Hungarian Conservative

The ‘Mangy Sheep of Christ’? – Sects and Small Churches in Hungary in the 1920s

This chapter of the interwar system needs to be reckoned with, if only to illustrate the progress the Hungarian right has made since then: today, small neo-Protestant Christian churches are allies of the right in Hungary, and not treated as adversaries.

Reading the contemporary complaints of the large churches–that is, the Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran denominations–one might think that they were the number one persecuted Christians of the early Horthy regime. After the desecration of the Calvinist church of Debrecen in 1921, described in an earlier Hungarian Conservative article local Calvinist Gábor Oláh wrote in his diary: ‘We are returning to the 16th century.’[1] The truth is, however, that the Catholic and Lutheran churches were given state support, and those Calvinists who were ready to adapt could also find their place in the system. Those who were exposed to actual, real persecution–and who had no forum to complain–were the free Christian groups: the Nazarenes, Baptists, Adventists and Methodists, who were considered small churches at the time and were called ‘sects’.

The fundamentalist Protestant group Church of the Nazarene appeared in Hungary in 1839. The Baptists, a Protestant church that believes in adult baptism, first arrived in the country in 1846, while the charismatic Protestant Adventists in 1869. Methodism, an 18th-century Protestant religious movement linked to English theologians, appeared within the borders of Hungary in 1898. In the 1920s, there were barely a hundred Methodists in Hungary, and about seven hundred Adventists. 8,400 people identified as Baptists in 1921. A 1920 figure determined the number of Nazarenes to be 1,773, but this seems excessive, as this would make them the second largest small church in Hungary at the time, whereas they are mentioned the fewest times in historical records.[2] At the same time, these small curches could not be regarded as new or unknown in Hungary by 1921, and the representatives of the large, mainstream churches used their influence to deal with them as is customary only with old adversaries.

It is unclear to what extent these small churches posed a threat to the historical denominations. Especially as the former were hit hard by the Treaty of Trianon. For example, three churches, four pastors and nearly 270 members of the Methodists were annexed to Austria, four churches, six pastors and 500 members were annexed to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, while one church, one pastor and 109 members remained in Hungary. The Baptists, a denomination recognized from the start, but only on the same level as Islam, which essentially meant the right to exist without state support, were a thorn in the side of major churches. Catholic military bishop István Zadravecz was particularly disturbed by the recognition of the Baptists, and in 1923 he proposed the deletion of the dangerous ‘sect’ from the list of recognized churches.[3]

It is unclear to what extent these small churches posed a threat to the historical denominations

Many people linked the rapid growth of these groups to their active proselytizing among people living in poor social conditions. The Methodists engaged in missionary work among the Romani and alcoholics. The circumstances under which the Methodists had to work were such that when a German Methodist missionary visited the communities of Györköny and Nagyszékely in 1921, he declared that he felt like he was in Africa.[4] The peripheral character of the small churches is also shown by the fact that among their followers there were many women, veterans, and people of German and Slavic ethnicity, and the Adventists also proselytized among Jews. In his sociography, István Milotay mentioned ‘sects” that ‘preach about the downfall of the rich” as examples of the effects of severe poverty. It is not clear whether he was referring to a Methodist or Adventist community, but he noted that not far from Bishop Baltazár’s farm in Hajdúböszörmény, next to the famous tower in Zelemér, there was a ‘barn’ church, where ‘religious fanatics’ ‘worshipped lights’.[5] A 1921 article describing the difficulties of life on isolated farms located outside the borders of settlements remarked that because priests did not take the trouble to go out to these farms, ‘Sabbatarians, Nazarenes and all other communists who trample on noble ideals’ were fashionable there.[6] The rapid growth of these small Protestant denominations only increased the antipathy for them by the clergy of established churches.

