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Jozsef Berenyi - Renewed

Many Reformed Hungarians generously helped with their time and advice during the collection of stories. I am still touched by the memory of their kindness and willingness to introduce me to their family members. Among my dearest memories is the help and friendship of Gabriela Racsok. She is now a professor at the Reformed seminary in Sarospatak, Hungary. She was still a student when she introduced me to her grandfather, Jozsef Berenyi, a retired pastor whose story revealed the unsettling reality that many Reformed church leaders willingly chose to collaborate with the communist authorities.


Jozsef Berenyi - August 2003

By the early 1950s, life in Hungary was firmly controlled by the communist regime. Yet Jozsef Berenyi, preached to thousands whose family endured in spite of the efforts of the Soviet regime mediated by officials of the Reformed church. In August of 2003, we arrived at Berenyi’s home in a modest apartment building and found him in the small living room. When everything was ready and the recording devices running, he began.


To Be Renewed


“I am a happy man. I was born into a poor family and often struggled with feelings of inferiority. I did not travel far from my home village before I reached the age of 12. Looking back on my life I can see that God was working a series of miracles with me, especially my education in Budapest. When I was still young it soon became apparent that my parents would not be able to fund my studies, not even with the help of the church and the village. Thus, they wanted to take me out of school, but my form master recognized that I was a good student. He helped me by referring me to a Roman Catholic family whose son I tutored throughout high-school. To me this was God’s providence. So as a poor peasant boy I got into the world of the classics though I was sometimes mocked for my peasant clothing. I, a rank peasant boy, was able to live an interesting life becoming a cleric. I am very grateful to God for calling me at a very young age.


My faith was deeply influenced and shaped by the renewal movement in Hungary, first during the “soft” time between 1942 and 1948 and then during the “terror” that occurred between 1950 and 1957. It was John Mott’s visit to Hungary that started the revival movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Among others, Aladar Szabo, a young minister, was captivated by the Word of God during Mott’s visit and became a revival leader. A small circle of friends was formed, and the Bethania movement grew out from this. It was a revival movement strictly of Reformed Church. Their motto was: for Christ and for the Church. There was nothing sectarian about it. From the mid-40s, after the great misery of World War II, the fire of the revival movement pervaded the church to such a great extent that churches everywhere were full, both urban and rural.


I can tell you that even in hard times, the churches were packed. For example, during the revival in Debrecen, on September 28, 1956, 3000 of us gathered in our congregation. Even the balcony that surrounded the church was crowded from morning until evening. There was only an hour and a half lunch break, and people did not leave. Those who came in the morning were still there in the evening. Such was the atmosphere in those days, during the harsh Communist period. It is interesting to note that out of 1500 Reformed pastors, the 300 who took an active part in the renewal movement came under harsh attack and were accused of an unhealthy pietism because they were unwilling to preach the “truth” of socialism.


There was an evangelism week one summer when at six o’clock in the afternoon, all Debrecen churches held gatherings. There were crowds everywhere, and it was not just for special occasions. Every Sunday I preached to a packed church. There were youth movements also. Among the country/rural youth: the YMCA was strong. Their leader, Istvan Bugyor, became a martyr during the communist regime and died in prison. Soli Deo Gloria SDG* flourished among students at secondary schools and drew masses. I was also a member. The Hungarian Evangelical Christian Student Federation attracted many university students. It all happened gradually in our church.


*According to historian Ignac Romsics, Soli Deo Gloria was attempting “to formulate a distinctively Hungarian amalgam of the respective strengths of Anglo-Saxon capitalist individualism and Soviet collectivism.” So, for many, the renewal movement in the church was not pie-in -the-sky escapism, but an effort to locate justice within truth.


A Church On Fire


When the revival movement was burning brightest, it did not matter at all which revival group one joined. All were rejoicing that Christ lives and that he is a victorious Lord; he is king. Being a part of that ministry was a wonderful thing. And it was not only ministers who carried the fire, but many lay people as well. In our Mester Street Congregation, one evangelism week was led by a horticulturist. Eventually one could be an enthusiastic participant in the revival movement without joining one of the related organizations or associations. However, in a rather strange way, when the communist regime started to persecute believers, it labeled everyone connected with the revival as a Bethanist whether they had actually been a member or not.


At the highest point of the renewal times, praise-filled worshippers sang the joyful hymns at the end of the Psalter. But during the hard time, the laments of the psalms expressed our deepest thoughts and reassured us of God’s faithfulness. I began to understand the words of Psalm 60, “You have shaken the land and torn it open; mend its fractures, for it is quaking.”


In 1948, after Imre Revesz, the famous church historian, had been forced out of office, Janos Peter took his place as bishop in Debrecen. Under him, the situation became even worse. Church-run schools were nationalized, and the church, under its now compliant leadership, made an agreement with the Communist government. As resistance to state control of the church stiffened, so did the pressure from the secret police. I knew that each Sunday my sermons were being monitored. During that time a group of renewal pastors established a paper that was to be a voice of opposition for several years.


Renewal believers were labeled Bethanists by the regime. Even more painful and disturbing was the position taken by our church leaders. The highest church leaders not only acknowledged the regime’s position, but went even further in the lead article of our weekly church paper. They proclaimed that Bethanist behavior was anti-state, anti-peace, anti-society and anti-church. Thus, in 1948 Janos Peter, the newly installed bishop, pronounced the following. “You can oppose and scold the regime and you won’t get into trouble with them. Scold them, and you will get in trouble with me.”


One of the ministers in Debrecen said the following crazy thing, and he did get in trouble. He began one of his sermons saying that there have been three ravages in Hungary: that of the Tartars, that of the Turks and now that of the Russians. He made a play on words linking the word for ravage with the word for liberation, a word used by the Soviets to describe the invasion of 1944 and 1945. For this the pastor was immediately removed and suspended. This man was not even part of the revival movement; he just had a Hungarian heart.


Believer Vs. Church Member


It is interesting and thought-provoking that the regime was able to make a sharp distinction between the religious people and the believers, those with a living, genuine faith. Fearing the influence of believers, the Party forbade working with the young. The schools were nationalized in 1948, before the Communist Party took total control. Before that, more than 70% of the primary and secondary schools were church schools. By nationalization they put an end to the possibility of shaping the children. To strangle religious education in the schools they put pressure on the parents, whether they were manual or intellectual workers. Everyone knew if they had a bad record with the Party, they would not succeed, not even in their own profession.


Bishop Janos Peter tolerated me for a long time because, I think, he had great expectations for me. I had come from a poor peasant family. My parents were landless peasants with six children. My wife also came from a proletarian family; her father was a rail switchman. They came from Czechoslovakia and lived in a caravan for several years. In 1943 I became an assistant minister for Bishop Revesz in the Great Church in Debrecen and served there until January 1, 1944, when the members of the Meszter Street Church elected me their minister. I was there for fourteen years.


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