Thousands came day after day. Under a sprawling tent known as the canvas cathedral, they gathered to hear a captivating young Baptist preacher. It was his first major city crusade, supposed to last for three weeks. But, such was the demand, Billy Graham stayed in Los Angeles for two months in that autumn of 1949. By the time he returned to Minneapolis in November, more than 300,000 had heard his gospel messages – it was, as Graham would later reflect, a watershed episode in his ministry.

Perhaps the heaviness of that moment in history matched the consistent urgency of Graham’s preaching. Two days before the LA stint commenced, President Truman had stunned America, announcing the end of its brief nuclear monopoly with the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb. Then, one week into the crusade, Chairman Mao declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen Square. The eleven-month Soviet blockade of West Berlin, which had concluded in the summer, demonstrated that the bifurcation of the world into duelling camps was no abstraction. Lines were drawn.

“Let me tell you, the third world war is going to make the others look like a little fistfight in comparison to the world war that is going to come in the next five years should Christ tarry”, Graham told his six thousand listeners on 23 October. “War is on the way and it’s a world war that will sweep civilisation into oblivion unless Christ stops it.” From a distance, it may sound paranoid or alarmist, but it was neither an unreasonable nor an unusual conclusion to draw in October 1949. That day he was preaching a sermon entitled, “Why God Allows Communism to Flourish and Why God Allows Christians to Suffer?” reading from the ninety-fourth Psalm: O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage. “Right now, right this minute, while you sit here”, Graham continued, “there are ten million Christians in Russia that are still suffering.”1

Graham did not mention Hungary that night, but there were many Hungarian Christians who already had cause to echo the Psalmist’s plaintive question. The last two years had seen Hungary’s Communist Party (at this time the MDP: Magyar Dolgozók Pártja) decisively consolidate power, a process that left no doubt about the new regime’s tolerance for alternative sources of authority and truth. Notably, Lutheran Bishop Lajos Ordass’ resistance had seen him convicted and imprisoned back in October 1948 on trumped-up charges. And the world was well aware of the brutality and deceit behind the treatment of Hungary’s Catholic Primate, Cardinal József Mindszenty, culminating in a February 1949 life sentence.

And yet the new Communist Constitution that was adopted one month before Graham began preaching in Los Angeles stated that the “Hungarian People’s Republic guarantees to its citizens freedom of conscience and the right of free exercise of religion” (Article 54). It is tempting and understandable to simply dismiss this as a lie. However, the Communist need to echo an increasingly axiomatic Western concept, and then defend its own complex religious policy on these lines, not only affected the rhetoric of church–state relations in Hungary, but subtly shaped it at every stage of its evolution over the next 40 years. Had the Marxist antipathy toward religion, which almost every prominent Communist shared to varying degrees, been baldly expressed in law, the precise ways in which the Party-State sought to remove – and in some ways replace – the influence of Christianity would have been quite different.

In any case, how extraordinary it would have seemed in 1949 that, nearly three decades later, on a Sunday morning in September, thousands would likewise assemble in Hungary to hear this most American of preachers. There had been no public advertisements of Graham’s appearance at the Baptist camp in Tahi, 25 kilometres north of Budapest on the eastern edge of the Pilis Mountains. Three to four thousand had been expected, but, alerted by word-of-mouth, ten thousand arrived by bus, car and on foot. They came not only from Budapest and around Hungary, but hundreds from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland.2 “At dawn the worshipers began gathering in a sunbathed clearing in the wooded hills”, Time magazine reported, even though Graham would not arrive until ten.3

Upon his return to America after the week-long trip, Graham affirmed, “I preached to them the exact same sermons that I preach over here on the gospel”, and that was indeed how he began in Tahi, delivering a sermon from the text of John 3:16,4 which was largely the same as the message he gave, for example, 20 years earlier to the throng at Madison Square Garden on 1 June 1957. This was a universal message of a global predicament and solution that Graham felt compelled to proclaim in New York City no less than in Budapest. The difference at Tahi was not only the bucolic location and the magnificently expressive translation of Sándor Haraszti, standing to Graham’s right, but the tape recorders being clutched throughout the crowd. “These tape recordings are being copied and recopied”, Haraszti later noted, “and being sent all over Hungary and also to all the other socialistic countries.”

