The Gospel in Hungary—Then and Now


In June 1988, Hungary granted legal recognition to the Church, permitting missionary work to commence in that country. But few Latter-day Saints know that early proselyting in Hungary established an outpost of the Church there at the turn of the century that survived until World War I.

On 10 March 1888, a lone Church representative arrived in the remote village of Szerb-Csernye. (Today it is known as Srpksa Crnja; though it is now in northeastern Yugoslavia, it was then located in southwestern Hungary.) The missionary was Ferdinand Hintze, president of the Turkish Mission. At that time, the mission stretched across the junction of Europe and Asia, encompassing both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

President Hintze sought Mischa Markow, whom he had baptized a year earlier in Istanbul. The journey was in response to Brother Markow’s request to come and baptize members of his family. President Hintze’s week-long journey at an end, he entered the village expectantly. 1

He was “astonished” when Brother Markow reported that the hope of baptizing some of his family had evaporated. 2 By the time he became aware that his summons had been precipitous, there had been no way to inform the missionary, who was already en route. 3

Determined to gain some benefit from the journey, President Hintze ordained Brother Markow to the priesthood, then began to preach, with Brother Markow as interpreter.

The visit of a foreigner to the village had not gone unnoticed. The day after his arrival, people streamed in from the countryside to listen to the stranger from across the ocean. Complaints from local priests resulted in a visit to the magistrate for President Hintze and Brother Markow. The judge ordered the American to terminate his visit in forty-eight hours.

Brother Markow left soon after President Hintze’s departure. For a year, he proselyted elsewhere in Europe. Then he emigrated to Utah, where he married, had two children, and increased his knowledge of his new faith. He returned to Europe in the spring of 1899 as an official missionary of his Church and a citizen of the United States. Under the direction of German Mission president Arnold Schulthess, he first labored in Serbia. Banished from that country, he journeyed to Nagy Becskerek, Hungary (today Zrenjanin, Yugoslavia), thirty miles south of Szerb-Csernye.

A month into his work there, he was jailed after being accused of anarchy. Once his U.S. citizenship was established, he was simply expelled. 4

But Elder Markow would return again, more experienced and more effective in bringing the message of the gospel to his countrymen. After spending a little over a year preaching in Romania and Bulgaria and eventually being banished by the authorities, he decided to preach in Orsova (now in southern Romania). Unsure of his decision, he prayerfully sought divine guidance.

His prayer was answered in a dream. He saw himself in the city of Temesvar, present-day Timisoara, Romania, not far from the other cities where he had previously preached. He saw a group of people assembled in a dark, foggy place, with their heads bared and bowed, praying that someone might come and baptize them in the name of Christ. Then he saw a sunrise, and himself mingling with the people, delivering the gospel message. He awoke to new hope and reassurance, 5 and recalled that he “felt strong like a lion.” He thanked God for the knowledge that had come.

Arriving at Temesvar on 13 September 1900, Elder Markow encountered the people of his dream “among the Kathololiks [sic] and many of Katholics told me thank God that he send you to us because we want to be Baptise.” 6 He wrote to President Schulthess asking for a companion, and he was soon joined by Elder Henry M. Lau.

It was not long before a local Catholic bishop noticed the missionaries’ activity. He complained to the high court. A week after Lau’s arrival, the duo received a summons. Surprisingly, the judge did not restrict their activity but remanded the case to the supreme court in Budapest. 7 With the case pending, the missionaries could continue to prepare baptismal candidates. On 24 January 1901, nine people were baptized in Temesvar.

Now that the Church had members, Elder Markow sought permission to hold meetings. The mayor denied his request until a determination of the missionaries’ status was received from the supreme court. The high court summoned the missionaries again and forbade further preaching. But Elder Markow sent Elder Lau to Budapest to plead their case in person. Elder Lau also sought assistance from the American consulate. Both attempts were fruitless.

The judicial delay lasted until March 28, when the Hungarian supreme court ruled against the missionaries. The Temesvar court gave them twenty-four hours to leave. Elder Markow argued for five more days and was permitted to stay for three before his presence would lead to arrest.

