…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 country.
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 was Protestant.
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 him.
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
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
Wittenburg 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
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
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 liberty.
The Hapsburg Empire went into history at the end of World War 1.
The Church remained, having withstood both Rome and Islam!