Editor's note: Prof. George M. Williams and Judit Gellerd, M. D., are co-directors of the Center for Free Religion. Speaking from their respective perspectives -- his as a historian, hers as the daughter of a Unitarian martyr to dictatorship -- they presented complementary papers on the connections between Unitarian Universalism in North America and Unitarians past and present in Transylvania. Linguistically and historically Hungarian, Transylvania became part of Romania after World War II.


PART I: Preserving the Records of Transvlvanian Unitarianism

By George M. Williams


In 1993, Transylvanian Unitarians celebrated the 425th anniversary of their finest contribution to the evolution of the human spirit: religious liberty for those over whom they had power. The Edict of Torda proclaimed religious toleration in 1568, the year the great reformer, Francis Dávid, established the only Unitarian institution to survive the counter-Reformation and the establishment of national churches.

To celebrate their anniversary, Unitarians in Transylvania held a new synod at Torda in 1993 and issued a new "Edict" which said in part: "In this solemn moment of remembrance we reaffirm that faith is the gift of God; we promote religious freedom and strive for the respect and implementation of basic human rights....”

Records of a Unitarian Past[1]

Earl Morse Wilbur was instrumental in making American Unitarians and Universalists aware of their Transylvanian antecedents.   Since history depends on the survival of documentary evidence, religious traditions have used the printing press and publication to record their existence.  But when access to publishing is impeded as it was during the counter-Reformation (and under Stalinism), far less information is available to scholars.  How was Wilbur able to reconstruct his history?  What were some of the problems he faced?  What is currently happening to help recover more of this history?  Some partial answers come from a brief retelling of Transylvanian Unitarianism’s struggle to have a printing press and to publish Unitarian books.

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. Thereafter only a few Unitarian books made it into print on the Calvinist press. Thus the first period of Transylvanian Unitarian publishing lasted less than 100 years.

The third Unitarian press was founded in 1691 or 1697 by András Kmita, a Polish refugee and widow of a printer. After 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 lasted only approximately 13 years.

In 1746, a Unitarian prayer book was printed by Bishop Szentabrahami Lombard Mihály -- a rare event since the church no longer had its own press. Unitarians were not to have their own press again, and most of their ideas had to be handed down orally or as handwritten manuscripts. Even the great history of Unitarianism started by Kenosi Tozser Janos and finished by Uzoni Foszto Istvan remained a handwritten manuscript. Earl Morse Wilbur borrowed one of the three copies and brought it back to the United States just before World War II.

Sermonic literature was also shared among scholar-ministers in this way, and this lack of written materials also explains why a Unitarian catechism had to be committed to memory by Unitarian children by the time of their confirmation. But despite all these viscissitudes, Transylvanian Unitarianism struggled bravely to pass on, and to preserve, as best it could, its historical treasures.

Confiscation of Records

That the Unitarian manuscripts and books survived four centuries of wars, pillage, and persecution is both surprising and fortunate; that they survived Romania's ultra-nationalist period under dictator Ceausescu is, as Judit will describe, a story of heroism.

While Unitarianism was officially recognized as a religious minority, its documents refuted the state mythology that the Hungarian-speaking populations had only recently arrived in Romania; those documents were therefore ipso facto treasonous.  Since the state was attempting to rewrite history and claim a continuous existence back to the Romans, any documentary evidence to the contrary, including that of the Unitarians, was confiscated. Fortunately, all documents or artifacts which were more than 100 years old were collected and "preserved" in state archives. Chalices, altar cloths, books, and especially libraries were collected by the state whenever they were found.

Thus, the Romanian Academy of Sciences became the repository for Unitarian materials which contradicted the "scientific" truth that the Hungarians were interlopers in Transylvania. While there was no book burning, these materials were kept from public use -- even from Unitarian scholars and students. Nonetheless, Hungarian speaking religious groups, including the Unitarians, continued to teach their traditions to their children, though contact between preachers and children was reduced to one hour a week. But even that was enough for the minorities to preserve their identities.

