When Lajos Kossuth and his fellow members of Parliament were forced to flee Budapest ahead of the advancing Austrian troops in 1849, they headed for Debrecen, the city alternately called the “Hungarian Geneva” and the “Calvinist Rome.” It was here, on April 14, 1849, that Kossuth ignited the flame of Hungarian independence, declaring independence from Hapsburg Austria, and where he was elected President of the fledgling republic.
A single tram line travels down Debrecen’s main street from the train station to the Great Church and campus of the Protestant seminary (founded in 1538) which sits across a small park from the church. Seventeen churches now serve the 60% of the city’s population that belong to the Reformed church, but the Great Church holds a special place in the hearts of all Hungarians, and her Protestant citizens, in particular.
Her 600 kg bell was cast in 1636 from Austrian cannonballs, by direction of the Transylvanian prince George Rákóczi I. As the German army retreated near the close of the Second World War, the anti-Nazi “Provisional Government” would convene in the chapel of the Debrecen seminary. This first assembly, in which communist and socialist delegates outnumbered the centrists, would have pulled the nation into the Soviet orbit at once, but they miscalculated by permitting free elections in which the Smallholders Party triumphed. The Smallholders leader, Reformed church pastor Zoltan Tildy, was elected President of Hungary. Sadly, the Hungarian communists were able to use intimidation, trials and executions to overturn the free government after only two years, turning Hungary into a Soviet satellite state.
The Debrecen Seminary produced not only pastors, but for centuries served as the preeminent center of higher learning in the nation. Countless doctors, lawyers, scientists, poets and theologians studied here, beneath the college’s motto: orando et laborando—“prayer and labor.”