The Inseparability Of Church & State – Kossuth’s Chair In Debrecen (For The Love of Hungary Part 20)

As an American I had always been taught that the separation of church and state was sacrosanct. It was one of the defining differences between the United States and Europe. This became apparent to me when I first started visiting churches in Hungary. In almost every one of them, the Hungarian flag could be found flying in a prominent place. The relationship was explicit, the church was an integral part of the state and vice versa. Four decades of communist rule may have eroded the religiosity of Hungarians, but the relationship of church intertwined with state had been returned to its historical role in 1989. This relationship was inviolable, but also paradoxical. That was because I found Hungarian churches almost always empty. The few times I witnessed a service, the church would be largely devoid of parishioners. Nonetheless, the Hungarian flag was proudly flying among all the other usual religious trappings.

Kossuth's Chair - In the Great Reformed Church of Debrecen

Kossuth’s Chair – In the Great Reformed Church of Debrecen (Credit: Andreas Poeschek)

An Empty Chair – Kossuth Takes A Stand
The most poignant example of the interconnection between church and state I found in Hungary was at Debrecen’s Great Reformed Church. In addition to being a House of God, it has also acted as a House of History. The church is home to one of the more unique and exalted historical artifacts to be found anywhere in the country. Placed up against one of the white washed walls of the interior is a rather simple chair. Its frame is made of polished wood with a burgundy cushion adorned with a circular wreath of flowers covering the seat. The chair looks like the kind of set piece one might expect to find in an exhibition of Biedermeier inspired furnishings, but this is no ordinary chair. It is known as the Kossuth Chair because on April 14, 1849, Lajos Kossuth sat in this chair at the Great Reformed Church on a momentous day in Hungarian history.

The Hungarian government had been forced earlier in the year to flee from Pest due to the Austrian army’s occupation of the city. Now Kossuth was prepared to make a historic pronouncement in Debrecen’s most famous building. The church was packed with a capacity crowd that spilled out its doors and into the immediate surroundings. They were there for an open session of parliament. When Kossuth rose to speak the audience fell silent. He then made a statement that has become known as the Hungarian Declaration of Independence. His pronouncements can best be summed up by the words that due to their behavior in Hungary the “House of Habsburg has forfeited the throne.”

This declaration was met with roars of approval, but the cheers were deceptive. While a motion was approved by parliament, one-third of the lower house was not present and only twenty-eight members of the upper house were there. Many in Hungary either disagreed with Kossuth’s course of action or were ambivalent. On the other hand, Kossuth took a risk that sealed his place in history. It also helped seal the fate of Hungary. Later that same year Hungarian independence collapsed as its military forces were overwhelmed by the Austrians who were by then supplemented by an influx of Tsarist Russian forces. Kossuth fled the country never to return. The chair at the Great Reformed Church became part of his legacy. A chair that has remained empty ever since that time.

Kossuth makes his case - Declaring independence

Kossuth makes his case – Declaring independence

The Ghost That Haunts – Invisible Forces
I found Kossuth’s Chair to be one of the more fascinating artifacts I have come across in my travels across Hungary. The chair was left unsecured, up against a wall where anyone could approach it. The fact that it was not in the Hungarian National Museum, even though it was certainly worthy of an exalted spot there, made the chair’s presence that much more powerful. To see an artifact in the same place where it became part of history is a relatively rare experience. Rarer still is the ability to stand within arm’s length of such an artifact without anything or anyone standing between viewer and object. Regardless of one’s opinion of Kossuth, the chair is an excellent stand in for his historical presence. It gives the moment he gave voice to Hungarian independence a certain permanency. Though the chair is empty, Kossuth’s ghost haunts the church. Just as he haunts the history of a valiant yet failed attempt at revolution.

Kossuth’s speech is the most famous of a surprisingly long list of political activities that took place within the church. Political turbulence in Hungary often found its way into the Great Reformed Church and the nearby Reformed College during the first half of the 20th century. In the chaotic aftermath of World War I, Romanian troops occupied Debrecen for eleven months. When they were finally ready to leave, the troops were marshaled in front of the Great Reformed Church and from there marched out of town. A month later, the man who would lead Hungary during the interwar era, Regent Miklos Horthy was greeted upon his arrival in Debrecen with a ceremony in the church.

When the Horthy regime was swept aside during World War II, the German authorities took over much of the nearby Reformed College. That occupation was short lived as the Germans were usurped by the Soviets who proceeded to use both the college and church for their own purposes. In December 1944, the Provisional National Assembly overseen by the Soviets met in the church. Debrecen had once again provided a home for the Hungarian government, but as in 1849, not for long. Time and again, the Great Reformed Church and Reformed College were recalcitrant participants in Hungary’s tumultuous 20th century history.

