A Historical Overview of the Reformed Church in Hungary Under Communist Destruction: 1948-1989

Introduction

(by Rev. F. Z. Kovacs)

In 1950 Dr. Pereszknyi was drafted against his will into the Communist Army as a Medical Officer, because he refused to be an informant for the Communist Party. He was forced to leave the Bajcsi Hospital in Budapest were he worked as a resident. Dr. Pereszlnyi remained a faithful believer during his military service. As a result, the Ministry of Defense was determined to jail him for three years on fictitious charges of religious propaganda. However, the Lord delivered him and he was discharged from the military politically and professionally blameless. Through many providential signs he understood that it was the Lord’s will for him to leave Hungary and come to Canada. He immigrated and by God’s grace was blessed to practice 37 years of medicine in Rexdale, Ontario. Dr. Pereszldnyi was privileged to befriend the late Dr. P.Y. De Jong during his time as a resident in Hamilton. It was Dr. De Jong who introduced him to the editor of the Torch and Trumpet in which appeared Dr. Pereszlnyi’s first article “The Inward Destruction of the Hungarian Reformed Church” published in 1963. The present article is an updated survey of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s decline and struggle during Communism.

The Foundation of the Reformed Church in Hungary

The Calvinistic variety of the Protestant Reformation found fertile soil in Hungary. It was so deeply rooted that three centuries of fierce Hapsburg persecution and the plague of Rationalism could not destroy it. In fact, before WWI, the Reformed Church in Hungary had three million members, making it the largest Reformed body in Europe.

The infamous Treaty of Trianont deprived Hungary of three quarters of her territory and of one million Hungarian Reformed people, who suddenly found themselves in other countries: Eight hundred thousand Hungarian Reformed people established the Reformed Church in Romania; one hundred sixty thousand founded the Reformed Church in Czechoslovakia; forty thousand constituted the Reformed Church in Yugoslavia. The Reformed Church in the U.S.S.R. was another Hungarian Church, resulting from the Russian annexation of a part of Hungary following World War II.

The Communist Takeover

The Russian occupation of Hungary after WWII found the two million strong Reformed Church in the springtime of a popular awakening. The Reformed Church had her 400year-old network of parochial elementary and secondary schools, four theological seminaries, two hospitals, one school for deacons, three deaconess orders, and approximately fifty orphanages, old peoples’ homes, and various other organizations.

The Communist tactic was to avoid open confrontation with the churches whenever possible. They encouraged dissatisfied elements to undermine the church leaders. The bishops were “requested” to remove educated elders by their “voluntary” resignation. Thereby, the church lost her most capable Laity. Ministers, deans and bishops were continuously pressured to declare their loyalty to the “Peoples’ Democracy”.

The Political Police created an atmosphere of fear. They “discovered” one “conspiracy” after another, and scores of Hungarians were arrested, beaten, tortured and hanged. In these so-called conspiracies, the aristocracy, the old Army and police, as well as the clergy, were invariably represented. Under duress, those arrested admitted to things that they had never done. Members of the parliament were no exception; many of them were imprisoned or forced to leave for the West.

At the right psychological moment, the last non-Communist parliament was forced to nationalize all the parochial schools. After that, religious education at schools was prevented by the most drastic means.

People were relieved when the government sought agreements with the churches. However, no sooner had the Reformed delegation engaged in negotiations than it became clear that they had to “agree” to a Communist blueprint. The government interfered with the election of ministers, deans and bishops. “Unacceptable” nominees were threatened with jail, unless they withdrew.2 All ministers had to take an oath on the Communist Constitution of the country, and they were repeatedly screened on their political views.
About two hundred ministers had to leave the ministry. Younger ministers were forced to resign; older ones were compelled to retire. In addition, many ministers of fame and good report were removed from large city congregations and put in charge of small, neglected country churches. Conversely, young, inexperienced traitors, or older, often alcoholic or immoral Communist collaborators, were forced upon famous and flourishing congregations. The Political Police ruthlessly stamped out any objections to these appointments, and they vigorously supported the collaborators in all their destructive activities.

