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Polish brethren
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Polish brethren

Polish Brethren (also called Antitrinitians, Arians, or Socinians) was the name of a Christian Polish sect from the 16th century. The movement started around 1562 and ended with the expulsion of Arians from Poland in 1658. The Brethren never participated in the agreement at Sandomierz between different Polish Protestants. The Polish Brethren advocated the separation of church and state and taught the equality and brotherhood of all people; they opposed social privileges based on religious affiliation, and their adherents refused military service (they were known for carrying wooden swords instead of real sabres) and declined political office. They did not believe in private property, were against capital punishment, and did not believe in the Catholic doctrines of Hell or the Trinity (see Unitarianism).

Although never numerous, they had a significant impact on political thought in Poland. After being expelled from Poland, they emigrated to England and the Netherlands, where their works were widely published and influenced many the thinking of later philosophers such as John Locke and Pierre Bayle.

Their main ideologues were Piotr z Goniadza (Gonesius), Grzegorz Pawel z Brzezin, although Johannes Crellius (originally from Germany), and Jan Ludwik Wolzogen (who came to Poland from Austria). Among the best known adherents of this sect are Mikolaj Sienicki, Jerzy Niemojewski, and writers and poets Zbigniew Morsztyn and Waclaw Potocki.

These men were expelled from Poland after a series of 17th century wars known as the Deluge in which Sweden invaded Poland, since they were commonly seen as Swedish collaborators. This expulsion is sometimes taken as the beginning of decline of Polish religious freedom, although the decline started earlier and ended later: the last non-Catholic deputy was removed from parliament in the beginning of the 18th century. Most of Polish Brethren moved to the Netherlands, where they greatly influenced European opinion, becoming precursors to Enlightenment. Through their connection to Enlightenment thinkers, their ideas also influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States.


John Locke was preceded by a few decades by Samuel Przypkowski on tolerance, by Andrzej Wiszowaty on 'rational religion.' Newton had met Samuel Crell of the Spinowski family (originally Krell from Germany).

Englishman John Bidle had translated two works by said Przypkowski, as well as the Racovian Catechism and a work by J. Stegmann, a "Polish Brother" from Germany. Bidle's followers had very close relations with the Polish Socinian family of Crellius (aka Spinowski).

Subsequently, the Unitarian branch of Christianity was continued by, most notably, Joseph Priestley, who had emigrated to the United States and was a friend of both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who claimed to be a Unitarian and credited Priestley with having converted him to that faith. Notably, Priestley was very well informed on the earlier developments in Poland, especially by his mentions of Socinius and Szymon Budny.