Unitarianism in Transylvania under Austrian Rule, 16901867:  A Century and a Quarter of Catholic Oppression


    Ever since 1526 the Turks had occupied a large part of Hungary, and had held a sort of political guardianship over Transylvania; but in 1690, they were expelled from the land for good, at the end of a war in which the Unitarians bore a prominent part.  Transylvania, with much enthusiasm at being again united in government with a kindred people, was joined to Austria, and Leopold I, King of Hungary and Emperor, was elected its prince.  Now throughout its history Austria has been more closely under the influence of the Catholic Church than perhaps any other European country unless it be Spain.  The century of intermittent oppression by Calvinists of which we have spoken in the last chapter was therefore now to be followed by a century of steady and severe Catholic persecution which was far worse.  Soon after his accession Leopold issued in 1691 a celebrated document (the Diploma Leopoldinum) which was regarded as the Magna Charta of Transylvania.  It was designed to secure to the Transylvanians under the new government all the rights they had enjoyed under the old; and in particular it promised that the existing rights of the four received religions should be continued without injury to churches, schools, or parishes, that all church property should remain in possession of its present holders, and that the members of the several churches should have a fair share of the public offices and honors which they so highly prized.

    The ink was hardly dry on Leopold’s signature before plans began for breaking the promises he had so solemnly and publicly made.  Leopold had been educated for the priesthood and was designed for a bishop, when his elder brother died and the crown fell to him at the age of seventeen.  He was largely under the influence of the Jesuits, and his long reign was their golden age in Hungary as it was the dark age of the Protestants.  Before becoming Prince of Transylvania he had been unspeakably cruel to the Protestants of Hungary.  The Jesuits, maintaining that one was not bound to keep a promise made to heretics, soon induced Leopold to break his oath to preserve the religious liberties of his Protestant subjects.  The Catholics therefore now began making demands upon the Protestants, and each demand yielded to only led to more.  We need speak only of the oppressions affecting the Unitarians.  In 1693 they were compelled to give up to the Catholics the school at Kolozsvar which John Sigismund had given them in 1566.  Next the Catholics demanded the great church in the square which the Unitarians had held since Dávid’s time, and had lately repaired at large expense; but the demand was refused.  In 1697 came a great fire which destroyed this church and another, as well as the school they had only just built to take the place of that seized by the Catholics, and several other buildings belonging to the church.  Bishop Almasi sent one of the professors in the Unitarian school to Holland to solicit aid from the Remonstrants and Collegiants, and received 9,000 thalers (nearly $7,000) in response to his appeal,1 and with contributions from the whole membership the buildings were restored; though, as we shall soon see, they were not to be kept for long.  The other three religions now each demanded a church and a school with equal rights at Kolozsvar, thus crowding the Unitarians further out of the seat they had held for long over a century.  In fact, the only ray of light in this dark reign was that in 1693 the right of visiting the churches in the Szekler counties2 was restored to the Unitarian bishop, and that in 1696 the Unitarians were permitted to set up a new press at Kolozsvar, though they soon had to hide away even this.

    Under the reign of Charles VI (1711 – 1740) oppression was still the rule.  He took the oath as usual, and under Jesuit advice broke it as usual.  In defiance of the law of the land he brought back the Catholic bishop and the Jesuits, and his agents began despoiling Unitarians and driving them from their churches by force in all parts of the land.  In 1714 he sent General Steinville to Transylvania as governor, who began carrying on the oppression in true military fashion.  He billeted his soldiers in the homes of the prominent Unitarians.  In 1716 he at length took away from them by military force the great church at Kolozsvar which the Catholics had been coveting for over twenty years, and the Unitarians had occupied for a century and a half; and along with this the minister’s house, school, professors’ houses, endowment property, and press, all under a decree approved by the same emperor who had pledged his sacred word to secure them in all the rights they had possessed.  The value of the property thus taken from the Unitarians at Kolozsvar was estimated at not less than 200,000 crowns.  The students of the school were scattered, and for a time no worship was allowed even in private houses.  In 1721 yet another church at Kolozsvar was taken away, with its endowment funds; then that at Torda, then here and there all over the country churches were taken from the Unitarians on any pretext or none and given to the Catholics, even when the latter had but two or three members in a place.  It was forbidden to build new churches to replace the old without express imperial permission, which of course could never be obtained.  Persecutions like those of the early Christians were inflicted far and wide.  Unitarians were gradually excluded from public offices, even the lowest, and were refused the political equality which was theirs by law.  Even then, though many fell away, and many congregations were scattered or broken up before the end of the century, most did not lose hope even under the severest persecutions, but only redoubled their devotions and sacrifices.