“It was a great event that was unimaginable even shortly before the date and time”, remembers János Tomka, who attended as a youth minister within the Brethren Church. The intense interest, as well as the cassettes resourcefully disseminated, spoke not merely of a rare encounter with a Western spiritual celebrity, but of the nature of Graham’s message. Here was teaching that, as Tomka describes it, included an expression of the “eternal perspective of salvation”.5 Unable to issue the altar call – asking people to come forward – that had become a distinctive feature of Graham’s events, he resorted to an older method: those who wished to recommit themselves to Christ were asked to raise their hands where they sat.


Yet despite the various ecclesiastical and stylistic barriers distinguishing Graham from the mainstream Hungarian (and indeed European) church, his practice of and commitment to gospel preaching (evangelism, to employ the Greek-based term) resonated with an already rich Hungarian history. For a start, it is easy to forget that each church which becomes an institutional fixture was once an insurgent upstart, and, as Haraszti emphasised in the post-trip press conference, Graham did not “actually bring the gospel to Hungary, as Hungary has a more than 1000-year-old history of Christendom and Christianity”. And, in modern times, inside each of the major Hungarian churches there had been varying pockets of evangelistically-minded Christians, often feeding off English and German counterparts. Within the Lutheran (Evangélikus) Church, as David Baer describes, “the Hungarian connection with pietism was wide and deep, extending back to pietism’s beginnings in the seventeenth century”, and a “striking example of the way that pietism had taken hold in Hungary by the Horthy period were well-institutionalised ‘home mission’ programmes”. So rooted was this practice, that “dioceses had their own ‘mission-pastors’ who were commissioned to travel through the country and, collaborating with parish pastors, would visit congregations to hold evangelisation weeks”.6

“Evangelisation weeks, however, were only part of a much broader evangelical or pietist movement that shaped Hungarian Protestantism in the early twentieth century”, Baer continues, as reflected in the great variety of Christian outreach organisations that were formed at this time. Likewise, inside the Reformed (Református) Church, a renewed commitment to evangelistic ministry bubbled up in the second half of the 19th century. It was two Reformed adherents, Aladár Szabó and Aladár Szilassy, who established the Hungarian iteration of the YMCA (the KIE: Keresztyén Ifjúsági Egyesület [Christian Youth Association]) in 1883, and Szabó, while teaching at the Reformed seminary and pastoring in Kőbánya, “nurtured a rising generation of leaders in the evangelical renewal”. A key spark came with the visit of a Scottish Calvinist revivalist, Alexander Neil Sommerville, who preached to large crowds around Hungary in 1887 and 1888. “In Scotland I have never had audiences as big as here”, the elderly Sommerville claimed, “who would have believed that I would still be an eyewitness of scenes like these in my earthly life.” In his history of the Reformed Church, Imre Révész wrote that Sommerville “paved the way for Aladár Szabó and others in a cold, severe winter […] by evangelising a really significant and characteristic part of Hungarian Reformed mass congregations”.7

Just as significant as revival within the established churches was the emergence of the so-called free churches (Baptists, Methodists, Nazarenes, etc.), and, in fact, these nascent movements of evangelical Christianity gave inspiration to like-minded Calvinists and Lutherans. Proponents of internal revival challenged their more confessionally-minded brothers not to oppose the new denominations. Reformed minister and founder of the periodical Keresztyén Evangelista (Christian Evangelist), József Szalay noted approvingly in 1890 that Nazarenes8 and Baptists “at the very least invite two or three people every Sunday to God’s house”. In the same year, another Reformed minister, Mihály Révész rebuked his fellows for seeking administrative protection for their church’s position against the rising tide of free church enthusiasm: “truly the gospel alone is the only worthy weapon”.9

Those Reformed ministers less welcoming of free church competition were guarding a relatively recent legal prominence, as one of the received/accepted (bevett) denominations (also referred to as religiones receptae) – along with the Catholic, Lutheran, Unitarian, Orthodox and Uniate churches – entitling them to official status, state support and representation in the Upper House of Parliament. But the same liberalising bent to late 19th-century Hungarian politics that made the Reformed Church unofficially first among these equals also led to secularisation, such as civil marriage in 1894, and, the following year, to the widening of the religious tent. In addition to the former categories of accepted and tolerated, a new middle status of recognised was formalised. These and other changes allowed the burgeoning free churches to gradually obtain room for manoeuvre that was commensurate with their growth. In 1905, the Baptist Church became the first of the free churches to be recognised – still placing it below the Jewish religion, which had attained received status in 1895, but above other smaller Protestant groups.


