John Laski (1499-1560)
2010 marks the 450th anniversary of the death of Poland’s greatest Reformer, John Laski. He was highly esteemed by Calvin and Melanchthon, a friend of Cranmer and Bucer, and looked to by numerous Reformers.
As a Reformer, John Laski1 would play a key role in the Netherlands, England and Poland. And yet today he is not widely known.
Laski was born in 1499 at the castle of Laski, ninety miles from Warsaw. He received the best of education in Poland and Europe. While he studied, his uncle, also called John Laski (Archbishop of Gniezno and primate of the Polish Catholic Church), was advancing the career of his protégé.
From 1517-1525 young Laski received the positions of custodian of Leczyca, canon of Plock, deacon of Gniezno, canon of Kraków, dean of Gniezno, royal secretary, provost of Leczyca, and provost of Gniezno. To detail these advancements is to understand what Laski would eventually turn his back on.
In his ‘travelling’ studies Laski made the acquaintance of Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who first encouraged him in ‘reading the gospel’.2 Laski then travelled to Basel, where he met Konrad Pellicanus who taught him Hebrew; Heinrich Glareanus who taught him Latin and Greek; and Johannes Oecolampadius who guided him in doctrine.
It would seem, however, that his uncle, hearing of the ‘dangerous’ company he kept, recalled him urgently to Poland. Laski’s heart now began to move away from adherence to the Church of Rome, but as yet he did not sever his ties. He entertained ‘the hope that it would be possible to reform the Church of Rome without seceding from its obedience’.3
His uncle demanded that he sign an oath not to embrace doctrines contrary to the Catholic Church. It was 1526, and Laski obliged, signing.4 However, he resorted back to the Scriptures, and his soul was revived: ‘Can I, by the performance of the works she prescribes, obtain peace of conscience, and make myself holy in the sight of God?’5 His heart had been captured by the crucified Saviour.
In 1536, he was offered the bishopric of Kujawia by Polish king Zygmunt I; an office which opened the way to the primacy of Poland. But he had decided to begin publicly separating from Rome and identifying with the Reformation.
Declining the offer, he resolved to depart from Poland, and went to his monarch to explain himself. ‘Dignity no longer captivated him; the cross of Christ and the reproach and persecution of an evangelical preacher seemed to him more desirable [preferring] … poverty for Christ’s sake to the luxurious life of a bishop’.6
From Poland, Laski travelled west. In Louvain he joined himself to a small group devoted to Bible study. There he met and married the daughter of a Louvain weaver in spring 1540.
Marrying was Laski’s second momentous resolution in favour of the Reformation. In doing so, he turned his back on the riches and honours the Catholic Church offered. With this he became a marked man, inciting the Roman clergy’s hatred.
The Countess Regent of East Frisia, Anna of Oldberg, aware of Laski’s abilities was intent on having him reform the churches in her dominions. In 1543, Laski accepted her request to be pastor of the Emden church and superintendent of the East Frisian churches7, but with the proviso that he would be permitted to return to Poland, in case he was needed for the Reformation. East Frisia would be the blacksmith’s forge where Laski would hammer out Reformation principles for the organisation and discipline of the church.
Throughout six years of reformation, he was beset by numerous personal and ecclesiastical difficulties. And yet, Laski would be successful to the extent that Emden became known as the ‘Northern Geneva’.
For Laski, the foundation of all worship and administration in the churches was the Scriptures. The images and Romish rites disappeared from the churches; the order of the church became Genevan in form; and Romish and Lutheran confusions concerning the Lord’s Supper disappeared.
Laski instituted a weekly meeting for ministers for prayer, doctrinal discussion, spiritual encouragement, and help in governing the church.
One grave error of the Reformers was to confuse church rule with civil authority, and this resulted in the persecution of those who dissented. But Laski saw the unbiblical nature of this, and when Duke Albrecht of
Laski’s hard work in reforming the East Frisian churches did not go unnoticed; rulers and theologians asked his counsel on church polity. But after the Diet of Augsburg in 1547, the Emperor Charles V forced their return to Roman Catholic rule.
Yet, in the same year, refuge for Laski opened up in England with an invitation from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: ‘We are desirous of setting forth in our churches the true doctrine of God … We have therefore invited both yourself and some other learned men’.8 So Laski fled there from Emden.
Cranmer’s conference of Reformed theologians failed to materialise, but Laski was nominated by King Edward VI as superintendent of the ‘Strangers Church of London’, overseeing German, French and Italian congregations in London that numbered around 4,000 individuals.
