The Reformation’s Hungary, Hungary’s Reformation

2013. október 31., csütörtök

To celebrate the day of reformation, 31 October, Rev. Dr. Gabor J. Lanyi from the Hungarian Reformed Church in America takes a look at the historical and cultural importance of the Protestant reformation in Hungary.

"Why do you always sing your National Anthem at the end of your worship services?" – asked one of my church member's American husband. The answer was simple. We can self-evidently sing our National Anthem in a worship service, because it's a prayer. And what's more, it's a Hungarian reformed prayer. We sing it not because we are overly nationalistic, but because this so-called "jeremiad," written in the style of the Biblical book of Jeremiah by Ferenc Kölcsey in 1823, offers the perfect form to ask God for our nation's well-being.

Bearing in mind that Hungary's national anthem is nothing other than a Protestant prayer, we can get a hint of how fundamental the Reformation's influence was on the cultural and national development of Hungary.

In 1526 Hungary suffered a horrendous defeat from the Ottoman-Turks at Mohács. Within 20 years Hungary became divided into three parts: The central territories were occupied by the Turks for almost two centuries; Northwest-Hungary became ruled by the Habsburgs; and Transylvania, which started as an independent principality, gradually converted to a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.

The bloodbath at Mohács, the death of the king, the fall of the capital city of Buda, the total loss of the national freedom and integrity meant a terrible shock to the Hungarians. In many ways the national tragedy became a personal tragedy too. Many Hungarians lost their family during the never-ending skirmishes; many children were kidnapped by the Turkish slavers, many Hungarians lost their property and became fugitives in their own land. Many of them lost their faith too. The hypocritical and corrupted church of the late middle ages, could not give an answer to their problems.

In this crucial moment a group of reformatory preachers emerged. Mostly former Franciscan monks, such as Mátyás Dévai Biró (-1547), Mihály Sztárai (-1575) and István Szegedi Kis (1505-1572), wandered the countryside spreading the gospel and the reformed thoughts to the distressed. Their message was simple. They drew parallel between the Hungarian present and the Jewish past. As in the Old Testament times, God punished his chosen people for their idolatry and unfaithfulness, so he punishes now his newly elected people, the Hungarians, for following the idolatry and corruption of the old faith. They urged for repentance and conversion, insisting for the institution of biblical standards in every aspect of individual and collective religiosity. That was the time when the first Hungarian jeremiads were born.

Was this message theologically and politically correct? Nobody questioned that then. The local parishes eagerly joined the Reformation, the statues and pictures were removed from the churches and the local priests either embraced the Reformation or was expelled and substituted by a reformed preacher. The Reformation spread on the Turkish occupied territories and in the Principality of Transylvania without any obstacle, only in the Habsburg ruled Western Hungary was this process halted by the strong counter-reformation policy of the Empire. According to certain sources, at the end of the 16th century, almost 95% of the Hungarian population became Protestant, mostly Calvinists.

The newly discovered Biblical faith gave hope and strength to the Hungarians, helped them to survive the national and personal tribulations. But they not only survived. The Reformation's emphasis on vernacular preaching enhanced the improvement of the Hungarian culture too. The sermons were preached in Hungarian, printing presses were built to print pamphlets, books, flyers – needless to say - most of them were written in Hungarian. In 1590 the most comprehensive Hungarian Bible translation was published by Gáspár Károli (1529-1591), establishing the Hungarian literary language that we speak to this very day. Schools were founded to encourage the personal study of the Bible and teach the basic tenets of the Reformation. Many scholars peregrinated to leading western Protestant universities and came back possessed by the cutting-edge knowledge and innovations of their time, such as the polymath Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634); the cartesianist János Apáczai Csere (1625-1659), author of the first Hungarian Encyclopedia; and the two Bolyais (Farkas, 1775-1856 and János, 1802-1860), world-renowned mathematicians of their time.

Until the Communist takeover of the late 1940s the Protestant schools and universities nurtured Hungary's greatest scientists such as János Irinyi (1817-1895), inventor of the safety match or the Nobel-prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893-1986), discoverer of Vitamin C. These schools fostered Hungary's most popular poets and writers, among them Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838), the author of the aforementioned "jeremiad," the later National Anthem.

Next to its cultural benefits, the Hungarian Reformation maintained its involvement into the national cause too. Embracing the Calvinist idea of predestination, Transylvanian princes, such as István Bocskai (1557-1606), the "Hungarian Moses" and Gábor Bethlen (1580-1629), considered themselves as God-given liberators, who were chosen by God to fight against the Habsburgs, securing equal rights for Protestants in Habsburg Hungary and in Transylvania. Their fight for religious freedom linked up with the struggle for national unity and freedom.

Being accustomed to the Calvinist practice of presbyterian self-governing within their church, reformed politicians and statesmen always bore the brunt of the democratization of their society, for example Ferenc Deák (1803-1876) or lately László Tőkés (1952-), the Transylvanian pastor, whose resistance against his arrest sparked the revolution against the Ceausescu-dictatorship in 1989.

Why do we sing our national anthem at the end of our services? Perhaps, because we unconsciously perceive that without the Reformation there might be no Hungarian language and culture at all. That Hungary may not have survived the 150 years Turkish rule without the regenerating power of the newly discovered Biblical truth. That the Hungarian language and culture could not have endured against the Habsburg effort for germanization without the Protestant school system. What can today's Hungary thank the Reformation for? We could almost say: for its very existence. While we sing the old jeremiad, we involuntarily commemorate this, paying tribute to God, who showed mercy and love to us, giving chance for spiritual, cultural renewal and national survival by the Reformation. We can rightfully say together with the old reformers: Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone!


Rev. Dr. Gabor J. Lanyi


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