The Unitarian Churches of Hungary in the Twentieth Century


    From the beginning of the twentieth century to the year 1914 the Unitarian Church in Transylvania, with its newer branches in Hungary proper, enjoyed a happy and prosperous life.  All signs pointed to a long period ahead in which it might devote itself to the work of pure religion, unhindered by persecution or misfortune.  The principle of religious toleration appeared to be permanently established in Hungary, and the oppression of one religion by another seemed forever a thing of the past.  Ever since the revolution of 1848, which had brought all four churches closely together in the struggle against a common foe, the four “received religions” had lived side by side in the most friendly relations.  It remains to describe the life of the churches during this period.

    The Hungarian Unitarian Church, as its legal name now ran, had early in the twentieth century about 160 churches, of which some fifty were filialś or mission churches with no regular pastor, but only occasional supplies from neighboring churches, these latter being usually made up of converts from other forms of religion.  The churches ranged in membership from a handful to over 2,000 each, and some fifteen had more than 1,000 members each.  The total membership was about 75,000, and was increasing pretty steadily at the rate of something over one per cent a year.  The great majority of the Unitarians were Szeklers, the rest Magyars.  They had few magnates or higher nobility, but were mostly of the middle and lower classes, chiefly villagers or farmers, and half of them poor.  The ministers must all be graduates of the Unitarian college at Kolozsvar, and had generally taught a few years in the parish schools before entering the pastorate.  Their salaries ranged from $320 to $700 a year, but a large share of this was often paid in produce.  Each minister had beside this the use of his house and a small farm which he tilled with his own hands, often assisted by the members of his congregation.  His wife would herself make the homespun which the family wore.  Pastorates were usually for life, but after forty years’ service a minister might be pensioned, as his widow would also be, with provision also in case of accident.

    If we went to visit one of the Szekler villages, we should find near the middle of its one long street a plain whitewashed church with belfry, and a schoolhouse near by.  Entering on a Sunday we should find on the side of the room a high pulpit looking down on rows of plain wooden benches, all of them free.  The men enter first, then the women, the elder before the younger.  Men and women, all dressed in their gayest clothes, sit on opposite sides, with a large vacant square separating them.  The service is very simple, consisting only of prayer, hymns, Scripture, and sermon.  There is now no liturgical form; but though the sermons are without manuscript the prayers are written out and read by the minister.  He is gowned, and his sermon is likely to be on some theme of practical religion, with little doctrine, and no attack upon other churches or controversy with their beliefs, since this is forbidden by their constitution. There is both morning and evening service on Sunday.  On weekdays, too, summer and winter, the farmers come to the church at daybreak, for a brief service of morning prayer; and on returning from their work at the end of the day they go to the church for evening prayer before returning home.  There are churches in which it is said that not a day has passed for over 300 years without this daily worship.  The Lord’s Supper is observed four times in the year with great solemnity, for it is held in the greatest reverence.

    There were elementary schools connected with each of the larger parishes, where the Unitarian children were taught by teachers receiving salaries of about $200 a year besides house and garden.  At Kolozsvar, Torda, and Szekely Keresztur there were also Unitarian higher schools, or gymnasia; and at Kolozsvar was the Unitarian college, comprising a lower school, a higher school, and a divinity school, with nearly 400 students, half of them from other churches; a faculty of some twenty-five well trained scholars; a library of 50,000 volumes, and a handsome stone building erected at the beginning of this century.  All these institutions are supported from the church funds, though even the college professors get hardly more than $500 a year and house, with a retiring pension. Though the Unitarians of Transylvania are a poor people, they have always paid especial attention to their schools, and these are so superior that they have been largely attended by students from Calvinist and Catholic homes.

    The organization of the churches somewhat resembles that of the Presbyterians, and is close and efficient.  At the head of the whole church is the bishop, though we shall better understand his office if we think of him as a superintendent, a title which a Catholic government long insisted on applying to him instead of the other and more ancient one.  He has previously been a minister, and usually a professor at the Kolozsvar college.  He has the general oversight of churches and schools, their property and income.  He visits churches and schools, and inspects the work and character of the teachers and ministers; calls synods, ordains ministers, and gives them their appointments.  His salary is but $1,200.  The governing body of the whole church is called the representative consistory, which consists of ministers and influential laymen, and is headed by the bishop and two chief curators or lay presidents.  It meets each month, and is responsible to the chief consistory, which meets once each year at Kolozsvar, and every fourth year in one of its districts.  It examines the reports of the representative consistory, meets in different districts in turn, passes laws for the churches and schools, administers the more important affairs of the church, and elects the bishop when his office falls vacant.  Once in four years the consistory holds an especially important session, which is then called a synod.  The church as a whole is divided into nine administrative districts, each of which is under the charge of an officer whom we may best describe as a district superintendent, or dean, who visits the churches and schools in his own district once every year and inspects their condition.

