Very often, thinking about the Hungarian Unitarian Church of the period between XIX and XX century, we tend to see it as a fundamental historical Institution, cradle of our Faith, living in harsh difficulties due to geographic, ethnic and politic conditions and deeply in need of help from the sister Churches of the Anglo-Saxon world.
This vision is, generally speaking, surely correct but it ends up by hiding the fact that, in the period under examination and as far as possible in the problematic economic situation it was living, the Hungarian Unitarian Church tried at its best to be also a missionary Church, helping the newly-born Unitarian Institutions of other countries.
An evidence of this effort is given by an interesting historical document showing how the Hungarian Unitarian Church participated to the effort to root a Unitarian community in Norway at the beginning of the XX century.
We are speaking about a letter, dated September 29, 1909, from the Unitarian Bishop of Kolozsvar Joseph Ferencz to the Pastor of the Norwegian Unitarian Church Herman Haugerud. After having been for a long time in possess of the former Norwegian minister Knut Ksm Heidelberg, the letter is now conserved in the archive of the Rev. Sandor Leta from Budapest and has come to my attention thanks to the investigations of the Rev. Roberto Rosso from Turin.
The text of the document is rather short but really meaningful.
“Kolozsvar 29th Sept. 1909
Rev. Dear Sir,
I read with great pleasure your letter, in which you told me that you would readily accept the 1000 crowns, offered from the part of the Hungarian Unitarian Churches for the expences of erecting a new Unitarian chapel in Christiania. I forward to-day this sum by a bank at Kolozsvar to you, whose address I handed over to it. I hope the money will reach you safely very soon. May it serve for a tie of that brotherly feeling, that connects us to you and undoubtedly you to us, and which tie has been kept up between our English and American brethren for many years now in regards to the cause of our common aim and endeavor in spreading by Unitarianism brighter and more liberal religious ideas.
With kindest regards I am
Yours very truly
Bishop of the Hungarian Unitarian Churches”[i]
To understand its importance, we must step back to have a look to the conditions of the Hungarian Unitarian Church and of the Norwegian Unitarian Church in the first decade of 1900.
In relation to the Hungarian Unitarian Church we must remember that, at the time, it had undergone to very complicated events for almost a century.
Even after the Compromise (1867), apparently solving the long-lasting dispute between Austria and Hungary, the Austrian government’s efforts to weaken the Protestants continued, and they were especially targeted against the Unitarians. In particular, the Unitarian Denomination was still in a deep economic suffering as a consequence of the so-called “schools dispute”. In brief, since 1856 the Austrian government, as a part of its policy to germanize Hungary, had determined to remodel the schools and colleges of Transylvania on the pattern of those of Austria, ordering a large increase in the number of teachers employed and a considerable augmentation of the salaries paid or the closing of the schools. The Unitarians owned and managed a high number of Sunday-Schools and of Lyceums but the requirements of the government were set so high that the little Unitarian Church, impoverished by recent economic conditions, could not meet them and risked to be forced to pass its schools to the control of the State, with the result to see its cultural heritage extinct under Catholics teachers. The demanded amounted to over $70,000 while the total Unitarian population of
Transylvania was less than 50,000: with incredible sacrifice in subscriptions and assessments, supplemented by mortgaging their very homes, the Unitarians managed to collect a certain amount but it was still not enough and they had to appeal for help from their brethren in England and America. The British and Foreign Unitarian Association in London and the Executive Committee of the American Unitarian Association presented the appeal to all their churches and, although not much was raised in USA, were people were living a terrible economic crisis, the English Congregations could raise some £1,230, which were taken by the Secretary of the B.F.U.A. to Kolozsvar in August 1858. Although the full governmental demands were not met, yet the payment was accepted and the Hungarian Unitarian schools were saved, though the costs of the whole operation bore upon the Hungarian Unitarians for the following half century. Possibly, the only good sides of this event were that it forced all the Confessions to ignore their mutual differences attaching greater importance to their common heritage as Hungarians (which, after the Compromise, led to a growth of the Unitarians by some 25,000 members) and that the interest in the Transylvanian churches aroused in England so that arrangements were made to bring promising students, who had hitherto been going to German Universities for advanced study, to study under Unitarian auspices in England. This last result was quite fundamental: as years went on, relations between Hungarian and English and American Unitarians grew closer, having a sort of apogee in 1910, in the common celebrations to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Dávid’s birth.
