Independence Day in Calvinist "Rome"

After a stimulating conference in Hungary on international Calvinism, yesterday conferees concluded their visit by taking a tour of Debrecen, the stronghold of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and the place where on April 14 (which was yesterday), 1849, the Hungarians declared independence at the city’s Great (not pretty good) Church. Here’s one account of what happened:

Hungary had been ruled successively by Turkish sultans and Austrian emperors for centuries when the 1848 upsurge of revolutionary nationalism in Europe struck Budapest, where liberty, equality and fraternity were rousingly declared, the single political prisoner left in gaol was freed (a tiresomely loquacious old soul he proved to be) and the Habsburg regime was forced to accept a Hungarian national government. The new, eighteen-year-old Emperor Franz Josef’s attempt to regain control was countered the following year by a declaration that ‘the perjured House of Habsburg-Lorraine’ had broken every tie of mutual obligation between itself and Hungary. ‘Therefore the House of Habsburg is for ever deposed from sovereignty over Hungary and declared to have forfeited the throne and to be excluded and banished in the name of the nation.’ Henceforth, Hungary was independent. ‘We inform all the peoples of the civilised world of this fact,’ the manifesto went on, ‘in the firm conviction that it will accept the Hungarian nation, as the youngest but not unworthy brother, into the ranks of independent nations.’

The proclamation’s author was a radical journalist and agitator of forty-six named Lajos Kossuth, an ardent Magyar chauvinist although himself, ironically, of mixed Slovak and German stock. The Magyars were now in the minority in Hungary, outnumbered by Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Germans, and this was one of the complicating factors in the situation. Kossuth’s political pamphleteering against Austrian rule had earned him several years in prison for subversion in the 1830s and the sentence made him a popular hero, though his opinions were too extreme for many of the progressive intellectuals of the day. Elected to the Hungarian parliament, or Diet, in 1847, and a brilliant and inspiring speaker, he demanded the removal of the dead hand of Austrian absolutism as the essential preliminary to political and social reform. Bold, magnetic, resourceful and high-handed, he was appointed minister of finance in the new national government.

When a Croat army invaded Hungary in September 1848 to restore Austrian control, the Diet appointed Kossuth to head the committee of national defence. He organised a surprisingly successful Hungarian army and inspired the mass demonstrations which propelled the remaining rump of the Diet into issuing its manifesto of independence on April 14th, 1849. The Diet now appointed him Governor of Hungary.

That act of independence hardly fixed things for Hungarians or Hungarian Calvinists in a very complicated part of Europe. But as folks at the conference learned, the Reformed churches of central Europe are alive and kicking. Even though they may not be up to the standards that Presbyterians and Reformed promote in the Land of the Free, it’s hard to blame a communion that has had to deal with the Habsburgs and the Communists. And comparisons of United States’ and Hungarian Calvinism may teach a lot about how important environments are for the fauna that bloom as Reformed Protestantism. They may even teach yet again how positive religious liberty really is even if it also means freedom for a lot of objectionable stuff. No one said it would be all good.

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Muslims and Protestants Together?

Among the many juicy bits of history packed into Philip Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed comes the item about the Ottoman insurgence into the Holy Roman Empire. Turns out the influx of Muslims into formerly Roman Catholic territories was a boon to the Reformed faith, especially in Hungary which gave us the Magyar Reformed Church.

Not only was the church largely decapitated in the central portions of the kingdom (i.e., Hungary), much of the parish clergy fled before the Ottoman onslaught, leaving nearly four-fifths of the localities in Ottoman-controlled regions without parish priests. Finally, the new rulers of the portions of the kingdom had neither the liberty nor the inclination to pursue the campaign against heresy. Ferdinand (Roman Catholic and from the Habsburg dynasty) was so busy with his military campaigns that he had little time to concentrate on the problem of heresy within his lands. Furthermore, he depended heavily on Protestant support within the empire for tax revenue to help fight the Ottomans, which prompted him to favor negotiation over repression in dealing with the problem. The Ottoman authorities looked for religious leaders who might cooperate with them as they strove to organize their control over their recently conquered territories and stem the flight of the population from the region. They were thus prepared to give evangelical preachers a free hand to proselytize so long as they respected Ottoman authority.

. . . . In the Ottoman-controlled regions, wandering preachers had a free hand. Mihaly Sztairai (d. 1575), a Paduan-educated ex-Franciscan who was the chief evangelist of the western portion of Ottoman Hungary, reported to a Viennese correspondent in 1551 that he had been able to preaching throughout the region for the previous seven years. In the process, he claimed, he and his fellows had founded some 120 congregations. (pp. 274, 275)

Now that’s church growth.