    Charles was succeeded by his daughter, Maria Theresia whose long reign (1740 – 1780) continued the same policy toward Protestants which her father had practiced, but carried it yet further.  She stands in history as one of the ablest and best rulers that Austria ever had; and she seemed to herself to be an advanced religious reformer, for she fell out with the Jesuits and expelled them in 1773.  She was, however, a devoted and zealous Catholic; and although at her accession she had assured the Transylvanians that she would preserve all their ancient rights, privileges and liberties, heresy was to her mind an unpardonable sin which had no just claim to toleration.  Hence she was little inclined to let mere laws of the land, though repeatedly confirmed by her predecessors, or promises made by them or herself, stand in the way, if by ignoring them she could suppress or destroy in any part of her realm what she of course deemed the most damnable heresy.  Her hand therefore fell heavily even upon the Saxon Lutherans of her own race, but most heavily of all upon the Unitarians.  There is little to tell of what the Unitarians did during her reign, for they were reduced to their lowest ebb; but there is much to tell of what they suffered, for it is a melancholy story of forty years during which every conceivable means was used to destroy their church.  The queen would use the arts of persuasion, and the subtle bribery of promises of favors and offices, when they would work; and when they would not, she resorted to various means of force.  Thus by promising them high offices she got many wealthy nobles to change their religion.  When a promising Unitarian youth went up to Vienna, she made him her godson, and gave him rich presents, to induce him to turn Catholic.  On the other hand she would give no high office to a Protestant, and hardly any office at all to a Unitarian; she forbade the election of Unitarian magistrates in all but two towns; she refused to let Unitarian books be printed, so that whatever books the ministers or professors wrote had to be circulated in manuscript copies; and during her whole reign only two Unitarian books were published.  A carefully drawn plan for the systematic oppression of Unitarianism was adopted in 1744, which included a large fund for converting Unitarian boys and girls at Kolozsvar.  Unitarians who sought a university education had long been going to the Protestant universities of Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, where funds had been established for their assistance; but in order that they might be forced to attend the Catholic university at Vienna, they were now forbidden to study abroad without special permission.  Unitarians were forbidden to carry on public religious discussions, or to make converts from other churches; their pastors were not allowed to visit the sick or administer baptism except among their own members, and no member of another church might marry a Unitarian.

    The persecution did not stop at these acts of merely negative oppression.  Children were taken away from their parents by force to be educated as Catholics; Unitarian schools were closed, and their scholars were then forbidden to go to any other school but a Catholic.  An old law was revived which gave possession of the church in a community to the body having a majority of the population; and by colonizing for the purpose she secured Catholic majorities enough to claim the churches in many places.  Various churches, schools, and parsonages were taken away by force, and it was still forbidden to repair old churches or build new ones.  The support of the churches by tithes was cut off.  At Szent Rontas, where the Unitarians some ten years before had assisted in the building of a pretty Catholic church, the Catholics turned about and seized the Unitarian church, school house, and cemetery, attacking in force while the Unitarians were at morning worship, and driving the pastor and the teacher from town.  The Unitarians did not meekly submit to this outrage, but a month later recovered their property by force; whereupon the queen ordered it taken from them again and held until judicial investigation could be had and she should give a decision.  It can easily be anticipated what decision she gave: after twelve years the case was at last decided in favor of the Catholics, and the name of the village was ordered changed to Holy Trinity.

    There were cases of the finest heroism, as when at Bagyon a Catholic mob attempted to seize the Unitarian church while the men of the village were away; but the enraged Szekler women turned out and defended the building themselves, the younger fighting desperately outside the church, while the older within prayed for their success.  In another village, when the Catholics raised a mob to attack the church, the Unitarians defended themselves and scattered the mob.  For doing this they were arrested and ordered flogged, and as a further punishment they were ordered to build the Catholics a handsome church.  At Brasso the Jesuits attacked the Unitarians during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, drove away the pastor, and spilt the bread and wine.  So it went on all over the land during forty long years.  The victims repeatedly appealed to the toleration decree of 1557, and to the guarantees in the Diploma of Leopold, so often confirmed since; but their complaints were uniformly ignored.

