Jan Laski – The Polish Reformer

Jan Laski – The Polish Reformer

            Jan Laski (also known as Johannes à Lasco) is normally remembered as the Reformer of Poland, but he had also a great influence in England and other parts of Europe and was an untiring opponent of the heresies of his time.

            Born into a noble family in central Poland in 1499, Laski spent much of his youth at the home of their uncle, Jan Laski the Elder, archbishop of Gniezno, who oversaw his studies and directed him toward a promising career in the Catholic Church. In 1519, Laski was ordained priest and took up his ecclesiastical duties. As it often happened in those days, these duties included diplomatic relations with other countries.

            He took some time away from his post in 1524 and 1525, when he traveled to France and Switzerland and became acquainted with Erasmus and other reformers. When he returned to Poland, he was appointed bishop, first in Veszprém and then in Warsaw – an indication that he was well esteemed, although his connections with Protestant reformers were already raising some rumors.

            These rumors were justified, even though, in 1541, he signed a paper to confirm his allegiance to the Church of Rome. His views became finally manifest in 1543, after he moved to the Netherlands and openly repudiated the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation.

            By that time, he had married the daughter of a weaver, Barbara. With her, he settled in Emden, a seaport in East Frisia, on the coast of the North Sea, where he had been invited by the region’s ruler, Anna von Oldenburg, to serve as overseer of the local churches. There, he began to write religious works, an activity he continued until his death. He also continued to exchange letters with European reformers, especially the German Philip Melanchthon.

Laski’s Work in England

            In 1548, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, invited Laski to England. This was part of Cranmer’s effort to strengthen the Reformation promoted by the new English king, Edward VI. Specifically, Cranmer hoped that Laski could work as adviser on religious matters and help in the revision of church laws.

            Laski accepted the invitation. He stayed in England six months, then returned to Emden for some time. In the spring of 1550, he moved back to England, this time with his wife and four children, John, Jerome, Barbara, and Suzanne.

            Edward’s reign provided high hopes for Protestants, attracting individuals and families from other nations, particularly Germany, where the emperor had imposed an uncomfortable compromise between Roman Catholic and Protestant liturgies.

            This influx of foreigners created the need for a place where they could worship in their own languages. The task of finding such a place was given to Laski, who was able to organize different services in the church of St. Austin – one of the largest in London. The members of this community, often referred to as “Strangers’ Church,” came from different parts of the continent and were divided into three main language groups: German, French, and Italian. Eventually, their numbers grew so much that they organized themselves as separate churches.

            Laski continued to supervise these churches and created confessional documents for them. His vision was to create a model that all English churches – still transitioning from Roman Catholic to Protestant – could follow. In this reorganization, he agreed with the radical reformer John Hooper on avoiding objects and practices that resembled those used by the Roman Catholic Church, such as vestments and kneeling.

            At that time, England was plagued by frequent bouts of a mysterious and contagious disease known as “sweating fever,” which struck both Laski and his wife. They eventually recovered, partially thanks to Cranmer who provided care for them in his country home at Croydon. In 1552, however, Barbara suffered a relapse and died. Laski, who was at that time speaking at some conferences, was so distressed that had to interrupt his work. He remarried the next year to a young British lady, Catherine, who bore him five children.

Against Heresies

            King Edward’s sudden death in 1553 from a respiratory disease came as a shock to his court and a terrible blow to those who had placed in him their hopes for an English Reformation. After a short-lived attempt to place Edward’s cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne, they were forced to submit to his half-sister Mary Tudor, who had gained the backing of much of the population. A fervent Roman Catholic, Mary brought back her religion to England, punishing those who opposed it.

            As many other Reformers, Łaski fled England. After traveling around Northern Europe in search of a place where he could settle, he returned to Poland, where the Protestant Reformation was making progress. There, he tried to convince King Sigismund II to establish a national church. But Sigismund, unlike other rulers of his day, preferred to allow different opinions. While this stand seems just and open-minded, Laski was troubled by the king’s tolerance of heretical groups – especially the Socinians, a group of anti-Trinitarians who called themselves “Polish Brethren.”

            Laski actively opposed the Italian Franciscus Stancarus who, by stating that Jesus was a mediator only in his human nature, was giving fuel to anti-Trinitarians. Laski also stood against some teachings of the Anabaptist Menno Simons, specifically that Jesus didn’t derive any of his humanity from Mary (Menno referred to Jesus’s body as “celestial flesh”).

            Menno’s views were not entirely surprising, since the Anabaptists – like the Gnostics of old – had a low view of the human body. But this left us with a Christ who shares our humanity only in part, and who was not, as the author of Hebrews tells us, “made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

            Menno’s view was similar to other teachings in the history of the church that had been considered heretical, such as the teaching of Apollinaris, which Gregory of Nazianzus debunked with his famous, “What has not been assumed has not been healed” (in other words, Christ cannot save human beings without taking on their nature).

            Laski’s contrast with Menno Simons began in 1544 and continued until his death, even though the two men remained on good terms.

            If Laski was unswerving in his opposition to heretical views, he was tolerant of other views within the Protestant camp, trying to foster unity among Reformed, Lutherans, and Polish Brethren (followers of the 15th-century reformer Jan Hus). 

            He was also one of the translators of the first complete Polish translation of the Bible, known as the Brest Bible, or Radziwill Bible (after the name of its sponsor, the nobleman Mikolaj Radziwill, who also financed Laski’s temporary stay in Lithuania).

            Laski never lived to see the Bible in print. He died on 8 January 1560 after a long illness, leaving behind his wife and nine children from the two marriages. The Bible was published three years later.

            Laski’s works were first collected into two volumes in 1866 by the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, who admired Laski and wrote a dissertation comparing his ecclesiology with John Calvin’s. Much scholarly attention was given to Laski in 1999, on the 500th anniversary of his birth, when he was largely recognized as one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation.