Hungary´s Christian Heritage

 

Brief History of Hungary

Hungarian Coat of ArmsThis area, called “Pannonia” by the Romans, came under the rule of Attila the Hun (ca. 406-453 AD) as the Roman Empire was collapsing. The name “Hungary” is possibly derived from the name for the Hun people. Following the disintegration of the Hun Empire, Germanic Lombard and Gepid tribes ruled Hungary for about 100 years. They were followed by the Avars. During the 200 years of Avar rule, the migration of the Slavonic tribes began: Moravians, Bulgars, Croats, Serbs, and Poles. These all tried to defeat the Avars, but their power was not broken until the Frankish king Charlemagne invaded from the West. After Charlemagne retreated, the tribe of the Magyars took control of the region. They are the forefathers of the modern day Hungarians, originating from east of the Urals and being part of the Finno-Urgic tribes. The Magyars united in the 9th Century under their first King - Stephen I. He accepted Roman Catholicism as a precondition of receiving the crown of Hungary from the Pope! Stephen outlawed the old HunMagyar runic alphabet and made Latin the official language of the court.

Hungary flourished as a Roman Catholic state, tightly connected with other Catholic neighbouring states such as the Hapsburgs in Austria. Hungary suffered devastating losses under the Mongol Tartar invasion of 1241, led by Batu Khan.

Gradually Hungary gained more and more autonomy and power under the rule of the Magyar Árpáds dynasty, though they remained thoroughly Roman Catholic. This dynasty ruled from the 9th Century until 1301. However, much was to change over the next two hundred years.

John Hus

John Hus (1369-1415) was a religious thinker and reformer who was born in Southern Bohemia. As one of John Wycliffe’s followers, John Hus actively promoted Wycliffe’s ideas that people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language, and that they should oppose the tyranny of the Roman Catholic church which threatened anyone possessing a non-Latin Bible with execution.

Hus on his way to being burnt at the stakeHe initiated a reform movement based on the ideas of John Wycliffe, and his followers became known as Hussites. Because his teaching also spread to the neighbouring countries, many Hungarians became his followers. The Roman Catholic church was against his teachings, and Hus was excommunicated in 1411 because of his rebellion. He was later burned at the stake in Constance on 6 July 1415, having been condemned by the Council of Constance at an unfair trial.

At the end of Hus’ trial, when asked if he would appeal to the Pope for mercy, he responded, “I do affirm before you all, that there is no more just or effectual appeal, than that which is made unto Christ. Who is a higher judge than Christ?” When the chain was wrapped around his neck, binding him to the stake, he cried out, “My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than this for my sake, and why then should I be ashamed of this rusty one?” As Hus was dying, being burned alive at the stake, he proclaimed, “What I have taught with my lips I seal with my blood. You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” The name Hus, means literally “goose”. Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention (a list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church) onto the church door at Wittenberg (see Christian History of Germany). Martin Luther’s family crest is a picture of a swan! The prophecy of Hus had come true.

Matthias Corvinus “the Just” (1458-1490)

Approximately 40 years after John Hus’ martyrdom the Renaissance king Matthias Corvinus “the Just” (1458-1490) raised up a large royal army whose main force consisted of the remains of the protestant Hussites. Matthias Corvinus was one of the most important kings of the thousand years of Hungarian history. During his reign, Hungary reached one of its greatest ever territorial extents, from Southeast Germany to Dalmatia in the West, and from Poland to today's Bulgaria in the East. He defeated the Turkish Ottoman Empire in Bosnia and Serbia. In an attempt to keep the Turks back, he conquered much of the old Holy Roman Empire, even taking half of Austria and ruling from Vienna from 1485 onwards. He instituted many educational and legal reforms and was sympathetic to the Hussite views.

He died leaving no heirs, and Hungary split into many small fiefdoms. The Turks invaded again in 1526 and Hungary was portioned into three parts. The Turks took central Hungary, Royal Hungary in the West (consisting of modern day Croatia and Slovakia), and Eastern Hungary which was then called Transylvania.

Reformation

The Reformation came to Hungary not long after 1517. First, it spread among the German-speaking people in the free Royal towns of Western Hungary and to the Saxons of Transylvania. Merchants travelling through Europe, as well as the teachers and pastors coming home from Wittenberg (Germany), were the first proponents of this reformed religion.

However, the battle against them was fierce at first as the Roman Catholic-ruled Hungarian legislative assembly passed an Act to start an inquisition in Vienna. Even so, the spread of the Reformation was not hindered in the royal towns of Western Hungary or Transylvania in the 1540s and 1550s.

