A few months ago, just before Easter, Hungary Today published an excerpt from an essay from the excellent literary journal The Hungarian Review. Now, we would like to present our readers with a follow-up essay by the same author. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first section here.
In the article below, author Gordon McKechnie uses his own personal travels to provide a lens onto the Reformed Church of the village of Csaroda, the history of the Hungarian reformation, as well as onto Hungarian history as a whole.
Towards the end of the 16th century, Ottoman power temporarily waned and, with the Habsburgs in the ascendant, persecution of Protestants in Hungary again gathered strength. The ruthless regime of Giorgio Basta, attempting to Germanise and Catholicise Hungary on behalf of the Habsburgs between 1601 and 1604, is remembered as one of Hungary’s most miserable periods. Tyranny led to rebellion. The rebellion was supported by the Hungarian Estates and, tacitly, by the Ottomans. The armies of its leader, István Bocskai (1557–1606), a Calvinist magnate from Bihar, defeated the Austrians. At the 1606 Peace of Vienna, the freedom of worship in Hungary was acknowledged and offices in Royal Hungary were made open regardless of religion. Back home, István Bocskai was proclaimed as “the Moses of the Hungarians”.
For his role in defending the rights of Protestants in Hungary, István Bocskai earned himself a place on the Reformation Wall in Geneva. In the middle of that wall – built in 1909, the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth – are the Reformation theologians Calvin, Beza, Farel and Knox, towering over the others. Of the six smaller statues spread out along the wall beside them, four are of men who rose up against the established authorities – “tyrants” – in a manner inspired by Reformed teaching. In addition to István Bocskai, they are Oliver Cromwell (leader of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War), William the Silent (who led the Dutch revolt against Spanish Habsburg rule in the Netherlands), and Gaspard de Coligny (military leader of the French Huguenots). The fifth, Frederick William of Brandenburg, the Calvinist “Great Elector”, was also a military leader. The odd man out here is Roger Williams, the Massachusetts separatist who founded the colony of Rhode Island.
István Bocskai was elected King of Hungary and his Turkish friends gave him a royal crown (made in Persia: but, ironically, you now have to go to the Schatzkammer in Vienna to see it). But he declined the honour and died, possibly poisoned, not long after the Peace of Vienna. Bocskai’s eventual successor, from 1613, as Prince of Transylvania was Gábor Bethlen (1580–1629). Under his rule, the Principality of Transylvania reached its greatest territorial extent and maximum influence. Bethlen’s face is on Hungary’s 2000 forint note.
From the Peace of Vienna in 1606 to 1660, under Gábor Bethlen (like István Bocskai, elected King of Hungary but never crowned) and his successors as Princes of Transylvania, György Rákóczi I and György Rákóczi II, Transylvania enjoyed its golden age. Hungarian culture flourished. Although its princes and leading men were Calvinist, there was a high degree of religious toleration in the spirit of the 1568 Diet of Torda. During this period, Protestantism in Habsburg-ruled Royal Hungary was kept relatively free from persecution through pressure from Transylvania, backed up by the potential for, and sometimes actual, military intervention. It helped too that Austria’s attentions were consumed by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) that began when the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor tore up the Peace of Augsburg (1555) that had settled the map of Germany between Catholics and Lutherans, and tried to impose religious uniformity throughout Habsburg domains. The Hussites/Protestants of Bohemia rebelled. Protestant academics, many fleeing from the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, found refuge in Transylvania and its young universities.
But then Transylvania overreached itself. Inspired by ideas that Hungary was the modern-day Israel and perhaps by a strain of Calvinist millenarianism, György Rákóczi II (“cast as King David, who might usher in a golden age for humanity” [MacCulloch, 2003]) went to war in Poland without the consent of his Ottoman overlords. His wings were clipped and the effective independence of Transylvania came to an end, although it remained a separate legal entity until 1711. In 1671, the Habsburgs suspended constitutional liberties in Hungary. Protestant schools and churches were closed. A period still known in Hungary as the “Decade of Mourning” ensued. In 1674, 700 Protestant preachers were arrested, accused of high treason and many were sent as slaves to the galleys in the Mediterranean. The country seethed with discontent.
