In our previous article we reviewed the three main streams of theological opinion which are found in the Reformed Church of Hungary. These are the fundamentalists, the Calvinists and the Barthians.
Now we shall investigate how these various groups worked within the church through their several organizations. This will enable us to understand better how the state was able to take over the church in large measure after World War II and subject it to its policies and use it for its own ends.
Alliances within the church
Much of what was said previously about the fundamentalists holds for the “Bethania Alliance,” which may best be described as the Hungarian Christian Endeavor. A secession from this organization led to the establishment of the “Phoebe Lutheran Deaconesses Alliance.” In large measure this group was friendly to the church. Yet their Lutheran orthodoxy prompted some fourteen deaconesses to leave the Reformed church. Before they left these sisters made unusually strong efforts to obscure and, if possible, remove the Reformed characteristic of the church which they claimed to serve.
The “Pro Christo Student Alliance” (Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) was based on interdenominational, fundamentalistic principles. Although less pietistic in outlook, it did challenge the unregenerate to a realization of their spiritual condition. This was done in both winter conventions and summer camp meetings. Although the work was limited in scope, this organization could point to a few Jewish converts.
The “Congregational Evangelization Fellowship” united Bethania, Pro-Christo and Barthian ministers under the leadership of Dr. Bereczky and the Rev. Bekefi. By its efforts a goodly number of congregations were spiritually awakened. Later this organization was dissolved, because of the scandalous conduct of the Rev. Bekefi who became the “peace bishop” of Papa.
Neither the large unregenerated masses nor the pietists were really concerned with a foreign mission program. It should be remembered that for a time the country’s economy was not favorable for the training and support of larger numbers of missionaries. A monthly paper of the “Society for Foreign Missions” was edited by the pietists. Characteristically it reported on the five missionaries as well as on the work of Western missionary colleagues. But no word was ever mentioned of our Finno-Ugric kinsfolk in the Soviet Union, nor was any suggestion ever made to pray for the heathen or Mohammedan peoples.
Jewish Missions had been carried on by the Reformed Church for many years. Mutual resentment and distrust, however, has hindered this work. The Hungarians are unable to overlook that the backbone of the Communist party in their land was largely Jewish, both in 1919 and again in 1945. Jews on the other hand have always insisted that they bad the right to expect more assistance from the Hungarians against the German Nazis who exterminated three-fourths of them.
Before and during the War many thousands of Jewish converts joined the Reformed Church. Almost invariably they left the church after the Communist take-over. Nevertheless there were some real conversions. One of them remains a very faithful minister in the church today.
It proved to be a disaster to entrust the Jewish mission to the converted Jews. These people were arrogantly anti-Calvinistic, championing Bartman and premillenarian views. Both by their Zionist nationalism and their demanding attitude they cause much dislike for themselves within and outside of the church. This was most deplorable, since there are scores of Jewish and converted Jewish professional people who have made worthwhile contributions to Hungarian science, arts and literature.
Soli Deo Gloria Student Alliance
This movement was set up originally by born-again Calvinist seminary students. Later other students were also accepted as members. Finally even students of the “gymnasia” (grades five through twelve) were included.
By means of their Palm-Sunday conventions and summer camp meetings thousands of young people were attracted. Here the Scriptures received their rightful place, although at times the once strong evangelical leanings were replaced by an emphasis on patriotism. It should be acknowledged that the core of the Alliance was always a regenerated and Calvinistic minority. These people were free from scholasticism. They loved to sing the psalms and Hungarian folksongs. Their work was invaluable for directing the Reformed youth to truly Hungarian literature, art, music and politics. As the emblem of the movement they employed Calvin’s seal: a hand holding a throbbing heart, with the inscription “Cor meum velut mactatum offero.”
From the early days of the Reformation the Hungarian Refonned Church had its Bve seminaries: Debrecen, Sarospatak, Papa, Budapest (formerly located in Kecskemet) and Kolozsvar.
Although open apostasy from the Christian faith was never tolerated in these seminaries, liberal, Barthian and fundamentalist views have flourished freely. It was quite customary that professors within the same seminary publicly contradicted each other. This led to confusion and ridicule among the students who were preparing for the ministry. Still in each faculty there were always a few real scholars and sincere Christians who withstood every difficulty and often endured contempt. They succeeded in leading some of their students to Christ.
One of the most unfavorable factors operating within the Reformed Church was the high regard in which the ministry was held. This always attracted many unregenerated young men to the ministry, since it offered an easy avenue to professional status in the country.
Today the situation in the seminaries is as follows. Kolozsvar is in Rumanian territory and thus serves the churches in Transylvania with a Reformed constituency of about 500,000. The seminaries of Papa and Sarospatak have been closed down. Direct state interference occurs every time a new appointment must be made for the faculties in Debrecen and Budapest. The students, however, come now from the higher classes and with a much better background. The trend is in reverse of what it formerly was. For this group this is the only way to a college education, since students from the “reactionary” and more consistently Christian groups are given little opportunity to enroll in the regular state universities. Besides, the percentage of true Christians among these students is much higher than at any time before.
Perhaps one of the most accurate mirrors of the spiritual condition of the Reformed Church today can be found in the situation which obtains with regard to theological literature. This is, indeed, rather poor.
There has always been a shortage of good reference books.
For generations it has been customary in Hungary that every congregation supplies its ministerial incumbent with a “Parish Library.” Here we usually find some basic works. These include such works as Calvin’s Institutes, both the earlier and later editions, Pruzsinszky’s Life of John Calvin, Vargha’s The History of the Christian Church, and Ravasz’s Homiletics. In this way all the fields of theology were fairly well covered.
The contributions of the Dutch-Hungarian Library have been mentioned. The most suitable volumes were probably A. Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism and William Heyn’s Reformed Dogmatics.
