How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
György Lázár

It seems that in North-America we have a slightly different situation. Hungarian Reformed Churches are very close to the Orbán Government… in fact Budapest provides financial and other support to congregations NOT affiliated with the Calvin Synod which is part of the United Church of Christ.

One easy and enjoyable way to come to grips with the expansion of Calvinism on a European scale among the lower nobility and their retainers is to read the brilliant French novel series by Robert Merle, two of which are now translated into English. ( here is a review of the English language translation of the first novel ) There are sections in these books that go into some detail about the theological differences between Calvinist reformed Christianity and Catholic teaching that I found most interesting. Eva is correct when she wrote: “Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans.” Eva mentions in passing that the transformation from Catholicism to Calvinism took place during the Ottoman Occupation. This process was particularly interesting in Budapest. Oliver A. I. Botar in an essay on the Ottoman occupation of Budapest writes: “It is noteworthy that… Read more »
Definitely. From my perspective I find it interesting in how the two religions and their liturgies, psychologies and religious philosophies contributed to the creation of a Hungarian economic and political entity through the centuries. I came across this in Weber’s famous analysis on religion and its effect on economic pursuits. A ‘difference’ between Catholics and Protestants: ‘The Catholic is quieter, having less of the acquisitive impulse; he prefers a life of the greatest possible security, even with a smaller income, to a life of risk and excitement , even though it may bring the chance of gaining honor and riches. The proverb says jokingly, ‘either eat well or sleep well’. In the present case the Protestant prefers to eat well, the Catholic to sleep undisturbed’. Looking on from Weber’s analysis, it would appear Hungary today is jaded with the ‘spirit of capitalism’, an economic form linked with ascetic Protestantism. Another thing is Catholicism sure doesn’t appear to be so concerned about the ‘otherworld’. From the looks of it, adherents of both are just grabbing what they can…..right now in the here and now when it comes to ‘riches’. Crass materialism appears to be the modern mantra behind the screen of… Read more »

Just an FYI, I should have noted the quote came from Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. His great work on religion and its effect on social and economic matters in various countries.


Don’t forget the Hungarian Unitarian tradition, since 1565, with ca. 25000 members in Hungary and three times that number in Romania.


“Star of Calvin”! I associate it with Herrenhut (Saxony). Well, well.


Thank you for the article Éva. Below is the link to the English speaking Calvinist Church in Vörösmarti utca, just off Andrássy út. I have been there a couple of times, and found it welcoming and inclusive and very cosmopolitan, and quite the opposite of what goes on, seemingly, in Hungarian Reform services.

I wonder if they were instrumental in initiating the action against Loránt Hegedüs.

There seems to be no end to the pandora’s box of nonsense Orbán has unleashed onto this sad little corner of the continent. He has made sure that intolerance and hatred has seeped into all aspects of life in Hungary, even including the sacrosanct and very personal one of religion. The man is nothing more than a little mischief-maker.


Thank you as always for this fascinating post. One correction: I think you must mean Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?) — rather than (d. 1757?)


In school I was taught the lutheran interpretation of Cristianity. I am not a believer but I realize that I am a lutheran anyway.

What mainly separates the reformed from the lutherans is that the former believe in predestination as it was taught by John Calvin. Predestination is a rather complicated theological concept that I shall not try to explain but the vulgar understanding of it was expressed by Janos Lazar as “those people who have nothing are worth just that”. People are predestine by God to be either rich (saved) or poor (perished). Lazar later apologized for saying publicly what he had learned in reformed sunday scool.

From my reading about the reformation in Hungary I remember the viewpoint that the Hungarians turned from Luther to Zwingli and Calvin because Luther emphasized that his reformation was a German reformation.


Calvinism explains why it is impossible for Fidesz to admit to any fault or sin in the Hungarian people. Once a people is shown to have fallen away from the path of virtue, it can no longer be considered among the chosen. So, the Hungarians can never accept that they too have sinned — or their lot too will be among those who are “worth nothing.”


Plurality map of religion of Hungary, 1910

Dark blue: Calvinist
Light blue: Lutheran

Orange: Catholic
Red: Greek Catholic (orange and red are difficult to distinguish at places)

Green: Greek Orthodox
Black: Jewish
comment image


Yellow: Unitarian


Minimal wage in Hungary, 2011 [ 1 euro = 314 forints]

Net [employee’s take-home pay]: 2779 euros for the entire year.
Government’s take: 2630 euros

from the employee: 1421 euros
from the employer: 1209 euros

About a 1/3 of the employees or self-employees earn the minimal wage.
(correct me if this data is not up-to-date)


correction : Minimal wage in Hungary, 2016 !!


The 0.2 million “fostered” workers earn about 70% of the minimal wage.

As fascinating as this article is, I would like to augment it with a few tidbits. The “calvinist district” of Budapest is the parts that surround Calvin Square and the eponymous church standing there, with the statue of the “prophet” in front. This neighborhood is rich in religious institutions, among them a modern reform synagogue, but mostly the Karoli Gaspar University, strongly calvinist and deeply infused with the ideas and bad tastes of the now dead, but still effectual Istvan Csurka, who’s noxious ideas are getting a new wind thanks to the ever deepening nationalism of the Orban Government. The principal of this university is the foul former communist turncoat Imre Pozsgai and amongst its professors could be found the professional history-falsifier Erno Raffay, an other dubious entity with a political past in the Antall government. It appears as if the church on Szabdsag Square, the fiefdom of the preacher Lorand Hegedus, the professional anti-Semite, is just a subsidiary of the Calvin Ter temple. But whereas the former is signified by the statue of Calvin, the Hegedus stronghold is decorated, in fact “prefaced,” by the bronze bust of governor Miklos Horthy at the entrance and the facade of the building… Read more »

I was told by Lutheran relatives that Lutherans (evangélikus) in Hungary and former territories were at one time not ethnic Hungarians but Germans, Slovaks, etc who eventually (but not all) assimilated. (These relatives in question have Slovak roots), and that Calvinists were historically Hungarians.