    The beliefs of the Unitarian churches in Hungary are on the whole rather more conservative than those of English and American Unitarians.  The Bible is taken as authority, and many of its traditions and teachings which have been abandoned by Unitarians in other lands are still accepted.

    Until recently such were the story of Adam and Eve, the miraculous birth of Jesus, and his resurrection and ascension.  In most other respects the beliefs of the Hungarian Unitarians are not notably different from those of their brethren in other countries; and the Christ worship long required by law and observed in form has disappeared from practice and from statements of belief.

    The Transylvanian Unitarians throughout their history not only have been devoted and heroic in the extreme, as the previous chapters have amply shown, but in other respects they have manifested such characters as one might expect from those whose beliefs and practices are plain and simple, and who lay the greater stress upon homely piety and the good life because they attach the less importance to creeds and ceremonies.  In the earlier period of their history an old Hungarian chronicler recorded that the Szekler Unitarians were stricter in their morals than other Hungarians.  When Maria Theresia was employing every device to persecute the Unitarian Church out of existence, a Catholic bishop wrote to the court in Vienna that its members were thrifty, industrious, law-abiding, and exemplary citizens; but that these very qualities, and the growing prosperity that they produced, made their detestable doctrines the more dangerous and the more likely to infect their neighbors, while they were also a standing reproach to the character of the Catholic clergy.  He therefore strongly urged that they be repressed.  A Protestant historian a generation later reports that “their simple worship, the strict morality of their communities, the dignity, piety, and learning of their superintendents, have gained for them great consideration in the country.”  A German traveler of the last generation speaks of them as highly respected by the other churches for the fervor and simplicity of their faith, and says that their schools, the morality of their villages, and their Sabbath observance, are universally praised.  They are devoted to good education and to political freedom and progress, a brave, energetic, intelligent, and virtuous people, whose influence on the higher life of the country is admitted to be quite out of proportion to their numbers; while their influence upon religious thought has been such that many in other churches, even as in England and America, accept their beliefs, though not confessing their name.

    Our story should have ended happily with the nineteenth century; but the great World War makes it necessary to add a supplement of new oppressions and sufferings, perhaps more nearly fatal than any previous ones in all the long and tragic history.  In 1914 the brave Szekler farmers were called to arms, and many of them left their homes, never to return.  This fact alone, added to the usual hardships of war, must have greatly weakened their churches.  In 1916 the Rumanians invaded Transylvania, overrunning Szeklerland, though little else, before they were driven back.  This meant further ruin to the Unitarian churches so numerous on that frontier.  Finally, just as the war was at an end, the Rumanians again seized the now helpless land and began a brutal rule of oppression, robbery, and violence little if any milder than that used by the Germans in Belgium and France.  The churches were oppressed and their people maltreated as almost never before in the whole long history of their martyrdom; their ministers deprived of their living, and in some cases imprisoned; their venerable Bishop Ferencz held captive, and forbidden communication with his churches or ministers; many of their members exiled and deprived of their homes or farms; their schools closed; their professional men reduced to manual labor; the church estates divided up among Rumanian peasants.  The British and American churches have come to the rescue as far as rescue is possible, but only time can tell whether the heroic endurance so often shown in the past will be equal to these latest and severest trials.

    It is often asked why Unitarianism, if it be true, has not spread faster. Each chapter of this history makes one part of the answer more clear.  It did not spread in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany because it was crushed out by oppression, even unto death, before it ever had even a fair chance to be heard and judged on its merits.  Other faiths were never willing to meet it on equal terms.  They were protected and supported by the state, while the state treated Unitarianism as a crime.  In Poland, so long as it had even halfway protection under the law, it did spread and thrive wonderfully, as we have seen, in spite of the relentless opposition of every other form of religion, Catholic or Protestant; and it perished there only because the government abandoned its principle of toleration and made the profession of Unitarianism a capital offense.  In Transylvania where, for the first time in history thus far, it had both the protection of equal laws and the active support of the rulers, it soon converted almost the whole country, though even then it did nothing to oppress rival faiths; and three centuries of oppression did not succeed in destroying it.  What the result would have been if Unitarianism, arising only a few years later than Lutheranism, and even earlier than Calvinism, had in the past four centuries been given a chance to spread its doctrines in fair and even competition with theirs, can only be imagined.  But we have next to follow the story of it in England, and to see how, after some early persecutions and a few martyrdoms, it has for two happier centuries flourished there under freer laws and a more tolerant spirit.


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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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