The Reformer John à Lasco (1499-1560)
It was five hundred years ago that the Polish reformer John à Lasco was born.1
Not restricting his activities to his native land, à Lasco played a considerable role in the life of Reformed churches in Germany, England, and the low countries. As a churchman who borrowed what he deemed best in Luther, Zwingli, Bucer and others, à Lasco sought to develop harmony between protestant groups rather than to advance his own ideas. À Lasco’s international experiences afforded him a perspective upon the affairs of church and state that was appreciated by many. Wishing especially to apply Reformed doctrine to the life of the churches, à Lasco promoted the development towards the writing of confessions, church orders, and liturgies. While the position he assumed in these matters evoked opposition from hardened Anabaptists, Lutherans, and others, many of à Lasco’s moderate formulations were adopted eventually in the now widely used professions of the Reformed faith. It will be worthwhile, therefore, to reflect upon the career and influence of à Lasco.
À Lasco was well-connected: his uncle, also called John, was the archbishop of Gnesen in Poland, and his brothers were pursuing influential careers in politics and government. Enjoying his uncle’s patronage and interest, à Lasco studied internationally before assuming ecclesiastical and diplomatic offices in Poland. But whereas the archbishop hoped that young John would succeed him, à Lasco was influenced by reform-minded thinkers, and he befriended Erasmus. In becoming the leader of the Christian humanists in Poland, à Lasco developed a critical stance towards the established church, and also towards Lutheranism. Further compelled by political changes not favourable to his own prominent family, à Lasco decided that his future lay in western Europe. Thus in 1537 he quit Poland to undertake studies in the lowlands.
À Lasco’s marriage to the daughter of a cloth merchant in 1540 signalled his break with Roman Catholicism and put an end to the financial support he was receiving from the church. Two years later he accepted an invitation from Countess Anna to supervise the fledgling Reformed churches in East-Friesland, and the family moved to Emden. There, the modest changes included the removal of images from the churches and the appointing of elders.
As Superintendent of the churches scattered around Emden, à Lasco tried to forge some harmony between the ministers, who, like many of the believers, were of diverse theological backgrounds. To this end, à Lasco composed a simple catechism and a treatise on the Lord’s Supper. He also produced the Summary of the Doctrine of the East-Frisian Churches, a crude collection of basic tenets drawn from the writings of Zwingli and Calvin. While the document contained remnants of Romanist teaching and therefore was criticized by Melanchthon and others, it was the forerunner of a later, much-improved church order.
In 1549 political changes in East-Friesland forced the Reformed believers into retreat. Under great pressure from Emperor Charles V, Countess Anna put into effect the Augsburg Interim. The terms of this decree, which was intended as a temporary arrangement of compromise between Reformers and Romanists, were such that à Lasco could not accept them in good conscience.
Moreover, one of the conditions laid down by the Emperor was the expulsion of à Lasco. Concerned for the welfare of the churches under his supervision, à Lasco visited England briefly in order to assess, among other things, the possibility of finding refuge there.
Fortunately, in England ecclesiastical change was in the offing during the reign of the young Edward VI. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was actively reforming the Church of England, and to that end welcomed the assistance of the continental Reformers. Within a year he appointed à Lasco Superintendent of the so-called Strangers Church in London, a collection of congregations consisting of Italian, French, and Dutch refugees of religious persecution on the continent. The decree of the Privy Council, which permitted the Strangers church legal non-conformity and the right to worship according to the “biblical and apostolic” custom, was intended to control the seemingly unorganized and potentially troublesome group of sojourners. At the same time, Cranmer could observe the church as a possible model for the Church of England.
Aided by four ministers, à Lasco sought to unite the Reformed believers in doctrine and life. To this end he composed a confession of the Strangers Church, a treatise on the Reformed teaching and practice of the Lord’s Supper, and a church order. In organizing the churches he was assisted ably by the prominent elder, Jan Utenhove, who also translated some of à Lasco’s writings into Dutch and published a Dutch psalter for use in the worship services. One of the ministers, Marten Micronius, composed an influential abridged Dutch version of the Latin church order, and a widely used Dutch catechism. À Lasco himself organized regular meetings of the ministers and elders, oversaw the exercise of the sacraments and discipline, and effected decency and good order generally. Some have estimated that membership in the congregations reached four thousand.
The somewhat unexpected accession to the throne by Mary Tudor in 1553 put a sudden end to the Strangers Church. Being Romanist, Mary rescinded the protestant decrees of her predecessor and ordered the congregations to disband. Accompanied by Utenhove and about 175 members of the congregation, à Lasco sails to Denmark, where the flock spends a miserable winter. Harassed by Lutherans wishing to impose their doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed believers and their leader travel southwards, eventually reaching Emden. There à Lasco serves as minister of one of the congregations for a brief period, before moving in 1556 to Frankfurt-am-Main, where he leads a Dutch Reformed church.