However, both the proponents of evangelical revival within received churches and the free churches had been hindered by the quasi-governmental prominence of the traditional churches and their related spiritual inertia, which revivalists sought to challenge. And this struggle certainly continued in the inter-war years. But when Hungary’s Second World War concluded not with the separate peace with the Allies that Regent Horthy and others had sought, but a brutal Soviet occupation, Hungarian society was exposed to another period of externally imposed dissolution. And one of the many tragedies of the post-war years is that the spirit of revival, which was given impetus and urgency by the war-time defeat of the Hungarian establishment, was not allowed to usher in a period of sustained spiritual life to the traditional churches, but was instead co-opted and used against them.

This process of co-option had three elements. Firstly, in the context of a devastating defeat and an ensuing revolutionary atmosphere, many critical of the previous social and religious establishment were persuaded to interpret this situation as both a specific vindication of their criticism and an apocalyptic judgement. Secondly, under the influence and pressure of the increasingly powerful Soviet-backed Communist perspective, some so inclined combined this blanket condemnation with a historically deterministic view of the present as a righteous corrective. Thirdly, as the Communists first used the governing coalition to strengthen their position and then seize sole authority, these views within the traditional churches were employed by the Communists to undermine and replace church leaders. When this process was over, those who were driven by genuinely theological imperatives, rather than ambition or secular nostrums, were left to rue the perversion of their hopes for spiritual renewal.

An apt microcosm of this process was the journey of Albert Bereczky, a Reformed minister, who, as Gyula Gombos writes in his book on the post-war Hungarian Reformed Church, “was the product of an evangelistic movement and had kept in close touch with it, thus enjoying the confidence of the revivalists”.10 During the war, as pastor of the large new Reformed Church on Budapest’s Pozsonyi Road, Bereczky had hidden Jews (and others), posthumously earning the assignation of “Righteous Among the Nations” (Világ Igaza) from Yad Vashem in 1997 for these life-saving efforts. Immediately after the war, Bereczky had become involved in politics and government due to his long friendship with Zoltán Tildy, the post-war Prime Minister and then President of Hungary.11 This political experience, and the spiritual credibility of both his inter-war revivalism and his wartime resistance, made him a natural leader of the various reformers, evangelicals and left-wingers within the church, who gathered under Bereczky’s leadership in August 1946 for a self-proclaimed Reformed Free Council.

From the beginning, this gathering was a grandiose and presumptuous initiative. “In his opening speech”, Gombos relates, “Bereczky stressed that the Free Council was not just a group within the Reformed Church in Hungary but the Church itself.”12 Not content with speaking, unbidden, for the whole church, the Reformed Free Council – assembled in the north-eastern city of Nyíregyháza – also both spoke on behalf of the nation and passed particular judgement over it. “According to the Free Council”, Baer explains, “God had utterly condemned the entire Hungarian nation. The sign of this judgement was the indiscriminate destruction and suffering caused by the war. The obliteration of ‘old Hungary’ was God’s righteous punishment and part of his providential plan.” However, Baer continues, “the sweeping condemnation of Hungary announced by the Free Council […] presupposed theological judgements that should have received explicit elucidation.” The Council delivered a “sweeping assessment of guilt” that was “interlocked with unexamined presuppositions about the relationship between God’s providence and current happenings”. While the jeremiads against past wrongs were both simplistic and excessive, particularly in the dubious assigning of collective guilt, it was this unnecessary determination to use a condemnation of the past as a basis for the approbation of anything that presently diverted from it which would prove such a damaging conceptual precedent. The Reformed Free Council “introduced into Hungarian theological discourse important categories for interpreting Hungary’s past, present and future”,13 and established the way in which a desire for spiritual reform could be parlayed into uncritical support for an atheist revolution.

