Paulina Buchwald-Pelc Calvinist Censorship in the Light of the Acts of the Lesser Poland Synods.

The censorship even went as far as to put pressure on the Catholic Church authorities, in a way, so that they would destroy books that the Protestant Church censors believed to be harmful and punish their authors, as the case of Piotr of Goniądz illustrates. At the synod of Pińczów in 1556 where he was “refell’d for the Arian error”, it was decided to “send two gentlemen” to the Bishop of Cracow “to let him know that this misbeliever was not and hath never been one of their people” (Akta I, p. 72). It was probably due to the machinations of Bishop Andrzej Zebrzydowski that the king issued an edict against Piotr. The book, unknown today, was reportedly bought out and destroyed by Mikołaj “the Black” Radziwiłł, the great protector of Polish dissenters including Piotr of Goniądz.7

Some kinds of publications were treated with particular diligence. The 1566 synodal assembly of Calvinist ministers in Włodzisław emphasised the necessity of having the psalms and catechisms in particular as well as the Brest Bible – works that were used widely and frequently, especially in religious services – checked and inspected by ministers (Akta II, p. 203). However, constant reminders that one should subject oneself to the Church’s censorship every time were not neglected. At the 1575 general synod of Cracow, it was ascertained again that “No minister shall be free to issue books in publicum, either newly created rewritten or printed, until the synod approbates them” (Akta III, p. 9). Jan Pirożyński8 believes that one consequence of the synod resolution that superintendents representing three Churches – the Calvinists, the Lutherans and the Unity of Brethren – should censor works that contained basic exposition of religious doctrine, was the fact that Maciej Wirzbięta’s 1574 edition of the Sandomierz Confession, a text criticised by both the Unity of Brethren and the Lutherans, was clandestinely reprinted (so-called sub-printing) at Jan Karcan’s around 1595.

Strict adherence to the order to inspect written works was solicited not only by the Church “Elders,” but also by the protector of the Calvinists of Lesser Poland and voivode of Brest, Andrzej Leszczyński. He sent a letter to the provincial synod of Ożarów in 1600 where he cautioned that “no one shall dare to issue any books without consent of the brethren’s careful rectification” (Akta III, p. 217, emphasis added – P.B.-P.).

While the main reason for the censorship or “inspection” of books was concern for the purity of doctrine, attention was also paid to the uniformity of worship as well as the unification of prayers and chants. In 1601, discussions at the provincial synod of Włodzisław focused on the fact that there were “many different catechisms in some of our churches, therefore the chants varied” (Akta III, p. 229).

Subsequent editions of books very important for religious instruction were carefully prepared. As soon as copies of the Catechism by Krzysztof Kraiński became scarce, a decision was made to publish it “properly.” Consequently, it was ordered that written comments be brought to the following synod concerning any necessary rectifications to the Catechism. This resolution was adopted in Bełżyce in 1620, while the revised book was not released until 1624 in Raków, as discussions on the issue continued at numerous synods and assemblies (Akta III, pp. 421, 447 and 455). Any “Arian errors” were tracked with particular diligence, especially in Bible translations (Akta III, p. 460). The entire task of a new Holy Bible edition, reviewing its text, and in particular work on correct “annotations” took years and years before the Bible was finally printed in Gdańsk in 1632 (the printing process did not actually finish until 1633), provoking an immediate reaction from the Catholics as Primate Jakub Wężyk announced a ban on its distribution in 1634. The Bible edition was equally criticized in certain Protestant communities, for example causing outrage for the way the foreword was signed, and provoking other objections against it.

The censorship or “inspection” of books also aimed to prevent religious disputes being unnecessarily stirred up by provocative words. Showing moderation in discussions with ideological opponents was recommended, although in this respect authors were simply called upon to do so – like Bartłomiej Bythner and Daniel Clementius in Bełżyce in 1628 (Akta III, p. 510) – rather than being officially reprimanded. Accordingly, no evidence has been found of such provocative discourse being the reason for refusal to print a work. Nevertheless, intervention regarding books already printed was still possible. Francesco Stancaro – the son of a prominent heresiarch who was called a “renegade” by Krzysztof Kraiński in his Postilla of 1611 – managed to obtain a resolution of the provincial synod of Ożarów in 1618 ordering the ministers to erase (or rather to blur or scratch out) “at their parishioners” his father’s name (Akta III, p. 403).

A censor’s intervention regarding an already printed book did not necessarily mean its complete destruction. Besides, the “cleansing” of Kraiński’s Postilla was performed exclusively on the son’s initiative and was easy to put in place. Nonetheless, even in the case of more general objections regarding doctrine not simply limited to one word, and resulting from obvious faults such as failure to submit the work to “inspection” and printing it with doctrinal errors, the printed book could still be saved as long as certain passages were removed or rectified. 

This happened in 1627 when “our dear brother, the Rev. Paweł Żarnowita, gravely alarmed the Holy Church by exposing publicly and privatim his doubts as to the Holy Trinity of God,” and submitted the book for printing without prior inspection. Because of that, he was expelled from the Church; however, since he humbled himself and promised to improve, his fault was pardoned under certain conditions. It was acknowledged that he had incurred costs connected with the publication of his book, so it was approved after release provided that “it was used in private by the pious, nonetheless, all copies which still remained unbound should have their prefaces removed, so that only the prayers and chants were preserved. As to the bound copies, should someone bring them to the Church, any locos erroneos ought to be erased by the minister loci” (Akta III, p. 495–496). Since no copy of this edition has been preserved, we cannot verify the results of these efforts. When the book was republished a couple of decades later, its new edition reprinted only the prayers and chants, which indirectly confirms the successful “cleansing” of the original edition.


7 L. Szczucki, “Piotr z Goniądza”, Polski Słownik Biograficzny, v. 26, 1981, p. 398.

8 J. Pirożyński, “Nieznane wydanie Konfesji Sandomierskiej”, Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce 12, 1967, p. 194-196.