. Early Reformation and the Connections between Lithuanian and Italian Evangelists (Maištininkų katedros. Ankstyvoji reformacija ir lietuvių–italų evangelikų ryšiai) Vilnius: Versus aureus, 2008.

Dainora Pociūtė