The Kálvinista Szemle (Calvinist Review) called the Methodists ‘a problem waiting to be solved’ in its series of reports on small churches in 1921.[7] The article noted that Sunday services were held in German and Hungarian, and that the Methodists had a nice building, a prayer hall for a hundred people, with many female believers. While there was a German flag in the room, they also prayed for the Hungarian nation. Their pastor was Artúr Szalós, an ex-Calvinist lawyer candidate who had moved back to Hungary from Switzerland. The article highlighted that the majority of the congregation had converted to Methodism from the two major Protestant faiths in Hungary, Calvinism and Lutheranism. The Baptists, on the other hand, had a ‘Roma minister with a big beard’, and the congregation consisted of veterans, women, old people and children, many of them talking in German and Serbian. The article noted that they kept responding to the minister’s words with ‘a rhythmic amen’.[8] The reporter also visited the Nazarenes: they maintained a prayer room for 60 people at a Budapest 5th district factory, they did not have a priest, and they prayed in German.[9] The author of the report, Gábor Incze, a Calvinist theology student and later pastor of Nagyvárad (Oradea), was told here that there were two steps to reaching God: giving up smoking and conversion. Incze replied that he did not smoke.

The likes of the above report at least showed some unbiased an interest in the situation of the small churches. As opposed to clergymen, like Jesuit friar Béla Bangha, who called the Adventists ‘criminal fanatics” and the Baptists ‘morally objectionable’ ‘theosophists’, and he was one of the more tactful ones.[10] As early as in 1919, Zadravecz blamed the ‘unpatriotic wandering apostles’ of the ‘sects’ for Hungary’s defeat in WWI, and he also highlighted in his diary that the small churches were financed from America.[11] In a 1923 report to the military, he called Adventists and Baptists ‘poison’ whose followers must be ‘converted’ again.[12] In his memorandum, he eloquently warned against anyone using violence against small churches, because in this way we only ‘produce martyrs’. Catholic Bishop Ottokár Prohászka later shared his accusations about the support from America.[13] In September 1921, Catholic Bishop István Hanauer of Vác called the Baptists a sect engaging in ‘superstitious practices’,[14] but the harshest words were those of a Catholic priest from Döbrököz, who declared that the Methodists were ‘mangy sheep of Jesus’ who should be ‘smoked out with […] incense’.[15]

The Calvinist and Lutheran churches also viewed the small churches as enemies

The Calvinist and Lutheran churches also viewed the small churches as enemies, even though bishop Dezső Baltazár supported the local Free Christians. The reason for the dislike was that mainstream Protestants were more easily lured away by the small churches due to the smaller liturgical differences. At the end of the twenties, the Hungarian Statistical Review estimated the number of those who were leaving the mainstream churches to be around 300 people per year, mainly to the detriment of the two big Protestant churches and to the benefit of the Baptists.[16] Besides them, it is known that the Methodists once managed to ‘seduce’ an entire congregation and a pastor from the Lutheran Church, incurring its wrath.

All of this led the Lutherans to self-reflection, who, among all the churches, took perhaps the most serious action to push back against the appeal of their Protestant rivals. In his reminiscences, the Lutheran archdeacon of South Transdanubia came to the conclusion that, although there were also Lutheran ‘mammoth congregations’ during the 1920s, for example in Tolna County, their religious life was ‘terrible’ because the pastors ‘ carried out impersonal mass work’ and that is why people rejected them.[17] As an antidote, the Lutheran side advocated personal contact with the faithful and the introduction of more prayers and songs. At a clergy meeting in Somlóvidék in 1922, minister László Mesterházy spoke about the expansion of the Baptists, ‘against which we have already taken up the fight’.[18] Deacon Elek Takács drew attention to the ‘phenomenon of a sectarian movement spreading throughout the country’ which ‘works with American dollars’.[19] (Regarding the latter accusation, it is interesting that Catholics also formulated it against the Lutheran Church). However, the editor-in-chief of the evangelical Harangszó of Vasvár County, Mihály Szalay, went the furthest when in 1921 he called the rise of small Methodist and Baptist churches the ‘harvest of Satan’, which must be ‘counterbalanced’ by ‘renewing the faith of the church’.[20] All this did not look better in practice: according to a Baptist memoirist, an unnamed Calvinist pastor ‘many times dealt with the Baptist preacher who showed up in the village with physical force’, and in Bakonycsernye in 1922, the local Lutherans prohibited the burial of ‘sectarians’ in the cemetery.[21]

