FEW countries had so much need of the Reformation as Hungary. When, in the year 1000, she abandoned paganism under king Stephen, she attached herself to Rome, and Rome brought on her two evils. She sent into the country large numbers of monks, priests, prelates, primates, and legates; and these men led her — this was the first evil — to a mere outward profession of Christianity, and oppressed the various tribes who peopled the land — this was the second evil. Further, the people, rather more than half a century later, assembled at Alba-Royal, rose in revolt against the clergy. The former were defeated, many were put to death, and the pope, boasting of the victory, wrote to the king, bidding him remember that henceforth the pope of Rome was his suzerain. Shortly before the Reformation, in 1512, the Hungarian passion for independence led them to revolt again. But at this time they were destitute of true Christian principles, and the only result of the movement was to cover their country with devastation, and deluge it with the blood of sixty thousand of its sons. This heroic nation was once more thrown into bondage. The light and the power of the Gospel were needed to effect its regeneration, and to infuse strength into it for resisting its two enemies, the Grand Turk and the pope.
If the tribes of Hungary were without a true and living faith, they were nevertheless, the Magyars especially, among the races best fitted to embrace the Reformation. They were characterized by a noble independence of spirit and a nature endowed with higher cravings. When some Christian men proclaimed among them the grace of Jesus Christ, they joyfully embraced the spiritual truths which Geneva was then diffusing in Europe; and the liveliness of their faith, the morality of their conduct, their love of freedom, and the prudence of their character soon rendered a glorious testimony to the Reformation. But the cleverness and the violent persecuting spirit of the Hungarian prelates and of the courts of Rome and Vienna contended vigorously against the religious renovation of this people, drew them back in part to the bosom of the Church, and prevented the spread of evangelical doctrine into other districts of the country. The mighty forces of the flesh engaged in a conflict with the mighty forces of the spirit. The dominion of prejudice gained the ascendency over that of truth. Faith, wisdom, virtue, originative energy, freedom — all were crushed. God, however, by his power, kept for himself a people in these lands; and a considerable part of the Hungarian nation remained Protestant, but were constantly subject to the inspection of priests and to oppression by the powerful.
Hungary, in common with the other countries of eastern Europe, had received, before the Reformation of the sixteenth century and while it was still in subjection to Rome, some rays of light which here and there illumined it. Some of the Vaudois had sought refuge there; the doctrine of John Hus had been spread in the land; some of the brethren banished from Bohemia had built churches there, and had acquired great influence.
In 1521 two young people, children almost, the hope of Hungary, were united before the altar. The husband was Louis II., a son of King Ladislaus, who had ascended the throne in 1510, at the age of ten. The young prince, who was amiable, but easy-tempered, weak, and addicted to pleasure, was not capable of preventing the prevalence of disorder in the kingdom at the time the Turks were threatening it with their terrible invasions. He had little courage, a quality which was common enough among his fellow-countrymen; he was obstinate, and yet allowed his courtiers and his bishops to rule over him: Et les pretres en paix guidaient ses faibles ans.
The wife, named Mary, aged eighteen years, was of quite a different character. A sister of Charles the Fifth, a daughter of the unfortunate Joanna, queen of Castile and Aragon, who was kept in prison till her death, partly perhaps because she preferred the Gospel to the pope, Mary like her mother and still more than her mother had tasted the doctrine of the Gospel. Of lofty character, with a kindly heart, a sound understanding, and high intellectual abilities, well informed and able to speak five languages, it was said of her that she was as competent to rule over minds in peace as to command armies in war. She did not actually march at their head, but she once caused a severe defeat to be given to Henry II., the son of Francis I.
While still very young and residing at the court of her grandfather Maximilian, she had read with delight the first works of Luther. ‘Her chamber was her oratory,’ said Erasmus. She loved the chase, but she did not start for this sport without taking with her her New Testament. She was equally fond of pursuing on horseback the hart and the hare, and of sitting under a tree to read the word of the Savior. We have elsewhere mentioned the fact that while she was at Augsburg in 1530, in company with her brother Charles the Fifth and the archbishops, bishops, and legates of the papacy, she courageously had the evangelical services celebrated in her apartments. Melanchthon called her a woman of heroic genius. She would fain have given her protection to the Reformation in Hungary, but the influence of the priests over the king was stronger than her own. Subsequently also she entreated the emperor not to submit to the domination of the clergy. f513 It was by a kind of thunder-clap that the Reformation began in Hungary.
