The Reformation movement reached Hungary in the 16th century. By the middle of the century large parts of Hungary had joined the Reformation, especially the eastern part where the population enjoyed the protection of the princes of Transylvania. Though Lutheran in its initial inspiration, the movement came under Calvinist influence; the churches adopted Presb polity. In the 17th century the movement was severely repressed through the combined efforts of the Hapsburg dynasty and the RCath hierarchy. The work of the Counter-Reformation culminated in Archbishop Szelepcsényi’s “Bloody Tribunal” in Bratislava (1673). Catholicism was ruthlessly reimposed all over the country. Pastors were forced to renounce their faith, many were expelled, and some sold as galley-slaves.
Repression did not end until the end of the 18th century. The Diet of 1790-1791 granted Prot basic civil rights. The Reformed Church suffered further reprisals, however, after the War of Independence (1848-1849). Finally, the Agreement of 1867 set the pattern for church-state relations until the end of World War II (1945).
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Presb system was developed; elders held a dominant position in the life of the congr. The synod of 1881 laid the basis for the Constitution, which, with additions, is still in force today. One of the church’s particularities is the retention of the office of bishop, though the position carries administrative rather than hierarchical authority.
After both World Wars Hungarian-speaking territories were distributed to neighboring states. Hungarian-speaking churches can be found in the following countries: Croatia, Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. There is also a large Diaspora around the world. In 1995 a (consultative) Synod of Hungarian-speaking churches was formed.
After World War II Hungary came under Communist rule. In 1948 Marxist- Leninist ideology, with its strong antireligious basis, became the official position of the regime. Though freedom of conscience was officially guaranteed, the churches came under tight government control. Church institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) were confiscated and religious life confined within church walls. While there was courageous resistance by individuals, the church generally sought to survive by working together with the authorities. A new era began in 1989. After the first democratic elections in 1990, the parliament passed a constitutional law guaranteeing the enactment of freedom of conscience and religion. Many properties were returned to the churches.
The Reformed Church of Hungary now has the immense task of grasping those new opportunities offered to her today in a society which is deeply affected by secularization. In many fields new initiatives have been launched —in the field of evangelism (e.g.,evangelistic work among the gypsies), education (e.g.,church schools), and social work. The text of a new church constitution is under consideration. The church works closely with other Prot churches, in particular through the Ecumenical Council of Hungarian churches (founded in 1943). As a result of the new religious freedom, the country is also exposed to an influx of foreign missionaries sent by various religious groups and sects.