The Earl Morse Wilbur History Colloquium

Berkeley, Starr King School for Ministry, January 20-22, 1994


Unitarians in Transylvania


                                                                                                            by Judit Gellérd, M. D.


            I feel an overwhelming and very humbling task to talk about Transylvanian Unitarian history before the most illustrious scholars of Unitarianism.  In our family George is the historian, I am just a token Transylvanian.  In my kind of liberal Unitarianism it has always been said it is better to act than to talk.  It has been also true in my medical and in my music training.  Yet I have discovered since coming to America that I love to preach about Transylvanian Unitarians. 

            My presentation rests upon the efforts of my father, an outstanding scholar-minister, Rev. Imre Gellérd.  It is my privilege to be born and grown up in Transylvania.  But to be working for Transylvanian Unitarians now instead of medicine, means I had to have other coincidences--like meeting George who encouraged me first to translate my father’s dissertation.  The Starr King School helped us work out my coming to America to do the translation.  I am grateful for that and for today’s invitation.

            My father wrote the only intellectual history, a history of the evolution of Unitarian thought of our four hundred year tradition, based on the literature of sermons.  I have 15 minutes, so I could not present it now.  My father was the only scholar to read through most of the surviving sermons, thousands of them, written between the 16th and the end of the 19th century.  He worked with the material of the great Unitarian College Library at Kolozsvár, of the College of Székely-Keresztúr and of the Teleki Téka [Library] at Marosvásárhely.  His scholarship cost his freedom and eventually his life.  He spent six years in Romania’s political prisons, lost his civil rights, his family, the doctorate was never awarded to him because of political reasons, the Secret Police never stopped persecuting him and he eventually took his own life because of a new threat of arrest under Ceausescu.  This was common among writers who did not want to have a lifetime compromised by prison, where the object was to destroy both one’s humanity and the integrity with one’s past.  My father was just one of the 50,000 imprisoned intellectuals in Romania at one time.

            To work on the preservation of documents and oral history from this cruel time is one of my tasks.

            My greatest privilege is that Prof. George Hunston Williams generously agreed to review my father’s work and hopefully it will be soon published by the Edwin Mellen Press in New York.

            Intellectually there has been no more gratifying and exciting time in my life than these few years when--as a background work--I was translating--and four times retranslating it.  My father’s historic knowledge allowed a view over Unitarian evolution, his reason and intuition being strong enough, so I could afford my emotions [and emotional approach].  Yes, during the fourth time I still had to cry [tears in my eyes] over the incredible struggle of Unitarians in Transylvania for survival and cheered over each step forward and upward in evolution of the Unitarian thought.  I don’t feel any distance between history and myself, it is not dry and academic for me, rather immediate, touching, personal.      

            It is 426 years now since the Edict of Torda. 

            A key sentence in our local Unitarian Universalist Covenant today is that “Nothing is more sacred to us than tolerance.”--It is to the everlasting credit of those early Unitarians in my homeland, Transylvania, of guaranteeing religious tolerance and freedom of conscience at a time when Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe were killing each other over religious differences.  Toleration had been the strategy of the week and powerless.  As a political experiment, King John Sigismund moved away from the practice of just coercion.  The Unitarian majority, religion of the king, the only religion born on Hungarian soil, did not wish to coerce their opponents.  The Edict of Torda granted permission to congregations to listen to and worship according to their own God-given conscience, permission for preachers to interpret scripture according to their inner wisdom.  Permission is not a right.  This pluralism was limited by our today standards.  But Unitarians have been consistent in their basic principle.  The 425th anniversary’s new “Edict of Torda” stated again in 1993:  “We promote religious freedom and strive for the respect and implementation of basic human rights.”  And Prof. Arpad Szabó in his remarks at the anniversary emphasized that today Unitarians’ position is changing from toleration toward mutual respect. 