In 1518 there appeared a work entitled, De Horrendo Idololatrioe Crimine . In 1520 and 1521 the earliest writings of Luther, on Christian Liberty , on the Epistle to the Galatians , and others besides, were brought into the kingdom by traders who came from Germany. The Captivity of Babylon delighted the Hungarians, and led many of them to separate themselves from the ultramontane Roman Church. Other evangelical books explaining the doctrine of salvation were read with eagerness. Nobles and townsmen declared for the Reformation; and this they did with all the energy of their national character. The like events were taking place in Transylvania.
Progress so rapid could not but provoke persecution. It was to begin with anathemas, but it would soon go on to rigorous deeds, and would rage almost without intermission.
Szakmary, archbishop of Gran, hoping to annihilate Reform at one blow, assembled his scribes, and had a public document drawn up. In condemnation of Luther and of his writings resounded from the pulpits of the principal Hungarian churches. f514 Most of the Hungarians who heard this were very much astonished; and the publication of the anathemas produced a contrary effect to that which the prelate had aimed at. It awakened in the hearers a consciousness of the important nature of the Reformation; so that its friends were encouraged, and many were led to seek after the truth who had not previously concerned themselves about it. Many ecclesiastics, especially, who had been oppressed by the higher clergy, and had long sighed for the time of justice and freedom, now lifted up their heads, read the sacred books, and declared that Luther’s doctrine, founded on the Word of God, alone was true. They did not remain inactive; but by their living and powerful words they enlightened the minds of men. Parishes, villages, and towns joyfully greeted the Reformation.
One of the first to proclaim the Gospel in Hungary appears to have been Thomas Preussner. Others followed him. Cordatus at Bartfeld, in 1522, Siklosy at Neustadt, Kopacsy at Sarospatak, Radan and Husser at Debreczin, and George at Hermanstadt, proclaimed the tidings of a salvation freely given to those who laid hold on Christ by faith. Learned men at the same time were bearing witness to the truth at the university of Buda. Simon Grynaeus, son of a simple Suabian peasant, and afterwards a friend of Calvin, having from childhood shown a remarkable disposition for study, had been sent at the age of fourteen to the famous school of Pforzheim. Thence he had passed to the university of Vienna, where he distinguished himself and took the degree of master of arts. The king then called him to Buda. Grynaeus did not confine himself to teaching letters there, but openly and boldly announced to the people the great doctrines of the Gospel which he had embraced with all his heart. Another doctor, Winsheim, also professed openly the same faith; and, what was an unlooked-for event, people were talking at Pesth, in the old capital of the kings, on the banks of the Danube, and near the borders of Turkey, of that same Word of God which was giving joy to so many Germans on the banks of the Elbe. The Reformation, like a broad river, brought life and prosperity into those vast regions which extend between the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains, and the Balkan. But, alas! the river, dried up here and there by the parching heat of persecution, was one day to shrink and be turned into a stagnant and sleepy body of water like that which runs to lose itself in the dry sands of the desert. f515 These times, however, were as yet remote. The reformation of the Magyars was still in its period of growth and life. The tidings of the struggle which had begun in Germany excited in men’s minds a burning desire to see Luther, to hear him, and to receive from his very lips the heavenly doctrine. This is a characteristic feature of the Hungarian Reformation. The wish to go and drink the living water at its very source became intense, and all who were able to do so hastened to Wittenberg.
Martin Cyriaci from Leutschau arrived there in 1522. He was followed in 1524 by Dionysius Link, Balthazar Gleba from Buda, and a great number of their countrymen. Joyfully they greeted the modest city from which light was shed over the world. They fixed their gaze with timid respect on Luther and on Melanchthon; took their places on the benches of their auditories; received into their minds and hearts the words of these illustrious masters, and engraved them there more indelibly than on the leaves of their note-books.