Their ministers were granted freedom to use their own rites and ceremonies and Cranmer probably hoped that this ‘foreign’ church would prove a seed of Reformation throughout Europe, as well as England, with Laski at its head.
Again there were struggles. Both Laski’s son and wife died, and he almost died himself. But his influence began to be felt. Cranmer was struggling with Catholic rites, but finally set about reforming the services ‘by the goodness of God and the instrumentality of that most upright and judicious man, master John à Lasco’.9
When John Hooper objected to the wearing of vestments, and was refused ordination, Laski stood at Hooper’s side, maintaining that enforcing an indifferent practice amounted to a legalistic tyranny. In this he was more like a prototype nonconformist Puritan, who understood that Scripture alone should be a believer’s rule.
It was the organisation of this ‘alien’ church that resulted in Laski’s most important and famous work, Forma ac ratio (the ‘form and rationale’ of ceremonies used by the immigrants). In this unique treatise, he dealt in detail with pastoral ministry, the ministry of the Word and administration of sacraments, and the use of church discipline. He constantly emphasised that all must be according to Scripture.
Laski’s treatise influenced the German, Dutch and English Reformed churches. At least 35 questions in the Heidelberg Catechism may be attributed to him. It has even been suggested that he was the founder of the Presbyterian model of church government in England (and, to some degree, Scotland).
In Laski’s churches, individual congregations were not governed by a single pastor or priest, but by a union of ministers and elders, part elected by the people.
In 1553 the young King Edward VI died. With the accession of Catholic Mary Tudor, the fires of persecution began. In that dark year, with his new wife, family and associates, Laski set sail from England. He had not forgotten his beloved Poland.
During his two-decade absence, the Reformation had made great progress there, but there was division between Lutherans, Calvinists (Helvetian) and the Bohemian Brethren. The Polish monarch, Zygmunt II August, saw the union of the movements as vital for religious peace in Poland. So he invited Laski back to Poland in 1556.
On his return, Laski came under attack from the Polish Catholic bishops. The king, however, welcomed the humble Reformer warmly and appointed him superintendent of all the Reformed (Helvetian) Churches of Little Poland.
Laski set to work with great vigour, preaching, organising conferences, and holding synods to unite and strengthen the Protestant churches. In addition, he wrote many doctrinal treatises and was involved in the first Reformed Polish translation of the Bible, known as the Brześć Bible. His overarching vision was to form a national church, founded on the Word of God.
At the joint synod of Calvinists and Bohemian Brethren at Wlodzislaw in 1557, on Laski’s motion it was resolved to effect a union with the Lutherans. The Lutherans would, however, cause problems. The rise of anti-Trinitarianism was also a constant threat.
Sadly, Laski was not to see the Reformation completed, for within four years of his arrival in Poland he died – on 8 January 1560. Nonetheless, he had left an abiding influence on the Polish Reformation.
What marked him out as a unique Reformer was his kind and irenic spirit. He understood that the reformation and building of Christ’s church was not by civil rule or legalism. For him, the authority of Scripture and liberty of conscience were crucial.
It is no surprise then that Laski is regarded as a ‘proto-Puritan’ and ‘proto-Presbyterian’. His model of church government laid a foundation for the Presbyterian form in England. And he was not just a practical theologian, but a pastor who knew the people needed the Word of God.
His heart was for his God and Saviour, and the church of God. But it was also for the people of Poland. Poland is still in need of ‘reformation’ and the gospel. Who will pick up the torch from John Laski?
1. Known also as John à Lasco.
2. Abraham Kuyper, Joannis a Lasco opera tam edita quam inetia, 2 volumes (Amsterdam, 1886), Vol. I, pp.282,388. Cited by Basil Hall, John à Lasco, 1499-1560 – A Pole in Reformation England (Dr Williams’s Trust, 1971), p.15.
3. Valerian Krasinski, Historical Sketch of the Rise, Progress and Decline of the Reformation in Poland – Volume I, p.250.
4. Some scholars believe the oath was signed at the later date of 1542.
5. James A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, Volume III, Book Nineteenth, Chapter III, p.1581.
6. Hermann Dalton, John a Lasco: His Earlier Life and Labours (Hodder & Stoughton, 1886), p.182.
7. East Frisia was a state of Dutch population but today is part of Germany.
8. Original letters relative to the English Reformation. Ed. Hastings Robinson. 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1847), Vol. I, p.17. Cited in Dirk W. Rodgers, John à Lasco in England (Peter Lang, 1994), pp.8,9.