The Hungarian Reformation
By Chris Richards
…in labours more
abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in
deaths oft. (2 Cor 11:23 KJV)
With the rise of Islam very much in the news, the history of the
Reformation in Hungary makes an interesting study. The Church there
not only had to contend for the faith against Roman Catholicism but
also against the Islamic Turks who invaded Hungarian territory. The
Christian can learn much from the history of the Church in Hungary.
For the greater part of its existence it has been oppressed and
persecuted. Rome, Islam, or Communist persecutions have never
totally destroyed Gospel witness in Hungary. It is also
fitting that the Reformation story be retold in this year of 2006,
as this year marks special anniversaries for Stephen Bocskay,
sometimes known as the Hungarian Oliver Cromwell. Bocskay was born
in 1556 and died by poisoning in 1606. He is commemorated on the
International Reformation Monument in Geneva, towards the erection
of which the Hungarian Reformed Church contributed one of the
largest sums of money. Only the Church of Scotland contributed more.
Despite the Reformed Church of Hungary claiming over two million
adherents, Hungary is often regarded as a wholly Roman Catholic
The Early Days
The Gospel was planted among the Magyar peoples who settled in
Hungary from Asia by Cyrillus. The rise of the Papacy affected
Hungary as it did in all other places where Rome usurped local
churches. By the time of the Reformation, Hungary had 150 so-called
Holy Places. “Miracles” were commonplace yet the morality of the
country was very low.
The preaching of John Huss in Prague affected many students from
Hungary who were studying at Prague University. However, it was not
until a century later that the populace were reached with the
Gospel. Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences in 1517
opened the way for the Hungarian Reformation. Many Germans had
settled in Hungary. This German influence led to Luther’s writings
being circulated. By 1600 it is believed that 60% of the population
Queen Mary, a very influential member of the Royal Family, was won
over to the Reformation. She used her influence to protect
Protestant preachers, especially John Henkel. From 1523 Reformed
Truth had been taught at the Academy of Ofen in Budapest. In
Transylvania (then part of Hungary) the Reformers were zealous in
catechizing the people. This led to the populace mocking and
ridiculing the superstitious beliefs of the Roman priests.
The Roman Bishops demanded that Queen Mary’s husband, King Louis II,
move against the Reformers. All Lutheran books were ordered to be
burnt and all property owned by Lutherans was to be confiscated.
Some books were burnt, but before the persecution could take hold an
Islamic army threatened invasion. Soliman the Magnificent with an
army of 300,000 men marched on Hungary. All the troops Louis could
muster were 27,000. These were quickly defeated by Soliman. The
King, in making his escape, suffered a riding accident which killed
The invasion by the Turks resulted in 200,000 Hungarians being
massacred. Two claimants put themselves forward as the rightful
king, John Zapolya and Ferdinand of Austria. This division led to
civil war and was accompanied by Soliman’s occasional attacks. This
unrest left the Reformers unhindered. Nobles and two Bishops
embraced the Reformation.
In 1537 Matthias Devay began a powerful ministry in Budapest, and
Ferdinand was presented with a copy of the Augsberg Confession.
Budapest was under Zapolya’s authority. Influenced by Roman priests,
Zapolya had Devay imprisoned. Also in the prison was Zapolya’s
blacksmith and Devay witnessed to the smith. Zapolya ordered the
blacksmith’s release. He, though, said he would not leave prison
without Devay, whereupon Zapolya ordered his release too. Devay left
the country, visiting Wittenburg in Germany and Basle in
Switzerland, where he acquainted himself with printing practice. In
1537 he returned to Hungary and set up a press. On this was printed
the first book in the Hungarian Language.
Reluctantly, Ferdinand agreed to move against the Reformers. Devay
and an evangelist, Stephen Szantai, were denounced but not
imprisoned. Ferdinand arranged for a debate between Szantai and a
Romanist theologian named Gregory. The judges of the debate came to
Ferdinand explaining that they were in a dilemma. Szantai could
prove his doctrine by Scripture; Gregory could not. Yet if they
found Szantai the victor they would be guilty of heresy.
The King now found himself in the same dilemma. He spoke with
Szantai. Rome demanded that the King have Szantai burned. Instead,
he made provision for the would-be martyr to leave his territory.
In Hungary there was no sudden fall of the Roman Catholic Church,
but rather a gradual weakening of its support. The great progress of
the Reformation came from three sources-the evident superior
teaching of the Reformation so clearly seen in the Szantai-Gregory
debate; the publishing of the Hungarian New Testament in 1541; and
the reluctance of the claimants to the Kingdom to offend the
Protestant nobility by persecution.
Young men studied theology in Wittenburg and Geneva. On their return
they took up evangelical ministries. On John Zapolya’s death, his
infant son was proclaimed his successor. His mother invited Soliman
to become the child’s protector. The army of Soliman entering the
Kingdom led to many fleeing before it, including many Reformed
preachers. When things settled down these returned, the Turks
allowing them to preach unhindered. By 1554 Transylvania was almost
entirely Protestant. The last priest left the city of Huns as the
place was without a single Roman Catholic. Count Petrovich
undertook, as Regent to the infant King, a political reformation.