During this period, scholars entered a state archive and asked for these materials at their peril. The very act of asking to see documents which contained contradictory evidence to the origin myth was reported to the Securitate, Romania’s feared and not-so-secret police. Foreign scholars, even though they might claim to be interested only in Unitarian history, were also seen as potential threats to the state. At best, they were allowed to work with only one book or manuscript at a time, and then only if they had complete biographical information and knew at which particular branch of the Romanian Academy of Sciences it had been deposited. Hungarian scholars and Unitarian specialists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, like Profs. Tibor Klaniczay, Bálint Keserü, and Mihály Balázs, were especially harassed during those years.

But there is an oddity of totalitarianism: excellent record keeping.  Unitarian documents were microfilmed by the state and a catalog of Unitarian manuscripts was prepared for in-house use at the branch archive in Kolozsvar. Unitarian scholars were able to smuggle out a set of these microfilms and to hide them in Hungary.

We learned of these materials from Prof. Lörincz of the Unitarian Seminary in Kolozsvár.  Later, we went to Szeged to obtain help from Prof. Mihály Balázs to add references to the manuscript of the late Rev. Imre Gellérd -- Judit's father -- about the evolution of Transylvanian Unitarian thought.  We provided a year's research grant for a graduate student to try to complete footnotes and citations.  The next year we returned to pick up the results, and we noticed that Prof. Balázs was using a xeroxed list of Unitarian materials. On a hunch, Judit confronted him with her suspicion -- that he had access to the secret microfilm of the Transylvanian Unitarian archive. He admitted that he did and the microfilm was found!

Then we began planning how to share this treasure with the world.  I was chosen as a "neutral" American -- as a Transylvanian, Judit could not accompany me -- 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. A year of letters went unanswered. Then on my next visit to Romania I was joined by Rev. George Andrasi, councilor to the Unitarian Church in Romania, and Prof. András Bodor, a great lay Unitarian educator.  Both were quite apprehensive about entering the archive, but they believed in the importance of our attempt.  

The negotiations went well.  They immediately found my correspondence, brought out a copy of the Unitarian catalog, and offered it to us -- if they could realize some benefit. I was allowed to walk into the locked stacks and videotape the collection. It was a “peak experience.”  But another year would be needed to complete the legal process and the increasing demands for compensation. At one point the Cluj library demanded the full salary of an American librarian for the ten years it had taken to construct the Unitarian catalog. That was beyond question financially, especially since we had access to the secret microfilm.

We saw 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 full copyright clearance for the microfilm. Or (2), print the catalog, and if sued, counter-sue. After all, the archive was and remains confiscated [stolen] property.

But these two alternatives would not achieve our second objective: to normalize relations with the Romanian Academy of Sciences and gain them as an ally for world scholarship. Keep in mind that the Transylvania Unitarian Church has no trained librarian or archivist, since there was no need for such a luxury when almost everything was taken. In any case, the resources of the church are less than adequate, even with the help the Center for Free Religion has been able to provide.

So we turned to alternative three: we succeeded in gettinq the Romanian Academy of Sciences branch library at Cluj to join us as a sponsor in this publication project. They gave us a beautifully typed copy of the catalog, and we in turn provided them with computer, printer, and a copying machine.  So, barring new setbacks, an era of hostility, harassment and fear has ended, and scholars from all over the world will be able to use this library and its equipment in a most professional atmosphere.

More need for historical preservation

Within a year we will see the catalog of Transylvanian Unitarian manuscripts through to its publication. It 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, though approximately 10,000 pages of the rarest publications are part of the Romanian microfilms. In 1996, a conference commemorating the 400th anniversary of Enyedi's death will provide an opportunity to copy the Enyedi material onto computer disc and CD-ROM for prior distribution to participants. We can then explore the feasibility of CD-ROM publication of Unitariana, combining the Kolozsvár materials with those of the Wilbur Collection. Such publication plus transliteration and translation into Western European languages will lead to much increased interpretation and discussion of the significance of these materials.

This winter Judit stumbled upon a mansion for sale in Szeged, where we hope to establish an Institute for Transylvanian Studies.  It would be both a graduate leadership school and a center where American and Bristish scholars and students could join in the study of Unitarianism in Middle Europe, which the Department of Hungarian Literature at Szeged wishes to establish.  This is one of the pending projects of the Center for Free Religion.  Others include:

(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 with them in research and study;

(3) establishing a Unitarian Press in Hungary or Transylvania. We have already trained 10 students in desktop publishing though, because of graduation, only five are currently at the seminary.

