Those whose consciences would not permit them to comply with the shrivelling of Christianity were forced to keep that witness and fellowship alive outside the purview and protection of the church–state settlement.

And this is indeed what occurred in the 1960s and 1970s – vital church life, where it existed, was locally nurtured in resistance to the state-sponsored restrictions imposed by the churches’ leadership. Within local congregations, small circles and home-groups, Christians continued, or in some cases expanded, their ministries. “Events were not publicly advertised but word-of-mouth method was used”, János Tomka remembers, “and there were many occasions outside cities, in forests or other similar circumstances. It was also an experience that these difficult situations made believers more engaged”, he continues, poignantly, “and therefore it was much easier to organise these events than today.” Even the international organisation, Evangelical Alliance was active in Hungary, “though its operation was illegal”, with members “meeting at private flats and houses with a cover story to celebrate the householder’s birthday”.

While national church leaders retained congenial relations with the ÁEH [Állami Egyházügyi Hivatal – State Office of Church Affairs], in the years and even months leading up to Graham’s visit, congregations and pastors who acted beyond the official parameters and resisted the church leaders who enforced them, were both suppressed and excluded from their denominations. Most tellingly of all, this suppression and exclusion was mostly carried out within the denominations, but church leaders, when in difficulty, also sought the help of the ÁEH and other elements of the Party-State against their own congregations and pastors. The most extensive and remarkable example of this took place within the Methodist Church.

As mentioned earlier, while the Methodist minister Tibor Iványi had rebuilt his Nyíregyháza congregation into a pillar of the denomination, his outreach and independent activity attracted the Party-State’s opposition. With Iványi in mind, at a May 1973 meeting of SZET [Szabadegyházak Tanácsa – Council of Free Churches] and the ÁEH, István Balló (ÁEH deputy vice president) complained about inappropriate activities and a “distorted interpretation of religious freedom” within the Methodist Church.1 Awkwardly for the regime, pastors like Iványi insisted on taking the Party-State’s legal and rhetorical support for religious freedom seriously, compelling the regime to further affirm it in principle while increasingly negating it in practice. And so when the Methodist superintendent Ádám Hecker’s term was coming to an end in May 1973, and it was the popular Iványi who was likely to be elected in his place, Hecker, under pressure from the ÁEH, delayed the due election of a new superintendent by the church’s general assembly and prepared to transfer Iványi to a smaller congregation in Miskolc.

Keeping religious conflict within the church by using the church leaderships’ legitimate authority to present and enforce its will – as the Party-State did with the free churches in the 1960s and 1970s – relied on the outward acceptance of this arrangement by those who received orders within the churches. In this way, troublesome open conflict between church and state, which would undermine the latter’s idealistic claims about itself, could be avoided. But when the popularity and vitality of an active and evangelistic group within the Methodist Church threatened the harmony between church leadership and the state, the ÁEH and SZET thought that they could retain the legitimacy of the compliant leadership outside of its usual forms. However, Iványi refused to comply and, in a 9 July 1973 letter to Hecker, told him that, since his term as superintendent had expired, he no longer had the authority to order pastoral transfers.2

The central issue was: who really leads the church? The state wanted to decide who the next leader of the Methodist Church was without being seen to decide, and so, in an October meeting with Iványi, Hecker, and other prominent Methodists, Palotay explained that he did not wish someone who was elected by the Methodists to be denied office, but he insisted on the general assembly taking direction in who they would select. It was a common sleight of hand in this era, but Iványi would not accept the familiar fudge. Firstly, he argued that while the authority of the Party – which Palotay had held to be supreme – was an undeniable fact, it was also the case that the Party had chosen to tie its power to a Constitution that legally guaranteed certain rights. The church would, therefore, be acting within those rights if it elected its leader without outside influence. And this would also be its duty – those electing a new superintendent ought not to be restrained from acting according to their conscience, Iványi continued, reading 2 Corinthians 1:12: For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God.3 One could regard Iványi’s case as a hopeless refusal to accept long-established reality – of course the freedoms contained in the Constitution were subject to whatever meaning the Party-State currently ascribed to them. But he and his supporters were forcing the regime to either conform reality to its claims, or openly contradict them.