In Hungary it began gradually to be noticed that one student and another was missing. The cause of their absence became known; they were gone to Wittenberg. The bishops, provoked at these heretical pilgrimages , denounced them to the king. These priests had no difficulty in getting their views adopted by this young man, who, but a little while before, had given proof of his character. Louis, who was king of Bohemia as well as of Hungary, had gone to Prague for the coronation of the queen, Mary; and as he passed through Moravia he had a parley with the townsmen of Iglau, and had declared to them that unless they abandoned the Saxon heresy he would have them put to death. At the same time he had ordered their pastor, John Speratus, to be thrown into prison. This was the wedding bouquet which Louis II. presented to his young, lovely, and Christian spouse, on the occasion of her coronation. f518 The archbishops and the priests, in possession of all their privileges, put themselves at the head of the opposition. Many of them, of course, were actuated by a higher motive, the glory of the Roman Church; but in general they had no mind to let what they had usurped be taken from them. King Louis and other princes, pressed by the clergy, lent them their own power and authority ; but the ecclesiastics were the authors of the persecution. A religious philosopher of the eighteenth century has said, ‘The clergy are the indirect cause of the crimes of kings. While they talk incessantly of God, they only aim at establishing their own dominion.’ This is a strong saying, and the author forgets that in the Catholic Church there are, and always have been, some good priests and good laymen. Let us not exaggerate . Still, the empire of the clergy, the despotism with which it crushed consciences, is a great historical fact. It concealed the Holy Scriptures, but it brought out its tariffs of indulgences, its exactions, its punishments with fire and sword. At a later time the progress of Christian civilization no longer allowed resort to such barbarous practices. But if evangelical Christianity is exposed henceforth only to senseless accusations, and frequently to insults on the part of the adherents of Rome, another adversary has appeared at the opposite pole; and each is a menace to freedom, to truth, and to the life of society. ‘If the European world is not to perish like the Roman empire,’ a philosopher of our own day has said, ‘some religious symbol must be found which is adequate to the rescue of souls from both the evils which at this day are contending for them, — a criminal atheism and a retrograde theology.’ This symbol is the Word of God.
The Hungarian priests dealt a hard blow. They wanted to exclude the Reformation not from their own country alone, but from the whole world.
They said that it was necessary to dry up the fountain from which these poisoned waters flowed. Hungary then could no longer have to fear a Lutheran deluge. At their request the young king then wrote to the old elector of Saxony: ‘How can you patronize Luther, who attacks the Christian faith and the authority of the Church, who derides princes and praises the Turks? Leave off countenancing this monk, and punish him severely.’ Frederick the Wise was not of a nature to give himself up to the leading of a young man without understanding. ‘To allege that Luther teaches things contrary to the faith,’ he replied, ‘that he insults the Christian princes, that he extols the Turks, and that in all these misdeeds he is countenanced by me, is to heap calumny upon calumny. I beg that you will let me know who are putting such fables into circulation.’ Louis had not to go far to find them. It was the priests of his court; but in his astonishment at the reply of the illustrious elector, he took care not to say so.
This young light-headed king no longer knew what to think. His bishops spoke to him in one way; the wisest prince in Europe said just the reverse.
He had threatened with death the reformers of a small Moravian town; and now, not only were Moravia and Bohemia full of the faith of John Hus, but the Reformation appeared to triumph in Hungary, and Transylvania likewise was beginning to receive it.. Two ministers of the Gospel, who came from Silesia and who had heard Luther at Wittenberg, arrived one day at Hermanstadt. They distributed there the works of the reformer, expounded the Scriptures plainly to the people, showed them all the consolation that is in the Gospel, and vigorously attacked the Roman Church. They were both of them ex-Dominicans; and their names were Ambrose and George. Mark Pempflinger, a count and chief judge, an eminent and very influential man, who was a reader of Luther’s writings, gave his protection to the two evangelists. A third soon arrived, whose name was John Surdaster. Animated with burning zeal, he began by preaching in the open air; afterwards, owing to the intervention of Pempflinger, he removed into St. Elizabeth’s church. The crowd which came to hear him was immense, and in it were seen members of the council. While giving their attention to men and women, the reformers did not overlook children. They felt a warm affection for them, and delighted to explain the Gospel to them in a simple manner adapted to their understandings. They instilled into them the fear of God and an abhorrence of sin, and sought to lead them to Jesus, and thus to give them a simple but efficient piety. They knew that man having fallen must be restored.