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

Judit will describe the separate effort to find UU partner churches for all 170 Unitarian churches in Transylvania.


PART II: The Transylvanian Connection: A Personal View

By Judit Gellerd


In our family, George is the historian. I am just a token Transylvanian, having been born and grown up in Transylvania.

My father, the Rev. Imre Gellerd, was an outstanding scholarminister. He wrote the only intellectual history of Transylvanian Unitarianism, tracing the evolution of Unitarian thought as reflected in the literature of sermons over a 400-year tradition. He read through most of the surviving sermons, thousands of them, written between the 16th and the end of the l9th centuries, working with the material of the great Unitarian college libraries at Kolozsvar [Cluj-Napoca], the college of Szekely-Keresztúr [Cristurul Secuesc], and of the Teleki Teka [library] at Marosvasárhely [Tirgu Mures].

His scholarship cost him his freedom and eventually his life. He spent six years in Romania's political prisons during the communist era, lost his civil rights, his family, and the doctorate he had earned but was never awarded. My father was just one of the 50,000 intellectuals who were imprisoned in Romania at that time.  The secret police never stopped persecuting him and eventually, when he was again threatened with arrest, he took his own life. This was common among writers who did not want to lose all that their life and writings had stood for by having their will and integrity destroyed in prison.

One of my tasks is to work on the preservation of documents and on the oral history from this cruel time. My father's historic knowledge provides an overview of the evolution of Unitarian thought, and of the incredible struggle of Unitarians in Transylvania for survival. History is not a dry and academic subject for me; rather it is immediate, touching, personal. Even during the fourth round of translating the documents, I still had tears in my eyes.  But let me highlight our past.

Four centuries of tolerance

It is now 426 years since the proclamation of the Edict of Torda. A key sentence in the covenant of the Unitarian Universalist church I belong to today says: "Nothing is more sacred to us than tolerance." It is to the everlasting credit of those early Unitarians in Transylvania that they guaranteed religious tolerance and freedom of conscience at a time when Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe were killing each other over religious differences. Up to then, toleration had been the strategy of the weak and powerless, but under King John Sigismund, the Unitarian majority chose not to coerce their opponents. The Edict of Torda granted permission to congregations to worship according to their own God-given conscience; gave permission to preachers to interpret scripture according to their inner wisdom.

     Granted, permission is not a right, and this pluralism could be considered limited by today's standards. But Unitarians have been consistent in abiding by this basic principle. A new "Edict of Torda" issued at the 425th anniversary celebration in 1993, stated again: "We promote religious freedom and strive for the respect and implementation of basic hufflan rights." Prof. Arpad Szabo in his remarks at the anniversary emphasized that today Unitarians have moved from toleration to mutual respect, while Prof. John Erdo said: "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."

Incidentally, life today is still not easy for Unitarians in Transylvania. They are a double minority. Ethnically they are Hungarians, barely tolerated in the nationalistic Romanian state. And religiously they make up a five percent minority among the 2.5 million Hungarians still living in Transylvania -- in a country that has just proclaimed Eastern Orthodoxy as the state religion and the Romanian Orthodox Church as the state church.

But they persist. Knowing history gives one a sense of spiritual identity; in fact, to be fully human requires having spiritual identity. This is especially true under oppression, when another nation rewrites your history and practices cultural genocide, then the written word is dangerous.

Yet my father wrote: "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 Gyorgy 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.



A tradition of four centuries

Citing Wilbur, the Rev. David Bumbaugh of Summit, New Jersey, has rightly said: "We are the people...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 conundrums, 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?"

This spirit permeates more and more Unitarian Universalist churches as the Sister or Partner Church program evolves into a large grassroots movement. Today all of our 170 Unitarian churches in Transylvania have a UU partner church in North America, witnessing, caring. More than a quarter of million dollars the Center for Free Religion to build new churches, buy tractors for villages, feed seminary students and retired ministers -- keeping hope alive. Dr. Max Goebler, minister emeritus in Madison, Wisconsin, spoke for many of his fellow UU ministers when he said: "The way the whole sister church program is developing surely constitutes one of the most important and most heartening phenomena in 20th century Unitarianism."