When John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger learned that King Sigismund II was about to reform the church in Poland, they encouraged à Lasco to repatriate. The King’s adherence to the principle of religious toleration was interpreted favourably, and à Lasco returned to Krakow in 1556. Before his arrival, Felix Cruciger, the leader of the few Reformed congregations, had already arranged a synod to unite the various protestant groups against the powerful Romanist church. In fact, unifying these groups into a pan-Reformed entity was à Lasco’s main objective from 1556-1560.
Unfortunately, the unification of Reformed believers in Poland would not be achieved easily, for three reasons. First, there were considerable theological differences between the parties involved. At the numerous synods held to discuss divergences, it became clear that there was no doctrinal unity in such matters as the two sacraments, the Trinity, and the mediating work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the end, Lutherans, Calvinists, the Czech Brethren, and others, found little common ground. Second, numerous sectarians who promoted their own teachings were confusing the situation in Poland. While John Calvin expressed genuine interest in the developments there, he could not be persuaded to come to Poland and provide theological leadership. Evidence suggests that à Lasco, who was a churchman rather than theologian, was not able to clear away the misleading teachings which clouded the theological picture. The third reason for the difficulty in unifying the protestants was the opposition of Roman Catholicism. Led by the Jesuits, and supported by the king, Polish Roman Catholics reacted to the trend of reform. And so it would not be until 1570, a decade after à Lasco’s death, that a protestant union of sorts took place in Poland.
Nevertheless, à Lasco and other leaders advanced the Reformed faith in Poland in several ways. The now completed Church Order of the London Strangers Church was published to guide churches in Poland and elsewhere, and a translation of the Bible into Polish was undertaken. À Lasco worked towards the adoption of a Polish Confession, and promoted Reformed schools and seminaries. But in 1560, after a lengthy illness, the “naked servant of the naked Saviour Jesus Christ,” as à Lasco described himself, died.
Conclusion: À Lasco’s Influence
It is clear that à Lasco’s contributions to the young Reformed churches were limited by the unfortunate circumstances in which these often found themselves. In East-Friesland the imposition of the Augsburg Interim hindered the churches around Emden so much that they did not flourish even in later years. In London, the Strangers church was driven underground when Queen Mary repealed the protestant policies of Edward VI. When the churches were re-established upon her death in 1559, they were much weakened. And in Poland à Lasco failed to unite protestant factions; the differences between them were so great that no united front could be formed against Roman Catholicism.
Despite these failures, however, the churches served by à Lasco did perform an important function in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The Emden congregations provided ready support to Reformed believers “under the cross” of persecution in the lowlands. Similarly, the London church was regarded as a source of refuge and guidance by many who were hounded from the continent for their faith. When persecutions in their homelands were relaxed, the hundreds of Reformed believers who had sojourned in England returned to the continent enriched by their experience in London. For this reason, the Strangers Church has been called the “mother and nursery” of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. And in Poland, the churches led by à Lasco provided a Reformed witness.
On another level, à Lasco personally influenced a number of younger Reformers who were instrumental in the composition of the confessions and church orders. Among these was Zacharias Ursinus, author of the Heidelberg Catechism, whom à Lasco met in 1556. It has been suggested that themes, topics, or expressions in no less than thirty-five questions of the Catechism may be traced to the formulations of à Lasco and the other leaders of the London churches. Another was Guido de Brès, author of the Belgic Confession. Having spent several years in London and in contact with à Lasco, de Brès was influenced by both the teachings and writings of the Polish Reformer. It has been pointed out, for example, that the theme of the comfort of the faith in times of persecution, which appears in the Confession, is prominent in the writings of à Lasco.
And then there was Marten Micronius, minister in one of the London congregations and collaborator of à Lasco. Especially for Reformed Churches in and from the Netherlands, Micronius’ work is important, because he provided the earliest Dutch language church order and catechism, both of which were based on à Lasco’s work. The influential Christelijke Ordinancien (1554) was a shortened version of the London Church Order, while the Kleyne Catechismus (1552) borrowed heavily from à Lasco’s Latin catechism. To give but one example of the significance of the Church Order, we may note that, via Micronius’ translation, the doctrine and practice of church discipline, which à Lasco adopted from Martin Bucer and emphasized in London, became a hallmark of the Dutch Reformed Churches. In sum, à Lasco contributed to the formation of liturgies, church orders, and confessions, which would express the unity and structure of Reformed churches in the seventeenth century and beyond.