And so what started as a point of discussion within discrete meetings of the Methodist leadership, SZET and the ÁEH, ended with police breaking up Sunday services. In March of 1974, Hecker and the Methodist Church suspended Iványi from the pastorate, with SZET confirming the withdrawal of his pastor’s license.4 The church in Nyíregyháza refused to accept the new pastor imposed on them, resulting in the expulsion of the congregation – in the end, more than half of Hungarian Methodist congregations were likewise excluded along with their pastors from communion with the official church. And those that continued to meet in their church premises were evicted. For example, the congregants in Kispest began meeting in the open-air outside their former building after it was taken from them in August 1977, one month before Graham’s arrival. One of its pastors, Ilona Vadászi, had written to Hecker in March 1974, complaining that the superintendent had sided with the ÁEH against the church. Now she too felt this sting. Likewise, on 17 August in Szeged, thirty police officers forcibly removed the pastor and his congregation from the church building.5

Other free churches witnessed similar situations, especially the Adventists, whose president, József Szakács, led the exclusion in 1976 of pastors, including the prominent Oszkár Egervári, as well as whole congregations.6 In this way, they experienced what lay Reformed and Lutheran Christians had known since the late 1940s. In fact, some believers from these traditional churches had then left for free churches in order to escape the new leadership. But it was now clear across all churches, as the writer of a 1978 reportage on the Methodist situation (which appeared in the samizdat Magyar Füzetek) concluded, that the improved relationship between the state and the churches “does not necessarily coincide with a better situation for believers or the growing freedom of conscience”.7

But since church leaders and the regime insisted that what remained in the churches’ sphere of official and approved activity constituted its true calling, there needed to be, particularly after 1956, more than an ideological justification for this. Therefore, church leaders came to proclaim a new theological basis for church life that further divided them from lay believers. Within the Reformed Church, as developed by Bereczky and Bartha, this theology was referred to as the szolgálat-teológia (theology of service); the Lutheran Church, beginning with the leadership of Káldy, imposed a so-called diakónia theology. Both leadership-driven theologies took the importance of Christ-like, loving and humble service – which could not be dismissed – and then employed it to sacralise submission to both the policies and high-minded claims of the Party-State. As historian Joseph Pungur describes it, the “Theology of Service thus took the concept of Christ’s service out of context and generalised its application”.8 Szabó penetratingly summarises it as less of “an elaborated system” and more of “a declarative, quasi-theological way of talk”. While not repeating the incorporation of Marxism within church teaching that had occurred within the Reformed and Lutheran Churches before 1956, the theology of service validated the co-option of the church by the Party-State, and the resulting reduction of its mission, as an act of Christian love.

While the theology of service demanded that Christians be insular and cloistered when it came to spiritual life, their highest calling was to be a useful part of secular society. “The church and within it the members of the congregation have to fight and work for right order in the world”, Bishop Káldy taught in December 1958. This was “political responsibility before God, which originates from love toward the world. This is essentially a part of ‘diaconia worship’ … with all our means we want to help in all the good things our people plan to do in building socialism.” The imperative on Christians to love, in this argument, was contingent upon what the society they were called to love demanded. “There are no eternal ethical norms”, a 1967 instruction of the Reformed Synod explained, “only an eternal commandment of love.” This theology of service or diakónia was, in Haraszti’s explanation, “a philosophy and theology of coexistence and cooperation, limited cooperation for the common good of the nation or for the common good of mankind”.

“In my experience, the propagation of the ‘Diakónia theology’”, Kovács assesses, “was an attempt to disarm the gospel mission and to draw the attention of the believers to charity and humanitarian activity.” This does not mean that he and other lay believers and local pastors did not believe in and administer material help and diaconal ministry – they did – but they regarded such things as the manifestation of spiritual vitality, not its replacement. Furthermore, in the sense of a broader calling of the church toward society, who determined this common good? Within the framework of the theology of service, insisting on eternal spiritual truths in resistance to the demands of the Party-State was an act of selfishness, while cooperation was Christ-like self-abnegation. But, as Baer points out, “Submitting to the will of another is not the same thing as seeking that other’s good”. Even as church leaders spoke about the theology of service as a “renewal of the church”, Szabó observed, “within the community of believers … the theology of service has been considered with suspicion. On the one hand, it is an (ab)usable and abusive collection and compilation of statements that qualifies the relationship between the Church and State in a socialist country. On the other hand, it has no influence on the community of believers.”

