Scattered all through the valleys and basin of the Carpathian mountains are remnants of the once strong Hungarian Reformed church which long constituted the eastern bulwark of Protestantism, but now is being driven back by the mystical forces of Orthodoxy.
THE REFORMATION’S EASTERN BULWARK
Influenced by the followers of John Huss, many of whom fled to the Carpats after his death as a martyr in 1415, the Hungarians were among the first to join the Reformation, adopting the teachings of Zwingli and those of Calvin as well. Since then they have continued one of the world’s largest and most consistently Reformed churches.
It has not been easy. All through its history Transylvania has been the meeting point of four different religious cultures: the Turkish Moslems from the south, the Orthodox Romanians from the east, and the Habsburg Catholics from the west, with the Protestants, Hungarian Reformed together with the Saxon Lutherans (who had come from Germany early in the Middle Ages), caught in-between. It was a situation made for conflict; and history filled it with just that.
But through it all nothing has been so devastating as the decision of the Western world powers, after the First World War, to punish the Hungarians (who had played but a minor part) by cutting off two thirds of their territory and giving it to their neighbors. And so it was that Transylvania became part of Romania, which had no historical claim to it other than that so many of its people had been taken in, given work and shelter by the Hungarian people who had inhabited it for well over a thousand years.
Rarely through their long and troubled history have the Reformed people of Transylvania been able to concern themselves with anything other than their own survival as a people and as a church.
In certain ways their best days were under the Turks. Conquering the land in the late fifteen hundreds, the Turkish leaders had exacted tribute, but for the rest had left the people free to worship as they would and even to govern themselves. The Hungarians were a tolerant folk. In 1568 they adopted an Edict of Toleration, the first in Europe, granting everyone the right to worship according to his own convictions, and the various elements in their society were able to live next to each other in peace, and prosper as they did. Each part developed its own culture, worshiped in its own faith and governed itself along essentially democratic lines—that is, until one of their own leaders thought to make an alliance with the Austrians to drive the Turks out. And this they did, with the consequence that the Habsburgs moved in, took over, and with determination set out to convert the whole land back to Catholicism again. With that the Hungarians’ suffering began.
One fond practice of the Austrians was a form of what we now call ethnic cleansing. They encouraged large numbers of Romanians, with their mystical Orthodox religion, to move into Transylvania so as to dilute the forces of Protestantism; and it worked. Large numbers came, particularly of the peasantry. Those were difficult days, full of cruelties and massacres of various kinds, under which the people of God suffered much.
But the greatest trial was yet to come. It took place in 1920 when the Western world powers tore Transylvania from Hungary and made it part of Romania, and then Communism also set in. With devious purpose, economic pressures were devised to force the Hungarians and Germans from their historic lands, making room for Romanians to move in until they became the majority in nearly every place. In the end the Saxons, after living there for over eight hundred years, picked up their forces in mass and moved back to Germany. Could the Hungarians there maintain their existence as a people and as churches, or must they, in the end, do the same?
Within the totality of church history, God has seldom granted His people the privilege of dominance and power (I Cor 1:26–27). Most frequently He has seen fit to leave them in a suffering state. And so it has always been with these Hungarians.
When one rides through the hills and valleys of the Carpets, be looks out on countless little villages nestled among the hills, often dominated by a white Hungarian church. Bur on coming closer, the scene can turn sad.
There are exceptions. These people are ambitious by nature, so that where their strength and number is sufficient they have already picked up from the devastation of Communism to restore their houses and church to their original shape. But in so many instances it isn’t like that; the effects of recent history have cut too deep, and the people are too poor. For the most part their economic base has been eroded; and as yet they have not learned what can be done, and how a market economy must be run. But still these people endure, growing their own food, making their own clothes and supplying their own basic needs. And in many such places the churches are still crowded.
But there are other communities where even this is not so. In them the picture can become depressing and bleak. Church buildings may still be there, and from a distance may appear beautiful; but next to it is apt to stand the gray dome of an Orthodox temple (built and maintained by the government even where Romanians are few). Near the white church, now falling into decay, there may well be a parsonage, once a beautiful home, now empty and closed down, while its church members are hard to find, scattered as they are through what is now a Romanian town. At one time they numbered in the hundreds, even thousands; but now there may be a hundred, or fifty, a few dozen, or no more than three or four. An occasional service may be held if a neighboring pastor can be gotten to come; but for the most part it won’t be long before the key is turned for the last time, and the church meets no more. The spirit of the Hungarians which once moved the community will be gone.
And the question that remains is, can anything be done to keep this from happening, if not in all, at least in some of the larger of these communities? Only God knows, as Laszlo Vetesi, the pastor to these diaspora people, often points out, quoting from Ezekiel 37:3: “And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.” But he and his assistants are working in an effort to bring this to pass wherever God will give the grace, bringing the scattered together and uniting them again into a worshiping church. Psalm 141:7–8 says: “Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth. But mine eyes are unto thee, O GOD the Lord: in thee is my trust; leave not my soul destitute.”
Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church.