Kiszka, Jan

Jan (John) Kiszka (c.1552-1592) was a politician, magnate, patron and benefactor of Arianism in the 16th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Jan was the eldest son of Stanislaw Kiszka (d.1554), Palatine of Witebsk (wojewoda witebski) in today’s Eastern Belarus, and Princess Anna Radziwill (d. 1600). His parents were among the largest landowners in the country. He inherited over 70 cities and 400 villages from his father alone. His estates were scattered over today’s eastern Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.

His father, who may have had some sympathy for the Reformation, died when John was young. Initially a Calvinist, Princess Anna became an ardent Arian around 1563. She then began expelling Calvinist, Catholic, and Orthodox clergy from her estates and replacing them with Arians. John was raised an Arian. On the advice of his uncle, Anna sent John to study in Western Europe. In 1563 he enrolled at the liberal Protestant Academy in Basel, where he lived with the celebrated humanist and proponent of toleration, Celio Secundo Curione. Curione liked young Kiszka for both his intellectual ability and his sense of humor. Later, when Kiszka returned to Poland, Curione’s son Leon accompanied him. Because of an outbreak of plague, in 1564 Kiszka went from Basel to Zurich where he studied under Heinrich Bullinger. After leaving Switzerland, he traveled to Rome, Naples, France, and Spain, before finally returning to Poland.

Upon his return Kiszka assumed responsibility for managing his vast estates, enlarged in 1569 when his mother ceded to him the Polish town, Wegrów and its surrounding villages. In 1576 he was deputized by the nobles of Lithuania to acknowledge King Stefan Batory as the Grand Duke of Lithuania. In the war with Russia that followed Kiszka fielded over 500 soldiers from his estates, and commanded them personally. In 1579 the grateful king made him Starosta of Zmudz, which gave him senatorial rank. He was later promoted by King Sigismudus III Vasa to the rank of Castellan of Wilno (Vilnius), 1587, and Palatine of Brzesc (Brest-Litovsk), 1589. That year he gave a passionate speech in the senate in favor of religious toleration. Although he did take part in the political life of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, his interest in politics was lukewarm. He concentrated on religion and managing his vast estates.

Kiszka’s commitment to Arianism was strengthened by his mentor, the theologian Peter Gonesius, who was a minister on his Wegrów estate. Under the influence of Gonesius, he expelled most of his churches of Calvinist ministers, and replaced them with Arian ones. He spread Arianism amongst his serfs, though he did not free them from serfdom. As lesser nobles followed his suit, during the 1570s Arianism spread rapidly in Belarus and Lithuania. In 1570 he bought a printing press, which he installed in Wegróww for the use of the Polish Brethren (Arians). Gonesius there published his famous book, On the Son of God. Later the press was moved to Losk, where in 1574 a New Testament was issued, with an introduction by Simon Budny dedicated to Kiszka.

Although an ardent Arian, Kiszka opposed the social and political radicalism of Lithuanian Arians. Despite the pleas of some Arian theologians, he refused to have himself rebaptized. When Gonesius began preaching pacifism, community of goods, and the renunciation of political offices, Kiszka expelled him from Wegrów and burned his writings. The Judaizing opinions of Budny were also repugnant to Kiszka, who removed him and his followers from pulpits in his estates. At Arian synods he urged moderation and reconciliation with the Polish Arians. In 1581 he wrote a letter calling for a synod to determine if it was compatible with Arianism hold civil office with “right of the sword.” The following year he presided over the Synod in Iwie where the issue was discussed. He was instrumental in establishing or maintaining Arian congregations in Wegrów, Iwie, Losk, Lubecz, Nowogródek, Kiejdany and many other places.

In his will Kiszka called on his successors to maintain Arian ministers in his estates and not to add burdens to his serfs “who are baptized and listen to God’s truth.” Sometime before 1575 Kiszka had married the Roman Catholic princess Elizabeth Ostrogska (d.1599). As the marriage was childless, his estates were inherited by his widow and his brother Stanislaw Kiszka (d.1617).

Patronage was vital for the survival of the Lithuanian Arian church. After Kiszka died, his widow married the Reformed prince, Krzysztof I Radziwill, who expelled all Arian ministers from Wegrów and gave the churches to Calvinists. In the estates inherited by Stanislaw Kiszka, also a Calvinist, changes were more gradual, probably because his Arian mother was still alive. Arian ministers were, however, slowly replaced by Calvinist ones, and the printing press moved from Losk to Wilno and later to Lubecz. In 1607 Stanislaw, under the influence of his son Stanislaw (d.1626), later bishop of Zmudz, converted to Catholicism. All Protestant ministers were expelled from the Kiszka estates and replaced with Roman Catholic priests. The newly converted Kiszka family worked zealously to eradicate Arianism and by the 1620s it had largely disappeared from their estates. In Nowogródek, a royal town, in 1611 the Arian church was burned down by a mob. The congregation, forbidden to rebuild their church, survived until the banishment of the Arians in 1658.

In 1600 the churches in Kiejdany (Lithuania) and Lubecz (Belarus) were taken away from the Polish Brethren and given to the Reformed Church. In 1606, when Jan’s niece, the Calvinist Anna Kiszka (d.c.1643), married the Calvinist prince Krzysztof II Radziwill (1585-1640), the Arians were permitted to worship in private. Both congregations, though diminished in size an importance, survived until the Arians were banished in 1658. Most of them then embraced Calvinism. The Radziwills gave the Lubecz printing press to the Arians and who operated it until around 1656. Kiejdany remains a center of Calvinism in Lithuania to this day.


Jan Kiszka and his mother Anna Kiszka still have not had their own biographer. A short biographical note of Jan Kiszka by Prof. J. Tazbir can be found in the Polish Biographical Dictionary (Polski Slownik Biograficzny), vol. 12 (1966-67). The issue of the printing press is dealt with by Benedict Wiszowaty in “On the Printing Presses of the Unitarians in Poland in Lithuania,” in S. Lubieniecki, History of the Polish Reformantion and Nine Related documents. Translated and interpreted by George Huntston Williams (1999). Kiszka is also mentioned in the same book by Andrew Wiszowaty at p. 340. In the same book, the note concerning his mother Anna Kiszka (d.1600) she is mistakenly identified as a daughter of Mikolaj Radzwill ‘the Black’—she was in fact his cousin. Kiszka’s patronage is described in L. Szczucki, Marcin Czechowic,” (1964); in J. Jasnowski, “Piotr z Goniadza,” in Przeglad Historyczny (1935); and in H. Merczyng, Zbory i senatorowie protestanccy w dawnej Rzeczpospolitej (1905). The Arian church in Wegrów is described by T. Wyszomirski in “Z Przeszlosci zboru protestanckiego w Wegrowie w XVI I XVII wieku,” in Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Poslce, vol. 4 (1959). See also Stanislas Kot, Socinianism in Poland (1957) and Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents (1945).

Article by Kazimierz Bem
Posted August 21, 2005