Debrecen and the movement of Reformation
Debrecen is often referred to as „the Hungarian Geneva” or „the Calvinist Rome” because of its strong links to the Reformed Church. The close relationship between the city and the church is also indicated by the fact that Debrecen’s coat of arms serves today (with slight changes) also as the symbol of the Hungarian Reformed community. The mutual use of the same coat of arms became possible due to the theological message of its heraldic elements, since both the Phoenix and the Lamb and Flag are well-known symbols of Christ in fine arts. The meaning of the two central images was explained by a Latin poem on the wall of the old Great Church.
The teachings of Reformation became widespread in the Hungarian Kingdom during the decades of crisis that followed the Battle of Mohács (1526). After the initial conversion of German-speaking towns in Northern Hungary and Transylvania, the new movement became more and more popular in the Hungarian-speaking areas, too. The strengthening of Reformation in Debrecen dates back to the 1550s and ’60s, with such leading figures as Márton Sánta Kálmáncsehi and Péter Juhász Melius.
Márton Sánta Kálmáncsehi had earlier served as a canon and a headmaster in Gyulafehérvár, but from the second half of the 1540s he worked as a pastor representing the Helvetian Reformation in Mezőtúr and Sátoraljaújhely. He moved to Debrecen in 1551. Due to his efforts, the religious movements in the city became unified. He edited a Hungarian hymn-book and organized synods for the pastors working in the area with the purpose of spreading the Helvetian Reformation. He suffered so serious attacks because of his goals that in 1554 he even had to escape from Debrecen for a short time. However, as a result of his efforts, the bishopric of Várad accepted the Helvetian doctrine concerning the Holy Communion. Péter Juhász Melius, who had previously pursued theological studies at the University of Wittenberg among other institutions, became a pastor of Debrecen in 1558. His theological views were already close to those of the Swiss Bullinger and Calvin by that time. He participated at the synod of Marosvásárhely in 1559, which declared the separation of the new Transylvanian Reformed Church from the Lutheran Church of the Transylvanian Saxons. As a successor of Kálmáncsehi, he was elected as the leading pastor of Debrecen, than as the first bishop of the Transtibiscan Reformed Church district. In a succession of heated disputes, he defended the Trinitarian doctrine against the Antitrinitarian movement led by Ferenc Dávid, which became more and more widespread in the Northern and Transtibiscan areas. The 1567 synod of Debrecen played a crucial role in the stabilization of the Reformed Church. The representatives of the dioceses rejected the teachings of Antitrinitarianism in two confessions written in Latin and Hungarian, endorsed the Second Helvetic Confession, and laid down the basic rules, principles and regulations of the new church.
Besides the important role he played in the organization of the newly established Reformed Church, Melius had been the author of numerous literary works. His oeuvre includes volumes of sermons, a prayer book, a hymn-book, an agenda, a catechism, Biblical books translated into Hungarian, confessions, and even a botanical manual. Bishop Melius died in 1572 in Debrecen. His former house served as the parsonage of the reformed pastors of Debrecen for centuries.
Gál Huszár arrived to the city at the invitation of Melius. In 1561, he founded the predecessor of the Debrecen printing house (now called Alföld Printing house), which has functioned from the beginning until today without a break.
In the 16th and 17th century, the printing shop run by the city and the Reformed Church together produced the highest number of publications written in Hungarian, whose majority served the spiritual needs of the Reformed Church. (Bibles, hymn-books, prayer books, school textbooks, catechisms.)
The pulpit of the Great Church, from which, since Kálmáncsehi and Melius, sermons were delivered in Hungarian, the printing house of Gál Huszár, and the College founded in 1538 created together the Reformed image of the city of Debrecen that is palpable even today.
In the cooperation of the city and the church the latter one carried out spiritual and educational functions, while the city took care of the local congregation and the school. The secular local leaders, following the Biblical laws, behaved as strict guardians of the townsmen’s morals and family life, warning everybody to temperance. As historical facts suggest, the merchants and master craftsmen, who comprised the elite of the local community, lived their everyday life also as devout Christians. You can learn more about the social and economic history of the city from the permanent exhibition of the Déri Museum, which also displays typical objects from the past centuries.
From the Age of Reformation, Debrecen became the spiritual and intellectual centre of Hungarian Protestantism. Sadly, you cannot take a look at the buildings left behind from this prominent era, since the 1802 great fire destroyed Debrecen’s architectural heart. Thus, the buildings of the Gothic Great Church and the Reformed College had to be demolished and completely reconstructed. Nevertheless, the Reformation and its still palpable influence is commemorated by several spectacular sites of memory.
Let’s take an imaginary tour and visit the most important sites of the Reformed collective memory in the most densely populated city of the Great Hungarian Plain, which is referred to as – among several other metaphorical names – the “city of the Phoenix”. It was the image of the phoenix that decorated Debrecen’s coat of arms in the document declaring its “free royal town” status in 1693, and we can see the same image today on the elaborate mosaic in the middle of the city’s main square. The mythical bird that arises from its ashes symbolizes the vitality of the civitas, which has always been capable of renewal after the devastating fires and other ruinous event.
Debrecen, the City of Reformation Walking Tour:
- Reformed Great Church
- Old City Hall
- Lycium tree
- Former Consistorial House
- Memorial Garden
- Reformed College
- Reformed Little Church (Broken Church)
- Former Infirmary
- Lutheran Church
- Dóczy High School of the Reformed College
- Former Reformed Grand Grammar School
- Kossuth Street Reformed Church
- Szabadságtelep Reformed Church
- University of Debrecen
- Déri Museum