The worst faction of the ministers—a small minority—realized that their great opportunity had arrived. They outdid each other in declaring conformity and loyalty to the “impetus” of the great constructive work of the People’s Democracy; that is, the Communist Party. The Party readily accepted their services, as informants and executors of their policies. These collaborators were called “peace ministers”, as their favorite topic was not the Gospel but “peaceful coexistence”: in other words, obedience to any Communist demands.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, every Christian organization was dissolved. Two of the four Reformed seminaries were closed down. The deaconess orders were disbanded and their motherhouses were taken away. Christian publishing houses were nationalized. The Bethania Alliance was branded as an agency of American spies. The Soli Deo Gloria student alliance was charged with rightist policies.

The Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. were declared unnecessary by the collaborators. The Society for Foreign Missions and the Good Shepherd Jewish Mission were also dissolved. With only a few exceptions, all the orphanages and old peoples’ homes were secularized. Ministers were not allowed to visit the hospitals or prisons. Prisoners’ Bibles were immediately confiscated. Dying hospital patients were forced to apply for permission, in writing, if they wished to see their ministers.

Every minister was confined to his own congregation, and could not preach anywhere else without special permission. The local congregations could function within the framework of their previous activities, with the exception of religious education. Parents who were insistent on the religious education of their children often lost their livelihood, or the children were refused entry to institutions of higher learning. Bible study groups were tolerated, but scrupulously controlled by often-frightened ministers. For almost three decades, the formerly popular preaching missions became extinct. There was some lenience in the operation of Sunday Schools, but children who attended them ran the later risk of being denied secondary education.

The greatest offence was to touch a teenager with religious ideas. Men and women served prison terms for pursuing religious education in private homes. Christian students were either barred from college education, or expelled some time before graduation.

Publishing and distribution of the Bible was severely restricted. No Christian literature was available, apart from the inferior writings of Communist collaborators. New Bible translations, or Bibles with commentaries, were to be had only in limited numbers, and at prohibitive prices, so that their availability made but an insignificant departure from the above practice.

Suppression and Survival of the Church

How could the church live and survive under these circumstances? Ministers who were faithful to the Lord Jesus and to their congregations still had one or two services on Sundays, and Bible classes on weekdays. Born-again ministers preached the risen Lord on those occasions. Nevertheless, they had to buy these opportunities by reading aloud the circulars of the collaborating bishops. Sometimes, they omitted reading them, or did it quickly and monotonously, indicating their disagreement. They had to attend a few peace rallies each year, or else they were branded as “enemies of the peace and agents of the American imperialists.”

During elections, ministers had to encourage their congregations to vote, although it was public knowledge that not voting for the official list meant immediate loss of work, and unemployment, without aid, for years.

Ministers were utterly poor, their clothes shabby and often ragged. Not infrequently, they were forced to plough farm fields to earn their meager living. To obtain clothes and fuel was an almost insurmountable problem. Ministers’ children were, as a rule, rejected from college education. Collaborators, on the other hand, often, received financial assistance from the State, according to their “merits”, and there was no hindrance to the education of their children.

How did the people in the congregations live, restricted as they were from every direction? They were exhausted, working hard six days a week for extremely low wages. Families could not survive on one salary, so women were forced to work also. Fewer appliances meant that housework was much harder. On top of this, women had to make preserves, and mend, patch and alter clothing. Simply accomplishing cleaning and laundering tasks made church attendance exceedingly difficult for them.

This is precisely what Satan desires: to make his power seem invincible, by alienating people from church and from God.

Next came a multitude of abortions and suicides. While Christian ministers could give comfort to their congregations, the collaborators merely echoed the editorials of the Communist newspapers in their preaching. To support their treason, they invented this convenient “theology”: God loves the world; the Communists are the world; consequently, God loves the Communists. If God loves them, then the Christians have to love them as well. To love them means to bow to them and promote their cause.

