Poland’s Christian Heritage
A Brief History of Poland
The history of Poland is closely connected with the migration of peoples of Indo-European and Celtic origin. The first settlers were the Celto-Lugie, who populated the south of today’s Poland between 250 and 100 B.C. These Celts included some of the “lost” ten tribes of Israel. Specifically, the movements of the tribe of Dan can be followed throughout Poland as that tribe’s preference for renaming towns after their forefather can be seen in such places as Gdansk. These tribes continued their migration through Poland up into Scandinavia (see Swedish Christian History). There were remnants left of these Israelite tribes throughout Poland, though the majority of people come from the massive migrations, mainly of Slavic people, but also of Celts and Germans, which took place until about 250 A.D. The Slavic people, composed of various competing tribes, were eventually divided into the west, east and south Slavs (600-700 A.D.). These three groups populated not only today’s territory of Poland, but also the whole area of Central Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, as well as Eastern Europe.
The Polish coat of arms, featuring a white eagle on a red shield (the colours of the national flag) was the personal emblem of the tribes’ nobility, the Piast dynasty, which integrated the main areas of modern day Poland (963 A.D.).
In 966 A.D., after continuous German conquests under the pretext of implementing Roman Catholicism, the Polish people accepted the Catholic faith, but they did so from their southern neighbours the Czechs, rather than from the Germans. This year marks the beginning of the Polish state as acknowledged by the pope and the rest of Europe at that time. The name “Polska” was firstly introduced in 1025 A.D. during the rule of Poland’s first king Boleslaw Chrobry. Poland became an ardent and fervent Roman Catholic country until the time of the Reformation.
During the reign of the Jagiellon dynasty Poland was one of the greatest European empires of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 17th century the country lost considerable strength due to constant conflicts with its neighbours, until great parts of the land were destroyed by the “Swedish deluge” (1655-1660). Poland’s weakened state eventually led to its 1st partition in 1772, when Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed one third of the country. Shortly after the 2nd partition in 1793, Russia, Prussia and Austria divided the remains and forced the last Polish king Zygmunt August to abdicate. With the 3rd partition in 1795 the country disappeared entirely from European maps.
The 18th and 19th centuries brought new hope for regaining independence. A big step forward was Napoleon’s support in rebuilding the army as well as his creation of the Warsaw Principality on former Polish soil after having defeated Prussia and Austria. The final solution came with the end of WWI, when the Treaty of Versailles guaranteed Poland absolute independence. But the Poles did not enjoy freedom for too long. In August 1939 the Soviet Union made an agreement with the Third Reich known as the Ribbentrop-Molotow pact, whose aim was a 4th Polish partition. One month later Poland was attacked from the West by the Third Reich and from the East by the Red Army. The Conference at Yalta in February 1945, where Europe’s partition was laid down and Poland’s fate sealed, meant that Poland was soon to find itself behind the Iron Curtain. The country fell into the hands of the communists who immediately started to liquidate the Polish upper class, deporting some to Eastern Russia and even exterminating them. Mass killings of Stalin’s opponents were the order of the day. In 1989 communism fell due to the solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa.
The Development of the Reformation on Polish Soil
The ideas of the Reformation germinated fairly early in Poland, and in the first half of the 15th century Hussitism (see Christian History of Hungary) already flourished. In the early 16th century the Reformation took hold in Germany through the preaching of Martin Luther (see Christian History of Germany for details), and the events in Wittenberg quickly found a response throughout Poland. King Zygmunt I Stary, being a staunch Roman Catholic however, forbade the circulation of reformatory documents under the threat of banning, loss of possessions or even the death penalty. In 1525 A.D., Prussia became a fief of Poland, carrying the light of the Reformation to its people. The University of Konigsberg, founded by Prince Albrech, played an important role in the Prussian/Polish Reformation movement. Many young Poles sought for knowledge within its walls and returned home with the reformatory teachings burning in their hearts.
Already in 1521, Luther was received in Wroclaw (in the south of Poland) and in 1525 in Gdansk (in the north). The Lutherans coexisted in other cities among various denominations, but especially in the Prussian city of Konigsberg (modern day Kaliningrad in Russia), they found great acceptance. From the 2nd half of the 16th century, Calvinism (see Christian History of Switzerland for details) gained popularity among the nobles. In 1534, the nobility of the Pomeranian imperial diet declared that the Roman Catholic Church was not to forbid the printing of a Polish Bible. Neither royal decrees, punishments for the heterodox nor the ban on reformatory literature from the West were able to stop the advance of the Reformation. The Polish nobility were determined to fight for peace and for the freedom of religion. When Zygmunt August became a great Lithuanian prince in 1544, the reformers gained great influence at his court. The “Bracia Czescy“ (Czech Brethren) had a strong impact on the Polish Reformation and spread a net of congregations throughout Wielkopolska. Reformatory and Lutheran congregations also sprang up in Lithuania, which were supported by the Radziwills and other feudal families. However, many reformers had hoped for a national Polish Church according to reformatory principles. This thought was proclaimed by Poland’s greatest political writer of the 16th century, Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski.
