[K:NWTS 23/1 (May 2008) 48-54]

The Apocalyptics of the Hungarian Puritans

Eve Alice Petrőczi[1]

Following the era of Heidelberg orthodoxy, young Hungarians began to be interested in Puritan ideas; this led to a basic change in their mentality. Both the  authors of the Catholic Baroque and Puritan writers were putting stress upon the fate of individuals, upon possible ways leading to redemption and upon the punishment of sins in Purgatory, instead of (with some exceptions) discussing the history of the nations and the apocalyptic last days of the world.

To concretize the matter: after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Hungarian students visited the Dutch and English universities of Groeningen, Franeker, Utrecht, Hardervijk, Amsterdam and Cambridge. Their stay in England was usually much shorter than in the Netherlands.[2]

The historical, political and ecclesiastical evaluation of the Netherlands and England changed significantly in our country from the end of the 16th century. From a small country, we reached the happy status of stability on a torn and wounded continent. F. Ernest Stoeffler’s basic work summarizes all of these events brilliantly, if rather briefly. To Dutch or even English and German ears, the details of these events sound like evidences, but—as a sign of our homage after centuries to all the foreign nations which gave an intellectual shelter to our students—let me quote its most important passage concerning the local color of everyday religious life in the Low Countries. “The Union of Utrecht was established in1579 and included the provinces of Geldern, Zuthpen, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland and Ommelanden. Catholics which had been living in these provinces now migrated to the south where the Duke of Parma had succeeded in welding together the political unity which is now Belgium. Protestants within the ten southern provinces migrated north. The result was an almost solidly Protestant and dominantly Calvinistic state which finally achieved complete autonomy at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.

After these struggles for freedom the enterprising Netherlanders forged ahead  on every front. Their seamen traversed the oceans of the world. Along with England they established colonies in various sections of the globe. Relative stability at home and a flourishing trade in the world market brought increasing prosperity. During the seventeenth century while England was torn by internal strifle and civil war and central Europe was devastated and depopulated by the Thirty Years’ War the Netherlanders lived in peace and prosperity. Feeling secure in their way of life they could afford the luxury of permitting occasional deviation, being sure of the strength of domestic Calvinism they could grant religious toleration without fear, being economically favored they could give themselves to the pleasure of intellectual and cultural pursuits. Under these favorable conditions the Netherlands of the seventeenth century developed rapidly into the intellectual center of the world.”[3]

This solidity and smoothness of Dutch life is reflected in the career of the number one tutor of our Hungarian students in theology. He was the Anglo-Dutchman, William Ames (1576-1633), an almost Melanchthon-like spiritual father, a magister perpetuus of this scholarly circle.[4] Ames was born in Norfolk, England, and educated by William Perkins (1558-1602) at Christ’s College, Cambridge. His greatest enemy, Archbishop Richard Bancroft (1544-1610), forced him to leave his native country. He found shelter, a second home and a position at the University of Franeker. There he filled the chair of professor of divinity for twelve years (1622-1634) and wrote his famous, epoch-marking textbook, The Marrow of Divinity (Medulla Sacrae Theologiae). Its opening sentence reads: Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi (“Theology is the doctrine of living to God”). Another oft-quoted sentence from this remarkable work is: Fides est acquiescentia cordis in Deo (“Faith is the resting of the heart in God”).[5]

Even these short Amesian fragments prove the truth of American church historian, William Haller, who called the Puritan writers the “physicians of the soul”.[6] In other words, the main purpose of the Puritan books of conduct  (Dutch, English and Hungarian ones) was not to frighten, nor to shock the readers, but to tranquillize them with numerous instructions in the godly life. They wrote very systematically, dividing their material into logical chapters and sub-chapters. The hysterical tone of Melanchthonian apocalyptics seemed to have ceased forever. But the history of Hungary was apocalyptical enough to press out some quasi-apocalyptic themes even from the most calm, the most Amesian, the most physician-like authors of our 17th century.