Perhaps the greatest reason why the theology of service separated national church leaders from local believers was that the self-sacrifice it preached was, in reality, demanded only of the latter. “If the central submission is to the will of a regime, then this subordination furthers the aims of the regime, which was always rewarded by the regime”, Baer reflects. “Since Káldy’s theology of diaconia helped to assure his own position, while hemming his churchmen within a policy of unrelenting cooperation and friendliness toward a still atheistic state”, he continues, regarding the Lutheran situation, “his ideal of self-abnegation passed the burden on to others who were more exposed while they chose between remaining in the good graces of their church and following the dictates of their Christian conscience as to what they supported and opposed” (italics added). Writing of Bartha and his circle in the Reformed Church, Pungur concludes that they “exercised a two-faced” style of leadership. Within the church, they “showed an autocratic attitude”, while to the outside, “a sympathetic, ‘democratic’ one. This stance contributed to a widening gap between the church leaders and the ministers, elders and congregations whom they were supposed to lead.” Within the free churches, it was the likes of Iványi and Kovács and their congregations whose course led them to self-sacrifice, not the leaders who forced them out. “The middle- and higher-grade office-bearers … are prepared to defend the system against all those grumblers who, it is said, by their perverse views and expectations put in danger the equilibrium of relations between State and Church”, explains Miklós Tomka. But, he adds, “the real opponents of the system are Christian lay people whose religious life has become neither more nor less than a battlefield, precisely because of this vaunted model of the separation of Church and State”.

Ultimately, therefore, the division between church leaders and those they led was a divergence of priorities. The supposed separation of church and state in Communist Hungary had more than ever tied Hungarian churches to the state. Both the theology and praxis of nationwide church leaders in this context became oriented toward the maintenance of a smooth church–state relationship. As a result, both specifically and indirectly, church leaders marginalised resistance and suffering, even as possibilities for the believer – a stance that is impossible to square with orthodox Christian teaching and devotion. Common sense, practicality and realism became the watchwords of church leaders. But “by excluding painful opposition a priori”, writes Baer, “Káldy excluded the possibility of any sort of friction between the church’s mission and the work of socialism”. In Káldy’s words in 1972, “Unfortunately, in the Lutheran Church in Hungary, in the past two decades, numerous pastors and congregation members – those who did not find their place among the new historical surroundings in the socialist society – took up the behaviour of ‘suffering’ in the illusion that with this they were travelling on the path of ’cross-carrying’ that is desired by Jesus”.9 Through his position, Baer summarises, “Káldy mocked the idea that suffering as witness against an anti-Christian political regime has moral significance … he rejected martyrdom as a legitimate moral option for the church in Hungarian socialism”.

No one has the right to tell another, whose plight he has not lived, to be a martyr. And being a denominational leader in this era was, without doubt, an extremely difficult task. One cannot dismiss the genuine goal of preserving the existence of churches, or forget that balancing this against other priorities was fraught with dilemmas, presenting a series of unpalatable options. But we may also not, as many western Christians did at the time, uncritically present the perspective of those who were state-sanctioned leaders – and who told others that they must not be martyrs – as the voice of the Hungarian churches under Communism. There was without question a separation between denominational leaders – including those who invited Billy Graham to Hungary – and the local pastors and lay believers they led. For many believers, suffering for the faith – including lost jobs, harassed children, curtailed ministry, and more – was the only possible and acceptable path.


