Lutheranism and Danube-Swabians

Henry A. Fischer

It invariably comes as a surprise to most people to discover that there were Lutherans among the original Danube Swabians who were part of the first Great Swabian Migration of the 18thcentury into Hungary, known as the Schwabenzug.

They were officially excluded from settling in the newly won territories taken from the Turks, but in order to secure settlers the Emperor Charles VI was not above making concessions with regard to his religious policy when it came to securing the kind of colonists he wanted even if they were Protestants.  He granted special Letters Patent providing for the freedom to practice their religion if settling in Hungary to those coming from Hesse, Baden and Wuerttemberg.  The vast majority of these Lutheran settlers arrived in the 1720’s from Hesse and settled on the Tolna estates of Count von Mercy, the Governor of the Banat who was at the head of the colonization movement.  It was only through his intervention that these colonists were able to organize themselves into congregations and secure pastors and teachers, because when they arrived in Hungary they found themselves in the middle of the final phase of the Counter Reformation.

Their Letters Patent often proved ineffective, because they were dependent upon the good graces of the Emperor, and that could change with the times and the seasons.  There was a sixty year long struggle on the part of the Lutherans to establish themselves and maintain their own church life and faith identity in the face of ongoing persecution, both by the Jesuits and the Hapsburgs, especially during the reign of Maria Theresia.  But some Mother Churches were able to survive and provided support to the struggling orphaned and shepherd less congregations.  In particular they were the congregations in Varsad (the oldest Swabian Lutheran congregation in the Empire), Kismanyok, Gyonk and the Reformed congregation in Nagyszekely.  With the Edict of Toleration in 1781 over fifty congregations in the counties of Tolna, Baranya and Somogy declared themselves to be Evangelical Lutherans and were legally allowed to organize themselves and develop their church life, but with some continuing restrictions placed upon them.

The vast majority of the congregations who continued as “underground churches” did so through the special ministry of individuals who were variously called “emergency teachers” or “Levite Lehrer”.  They functioned as illegal schoolmasters, who also led the congregations in worship and provided some basic pastoral care including baptism and funerals.  They did not celebrate Holy Communion.  This emergency office in the life of their churches would become the norm in the future, for those congregations without a resident pastor, who were associated with a Mother Church in the area.  It was this model of church life that was brought to Hrastovac and Slavonia by the Lutheran colonists who came from the area known as Swabian Turkey that covered the geographical area of the counties of Tolna, Baranya and Somogy. 

Large scale Lutheran and Reformed emigration into Hungary occurred during the third Schwabenzug under Joseph II.  These settlements were confined to the future Batschka and the Banat and they too would become part of the Church of the Augsburg Confession in Hungary, as the Lutheran Church was then known.