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To a degree hardly true of any other modern nation, the history of the church in Poland has been bound up with the history of the state. In 1966 the Poles celebrated the millennium of the baptism of Prince Meiszko, a symbol of Poland's entrance into the Catholic fold. For over a thousand years the population has been ardently Roman Catholic.

Before World War II the Jews comprised about a tenth of the population, but since the Hitlerian massacres their numbers are negligible. The non-Catholic, mainly Protestant, population is only about a tenth of the whole. Their cultural unity seems to have been strengthened, rather than weakened, by the Reformation, which they forcibly resisted, and by the more recent pressures, first by the Germans and later by the Russians. To break down their resistance the Soviets worked through a group of Catholics who were willing to support government policy: the Pax Association, led by Boleslaw Piasecki. Pax engaged in an enormous propaganda campaign through daily, weekly, and monthly publications, giving tacit approval to the repressive measures undertaken. It did not even protest the imprisonment of priests and bishops, including the Polish primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. In 1958 the cardinal had said, “The Church is against any form of large-scale state ownership. . . . I see no elements of humanism in socialism.” In 1962 he berated government authorities as “enemies of God.” Following his imprisonment he was no less adamant. As late as 11 June 1972 he stated that “it was the new Polish leadership rather than the Church that would have to make major compromises,” insisting that “real (national) unity can be achieved only through the faith,” that it is “neither comprehensive nor justified when attempts are made to destroy unity by leading workers from unity with Jesus Christ.”

In December 1970, the party chief, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was replaced by Edward Gierek. Gierek, working through a group of Catholics conciliatory with the Soviets, known as Znaks, took the line that “it is now realized that the socialist system is not a temporary phenomenon, but at the same time it is also realized that Catholicism in Poland is not temporary either.” Such a statement can only be understood as conciliatory, especially when it is coupled with accession by the government to the cardinal's major demand that full title be given to the church for nearly 7,000 buildings, most of them churches. In 1972 the cardinal began a campaign for the construction of several thousand new churches throughout Poland, fifty in Warsaw alone.

The Protestant Church is hardly a factor in national politics. Whether it will fare better under the present “normalization” of church-state relations is debatable. Government conciliation could open the way for greater acceptance of Soviet economic policies and to a lessening of resistance to the Protestant evangelical witness. There is some evidence that both of these effects are actually taking place.

See P. Fox, The Reformation in Poland (1924); and F. Siegmund-Schultze (ed), Die evangelischen Kirchen in Polen (1938): full bibliography.