Prof. George M Williams

California State University, Chico

Co-Director, Center for Free Religion

Treason or History

When Artifacts Contradict the National Myth

Prolegomena.  A word must be said regarding suggestions from disciplines as far apart as biogenetics and mythology that our species has an ingrained tendency to identify with its own group.  We have a surprising ability to discriminate tiny differences. This has a positive survival value.  As aggressive as our species is, there has always been the need to determine enemies rapidly--noticing the slightest differences in speech, color of skin, style of clothing, and many other anomalies have aided survival.  But now this survival skill fuels racism and nationalism.   If we are not encoded in our DNA to discriminate, it is a skill most of us pick up even from the most tolerant human cultures and sub-cultures.

This is not the time to speak extensively about positive and negative aspects of this almost universal human tendency--to discriminate difference.   But these words should not be construed to promote narrow ethnicity or ultra nationalism--even of a group which we may find to be like one we personally identify with.  I will assume that there are some positive values in ethnic and religious differences which define individual and group identities.  I will only focus on the positive aspects of Transylvanian Unitarian distinctiveness.  But no group is free of the negative dimensions of this power to discriminate minute differences.  Although all instances of Romanian ultra nationalism will be largely criticized, do not misinterpret my remarks as mono-cultural or mono-religious.  Time does not permit a fuller handling of the problems of point of view, identity and of multiculturalism.  These may just be among our most difficult world problems for the next few decades.

Records of a Unitarian Past[1]

In 1567 Raphael Hoffhalter (whose Polish name was Skrzetusky) joined the reforming minister Ferenc Dávid in Gyulafehérvár and published works in Latin and Hungarian until he (Hoffhalter) died in February 1568.  His son continued publishing until the Hoffhalter print shop was closed in August 1569.  In 1569 Gáspar Heltai provided the antitrinitarians with another printing press in Kolozsvár.   Although he died in 1574, his widow continued publishing for the Dávid party until her death in 1582.  The press went through a series of owners and printers over the next decades, but it remained a voice of Unitarianism until the great Kolozsvár fire of April 3, 1655 disabled it.  Between 1655 and 1691 only a few books made it into print on the Calvinist press.  The first period of Transylvanian Unitarian publishing at two printing houses was less than  one hundred years.   

The third Unitarian press was founded in 1691 or 1697 by Mrs. András Kmita, a Polish refugee and widow of a printer.  After at her death in 1704 no more Unitarian publications are known, and in 1716   the press was confiscated and given to the Catholic Church.[2]  So the second period in which the Unitarian Church had is own printing press was approximately thirteen years.

  1746 saw the Unitarian prayer book printed, pinned by Bishop Szentábrahámi Lombard Mihály--a rare event since the church no longer had its own press.  Even the great history of Unitarianism started by Kénosi Tözsér János and finished by Uzoni Fosztó István remained a handwritten manuscript.[3]  Unitarians would not own their own press again but had to depend of others to grant them access to printing.   Most of their ideas had to be distributed orally or hand-written.

The “Bibliotheca Unitariorum” project produced the study about Erdélyi Könyvesházak [Transylvanian “Book Houses”] in five Unitarian cities: Kolozsvár [Klausenburg in German; Cluj Napoca in Roman­ian], Marosvásárhely [Neumarkt; Tîrgu Mures], Nagyenyed [Aiud], Szászváros [Broos; Orastie], Székelyudvarhely [Odorhen, Odorheiu Secuiesc].[4]  It explores these libraries to study the reading habits and famous book collections of Unitarian ministers.   The publication wishes to make it possible to reconstruct the Unitarian reader’s world.  The collections include books brought back by students studying abroad.  Few leaders ever traveled abroad after their student days until the IARF began bringing out leaders to meetings during the communist period.

What is not initially clear is that, in 426 years since the Edict of Torda, Unitarians owned or controlled a printing house for only about one hundred and ten years.  For a highly literate people it meant that they passed on most of their tradition as hand written manuscripts, even more highly treasured.  Sermonic literature was also shared among scholar-ministers in this way.  Incidentally, one reason for a Unitarian catechism to be committed to memory by Unitarian children by the time of their confirmation arises from this lack of written materials.  But if history is documentary, then Transylvanian Unitarianism struggled bravely to pass on tradition, while preserving as best it could its historical treasures.