Metal idols were melted down, monasteries turned into schools and
the Church lost all political patronage.
Unfortunately a difference arose within the Church that would lead
to a split. The trouble arose over the Lord’s Table. Ministers who
studied in Wittenberg followed Luther’s teaching while others
followed Calvin’s teaching. In 1545 and 1546 two confessions were
published, one from each camp. At this time separation was not
practiced by either side. The publishing of these Confessions,
however, did lead to the Hungarian church organizing itself and not
relying on German help. It also completely broke off ecclesiastical
contact with local Roman Catholic Bishops.
Romanists tried to bribe the Turks to kill Protestants. However, as
Protestant meeting houses had no idols, which the Turks abhorred,
they refused. The Pashas ordered that no hindrance should be put in
the way of those who preached the faith of the “Great Mufti of
Wittenberg”! A change of Regent could have caused the Reformers many
problems. However, the enemy of the Reformation, Losonezy, was
killed in battle against the Turks.
The differences between the two Protestant groupings remained even
during the fierce persecutions which were to follow. Publications
and counter-publication from both sides vied with one another.
Pronouncements from both sides precluded any coming together.
The claim of Ferdinand passed eventually to Rudolph II. He had no
interest in Reformed teaching, being more concerned with astrology
and alchemy. His lack of concern at the treatment of his Protestant
subjects, now confronted by a Jesuit led counter-reformation, led to
an uprising. The Protestants of Holland had risen against the
persecuting Hapsburg emperors of the Holy Roman Empire who ruled
them. The Hungarian Protestants, facing similar despotic rule and
active persecution, sought to defend themselves. Their captain was
Stephen Bocskay who was elected to lead the Protestant forces,
called hadjous. Rudolph refused the Protestants’ call for religious
freedom and was determined to destroy any attempt to secure this.
Bocskay led his hadjous to victory and was urged to accept the title
Prince of Hungary. He would not accept this claim to the Kingdom. He
did however accept the simple title of Prince of Siebenburgen.
Bocskay victories over the Hapsburg Rudolph called for great
military skill. Not only did Bocskay have to face Romanist forces
but also to keep a watchful eye on the Turks, who were always
looking for an opportunity to invade. The victories over Rudolph
forced him to sign a treaty called the Peace of Vienna. This gave
rights to all citizens to practice their faith without state
interference. The Peace of Vienna was accepted by the hadjous at the
Diet (legislative assembly) at Kassa. During the Diet, Bocskay was
poisoned, probably by a false friend, the Chancellor Katay. Bocskay
died on 29th December 1606. On his death the outraged
hadjous put Katay to death.
The death of Bocskay was a great setback for the Protestant
cause. The provisions of the Peace of Vienna proved short-lived and
a fearful persecution came on the Church once again.
The Fall of the Hapsburgs
In 1616 Ferdinand II came to the Throne. He repudiated the Peace of
Vienna. The Jesuits set up courts of Inquisition. Pastors and
Protestant nobility were hung and villages forcibly made to accept
Roman Catholicism. Again the Protestants were driven to take up arms
to defend themselves. Again the Protestants had a great military
leader, Gabriel Bethlen. Three times he secured promises of peace
from the Romanist Ferdinand only to see the Treaty broken once the
Protestant forces dispersed.
Bethlen never seemed to realize that Rome could not be trusted. The
last Treaty Bethlen secured by arms from the Hapsburgs also gave an
undertaking by Bethlen never to take up arms again. Although Bethlen
kept his part of the bargain, Rome did not keep her side. Like
Bocskay, Bethlen was poisoned by Romanist doctors. During this time
100,000 were forcibly “converted to Rome.” The country was
depopulated through martyrdom and Protestants fleeing.
Ferdinand II was followed by a succession of persecuting monarchs.
Just as many came to view the French Revolution as God’s judgment on
the persecuting Romanist French Royal family, so, when in 1866
defeated Austria fell from the front rank of nations, this was
viewed in the same light. Another fifty years on from this the
Hapsburg Empire collapsed in the First World War. Protestants called
the House of Austria the House of Ahab. The Protestants of Hungary
adopted a policy of passive resistance. Pastors sent to row in the
galleys were freed by Dutch men-of-war, who hearing of the
punishment given to the Hungarian pastors, made it their business to
board the Hapsburg vessels and free the pastors. Finally, as
revolution threatened the Romanist despots of Europe during the 18th
Century, religious toleration was granted. The Act of Toleration of
1781 was superseded in 1848 by the guarantee of complete religious
The Hapsburg Empire went into history at the end of World War 1.
The Church remained, having withstood both Rome and Islam!
This article was written in:
July/August 2006 Edition
The Protestant Alliance
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