With the beginning of the XX century the Hungarian Unitarian Church looked like being more and more wealthy, possessing entire freedom in religion and full equality with the other confessions, with its members eligible to public honors and offices, with 42 excellent intermediate parish schools, three well-staffed academies, and one prosperous college with a theological school attached. Mainly the Church had obtained increasing endowment funds and state subsidies to churches and schools[ii].
It was, therefore (and before the catastrophe of the I World War), time for the Hungarian Unitarian Church to try to give to foreign Churches the same kind of help they had received from its Anglo-Saxon brethren in a moment of extreme difficulty. And the Hungarian Unitarian Church, in the person of its Bishop Joseph Ferencz, didn’t step back.
Ferencz was, indeed, a great leader and deserves to be better known.
Born in Alparéten in 1935 and died in Cluj in 1928, in his 93 years of life the Bishop witnessed some of the fundamental events we have been speaking about. Graduated in Kolozsvar College in 1855, in the period in which the “schools dispute” was already dawning, he then moved to study in Göttingen and at the University of Berlin, traveled to the Netherlands, to Belgium and to France and, in early 1859, went to study in London for a few months.
It was, probably, this early international experience, during which he had the possibility to see the enthusiasm aroused abroad by the idea of an helping network among all the Unitarian Institutions, to shape his future actions. It is not by chance that, after having been a teacher in Kolozsvar for many years and once elected Bishop in 1876, one of his first worries was to increase church employees’ wages for foreign relations, that all along his service as a Bishop he fought to tear the dogmatic walls among Denominations down and that, in 1886, he decided that the Hungarian Unitarian Church had to take part to the just born “Protestant Literary Society” founding, not to mention his continuous support to the relations with the Anglo-American Unitarians (he was, incidentally, a close friend of James Martineau) as also shown by the large participation of British and American Unitarian authorities to the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of David’s death (1879) and of the 400th anniversary of David’s birth (1910)[iii].
In this frame, it is not so surprising that the Bishop took interest also in new attempts to create Unitarian Institutions in foreign countries.
Unfortunately, we have just one single letter of a very probably much longer correspondence between Ferencz and Haugerud but it would be hazardous not to think about other relations between the Bishop and other foreign Church leaders.
By the way, who was Haugerud and which was the situation of the Norwegian Unitarian Church deserving the attention of the Bishop?
The Church of Norway had had, since its foundation, a sort of singular reference figure, the poet-minister Kristofer Janson. Licensed in Theology from the University of Christiania, he had traveled extensively in Europe and, upon his return to Norway, he had become popular as a teacher and author, so much to be invited for a series of lectures in United States in 1879. The success of his lectures was so large that, the following year, his friend Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (later Nobel prize for literature) invited him, while he was on holiday in Rome, to become pastor for the Norwegian settlements in Minnesota. Janson accepted and, while serving in USA, he got in contact to Unitarism and was ordained pastor in a ceremony which took place in 1881 in the “Third Unitarian Church” in Chicago. After serving as minister and hymn books writer in Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota and in Underwood, Brown County and Hudson in Wisconsin, in Fall 1891 the relation between Janson and his wife entered in a definitive crisis and he decided to go back to Norway, which happened in 1893. Once back in Norway, Janson started a big tour of lectures, many of which were devoted to the exposition of Unitarian ideas, encouraging «all open-minded people to establish a Church», and, a few months later, this brought to the birth of the first seed of the Norwegian Unitarian church, called «Church of Brotherhood».
Born as Janson’s creature, the life of the church very soon took an independent path from his famous father whose “patronage” was, by the way, mainly a source of difficulties for the new institution, both for the divorce between him and his wife (which, at the time, created a big scandal in Oslo) and for the proximity of Janson to spiritualism that often made his preaching something spurious. The Church went on existing but it was not recognized as a Christian church by the Norwegian Parliament and, although in 1896 the first Unitarian wedding was celebrated and in 1898 the first Confirmation ceremony took place, little by little the spiritualist position of Janson increased his conflict with the congregational members, so much that, in 1898, he was forced to leave the leadership of the Church, which, soon afterwards, took the simple name of Unitarian Church (led by the Unitarian Society). At that time Census tells us that only 88 Unitarians lived in Christiania and Janson’s defection was surely a big issue for the Congregation: some people left it to follow him, but the majority of the members decided to continue their Unitarian path in a more balanced way, moving towards a sort of Unitarian religious humanism.