Confiscation of the Records of a Unitarian Past

That the Unitarian manuscripts and books survived four centuries of wars, pillage, and persecution is certainly a fortunate set of circumstances.   But that they survived Romania’s ultra nationalist period under dictator Ceausescu is fortunate indeed.

Because the religious minorities, even though recognized by the state among its list of officially recognized religions, had documents which refuted the state mythology of the recent arrival of the Hungarian-speaking populations; those documents were ipso facto treasonous.  Since the Romanian state was attempting to rewrite history and build a series of claims based on continuous existence back to the Romans, any documentary evidence to the contrary, including that of Unitarians, had to be confiscated.  Any documents or artifacts which were more than a hundred years old were collected and “preserved” by the state in archives.  So chalices, altar cloths, books, and especially libraries were collected by the state when they were found.  

Thus, the Romanian Academy of Sciences became the repository for Unitarian materials which were in error to the “scientific” truth that the Hungarians were interlopers in Transylvania.  There was no book burning, just a patient absorption of historical documents by state archives.  These materials were kept away from public use--even from Unitarian scholars and students.  Time was on the side of the state; yet the activities of the Hungarian-speaking religious groups make it a much longer process than anticipated.   The Hungarian traditions were taught by minority ministry to their church’s children.  Contact hours were reduced between preachers and children to one hour a week. But even that was too much for the minorities’ identities to be lost instantly.  But less and less of their heritage was being passed on, so it seemed inevitable that the minority culture and Hungarian-speaking religious traditions would be eradicated from Romania.  (This struggle produced deep suspicion and resentments--on both sides, Hungarian and Romanian.)

During this era scholars entered a state archive and asked for these materials at their own peril.  The very act of asking to see documents which contained contradictory evidence to the “state origin myth” brought the most careful scrutiny from librarians.  They of course had to report everything to the Securitate, Romania’s feared and not-so-secret police.  There was an atmosphere of treasonous intent about using these materials.  Foreign scholars, even though they might claim to be only Unitarian, were potential threats to the state.  They were at best only allowed to work with one book or manuscript at time if they had complete biographical information and evidence that it deposited at a particular Romanian Academy of Sciences branch archive.  Hungarian scholars and Unitarian specialists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, like Profs. Tibor Klaniczay (Budapest), Bálint Keserü, (Szeged) and Mihály Balázs (Szeged), were especially harassed during those years.

But Unitarian documents were microfilmed by the state--an oddity of totalitarianism: excellent record keeping.  A catalog of Unitarian manuscripts was prepared for in-house use at the branch archive in Kolozsvár.  But Unitarian scholars smuggled out a set of the microfilms to Hungary which were hidden there.  We learned of these materials from Prof. Lörincz, a professor of the Unitarian Seminary in Kolozsvár.  But Prof. Lörincz died before he had another opportunity to tell us where to find them.   Later, we went to Szeged to obtain help from Prof. Mihály Balázs for Judit’s father’s manuscript on the evolution of Transylvanian Unitarian sermonic literature.  Sermons mentioned in his dissertation were among the documents confiscated by Ceausescu and could not be properly referenced.  But even Szeged specilists would have great difficulty in completing the footnotes and bibliography.   We  provided a year’s research grant for a graduate student to try to locate any more references.  The next year we returned to pick up the results.  Prof. Balázs was using a xeroxed list of Unitarian materials which was most interesting.  Suddenly Judit confronted him with her suspicion--that he had access to the secret microfilm of the Transylvanian Unitarian archive.  He admitted that he did.  The microfilm was found.  Soon we began planning how to share this treasure with the world.  I was chosen as a “neutral” American to deal with the branch library of the Romanian Academy of Sciences in Kolozsvár (Cluj Napoca) and negotiate for the opening of the archive and the publication of the catalog.  But it must be without Judit, since she is Hungarian.  A year of letters went unanswered.  Then on the next visit to Romania I was joined by Rev. George Andrási, councilor to the Unitarian Church in Romania, and Prof. András Bodor, a great lay Unitarian educator.  Both were quite apprehensive but believed in the importance of our atttempt. Judit stayed outside. The negotiations went well. They immediately found my correspondence.  They brought out a copy of the Unitarian catalog and offered it if they could realize some benefit.    I was allowed to walk into the locked stacks and videotape the collection.  It was a transcendental moment for a scholar.  But another year would be needed to complete the legal process and increased demands for compensation.  Not all of the difficulties came from the branch library, as a church official just did not inform us of all the developments.  At one point the Cluj library demanded the full salary of an American librarian for the twelve years taken to construct the Unitarian catalog.  That was beyond question financially and its was not necessary to submit to such a demand--especially since we had access to the secret microfilm.