This is correct for most people in the 18th and 19th century. Kossuth’s family was Slovak in origin, this is why he was Lutheran.

The ethnic Germans were either Lutheran (“Saxons”) or Catholic (“Schwabians”)


Re the Schwabs being Catholic – are you sure?
As I wrote above Württemberg (our Schwab homeland) was Lutheran but I’ve read that German immigrants often were called Schwabs even if they came from some other part of Germany. The Swiss still today often call a German a Schwab …


That is why I put the word “Schwab” in quotation mark.

In 19th century Hungarian parlance,

szász = Saxon = 13th century settler from Germany = Lutheran
(mainly in Siebenbürgen und Zips)

sváb = Schwab = 18th century settler from Germany = Catholic


Indeed, Württemberg was 69% Protestant and 30% Catholic in 1905.

But as Cardinal von Kollonitsch declared around 1688:
“first render Hungary obedient, then destitute, and finally Catholic”.

So Protestants were not admitted among the German settlers of the 18th century.


A bit OT:

I’ve always been fascinated by the way this principle ” cuius regio, eius religio” has been held over the Centuries – especially in Germany where (until Napoleon came) there were many small states with a mixture of Protestant (Lutheran) and Catholic rulers – even after 200 years it’s easy to see on a map like Tappanch provided for Hungary which town/village was ruled once by a Catholic or a Protestant …
A typical example:
So called Western-Austria (Vorderösterreich) was a collection of Catholic villages and towns surrounded by the Protestants of Württemberg – you can still see this today:
One village has a lot of Carnival (Fasnet, Fasching) activities because it was Austrian once – in the next Carnival is virtually unknown, because the Protestant church forbade these sinful activities …

This has always been one of my points – people just “perform” the religion of their ancestors, they don’t really think about it or any alternatives.

Of course nowadays for most people religion is no longer important- at least in the more developed parts of the world …


“Reverzális” –
a promissory note required by Hungarian law in case of mixed marriages between Protestants and Catholics.

If the marriage took place between 1691 and 1781:

all children had to be raised Catholic

If the marriage took place between 1781 and 1868:

father Catholic, mother Protestant —–> every child had to be raised Catholic
father Protestant, mother Catholic
——> daughters had to be Catholic
——-> sons could be raised either Protestant or Catholic

(pretty unequal, isn’t it?)

between 1868 and 1945
daughters had to follow their mother’s , sons their father’s religion.


Wolfi religion is also a community so the performance of what their ancestors did is also based on a community. So for example just the other day at St. Steven King of Hungary Church here in Chicago before and after mass I talked with people I knew as a child and whose parents I knew. The parish as an institution here in Chicago, at least a strong one, is also a community that one is raised in and maybe dies in too.

To leave the church can in fact mean separating oneself from the community of support. I would say its one of the great dilemmas of my life, because so many of the elders in our parish were out and out fascist Arrow Cross types who I deeply disliked, none the less I came close to marrying one of their daughters. Life is not always rational.


wolfi… I would agree that adhering to a ‘religion’ has declined in polls but nevertheless the major religions still are up there with high percentages. Christianity and Islam are growing and will grow perhaps at different rates. All in all there does still seem to be a need for believers to be connected to religious belief. I don’t think it’s going away. Just my take.


You might be right, still:

I just read somewhere that only five percent of scientists in Germany have any connection to religion …
The people I know (my family, my friends, my former colleagues) are almost all totally “areligious” – that gives me hope. Or as Marx said:
Religion is the opium of the masses (people) – and even before him:
“This opium you feed your people” appeared earlier in 1797 in Marquis de Sade


You know in the case of the Magyar masses when we look at this interesting subject I’d suggest it just doesn’t look like they’re getting high on that ‘opium’ stuff…;-)..I mean if religion itself isn’t exactly top of mind then something else has to be operating in the mix of why the faithful follow.

Orban must be really working with a new found magic potion or something. Or being an innovative combo politician- theologian in our modern scientific age hewing another way than Luther, Calvin, etc etc to get to heaven both on the state level and personal soul level. From the looks of it the fellow knows he’s ‘predestined’. With all its implications for the country.


A superbly interesting and informative write-up by Éva. And the quality and informativeness of the comments is also superb.

As a result, I have learnt quite a bit today about aspects of Hungarian history and current affairs that I was only vaguely aware of until now.

Thanks Éva for the concise and insightful historical overview, and thanks to the commenters too, for some very valuable insights.


Just a remark. Church and state were not in symbiosis, in fact, the state controlled the church. Every catholic parish had its aristocratic patron who appointed priests. And of course, the priest could not speak against the political order in the kingdom or else he would be in troble. Emperor had even the power to veto a candidate for papcy, if he didint like him. The church was really free in Hungary only from 1989 (and the principality of lower pannonia and principality of nyitra in a short period when saint Methodius was the bishop in the 9th century and of course the underground church in roman pannonia, but we have no written records from them). Btw. in the great gothic church in Csetnek (Stitnik in Slovakia) there is a southern chapel built by the ottomans during the 16th century occupation. The church was used simultaneously as a mosque and as a lutheran church (catholic priests had to flee). A young minister who came there some 5 years ago even found old praying rugs and other ottoman artifacts in the archive.