The Protestant Reformation began on 31 October 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. In his Theses Luther, an Augustinian friar and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, challenged the Catholic Church’s teachings. Luther’s writing disputed Catholic dogmas on a series of issues, most famously on the question of the commutation of indulgences. Luther essentially argued that sins cannot be absolved through monetary donations. Instead, Luther argued, salvation is a gift of God given to those who have faith. In essence Luther questioned the Catholic Church’s role as an intermediary between God and people and argued that the only intermediary in terms of salvation is Jesus Christ. As Luther challenged the system of indulgences, other reformers all across Europe started to challenge other Catholic dogmas—from the practice of the Holy Communion to the baptism of infants. The underlying idea for all protestants, however, was quite similar—a return to Christianity’s Biblical foundations and increasing the individual’s agency to make and maintain a relationship with God.
The Reformation that started in Germany with Martin Luther’s Theses soon spread all across Europe. Among the many countries that converted to the new beliefs was Hungary, too. During the 16th century the German-speaking population quickly adopted Luther’s teachings, while Hungarian reformers picked and chose from Western teachings and quickly developed local versions of the Reformation as well. While Lutheranism became widely adopted by the German minority residing in Hungary, ethnic Hungarians mainly adhered to Calvinism and to some extent Unitarianism. But it was not only the linguistic connections to Germany, but political events as well that accelerated the spread of Protestantism in Hungary. After the 1526 battle of Mohács, the country fell into disarray and the Catholic Church that had lost practically all of its leaders weakened. After the fall of Buda to the Ottomans, what is known as the Age of Trisection followed, with one part of the country ruled by the Turks, one under Habsburg dominance and Transylvania remaining independent. In this period of insecurity and foreign occupation people turned to the new faiths in large numbers, finding inspiration to fight for survival and against the non-Christian and Catholic Habsburg invaders. While Protestantism became well-established in the occupied territories as well as in the Principality of Transylvania, in the Habsburg-controlled parts of the Hungarian Kingdom Protestantism was repressed.
The spread of the Reformation in Hungary and its mission to promote the use of native languages enriched Hungarian culture and lay the foundation of the modernisation of the Hungarian language. During the Reformation, religious texts, poems and at the end of the 16th century, the whole Bible became available in Hungarian. To enable the publication of these texts and especially of the Holy Scripture, Hungarian grammar started to be studied, which in the long run contributed to the gradual modernisation of the language as well as to the consolidation of a standardised Hungarian alphabet. Reformation and the use of Hungarian had not only an enormous cultural impact on Hungarian culture and literature, but ultimately also contributed to the strengthening of Hungarian national identity. One of the greatest products of the Hungarian Reformation, the first complete Hungarian translation of the Holy Scripture is still an invaluable piece of Hungarian culture.
505 years after Martin Luther published the Ninety-five Theses the Reformation remains one of the pillars of European cultures and societies. Hungary has a lot to thank Reformation for, too. Reformation and renewed Christian faith were not only an inspiration to fight for survival in one of the darkest periods of Hungarian history but also a source of national renewal. A nation that was pushed to the brink of extinction by the Ottoman invasion, amongst all difficulties, inspired by faith, started to promote literacy and renewed its national language. With its mission to empower believers to establish a personal connection with God using their native languages, the Reformation also strengthened a sense of belonging to the Hungarian nation whose very survival had been thrown into doubt. The impact Reformation had and continues to have on Hungary as well as on Europe cannot be underestimated.