Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Jeffrey Johnson


John Donne and the Socinian Heresy

In spite of the severity, and so often the brutality, that characterized the divisiveness of European Christianity throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the historical evidence demonstrates that the vast majority of Catholics and Protestants were in accord with respect to the condemnation they leveled against the Socinian heresy. In fact, regardless of their sectarian allegiance to the mainstream confessions, the almost universal response by the Germans, Poles, Dutch, French, and English in challenging and refuting the antitrinitarian beliefs of the Socinians seems to indicate just how critical the religious thinkers of the period believed this heresy to be. The persecution of the Socinians reached a particular height in 1638 when Jesuits entered Rakow, Poland (where the Socinians known as the Polish Brethren had established themselves in the late sixteenth century). By the decree of the “Diet of Warsaw, ” dated May 1, 1638, the Jesuits destroyed the academy and the printing press that the Socinians had established in Rakow, and they sent the teachers, ministers, and laypeople of the Polish Brethren into exile.

The Socinians, and those aligned (and often misaligned) with them specifically for denying the Trinity, found the hostility directed toward them in England comparable to that on the Continent. 1. One noteworthy instance of the rejection of Socinianism in England involves the 1609 Latin edition of the Racovian Catechism (the doctrinal confession of the Socinians that was printed in Rakow). This edition of the Catechism contained a dedication to King James. In a letter dated September 6, 1608, William Bruce (serving as an English agent in Danzig) reports to Robert Cecil, referring to this edition of the Catechism, “nowe I am bissie in recharchinge a booke prented and dedicated to our kinge his Majestie, much, as I thinke, against his Majesties reputatioune,

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1.
See Earl Monroe Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: In Transylvania, England, and America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1945), which discusses James I's sentencing of Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman to be burned as heretics (177—79).

-130-

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