On Saturday evening, March 30, a dozen prospective members joined the missionaries after dark to be baptized. The branch, now consisting of thirty-one persons, gathered on the Sabbath. In Elder Markow’s words, “the members of the Church they felt very sorry that we must Depart from them and they weep like Little Children and when we start to shake Hands with them we could not keep our Tears back and we weep together.” 8

The missionaries departed on Monday, leaving Franz Kortje and Matthaus Sadorf, whom Elder Markow had previously ordained as elders, in charge of the branch. The missionaries headed west, meeting President Schulthess in Oderberg, Austria. After reviewing the situation with Elder Markow, President Schulthess immediately made plans to send Elder Henry Mathis to oversee the members and make sure that the work proceeded cautiously, avoiding further confrontations with the authorities. 9

Elder Mathis survived in Temesvar until September 1901, when he was imprisoned for several days and then banished. 10 Hungarian members were effectively severed from the Church for three years. Baptisms plummeted from forty in 1901 to three in 1902 to none in 1903. In July 1903, Hugh J. Cannon, who had replaced Arnold Schulthess as the German Mission president, reinitiated efforts to obtain legal recognition for the Church. In 1904, he sent missionaries back into the country. When official recognition was denied in September, the elders were still not withdrawn. 11

In terms of baptism, 1905 was the second most productive year in Hungary before World War I. Nineteen people were baptized, mainly in Temesvar and the newly opened city of Brasso (now Brasov, Romania), two hundred miles east of Temesvar. From 1906 to 1908, Brasso became the center of LDS activity in Hungary. All nine baptisms for 1906 and 1907 occurred there, as well as nine of the sixteen baptisms registered in 1908.

While the missionaries continued their efforts to attract new converts, members were leaving Hungary to unite with the Church in the United States. Of the forty-five converts baptized in Temesvar before December 1904, twenty-three had emigrated by the end of that year. One had died, leaving twenty-one members still in the city. The pattern was repeated in 1905, when fifteen of the nineteen converts left Hungary before the year was out. Another member died, leaving a net gain of three members in Hungary for the year. 12

The members’ decision to leave was related to the LDS doctrine of the gathering, which, though not preached as strongly in the twentieth as in the nineteenth century, was still perpetuated in the common understanding of Church members outside the U.S. Other factors that may have encouraged emigration were the lack of religious freedom in Hungary and the politics of Europe, which teetered on the edge of armed conflict. The prospect of a new life in a free land was as attractive to Church members as to the many other Hungarians who streamed to American shores during the first decade of the century. Hungarian emigration between 1900 and 1910 peaked at 335,000 persons, as compared to 92,000 in the previous decade and 132,000 in the next.

It is clear from the records that most of the Hungarian converts were ethnically German. Many German enclaves existed in eastern Europe as a result of earlier migrations. There are probably several reasons why so many of the converts were of German extraction. The elders spoke German rather than Hungarian. It may also have been that Germans, with roots in western culture, were more at home with the missionaries. Whatever the reason, only a few who joined the Church bore family names such as Nagy, Szlafkay, and Schaljo.

In 1909, John Ensign Hill, a missionary from Logan, Utah, was appointed to learn and preach in Hungarian. Over two years he produced several translations of tracts and initiated the Hungarian translation of the Book of Mormon. On 28 November 1909, he conducted the first LDS meeting held entirely in the Hungarian language, and on 10 January 1910, he performed the first baptism in Hungarian. 13

The effort to preach in Hungarian would continue for the next five years, but to little effect. The heyday of the mission had now passed. Four baptisms were recorded in 1909, six in each of the next two years, two in 1912, one in 1913, and one in 1914.

From the beginning, government officials had hampered the proselyting effort by banning LDS services. However, missionaries were able to hold public Sunday Bible classes and to organize choirs to sing in English. They met privately with members for sacrament services. Elder E. L. Smith, who had transferred to Brasso from Budapest in 1910, noted that on July 2 he was called in by police, who reaffirmed the prohibition against holding public meetings. A month later, on August 4, he recorded that sixteen friends attended his song class. 14

The unexpected happened in January 1911, when the missionaries in Brasso received long-sought permission to hold public meetings. 15 A missionary conference was held in the city on April 22, attended by ten missionaries and Thomas E. McKay, the mission president. It was a festive occasion, with everyone gathering for a group picture. A local member recorded: “These were days of blessing and joy.” 16

On a national level, efforts to receive legal recognition also prevailed. Josef Ritter Grieg von Ronse, representing the Church, carried a petition beyond the negative ruling of two lower courts to the supreme court, which reversed the lower court opinions and granted the desired recognition in November 1911. 17 Yet official recognition was only of short duration, apparently being withdrawn the next year.

It was a solemn gathering of LDS authorities that met in Budapest on 5 March 1913. The group consisted of Elder Rudger Clawson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and current European Mission president; Hyrum Valentine, who had succeeded Thomas E. McKay as the German Mission president; and five elders. They decided to discontinue missionary work among the Hungarian-speaking people for the present. 18

Elder Clawson reported to an associate that four years of missionary effort in Budapest had failed. There was only one Church member, a sister, in Budapest at the time. Seven others had been baptized there since 1905, but they had all moved away, emigrated, or lost interest in the Church.

