Black Prince, Red Prince


While Poland today is regarded as among the most Roman Catholic of nations, there was a time when it seemed likely that she and her neighbor Lithuania, might instead become fountainheads of Reformation. Polish is a difficult language for English readers, and so Polish history in general, and Polish biography in particular, are little known. The same might be said for Hungary, whose importance to Reformation history is equally important.
Thanks to socialite Princess Lee Radziwill ap-pearance in the tabloids of recent decades, at least the “Radziwill” name is familiar—and it is this name which is intertwined for centuries with Protestantism in Poland and Lithuania.
The most famous of the Radziwills was—and here’s where you’ll see what we mean—Mikołaj “the Black” Radziwiłł. He and his cousin prince Mikołaj “the Red” Radziwiłł (who were thus dubbed by Emperor Charles V, who may have had as much trouble keeping them straight as moderns do) were early converts to the Reformation, with the Black prince taking the lead, and the Red prince following.
Mikołaj “the Black” Radziwiłł was first attracted to Lutheranism, but then drifted to Calvinism which, sadly, would not be the end of his journey, although for the greater part of his life, he was a friend and ally to all within the pale of the Reformation. Frustrated with the slow progress in producing a Polish language Bible, he donated a significant sum to speed the process to completion. He tirelessly recruited other nobles until soon a huge majority of the Lithuanian senators had embraced one of the Protestant confessions. The populace was following, with Protestants outnumbering Roman Catholics, with both trailing the Orthodox church (another surprise to modern readers, no doubt). The Black Prince worked tirelessly on behalf of Reformation and religious peace. Indeed, Poland was known as the “land without stakes,” since religious issues were almost always settled with words, not bloodshed.
Prince Mikołaj “the Black” Radziwiłł started schools, launched printing presses and maneuvered with the Protestant kings of Europe to keep Lithuania from being swallowed up into the Hapsburg alliances.
Anxious to promote tolerance and amity among Protestants, the Prince strained his relationship with John Calvin. When the Prince not only defended the Unitarians, but began to side with them, the break was complete. Soon Arianism was firmly planted by the Black Prince in pulpit after pulpit, undoing much of his life’s work.
His cousin, the Red Prince, remained firm, and the Reformed faith would stay deeply rooted for centuries, with Reformed areas opening their doors to refugees such as the persecuted Czech Brethren, Scottish non-conformists (who came by the tens of thousands) and Jews. One of the great weaving centers in the world was the Reformed stronghold of Kaidan, where the Jews had been given safe haven and established a thriving industry. Although the Reformed Church would lie in ruins by the 20th Century, its memory long expunged from popular consciousness, the Jews of Kaidan would survive until WWII. Then, on August 28, 1941, they would perish at the hands of the invading Nazis, with the local townspeople acting as willing accomplices. It is Kaidan that is the starkest reminder of how fragile the spirit of liberty is, and how quickly it can be extinguished.