Ten days after Billy Graham returned to North Carolina from Hungary, Imre Miklós declared his confidence, before the ÁEH annual conference, that any negative consequences of the trip would be counter-balanced, thanks to the preparedness and political steadiness of the loyal church leaders.10 He had good reason, as we have seen, for such assurance. And Graham’s schedule while in Hungary was in line with the aims of the regime. While the media would record open assemblies and a positive impression of church life, the events were intended to be small and contained, with no publicity or fanfare to swell interest. Famous venues and churches, such as the Great Reformed Church (Nagytemplom) in Debrecen, were not made available. And yet, despite the intentions of those whose influence and position had secured the visit, it was the very lay believers and pastors whose voice was lost within church–state relations that made the trip their own. It was their view of Christianity, and their passion for it, that made Graham’s visit not a tour of a Potemkin village, as it could have been, but an affirmation of what was usually suppressed.

As you would expect, it all began with formalities, as Graham’s Saturday afternoon (3 September) arrival at Ferihegy airport was accompanied by statements from both Palotay and Graham, before the visitors were whisked to their accommodation at the Grand Hotel of Margitsziget. But the following morning’s event at the Tahi Baptist camp – which, as we noted earlier, attracted at least twice the expected listeners – set the trip’s tone. There, speaking of repentance, faith and obedience leading to salvation, Graham added, “then you must be willing to take a stand for Christ”. Certainly, he also lavished praise on Palotay for his invitation, and indicated that he wanted to learn from his Christian hosts’ “sense of responsibility within your own social structure” – a pleasing sentiment to the national church leaders. But as János Tomka recalls, “the main message … was to give our whole life to Christ”. Géza Kovács, who was also there, testifies that he and others prayed with people who made a first confession of faith that morning and who have been believers ever since. “We baptised a multitude of people from non-believer backgrounds, who testified about their decision”, Kovács affirms. “Billy Graham’s evangelism convincingly demonstrated the need for such mass evangelisation.”

As it turns out, the Interior Ministry official quoted earlier was right to be concerned. There was nothing remotely political or overtly contradictory to the regime in Graham’s message, but the nature of his ministry at Tahi and over the coming days was congruent not with the official face of the free churches, but with the commitment to gospel vitality that continued to smoulder beneath its surface. Still deprived of a pastor’s license at this time, Kovács was nevertheless preaching weekly at the Baptist church in Budafok, which grew manifold under his ministry. Not only that, in 1977 alone, Kovács fulfilled 24 invitations to carry out evangelistic services – often with young people from the church – both around Hungary and in neighbouring Hungarian communities, including Brassó, Korond, Zilah, Bánffyhunyad, Kolozsvár and Léva.11 It was this kind of covert ministry that Graham brought back into legitimacy and openness at Tahi.

After a short trip upriver to Visegrád, for lunch and sightseeing, Graham was back in the capital by Sunday evening, where at least two thousand filled the sanctuary and courtyard of the modest Nap Street Baptist church to hear another message, after introductions from Palotay, József Nagy, Bartha (representing MEÖT), and the Soviet pastor and President of the European Baptist Federation, Alexei Bychkov. This time, beginning with God’s identification in Exodus 3:14, Graham preached through Jesus’ descriptions of himself, concluding with, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).12 Again in attendance was the young Brethren, János Tomka, who, speaking of the two Sunday events’ impact, reflects on his own “strengthened faith” and the encouragement he received “to stand for the case of Christ and the gospel in every situation”.

On Monday, between a meeting with Jewish leaders at their Síp Street headquarters, near the famous Dohány Street synagogue, and an evening address to a SZET gathering at the Pentecostal church on Gizella Road (Zugló), Graham had an audience with Imre Miklós. On one level, it was a remarkable moment, with the man who controlled churches on behalf of a Communist regime and the world’s most famous American preacher honouring each other, and speaking sympathetically together. With disarming simplicity, Graham shared his conversion story with the minister, while Miklós told of his own journey to Marxist conviction. Despite the admirable courtesies, however, the host was comfortable in the assumption that his was the orienting belief, able to define and limit the other. “I have no quarrels with churches now”, Miklós told Graham, “because they have learned their lesson forced upon them by history.”13