It happened in this way in the case of the ouvre of the leading author of the period, Pál Medgyesi. He was born ca. 1605; studied in Bártfa (now Bardejov, Slovakia), Debrecen, later in Frankfurt an der Oder  and from 1629 (from the 13th of April exactly), in Leiden; he then spent half a year in Cambridge, returning again to Leiden. Medgyesi was not a scandal-monger among the Hungarian Puritans. He strengthened the calmer Amesian tone in our church life. This is found, for instance, in an extremely important handbook of homiletics published in 1650. Medgyesi paid homage with his Doce nos orare (“Teach us to pray”) to Ames’s Marrow of Divinity by transplanting the later’s text and ideas into his own work.[7]

The very part in which Ames is mentioned openly (i.e., by name) is the one on the methodology of Sunday sermons in the chapter, Doce praedicare (“Teach [us] to preach”). At that time (partly due to Lutheran influence), the majority of the Hungarian Calvinist pastors used only some overburdened Biblical loci, the so-called “pericopes”. Medgyesi was totally opposed to this dull practice, which spoiled the dignity of the Lord’s day. He mentions the master as “that Amesius of great fame” who “blames those who are glued to certain parts of the Scriptures, therefore losing and hiding its real essence.” Even the majority of the other, non-Amesian works of Medgyesi, i.e., his extremely popular Praxis pietatis (“Practice of Piety”) or his Dialogus politico ecclesiasticus (Bártfa, 1650) (a dialogue on the synodical-presbyterian system) were very far from the apocalyptical way of thinking and arguing.[8]

A basic change in Medgyesi’s tone appears in 1648, the year of the death of George Rákóczi I (1591-1648), Prince of Transylvania. From this time, the government passed into the hands of George Rákóczi II (1621-1660), who was a fanatic and impatient hunter of titles and positions with no trace of political wisdom. This unquiet princely person dragged his country into a very unhappy military expedition, the purpose of which was that he become King of Poland. He expected continuous moral and practical Swedish support, but immediately after his arrival in Poland, the Swedish army simply left the stage. The prince himself was led, instead of back to Hungary, to the territory of one of our country’s most blood-thirsty enemies (the Tartars) and his army was captured by this legendary and barbarous nation as well. After his shameful arrival in Hungary (1657), Rákóczi was bereft of his throne by the enraged Sultan who wanted to punish the incredible disobedience of his vassal. The Turks destroyed the whole of Transylvania. Thousands of its inhabitants were unmercifully massacred; all of its towns turned into ruins. Even the ashes of long deceased Transylvanian princes were thrown into the air. Famine and plague also arrived; consequently the circumstances became really ‘apocalyptic’. On account of all these negative changes and tragic events, the earlier smooth and calm tone of Medgyesi changed greatly. After 1653, he published his six continual Woes, playing (and at the same time also painfully living) the role of a Hungarian Jeremiah.[9]

One of these Woes—actually perhaps, the most prophetic one—has some modern editions as well. It was written at the very beginning of the tragic historical events in which Prince George Rákóczi II would hardly survive the fiasco of his Caesaromaniacal plans and dreams about becoming king of Poland. The exact date of the delivery of this pulpit oration at the Calvinist church of Sarospatak is the 2nd of September, 1657. When quoting the words of Jeremiah and the curses of Isaiah (originally dedicated to the sinful city of Jerusalem), Medgyesi seeks to warn his own people. After forty, peaceful “Solomonian” years of Transylvanian history, because of the misdeeds and unwise decisions of its head (Prince Rákóczi himself) and its people, we must expect the worst: a total decay of land and nation. The text (just like the 16th-century examples) is full of illustrations taken from the Old Testament. In this respect, Pál Medgyesi proved to be an absolute follower of the Wittenberg/Melanchthon school.

But there are some basic differences between Medgysei and his preacher predecessors. First, in spite of his anger (sometimes rage and fury) against the sinful and greedy prince, and the almost equally sinful people, his main purpose is not frightening or shocking, but the typical Puritan attitude of prevention—of warning. He did not intend to increase the status of “mortification”, of slow agony, but wanted to offer—as a true-born ‘physician of the soul’—some healing herbs. Second, he did it also with characteristic Puritan precision and meticulousness, by pressing his passionate sentences into almost geometrical, well-ordered points or items. What he describes and puts down in a very disciplined form, reads like a pathological report in a post-mortem room written after an autopsy, the main purpose of which is to save some further patients from the clutches of the same mortal illness. This is sort of an apocalypse as well; yet the stress is not on the horrific details, but on the possibilities of avoiding them. This was quite natural. Our Puritans, just like their Dutch and English brethren, were utilitarian enough not to give up very easily. Medgyesi was not among the members of the “London League” (1632) in which János Tolnai and his fellow students signed a pact of mutual responsibility for each other’s deeds in the name of Jesus Christ. But his educational background (from Leiden to Cambridge) led him to a very similar pattern of religious argumentation and practice. Instead of the rather frightening role of a remote and revengeful vates (“prophet”), he played the role (and he did so truthfully and convincingly!) of an exceptionally conscious and responsible member of a community in danger. This is the democratic, the presbyterian side of the Puritan way of thinking. Actually the best side (as Leland Ryken mentions in his excellent Worldly Saints) of the Puritans was that  they were policemen of one another’s hearts.[10]

