Scottish Mission for Hungarian Spiritual Renewal
by Zsuzsanna Bagdán
by Zsuzsanna Bagdán
Cherchez la femme

The Chain Bridge is one of the most distinctive landmarks of Budapest. Rumour has it that the first stone bridge of the city – which was called Pest-Buda at the time – was inspired by tender feelings: István Széchenyi is said to have resolved to get the structure built when he was unable to cross the icy Danube to meet his sweetheart. The history of the Scottish Mission in Hungary is also something of a fairy tale: the fact that – besides the Chain Bridge – Scottish missionaries were also able to build social and spiritual bridges is closely related to the figure of Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Württemberg, wife of Archduke Joseph and a pietistic Lutheran of deep faith. 

It was in 1839 that Maria Dorothea, who was deeply committed to spiritual awakening, became acquainted with two Scottish missionaries, who ended up in Pest-Buda due to a serendipitous twist of fate. The pillars of Scottish Reformed spirituality included being chosen (predestination) and therefore committed to the Gospel, engaging in charitable volunteering, being Gospel-centred and the idea of millennialism. These all pointed in the direction of not only the possibility of a Jewish mission, but also of the spiritual renewal of Hungarian society, especially its Protestant segment. According to John Duncan, the first Scottish sent to Hungary in 1841, the Jewish mission would be inconceivable without the awakening and active involvement of the Protestant churches in Hungary. Duncan expressed the conflict between the Scottish evangelical and the nationalist-confessionist Protestant spirituality the following way: “Hungarians are willing to die for Calvinism – if only they were willing to live for it!”

Under the veil of bridge construction

The conditions were favourable for the settlement of the mission: the pastoral care of the Scottish construction workers building the Chain Bridge proved to be the perfect excuse for the arrival of missionaries, who were incorporated into the organisational structure of the Reformed Church of Pest, with the tacit consent of Archduke Joseph. The arrival of the Scots was also welcomed by the liberal politicians of the Age of Reforms: they anticipated a growth in the Hungarian-speaking population as well as the enhancement of assimilation as a result of the Protestant mission amongst German-speaking Jews.

The meetings of the Scottish Mission were launched in November 1844 with the patronage of Maria Dorothea. These events, which began with Bible study and ended in prayer, were opportunities for the Protestant intelligentsia of the time to discuss how the church could be awakened and prompted to get involved in social issues. It was on one such occasion that the first Jewish person joined the Scottish Mission: Israel Saphir, together with his whole family, converted to Jesus Christ, although originally he began attending the conferences only to perfect his English language skills and strengthen his social ties. The example of this prominent personality was followed by some forty others.

Pillars of the school

The Saphirs became trustworthy and enthusiastic members of the Jewish mission: Israel Saphir opened a German-language Sunday school and also launched a youth movement, although this latter one turned out to be short-lived. From 1846, also with the tacit consent of Archduke Joseph, there was a colportage mission for converted Jews. The colportage network provided those seeking Jesus Christ with Protestant church literature and Bibles. In the same year, the Scottish Mission’s own German-language school was also launched under the direction of Philip Saphir. Although the Jewish community did not approve of the evangelical activities of the Scottish Mission, they were willing to send Judaist children to the institution because of its consistently high quality and loving atmosphere. 

Liberal-pietistic conflict

In the meantime, the Protestant elite became slowly divided into two distinct groups on the basis of values: the pietists, such as Maria Dorothea and theScottish evangelists, had repeated disagreements with liberals. The liberals wished to achieve the revitalisation of socio-political life, the union of Hungarian Protestant churches and the foundation of a Protestant college in Pest, whereas the pietists wanted spiritual renewal. These differences in values became even more marked in the years of the revolution and retribution. The community was going through a difficult period: Scots were banned from the territory of the Monarchy due to their participation in the revolution. The school was taken over by Israel Saphir between 1852 and 1857, and after that, by Adrian van Andel, who served in the Scottish Mission but was from the Netherlands. The deaths of Archduke Joseph (1847) and of Maria Dorothea (1855) further complicated the everyday life of the Scottish Mission of Pest.

The Reformed Church of Pest found the presence of those urging for spiritual renewal more and more inconvenient: in 1859 they opened an orphanage, and soon voted pietists out of its board of directors. This marked the beginning of the process which resulted in the establishment of the German-Speaking Reformed Affiliated Church in 1864, whose first mission was the foundation of Bethesda Hospital. 

German-speaking Scots

Initially, the Jewish Mission Committee of Edinburgh had high hopes for the German-speaking congregation – especially because the population of Pest used German in everyday situations, and several members of the congregation (such as Ábrahám Ganz) were considered potential supporters of the Jewish mission. The last steps of the congregation’s transformation were overseen by Rudolf König, a Prussian who was brought to Pest from Constantinople by the Scottish Mission.

In 1866 the community did not have its own church building yet, but – sensing the Zeitgeist – they founded a hospital, where two deaconesses, Sophie Wehn and Adelheid Höser, were brought from Kaiserswerth, thanks to the personal intercession of Rudolf König and the custodian, Richárd Biberauer. The spirit of the times also prompted them to open the doors of the hospital to those wounded in the Austro-Prussian War, amongst whom the hospital mission and colportage was started. The latter activity was particularly courageous in light of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, which was the quasi state church at the time, had forbidden people to read the Bible. From 1866 on, the dissemination of literature was also carried out by Jewish colporteurs, in cooperation with the National Bible Society of Scotland.