In the Lutheran church, a similar line was influentially articulated by Bishop Zoltán Túróczy and Imre Veöreös, both of whom were shaped by their ministry in Győr, a centre of Lutheran evangelism, with the latter participating as a pastor in home missions throughout the diocese and winsomely advocating for the centrality of gospel proclamation in church ministry. Sadly, as with Bereczky, Túróczy and Veöreös allowed their concomitant critique of the more confessionally-oriented and formal leadership of the church to become a religiously justified attack on all resistance to socialist change. A meeting of pastors that Veöreös chaired in Győr in November 1946 made similar claims to those expressed at Nyíregyháza. And in 1948, he even built the idea that Hungary had been an evil country whose calamities had been a specific divine judgement into a conclusion that political reaction – the Communists’ catch-all term for everything that resisted their plans and policies – was a rebellion against God and his judgement. It was not a politically neutral statement when Veöreös wrote in a 1948 article that “God has condemned the old Hungary together with its sins and social injustices in the storm of history: and this every Lutheran person must humbly accept and with repentance before God”. The logic employed by Veöreös laid the foundation for the opportunism of the likes of László Dezséry, a young university chaplain whose October 1948 “Open Letter” (“Nyílt levél az evangélikus egyház ügyében” [Open Letter Concerning the Hungarian Lutheran Church]) – in which he praised Soviet occupation and Communist ascendency as God’s will – led to his quick elevation to bishop.14 And, despite the initially theological intentions of Bereczky and Túróczy, it would be this kind of crass collaboration, not gospel renewal, which would characterise the leadership of Hungary’s great churches from 1948 to 1956. The pursuit of revival was not quashed before it was perverted.


We need to see this appropriation of revivalism during the Communist takeover of Hungarian state and church to understand the way in which the regime would frequently seek to portray itself as the agent of a purified church that had been rescued from its reactionary past. This line had more hope of acceptance within the free churches, who initially seemed to have benefited from the new religious policies. After all, the threefold official distinction between churches was abolished in 1947, and free churches, such as the Methodists, were recognised by the state for the first time. But even before 1948, it was becoming clear that the new era would entail a radical restriction of Christian activity, which would leave no denomination unmolested. In parallel with the process in which those unsympathetic to the Communists were pushed out of both the coalition and the civil service, the Soviets put pressure on the Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy – through their control of the supervisory Allied Control Commission (ACC) – to clamp down on youth organisations. As a result, Communist Interior Minister László Rajk was given jurisdiction over these groups. Days later, in July 1946, about one and a half thousand primarily Christian youth associations were dissolved, including the Hungarian Scouts (MCSSZ: Magyar Cserkészszövetség) and the large Catholic agrarian youth organisations KALOT (Katolikus Agrárifjúsági Legényegyesületek Országos Testülete [National Association of Catholic Agrarian Lads Unions]) and KALÁSZ (Katolikus Asszonyok és Lányok Szövetsége [Alliance of Catholic Women and Maidens]).15 But it was in 1948 that new church–state relations clearly took shape with the elevation of church leaders such as Bereczky at the expense of those less amenable to Communist influence. And this occurred in conjunction with the opening of one-sided negotiations between the state and individual denominations, the nationalisation of schools, and the seizure of church-owned property.

The traditional churches were the target of these initial machinations because the Communists viewed them as quintessential seats of aristocratic and bourgeois power, and, as such, sources of resistance from a dying but dangerous socio-economic system. Therefore, school nationalisation was a key weapon, since the majority of Hungary’s schools were run by the Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran churches. Parliament passed the school nationalisation law on 16 June 1948, and, as a result, the Catholic Church lost about 3,000 primary and secondary schools, the Reformed Church over a thousand, and the Lutherans around 400.16 Despite the vituperative rhetoric that preceded and accompanied this seminal seizure, the regime characteristically sought the compliance of its victims, pressuring each major denomination to sign agreements that offered nominal and quickly ignored rights in exchange for the loss of autonomy, schools and other property.

“These demands set off a kind of chain reaction within Hungarian Calvinism”, Gombos concludes. “Riven by conflict, the Reformed Church could not withstand the outside pressure.” Already in May 1948, the Bishop of the Danubian district and Synod President, László Ravasz, had resigned, before the Synod narrowly approved the church–state agreement over strenuous opposition in June. Then, the following month, Bereczky, who had campaigned for the agreement, was elected as Ravasz’s replacement by a tally of 340 to 300, under covert and overt state pressure. On 7 October, the church formally ratified its church–state agreement on the same day that the Unitarian Church did likewise.17

Meanwhile, within the Lutheran church, the new regime’s insistence on school nationalisation and a church–state agreement led to a serious split at the top. Bishop Lajos Ordass refused to concur with this fait accompli, leading first to his removal by the church’s general assembly as senior bishop in June 1948 – replaced by Túróczy – and then his arrest and imprisonment in September and October. By the time that Túróczy signed the church–state agreement on 14 December, both the church’s General Inspector, Albert Radvánszky, and its Secretary-General, Sándor Vargha, were also in prison. “The Communists had executed their intentions easily”, Baer notes. “However, the power of Ordass’ personal witness would haunt the Lutheran Church in Hungary throughout the entire Communist period.”18