This Puritan practice and soberness, this continuous search for preparation and prevention would have been a very hard task. Perhaps that is in part why the books of conduct, compilations and tracts written by 17th century authors are not as rich in theoretical and philosophical details as the earlier works of 16th century Protestant theology. Their spiritual side always had a secondary importance compared to their practical one. That is why so many of them—even the world famous Lewis Bayly (†1631) himself, in the pages of The Practice of Piety (1616)can be considered as the forerunners of a “holistic medico-theology”. They dealt not only with spiritual and historical problems, but with such apocalyptic moments of human life as growing old, illness, death.

Actually, many of our Hungarian Puritan pastors studied medicine as well. Among others, were the younger Samuel Köleséri and Ferenc Pápai Páriz. The latter produced very popular “twin-books”, entitled Pax corporis (“Peace of the body”) and Pax animae (“Peace of the soul”). For instance, in Pax corporis, he explains the Black Death, not as a contagious illness, but as a direct result of human vices. At the Reformed College of Nagyenyed (today Aiud, Romania), Pápai Páriz studied the work of Henricus Regius (Henri LeRoy), a Carthesian professor at Leiden University. Regius’s Fundamenta Physices (1646) became a basic element of  Páriz’s thinking. According to the sixth chapter of his Pax corporis (entitled “On the Plague”), this terrible illness frightens the nations not only because of the loss of the hot-cold balance and poisons circulating in the blood system, but because of the variety of human sins. The examples given by him could have appeared in any 16th century apocalyptic theory: the vices of Israel in King David’s times led to the first “plague” of mankind, the real remedy of which  is (as it says in the Book of Jeremiah) simply genuine penitence. A childish national pride also appears on the pages of this chapter on the plague, when the author proposes a highly poetical question: can we, Hungarians, run away from the coming plague? The answer is: the Germans can, but the Hungarians cannot, as we must by all means stick to the right order and usus of our lifestyle. [11]

This Pax corporis is a relatively late product of our Puritan literature; it only came out in 1690. But as such, it also proves the existence of the survival of a certain apocalyptic way of thinking, even into our late Puritan authors, though in a remarkably modified, simplified and utilitarianized form. In any event, modern readers can experience a continuity of these ideas and aspects in the second generation of the Hungarian Reformation as well. They present and enrich us with the experience of being members of an exteremely strong and resilient community—as a compensation and consolation for the never-ending reappearance of apocalypses throughout our national history and our church history.

[1] Eve Alice Petrőczi, Ph. D., Dr. Habil., is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English Speaking Cultures at the Karoli Gaspar University of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest. She is the author of more than 90 articles and books, as well as numerous Conference presentations.

[2] For more about this phase of the Hungarian peregrination, see Joseph Bodonhelyi’s basic work, Az angol puritanizmus lelki élete és magyar hatásai (Debrecen, 1942) (English Puritanism, Its Spiritual Life and Influence Upon Hungary); or Stephen Ágoston, The Roots of Hungarian Puritanism (Budapest: Kálvin Kiadó, 1997).

[3] F.Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971)  111.

[4] See my article “Some Features to the Portrait of William Ames,” in my book Puritans and Puritanicals (Budapest: Balassi Publishing House, 2005).

[5] William Ames, Medulla Sacrae Theologiae (Franeker, 1627) 7.

[6] William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947) 3-48.

[7] Pál Medgyesi, Doce nos orare, quin et praedicare (Bártfa, 1650); cf. RMK (= Régi Magyar Kőnyvatár) I, 832—bibloiographical data accessible online through the database, Az Országos Széchényi Könyvtár adatbázisai. Cf. my article “Some Features to the Portrait of William Ames.”

[8] The details of his life and career can be found in Eugene Zoványi, Encyclopaedia of the Protestant Churches in Hungary, ed. by Alexander Ladányi (Budapest: Magyar Református Zsinati Sajtóosztály, 1977) 397-98. Cf also my study, “The Background Story of a Translation,” in Eva Petrőczi, Puritans and Puritanicals.

[9] See the 10th chapter of Charles Császár’s monograph on Medgyesi entitled Pál Medgyesi, His Life and Age (Budapest, 1911) 84-93.

[10] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).

[11] Ferenc Pápai Páriz, Pax corporis (Budapest: Magvető, 1984)  324-65.