Having a Jewish character’ was a common accusation against small churches. Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nazarenes and Adventists were all accused of that. Kálvinista Szemle, for example, accused the Adventists of ‘Jewish nationalism’, but a Jewish magazine that visited the Adventists at the end of 1922 also came to the conclusion that they are ‘almost’ Jews themselves, because they did not work on the Sabbath and did not eat food that had blood in it.[22] Jehovah’s witnesses in turn countered the accusations by criticizing the ‘greedy Jews’ who want to ‘dominate’ the Earth in their publications.[23] While small churches tried to stay away from politics, the Baptist Békehírnök (Messenger of Peace) did criticise the Christian’ regime’ in 1922, also writing, adding, however, that Governor Miklós Horthy ‘is of real Christian sentiment’ .[24]

At Kaposszekcső in Tolna, the local Methodist pastor was arrested by the gendarmerie in April 1921 on charges of ‘communist activism’. In the same place, at the end of the year, the gendarmerie shut down a complete prayer hall.[25] It is worth clarifying here that the military bodies of the time did not only monitor the parishioners of small churches. We have already written about Baltazár’s harassment by the authorities (see here and here) but they also kept a number of pastors and priests under surveillance. At the end of November 1920, Cardinal József Cernoch personally protested against the surveillance of Catholic priests.[27]

Documents also indicate that the Greek Catholic clergy was also considered untrustworthy and too friendly to the Czechs. Andor Schirilla Szólón, the Greek Catholic deacon from Miskolc, who was also under surveillance by the military intelligence service, may have referred to this when he complained that ‘we are accompanied by mockery and pity’. In 1921, the local Görögkatholikus Tudósító (Greek Catholic Reporter) noted that the church’s members were not considered to be electable in Hungary. ‘This…pierces our hearts.’ [28] On some occasions, not even Roman Catholic church members were spared, despite the church’s good relationship with the government: a secret police file was kept on the Catholic priest of Jászberény, in which he was described as ‘a modern, socially sensitive man’, – rather negative adjectives at the time.[29] However, the big churches did not have to suffer such incidents as the Adventists, whose worship services were banned as early as 1922. In the same year, the Baptist Békehírnök also indicated in its articles that all their services were held under police or gendarmerie supervision.[30]

Minister of Religious Affairs József Vass called on all church leaders to monitor the ‘sects’

In December 1921, Minister of Religious Affairs József Vass called on all church leaders to monitor the ‘sects’.[31] In 1923, he contacted the Calvinist Church for advice regarding the small churches, but received the reply that it was not worth harassing them, as they had excellent American relations.[32] During the following years, newspaper bans, arrests, disruption of church services and fines were the order of the day for the members of the small churches.[33] State persecution of Methodists intensified in the 1930s, with well documented examples of gendarmerie harassment and occasional atrocities committed by locals, such as burning the houses of newly converted people.4] However, Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted most violently during WWII, with many of them being called up for labour service as conscientious objectors.

This is not to say that small churches only experienced attacks and harassment during the system, or that the Horthy-era did not grant impressive support to the major Christian denominations. Small churches did not have to suffer murders, looting or other physical atrocities, as Jews sometimes did, so their claims comparing their own fate to that of the Jewish citizens were probably unfounded. However, this chapter of the interwar system needs to be reckoned with, if only to illustrate the progress the Hungarian right has made since then: today, small neo-Protestant Christian churches are allies of the right in Hungary, and not treated as adversaries. 

[1] Oláh Gábor, Naplók’, Debrecen, Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 2002, p. 266.

