Why the Church Capitulated: Trends Which Promoted the Present State Control of the Reformed Church in Hungary

Few lands have suffered so much throughout the centuries as Hungary. Time and again its people have experienced the blasting of their hopes and the mining of their plans. Discrimination, social and political enslavement, and at times fierce persecution of those who were Bible-believing Christians have been the Jot of this unhappy people. Occasionally dawn seemed to break over the Hungarian plain-lands, only to be followed soon by an ever-deepening darkness. This has continued until today which finds the churches, and especially the Reformed Church of Hungary which has always been most closely associated with Magyar culture and nationalism, under the control of a hostile and totalitarian state.

Several explanations for this unhappy lot can be advanced.

Some of these emphasize the strategic place which the Hungarian settlements occupy in the geography of the European continent. These plain-lands constitute the crossroads where Slav, Turk and German have met throughout the years, fighting their wars for expansion and aggrandizement largely at the expense of the Hungarians.

In addition, the influence of the Hungarian character, formed through the bitter experiences of the centuries, ought not be forgotten.


But even more, the religious factor which both influenced and was influenced by the preceding factors ought not be overlooked. The Hungarian people constitute until today the eastern bastion of evangelical Protestantism. specifically of the Calvinistic type. Now this Reformed Church, one of the largest of its kind in Europe, is under the control of the state which is Communist-inspired and directed. In seeking a true explanation why the church could succumb to such rigid state-control, it is indispensable to examine the main trends which have determined the life and history of these churches. An attempt to do this is made in this article.


The first and final settlement of the Hungarians in central Europe (where they are found until now) was made in the ninth century.

This event has always been regarded by the Slavs as the greatest calamity. This is openly admitted by the Bohemian historian, Palacky. The presence of the Hungarians in this area has for a thousand years prevented the formation and development of a unified Slav nation. Rossins, Serbs, Croatians, Bohemians, Slovenes, Slovaks, Moravians and others belonging to that family of nations have not forgotten this. Nor did the Rumanians, a nation speaking a kind of Latin language but being basically of Slav origin.

Another factor creating great difficulties for the Hungarians was the repeated attempt on the part of the Germans to obtain the Hungarian throne. For five hundred years this effort was foiled. Finally the Hapsburgs did succeed, but only when more than one-third of Hungary was occupied by the Turks. Thereupon the German overlords commenced to carry out their design: to make Hungary poor, Roman Catholic and German. Large numbers of German settlers were directed to Hungary. In addition, Rumanians, Serbs and Jews were invited by the Hapsburgs, in order to suppress the Hungarian element in its own country.

As early as 1001 the Hungarians embraced the Christian faith in its western form. Since then they have felt it their mission to defend this Christianity. Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries they fought the Petchenegs and Cumanians. In the thirteenth century they stopped the advances of the Mongol hordes. In the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they continually fought the Turks. The Turkish occupation, which lasted from 1526 to 1686, resulted in a large scale extermination of the population. Many areas were laid waste, with the result that the Hapsburgs taking advantage of Hungarian miseries could infiltrate the land with colonists of foreign origin and this attempt to break down national resistance.

All these facts eventually resulted in the Treaty of Trianon (1920), forced upon the Hungarians after World War I. This treaty deprived the nation of two thirds of her territory. It compelled more than four million Hungarians to live as much-abused minorities in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and especially Rumania. After World War II a slice of Hungarian territory with a sizable Magyar population was incorporated into Soviet Russia.

That the Hungarian armies fought against the Soviet Union during World War II ought not surprise anyone who knows the facts. Several cogent reasons can be advanced for this. (1) In 1918 for a short while Hungary was subjected to a Communist dictatorship, induced and advised by Lenin. This plainly showed the Hungarians what it was to live under Communism. (2) Hitler and Mussolini consented to the return of those territories populated by Hungarians which had been attached to Rumania, Yugoslavia and Slovakia after World War 1. (3) Eventually Hungary was occupied by the German military might in early 1944, for Admiral Horthy sought to maintain peace with these united nations which hemmed her in on all sides. From this it is evident that Hungary was in large measure the victim of her geographical position, surrounded by ambitious and expanding totalitarian nations like Germany, Italy and Soviet Russia.


To understand the present situation, wherein the Reformed Church is dominated by the state, we should take note of the people themselves.

This will take us back into history many centuries.

Between the first and fifth centuries of the present era the ancient Ugrians or pre-Magyars mingled with a western Turkish tribe called the Ogurs. These two elements can even now be easily recognized in the fairer and stocky peasants and in the slimmer and darker aristocrats. Perhaps this accounts for a kind of duality in the Hungarian character.

On the whole the Hungarians are a frank, friendly and hospitable people. Their patriarchal way of thinking excludes the exploitation of foreigners. Quick reactions usually made them excellent soldiers and sportsmen. To this must be added their belief of a divine mission as the guardians of Western culture and faith on the eastern out· posts of the European continent which always lay open throughout the centuries to migrating tribes which came from the heartland of Asia. Even wrongdoers turned heroic and performed wonders, when their country was at stake.

The greatest shortcoming of the Hungarians seems al~ ways to have been a lack of perseverance. This easily produced a kind of apathy in certain critical times. Perhaps this is part of the people’s eastern inheritance, for it is the East which patiently waits until the “flood” is past. It is also evident that the Turkish type among the Hungarians is usually less frank, less friendly and harder to get along with. Yet this has never been a dominant characteristic, since this element is a minority among the people.


Hungary embraced the Christian faith about 1001. Until the days of the Reformation there was but one church, the Roman Catholic. At the time when the Turks first invaded the land, with the battle of Mohacs in 1526, reformatory preaching began to be heard in the land.