They began to instruct children out of doors, in the public place. This boldness gave the greatest offense to the priests, who complained, in high quarters, that these foreigners were not only instructing the young, but were teaching them false doctrines. The two Silesian monks, being summoned to Gran by the archbishop, were not able to return to Transylvania. f522 But the Gospel remained there. A fire had been kindled in the heart of the people, and nothing could extinguish it. The Catholic rites were deserted by a large number, the priests were removed from several pulpits, which were then filled by ministers of the divine word, who taught in their stead. ‘The power of the truth ,’ says a historian, ‘brought souls to freedom .’ But while thoughtful minds were gaining strength from the reading of the sacred books, there were triflers who merely laughed at the superstitions which they had abandoned, and sang verses about the pope. The Catholics, however, were not disheartened; the procession on Corpus Christi Day took place as usual, with much pomp and with large lighted tapers. ‘Do our priests believe then,’ said some, ‘that God has become blind, that they carry so many lights in full day?’ A serious and charitable reformation alone is a true one; nevertheless the prophet Elijah overwhelmed with his irony the prophets of the groves. (2 Kings 18:27) The outcries increased. Never had so deadly a heresy been seen. The most pious declarations of the reformers were taxed with hypocrisy; their most sincere professions with subtilty and falsehood; their most Christian dogmas were atrocious. Never had the devil woven a more dangerous doctrine. The archbishop was no longer equal to the occasion; the thunders of the Vatican must roll. The denunciations increased in seriousness. The archbishop of Gran betook himself to Rome. The papacy was agitated at the report of the deeds which were denounced before it, and Clement VII. sent into Hungary the celebrated cardinal Cajetan, furnishing him on his departure with everything calculated to win over the king. He delivered to the cardinal for the king a present of sixty thousand ducats, ostensibly intended for the defense of the kingdom against the Turks, but also designed to rekindle the zeal of Louis II. against the reformers. The pope also entrusted him with a letter in which he urged the king to destroy the heresy. How resist a request which was accompanied by sixty thousand pieces of gold and earnestly supported by the bishops? In 1523 a Diet was convoked, which was skillfully managed by the clergy. The delegates of the latter said to the king, — ‘Will your royal majesty deign as a Catholic prince to take severe measures against all Lutherans, their patrons, and their adherents? They are manifest heretics and enemies of the Holy Virgin Mary. Punish them by decapitation and by confiscation of all their property.’ f524 Louis II. acceded to this demand, and on the 15th of October, 1524, he issued a severe ordinance against the Reformation. ‘This thing displeases me greatly,’ he said. ‘We desire that our subjects should keep pure from all stain and all errors the faith which we have received from our ancestors; and we some time ago decreed that no one in our kingdom should embrace or approve this sect.’ Next, he commanded those whom he addressed, on pain of forfeiting life and goods, to do everything possible to stay the Lutheran heresy.
The archbishop of Gran, who was returning from Rome, and Cardinal Szalkai caused commissaries to be appointed for the suppression of heresy; and, as Hermanstadt was causing the greatest uneasiness, they directed them first to this town. A good many people were astonished to see these agents of the pope intent at such a time on persecution. The Turks were threatening an invasion of Hungary; and was this the moment to breed division among the citizens? Was there not a necessity for establishing a good understanding among them all, and of uniting them in heart and in will? Ought Hungary to be exposed, by a division of its forces, to a frightful catastrophe? All these considerations were ineffectual.
The Roman clergy shrank from nothing. Dreading the Gospel more than the Turk, they rashly flung their brands of discord into the midst of a generous people.
The fire, however, did not burn so well as had been hoped. When the commissaries arrived in Transylvania, they found opinions so decided in favor of the Gospel, that they renounced their intention of burning men and confined themselves to burning the books. The writings of the apostles and the reformers were taken by force from the townsmen; a huge fire was kindled in the market-place, and the best of the books were thrown into it. The archiepiscopal commissaries could not deny themselves the pleasure of being present at this execution, for want of others, and they watched the flames with a joy which they could hardly suppress. Meanwhile, a psalter on fire, caught up by the wind, fell upon the bald head of one of them, and the poor man was so dangerously injured that he died within three days. The death intended for the persecuted overtook the persecutors.