    All these things wofully reduced the number and strength of the Unitarian churches, as it was meant that they should.  Of the 425 churches and thirteen higher schools and colleges in Transylvania late in the sixteenth century, two-hundred years of persecution had left fewer than 125, all of these of course far weaker than before, with a total membership of but 50,000, and only one school and college.  Yet even now their spirit was not crushed.  A young Unitarian officer, upon being dismissed from his office on account of his religion, wrote to his father, “I will beg before I will give up my religion.” Such noble families as still remained were most generous to their church.  The fewer they became, the more they comforted and helped one another.  Their persistence in hanging together, and their willingness to sacrifice for their faith, became proverbial.  The result was that persecutions which had been intended to destroy them not only failed of their purpose, but left them instead a united band of heroes; and this quality has persisted to this day.

    To guide and inspire them in this dark period, God raised up a great man, their greatest bishop after Dávid, Michael Szent Abrahami, whom they love to call “the eye, heart, and tongue of the Unitarians” of this period, since he watched over them as their bishop, fathered them as their pastor, and taught them as the rector of their college.  After an ample education at home and abroad, and a brief ministry, he began to teach in the college at Kolozsvar just before the Unitarians were robbed of it by the Catholics.  After a time he opened the college in new quarters, now for the third time in its broken history, and before long became its rector.  In 1737 he became bishop, and served thus for over twenty years.  By his great energy and wisdom he saved the Unitarian Church from shipwreck, and recreated it.  He was a man of distinguished ability as scholar, teacher, theologian, preacher, and administrator.  He laid the foundation of the endowment funds of the Church, and gave it a much better organization than before.  He reformed the church schools and, what was of greatest importance, he reduced its theology to a system.  His Substance of all Theology according to the Unitarians, a work composed for his classes in theology, and widely circulated in manuscript for thirty years or more until its publication was allowed in 1787, is a work which did for the Unitarians of Transylvania what the Racovian Catechism did for the Socinians of Poland.3  It is very conservative, is founded entirely on proof texts of Scripture, teaches the worship of Christ and the eternal punishment of the wicked, and in various other details would seem to us now quite orthodox.  It was evidently much influenced by Servetus, and by the editions of the Racovian Catechism published after the original Socinianism had become modified in Holland; but it has no Anabaptist tendencies.  It lays much stress on the practical conduct of Christian life, and must have had great effect in shaping the Christian character of the Unitarians in Transylvania.  It is written in the finest spirit, is not at all controversial, and hence was well suited to overcome or soften down the enmity of the other churches; and in western Europe its publication aroused fresh interest in Unitarians and their teachings, and increased respect for them.

    With the reign of Emperor Joseph II (1780 – 1790) better days began to dawn upon the Unitarians of Transylvania.  Long before his mother’s death he had revealed a much broader spirit than hers, and now he began to carry out a more tolerant policy.  When on a visit to Transylvania as prince, he had received complaints from the Unitarians as to the injustice they had to suffer, and had promised to do for them what he could.  So long as the queen lived he could do nothing; but when he came to the throne he redeemed his promise.  Though he was full of reforming ideas, his rule is commonly called a political failure; but it is rendered glorious by the fact that he issued in 1780 an Edict of Toleration of the four religions, restoring and guaranteeing their ancient rights.  He forbade further seizure of churches; and although he did not restore those that had been taken away, he offered indemnity for them, ordered 5,000 florins repaid to the Kolozsvar Unitarians for the loss of their church, did various other things for their relief, and allowed them to print Szent Abrahami’s book just now mentioned.  His brother Leopold II (1790 –1792) was also wise and enlightened, and preserved the liberties that Joseph had granted, allowing Unitarians again to hold office and have equal rights.

    Under the long reign of Francis I (1792 – 1835), the same liberal policy was continued.  The edicts of toleration were ratified by the Diet and made a part of public law; the four religions were again declared equal before the law, seizure of church property was forbidden forever, and freedom of the press was restored without censor.  Unitarians were given a fair share of public offices, some of them high ones, and Francis came to be known as “Restorer of the rights of Unitarians.” Thus protected by free and just laws, their weakened churches began at length to recover strength, and many new churches were now built in towns or villages.  At Kolozsvar, where they had long had to worship in a common dwelling, they now built a large and fine church, college, and parish buildings.  With revived strength came renewed growth and the planting of new churches, and lost ground began step by step to be regained.