The earliest leaders who called for reformation in the church were under the influence of Luther and his friends. Later, however, the Magyars embraced the Calvinistic reformation as much more in harmony with their temperament and convictions. This faith could strengthen an unhappy people in the desperate years which lay ahead. For a time it seemed as if the Reformed faith would sweep the whole nation. However, under Pazmany’s leadership the counter-Reformation succeeded in winning back many of the people to the Roman Catholic fold.

At present two thirds of the population of Hungary is nominally Roman Catholic. About one fourth are adherents of the Reformed Church. Here also the pulse-beat of national culture, aspirations and independence was most strongly and consistently felt. With this church we are concerned in the present article, seeking some understanding as to why it has succumbed to state control under the present Communist regime. To understand this it will he necessary to trace several trends of thought and life which have developed within the Reformed Church during the past few hundred years.


Centuries of persecution were fonowed by rationalism. This almost extinguished the spiritual life of the Reformed Church.

During the second half of the nineteenth century a revival under strong German Pietist influence began. Here were true children of God, a fact not denied by even their enemies. These people were filled with zeal and goodwill. Largely due to their influence there are still regenerated. people in the Hungarian churches. Their sole concern, however, was the conversion of the individual, which they made a condition for belonging to their group. Throughout the land their alliances were well-organized. They held conferences (camp meetings), had their own press, and made strenuous efforts in translating and publishing Anglo-American fundamentalist and German pietistic literature.

But this movement had its darker aspect These people publicly denounced the church with her allegedly unconverted members and ministers. By isolating themselves from the rest of the congregation, they made themselves unpopular. Their often tactless approach resulted in much antagonism. Despite persecution from the side of liberal ministers these believers remained in the church, although they did not think much of her. Their servile imitation of German Pietism produced strange flowers on the Hungarian soil. For example, their legalism so characteristic of the analytic German mind—not infrequently surpassed that of their teachers. Their women had to wear long hair and long, loose clothing, while all cosmetics were denounced. Entering theaters and movies, and even restaurants was strictly forbidden, as were also folk-songs and folk-dances. Some of them even refused to read newspapers and novels. Nor did they any longer sing the psalms, the use of which was so much a part of the Hungarian Reformed Church life. Instead they compiled their own hymnal, very inferior in both content and poetic quality.

Whenever the ministers united with this group, there was a modus vivendi. However, the lay leaders often acted like dictators. Fiercely they attacked all who did Dot agree with them. Many old Christians were denounced as un· converted. Strange as it may seem, some of them did not hesitate to order young men and young women sympathetic to their movement to marry, whether they desired this or not. Their lack of practical wisdom has resulted in the ex· pulsion of students from colleges. And in 1952, at a time when the church so sorely needed an uncompromising and converted ministry, they persuaded twelve students to leave the seminary on the grounds that “there is no possibility to preach the Gospel now.”

In summary: these Fundamentalists undoubtedly loved God with their hearts, but forgot that to love God with their minds is included in the great commandment as well.


The Reformed Church in Hungary was established on Calvinist principles. Yet these were never consistently put into practice.

The most significant attempt in this direction was undertaken by Professor Dr. J. Sebestyen. He studied in the Netherlands and upon his return to Hungary became the head of a strong Calvinistic movement. This group organized the John Calvin Society, edited the Dutch-Hungarian Calvinist Library, and published a weekly “Kalvinista Szeemle” (Calvinist Review). Both in the seminary and before large lay audiences Dr. Sebestyen, who was professor of Dogmatics in Budapest, urged in his innumerable lectures the practice of the Calvinist faith.

Several reasons can be given why his success was not greater. Neither the bishops of the church nor the liberal, fundamentalist and Bartman professors in the seminaries were in favor of him and the cause which he represented. Not infrequently Dr. Sebestyen himself drifted into a form of scholasticism. Nor was the style of his writing easy to read.

Perhaps the chief difficulty with this movement was that it took no clear.cut stand for regeneration and the new life. This resulted in many unfortunate affiliations. Unregenerated people entered the movement. These in turn became a constant target of the pietists who were opposed to Calvinism in any form.

All the above will in a measure explain the reservations toward a revival of Calvinism on the part of the mass of ministers. Yet the peasants often gave a favorable reception, especially when faith and knowledge were stressed simultaneously and the speakers took the trouble to bring home their message in language which the common people could understand. Even now there are born-again ministerS who openly espouse the Calvinistic faith. Many of these are among the most oppressed of the clergy, but to their credit it must be said that none of them bas joined the ranks of the “peace-ministers.”


A third stream within the church consists of the Barthians.

Since these are careful in their statements, do not press for any kind of church discipline and have never championed the doctrinal standards of the Reformed Church. their presence was largely unnoticed by the masses and they were fairly well accepted by the pietists. Among them we find no wen-organized movement. Before World War II there were only a few who could really be called Barthians. Yet certain Barthian principles were widely taught, preached and accepted uncritically.

That these people have not openly attacked Calvin and Calvinism can be understood by anyone acquainted with the history of the Hungarian Reformed Church. Calvin’s authority has always been enormous among the people. No Hungarian “Kalvinista” would undertake to denounce “Kalvin Janos….The people had suffered too much for the “Kalvinista” nickname throughout the centuries.

It must be admitted that the older Barthians were invariably born·again people. Even now they have little to do with the “peace ministers” who have appropriated Barthian doctrines for their own ends.

Against this background of the three main streams of theological thought within the Hungarian Reformed Church we hope to continue our investigation of what has brought this church under the state control from which it suffers today.