Top: Church where ther Edict of Toleration was adopted in 1568; commemoration plaque. Center: Church interior; English text of the Edict; etching of János Zsigmond. Bottom: Unitarian Dávid Ferenc making impassioned appeal at Diet (painting by Köröfői-Kriesch Aladár)
Religious Tolerance in the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom
Over the centuries millions of people have died in the name of religion. The problem has often been the dogmatic views of certain religious leaders. When in a position of power, they have often urged the killing of those who did not follow their religious philosophies closely enough. Saddest among these are the killings that took place in the name of Christianity. It is hard to reconcile the fact that someone who strongly believed in Jesus Christ would have another, who did not adhere to the same beliefs, killed in the name of the One who said:
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:27-31)
If we just look at the last two millennia, you had the early persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire until the Edict of Milan in 313. This happened after Constantine the Great saw a cross in the sky with the words “In Hoc Signo Vinces” (With this sign, you shall win) that he believed had led him to victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge the previous fall. In 732, the forces of Charles Martel turned back the Arab invasion of Europe at the Battle of Tours. There were the Crusades first called for by Pope Urban II in 1095 to recapture Christian territories from the Muslims. This may have also been an effort by the Pope to reunite the Eastern Christian Church with the Western Church, to have all of Christendom come under his control once again, after the Schism of 1054 had split the Church. Many atrocities occurred while the Christian forces advanced toward Jerusalem. But the most deadly religious war may have been the “Thirty Years’ War” fought between Catholics and Protestants among the states of the Holy Roman Empire from 1618 to 1648, with a death toll of about 8 million.
These were just a few of the battles; there were also many individual persecutions over the years in the name of religion. The Conquistadores of Spain and Portugal felt it was quite all right to kill any non-believer whom they encountered. Many were also harassed, imprisoned and executed as a result of the Catholic Inquisition. This began with the Medieval Inquisition in 1184 to stop heresy and was continued with the Papal Inquisition in the 1230s. Later, a maybe even more brutal version was the Spanish Inquisition that was established by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1478. This was formed to maintain orthodox adherence to the Catholic religion in all of the lands controlled by Spain and to take away the direct control of the Pope over these proceedings. A main target of this and the Portuguese Inquisition, which began in 1536, were people who converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Basically, Jews and others were forced to convert, but then were carefully scrutinized to make sure that they were not secretly practicing their previous faiths.
The Roman Inquisition began in 1542, as Counter-Reformation by the Roman Catholic Church. This was a battle to stop the spread of Protestantism in Europe, which had officially begun on October 31, 1517 with the publishing of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The Roman Inquisition was not nearly as harsh as the Spanish version, but it did affect many lives. Among those caught up in it was the great scientist Galileo, for his writings in support of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory. While the Pope and the rest of the Church hierarchy still believed in the Aristotelian Geocentric Theory of the Universe, this was considered heresy. It didn’t help that in his publication, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, he named the defender of the Geocentric opinion “Simplicio”, and had him espouse some of the views of the Pope, which he ridiculed in the book. As a result, Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest.
The religious battles were not only between Catholics and Protestants. There were many battles among the newly formed Protestant denominations as well. John Calvin had to flee his native France around 1530, when he turned against the Catholic Church. Michael Servetus also fled from France a few years later, after being denounced as a heretic and escaping from prison. He meant to go to Italy, but stopped in Geneva on his way there. His main crime was writing about his disbelief in the Holy Trinity. Incredibly, the person who attacked him the most and was a key reason for his being burned at the stake in Geneva for his heresy, was none other than John Calvin. Michael Servetus is considered the first martyr of the Unitarian Church.
It is quite amazing, with all that was going on in the world before and after the 16th century in Europe, that in the town of Torda in Transylvania on January 13, 1568 an act of religious tolerance would be passed by the legislature. Under the leadership of Zápolyai János Zsigmond, the Edict of Torda was proclaimed by the Diet of Torda after a week of debate and read as follows:
"His majesty, our lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God."
This was not freedom of religion for the individual, but an acceptance of the preaching of four different religions, namely: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist (Reformed) and Unitarian. Although it did not address the Romanian Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim religions, it was still an unprecedented act of religious tolerance, especially in the climate that existed 450 years ago.
After the defeat of the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, Zápolyai János became king as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. He had been the Voivode of Transylvania since 1510, and then claimed the vacant throne of Hungary after the death of Louis II. At the same time, Ferdinand I of Austria also claimed the throne. In the end, after a battle between Austria and the Ottomans, the kingdom was divided, with Ferdinand ruling the west and János ruling the area east of the Tisza River, while paying tribute to the Ottomans each year. He was succeeded by his infant son under the regency of his wife. Zápolyai János Zsigmond ruled on his own after the death of his mother in 1559. Interestingly, he had been a follower of all four of the religions that became sanctioned by the Edict of Torda. He was raised as a Catholic and converted to Lutheranism in 1562, then to Calvinism in 1564, and finally to Unitarianism in 1568. He died at the young age of 30, seven months after giving up the title of King of Hungary and becoming Prince of Transylvania. His successor as Prince of Transylvania, Báthory István, who was a Roman Catholic, was not so happy about the Edict of Torda, but did keep it in place.
There may have been more of a general acceptance of different faiths in Transylvania than in other parts of the world. In fact, my father’s four grandparents each belonged to a different one of the four religions proclaimed by the Edict of Torda. Acts like this may be another reason why Transylvania, the home of most of my ancestors, remains so close to my heart. My father always believed that Transylvania was special and unique. So much so, that during his time at boarding school in Vienna, then at the Royal Hungarian Ludovica Defense Academy in Budapest, and through the Second World War, he always kept a small sack of Transylvanian dirt under his pillow, so he could always feel like he was sleeping on Transylvanian soil.
Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.