Meet Dr Ábrahám Kovács

Dr. Ábrahám Kovács is an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Debrecen Reformed Theological University,General Secretary of the Hungarian Association for the Study of Religion, and the preeminent scholar of theinterplay between the Scottish Mission and the Hungarian Reformed Church. He first became interested in the topic while getting his master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has spent years researching and writing on the topic of Scottish mission work with Jews in Budapest and how it contributed to the revival of the Reformed Church in Hungary and other Protestant churches. Dr. Kovács is especially interested in the concept of home mission and how the Scottish Mission’s focus on this played a role in the development of the RCH.

The following is an edited interview with Dr. Ábrahám Kovács; the full version can be found here.>> 

"They opened our eyes..."

Hungarians in mission

In the second half of the 19th century, the population of the city grew substantially, with a particular rise in those who spoke Hungarian. It became inevitable for Scottish missionaries to learn not only German but also Hungarian, and also to become independent from the German-speaking community, although it had been doing an excellent job. The reason for this need was that – while the Jewish mission activities were continued with the help of the German language – the other objective of the Scottish Mission, namely the renewal of Hungarian Protestant churches, had become neglected over the years. This renewal was realised in three fields: First of all the revival in Debrecen named as new orthodoxy, led by Imre Révész and Ferenc Balogh. Another movement in the southern part of the Hungary led by Szalay and  Kecskeméthy and another one in Budapest, initiated by Aladár Szabó.

Thanks to the bursary foundation of Edinburgh, with the help of the latter Professor in Debrecen Fernec Balogh, and the dedicated Scottish ministers who were also willing to learn Hungarian, in the 1880s the mission began using the Hungarian language as well. From 1882 on, the Scottish Mission school had Hungarian teachers, who were former Edinburgh bursary students. Hungarians were also involved in the leadership of the Scottish Congregation, and Hungarian-language church services were started. Aladár Szabó, who was influenced by Scottish spirituality and was one of the most active home mission workers, launched a Sunday school movement as well as KIE (YMCA Hungary) in the years 1882-83. Both endeavours were modelled after the initiatives of the Scottish Mission and the German-speaking congregation.

Former participants in the Scottish bursary programme also revitalised rural Reformed communities – by this time, the liberal-pietistic conflict seemed to have faded, the two axes of which used to be Pest and Debrecen. The Scottish practice was active in establishing various associations: they were involved in the foundation of the Hungarian Evangelical Christian Youth Organisation and the foreign mission service, and they were also responsible for the appearance of the Evangelical Alliance in Hungary.

The Scots also had a hand in the Bible Society’s work: it was Professor Duncan who in 1845 asked the director of the Bible Society to start a foundation of 100 pounds sterling in order to have a new Hungarian translation of the New Testament; this process was overseen by Maria Dorothea. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the work of the Bible Society became easier: with the leadership of Rudolf König, there were four people engaged in the society’s activities in Hungary, one of whom operated in Transylvania. In 1868, as many as 4129 Bibles were distributed. In 1896, the millennium of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin, the Bible Society held an exhibition, opened on 2 May by Emperor Franz Joseph. Over the course of 159 days, 4746 Bibles were sold, which were available in twelve languages.

Mission of survival

In many instances during the 20th century, the work of the Scottish Mission was characterised by offering help in the social sphere as well as saving lives, and those involved expressed their faith with courageous acts. During the post-WWII Communist era, the Jewish mission had no other choice but to become transformed into a place for Jewish-Christian dialogue; the school was nationalised – it was in Webster Hall, the chapel of the giant building in Vörösmarty Street, where the congregation of a handful of former Scottish school students and English-speaking Protestants managed to survive the decades during which no Scottish minister was allowed to come behind the Iron Curtain.   

After the fall of Communism, St. Columba’s Scottish Congregation – which was the only Western mission in Hungary during the Communist dictatorship, kept alive through the tireless work of Hungarian Reformed ministers – was able to develop closer ties to the Church of Scotland. Today it is able to carry on its work towards the renewal of the Hungarian Reformed community, learning and attempting to adapt the eco-congregation movement and the work of the Scottish Youth Assembly, and cooperating with the Refugee Mission.


István Széchenyi, the father of the Chain Bridge, contributed to not only the spreading of British technology and civilization, to the birth of a modern Hungary, but also – although inadvertently – to the spiritual rebirth of the country as well. The Scots in Hungary, while building a bridge between the two parts of the city, also constructed a bridge for Hungarians to reach a Christian life experienced with true faith. The Scottish Mission was successful in establishing the evangelical and interdenominational concept of the mission in the Reformed Church of Hungary. By the beginning of the 20th century, the spirit of the Scottish Mission had clearly become integrated into the Reformed church, which resulted in a spiritual renewal. The network of home mission organisations reached every corner of the country, which inspired several instances of local cooperation between Christian denominations in a way never seen before. The influence of Scottish bursary students, who remained active even after their return to Hungary, has been felt in the theological academies as well as in church governance. In 1911, the Synod of the Reformed Church of Hungary resolved to include home mission in the curriculum of the training of ministers. The Scottish Mission became truly Hungarian through spiritual renewal.