Osteuropäische Geschichte

  / aventinus / Varia / Osteuropäische Geschichte

aventinus varia Nr. 20 [27.06.2010] 

Michael Kassube 

Can Poland-Lithuania be labeled as a religiously tolerant state? 

1. What is it all about?

Before we can start on answering the question itself, we have to clarify the meaning of the term „Tolerance“, respectively the adjective „tolerant“. This is especially necessary, because it is today an widely spread concept with a distinctly positive notion. Furthermore its usage is quite disparate in colloquial terms and cannot be used without considering those different meanings. In a second stage, we should define the time-frame we are talking about and figuring out which meanings of the word „Tolerant” are best applied to our specific time.  

a) Tolerance, a definition? 

The Oxford English Dictionary states the following definition for “Tolerance”: [1]

noun 1 the ability, willingness, or capacity to tolerate something. 2 an allowable amount of variation of a specified quantity, especially in the dimensions of a machine or part. 

This in itself is not much help in our endeavor, since the core meaning is described by another word of the same branch, “to tolerate”, its definition by the same source would be: 

verb 1 allow (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) to exist or occur without interference. 2 patiently endure (something unpleasant). 3 be capable of continued exposure to (a drug, toxin, etc.) without adverse reaction.  

Another definition by merrian webster states, [2] among others

a. sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own b. the act of allowing something 

This actually gives us decisive differences in how to understand the term „Tolerance”. I recon the second meaning of „Tolerance” as well as the third by Oxford can be omitted, since they describe a usage that wouldn't make sense in our context.  

Is it simply the allowance of something I disagree with? Or do I have to do something more? Does the phrase demand an ongoing active part of my own? The second definition by merrian webster states „sympathy or indulgence for beliefs […] conflicting with ones own”, that could also be read as a requirement to actually dispute about the case in question and to respect it as equal to its own position. This position demands being consequent and to maintain the above stated „mind-setting“ to all cases in question, which means in our context, for all religions, or forms of believes regarded and perceived as religion within the domain of the Rzeczpospolita to be treated with sympathy and, in my interpretation, equal respect and standing. In short. I will use the term „Tolerance“ with the following meaning:  

to treat someone or something with equal respect and sympathy as ones own conviction and to discuss all opposing views, convictions and beliefs with the same regard.

I admit, that it is a rather complicated use of the word, which bears its own paradox in it, but it is the best definition for outlining the special character of that term apart from phrases like „indifferent“ or „ambiguous“. 

b) The time frame. Briefly 

Talking about Poland-Lithuania can cover a huge time frame, depending on how narrow the term is used. To keep this essay within acceptably length and not to cross too different social and political circumstances I will choose a rather narrow use and cover only the time from around the Union of Lublin in 1569 to the end of the 17th century. Still, this will provide me with a colorful and disparate religious landscape, than I could cover completely, so one might forgive me, when I only highlight bits and pieces out of a still long and interesting history. [3]

2. The religious landscape. When and where? [4]

The main religion in Poland-Lithuania is Catholicism. It is mainly centered in the region of Poland and today's western Ukraine. Churches and monasteries own a large percentage of the land and therefore have often quite considerable influence within the political power structure in regional and supra-regional affairs. Furthermore the king has to be of roman-catholic conviction. In short, roman-Catholicism is seen as the dominant and defining religion of the Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae. 

Orthodox (Greek) conviction is the second major form of christian believe in the Commonwealth, later to be transformed into the Unites. Concentrated mostly in the eastern parts of Poland-Lithuania, in today's eastern Ukraine and Belarus, the patriarch of the orthodox (greek) confession is seated in Kiev, forming the head of the church organization. 

People of (Lutheran) Protestant confession are mainly centered within towns and cities of western Poland, gaining a large number of followers shortly after the reformation and Luthers thesis, but failing to maintain this. Their numbers gradually decline in the 17th century, until they are only present in the former territories of the Teutonic Knights, now Prussia, and some major cites like Gdansk. Another case are Calvinists. Gaining followers in the 16th century mainly among polish-speaking groups they never develop a perception of being “the German religion”, or “religion of Germans”. Although the Jesuits reform, following the Council of Trent also reverted large areas back to Catholicism they maintained influence in the area around Lublin.  

The next form of believe isn't christian at all, but still having a lot of followers in the Rzeczpospolita. Jews had no regional center but lived in the whole of the domain in sometimes smaller, sometimes larger communities, often separated from christian neighbors. In the midst of the 16th century the „Council of four lands“ was formed to provide some form of uniform self-government within the polish realm. 

3.The development of Tolerance in Poland-Lithuania, highlighted 

Having given a definition of how I am going to use the term “Tolerance”, as well as a rough time frame and a brief – and by all means, incomplete – description of the largest denominations in Poland-Lithunia, I now want to start discussing if the State itself could be called “tolerant”.  