Country-wide, of the 106 persons baptized since the arrival of Mischa Markow, 59 had emigrated to America, 5 had moved elsewhere in Europe, and 3 had died, leaving 40 members isolated in small enclaves at Temesvar and Brasso. Success in terms of baptisms had never equalled the achievements of Elder Markow in Temesvar. The missionary force in Europe was sparse, and unrewarded effort simply dictated that the mission’s limited resources be expended elsewhere. On 10 August 1914, the last missionary left the country, and Europe was soon convulsed in war. In the words of Helene Bernhardt, a member in Brasso who remained faithful, “Long and dreary years now began for us all—isolated, no connection with the Church whatsoever, only dependent on ourselves. But this time also went by. The Lord was with us and did not leave us.” 19

The official absence of the Church from Hungary was occasionally punctuated by the arrival of various church representatives. Sister Bernhardt was visited in 1926. Commenting on her feelings after the twelve-year wait, she wrote, “Can you realize what it means to be able to take the Sacrament and to enjoy the spirit of a meeting after such a long time? After a long, dark night the sun finally shone again for us.” 20

In 1929 the Czechoslovakian mission president, Arthur Gaeth, visited Brasov (which had become a part of Romania after World War I). Hyrum Valentine, the last mission president over Hungary, visited that same year. Sister Bernhardt wrote, “We felt as if the good old times had returned.” 21 Missionaries Oliver Budge and Don Corbett passed through in 1931. Elder Budge noted that Sister Bernhardt was holding together “a group of the best women I have ever met.” In the absence of priesthood holders, they operated as a Relief Society. Elder Budge added that he and Elder Corbett had “held meetings and administered the sacrament. They all wept for joy.” 22

In 1965, President Ezra Taft Benson, then serving as the European mission president, received notice of a faithful member living in Debrecen, Hungary. He sent J. Peter Loescher, Austrian Mission president, accompanied by Elder Siegfried Szoke, to visit John Denndorfer, a native of Switzerland. Elder Szoke observed that Brother Denndorfer had remained faithful and had kept the law of tithing during his decade of isolation from the Church. 23

The harbinger of a new era for the gospel in Hungary occurred in October 1984. As a result of extremely positive response to a telecast in Hungary of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 1982 European tour, Hungarian National Television sent a film crew to Utah for two weeks to produce a miniseries about the Church. (See Church News, 11 Nov. 1984, p. 10.) It was broadcast nationwide in November and December 1985; its four parts reached a wide audience. Soon the Missionary Department began to receive requests from Hungarians for more information. Not knowing exactly whom to write to, they addressed these requests to such generic locations as “Mormons, America,” “Missionary Center, Utah.” Much of the mail was forwarded to the president of the Austria Vienna Mission, with jurisdiction over Hungary. 24

One letter followed a different route. A Hungarian ear, nose, and throat surgeon, interested by the broadcast, pored through back issues of his professional journals to rediscover an article he assumed had been written by a Latter-day Saint. He wrote to the author—Dr. R. Kim Davis of the University of Utah Medical School—asking for information about the Church. The letter was an unexpected but welcome answer to some specific prayers of the Davis family, who had desired to assist in missionary work. They forwarded the letter to President Condie, with a picture of their family and their testimony. In February 1986, the mission president began teaching the Gedeon Kereszti family in Ajka, Hungary. That September, the family traveled to Vienna to be baptized.

The desire shown by many Hungarians to learn about the Church and the improvement in relations between the U.S. and eastern European countries presaged the visit to Hungary of Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve in April 1987. On Mt. Gellert, situated in a Budapest park, he offered a prayer to dedicate Hungary for missionary labor. In his words, “It was Easter Sunday. There had been a lot of people, a lot of traffic in the park. But all of a sudden, the people had gone home, and I had a sweet, peaceful feeling this [was] the spot.” 25

Because the Church had not as yet received legal recognition, Elder Nelson immediately informed the government about the dedicatory prayer. He explained its significance to Dr. Imre Miklos, state secretary and president of the State Office for Religious Affairs. Dr. Miklos was moved and expressed his appreciation for the desire of the Church to bless the people of his country.