[2] Fazekas Csaba, Kisegyházak és szektakérdés a Horthy-korszakban, Budapest, Látószög, 1996, p. 246. Different numbers are reported in terms of the Methdists in Khaled A. László, A magyarországi metodizmus története 1920-1948 között. Egy vallási alternatíva esélyei Trianontól a fordulat évéig’, Pécs, Pécsi Tudományegyetem Bölcsészettudományi Kar PhD thesis, pp. 69, 71.; Harangszó, 12 Aug. 1923. 

[3] Magyar Ferences Levéltár (hereon cited as MFL)XI. Zadravecz papers, Dossier no. 3. Memo dated 12 Nov. 1923. 

[4] A magyarországi metodizmus története, pp. 105, 108, 114.

[5] Milotay István, Az ismeretlen Magyarország, Budapest, Genius, 1930, pp. 12–13.

[6] Magyar Gazdák Szemléje, July-Aug. 1921, p. 502.

[7] Kálvinista Szemle, 21 Aug. 1921, p. 281.

[8] Kálvinista Szemle, 28 Aug. 1921, pp. 289–230.

[9] Kálvinista Szemle, 10 Dec. 1921, pp. 411–412.

[10] Bíró Bertalan (ed), Bangha Béla SJ összegyűjtött munkái, Budapest, Szent István Társulat, 1941, vol. X., p. 227.; Jézus Társasága Magyarországi Rendtartomány Levéltára (hereon cited as JTMRL), VI. 9. 

[11] MFL, XI. Zadravecz papers. Box. 2. Memo dated 18 Nov.; Borsányi György (ed), Páter Zadravecz titkos naplója, Budapest, Kossuth, 1967, pp. 80-81.

[12] MFL, XI. Zadravecz papers. Dossier no. 3. Memo dated 12 Nov. 1923.

[13] Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, p. 46.

[14] Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, p. 44.

[15] A magyarországi metodizmus története, p. 86.

[16] Magyar Statisztikai Szemle, 1926/4, pp. 184–189. The article looked at the period between 1919-1924. 

[17] A magyarországi metodizmus története, pp. 119–120.

[18] Harangszó, 19 Nov. 1922, p. 368.

[19] Harangszó, 17 Sept. 1922, p. 295.

[20] Harangszó, 1 May 1921, p. 138.

[21] Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, p. 81, footnote no. 125., and also 53.

[22] Budapest Főváros Levéltára, VI.18.d.1923.05.0055. 3. Quotes the 26 Jan. 1923 issue of Múlt és Jövő.

[23]Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, p. 72, footnote no. 25. 

[24] Békehírnök, 1922, pp. 105, 282.

[25] A magyarországi metodizmus története, pp. 74–75.

[26] For such reports see: Hadtörtélmi Levéltár (HL, hereon cited as HL)HM ELN C 1921 50057; HM ELN C 1920 101169; HM ELN C 1921 50461; HM ELN C 1921 50114.

[27] Vargyai Gyula, Katonai közigazgatás és kormányzói jogkör, 1919–1921, Budapest, Közgazd. és Jogi K., 1971, pp. 96, 98.

[28] HL, HM ELN C 1920 101574.; Görögkatholikus Tudósító (Miskolc), 1921/1., 1921/3.

[29] HL, HM ELN C 50405.; Nemes Dezső, Karsai Elek (eds.), Iratok az ellenforradalom történetéhez, 1919-1945Az ellenforradalmi rendszer gazdasági helyzete és politikája Magyarországon, 1924-1926, Budapest, Szikra, 1959. vol. 3. pp. 292, 601

[30] Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, p. 34. and Békehírnök, 28. (1922), p. 404.

[31] Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, p. 19.

[32] Rajki Zoltán, Szigeti Jenő, ’Szabadegyházak története Magyarországon 1989-ig’, Budapest, Gondolat, 2012, p. 166.

[33] Kisegyházak és szektakérdés, pp. 76–77.

[34] A magyarországi metodizmus története, p. 142, pp. 163–164.

This chapter of the interwar system needs to be reckoned with, if only to illustrate the progress the Hungarian right has made since then: today, small neo-Protestant Christian churches are allies of the right in Hungary, and not treated as adversaries.