We begin with the famous “Warsaw Confederation” of 1573. It is referred to as one of the most important documents of early modern history, granting practice of religion without penalization of most religions present in Poland. This Convention was later again verified and copied into the Articuli Henricani and the subsequent Pacta Conventa. [5]

Although it is forbidden to prohibit, pursue, or murder someone because of his/her confession only the roman – catholic and the Greek – Orthodox hierarchy are expressis verbis noted in the text and their organization therefore officially recognized. Another religious group, the so called Polish Brethrem weren't recognized at all. [6] Their center at Rakow Academy, established in 1602 was therefore abolished by parliamentary decree in 1638 and the whole group was exiled from Poland in 1658.

In the end of the 17th century the parliament expands the position of the catholic church and belief in forbidding to converse into another religion from catholic faith (1668) and limiting the recognition of nobility (indigenat) to Catholics only (1673). Jewish faith had an rather ambiguous fate. Free religious expression was granted, but their hierarchical organization, centered by the Council of the lands was protected by shifting royal favor alone. Furthermore, especially within the towns, further laws could confine their rights quite drastically. 

At last,one special case should be mentioned here too. The execution of Kazimierz Łyszczyński in 1689 for supposedly spreading atheistic thoughts. In our case, it is not important what he actually wrote, but the notion that he was convicted for religious arguments. Acceptance of different believes therefore seemed, at this time, go only so far, as there was a positive belief in some kind of acceptable god. 

4. Conclusion

In the beginning we have defined “Tolerance” as to treat someone or something with equal respect and sympathy as ones own conviction and to discuss all opposing views, convictions and beliefs with the same regard. It is now time to draw our conclusion of the above asked. Was Poland – Lithuania a tolerant state? Seeing the events and actions, described in part 3, their selective acknowledgment of some form of believes and their rejection of some others, seeing the initial constraint of the Warsaw Confederation, the persecution of the Polish Brethrem and of Kazimierz Łyszczyński and the subsequent strengthening of the catholic Institution I cannot say, that the Polish State exercised Tolerance. But, that does not mean, that the State persecuted all differing religions and believes. It definitely did not do so, instead, it had for the most part a rather indifferent standing towards the religious beliefs or confessions of its subjects. For most of the time-frame, described in this essay, the domain of Poland – Lithuania offered a new beginning for religious persecuted of other European countries, but not because it openly embraced differences or respected “otherness”. It simply didn't care. 


Kot, Stanisław, Humanizm i Reformacja, Lwów 1927, pp 424 – 427. 

Literatura Chrześcijańska - http://www.literatura.hg.pl/varsconf.htm (last visit 27.6.2010)

Merriam Webster Online - http://www.merriam-webster.com  (last visit 27.6.2010)

Oxford Dictionary Online - http://www.askoxford.com/?view=uk (last visit 27.6.2010)

Tazbir, Janusz: Reformacja, kontrreformacja, tolerancja, Wrocław 1996.

Topolski,Jerzy: Polska nowożytwa (1501-1795), in: Topolski, Jerzy (Hg.), Dzieje Polski, pod redakcją Jerzego Topolskiego, Warszawa 1976, pp. 254-417. 


  • [1]

    http://www.askoxford.com/?view=uk, last visit: 27.6.2010

  • [2]

    http://www.merriam-webster.com, last visit: 27.6.2010

  • [3]

    The various Cossack uprisings will be omitted, especially Bohdan Khmelnytsky, since the following pogrom against Jews cannot be understood as an act of the political administration, or an act of the will of the political body of the Rzeczpospolita. Still, the acceptance of “otherness” is quite good demonstrated by those acts. 

  • [4]

    Again, I won't cover all forms of convictions and confessions. 

  • [5]

    It is probably interesting to note, that Catholicism is never made equal to something else, it is always the other way around. 

  • [6]

    The text of the Warsaw Confederation as a non-critical edition can be found here: http://www.literatura.hg.pl/varsconf.htm (last visit 27.6.2010), cited after Kot, Stanisław, Humanizm i Reformacja, Lwów 1927, pp. 424 – 427.

Empfohlene Zitierweise

Kassube, Michael: Can Poland-Lithuania be labeled as a religiously tolerant state?. aventinus varia Nr. 20 [27.06.2010], in: aventinus, URL: http://www.aventinus-online.de/no_cache/persistent/artikel/7875/

Bitte setzen Sie beim Zitieren dieses Beitrags hinter der URL-Angabe in runden Klammern das Datum Ihres letzten Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse.

Erstellt: 29.06.2010

Zuletzt geändert: 29.06.2010

ISSN 2194-1971