Only with the return of the Ottoman threat did the Habsburg king back down and confirm Protestant rights in Hungary – at the Diet of Sopron in 1681. But the Austrians soon regained the upper hand. After the defeat of the Turks at the battle of Vienna in 1683, the Habsburgs occupied Hungary. While Austrian successes in the Great Turkish War were a cause of rejoicing in much of Europe, it was the opposite for Protestant Hungary. Hungary was treated as a conquered, rather than a liberated, country. Cardinal Leopold Karl von Kollonitsch, a count of the Holy Roman Empire and Archbishop of Esztergom, was put in charge of reorganizing the country for the Habsburgs, saying that he would “first render Hungary obedient, then destitute, and finally Catholic”. The Counter- Reformation, whatever its methods, proved to be successful. According to the 1949 census, the first under the Communists, religious affiliation in Hungary was then:
Roman Catholic: 67.8%
Reformed (Calvinist): 21.9%
Evangelical (Lutheran): 5.2%
Greek Catholic: 2.7%
Other or none: 0.5%
(Among ethnic Hungarians in Romania, some 55% come from a Reformed background.)
Some ten kilometres to the southeast of Csaroda will bring you to the village of Tarpa. Tarpa is the biggest village in the region and its whitewashed Gothic, Reformed church is the largest of the church buildings we saw there. Between the church and the town hall, stands a statue. The man on the horse is Ferenc Rákóczi II (1676–1735), the last Prince of Transylvania. The Rákóczis were one of the richest families in Hungary and for generations staunch defenders of Protestantism. The first complete Bible in Hungarian, Gáspár Károli’s translation, was printed at Vizsoly in 1590, on Rákóczi lands and under their protection. The Rákóczi castle at Sárospatak that features on the back of the current Hungarian 500 forint note, lies only a few hundred metres from the Calvinist College of Sárospatak. But the advance of the Counter-Reformation in Habsburg-ruled Hungary was such that even the Rákóczis had converted to Roman Catholicism by the end of the 17th century. Nonetheless, it was a Rákóczi – Ferenc Rákóczi II, the man on the horse in Tarpa and also on the front of the 500 forint note – who led the most serious 18th century Hungarian rebellion against the Habsburgs, the Second Kuruc War (1703–1711). “Kuruc” is a name of uncertain origin given to the mainly Protestant peasants and serfs who fought the Habsburg authorities after 1671 on and off until 1711. In the tourist literature of today, Tarpa proudly refers to itself as a “Kuruc town” and celebrates “Kuruc Days” each July. Defeated in the end, Ferenc Rákóczi II, the last of his line, spent the rest of his days in exile at a villa on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, deep in the Ottoman Empire.
A few days after visiting Csaroda, we met Dr Botond Gaál in front of the Great Church in Debrecen. Dr Gaál was born in Vámosatya, a village in Bereg, just to the northwest of Csaroda. He is a mathematician and physicist by background, a recently retired Professor of Systematic Theology and a Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. We were joined by his wife, Mária, and Rev. István Oláh shortly afterwards, and spent several happy hours together in the church, in the coffee-cum-book shop behind it and on a shaded bench in the courtyard of the adjacent college – learning about the Hungarian Reformed Church from the 16th century to the present day.
If there is a centre of Reformed Church in Hungary today it is the Great Church of Debrecen. The yellow baroque building that towers over the centre of Debrecen dates from the early 19th century. It stands on the site of two earlier churches both destroyed by fires, the more recent in 1802, that also destroyed much of the town. Through what looks like a cupboard door in the coffee shop, you enter a semisubterranean room where the foundations of both the earlier churches are visible.
Like the smaller versions we saw in Bereg, the Great Church of Debrecen has white undecorated walls and centres on a lofty pulpit and a famous organ, faced by pews on three sides. The only representational decorations are flames in cups representing the Holy Spirit (B. B. Warfield famously said that Calvin was “pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit”); and grapes, wheat and water portraying, in inlaid wood, the two sacraments – Holy Communion and Baptism. We saw there, too, an original copy of Károli’s 1590 Bible and Lajos Kossuth’s chair.
The revolutionary year 1848 has gone down in European history as the “springtime of nations”. The Austrian Empire suffered as much upheaval in 1848–49 as any other European country, beginning in Vienna and then spreading. Because of the multi-ethnic character of the Austrian Empire, the demands for democracy and civil liberties rapidly became mixed up with nationalism. The most serious rebellion came from Hungary, still technically a separate country with its own institutions within the overarching Austrian Empire, but increasingly, since the Napoleonic Wars, under the control of Austria’s reactionary absolutism and Metternich’s desire for uniformity throughout the Empire.
As early as the spring of that revolutionary year, Hungary was effectively an independent state, although the formal Declaration of Independence would be another year in coming. Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) was the country’s Regent-President. Kossuth came from a strict Lutheran family and some of his education had been at the Sárospatak Calvinist College. Sándor Petőfi (1823–1849) and Mór Jókai (1825–1904) (poet and novelist, respectively, and each a prominent voice in the 1848–49 War of Independence) met when they were students together at the Calvinist College of Pápa.
Sándor Petőfi’s poem National Song, written on 15 March 1848, was instrumental in the events of that year.