In the shadows of history - The Great Reformed Church with Kossuth statue

In the shadows of history – The Great Reformed Church with Kossuth statue

A Consequence Of History – The Declaration Of Independence
Today, the Great Reformed Church plays a more spiritual role in Hungarian life. The memorable political events of the past two centuries that took place within its walls are gone, but not forgotten. Kossuth’s chair stands as a testament to more turbulent times, when Hungary was searching to regain its independence. An independence that they would eventually recover. Kossuth’s declaration was a major, but also misleading step on the road to that recovery. That it took place within the white washed walls of the Great Reformed Church was not a coincidence, but a consequence of Hungarian history. One where church and state is inextricably intertwined.

“It Used To Be Way Worse” – Debrecen: The Tales Of Three English Travelers (For The Love of Hungary Part 19)

Debrecen, for me the city’s name provokes two immediate thoughts. The first is of the Great Reformed Church, that soaring neo-classical symbol of a city that has come to be called the “Calvinist Rome”. The other, is Debrecen’s less than compelling reputation as a forlorn city on the frontiers of eastern Hungary. The words “forlorn” and “Debrecen” stir memories of a story I heard about a visitor to the city several years ago. It was told to me by an Englishman who now lived in Budapest and was discussing his low opinion of the city. Debrecen was of mutual interest to us because we had both married women who were from there. Each of us had spent a considerable amount of time in the city. My English acquaintance prefaced his story by stating that he found the city ultra-boring. He said that his father, who lived in a drab suburban village on the far outskirts of London, came to Debrecen for his wedding. The father had hardly ever traveled much outside of Great Britain, thus he had little idea of what to expect. After spending the better part of a week in Debrecen, he told his son that the experience gave him a better appreciation of where he lived in England.

Prior to his visit, he had always thought his home village was rather stale and sleepy, but Debrecen took boredom to a whole other level. There was nothing to do or see after a day in the city. He nearly went stir-crazy with cabin fever while sitting in a hotel room for what seemed like weeks rather than days. Like most people, he likely did not have the will or fortitude to seek out some of Debrecen’s lesser known attractions. And why would he? The language was unintelligible and the city’s history a subject for which he had zero knowledge. The greater truth for this man, like many other visitors, is that once they sample the delights of Debrecen’s main thoroughfare, Piac utca (Market Square) and the surrounding Belvaros (Inner city) there is not much to see, especially if you do not have a native speaker as a guide. For me, the most interesting aspect of this Englishman’s story was that his less than stellar opinion of Debrecen aligned with those of a couple of his fellow countrymen who visited the city hundreds of years before him.

Pre-modern Debrecen - Artistic rendering of citizens at a market in the town

Pre-modern Debrecen – Artistic rendering of citizens at a market in the town

Far Flung & Forlorn – Obscure Magic On The Hungarian Frontier
Robert Townson grew up in the latter part of the 18th century. He hailed from a town that was part of the greater city of London. Townson was an English natural scientist by trade, as well as something of a polymath who happened to also be a curious traveler. He specialized in medicine and mineralogy. In 1793 Townson traveled to Hungary on an expedition, where among other things, he explored the High Tatra mountains in what was then Upper Hungary (present- day Slovakia). He wrote in detail about his travels, not only in the mountains, but also across much of Hungary. During that trip, Townson passed through Debrecen. To say that he was not impressed with what he found would be an understatement.

In his book Travels in Hungary Townson stated: “To what circumstance Debretzin (sic) owes its existence I don’t know; nor can I divine what can have induced thirty thousand people to select a country destitute of springs, rivers, building materials, fuel and the heart cheering vine, for their residence. Debretzin, though it has the title and privileges of a town, must be considered as a village; and then it is perhaps the greatest village in Europe. But should it be considered as a town, it is one of the worst, though its inhabitants are not the poorest.”

Townson’s description focuses on the frontier aspects of the city, making it sound like what it was, an oversized urban island mysteriously situated in a rural hinterland. Reading Townson’s description, one gets the feeling that Debrecen somehow appeared on the Great Hungarian Plain. Not so much out of nowhere, as in the middle of nowhere. As if by some obscure magic it had arisen out of the dusty and alkali ridden soil with nothing to recommend it. A sort of baffling miracle, just as featureless as the landscape it was set within. Townson was not the only Englishman to feel that Debrecen was far flung and forlorn.

