Monday, May 18, 2009

Forgotten Reformer: Jan Laski

I just returned from the RCUS Synod where we heard Rev. Eric Kayayan give a few talks about Calvin in honor of the 500th anniversary of his birth. He did a good job talking about Calvin’s life and how that contributed to his life and work. However, it reminded me of my year long task to speak more of the forgotten reformers. Calvin was a great reformer, but he was primarily a ‘man of letters’ as they were called back then. He did preach the gospel without a doubt, and he organized Geneva, but his main influence is through his written work. He was not a foot solider of the reformation. Again, I have nothing against Calvin, I just think some of the other guys need to get more publicity.

One of those men is Jan Laski. Laski was a polish man borin in 1499. Laski was a Romanist priest, who converted to the Reformed faith. When that happened is not easy to tell, but it was clearly before 1542. It probably happened while he was in Basel. He went there in 1523 where he met Erasmus, Oecolampadius, and Zwingli. He became a pastor in Emden in 1542 clearly at this point preaching the Reformation and the doctrines of grace. He became the first superintendent of the Reformed Church in East Friesland in 1545. Persecution from the Holy Roman Empire and some Lutherans would chase him from Emden to England, where he pastored at the famous Stranger’s Church in London. This church had enormous influence on the Puritan movement as this church was outside of the rules of the Church of England. Laski supported Hooper in his refusal to wear the Vestiments. Bloody Mary would take the English throne and Laski was on the move again. He went to Brandenburg for a time, but would return to try and help reform his homeland of Poland. Laski was considered a heretic and was wanted for heresy, but he traveled back to Poland anyway. It was in Poland in 1560 that he died.

Laski’s influence cannot be overstated. Laski was a follower of Zwingli’s view of the supper, not Calvin’s view. Laski is a major influence in Puritanism, one that is often overlooked today. Just as a way of proof that Laski was more influential than Calvin with the faction that would become known as Puritans is the incident at Wesel. Wesel was a German town that had an exile church during the reign of Mary. The church had both French and English members. Many of the English wished to follow the Church of England, and the Church of England told the Wesel church that if they simply accepted a couple of the vestments they would be allowed to worship unmolested. The church wrote to both Laski and Calvin for advice. Calvin advised that they keep the vestments since they were indifferent theologically (for Calvin at least), and then the church would not split. Laski advised the church to reject the vestments and suffer the consequences. The church took Laski’s advice and all non-conformist, including the French, were kicked out of the church. Laski had great influence.

Laski helped form the ideas of church government that still impact the Presbyterian church today, namely that elders and ministers are the same except that ministers are able to preach and give the sacraments. Laski influenced the Heidelberg Catechism with some of his own early catechisms. Laski helped introduce the Reformation in Emden, England, Netherlands, and Poland at least. His contemporaries held him in high regard. Jerome Zanchy, Italian Reformer who taught at Heidelberg, held that Laski’s name should always be mentioned in the same breath with Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli.

The Rev. Eric Kayayan spoke beautifully about Calvin, and rightly so. He spoke of the great influence of Calvin, and again, rightly so. Rev. Kayayan mentioned all the people to whom Calvin wrote letters, such as the people in England, the exile churches, and even King Sigismund of Poland. It hit me then that Calvin was able to write to these people because of the labors of others, such as Laski. Would Calvin have been able to write to Sigismund if Laski had not done such good work? Would Calvin have had any influence in England if it had not been for Bucer, Vermigli, and Laski? Probably not. That is why Jan Laski needs to be remembered. He is a man who was a true foot soldier of the Reformation.