On your feet, Magyar, the homeland calls!
The time is here, now or never!
Shall we be slaves or free?
This is the question, choose your answer! –
By the God of the Hungarians
We vow, that we will be slaves
The “Word” is important in Reformed theology and practice. The modern Hungarian language was developed in that context, and literature and poetry emerged from it. Some two thirds of the prominent Hungarian writers and poets have come from Calvinist backgrounds or through the Calvinist colleges – far out of proportion to the Calvinists in the population as a whole.
The War of Independence was not a Protestant versus Catholic battle, but by that time Hungarian nationalism had absorbed Calvinist ideas including those of liberty and rebellion against tyranny; and the Habsburgs accused the Protestants of being behind the troubles. The slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, drawn from France, was much in evidence. “But it was clear that the Revolution in Pest was not enough, but that arms were needed as well for the independence of the homeland. The soldiers were not mainly from Pest, but mostly Hungarians of the Great Plain. These people were mostly Calvinists. Debrecen became the centre of the War of Independence” (Gaál, 2007). For the Protestant foot soldiers of the War of Independence, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was interpreted and understood in biblical and, indeed, Calvinist terms. In his sermons, the Minister of the Great Church at the time, Mihály Könyves-Tóth (1809–1895), known as Kossuth’s priest, set the revolutionary slogan in that context. For his sermon of 26 March 1848, he took as his text verses from Galatians Chapter 5: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage… For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith… For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Authorised Version, quoted in Gaál, 2007).
In the face of invasion of Hungary from the south and west, Kossuth and the government fled east (taking the Apostolic Crown of St Stephen with them) to Debrecen. When Kossuth entered the town on 7 January 1849, the gatekeeper revived the term that had been applied 250 years earlier to István Bocskai and applied it to Kossuth: “Moses of the Hungarians”. The idea of Kossuth in the biblical image of the liberator was repeated often. Then, on 14 April 1849, in the Great Church of Debrecen, from the chair that we saw there, Lajos Kossuth proclaimed the Hungarian Declaration of Independence. It had been drafted by a joint session of the Upper and Lower Houses of the National Assembly meeting in the Debrecen Reformed College just behind the church.
Ultimately, the 1848 Revolution failed in Hungary, but only after the Austrian Emperor called in the help of 300,000 Russian troops. At one of the last battles of the war, the young revolutionary poet Sándor Petőfi disappeared, either killed in battle or taken prisoner with many others to Siberia. His body was never found. Mór Jókai wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical roman ŕ clef, Political Fashions (1862) in which his friend (called “Pusztafi” in his novel) returns to Hungary, after a period of some years, dishevelled and disillusioned with both politics and poetry. It reflected the mood in Hungary after defeat in the War of Independence.
Martial law was imposed on Hungary. Hungary’s constitution and separate institutions were suppressed and German became the language of government. Resistance went passive. When, however, Austria was defeated by Prussia in 1866, it was time to heal old wounds within the now-weakened Empire. Out of this came the 1867 Compromise that created the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the theoretical equality of Hungary within it.
Lajos Kossuth went into exile when the Revolution failed. In the years immediately after the 1848 Revolution he was feted in Britain and, to an even greater extent, in the United States. Daniel Webster (of the Dictionary) wrote a biography of Kossuth. Abraham Lincoln called him “the most worthy and distinguished representative of the cause of civil and religious liberty on the continent of Europe”. In New York, “the Moses of the Hungarians” became “the Washington of Hungary”.
In Debrecen a statue of Lajos Kossuth dominates the space (Kossuth Square) in front of the Great Church. In the green space (Calvin Square) behind the church there are two monuments: a statue of István Bocskai and a column remembering the Protestant preachers who were arrested during the Decade of Mourning, charged with high treason and sent to serve as galley slaves in the Mediterranean. It commemorates too the famous Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter who freed them. For some it is a very personal monument: the name of one of Mária’s ancestors is among the galley slaves listed on the monument.
The 20th century was cruel to Hungary. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and despite early covert approaches to the Entente Powers, Hungary’s fortunes were tied to those of Austria. As a percentage of population more Hungarians were killed in the First World War than those of any of the other ethnic groups in the Empire. The village war memorials are crowded with the names of the dead. Then at the end of the war, with the Empire gone, the independent state of Hungary emerged with two thirds of its territory, and more than half its population, awarded to neighbouring countries. Eight million ethnic Hungarians were left in Hungary. Some 3 million found themselves outside the new borders. The new Hungary was a kingdom without a king presided over by a Regent who was an Admiral without a fleet. The new country was landlocked.