Robert Townson - Author of Travels in Hungary

Robert Townson – Author of Travels in Hungary (Credit: Augustus Earle)

The Largest Village In Europe – A Liquid Mass Of Mud
John Paget was an English agriculturist who married into Transylvanian aristocracy. He then lived on an estate owned by his ethnic Hungarian wife in Transylvania. This was where he perfected several notable agricultural innovations. Paget also found the time to travel extensively across Hungary. In the process, he became a travel writer in the truest sense of the word, collecting information on people and places, customs and culture from observations made during his travels. Paget’s travels coincided with the first great wave of modernization in Hungary. Thus, he was witness to a country on the cusp of what would eventually become a wholesale transformation. These travels led him to author Hungary and Transylvania: With Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political and Economical, Volumes 1 and 2. This work, published in the mid-19th century, offers a comprehensive look at every region in Hungary through the eyes of Paget who was a keen observer.

The volumes include his observations of Debrecen. “It well deserves the name of ‘the largest village in Europe,’ given it by some traveler; for its wide unpaved streets, its one-storied houses, and the absence of all roads in its neighborhood, render it very unlike what an European associates with the name of town. In rainy weather the whole street becomes one liquid mass of mud, so that officers quartered on one side the street are obliged to mount their horses and ride across to dinner on the other. Instead of a causeway, they have adopted the expedient of a single wooden plank; and it is a great amusement of the people, whenever they meet the soldiers on this narrow path, to push them off into the sea of mire below.” Mud ridden streets at best, lack of roads at worst. In Paget’s account the dusty frontier outpost Townson described becomes an oversized, pre-modern village lined with thoroughfares of sludge. Paget does go on to offer an analysis of the Magyar (Hungarian) character, based on the people he observed in Debrecen. He felt the city offered a purer version of both the Hungarian language and the Hungarian people. Nonetheless, Paget makes it clear that he does not find Debrecen an ideal town.

John Paget - Wrote two massive volumes on Hungary in the mid-19th century

John Paget – Wrote two massive volumes on Hungary in the mid-19th century

First Impressions – An Unsightly Mess
The three opinions of Debrecen given above were honest assessments of what each of these Englishman thought of it. Admittedly, I also found Debrecen less than impressive on my first visit. The area in and around Piac Utca (Market Square) was worth seeing, but not much else. My wife who spent the first two decades of her life in the city told me, “It used to be way worse.” She said that the city center had been in disrepair during the communist period. It had improved markedly since that time. National government and European Union structural funds had gone into redeveloping the city center. I shuttered to think what it must have looked like in the late 1980’s. Debrecen’s historical reputation, at least among a handful of English travelers, as an unsightly mess with few attractions worth seeing has remained somewhat true up to the present. Yet as I would discover over many visits to the city in the coming years, there was much more to see and do in Debrecen than first time visitors could possibly imagine.

Minimalism On A Massive Scale – The Great Reformed Church of Debrecen (For The Love of Hungary Part 18)

What would Debrecen be without the Great Reformed Church? Some distant day in the far away future, that question will likely have to be answered. Twice in the city’s history, the magnificent church that lay at its heart has been burned to ruin. The first time occurred in 1564 when fire irreparably damaged the three hundred plus year old Saint Andras (Saint Andrew) Church. It took sixty-four years before a new and improved version rose from the ashes. This one failed to last longer than its predecessor.  A little over two and a half centuries after reconstruction it too was consumed by a blaze. A massive conflagration took the entire city center with it in 1802. Almost immediately workers began clearing the ruins as planning began a replacement for the church to be constructed on the same site.

The view from above - Great Reformed Church in Debrecen

The view from above – Great Reformed Church in Debrecen (Credit: Civertan)

Great Reformed Architecture – Breaking With Tradition
The early 19th century was a time of transition in architecture, the Baroque period was fading into history. Classicism would soon become the ascendant trend. A unique design for the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen would be part of the vanguard of this movement in Hungary. The newest iteration of the church broke with tradition, both architecturally and with the choice for the main architect. Mihaly Pechy was a military engineer not an architect by trade. Stationed in the Transylvanian city of Nagyszeben (present day Sibiu, Romania), Pechy had once been a student at the Reformed College in Debrecen. The college had also been wiped out by the fire in 1802. Pechy submitted plans to rebuild the college which were quickly approved. Soon he did the same for a new church. His initial vision was for a round church topped by a massive dome. This highly original new design also called for a pair of towers. The dome and round shape were dropped due to cost and difficulties with water not far beneath ground level.