Naturally they needed a new pastor and this is the reason for which they called pastor Herman Haugerud back from USA, offering him to lead the Congregation. Born in Christiania in 1864 and soon addressed towards a scientific career, he had had his Unitarian vocation at the age of 22, deciding, therefore, to move to USA to complete his religious education. In 1886 he had got enrolled at Meadville Theological School, where he had met Janson, under whose influence he had studied till his ordination on the 3rd December 1890. Immediately he had began to serve in a local Congregation in Puyallup, Washington, which he had left in 1892, willing to complete his studied at Harvard. After obtaining his Doctorate, Haugerud had served again in some American Congregations (including the former Congregation of Janson in Minneapolis), till the moment in which he had been asked to return to Oslo to succeed Janson in leading the Unitarian Society.
A Unitarian of the time, Hans Østerholt, editor of the Social Democratic satire magazine «The Wasp», traced a sketch of Hugerung in his autobiography: «Unfortunately, Haugerud did not have Janson’s warm, captivating ability as a speaker, and furthermore, he lacked the necessary strength of personality to bring people together» (it is probably not without a sense that Østerholt himself rejoined the State church in 1933, although still considering himself a Unitarian in belief). Moreover Haugerud arrived to Oslo Congregation in a period of big conflict: for the first two years (1904-1905) Haugerud and Janson led services in town at the same time but in different places and this surely didn’t help the new minister. In a way we can say that Haugerud’s ministry effectively started only in 1905, when Janson stopped leading Unitarian meetings following a different path. Being the only Unitarian pastor and the leader of the Unitarian Society, Haugerud established good contacts with the American Unitarians, receiving some tools from the A.U.A. (books and Congregational items) and managed to have 12 new members. In December 1905, in order to give a future to his Congregation, the pastor tried to encourage the creation of a Unitarian Youth Organization, which, anyway, had a quite short life (only six months). In the period 1906-1907 we know of about 100 regular members of the Society, of a calendar of regular services attended by more or less 200 people and of the creation by Haugerud of a magazine called «The Unitarian» (lasting only few months).
In the best period of the Congregation, around 1908-1909, the Church Board planned to build a church building for its services and sent Haugerud to England in order to collect the money for the construction. During his journey, Haugerud took part to a Sunday Evening Service at Clarence Road Unitarian Church (March 14, 1908) but the founds he collected looked like being not sufficient and the project of the Church drove aground[iv].
It is exactly at this time that the intervention of the Hungarian Unitarian Church became fundamental. Considering that a Krona had, at the moment of its birth in 1905, a value of 0,42032 grams of pure gold[v], we can now approximately calculate the value of the gift of Bishop Ferencz to Haugerud’s Church in something close to $16,750, an incredible amount of money if we consider it was coming from a Denomination which was just starting to heal from one of the worst financial crisis of its history.
Actually, the missionary gift of the Hungarian Unitarian Church allowed Haugerud to build his church but unfortunately the building of a meeting place was not sufficient to give new life to an Institution which, in spite of the work of its minister to keep it alive and to create international relations for it (in particular with The British & Foreign Unitarian Association) had a very low growth rate. Haugerud went on keeping services in his church till his death in 1937 but, after this last event, the Congregation progressively faded away, the church building was taken over by the Lutheran Church (1947) and, by 1950, only 17 Unitarians got recorded in the State Census Register all over Norway.
This result doesn’t deprive anything from the importance of one of the most important and generous foreign missionary acts of the Hungarian Unitarian Church in its troublesome XX century history, an act a single, short letter allows us to remember with admiration today.
[ii] About the history of the Hungarian Unitarian Church in the period: E.M. Wilbur, A HISTORY OF UNITARIANISM, Volume II, Berkeley U.P. 1952. pp. 88-98 passim
[iii] About Bishop Ferencz, a short biography can be found in: M. Kelemen, FERENCZ JÓZSEF ERDÉLYI UNITÁRIUS PÜSPÖK KORA ÉS MUNKÁSSÁGA, MAGYAR EGYHÁZTÖRTÉNETI VÁZLATOK REGNUM 2003/1-2 számában
[iv] About the History of the Norwegian Unitarian Church: F. Hale, UNITARIAN ORIGINS IN NORWAY DURING THE 1890S AND EARLY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Stellenboch University 2004, passim