            Prof. John Erdö wrote at the 400 anniversary: ”One who forgets the past must live through it again... It is the duty of each generation to study history so that in the light of the past one may see clearly what is one’s own special task.”  

Unitarians today are a double minority--ethnically Hungarians and religiously a 5% minority among the 2,5 million Hungarians still living in Transylvania.  And in the nationalistic Romanian state they are barely tolerated today.  The Romanian State has just proclaimed Eastern or Greek Orthodoxy as state religion and the Romanian Orthodox Church as state church--like state Shinto during the Second World War.

            Knowing history gives one a sense of spiritual identity.  And being fully human means having spiritual identity.  Especially under oppression, especially when another nation rewrites our own history and practices cultural genocide.  When the written word, the truer and more objective is, the more dangerous is.

            And yet my father concluded: “...Our religion was able to produce one of the most optimistic, constructive and humanistic religious systems. ...Through suffering special powers and qualities are born in us:  unity, solidarity, strong faith, adequate self-knowledge and a sense of historic orientation.”  From Francis David and György Enyedi in the sixteenth century to János Kriza and József Ferencz at the end of the nineteenth, quality-centered self-esteem was cultivated by Unitarian preachers.

            Last Sunday Rev. David Bumbaugh, minister of Summit, New Jersey preached these words:  “We are the people, says Wilbur, whose religion is based on the practice of reason, freedom and tolerance.  Whether we are talking about Unitarians in Transylvania, or in England, or in New England;  whether we are talking about Unitarians in the sixteenth century, or the eighteenth century or at the end of the twentieth century, that is our distinguishing mark--not the answers we give, from time to time, to theological conundrum, but the style of our religious life, a fierce and abiding commitment to reason and to freedom and to tolerance.  And that religious style, which is our hallmark, was created and crafted in Transylvania over four centuries ago, and is still cherished there by people who have suffered for their faith more than we can imagine.  Someone needs to witness their struggle, and care about its outcome.  If not we, who have inherited their religious method, then who?  And if not now, when?”

            And this spirit is permeating more and more UU churches as the Sister or Partner Church program is evolving into a large grassroots movement.  George and I have been working in this movement for five years.  Today all of our 170 Unitarian churches in Transylvania have a partner UU church here, in America, witnessing, caring.  More than a quarter of million dollars went through the Center for Free Religion to build new churches, buy 15 tractors for villages, feed Seminary students and retired ministers, keeping hope alive.  The opinion of Dr. Max Goebler--minister emeritus of Madison, VI--is being shared by many of his fellow UU ministers:  “...The way the whole sister church program is developing surely constitutes one of the most important and most heartening phenomena in twentieth century Unitarianism”.

            This book, which we recently published --In Storms, even Trees Lean on Each Other--is a strong testimony of this phenomenon.  American Unitarians discover Transylvanian Unitarians as their own roots and depth of their heritage, Transylvania has become a holy land for Unitarians, a land for pilgrimage.  This book is a collection of sermons on Transylvania written by Americans on the “transforming spiritual experience” Unitarian ministers and hundreds of lay people describing the impact of their pilgrimage.  Americans are hungry for a kind of spirituality which they suddenly find in Transylvania.  The connection in this way becomes partnership.  The spirit of American congregations change, they become generous, socially more sensitive.  An American minister writes:  “Empathy with human suffering anywhere increases our ability to respond to suffering everywhere.  Altruism is not a limited, finite resource.  Human caring generates human caring, just as love generates love.  Transylvanian Unitarians are not in competition with the homeless in America.”  And a Transylvanian minister’s words are these:  “Our future,” he said, “is uncertain.  After all these centuries, it is not clear that we shall survive.  But we find that there is some comfort in the knowing that you are watching, and that if we disappear, it will not go unnoticed; someone will know and someone will care.”  What else would illustrate relevance of history in our lives than this movement and these writings?

