King John Sigismund & Isabella Jagiellon

(1540-1571) & (1519-1559)

Each person [should] maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while we at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.
—Isabella Jagiellon

Miklós Barabás/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Miklós Barabás/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Transylvania has had its name unfortunately linked with the vampire Dracula, based on Bram Stoker’s horror novel. It is debatable whether Stoker’s vampire had any inspirational roots with Count Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, beyond the name and evil reputation. But Transylvania has a nobler heritage that needs to be brought to fresh light to inspire the contemporary world as we deal with matters of religious differences in our various nations.

In the 1500s Transylvania stood on the conflicted borders of two major cultures with different religions. In much of Europe, Christianity was in turmoil. The dominant Roman Catholic Church had been shaken by the Protestant Reformation, which led to the creation of the Lutheran Churches and the Reformed Churches (Calvinists) as well as many other smaller religious movements. To the south was the Ottoman Empire, still growing in strength under the dynamic leadership of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. These conflicts and moving lines of control passed over Transylvania, and in their wake a very diverse population developed. In Transylvania one could find Roman Catholics, Romanian Orthodox, Lutherans, Calvinists, Unitarians, Jews and perhaps even a few Muslims.

Into this roiling brew of social, political and religious ferment a young Polish woman named Isabella Jagiellon was married to a claimant to the Hungarian throne. After her husband died, Isabella continued on as a widow queen. When Suleiman the Magnificent swept through the region, he set up Isabella as queen to rule with her young son over Transylvania. Eventually the region was handed over to Austria in a treaty, and the Austro-Hungarian authorities retained her in Transylvania.

Queen Isabella’s personal physician was an early Unitarian, Giorgio Biandrata. This religious refugee from Italy taught her about religious tolerance. Convinced by his teachings, Isabella issued the “Decree of Religious Tolerance” in 1557. The decree called for “each person to maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while We at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.” During a period of interreligious relationships expressed through war, inquisition and burning at the stake, this was a remarkable document.

Isabella died shortly after promulgating the “Decree of Religious Tolerance.” Her son John II Sigismund Zápolya, still a teenager, assumed the throne. During his reign he strengthened the work of religious tolerance that his mother began, continuing to employ Dr. Biandrata as his advisor. King John Sigismund had a strong interest in religion, but not just for his own beliefs at the expense of the religions of his subjects. Instead he encouraged open discussions about religion and a toleration and respect for all viewpoints. He even sponsored a great 10-day public debate with Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics and Unitarians, at the end of which he announced his personal embrace of Unitarianism. He believed these issues could be discussed without recourse to war or repression.

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

John Sigismund renewed the decree his mother had passed, but five years later he took it back to the Transylvanian Diet asking that it be strengthened. The result was the Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience, also known as the Edict of Torda, the broadest expression of religious freedom in Europe to that point in history. The Act, passed in 1568, encouraged preachers to preach in the way that their souls compelled them, and said that congregations could keep preachers whose teachings they approved. The Act said, “No one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God.”

Through these policies of religious tolerance King John Sigismund, following in the footsteps of his mother Queen Isabella Jagiello, made Transylvania the freest kingdom in terms of religion in all of Europe. King John died in a carriage accident, and eight years after the Edict of Torda was passed it was overturned by the next king. Regrettably Transylvania slid away from the spirit of tolerance that had flourished under John Sigismund into the religious conflict and repression that plagued surrounding regions.

Meet more peacemakers

This profile on King John Sigismund and Isabella Jagiellon comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.