When a regime wishes to muffle the coercion behind its policies, it is because that coercion, clearly recognised, has the power to stain its public image in a manner which delegitimises its power. But wishing to both have control of the churches and establish the false narrative that this control had been gladly volunteered and generously achieved, the Party, in its short-term success, established a vulnerable falsehood at the foundation of its new church–state settlement – a falsehood to which Ordass’ predicament and faithful resistance drew attention. Such testimony also haunted compliant church leaderships because their justification for most of the remaining years of Communism was that they were doing what was necessary and possible, instead of fleeing reality. But for how long can men enjoying prominence and safety accuse those enduring prison of self-indulgence? Yet such accusations are, to this day, levelled at Cardinal Mindszenty, who refused to play along and offer up his church to the Party-State. It was not until August 1950 that a harassed Catholic Church leadership – not including Mindszenty, who, like Ordass, refused to resign in prison – finally assented to a church–state agreement.

In the short-term, the 1948 Lutheran and Reformed church compromises led straight to outright collaboration in the Stalinist years of the early 1950s. “A moral framework of compromise depends for its success on historical discernment”, Baer suggests. “Compromisers like Túróczy and Veöreös believed in their ability to discern the meaning of history, and they relied on special insights in making judgements about when to compromise.” But, he continues, these “special insights, in turn, became part of the church’s common theological lexicon, a lexicon that was quickly appropriated by collaborators and refashioned into a theology of socialism”.19

It was such a direct incorporation of socialism into church theology that set apart this brief period from the more nuanced accommodations that established and followed it. In the Reformed Church, Bereczky himself managed this transition, lending theological support and authority to each twist and turn of Rákosi’s dictatorship. For example, despite the devastation it caused amongst the Reformed Church’s rural backbone, agricultural collectivisation received Bereczky’s full support. “For our people, the road of the future, in the sense of the Scriptures, is one where we jointly put our shoulders to the wheel and make the God-given earth more productive through collective farming”, he said in September 1955, long after the likes of Imre Nagy had found the voice to challenge this policy. “Let us consider the will of the Lord of history who directs human progress […] the road of the future, in the light of faith and hope, is collective production, the system that serves us all.” However, the Lutheran Bishop Túróczy could not sustain a similar course, and his 1952 resignation cleared the way for the unabashed collaboration of Bishops László Dezséry and Lajos Vető. Under their leadership, a “theology of socialism” held sway that “equated the building of socialism with the realisation of God’s divine plans and thus made believing in socialism, as a political, moral and religious project, a requirement of Christian faith”.20

This crude equating of Communist ideology and practice with Christianity did not survive the 1956 uprising and the brief hiatus from Communist control that it provided. However, as in many areas of Hungarian society, the church–state relationship of the Kádár years both broke from the Stalinist period and was sustained on foundations that had been established in that cruel era. In particular, the bureaucratic centralisation of each church and Party-State oversight over all churches emerged in the early 1950s, becoming a central feature of Christian life that consequentially endured. The way in which the much later visit of Billy Graham was planned and organised was entirely predicated on this context of top-down control.

Firstly, even though the new leadership the Lutheran and Reformed churches had, in opposition, called for a democratisation of ecclesial governance, they presided, under Party-State direction, over an unprecedented centralisation. As a declaration of resistance from within the Reformed Church in the heady year of 1956 reflected, “we must brand as fraudulent all despotic clique rule within the Church […] our present Church administration tries to force its decisions on the church with the intimidating measures used in the outside world”. In the last few years, it continued, those “who do not approve of, or criticise, the policies of the Church administration are removed by force and on false charges, transferred, or deprived of their posts. […] What makes it worse is that this involves the dictatorial exercise not only of administrative decisions but also of a new and in many respects questionable theology.” When Baer concludes that church leaders “were no longer accountable to the people of the church, over whom they lorded, but to the political power that had put them in office”, he is describing a dynamic that would only deepen in the years to come. As we will see, the much-vaunted separation of church and state was, in practice, a sad separation between church leadership and its local churches and laity.21