Finally heading east into the traditional heartland of Hungarian Protestantism, Graham went to Debrecen on Tuesday. After stopping on the way at Hortobágy national park for a display of Hungarian horsemanship and a goulash lunch, he visited the Reformed Theological College in Debrecen before preaching in the evening at the Baptist church. As many as two thousand crammed inside and outside of the small chapel on Szappanos Road to hear Graham deliver a sermon entitled “Jesus Only” from Luke 4:16–22.14 He was back in Budapest the next morning to meet with the full gamut of MEÖT-affiliated Hungarian denominational leaders, after which he travelled south to the city of Pécs. There he was received by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Pécs, József Cserháti, for a wide-ranging discussion on religion and society. Again, as night fell, the local Baptist church (Bokor Street) overflowed, as Graham spoke about the healing of blind Bartimaeus, who cried out “Son of David, have mercy on me” when Jesus walked by. “How can you live as a believer in an atheist state?” Graham had asked the Baptist pastor Sándor Gerzsenyi in his home before the service. “Personally, this was not a problem”, Gerzsenyi explained, “because I always accepted the disadvantages and humiliations for my Redeemer, Christ.”15

From Bishop’s palace to local pastor’s home; this was a characteristic incongruity of Graham’s trip, as was Thursday’s schedule. The diplomatic background came into view when Graham met that day with György Aczél – a Politburo member, the key figure on cultural affairs, and a close confidant of Kádár. Bringing President Carter’s personal greetings to Kádár, Graham raised the most pressing diplomatic issues – MFN status and the return of the Holy Crown. Both were well on their way to resolution, with bilateral Hungarian–US relations deepening as they had been since the second Nixon administration. By the time that Graham arrived in Hungary, his presence was more evidence of progress than a means of it, with only the details of how Hungary would exhibit the Holy Crown (as well NSA Brzezinski’s reservations) delaying a definitive American decision on that matter. The newly-arrived US ambassador, Philip Kaiser, had been assured in August that Hungary would abide by the Carter administration’s conditions of a public and non-political display, which Aczél also reiterated to Graham. By the time Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Kaiser met with Hungarian Foreign Minister Frigyes Puja on 1 October, they could confirm the return, which finally took place in January 1978 – six months later Hungary officially gained MFN status. Although the impact of Graham’s visit on both developments has been exaggerated, Kaiser, who hosted Graham after his meeting with Aczél, could report two days later that the preacher’s trip had “exceeded his expectations”, and had been a “highly valuable event in bilateral relations”.16 But before meeting with plenipotentiaries and Politburo members, Graham had in the morning been amongst theology students, at the joint ceremony opening the new academic year for SZET’s Theological Institute and the Baptist Theological Seminary. “If you trim your gospel to suit the modern world”, he told them, “you lose the modern world”, because today’s intractable worldwide problems have deepened a hunger that can only be met through a clear and holistic proclamation of the gospel. “The church exists”, Graham concluded, paraphrasing a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, “for those who are not yet its members.”17

As if fulfilling that thought, on Friday morning Graham visited the large Tungsram light bulb factory in Újpest. It had been a request of the preacher, who, as he professed, had its light bulbs in his home and wanted to see their origin. Throughout the trip, Graham had been accompanied by a small entourage, including the African-American pastor and singer, Archie Dennis. And so perhaps the most extraordinary scene of the trip unfolded, with Dennis silencing the busy factory with his songs and Graham adding some impromptu remarks on “the light of the world”. In the evening, he returned to the Nap Street church for the final sermon, in which he returned to an eternal perspective. This was what, at root, made Graham’s preaching genuinely cross-cultural – for all the overt anti-Communism in his early career, and the pro forma acknowledgements of the regime on this trip, he did not believe that the human status quo was either lasting or satisfactory anywhere in the world, east or west. That is the prophetic perspective of Christianity through the ages. God does not change in his holiness and love, Graham told the congregation, but humans should, in repentance, faith and confession. From his text in Hebrews, Graham read that there will be a “removing of what can be shaken … so that what cannot be shaken may remain” (Heb. 12:27).18

“We found a vital, deep commitment to Christ”, Graham said at a press conference after the trip, “on the part of thousands of Hungarian Christians.” As Haraszti had also reflected, “there are many people who are hungry for the gospel”. Particularly noteworthy to Graham was the presence of so many young people at his events. And this was indeed consistent with a renewal from below in the churches, as Miklós Tomka describes it, led by the young in small Christian communities.19 One of those young people, János Tomka,20 remembered that, in addition to the personal impact, “Christian communities received a major encouragement to stand firm”, contributing to his own Brethren Church denomination, which was experiencing “its most flourishing times around this period”.

