22 Feb 2013
The Hungarian Reformed Church
Many North American Christians are unaware that the Reformation had an impact in east central Europe. Hungary was one of the countries affected by it, and this influence has lasted to the present. The Reformed Church in Hungary has a number of unique characteristics setting it apart from other churches. Its confessional standards are the ecumenical Heidelberg Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession. It is one of only two explicitly Reformed churches to have bishops, although these bishops are little more than district superintendents and make no claim to be in apostolic succession. In fact, as its website puts it, "the church exists in its congregations." It is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. As the map indicates, the Reformed Church encompasses congregations scattered throughout the pre-1920 Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, which extend from the Adriatic in the west to the Carpathian Mountains in the east, and from the borders of Poland in the north to those of Serbia in the south. In Hungary proper Reformed Christians make up the second largest church body after the Roman Catholic Church, while in Romanian Transylvania, they make up the largest Hungarian-speaking church denomination.
Why are Reformed Christians so concentrated in the east? These were the lands controlled by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, whereas western Hungary was under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. The Habsburgs imposed the Counter-Reformation within their territories, while the Ottoman authorities were rather more tolerant of religious diversity within their lands. (Recall that they had taken in the Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain in 1492.) Thus the Reformation flourished in the latter but was suppressed in the former.
A dozen years ago I guest lectured at one of Redeemer's sister universities. There I encountered a student in one of the classes who had a Hungarian name but carried a Romanian passport. He was a Reformed Christian who lived in a region of Romania with an ethnic Hungarian majority. Despite his Romanian passport, he told me that he felt himself to be Hungarian, which, as I understand it, is not atypical of the Hungarian-speaking populations in Romania. Thus to be a Reformed Christian in that country brings with it a Hungarian identity as well.
The geographic distance between the Hungarian Reformed and other Reformed Christians is undoubtedly exacerbated by linguistic distance as well. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish and Estonian but completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages surrounding it in central Europe. I have considerable admiration for such people as Frank and Aria Sawyer, who teach at the Sárospatak Reformed Theological Academy and long ago mastered this difficult language.
In North America the Hungarian Reformed are represented in two bodies: the Hungarian Reformed Church in America and the Calvin Synod, a confessional body within the United Church of Christ. Reformed Christians in Hungary still sing the Genevan Psalms in Albert Szenczi Molnár's 16th-century versifications. If their North American counterparts have given this up, they would certainly do well to re-appropriate a tradition that has served their brethren in the old country so well over the centuries. If they should ever look for a usable English translation, I would be happy to provide them with one, however partial it may be at present.
Incidentally, although I have no known close Hungarian family relationships, my genealogical records indicate that my wife, daughter and I are all lineal descendants of Kings Geza I through Istvan V of Hungary.