The Attitude of Liberal Clergymen in Hungary to Politics in 1848/49

By Zakar, Peter | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Attitude of Liberal Clergymen in Hungary to Politics in 1848/49


Zakar, Peter, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

In historical research into the Hungarian Civil Revolution and War of Independence of 1848, there has so far been no interpretation of liberal tendencies in the different Church communities. Marxist historians tended to emphasise the role of the Churches in supporting feudal counter-revolutionary movements. The aims of this presentation are to deal with the liberal changes in the various Churches in 1848 and to summarise the attitude of liberal clergymen in Hungary to politics at that time.

Before the Revolution in 1848, the position of the Catholic Church in Hungary was not independent of secular politics. The state, as elsewhere in Europe, intervened quite strongly in Church affairs. For the Protestant and Orthodox Churches, freedom of religion was guaranteed by law, but they were also subject to the state's right of supervision. On the other hand, the different denominations themselves sought state support against the increasing worldliness. Indifference to religion was becoming increasingly more popular amongst the educated population. This new challenge provoked fundamentally different responses within the Churches. There were those who wanted liberal reforms that would help to solve this crisis, while others insisted on adherence to the traditional way of religious life. (1)

In 1848, Hungary was part of the Habsburg Empire in Europe and had its own liberal government from 11 April, when the Monarch sanctioned the new civil laws in Parliament. As a consequence of the changes, the tithe (decima), the tax that had been paid to the Church for centuries, was abolished and a total equality of rights was ensured for the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Unitarian and Orthodox Churches. (2) In their sermons delivered at the urging of the state authorities in the spring of 1848, clergymen welcomed the changes and offered support to the state. The new laws were explained to the illiterate population not only by Catholic priests, but also by Calvinist ministers. Menyhert Egri Szabo, a Calvinist minister, preached in the town of Nagykoros as follows:

"Civil freedom does not mean unruliness, confusion, or disorder; much rather, it means law and responsibility." God "could not have wanted to restrict our rights and our freedom; on the contrary, he wished to ensure them." (3)

On the whole, in the spring of 1848, the different tendencies to change within the Churches were beginning to become clear. In all church communities, the possibility of a democratic transformation seemed to be a crucial point. Alajos Pramer, a Catholic priest in the diocese of Kassa, influenced by Lamennais, expressed his wish to abolish the chapters and to establish a new democratic Presbyterian system. Numerous Catholic priests insisted on the abolition of celibacy and on the creation of a democratic Church government. The main point was to achieve change in the Church government in such a way that it would resemble the manner in which the liberal secular society worked. (4)

Similar movements started in other Hungarian denominations, too. On 7 May 1848, Laszlo Miho, a Calvinist minister, made his inaugural speech in Kecskemet, in which he did not deny that it was primarily required of a Calvinist minister that he should "follow the age of progress with his whole cast of mind and build up a good relationship with the new mode of thinking and ideology". (5)

The Orthodox dioceses were not exceptions. In the spring of 1849, during the appointment of the new Episcopal representative of the episcopate of Arad, a majority of the participating priests decided against the wishes of the conservative Church leaders, and Stefan Chirilescu, parish priest in Talpas, was elected deputy bishop in a democratic way. (6) The Hungarian Jewry also showed signs of internal diversity. Rabbi Ignac Einhorn, leader of the Jewish Reform Church Community in Pest, fought for reforms such as equal rights for Jewish and non-Jewish people, services in the Hungarian language, and reforms of Jewish religious ceremonies (services on Sundays instead of Saturdays, playing the organ in the synagogue, etc. …

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