A second key means of centralisation originated in 1951, with the formation of the Állami Egyházügyi Hivatal (ÁEH: State Office of Church Affairs). It was a clear counterpart to the Soviet agencies, CAROC (1943) and CARC (1944), which were charged with overseeing the Orthodox Church and other churches respectively, after the Soviet transition to a less overtly confrontational religious policy.22 Down to small details, the ÁEH would supervise the churches – appointments, expenditure, activities, etc. It paid the leadership of the main churches, apportioned state aid, required notice of all services, and issued the licenses that both permitted pastors to preach and delineated the scope of their ministry. Mostly relying on the authority of the church leaderships to carry out its dictates, the ÁEH could nevertheless intervene, in direct contravention of the church–state agreements signed a few years earlier, as the decisive power in any decision. These two levels of centralisation dovetailed in the service of entangling the churches, in an institutional sense, within the Party-State.

As alluded to before, the free churches initially eluded the harsh attention of the new regime. Unlike the traditional churches, they entered the new era with little to lose, and many within the free churches supported both the nationalisation of schools and the “land reform” that included the appropriation of large swaths of Catholic and Reformed Church property. As the Baptist pastor Géza Kovács, who in the 1950s ministered at the Baptist church in Újpest, recalls, “in this decade their attention and their actions did not reach the gospel communities. Thus the more courageous churches were free to work.” Within this small space for greater boldness, Kovács organised, along with other pastors, regular revival prayer meetings that had been inspired by both news of the revivals of Billy Graham and translations of his writing. Kovács pastored in Újpest first under and then with the same Sándor Haraszti who would later emigrate to America and be instrumental in Graham’s visit. And Haraszti, who at that time also taught at the Baptist seminary, himself translated and helped to distribute Graham’s book, Peace with God. This revival prayer group also fasted together once a month (a common Christian accompaniment to prayer for revival) and “throughout the country […] had evangelistic days with rich fruit-bearing”.23

It must be remembered that the spiritual perspective with which Christian believers view their purpose and practices was alien to convinced Communists, who tended to assume that spiritual rhetoric was a smokescreen for the church’s real work of exploiting and distracting the common people. So policy-makers of the new regime could not easily fit the radical intensity of humble churches suppressed by the old regime within their worldview. Nevertheless, such evangelistic work as Kovács carried out in the early 1950s at least attracted the attention of the authorities. Pressured by the new ÁEH, Kovács notes, the Baptist Church leadership “repeatedly warned the pastoral community that, as they said, we should stop this ‘extravagant behaviour’. This made us cautious but did not stop [us].” When police attended one of the gatherings, they recorded all who attended, yet made no arrests. “The activities of the congregations were not restricted by the authorities, but the congregations with stronger mission-outreach were kept under surveillance more seriously”, Judit Lakatos likewise observes regarding the Methodists. Actively evangelistic Methodist pastors such as Tibor Iványi – under whose leadership the Nyíregyháza church spectacularly recovered from the post-war migration of most of its congregation to Slovakia – were increasingly harassed. Furthermore, despite receiving official recognition in October 1947, the Methodist Church had buildings in Budapest, Budakeszi and Szolnok seized by the state, and even lost its pastors’ flat in Kispest.24

What may have confused the regime most about the free churches was that many of them operated as associations of independent congregations, not as formal denominations – in many cases, such congregational autonomy had been a raison d’être behind their formation. In order to control such groups, a central locus of power sometimes needed to not only be taken over and strengthened, but given shape. The Methodist Church’s structure was a clear exception to this, but Communist rule separated the Hungarian Methodist Church from the international leadership and bishop that presided over it, leaving Hungarian Methodists to adopt novel administrative powers over the domestic church.25 In general, what the free churches lacked in historical roots and established status, they possessed in connections with prominent Western European and American counterparts. And it was the Anglo-American roots of many free churches which brought Party-State suspicions upon them, starting in June 1950, when József Révai (at this time a member of the Politburo, minister of education, and editor of Szabad Nép) accused Baptists and Adventists, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, of serving American imperialism and Western propaganda.