We saw at least three alternatives: (1) Deal with the Romanian copyright office.  For a “fee” of a few hundred dollars we could bypass the Romanian Academy of Sciences and get a full copyright clearance.  Or (2), go ahead, print the catalog, and if sued, counter-sue.  The archive was and remains “confiscated” [stolen] property. 

But these two alternatives would not achieve our twofold objective:  normalize relations with the Romanian Academy of Sciences for world scholarship and gain them as an ally.   The Transylvania Unitarian Church has no trained librarian or archivist at this time.  There has been no need for such a luxury when almost everything was taken.  And the resources of the church have been less than adequate; we, the Center for Free Religion, had already paid two months’ salary in order for the church headquarters to survive the most difficult time in the winter of 1992.   So there were no funds or appropriate personnel there for the proper care of four-century old manuscripts.

Alternative Three:   With substantial help in the negotiations from Prof. Michael Berkes of Berkeley who traveled with us to Romania in October 1993, we finally succeeded.  The Romanian Academy of Sciences branch library at Cluj has joined us as a sponsor in this publication project.   They gave us a beautifully typed copy of the catalog--for a price: computers, printers, and xerox machine.  All are sorely needed and will help them do a professional job.    So an era of hostility or harassment, suspicion and fear, seem to have ended.  And barring new setbacks, scholars from all over the world will now be able to use this library and its equipment in a most professional atmosphere. 

The Szeged Project

  In the summer of 1992 five students of the Transylvanian Unitarian Seminary attended the University of Szeged for advanced study, sponsored by the Center for Free Religion.  There is an extraordinary faculty at Szeged, where skills like paleography can be learned in order to read sixteenth century Latin manuscripts with their more than 240 abbreviations--a kind of Latin shorthand.  We seek to bring back the centuries old tradition of scholar-ministers.

Permission to the Center for Free Religion for electronic duplication of any of the Renaissance and Reformation materials of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was granted in 1992.  But six years of partial funding of our work in Hungary and Romania on Unitariana makes it difficult to continue sustaining larger and larger projects from our personal savings.  The amounts we have spent are no longer sustainable.

Last year we team-taught at Szeged concerning Asian religions, demonstrating the academic study of religion and its place in a state university for the first time in Hungary.  Previously, religion has been a study for indoctrination and ideology.  For a month I lectured in English and Judit translated and elaborated in Hungarian.  We had previously lectured for a week at the Unified Seminary in Kolozsvár, the first time in their history on Asian religions.

This past semester, the winter of 1993, we gave almost one hundred lectures at the state Universities of Szeged and Pécs, teaching in the literature department at Szeged and the philosophy department at Pécs.  At Pécs we gave an entire semester’s course, and trained faculty in academic approaches to religion.  At Szeged we gave another series of ten lectures on Buddhism, the subject of their choice.   But Pécs was complicated by a request from the largest Roman Catholic seminary in Hungary for a series of lectures, colloquia, and workshops on Asian religions.  It was historic and enlightening to see how openness to the study of Asian religion in its own integrity was a major step toward tolerance and appreciation of liberal and liberating religion.

Some More Work for Historical Preservation

In summer 1994, IARF will sponsor a conference on Human Rights in Romania.  Since the Center for Free Religion has been IARF’s agent for work with the Hungarian and Transylvanian churches for the past two years, it means that we are also sponsors of the conference in Kolozsvár this coming summer. 