On 1 June 1988, the document granting legal recognition to the Church was signed in Budapest by Dr. Miklos, representing the government of Hungary. On June 24, Elder Nelson received the official declaration in Budapest on behalf of the Church. He was accompanied by Elder Hans B. Ringger of the First Quorum of the Seventy and President Dennis B. Neuenschwander, president of the Austria Vienna East Mission—the Church leader who would have immediate jurisdiction over missionary efforts in Hungary. Also present were two Hungarian members of the Church, Dr. Gedeon Kereszti, serving then as the president of the Hungarian District, and his counselor, Dr. Peter Paul Varga.

Missionaries have once again begun to contact the people of Hungary. Those serving at first included Wayne and Linnea Johnson, a missionary couple from Sandy, Utah, as well as Elders Zoltan Nagy-Kovacs from Alberta, Canada; Jean-Marc Frey from Switzerland; Aaron Uppencamp from Texas; and Christopher Jones from Virginia. The main missionary effort has centered in the capital, Budapest, but already members can be found in the cities of Ajka, Gyor, and Debrecen.

Church membership has grown in Hungary as Hungarians have opened their doors to those bearing the message of the gospel. That growth has led to the establishment of the new Hungary Budapest Mission, effective July 1 of this year.

The desire of the Hungarian people to learn more about the gospel is shown in the story of Ference Csapo, who is currently branch president in Budapest. The missionaries did not have to find him. He traveled from Dunaujvaros to Budapest and knocked on the elders’ door. After he and his family were baptized, he recalled that he had no sooner knelt to test the promise of Moroni (see Moro. 10:4–5), than he knew the Book of Mormon was true. 26

Conditions today are much changed from those of an earlier era. A positive image of the Church precedes its messengers, and the government has officially opened the door to them. In the Lord’s due time, the hope Elder Hintze felt a century ago is coming to fruition.

[photos] Photography by FPG International, and Alan P. Macfarlane

[photos] Above left: Early Hungarian convert and missionary Mischa Markow. Above: The Danube River flows through Budapest. Right: Gedeon and Piroska Kereszti, members since 1986, with two of the first missionaries to serve in Hungary since the Church was legally recognized in 1988.

[photo] This converted home in Budapest is the meetinghouse for the Budapest Branch.

[photos] Top: Alan P. Macfarlane (center), with the Huszar family of Gyor: Bela (left), a neurosurgeon; Attila and Erika (front); and Klara, an English teacher. Above: A scene from a documentary about the Church shown on Hungarian television. Right: Gellert Hill and Park, where Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated Hungary for the preaching of the gospel.

Kahlile Mehr serves as the family history consultant in the Centerville (Utah) Twenty-third Ward.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Journal of Ferdinand Hintze, pp. 175–76, entry dated 10 March 1888, LDS Church Archives.

  2.   2.

    Ibid.

  3.   3.

    Mischa Markow, Reminiscences, p. 52, LDS Church Archives.

  4.   4.

    Markow, pp. 60–61.

  5.   5.

    Ibid., p. 77.

  6.   6.

    Ibid.

  7.   7.

    Ibid., p. 78.

  8.   8.

    Ibid., p. 79.

  9.   9.

    Millennial Star, 18 Apr. 1901, p. 253.

  10.   10.

    Francis M. Lyman to George F. Gibbs, 10 September 1901, Francis M. Lyman Letterpress Copybooks, LDS Church Archives.

  11.   11.

    Millennial Star, 6 October 1904, p. 636.

  12.   12.

    Hungarian District Manuscript History, 31 Dec. 1904, LDS Church Archives; Hungarian Conference Record of Members, Family History Library, Salt Lake City.

  13.   13.

    Ivy Hooper Blood Hill, John Ensign Hill: Diaries and Biographical Material, Logan, Utah: J. P. Smith & Son, 1962, pp. 29, 41–44, 54–58.

  14.   14.

    Smith, entries for the dates noted in text.

  15.   15.

    Helene Bernhardt, “History of the Saints in Roumania,” LDS Church Archives, p. 2.

  16.   16.

    Ibid., p. 4.

  17.   17.

    Deseret News, 18 Nov. 1911, p. 3.

  18.   18.

    Hungarian District Manuscript History, 5 March 1913.

  19.   19.

    Bernhardt, p. 5.

  20.   20.

    Ibid.

  21.   21.

    Ibid.

  22.   22.

    Ibid. Appended note.

  23.   23.

    Siegfried Szoke, interview by author, August 1988, Salt Lake City, Utah.

  24.   24.

    Spencer J. Condie, “God Has Not Ceased to be a God of Miracles,” typescript in possession of author, p. 1.

  25.   25.

    “Church granted legal recognition in Hungary,” Church News, 2 July 1988, p. 13.

  26.   26.

    Christopher Jones, interview by author, 12 October 1989, Salt Lake City.