The great need to advance the Reformation and to organize living and truly Reformed Hungarian churches became evident, especially to those Reformed Hungarian young men who visited England and the Netherlands and saw for themselves congregations which embraced the great movement of revival called Puritanism.
In February 1638, when the famous Scottish National Covenant was being signed in Edinburgh, Tolnai Dali János and nine other zealous Hungarian theologians in London were making another covenant before God to proclaim and put into practice the truths of Puritanism.
On arrival home they were not warmly welcomed. The ruler of Transylvania (an independent principality of Hungary), Rákóczi György I, and later also his son, were against the Hungarian Puritan movement because of fears that the English Civil War, strongly influenced by Puritanism, might be mirrored in Hungary. The ecclesiastical superiors were not pleased to hear that the Hungarian Puritans wanted to reform the Hungarian Reformed Church and consequently to change the whole face of the Church.
In spite of this strong dislike and much opposition, the Hungarian Puritans did not draw back, but with great determination proclaimed and urged the need for radical change. They rejected the episcopacy of the Hungarian Reformed Church and regarded its hierarchy as not only an unbiblical human institution but also a barrier to revival in the Church. Furthermore, they stressed the importance of establishing, as they saw it, the God-ordained Presbyterian church government and the need to organize sessions that would be totally separate from the civil authorities in order to purify and strengthen church discipline. They said that the sessions were indispensable for the well-being (bene esse) of the Church. Rejecting the nominalism that dominated the Hungarian Reformed Church, they emphasized the need for revival and for biblical teaching in order to establish living and truly Reformed congregations. Purity of worship was not neglected either. In contrast to the Hungarian Reformed Church’s practice, they demanded that the liturgy be simpler, that the sacraments should be observed only in congregations, that no other day except the Sabbath should be hallowed and that the singing of Psalms in public worship should be encouraged.
The Hungarian Puritans sought to demonstrate the harmony that should exist between teaching and practice by saying that practical theology is just as important as polemical theology. On the one hand, they defended Calvinism, often even by public debates, but on the other hand they did not forget the Great Commission. They organized large evangelistic campaigns and led many to faith in Jesus Christ. The most significant Puritan preacher was Medgyesi Pál (1605-1663?). His revival sermons clearly pointed out that the knowledge of man’s wickedness is the first step towards true repentance and conversion. The sermons were not the only means which they used to spread the gospel. They also published many devotional books, among them Lewis Bayly’s Praxis Pietatis, translated into Hungarian by Medgyesi.
Another great man of this movement was Apáczai Csere János (1625-1659). After studying in Franeker, then in Leiden, he continued his studies in Utrecht and finally in Harderwijk, where he obtained his doctoral degree. He was a brilliant scholar who realized the importance of teaching in the mother tongue: ‘I firmly decided that if the Almighty God would allow me to live for a few more years I would spend the time transmitting to Hungarians all the sciences in their own language.’ In 1653 in Utrecht he published the Hungarian Encyclopedia, which contained mathematics, natural science, theology, philosophy and social science.
Apáczai Csere János and other Puritans also wanted to reform the whole Hungarian education system. Firstly they laid stress on teaching the Reformed confessions more systematically to the people, and secondly they wanted to purify the education system from humanistic traditions and the Aristotelian influence inherited from medieval scholasticism.
The Puritans faced a campaign of resistance. The three key figures of this campaign were Superintendent Miskolczi Csulyak István, Bishop Geleji Katona István and Isaac Basire, Charles I’s personal priest. The last-named fled to Transylvania. They were highly respected and very influential in the Hungarian Reformed Church. Thus they created an anti-Puritan atmosphere that had its roots in the false belief that presbyterianism would sooner or later cause the spread of independency, resulting in the kind of political upheavals that had already taken place in England during the mid-seventeenth century: civil war, the abolition of the monarchy, decapitation of the ruler, etc. The anti-Puritan clergy strongly opposed a Presbyterian church government because they were afraid of losing their positions and because the nobles rejected the idea of having sessions composed of serf presbyters who would have authority over them or would teach them. On 10 June 1646, in Szatmárnémeti, the Hungarian Reformed Church held a national synod. Although the synod recognised the biblical warrant of Presbyterian church government, it did not consider the times and circumstances right for instituting such a government. The synod answered these biblical requirements by condemning the Puritan movement and took steps to discipline those pastors who were opposed to episcopacy.
The Hungarian Puritans were not discouraged. They loved God and put their trust in him alone. They gained the support of some nobles (among whom was Lorántffy Zsuzsanna, the wife of Rákóczi György I) on whose territories they could continue their ministry and apply their principles. Thus the gospel was spread widely. Many came to Christ, the people were taught, false doctrines were refuted, sessions were organised in some places, the education system improved and many devotional books were published. This was the first Hungarian Reformed revival.
What happened to Hungarian Puritanism? Sadly, the process of renewal within the church was not maintained. Some have admired the movement and its aspirations, but, as in 1646, they have concluded: ‘The time for change has not yet come.’ What is the situation today? God has kept a remnant which has not bowed down before the episcopacy and liberalism of the Hungarian Reformed Church. The vision of the Puritans did not die. A few stand up and cry out that there is an urgent need for reformation. Sadly, the Church today does the same as it did in the seventeenth century: condemns all those who cast light on its unfaithfulness. But God is faithful, and in his grace he can bless the truth as he did in the times of the Hungarian Puritans.
Will we be the eyewitnesses of a new Hungarian Reformed revival? May God grant that we may!
‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it’
The Banner of Truth magazine
February 2000 (issue 437)