In 1996 the 400th anniversary of Enyedi’s death will be commemorated with a conference at  Szeged or Kolozsvár.   There is some jealousy at the Unitarian seminary toward Szeged and our work there.  But it is only human for Transylvanian Unitarians to think that they own their great leaders, their writings, their ideas, and the anniversaries.  But history is for humanity; it cannot be possessed for the good or harm of any single group.

Within a year we should be able to see the Catalog of Transylvanian Unitarian Manuscripts through to its publication.  We have won two small grants from the UU Denominational Grants Panel--and these grants are the merit of Dr. Eugene Pickett, former chair, and others unknown by name but no less cherished.   But these grants barely fund a quarter of the project.  Like the episode of the five loaves and two fishes, a little is somehow enough.  The catalog will document the existence of over 3500 manuscripts and briefly describe them in English.  Almost none have been printed or translated into Western European languages.  Approximately 10,000 pages of the rarest publications of the Unitarian press were previously microfilmed in Romania.  Now the Enyedi Conference will be an opportunity for us to electronically copy the Enyedi material to computer disc and CD ROM for prior distribution to participants and to explore the feasibility to begin a decade-long project of CD ROM publication of Unitariana.  Combining the Kolozsvár materials with those of Starr King’s Wilbur Collection seems quite natural.  Transliteration and translations into Western European languages will lead to interpretation and discussion of their contributions.

This winter Judit stumbled upon a mansion which was for sale in Szeged.  Discussions with the top administrators of Szeged University led to an appointment in the Prime Minister of Hungary’s suite of offices in the department for support of Hungarians abroad.  This was our first contact with governmental bureaus of any description.  At this moment the mansion is affordable--about $100,000 plus a like amount to renovate and equip it.   We spoke about an Institute for Transylvanian Studies, a graduate leadership school, but they were quite willing to fund a Transylvania College--even one for ecumenical studies.  The house is being saved by a friend (as of January 1994).  Even though the Prime Minister of Hungary died the very hour we left Budapest, the project is still alive.  The Department of Hungarian Literature at Szeged wishes to have a center where American and Bristish scholars and students join them in the study, translation and publication about Unitarianism in Middle Europe.  And this summer they will again provide advanced studies for five more Transylvanian Unitarian seminary students.

For the immediate future the work of the Center for Free Religion can be summarized under four areas (as distinct from the UUA Partner Church Council):

(1) restoring the Transylvanian Unitarian Archive and developing a program for publication of its treasures;

(2) training seminarians in the tradition of the village scholar-minister and networking them to research and study resources;

(3) achieving a Unitarian Press;  [We have trained ten students in desktop publishing.  Because of graduation, only five are currently at the seminary.  János Kriza, a fourth year seminary student, has been appointed the director of the future church press.  And when Rev. Kohno of Rissho Kosei-kai came with us into Transylvania in October 1993, he promised some help from RKK’s Fund for Peace.]

(4)  supporting the historical Transylvanian Unitarian tradition and helping those who will bring it renewal from all forms of suppression and repression--external and internal.



[1]This first history of Transylvanian Unitarian printing presses has been completed by Kénosi Tözsér János, De Typographiis et Typographis Unitariorum in Transylvania: Bibliotheca Scriptorum Transylvano--Unitariorum (Szeged: Scriptum Kft., 1991), pp. vii-xxiv.

[2]John Erdö, Transylvanian Unitarian Church, trans. by Judit Gellérd (Chico: The Center for Free Religion, 1990), p. 19.  This was the only book to reach print in Hungarian and concerning a Unitarian subject during the entire communist era of state control of publication.

[3]Wilbuhr borrowed one of three which had survived in the 1930’s.  See footnote twelve.

[4]Jakó Zsigmond, Erdélyi Könyvesházak II [Transylvanian Libraries]: Kolozsvár, Marosvásárhely, Nagyenyed, Százváros, Székelyudvarhely (Szeged: Scriptum Kft., 1991), 246pp.