            Unitarians in Transylvania very much focus on action.  So I acted publishing eight books.  And if I am asked how Unitarian history has affected my daily life, I would say--radically, deeply, sometimes dangerously.  My actions are tiny steps, with stories of brave people, and secrets, but these suggest the importance of preserving our historical traditions.  Let me tell you a few stories.

            1.  My father’s dissertation’s only handwritten copy has survived in the attic of our parsonage because he knew that the Secret Police would arrest him that night and he hid it there.  His library and manuscripts were all confiscated after house-search.  Many years after his death, but still under Ceausescu, the two volumes of manuscripts had to be smuggled out of Romania along with other precious historic documents.  One of them was my mother’s fascinating life story; to mention nothing else but her being harrassed by the Secret Police for 25 years.  We successfully smuggled them out with George, sown into his backpack.

            2.  Another secret.  In 1949 Unitarians lost their libraries of both colleges: that of Kolozsvár--the world’s most significant library of Unitarian primary sources and manuscripts--and of Székely-Keresztúr.  The Romanian Communist state nationalized them along with all church properties.  Only the great College Library at Kolozsvár has survived this in its integrity, being held hostage in the Romanian Academy of Sciences but at least kept in adequate condition.  Except, without any public access to it for decades.  But George will talk about this most exciting issue. 

            I mention the other library at Keresztúr which was scattered, annihilated.  I was born then.  And 43 years later, after Ceausescu’s fall a minister finally dared to whisper the secret that my father rescued the most precious Unitarian material of this collection, by simply stealing them the night before the confiscation.  He was a teacher of the college that time and a parish minister, too.  It was not a small political risk, especially that this fellow minister who informed me used to be a secret police informer--but he loved his church better and kept the secret from the Secret Police.  That night my father hid this priceless collection in the back rows of the shelves in his village parish library.  But the minister who succeeded him while he was in prison, was an implant of the state and we could not risk the discovery while he was alive.  George only took a video of the front row which was impressive enough.  Two years later this minister died and we hurried to see the back rows.  Yes, what we saw was breathtaking, at least for me: György Enyedi’s first edition from 1619 and many other treasures yet to be cataloged.

            3.  But there were other secrets and tasks.  The late Unitarian professor Mihály Lörincz charged us with another secret mission--still under Ceausescu:  he told that he was instrumental in making and smuggling out of Romania some 12,000 microfilms of the most important Unitarian manuscripts and books of the Kolozsvár Unitarian College Library.  He asked us to find them in Hungary.  We never met him again, he died a few months later.  His request was binding.  And we found them, step by step.  But it is another story.

            4.  Prof. John Erdö asked me to find the catalog of this famous College Library.  The Unitarian librarian Dr. Elemér Lakó compiled it in twelve years and after his death, the catalog was lost to Unitarians.  Universe helped us again.  While we were seeking for a complete bibliography for my father’s dissertation and gave a grant for this to Prof. Mihály Balázs at the University of Szeged--this being the main Unitarian academic research center--we found a microfilm copy of the catalog there.  And this lead us to the other microfilms.  This was a marvelous beginning of a collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

            5.  Here is a page of Earl Morse Wilbur’s book: “How the History Came to be Written”  The most important Transylvanian source for Wilbur were the two huge handwritten volumes on Transylvanian Unitarian history by Uzoni-Fosztó dated 1775.  He borrowed this work from the Transylvanian Church but the Second World War made impossible for him to return it.  Now we have the rest of the story, the happy end, as--at the request of the Transylvanian Church--we were involved into the accomplishment of Wilbur’s interrupted mission.  Here is the continuation--letters from Prof. George Hunston Williams to George M. Williams as well as from Carolyn Howlett and Don Harrington.  As a result of this joint effort--after half a century--the volumes returned home from Boston to Kolozsvár in 1992.


            Thank you, Alicia, for your trust and for the honor of including me into your Doctoral Committee and inviting me among such illustrious scholars.