“In my experience, missionary activity did not depend on external circumstances or the attitude of denominational leadership”, Géza Kovács insists, “but always and everywhere on the fact that the Holy Spirit resides with us in power.” Whether or not you believe this, one thing we should all acknowledge is that the course of human affairs does not proceed in a neat formula, by which the intentions of the powerful followed by their deeds produce the intended results. It is the central mistake of an overly-conspiratorial approach to history that it always tacitly assumes the omnipotence of our passing regimes. Totalitarian states have a great impact on the nations and societies they rule, but their ability to determine reality ever trails behind their pretensions. And the church–state policies of the Hungarian Communist regime were no different.

It was not the governments of Hungary or the United States – or even the national church leadership, with their coerced focus on church–state relations – whose priorities were affirmed and whose plans were ultimately met, by the visit of Billy Graham to Hungary in 1977. Beyond and despite regime motivations and machinations, it was the lay Christians who flocked to these events in their thousands, recording them and disseminating them, whose unofficial and spiritual desires, from Pest to Pécs, were fed and advanced.


1 “Iványi Tibor beszámolója a SZET tagegyházai és az ÁEH közötti megbeszélésről” [Tibor Iványi’s account of the discussion between member churches of the SZET and the ÁEH] (15 May 1973):

2 “Iványi Tibor azt közli Hecker Ádámmal, hogy szuperintendensi tisztét vákánsnak tekinti, és a lelkészáthelyezési terveit nem fogadja el” [Tibor Iványi informs Ádám Hecker that he considers his position as superintendent vacant and refuses to accept his transfer plans] (9 July 1973): See webpage above.

3 “Megbeszélés Palotay Sándor, a SZET elnöke jelenlétében a szuperintendens-választás kérdéséről” [Discussion in the presence of Sándor Palotay, president of the SZET about the election of a new superintendent] (29 October 1973): See webpage above.

4 Starting that month, the ÁEH also began to use the publication of an allegedly “politically objectionable” poem, entitled Csodálatos országban [In a wonderful country], of Iványi’s in a German journal as a further pretext for action against him. According to Iványi, the poem, which had been written in 1964, was authored by his wife and neither of them had submitted it for publication.

5 Eventually, in 1981, the ÁEH recognised the excluded Methodist congregations, collectively, as a new denomination, the Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség. Today, it is led by Tibor Iványi’s son, Gábor.

6 Dániel Fehér [Gábor Iványi], “Kitaszított adventisták” [Outcast Adventists], Beszélő, 4/2 (September 1982):

7 “12 metodista lelkész nyilatkozatának háttere” [The background of the declaration of 12 Methodist pastors], Magyar Füzetek (No. 2, 1978):

8 Joseph Pungur, “Doing Theology in Hungary: Liberation or Adaptation”, Religion, State and Society (Vol. 21, No. 1, 1993).

9 Baer, 115.

10 Rajki, “Billy Graham 1977”.

11 In Romanian, the first five places are known as Brașov, Corund, Zalău, Huedin and Cluj, while the sixth is known in Slovak as Levice.

12 “Sermon 1295”, BGCA:

13 Haraszti, “Billy Graham’s Ministry in Hungary as Seen by His Interpreter”.

14 “Sermon 1288”, BGCA:

15 “Sermon 1298”, BGCA:

16 Email from Sándor Gerzsenyi (8 August 2018).

17 “Memorandum from the Executive Secretary of the Department of State to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs” (22 September 1977): frus1977-80v20/d146.

18 “Sermon 1289”, BGCA:

19 “Sermon 1290”, BGCA:

20 Tomka, Church, State, and Society in Eastern Europe, 118.

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