The final architectural product would be an alteration of Pechy’s ideas along with the work of two other architects, Jozsef Thaller and Karoly Rabl. The former reorienting the church longitudinally, while the latter added vaulting to the church’s interior space. Construction of the church was not yet complete when the first service was held in 1819. It would be another three years until the eastern tower was finished. When it was, exactly twenty years had passed since its immediate ancestor had passed into history.
Neo-classicism had come to the Great Hungarian Plain, leaving its stylistic imprint all over the Great Reformed Church. Eight large columns lined the façade, while a massive pediment crowned them. This facade was flanked at the top by twin towers, one each for the eastern and western ends. The towers soared higher than any other part of the building, topping out at sixty-one meters aboveground. The brightness of the church’s beaming yellow exterior provided a varnish of radiance.

The interior of the church had its own charms, but they were much less exuberant than the exterior. The nave could hold up to 5,000 people. Since decorative elements took up so little space inside the church there was plenty of room for a large congregation. The most prominent of these were an Empire style pulpit, from which a minister could address the congregation with spiritual authority. One thing that the interior and exterior had in common, neither was overwrought. Everything was done cleanly, without a hint of ostentation. The church evoked power and glory, but without seeming overbearing or lavish. In a sense, Debrecen’s Great Reformed Church managed to pull off the paradoxical feat of minimalism on a massive scale.

Silence on the inside - Interior of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen

Silence on the inside – Interior of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen (Credit: Zairon)

Overwhelming Awe & Subtle Reverence – Silence On The Inside
My first visit to the Great Reformed Church was paradoxical, a combination of overwhelming awe while peering up at the exterior and subtle reverence after entering its confines. The exterior made me feel small. That was to be expected since I was standing before the largest Calvinist Church in Hungary. I was struck by the building’s overpowering presence. It was humbling to be confront by such a massive structure, but upon entering the church my perspective changed to the spiritual. The nave was surrounded by stark white walls on all sides. There was nothing to distract from focusing on worship and prayer. A silence swept over me. This was a place for listening, not just to the words from a sermon, but to one’s own heart. This was an environment created to cultivate introspection. Truth be told, if the church’s interior had been as grandiose as the exterior I doubt it would have made much of an impression upon me. The contrast between the two spoke volumes. The interior architecture was trying to tell me something, mostly about myself.

Soon thereafter I decided to climb a series of stairs that led to the top of the church’s western tower. This was an expansive exercise in lung capacity. Once again, my heart was at the center of the experience. In this case, one that was more physical than spiritual. Climbing to the top of the Great Reformed Church was quite literally not for the faint of heart. The Rakoczi Bell, made from captured Austrian cannons almost four hundred years before, could be seen here. The Great Fire of 1802 had not caused it irreparable harm. The bell had achieved quite a feat, outlasting the Great Reformed Church’s predecessor. There is a good chance that it just might outlast everything which surrounds it today, such is the craftsmanship and solidity that has helped it to survive the fall of empires, kingdoms and state sponsored ideologies. The Rakoczi Bell has tolled for all of them.

Bastion of beauty - Eastern tower of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen

Bastion of beauty – Eastern tower of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen (Credit: Zairon)

A Citadel Of Calvinism – Towering Above
After I made it up the last set of stairs, I was treated to a view over Debrecen’s Belvaros (Inner city), specifically Piac utca (Market street) and Kossuth ter (Kossuth square). These were the second and third most important public spaces in Debrecen, ranking only behind the one I stood atop. The Great Reformed Church towered above it all. The church was built to be this way. A citadel of Calvinism that had become the symbolic embodiment of Debrecen. The church and the city were inseparable. To imagine one without the other was unthinkable. What would Debrecen be without the Great Reformed Church? Let us hope that question will never have to be answered. Judging by history, it probably will.


Moments Of Creation – Debrecen’s Saint Andras Church: From Ruin To Reconstruction (For The Love of Hungary Part 17)

In my travels around Hungary it became apparent to me that most Hungarian provincial cities had a great church at their core. Sopron has the Goat Church, Szeged the Votive Church, Szekesfehervar St. Stephen’s Cathedral. These are just a few of numerous examples. In this respect, Debrecen is no different. The spiritual and aesthetic heart of Debrecen can be found between Kossuth and Kalvin ters (Kossuth and Kalvin Squares) at the northern terminus of Piac utca, where the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom) stands today. This is the point upon which everything else in Debrecen’s Belvaros (Inner City) revolves. And it has been this way for over seven hundred years. Long before Debrecen became known as the Calvinist Rome and was more a muddy oversized village than modern metropolis, a church stood in the same area that the Great Reformed Church does today.