    In this period a great impulse was given to the Unitarian cause by a noble bequest from one of its followers.  Laszlo Zsuki was the last surviving member of one of the oldest and most prominent families in Transylvania, and the heir to large estates.  He had been educated at the Unitarian college, and felt that he owed much to it.  He therefore determined to leave all his property for Unitarian causes, and to that end remained unmarried. After spending his lifetime in trying to improve the agricultural condition of his country, and being generous to his college, and rebuilding various churches, he left at his death in 1792 nearly 80,000 florins (about $40,000).  This generous legacy helped to meet the most urgent needs of the poor churches and the college.  A new college building was erected, professors’ salaries were raised, and the needs of poor students and poor ministers and their widows were provided for.  This good example was soon followed by others, and in 1837 the greatest of all their bequests was received.  Paul Angustinovics was descended from the Polish exiles who came to Transylvania in 1660, and was the son of a poor minister who had died and left him and his mother dependent upon the charity of the church.  They were aided from the Zsuki fund, which enabled him to get his college education at Kolozsvar, and assisted him in getting started in his profession of the law.  He showed his gratitude in a munificent manner.  After having spent many years in high public office, he also died unmarried, leaving to the church a bequest of 100,000 florins (about $50,000), nearly his entire fortune, which has furnished its largest single endowment down to this day.

    In 1821 something of pathetic interest occurred, when this little, persecuted, struggling, but heroically faithful group of churches made the thrilling discovery that beside themselves there were other Unitarians in the world, who were free, prosperous, and rapidly growing in strength.  Ever since the exiles from Poland had gradually melted away over Europe, until at length the Transylvanian churches no longer heard from them, the Transylvanian brethren had generally supposed themselves the only Unitarians left in the world.  For Transylvania was remote from western Europe, it was before the age of railroads, and there was only the rarest connection with England or America.  It is true that one of the Unitarians (later to become Bishop Szent Ivanyi), while pursuing his studies in Holland, visited England not long after 1660; but if he met any liberal Christians there, they were not yet known as Unitarians, and they had as yet no organized movement.  From time to time English travelers also had brought home reports of the interesting Unitarian Church in Transylvania; but their accounts had fallen on heedless ears, for English Unitarianism had no organization; and although some of the Transylvanians had for a generation known in a dim way of a similar movement in England, the knowledge had made no real impression.  It was not until 1821, after the Unitarian Fund had for some years been organized in London, that its Secretary, hoping to discover and interest liberal Christians on the Continent, sent abroad for circulation a little Latin tract entitled The Unitarians in England: their Faith, History, and Present Condition briefly set forth.  It found its way to Transylvania and into the hands of the Unitarians there, among whom it aroused the greatest interest.  It was like receiving powerful reënforcements at the end of a long and exhausting fight.  An answer was sent in due time and communications have been kept up between the Unitarians of the two countries ever since.  The Transylvanian brethren began to visit England, where they were most gladly received; a few years later two of them went to America, where they reported a yet more flourishing body as then sweeping all before it in eastern Massachusetts.  It was a great tonic to the weary strugglers, and a prophecy that the cause they had fought for so long was going to win at last.  In more recent years visits of western Unitarians to their brethren in Transylvania have been more frequent; and since 1860 their most promising candidates for the ministry have gone to England to finish their education.  The mother church of Unitarianism has been aided in distress by its more fortunate kindred in England and America, who have strengthened its churches and colleges by generous gifts, while the works of English and American writers have been published in Hungarian.

    Under the happier conditions now enjoyed after two full centuries of almost incessant struggles against oppression and cruelty, it might have been hoped that the Unitarians had entered upon a period of enduring peace. For nearly two generations, indeed, they had little that was serious to disturb them, and were steadily regaining their strength and extending their influence. It was the longest quiet period that this martyr church has ever enjoyed.  In 1818, however, came the revolution by which Hungary strove to free itself from the long and heavy oppression of Austria.  Hungary declared its independence, and in its new Constitution recognized the Unitarian religion as legal throughout the whole kingdom (instead of merely in Transylvania, as before), and granted equal and perfect freedom to the several religions.  But the revolution failed.  Russia came to the aid of Austria; and Transylvania, as so often before, was again a battleground.  The Wallacks (Rumanians) dwelling there, long denied relief from the oppression they had themselves suffered for centuries, now seized the occasion to rise against their Hungarian masters, against whom they committed the most fiendish atrocities, butchering hundreds of families in cold blood, killing old men, women, and children without distinction, and sacking and burning whole villages.  The worst of these things were done where the Unitarians happened to be the most numerous, among the villages of Szeklerland.