Christian testimony was utterly suppressed. To speak of Jesus in an office or in a factory was unthinkable.3 Lay Christians had to put up with much more work and less pay than others. Christians, as a rule, could not hold any leading positions. They were second-class citizens in the Communist society.

When the Christian organizations were dissolved, individual Christians began to meet in small groups on a nationwide scale. They received teaching, advice and sound discipline from older, experienced Christians. Following the principles of the German Fellowship Movement, they met quietly, usually without singing (to avoid retribution). These small groups constituted the power base of the local congregations, and were the only way of survival for the persecuted Hungarian Christians.

During the 1956 revolution, the seminary students of Budapest participated in the peaceful demonstration. When the Political Police began shooting at them, three students died the death of heroes as stretcher-bearers, and four others were seriously wounded.
As soon as the pillar of the Communist Party, the Political Police, collapsed, all of the collaborating deans and bishops resigned. Executive committees were set up everywhere, and they prepared elections from the bottom up. The best of the ministers chaired those committees. However, fresh Soviet tank divisions annulled all the achievements of the Revolution, including the attainments of the Church. Sixty-three Reformed ministers were arrested by the reorganized Political Police. Those from the country were severely beaten. A few weeks later, all except two were released. One of those, however, was hanged.

Differing trends and changes in Communist Party policy marked the years following their 1948 takeover of Hungary. These became more obvious after the Revolution. Hungarians could eat and dress somewhat better than in the days of Stalin. Even mild criticism of the regime was tolerated. Strangely, though, the Communist-imposed church leadership did not change at all. Rather, the tyranny of the collaborators increased. The 400year-old practice of free election of ministers had already been emasculated by the state-controlled “nomination committees”.

Preaching missions were permitted once again, but the collection received at these missions was directed to the building fund of the Schweitzer Institute, a show-window old peoples’ home where “the admission policy would reflect social changes”. Christians were now pressured to contribute to this fund, even beyond their means.

Foreign churchmen were often impressed by the full attendance at worship services they were led to visit. The friendly attitude of the worst collaborators was equally misleading. Foreign church leaders were treated to lavish banquets, and received amicable audiences with Communist dignitaries. Yet, no Hungarian could approach a foreign churchman without the permission of the collaborators.
The denominations comprising the Alliance of Free Churches received preferential treatment under Communism. These small denominations, including a few hundred Brethren, some Adventists, several thousand Methodists, diverse Pentecostal groups, and twenty-two thousand Baptists, had a much-restricted status before the Russian occupation of Hungary in 1945. The Communist thinking was that any advancement in the Free Churches helped bring about the destruction of the historical churches. Thus, the majority of the Free Church members entertained friendly sentiments to the Communist regime.

The future of the Reformed Church has preoccupied many who were familiar with Hungarian church affairs. The mere survival of the evangelical witness was often questioned. However: “The Lord has broken the rod of the wicked, the scepter of the rulers” (Isaiah 14:5). In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and Hungary became a free country. One hundred and sixty Reformed Christian ministers established the Bible Union. They and other Christians, such as the remnant of the Bethania Alliance, immediately began and continue the re-evangelization of our alienated people. Despite encouraging results, it is an enormous task to “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem” after more than four decades of expert and systematic destruction. Nevertheless, we focus our attention unequivocally on our Lord Jesus, who said: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27, emphasis added).

Endnotes

1. The 13.5. Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Trianon.
2. There were only two cases where the congregations prevailed.
3. To testify privately was possible only in the last few years of Communism.

Dr. E. A. Pereszlenyi is lives in Rexdale, Ontario. He is a member of the Reformed Hungarian Church (ARP) in Richmond Hill, Ontario, where Rev. F. Z. Kovacs is the pastor.

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