Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

13 January 1568: Freedom of religion was declared at the Diet of Torda

Declaration of Religious and Conscience Freedom by Dávid Ferenc in the Diet of Torda in 1568, painting by Körösfői-Kriesch Aladár

Religious tolerance in the Principality of Transylvania in the 16th century

The Religious Treaty of Augsburg declared in 1555 that whoever owned the land, decided over the religion. In Europe, there was just one established denomination on each land. “Religious freedom” was an unknown idea. It was not like this in Transylvania, though. Since the time of King János Zsigmond, the Transylvanian state had always been more tolerant of religious issues than any western Christian state.

King János Zsigmond, son of King Szapolyai of Hungary

In Transylvania, the state’s power was based on the combined rule of the Hungarian nobles, the Saxons, and the Szeklers. Transylvania couldn’t afford to risk religious hostility because of its delicate location between the Ottoman and the Holy Roman Empires. In the 16th century, the Reformation had spread in Transylvania like a bushfire. Only a few aristocrats and the Hungarian Székelys had remained Roman Catholics by the year 1600. The German Saxons became Lutherans while the Helvetian faith was popular among the Hungarians in the Partium, near the river Tisza. Find out whether Transylvania was a mere vassal state of the Ottoman Empire or not:

The Transylvanian Principality in 1570

In 1558, the Transylvanian Diet’s Edict of Torda declared free practice of both Catholicism and Lutheranism. Calvinism, however, was prohibited. Calvinism was included among the accepted religions in 1564. Ten years after the first law, in 1568, the same Diet, under the chairmanship of János Zsigmond, (elected but not crowned) King of Hungary and Prince of Transylvania, following the teaching of Dávid Ferenc, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, extended the freedom to all religions.

The church in torda (Photo: Imre Lánczi)

They declared that “It is not allowed to anybody to intimidate anybody with captivity or expelling for his religion”. However, it was more than a religious tolerance; it declared the equality of the religions, prohibiting all kinds of acts from authorities or from simple people, which could harm other groups, or people because of their religious beliefs. The emergence in social hierarchy wasn’t dependent on the religion of the person thus Transylvania had also Catholic and Protestant monarchs, who all respected the Edict of Torda. The lack of state religion was unique for centuries in Europe. Therefore, the Edict of Torda is considered the first legal guarantee of religious freedom in Christian Europe.

The Memorial Plaque in Torda, commemorating the famous Edict (Photo: Cerghizan Radu)

Here is a detail of the famous Edict:

„Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience: His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings are by the word of God.

— Diet at Torda, 1568 : King János Zsigmond (1540-1571)

In Torda’s church (If God is with us, who is against us?) Photo: Lánczi Imre

Four religions (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Unitarianism) were named as accepted religions (religo recepta), having their representatives in the Transylvanian Diet, while the other religions, like the Orthodox, Sabbatarians, and anabaptists were tolerated churches (religio tolerata), which meant that they had no power in the law-making and no veto rights in the Diet, but they were not persecuted in any way. However, we know that the Catholics had no right to have a bishop in Transylvania unless the Prince appointed one instead of the Pope.  Even the Catholic Prince Báthori István was afraid to appoint a bishop, though.

Prince Báthori Zsigmond in 1596

Prince Báthori Zsigmond was also a Roman Catholic, and he did appoint a Catholic bishop: Náprágyi Demeter. However, Bishop Náprágyi could fill this office only for four years before he was chased away in 1601. The Transylvania Diet declared in 1610 that the Catholics had no right to have a bishop. When the Habsburgs could take over the rule of Transylvania, they had to fight for 21 years before the Noble Estates allowed this right to the Catholics. On the other hand, the Protestants living in Royal Hungary were allowed to elect their own bishops and leaders. On the other hand, we know that the Calvinist Prince Bethlen Gábor was sponsoring the work of Káldy György who translated the first Hungarian Catholic Bible into the Hungarian language.

Káldy György, a Jesuit Bible translator, founder of the College of Pozsony (1573-1634)

Against all the odds, this Edict still created a better environment than anywhere else in Europe. It was better to be a Catholic in Transylvania than a Protestant in Royal Hungary.  Thanks to the Edict of Torda, from the last decades of the 16th Century Transylvania, was the only place in Europe, where so many religions could live together in harmony and without persecution. However, there were aristocrats in Royal Hungary as well who offered shelter to religious fugitives. For example, read the story of Anabaptists arriving from Switzerland and Bohemia in Hungary and Transylvania:

This religious freedom ended however for some of the religions of Transylvania in 1638. After this year the Sabbatarians began to be persecuted and forced to convert to one of the accepted Christian religions of Transylvania. I would say they were persecuted because of political reasons, and of course, their money and lands were needed. Some people say Prince Rákóczi György I wanted to weaken the Unitarians’ influence by persecuting the Székely Hungarian Sabbatarians. However, in the infamous Trial of the Székely Sabbatarians in 1638 when 20,000 “Judaizers” had been targeted, just one person was executed in the end. Compare it to the great religious wars in the west where an estimated 11 million people were killed.

Prince Rákóczi I György of Transylvania

When we are talking about tolerance, we should be aware of the fact that this tolerance was not in the modern sense, but it was rather a political agreement between the denominations. While the religious wars had been devastating Europe for many years, the four denominations lived quite peacefully together in Transylvania. Regarding the Unitarian faith, it was persecuted everywhere else in Europe.  As for the Jewish community in Transylvania, read how Prince Bethlen Gábor granted them freedom:

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Castles and fortified Churches in Transylvania – Wall Calendar for 2022