Following the war, free churches had banded together in an Alliance of Free Churches (Szabadegyházak Szövetsége), primarily to collectively advocate religious equality and freedom. But they had to adapt when, even as they nominally succeeded with both the 1947 legislation and the religious freedom clause in the 1949 Constitution, religious practice increasingly came under central control. After 1950, under a revealingly altered name, SZET (Szabadegyházak Tanácsa: Council of Free Churches), it relayed the wishes of the regime to the free churches more than the reverse.26 Not only that, but in a sign of the times, SZET no longer accepted churches unless they were recognised by the state. As soon as it became clear that the defensive preservation of religious practice would become a necessary priority under the new regime, it was natural for a means of advocacy to become a mediating and intrusive intermediary – there was protection in cautious collective cooperation. But it was primarily in the interests of the Party-State to be able to deal with these disparate churches through one body, and, as we will see, SZET would later complete its transition into a de facto arm of the ÁEH.27


1 Billy Graham “Why God Allows Communism to Flourish and Why God Allows Christians to Suffer” (23 October 1949), Billy Graham Center Archives (BGCA):

2 Alexander Haraszti, “Billy Graham’s Ministry in Hungary as Seen by His Interpreter”, BGCA (Collection 141: Box 12, Folder 51).

3 “Gulyas and the Gospel”, Time (19 September 1977).

4 “Sermon 1081”, BGCA:

5 Author interview with János Tomka, conducted and translated by Zsolt Szalai (17 October 2018).

6 H. David Baer, The Struggle of Hungarian Lutherans under Communism (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), 12.

7 G. Alexander Kish, The Origins of the Baptist Movement among the Hungarians (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 220–221.

8 This denomination is different from the church referred to as Nazarene in the United States.

9 Kish, 431–432.

10 Gyula Gombos, The Lean Years: A Study of Hungarian Calvinism in Crisis (New York: Kossuth Foundation, 1960), 22.

11 Tildy held these offices between 1945 and 1948 due to his leadership of the Kisgazdapárt (Smallholders’ Party), the most popular post-war party. Bereczky and Tildy, also a Reformed minister, met as students of the Reformed seminary in Pápa. The two of them authored a book of their sermons, Krisztus győz!… [Christ triumphs], in 1922 and two years later founded a publishing house together.

12 Gombos, 24.

13 Baer, 51–52.

14 Ibid., 14–15, 21, 32–33, 53–57.

15 Both the Scouts and KALOT were soon reformed by the state as puppets. Mária Palasik, Chess Game for Democracy (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2011), 80–82.

16 Gombos, 29–30; Attila Horváth, “The Educational Policy of the Soviet Dictatorship in Hungary”, Polgári Szemle (Vol. 13, 2017); Balázs Czetz, “The Relationship between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party in Hungary, 1945–1948”, in Jonathan Osmond and Ausma Cimdiņa, eds., Power and Culture: Identity, Ideology, Representation (Ediziona Plus, 2007), 175.

17 Gombos, 28–33.

18 Baer, 22–25.

19 Ibid., 51.

20 Gombos, 77; Baer, 46.

21 Gombos, 95–98; Baer, 44–45.

22 Victoria Smolkin, A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 52–53.

23 Author interview with Géza Kovács, conducted and translated by Géza Kovács, Jr (12 October 2018); “Alexander Haraszti, MD, PhD, Interviewed by Dr Lois Ferm (21 May 1979)”, BGCA (Collection 141: Box 45, Folder 1).

24 Judit Lakatos, “The Policy of the Communist States Towards the Free Churches after 1945 in Hungary with Special Regard to the Methodist Church”, Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe (Vol. 31/2, Article 5):, 38–40.

25 Ibid., 37.

26 Founding members included the Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist and Brethren churches.

27 Zoltán Rajki, “A szabadegyházak helyzete Magyarországon 1945 és 1950 között” [The situation of free churches in Hungary between 1945 and 1950], Egyháztörténeti Szemle X1I/2 (2011).

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The Story of István VasdényeyPart II ‘The train departed a second time.’1The title of István Lengyel’s conversation with the poet Erzsi Szenes, an inmate of the Kistarcsacamp. See: István Lengyel,

Nation Building in Central Europe

On the Relationship between Religious and National Identity The purpose of this study is to outline the cooperation between Slovak, Czech, and Polish national movements and the Christian denominations that

Separation of Powers
and Sovereignty

The Question of External Executive Power The title István Bibó gave to his academic inaugural address on 16 January 1947 was ‘Separation of Powers, Then and Now’. 1István Bibó, Az

Religious Conflict in Poland

An Interim Report Even though Christianity is perhaps the most persecuted religion in the world, and the severity of the living conditions of oppressed Christians is getting worse by the