Matyás Dévay Bíró – The “Hungarian Luther”

Matyás Dévay Bíró – The “Hungarian Luther”

An image of the Hungarian Reformer Matyás Dévay Biró shines through a stained window of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche (Castle Church). He’s in good company, surrounded as he is by other Protestants of his day, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Michael Agricola, and his fellow-Hungarian Leonard Stöckel.

            Few visitors will recognize Devay’s name. His features are also hardly distinguishable from those of other 16th-century reformers: same hat, same prominent nose, same long beard. In reality, his whole life is still clouded in mystery. He spent most of it on the run, moving from place to place and from prison to prison. In Hungary, he is remembered as the “Hungarian Luther” and a father of the Hungarian written language.

No Lasting City

            Dévay’s last name at birth was Biró. He was called Dévay after his hometown of Deva, in the region of Transylvania (in today’s Romania). His date of birth is unknown, but he was in his early twenties when he studied at the University of Kraków, in today’s Poland. His graduation year, 1526, was one of the saddest in Hungarian history, marking the devastating Turkish victory over the Hungarians at the battle of Mohács.

            After joining the Franciscan order, Devay became chaplain at the Castle of Boldogkő, in Northern Hungary. It was probably around that time that he became attracted by the teachings of the Reformation, which were already circulating around Hungary. One of the most influential Protestant preachers in Hungary was Michael Setári, who managed to survive the battle of Mohács where he served as chaplain and devoted the next twenty years of his life to the spreading of the gospel. A powerful speaker, Sétari apparently brought over 120 churches to the teachings of the Reformation.

            In 1529, Devai attended the University of Wittenberg and was present at some of Luther’s Table Talks. He is said to have been the first Hungarian student there.

            By 1531, he returned to Hungary to pass on to others what he had learned. He started in Buda (today’s Budapest), capital of the Hungarian Kingdom (which included a large portion of Eastern Europe). There, he published fifty-two theses under the name of Rudamenta salutis (Rudiments of Salvation). He also preached in the surrounded area, evading the Roman Catholic authorities until he was finally arrested in Košice (in today’s Slovakia) on the orders of Thomas Szlakay, bishop of Eger. He was imprisoned in Bratislava, but released in 1532 thanks to the intercession of the citizens of Košice.

            His freedom didn’t last long. He was arrested again and imprisoned in Vienna by bishop Johann Fabri, who submitted him to heavy interrogations. He was finally able to escape (possibly with the help of some citizens of Košice), and returned to Buda, where he was once again arrested – this time by King János Zápolya (also known as John I of Hungary).

            According to some records, one of Devay’s cellmates was the king’s blacksmith, who had injured the king’s horse while shoeing it. Eventually, the king released the blacksmith, intending to keep Dévay in prison. By that time, however, the blacksmith had embraced the gospel, and declared he was willing to meet the same end as Dévay, whatever that may be. Surprised, the king released both men unconditionally.

            At this point, Dévay decided to return to Germany to confer with the German Reformers. He spent some time in Nuremberg with Veit Dietrich, a close friend of Luther and Melanchton, then moved on to Wittenberg. He returned to Hungary in the fall of 1537, holding a letter of recommendation from Melanchthon to Baron Tamás Nádasdy, one of the first Hungarian noblemen to support the Reformation.

Emphasis on Education

            Nádasdy was a firm believer in education. He had started a print shop in Sárvár, north-west Hungary, and a school in nearby Uj-Sziget, where he hired the talented humanist Janos Sylvester (who had also studied in Wittenberg).

            Convinced of the importance of literacy for the spreading of the gospel, Dévay and Sylvester worked together on educational projects. Dévay published a manual (Orthographica Hungarica), teaching the basic spelling of the Hungarian language, while Sylvester worked on a Hungarian grammar and a translation of the New Testament. Apparently, Sylvester was not an easy co-worker, and came into frequent conflict with those around him, including Nádasdy.

            Dévay also taught in Nádasdy’s school and continued to preach in the surrounding area. After some time, he became rector-chaplain at the court of another Hungarian nobleman, Péter Perény, who was trying to introduce the Reformation in his lands (north of Buda). He also served briefly in Szikszó, north-east Hungary, under the patronage of Gáspár Serédi.

Further Travels and Writings

            As every other stage of Devay’s life, this peaceful period was temporary. In 1541, he had to flee the country because of persecution. He visited Wittenberg again, as well as the homes of some German patrons in Brandenburg-Ansbach and Basel. There, he was able to write three works he had been preparing for some time, including an answer to the Franciscan Gregor Szegedi’s Censurae in propositiones erroneas Mathiae Dévai Bíro, which is considered the first Counter-Reformation work in Hungary.

            Dévay returned to Hungary in late 1541, traveling as usual from place to place. Around this time, he came under some criticism for his views of the Lord’s Supper, which were more aligned with the church in Zurich than the church in Wittenberg. His preaching of the gospel, however, was in line with that of both Reformed and Lutheran preachers. He died in 1545.

The Fast Rise and Slow Decline of the Protestant Reformation

            Dévay and a few of his contemporaries were the first of many Hungarians who devoted their lives to the spreading of the gospel both in Catholic and Ottoman Hungary. Some of his most noticeable contemporaries were Márton Kálmáncsehi, the first bishop of a Protestant church district in Hungary, and Gál Huszar, a preacher in northern Hungary who organized a widespread and prolific printing operation. Kálmáncsehi is remembered for his translation of the Psaltery in Hungarian (with the addition of some of his original hymns).

            According to the historian Philip Benedict, by 1571 there were about five printing centers in Hungary, with a production of roughly 160 Protestant works in Hungarian.[1] The Reformation spread quickly. In 1559, the Protestant churches in Hungary adopted their first Hungarian Confession of Faith. The city of Debrecen (now the second largest in Hungary) housed so many Reformers that it became known as the “Hungarian Geneva,” and held that title until the mid-18th century.

            The Turkish domination in Hungary, particularly after the fall of Buda in 1541, demanded that the Christians maintained an appearance of religious unity. In 1568, the Edict of Torda stated that priests and ministers were free to preach the Gospel according to their own interpretation. This allowed for a measure of tolerance, even if it was imposed rather than spontaneous. This made Hungary a haven for persecuted religious sects, such as the Anabaptists and especially the Unitarians.

            Eventually, the country returned Roman Catholic under the Habsburgs, who used the Counter-Reformation for political interests, and issued strict sanctions against other religions. This situation was partly alleviated in 1781, when Joseph II issued an Edict of Toleration, granting Protestants and Orthodox Christians full civil rights.

[1] Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press, p. 275.


Simonetta Carr