    When the revolution had been put down, Austria determined to crush the national spirit of Hungary, and realized that the center of this was in the Protestant churches.  She therefore put the religious affairs of the country under the military administration of General Haynau, notorious for his cruelty.  He abolished all the rights of Protestants, forbade their assemblies, dismissed their church officers, and placed the religious arrangements of the churches in every detail in charge of Catholic overseers.  This policy did not succeed, and after two or three years the independence of the churches was restored; but attempts were still made to break them down in other ways.  The Unitarian Bishop Szekely, with a salary of but $260 a year, was offered wealth, honors, and high office if he would enter the service of the Catholics; but of course he refused.  When he had gone to his reward soon afterward, it was nine years before the Unitarians, in spite of repeated protests, were permitted to elect a new bishop in his place.

    In 1857 the Austrian government made one final attempt to stop Protestantism at its source.  Under the pretense of raising the standard of education, it attempted to destroy the Protestant schools.  It demanded that in number of professors and in salaries paid they should be made equal to the Austrian state schools; else their graduates would not be recognized, and would be excluded from the professions and from all important civil offices.  It was necessary within a limited time for the Unitarians to raise something like $70,000; and the demand struck them, of all Protestants, most heavily, since they were the fewest and the poorest.  They were horrorstruck, for they realized that the demands had been purposely made so high that they could not possibly be complied with.  In that case the government proposed to take their schools over, and Unitarian young people would henceforth have to be educated under Catholic or orthodox Protestant influences.  Fortunately an English Unitarian named John Paget had long been living in Transylvania, and had been actively interested in the Unitarian cause there.  He presented to the English Unitarians the appeal which their Transylvanian brethren sent forth, and by them it was also forwarded to America.  The English raised 13,000 florins ($5,200), and sent it in 1858 by the hand of their Secretary, Mr. Tagart, who was the first English Unitarian minister to visit them.  He brought them direct personal assurance of foreign sympathy, which gave them the greatest encouragement to continue their struggle. All arrangements were made to take up a collection also in the American churches, when a sudden and overwhelming financial panic swept over the country, so that nothing effective could be done.  The Transylvanians themselves were roused as never before to save their cause from ruin.  They were all poor people, mostly farmers or villagers; but by assessments and subscriptions, and by mortgaging their farms to an eighth of their value, and making the most enormous sacrifices, they managed to raise in all as much as $72,000.  Although they could not meet the full demands made upon them, their cause was saved, for their schools remained their own.  The crisis had proved in some ways a blessing in disguise; for it awakened, as nothing else might have done, their dormant appreciation of what their church meant to them, it raised up friends in the West whose generous interest has been more active for them since that day, and it greatly improved their schools.

    After this storm there now came another long period of calm. The churches now numbered but few over 100, and the members only from 50,000 to 60,000,4 but again they took fresh heart.  They were granted leave to elect a bishop again in 1861, and the honorable title of bishop, which the Catholic government had since the seventeenth century refused to recognize, was at last restored in place of that of superintendent.  Since 1867, when Transylvania was again united to Hungary, and the Hungarian constitution was restored, the Unitarian Church has had in Hungary all the equal rights which had been promised at the revolution of 1848.  The three-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the church was celebrated in 1868 with impressive ceremonies. State aid to the churches has been granted since that year, and Unitarians have been appointed to some of the highest state offices.  Church funds have been increased.  English and American visitors have come more and more frequently, and have made generous gifts.  The works of Channing and other western Unitarians have been translated and published in Hungarian.  The first Unitarian church in modern Hungary, organized at Budapest in 1873, has been followed by a dozen or more others on the territory where many churches had flourished three-hundred years ago.  This brings the romantic story of Unitarianism in Transylvania down to the end of the nineteenth century.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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