Executions of a like kind took place in other Hungarian towns. The warden of the Franciscan convent at Oedenburg displayed extraordinary zeal and ordered the works of the great Luther to be burnt by the hangman. In the archives of the town may still be read the following entry, — ‘Anno 1525, Monday after New Year’s Day, paid to the hangman for burning the Lutheran books, 1 d. d.’ f526a This was not enough. What would it avail to have destroyed so many printed sheets, if there were still left in the kingdom many living voices to proclaim the salvation of Jesus Christ? There was one voice especially which they longed at any cost to silence. The evangelical light was shining brighter and brighter in the university of Pesth; and this was mainly owing to Grynaeus, who zealously taught the truth there. These Dominicans obtained a decree against him. This excellent man was seized and cast into prison. But some of the nobles took his part, and the prison doors were opened. ‘Depart,’ they said to him; ‘leave the kingdom.’ Hungary’s loss became Switzerland’s gain. Grynaeus became professor of philosophy at Basel; and twelve years later he welcomed Calvin there after his expulsion from Geneva. Winsheim, a man more prudent and more timid than Grynaeus, kept his post for two years longer, but was at length banished in 1525, and became professor of Greek at Wittenberg. It was mainly on the ground of their opposition to the worship of the Virgin that these two disciples of Christ were driven from Hungary. But neither prison nor exile could banish the Reformation. The fire within was increasing and no one was capable of extinguishing it.
Fresh students set out for Wittenberg. Martin Cyriaci of Leutschau returned thence, impressed and strengthened by Luther’s teaching, and applied himself immediately to the work. Some influential nobles and some of the cities also declared for the Reformation. In 1525, the five free towns of Upper Hungary pronounced themselves in its favor, namely, Leutschau, Seben, Bartfeld, Eperies, and Kaschau. In Transylvania a Lutheran school had been founded; and while the priests were every Sunday excommunicating those whom they called heretics, laymen protected them against persecution. If any of the clergy wanted to erect scaffolds, merchants and artisans rose and prevented it. f526 The archbishop of Gran and the legate of the pope, who had counted on destroying the Reformation by means of the royal edicts, were filled with grief when they saw that these documents availed them nothing; and they made more strenuous efforts still to use and to abuse the youth and weakness of the king. f527 The archbishop had assumed in Hungary the part of persecutor of the Reformation; and he resolved, seeing that it was so hard to kill, to give it a fresh blow. He wished the persecution to be at once more general and more cruel. As a Diet was to meet in 1525, he determined, with the cardinal’s assent, to promote a new edict. Having been formerly governor to the king, the archbishop had great influence at court, and knew perfectly well how to proceed in order to gain over his old pupil. He maneuvered so cleverly that he got what he aimed at. All that the pious queen could say to the young king was powerless before the influence of the two prelates and the sixty thousand ducats. The priests gained over also the Catholic members of the Diet. They were led to believe that if they once got rid of Luther it would be easier to effect their deliverance from Mohammed. They were not to be long, however, before they found out their mistake. Louis commanded Duke Charles of Munsterberg, governor of Bohemia, to banish thence all the Lutherans and the Picards; and an edict which became a law of the kingdom of Hungary ordered the general extirpation, by burning , of the evangelicals.
They now set to work. At Buda lived a bookseller named George, a marked man with the pope’s party, as a seller of suspected books. George was apprehended, his Christian books were carried off, and the pious bookseller was burnt, together with his volumes, which served as his funeral pile. Louis ordered that the same course should be pursued in all his dominions. He wrote to several magistrates at Oedenburg, Hermanstadt, and other places; and particularly addressed Count Pempflinger in Transylvania, enjoining him to extirpate heresy, threatening him with the severest punishments if he failed to do so, and promising him his royal favor if he executed his cruel edicts. Hungary was to be covered with scaffolds. But a storm, gathering in the East, was rapidly coming on, bringing Divine punishments. The sword of the persecutor was to be broken, the disciples of Christ saved, and the young and unfortunate prince, a victim of clerical intrigues, was to pay dear for all his cruelties.