Frame of Reference - Saint Andras Church in the 16th century

Frame of Reference – Saint Andras Church in the 16th century (Credit: Lajos Zoltai)

A Spiritual Symbol – Frame Of Reference

Almost immediately, the Great Reformed Church and Debrecen became inseparable in my mind. When someone mentioned Debrecen, an image of the church was the first thing I thought of. It was hard for me to imagine that the massive, lemon colored edifice had not always been here. The modern iteration of the church is only a couple of hundred years old. Prior to the 19th century, other churches just as unique in their own way stood in the same spot. As a matter of fact, Debrecen has been defined by a church in the center going back to its earliest days. Knowledge of the first church in this location comes from archaeological excavations. It was likely a Romanesque structure, but since no records or drawings have been discovered, its layout is open to conjecture. The first documented church in the area was constructed in the early 14th century on the orders of a man who shared a last name with the town, the local Palatine Dozsa Debreceni. This large, single aisled Gothic style church sported an octagonal tower. It was dedicated to Saint Andras, thus giving it the name that the church would be known by for many centuries.

The best frame of reference for what the church looked like comes from a similar one that can still be visited today in the town of Csenger, located approximately 100 kilometers northeast of Debrecen, close to the Hungary-Romania border. The church in Csenger was built around the same time as the one in Debrecen. Unlike the church in Csenger, the one in Debrecen underwent a massive overhaul in the latter half of the 14th century, developing it into the most prominent Gothic Hall church on the Great Hungarian Plain. It was expanded to three aisles with six columns each and contained two altars. The church’s size and importance helped solidify Debrecen as the leading town in the region, known for its markets and trade fairs. It would stand as a testament to the power and wealth of the town for the next two hundred years.

Financing Faith – Transylvanian Assistance
One of the most consistent scourges in early modern European history was fire. It could sweep through a village, town or city in a matter of hours leaving its inhabitants destitute and turn buildings into charred ruins. Debrecen was not immune to this destructive phenomenon, nor were its churches, including Saint Andras (Saint Andrew). At the beginning of autumn in 1564, the church was torched by a conflagration that left it a smoldering ruin. Rebuilding went slowly due to the destruction. A decade after the fire, a new chapel was super imposed over what was left of the old one. This area of the church was one of the few that was salvageable. With war raging against the Ottoman Turks and Debrecen on the front line, a full scale rebuilding would not start until 62 years later. It took the leadership of Transylvania’s greatest leader, Prince Gabor Bethlen to provide financial assistance in getting the replacement church started. He donated an incredible sum of money, 1500 florins, for the project. Prince Bethlen also cancelled an annual estate tax on Debrecen so this sum could also be put toward the project.

In addition, to Bethlen’s help, the reconstruction also received valuable support from Gyorgy Rakoczi, yet another Prince of Transylvania. Work started in 1626 and continued for the next two years until it was completed in November 1628. What arose in the ruined church’s place was a substantial piece of ecclesiastical architecture. And reconstruction work did not stop there. Most famously, the church’s Tiled Tower was rebuilt in order to hold the weight of a massive bell that Rakoczi had procured from the Transylvanian city of Gyulafehervar (Alba Iulia). The bell was made from captured Austrian cannon that had been melted down. It was housed in what became known as the Brick Tower, which had been built to house it. The reconstructed church was a formidable structure, but on multiple occasions it came under threat. In the middle of Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711) the church was occupied by Austrian troops who committed acts of vandalism against it. These included stealing or demolishing many of the furnishings, horses were quartered in areas of the church and fires were kindled inside. This left the church in need of many repairs.

Before the Great Fire - Debrecen in 1802

Before the Great Fire – Debrecen in 1802 (Credit: Karoly Szegedi)

An All Consuming Conflagration – The Great Destruction
The outbreak of fires in Debrecen were the biggest threat. Major conflagrations occurred in 1719, 1727 and 1759. The last one was barely extinguished in time to save the church from almost certain destruction. Most fires were the product of arson. As such, the city authorities passed laws that harshly punished those who purposely set them. The offender would be strapped to a cart and have their skin pierced by white hot pliers until they died. Such laws helped to forestall all-consuming conflagrations. That was until 1802 when the worst fire in Debrecen’s history broke out. One-third of the town was incinerated. Saint Andras Church was one of many buildings lost in the blaze. The fire burned with such ferocity that several bells in the tower melted. Fortunately, the one gifted by Rakoczi managed to survive. The church was left in such a charred state that there was no hope for reconstruction. Debrecen was left in the same position that it had been in 1564, the spiritual center of the city had been devastated. There was only one thing to do, clear away the residue and begin work on another church at the same location. One that could live up to the precedent set by its spectacular predecessors.