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  • Beth Lantinga

A Reluctant Seminarian

During the time leading up to the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the communist regime tightened its control and repressed dissent in all areas including churches. While Roman Catholic officials publicly and categorically resisted communist control, there were some Reformed folk who adopted a different tactic. Believing that their primary task was to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth, they sympathized with communist ideals, and some were installed into Reformed leadership positions. Seminary students were not allowed the freedom to critique the new system, and professors were pressured to conform to the party line. Those who resisted were replaced by some more malleable, and students who protested were dismissed. Daniel takes up the story of his life as a student in the Debrecen Seminary.

“My father was defrocked around the time that I graduated from high school, and my family had to move from the Miskolc-Hejocsaba congregation to the small village of Onod. After graduation from high school I had wanted to become a medical doctor, but because of my father’s status, I was not allowed to enroll in medical school, Instead I went to work as an electrician. This was God’s plan for me. He knew the direction he was giving me and the obstacles that would check my will and my choices. Though I had not abandoned my goal of becoming a medical doctor, I applied for entrance to the seminary in Debrecen planning to become a student there only until I could gain admission to the medical school. We were by this time very much the black sheep of the new Reformed church officials.


Daniel Szabo and Robert Hunlich leading a worship.

Although my position was tenuous, I started to study hard in the seminary. It was a question of conscience for me. As time passed, I became more and more committed in my spirit to theology, though in 1956 I packed up my things and tried to get into the medical university. Yet I sensed that my will was going in the opposite direction of God’s will for me, I opened my Bible to see God’s message. He gave me a word from Ezekiel 14. In this story people go to Ezekiel because they want answers from God about some matter. God tells Ezekiel not to answer or say anything to them because they admired idols in their hearts. I wanted to change my direction and go to medical school, but God kept me in my place – in the seminary.

So I finally accepted God’s plan with my whole heart, and a bit later they kicked me out! At first glance these are contradictory stories – I didn’t want to stay, but did stay because God wanted me there, and then I was kicked out. But in reality, there was a good order in these developments. If they had kicked me out a couple of years before, then I would not have been hooked on being a pastor and would have been “free” to follow my own path. But it was only after I decided to follow God’s leading and was committed to being a pastor that I was kicked out.

Looking back, I can say that my seminary years greatly blessed me – no matter how they ended. We students received a serious start there, a renewal perspective alloyed with responsible theological grounding, a position from which to survey our situation and evaluate events swirling around us. We were blessed with great teachers because at that time we still had a significant group of teachers at the Debrecen Seminary who worked together in the times of Laszlo Ravasz, and with other great professors before that (pre-communist) time. They studied abroad and in places like Princeton Seminary and in German universities and brought their knowledge home to Debrecen with them.

Professor Sandor Czegledy was one of the leaders of the revival movement. Istvan Torok, from the Papa Seminary, was a follower of the Barth theology. All were people of the revival movement, open-minded, thinking people. Marton Pakozdy, the most vibrant of all, as if charged with electricity, was the one who was least comfortable with the folk sources of the revival movement and was more in tune with the urban wing of the movement. Finally, after many talks and discussions, he also understood that this was not a sect, but a revival of faith of many people who were already within the church. Altogether it was a positive movement within the church.

During the early 1950s, while the renewal movement flourished, the high leadership of the church began to change. In 1952, at the beginning of the Rakosi era, a time of hardening communist ideology, Janos Peter appeared within the church. From the arrival of Peter, the seminary came under stricter government control, and these changes also influenced life within the seminary. Although the seminary still carried on with its heritage and reputation from former decades, it was changing.

Daniel Szabo Addressing Students

A strong bond grew between students and professors. We understood critical topics in the same way: the fate of the nation and the healing and spiritual renewal of society. We were fighting on the same front lines. However, because some students were quite outspoken concerning the state of the nation and society’s problems, Professor Torok once came and told us that we must be careful; we must not bleed in fights where the older generation should be speaking out. “While it’s our generation’s task to fight for rights and for justice, it seems that you are going ahead because we are moving too slowly. So we, the teachers, also have to act or we have to hold you back from further actions because we are responsible for these matters.”

Tensions in the seminary continued to grow. We students were committed to raising our voices and expressing our opinions, not to protest against the system but in support of people like Peter Fekete who had an excellent intellect and a deeply spiritual personality. He and his family lived together with Jozsef Berenyi’s family, and Fekete was taken to prison from Berenyi’s house. Aware of his every moment and of his imprisonment, we had written and published a declaration in support of him. It became clear that the system could not tolerate such close ties. The only solution from their point of view was to kick such students out of the seminary. That way we could not serve as pastors and influence the lives of congregations. So our expulsion from the seminary was already a matter of discussion before the events 1956. It was planned for September, but historical events intervened and strangely drew me close to Janos Peter’s family, but that story comes a bit later.

The revolution came and brought two things into our minds. One was that we must not be among those who would take revenge. God warned us about that, and I don’t think that God gave us that task either. I remembered the way my family behaved in hard situations at home. We were not compelled to act in reaction to those events but had to look out for those who were in need or were suffering. Because my father’s persecution was well-known, the other students listened when I argued against and prevented harsh treatment of professors of the new system like Professor Varga. I can tell you that altogether the students behaved with good conscience toward him and treated him properly.

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 © Beth Lantinga 2020