Numerous translations of Anglo-American fundamentalist and German pietist books are also found. Hardly any significant revival movement, whether French or Swiss or Finnish or Swedish, was without its literary representative in these libraries.
The situation with respect to the Bible is critical. In the early years of this century a revision of the Bible was undertaken which proved worse than its predecessor. In this translation there are many obscure passages. The New Testament translation by Kecskemethy was very good but is unobtainable. The New Testament translation by Raffay is by no means as accurate as it should be. It also is virtually unobtainable. Dr. Sandor Czegledy’s translation was good. However, only a trial-edition was published during the war years. This served as the basis for an excellent translation prepared during the early fifties. Professors of all the Protestant seminaries contributed to this effort. However, copies of this work are obtainable only at times. The Old Testament revision of Czegledy’s translation was somehow mysteriously interrupted.
With regard to the church hymnal the situation is no better. There had been a liberal revision of the historic church hymnal. This was so bad, that a revision was urgently needed. This work began before the war and continued for some ten years. Besides versifications of the 150 psalms the best Latin, English, Dutch, German and French hymns were included. The most skilled musicians, critics and theologians of the church were entrusted with the selection of the hymns. The result was a unique collection of evangelical hymns. Now if one presses very hard and consistently, then perhaps within two or three years a copy of this hymnal can be procured.
From all the above it is evident that practically no religious literature is available at the present time. Also in this way the Reformed Church in Hungary is being slowly but surely starved.
Before 1948 all elementary education in the schools belonged to the church. Even secondary education was denominational, wherever the church could afford to maintain such schools. Much religious education was provided. Throughout the schools, from grade one through grade twelve, Bible, doctrine and church history were taught either two or three or four times each week. In the upper classes fewer hours were given than in the lower. Also before anyone could make profession of faith in the churches a year of preparation was obligatory. Attendance at Sunday School, Boy Scouts and Soli Deo Gloria organizations was voluntary. Unfortunately, because much of the instruction was given by those who were not regenerated, this teaching seemed to have little effect in developing a strong, healthy and spiritually alive church.
The congregations in each political county constituted the “church-county” which was headed by the Senior who was elected for a five-year term. At the expiration of this term he could be and usually was re-elected. Several church-counties were united into a church-district or synod. Its head was the bishop, formerly called superintendent, who was elected for a ten-year term. Each congregation sent its elected delegates to the sessions of the church county. Delegates from the several church counties constituted the assembly of the church-district. The general synod had its own elected members. In every church court clergy and laymen were equally represented. During the period between synodical sessions all executive power was held by the General Conventus. It had its own staff of employees and was in fact the headquarters of the church.
In all this there was nothing inherently contrary to Calvinistic principles of church government. Yet the whole system was seriously impaired by a rule that the upper courts could issue decrees without any recommendation by the lower courts. Thus in practice there was a great deal of rule from the top down in the Reformed Church of Hungary.
Because of this situation there was ample opportunity for the bishops, especially for the president of the General Conventus, to assume almost dictatorial power within the church. The democratic development of church government was never perfected for several reasons. First of all, peasants or serfs were never admitted to the “presbyterium” or consistory of the congregation. Also the Austrian tyrants kept a close watch on the life of the Hungarian Reformed Church and permitted no change in the direction of a more democratic rule within the church. In the present situation, with the Communists in control, no improvement can be expected. The Communists soon realized that any further democratic development within the church would jeopardize their present convenient control over the life of the congregations.
The actual control of the life of the church lies largely in the hands of those ministers who because of their collaboration with the present regime and its aims are usually called “peace ministers.” Here we would briefly sketch their rise and influence.
The Rev. Albert Bereczky, evangelist with definite Barthian views, became during the war years the representative of the resistance movement to Admiral Horthy. He had a very active group of followers among the “Congregational Evangelization Association” of which he was head. This group constituted the core of the future peace ministers. Although their organization was formally dissolved, several of its members openly attempted to take over the control of the church. In this they were assisted by the Communist party. Also as they gained in power, the worst elements in the church joined hands with them.
In the beginning this group defended its position and aims by referring to the political positions set forth by Karl Barth. Before long, however, they went far beyond their teacher. They became traitors within the church, urging an unconditional surrender to the state. Ministers who desire to be faithful to their vows are often under much heavier pressure from the peace ministers than arc factory workers from their Communist bosses. In closest cooperation with the police these peace ministers practice a true dictatorship. An example will serve to illustrate how the police usually grants all the demands of these untrustworthy clergy. Mrs. Bela Pap was informed by the State department for Church Affairs that it was willing to release her husband, the Rev. Bela Pap, but that the General Conventus refused to agree to such action.
Here we ought to refer to the position of the World Council of Churches in its relation to the Hungarian Reformed Church.
The peace ministers successfully persuaded their Communist masters that the World Council was the best tool by which to spread their “theology” of surrender to the state. In this way the West could be made to believe that there was religious freedom for the church. Another means to persuade the West that church life under Communism was quite bearable was to invite Western clergymen as guests of these peace ministers. Here they would be entertained on a lavish scale. Most of the expenses are generously covered by the State department of Church Affairs. But it must be remembered that no ordinary church member has access to these invited guests. Hence the visitors can see and meet and converse only with those who are approved by the peace ministers and the state officials. The “Hungarian Church Press,” a periodical appearing in the English language, made its contribution towards giving Westerners an incorrect view of the life of the church. It was edited and translated by those who formerly served on the staff of the Good Shepherd Mission. When we reproached one of its members with not presenting the actual situation, he replied, “There is no lie in the paper; just ‘selected’ news.”
Against the background of all these movements within the church, we will try in our last and brief article to assess the reasons why the state is able to control the life of the Reformed Church in Hungary so effectively.