During this time the Reformation made great progress in Hungary, to the extent that much of the country's population and clergy professed Protestantism, leaving only small pockets of the Catholic Church throughout Hungary. The peasant villagers joined the Reformation of the Christian faith in country towns in Western Hungary and in the South.

The First Reformers

One of the first Hungarian reformers, Mátyás Dévai Bíró, had been a guest of Martin Luther's, and he was called the "Hungarian Luther". His preaching activity extended to all of the three parts of the country; the domain of King Ferdinand (of the House of Habsburg) in the West, the realm of Transylvania ruled by King John Szapolyai in the East, and the Turkish occupation in the South. Because both kings, being Roman Catholic, persecuted the followers of the Reformation, Bíró had to flee from one territory to the other. In 1541, János Silvester, another reformer, completed the first Hungarian translation of the complete New Testament.

The spreading of the Reformation in parts of Hungary could not be stopped by the Roman Catholic church. In 1549 the Royal Hungarian legislative assembly also accepted the Lutheran confession (Confessio Pentapolitana) of the five free royal towns of Upper Northern Hungary. The Reformation work continued apace, and by the end of the 17th century most Hungarians were Protestants. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648) between Roman Catholicism and the Reformers established Debrecen as a fortress of the Reformed faith, and Hungary’s second largest city was known as “The Hungarian Geneva”, after the work done by John Calvin in that city (see Christian History of Switzerland).

The Counter Reformation

"In the (Roman Catholic led) Habsburg territories of Hungary, the Counter-Reformation raged from 1671 on. More than 40 pastors and teachers who were not willing to convert were sentenced to the galley. At the end of the 17th Century Habsburg conquered the Turkish middle part of Hungary and exerted Counter-Reformational pressure on the Protestants. From 1711 to 1718 the situation improved insofar as the Counter-Reformation ceased from being bloody. Up to the end of the 18th Century, however, the Counter-Reformation caused severe decimation of the Reformed Church of Hungary, to which the majority of the population belonged." 1

In 1781, Joseph II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Hungary, issued an Edict of Tolerance (Edictum Tolerantiae), in which he regulated the public religious practice of non-Catholic believers. Protestant congregations were allowed to be organised, had a pastor of their own, and were no longer obliged to pay for the services of a Catholic priest. Despite this, Roman Catholicism was promoted as the religion of the monarchy, and the majority of Hungarians drifted back to the Roman Catholic Church. The reformed church remained split and it was not until 1881 at the General Assembly of Debrecen that the Reformed Church was officially established. By then it was plagued with liberalism and remained ineffectual. By the end of the 1800’s Roman Catholicism was by far the dominant religion of Hungary.

Pentecostal Movement in Hungary

Hungarians were among those who were converted in the early Pentecostal revivals in the USA (see Christian History of the USA). Some of those converts returned to Hungary in the early 1920’s. In 1928 the small Pentecostal groups organised themselves under the Assemblies of God banner. However, due to Hungary becoming communist, and the majority of the population remaining Roman Catholic, the Pentecostal movement never really took root in Hungary. It is only within the last 20 years that Pentecostal churches have started to grow.

A Time of Transformation

By 1948, Hungary had fallen under the control of the Soviet Union. At that time, the State tried to improve its relationship with the churches by means of several agreements. But because Communism teaches atheism and absolute control, it was not possible to build up new relations. Although strong emphasis was laid on the principle of "a free church in a free state", the Hungarian Republic could not ensure this freedom for the churches. The Communist Party continually weakened not only its political opponents but also the churches.

Church schools were nationalised and the next step was to purge the schools (first in the capital city and later in the rest of the country) from the “harm of a twofold ideology”, that is, religious and non-religious instruction. As a result, religious instruction was totally removed.

Our Future if We Turn to God

Generations of Hungarians were born and brought up without any ecclesiastical background. Church attendance was far from being characteristic of men and women in Hungary, and since Communist ideology had practically no ethical teachings, the whole of Hungarian society became a disillusioned people. Nevertheless, thousands of faithful church members and ministers kept the faith and passed it on, as far as they were able, to the next generation. From the 1960s onwards, the church has become more active, the publication of theological and edifying books has increased, and a new Hungarian translation of the Bible has been published.

However this must only be the beginning. Let us revive the Word of God in our nation for which Hus and Corvinus paid with their lives, and “Stand … in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls …” (see JEREMIAH 6:16).

“As for God, his way is perfect: the word of the LORD is tried: he is a buckler to all those that trust in him” PSALM 18:30.

  • 1. The Origins and History of Reformed Churches in Europe - Hungary, Lesson 5 of a course on <reformiert-online.net>