In the Second World War, unfortunately poised between Germany and the Soviet Union, Hungary again found itself on the losing side and not long afterwards under the domination of the Soviet Union. Gyula Illyés’s haunting poem One Sentence on Tyranny was written in 1950 when Stalin was the man in the Kremlin.
Where there’s tyranny,
Not only in the gun barrel,
Not only in the prison cell…
And so it goes on, tracing the subtle, corrupting effects of tyranny on everyday life. One Sentence on Tyranny was published for the first time in Hungary when freedom briefly flowered in the autumn of 1956. It was then not republished in Hungary until 1986.
In 1956, Hungary was the first European country to rebel against Communist tyranny. The rebellion, cruelly put down by invading Soviet forces, is commemorated in, among other places, a three-dimensional mural on the wall of the Tarpa town hall, behind the statue of that other rebel, Ferenc Rákóczi II. Some 2,500 Hungarians died in the 1956 rising, in addition to 700 Soviet troops. In the immediate aftermath, 26,000 Hungarians were arrested. Of them, some 350 were executed – including Imre Nagy, who had been Chairman of the Council of Ministers in the critical days from 24 October to 4 November 1956. 200,000 Hungarians fled the country. 23 October, now a national holiday in Hungary, marks the 1956 rising. In 1989, the date was chosen to proclaim the Third Hungarian Republic – the post-Soviet republic. The Berlin Wall was still standing firm on 23 October 1989.
When European Communism came to an end in 1989, Hungary had, to a greater extent than most of the other Soviet satellites, already begun – more quietly this time – to loosen the Communist yoke. Across the border in Romania, where many ethnic Hungarians lived under the tyrant Ceauşescu, conditions were much worse. László Tőkés “demonstrated the continuing militant tradition of Hungarian Calvinism, when his outspokenness and quarrel with local Communist party bosses as pastor in Timişoara (Temesvár) proved to be the catalyst for the revolution against Romania’s last Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu” (MacCulloch, 2003). Ceauşescu was executed on 25 December 1989. The transition in Hungary was far less violent.
In 2011 Hungary adopted a post-Communist Constitution, the last of the ex-Soviet satellites to do so, and amidst criticism from the liberal heartlands of the European Union. The Constitution begins:
God bless the Hungarians
WE, THE MEMBERS OF THE HUNGARIAN NATION, at the beginning of the new millennium, with a sense of responsibility for every Hungarian, hereby proclaim the following:
We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.
We are proud of our forebears who fought for the survival, freedom and independence of our country.
We are proud of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the Hungarian people. We are proud that our people has over the centuries defended Europe in a series of struggles and enriched Europe’s common values with its talent and diligence.
We recognise the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our country.
We promise to preserve the intellectual and spiritual unity of our nation torn apart in the storms of the last century…
The Prime Minister of Hungary when the 2011 Constitution was adopted was Viktor Orbán. Orbán came to national prominence when, as a young student he gave a well-received speech at the ceremony marking the rehabilitation and reburial of Imre Nagy on 16 June 1989, “in which he was the first to publicly demand that the Russian invaders leave his country” (Ferenc Hörcher, Conservative or Revolutionary? Three Aspects of the Second Orbán Government (2010–2014), 2014). Supported by a scholarship from George Soros, who has given to many good causes in his native Hungary, Orbán studied in Oxford under Zbigniew Pełczynski, who, two decades earlier, had been my political philosophy tutor (and Bill Clinton’s). He was Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002 and has been again since 2010. Orbán and several members of his government are active members of the Hungarian Reformed Church.
There was once a saying in Debrecen that the end of the world will come when the Roman Pope stands inside this Calvinist town’s Great Church. Well, in 1991, soon after the Communist yoke was thrown off, Pope John Paul II did come to Debrecen and he did enter the Great Church. He also laid a wreath at the foot of the galley slaves’ pillar, a metal representation of which still lies there. And yet…the world goes on.
We bade a fond goodbye to Dr Gaál as dusk fell and walked back round to the long square in front of the church. There, under the gaze of Lajos Kossuth and rows of spectators on the tightly packed, makeshift stands, a game of 3×3 basketball was being played. Novi Sad versus Ljubljana. The night was warm. The lights were strong. The broadcast commentary, bouncing irrepressibly from language to language, was loud.
Farther along the square, where it was quieter, we sat down at a table on the pavement to dinner. The guitarist beside the restaurant played Hotel California, It’s a Wonderful Life and Killing me Softly. I had last heard Killing me Softly played, on a similarly balmy evening, at the Café Restaurant du Parc des Bastions at the northwest end of the Reformation Monument in Geneva, the opposite end from István Bocskai’s statue.
“Do you believe that there would be a Hungarian nation if there had been no Calvin?” “I do not think so.”
Be sure to check out more articles from the Hungarian Review here.