The Protestant Reformation in Hungary

Charles Bálintitt Jr.

The Protestant Reformation in Hungary

Lutheran Church in Szentes, Unitarian Church in Torockószentgyörgy, with inscription "Egy az Isten" - God is One.

The Protestant Reformation officially began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (“Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”) to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany (then part of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire).  Martin Luther may have done this merely to announce a discussion on the topic of indulgences at the university, but soon news and copies of the 95 Theses swept across large areas of Europe.  Eventually the official name of Wittenberg became Lutherstadt Wittenberg.

The Reformation spread to Switzerland, beginning with the sermons of Ulrich Zwingli in 1519.  Although very similar to Luther’s 95 Theses, Zwingli’s 67 Conclusions were apparently formulated independently.  The two eventually met in 1529 at the castle of Philip of Hesse.  This meeting, later called the Colloquy of Marburg, did not go well.  The main disagreement was over the sacrament of the Eucharist.  While the Catholic Church believed (and still believes) in transubstantiation (that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass), Martin Luther preached consubstantiation (that Christ was present at the sacrament, but the bread and wine were not transformed).  Zwingli, on the other hand, looked at the Eucharist as just a memorial, where Christ was not present.

The first signs of Lutheranism appeared around 1520 in the northern parts of Hungary among the German population of what is present-day Slovakia and in some larger urban areas.  But the main thrust of the Protestant Reformation came to Hungary during the next generation, mainly emanating from the teachings of a Frenchman born in Noyon, Picardy, France on July 10th, 1509, who later moved to Switzerland.  John Calvin published his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” in 1536 and became prominent in Geneva after 1541.  His main variance from Martin Luther was his belief in predestination, that God has already chosen those who will enter into Heaven and no amount of good deeds will change that.  It is possible that those who perform good deeds throughout their lives do so because they are among the ones already chosen.

More than anything else, the major historical event that advanced Protestantism in Hungary was the Battle of Mohács in 1526.  This greatest of Hungarian military defeats had a number of consequences.  First, the young king and a large number of the leaders of the Catholic Church were killed in the battle.  Second, the country was divided into 3 parts: the northwest was controlled by the Habsburgs, the central portion by the Turks and Transylvania to the east paid tribute to the Turks to remain semi-independent.  Third, unlike the Catholic Habsburgs, the Turks did not force anyone to adopt their Muslim religion.

Although a synod at Erdőd accepted the Lutheran Augsburg Confession in 1545, a later synod in Debrecen in 1567 embraced the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism along with the Second Helvetic Confession, which more closely followed the teachings of John Calvin as opposed to Martin Luther.  The dominant Protestant Church in Hungary and Transylvania became the Calvinist “Reformed Church”.  The early leaders of this movement were Sztárai Mihály, Szegedi Kis István, Dévai Bíró Mátyás and the bishop of Debrecen, Méliusz Juhász Péter in Hungary, and Apáczai Csere János (see Erika Papp Faber’s article in this issue) and  Dávid Ferenc in Transylvania.

Unlike the others who were Calvinists, Dávid Ferenc was Unitarian, and founder of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church.  Contrary to the Catholic Church and the two major Protestant denominations of the time, the Unitarians did not believe in the Holy Trinity because they considered it anti-biblical.  The major figure who was converted by Dávid Ferenc was the Prince of Transylvania, Szapolyai János Zsigmond (he was also the infant King of Hungary at the time of the first Siege of Buda in 1541).  Their collaboration resulted in the first proclamation of religious freedom in Europe, the Edict of Torda in 1568.  This basically gave freedom to the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Unitarian religions to practice their beliefs as they wished, but tolerated others as well.

Although there were many problems in the Catholic Church at the time, which made it possible for the Protestant Reformation to take hold and become popular among many people in Europe, there were many battles within the ranks of the Protestants as well.  For example, the founder of the Unitarian Church, Michael Servetus (a theologian, physician, cartographer and mathematician among other things; born in Spain as Miguel Serveto), was burned at the stake atop a mound of his own books near the city of Geneva.  Both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon denounced his teachings.  And one of the main persons who submitted evidence against him at his trial, although not in person due to health reasons, was John Calvin, who asked that he be beheaded instead of burned at the stake.  So even those who were against the harsh authority of the Catholic Church did not always behave much like Christians themselves.  Michael Servetus’ last words were reportedly: “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.”

During the first century of the Protestant Reformation, the large majority of Hungarians became Protestants, with the largest group joining the Reformed Church.  It has even been said that becoming Protestant was considered patriotic because it was a form of protest against the Catholic Habsburgs! 

Beginning in the middle of the 17th century, a strong Counter-Reformation push against Hungary came from the Catholic Habsburgs.  This was very strong in the beginning, with the Austrian Emperor Leopold I even sending Protestant ministers to the galleys, but it diminished somewhat over time.  Although it was difficult for Protestants in Hungary for quite a long period, it was much less so in Transylvania.  It seems that there the different religious factions somehow got along much better.  In fact, my Father’s four grandparents, all born in Transylvania in the mid-19th century, belonged to 4 different Churches: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Unitarian.

Today in Hungary the population is approximately 37.1% Roman Catholic, 1.8% Greek Catholic, 11.6% Reformed, 2.2% Lutheran, 1.9% other, 18.2% no religion and 27.1% not wishing to divulge their beliefs (although some sources list a majority of this group as Catholics). 1  Among the Hungarian population in Transylvania, about 47% belong to the Reformed Church, 41% to the Roman Catholic Church and 4.5% to the Unitarian Church.  The much larger percentage of Protestants in Transylvania may very well have something to do with Transylvania’s semi-autonomy for a few centuries and less Habsburg dominance, compared to the rest of Hungary.   

1 Probably about half the people listed as "other" are Jewish.  Although the religious Jewish population in Hungary is only about .5%, Budapest still has the largest Synagogue in Europe, the Dohány Street Synagogue. 

Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.