A book recently published by the Center for Free Religion -- In Storms, Even Trees Lean on Each Other  --  gives strong testimony for this phenomenon. North American Unitarian Universalists have discovered their roots and the depth of their heritage in Transylvanian Unitarianism. Transylvania has become a holy land for them, a land for pilgrimage. This book is a collection of sermons by UU ministers and lay people on the impact and transforming spiritual experience of their visits. Americans are hungry for a kind of spirituality which they suddenly find in Transylvania. In this way, the connection becomes a partnership. The spirit of UU congregations changes -- they become generous, socially more sensitive.

One UU 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 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 could better illustrate the relevance of history in our lives than this movement and these writings?

Focus on action

Unitarians in Transylvania focus on action, and I acted by publishing eight books on Transylvanian Unitarianism. Let me tell you a few stories.

1. The only handwritten copy of my father's dissertation survived in the attic of our parsonage only because he knew that the secret police were coming to arrest him that night, and he hid it there. His library and other manuscripts were all confiscated when the house was searched. Many years after his death, but still under Ceausescu, the two manuscript volumes were smuggled out of Romania along with other precious historic documents, sown into George's backpack. Among them was my mother's fascinating life story, describing how she was harrassed by the secret police for 25 years.

2. As George has explained, in 1949 Unitarians lost the libraries of both their colleges: that of Kolozsvar -- the world's most significant library of Unitarian primary sources and manuscripts -- and that of Szekely-Keresztur. The Romanian Communist state nationalized them along with all church properties. And again as George mentioned, the great college library at Kolozsvar survived in its integrity though  it was held hostage in the Romanian Academy of Sciences.

The library at Keresztúr was scattered, annihilated. Fortythree years later, after Ceausescus's fall, a minister finally dared to whisper the secret that my father -- who was a teacher at the college as well as a parish minister -- had rescued the most precious Unitarian materials of this collection by simply stealing them the night before the confiscation. This was no small political risk, especially since the fellow minister who told us this secret turned out to have been a secret police informer. Fortunately, he loved his church well enough to keep silent.

My father hid this priceless collection in the back rows of shelves in our village parish library. The minister who succeeded my father was an implant of the state, so we could not risk sharing this information with him.  George made a video, though only of the front row which was quite impressive.  Two years later, the minister we did not trust died and we hurried to see the back rows. What we saw was breathtaking: György Enyedi’s first edition from 1619 and many other treasures yet to be catalogued.

3. The late Unitarian professor Mihály Lörincz charged us with another secret mission -- still under Ceausescu. He told us that he was instrumental in making and smuggling out of Romania some 12,000 microfilmed pages of the most important Unitarian manuscripts and books of the Kolozsvár Unitarian college library. He asked us to find them in Hungary, and we did find them, step by step, but we were never able to tell him since he died a few months later.

4. Prof. John Erdo asked me to find the catalog of this famous college library which the Unitarian librarian, Dr. Elemer Lako, had taken 12 years to compile, but which had been lost after his death. Serendipity helped us again. We gave a grant to Prof. Mihaly Balázs at the University of Szeged -- the main Unitarian academic research center in Hungary -- to help with the bibliography for my father's dissertation, and as a result we found a microfilm copy of the catalog. This not only led us to the other microfilms, but was the beginning of a marvelous collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

5. And, finally, a follow-up to Geroge's mention of how Earl Morse Wilbur borrowed the two huge handwritten volumes on Transylvanian Unitarian history by Uzoni-Foszto dated 1775 from the Transylvanian Church. World War II made it impossible for him to return them, and they remained in Boston for the next 50 years. Finally, with the help of a number of UU ministers and scholars, the manuscripts were returned to their home in Kolozsvár in 1992.

If I were asked how Unitarian history has affected my life, I would say: radically, deeply, sometimes dangerously.




[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 Gellerd (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.