Jan Laski – The Reformer (1499-1560)
In Europe, Jan Laski was known as “the only Polish reformer”. He contributed to the reform of the Anglican Church with his main work: Londynskie Wyznanie Wiary (London’s Confession of Faith). His activities in London were brought to an end during the reign of the Tudor Queen Mary, who ordered foreign Protestants to leave the country. After a long time of wandering, Laski finally settled in Frankfurt. There he also met John Calvin in 1556, with whom the Polish theologian had already corresponded for many years.
Upon receipt of a letter in which he was asked to serve the Reformation in his homeland, Jan Laski returned in December 1556 and joined the Polish Reformation. He was received twice by King Zygmunt August for a private audience in March 1557, and was granted permission to freely preach the Gospel. He spent the following years helping to establish a national Church and translating the Bible into Polish.
Mikolaj Rey from Naglowice (1505-1569)
Poland’s first national writer, Mikolaj Rey from Naglowice, was a devout author of reformatory teaching. His writings show a strong reformatory tendency and a desire for a pure Christian doctrine. At the imperial diet and at meetings of the nobles, Mikolaj Rey zealously supported the Reformation. Due to his humour and traditional joking he also filled the nobility with enthusiasm. The Evangelicals called him “the Polish Luther”.
The Warsaw Confederation – Congress of Nobility
In 1573 the imperial diet enacted the socalled Warsaw Confederation, which granted peace between different beliefs. In spite of the opposition of the Roman bishops and the intervention of the papal envoy, this vitally important law was passed – a unique event in the history of the nation. In the same year the imperial diet legislated an act called pax dissidentum as a result of Protestants demanding equal rights. The then newly elected king Henryk Walezy omitted this act in his coronation oath, but the great crown marshal Jan Firlej, an eager believer and defender of the protestant faith, forced the king to swear on this act saying: “Aut iurabis, aut non regnabis” (either you will swear or you will not rule). From the short reign of Henryk Walezy until the first years under Zygmunt III, religious tolerance was observed in Poland.
The Bible is Translated into the Polish Language
Although the translation of the Bible was started by Jan Laski, it was completed by other workers. In 1563 the complete Scriptures were published in the town of Brzesc Litewski, financed by Prince Mikolaj Radziwill Czarny (the translation is known as Biblia Radziwillowska, Brzeska or Pinczowska). A revised version was printed in 1632 in Gdansk and hence called Biblia Gdanska. The Biblia Gdanska was quite close to the King James Version and remained as the Bible of the Polish Protestants for over 300 years. On the front page of this revision we find a copperplate depicting Moses and Aaron as well as The Garden of Eden at the top and a scene of judgment day at the bottom.
Apart from very few isolated persecutions, no religious wars or slaughters took place in Poland as they did in Western Europe. During the time of the Reformation the world recognized Poland as “a country without stakes”, where refugees from the whole of Europe found shelter. However, the Catholic church always had a strong influence on Poland, even long before the Reformation.
The Reformation was eventually wiped out by the protagonists of the Vatican, which henceforth determined the development of the Polish church. The Counter-Reformation also involved the fall of cities, schools and craftsmanship. The triumph of Catholicism meant a triumph of superstition and ignorance. Poland became more Catholic due to the Jesuit order, which was called into the country in 1564. Within a short time, the Jesuits had a good position at the royal court, where the king favoured putting Catholics into offices. The Jesuits created many denominational schools, thus competing with the Protestants. After the nobles had reembraced Catholicism the whole country followed suit. Today 89.9% of the citizens declare their affiliation to the Catholic church. Catholicism has hardly been affected by communism, but has rather strengthened itself due to political persecutions.
Development of Pentecostal Congregations in Poland
The apostle of the Pentecostal movement in Europe was Thomas Ball Barratt (1862-1940). He was a Methodist pastor from Oslo, who had a Pentecostal experience in 1906 during his stay in New York and also had contacts with the Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles. On his return he became a zealous propagator of Pentecost in Norway as well as elsewhere on the European continent, including Poland. During the years of the birth and shaping of the European Pentecostal movement, Poland was still divided by occupying powers. Pentecost was firstly received by the eastern part of the German Empire; Silesia, Pomerania and Eastern Prussia, as well as Poznan and the area of Gdansk. The new denomination was registered in 1910 in the South Silesian city of Cieszyn by authority of the Austrian state. Later, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, when Pentecostal church services were strictly forbidden, people began to hold prayer meetings in private homes. During communism, the Pentecostal movement was a minority whereas the real threat as far as the communists were concerned was the Catholic church. Thus, Spiritfilled Poles were not as much persecuted as their brethren in the Soviet Union, where every sign of faith was immediately destroyed.
Today, Pentecostal churches represent the largest religious movement in Poland besides Catholicism and Protestantism. Sadly, many Pentecostal churches have become lukewarm and are not consistent in their teaching of the whole Word of God. However, many sincere and fiery Christians desire and expect a revival, which according to various prophecies will spread from Poland over the whole of Eastern Europe.
The entire Polish history could be summarized with one verse:
“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 CORINTHIANS 4:8-9).