Sarospatak Reformed College, founded in 1531, is one of the oldest Protestant educational establishments in the modern Christian world. In July 1990, after being a Communist state institution for forty years, it was finally restored to the Reformed Synod of Hungary. This was a very unique moment in the Hungarian national history, because this was never experienced so greatly before.
The disappearance of borders and new freedom of travel have provided further opportunities to young Magyars to study religion at the theology, gymnasium and primary school. For centuries, the central location of Sarospatak placed the college at the crossroads of common European history. Just as it served the Great Reformation, the college with its’ students and teachers as staunch champions of Christian faith stands ready to serve new challenges in the twenty-first century as well. Its’ ancient seal originates from the Book of Revelation 14:7 and portrays an angel with the eternal Gospel in one hand and a trumpet in the other.’Fear the God and give Him glory’ this is the message that symbolizes the supreme goal of the college.
Nearly 480 years ago, Peter Perenyi, a Hungarian crown guard, established the college to provide education in Latin, Greek and Theology at a very elementary level. Along with the colleges of Debrecen and Papa, it had become one of the nursery-gardens of the Reformed Church of Hungary – seminarii ecclesiae. By the year 1600, ninety-five percent of the population had already embraced the Reformed faith due to their indefatigable work. During its golden age in the seventeenth century, the college increased in academic strength when the mighty Rakoczi princes had become the rulers of Upper-Hungary, making Sarospatak centre of their Transylvanian Principality. Prince George Rakoczi I and his famous spouse, Princess Susanna Lorantffy took over the guidance of the college. The latter was said to love her students ’as mother loves her children, as a nurse her little ones, and wanted to make them followers of God and Fatherland’. A memorial plaque to the princely family and a statue of Princess Susanna Lorantffy, sitting with the open Bible on her lap, still adorn the main building and the campus as permanent reminders of their beneficent influence and saintly character.
In November 1650, the greatest educator of all time, Ioann Amos Comenius solemnly arrived in Sarospatak on the princess’s gracious invitation. He believed that learning is affected more through the eyes and imagination than through books. Here, he created his immortal Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The World of Meanings in Pictures) and wrote Schola Ludus (School Theatre), as well as developed Schola Pansophicae (Pansophical School) which brought the college its international attention and acclaim worldwide.
The darkest period of the Hungarian Reformed Church was the decade between 1671-1681 with its gloomiest day of 4 April 1674, when for their Reformed faith several hundred Protestant ministers and teachers were condemned to death by the Jesuits. In May 1675, thirty of them, including Istvan Harsanyi, were sold as galley slaves to the Spanish fleet and brutally chained to the oars. Only after a huge ransom was paid by Hamel Bruininx, the Dutch Ambassador, and the Swiss Welz Brothers, the twenty-six surviving prisoners of conscience were rescued by Michael de Ruyter, the Dutch Admiral, in the Bay of Naples on 11 May 1676. Istvan Harsanyi, who had studied at Utrecht, Franeker and Groningen, spoke Dutch fluently and tried to express their gratitude, but the admiral cut him off with deep feelings: ’There is no need to thank us…We just happen to be the instruments of God. Give all the thanks to Him, He is the author of your liberty.’ You can see the memorial plaque praising the galley slaves on the right wall of the main building. During the century of religious oppression, hundreds of Reformed students left Hungary and went to study in the Netherlands, England, Prussia, Switzerland and Sweden. In spite of the Edict of Toleration by Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1781, it was not until 1860 that Hungarian Protestantism experienced true freedom, and that Hapsburg political autocracy and Roman Catholic religious bigotry were overcome at last.
As Ioann Amos Comenius, the paedagogiarcha of the college, so Lajos Kossuth became its most illustrious student of the nineteenth century. He himself once said of his alma mater: ’Nobody knows how warmly I remember Sarospatak. The time I spent there will live in my soul forever’. During the years of the 1848-1849 national uprising against Austrian absolutism, he read the Hungarian Declaration of Independence at the Great Church of Debrecen. After the heroic revolt was brutally quelled by the Austrian army with the help of Nicolas I, the Russian Czar, he had to go into exile and toured widely, making speeches all over Europe as well as the USA.
In 1931, Sarospatak the college proudly celebrated its quartercentenary by opening the English College on campus. The ceremony was attended by Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian Admiral who was a firm Calvinist himself. In the 1940’s, lying between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Russia, Hungary was destined sooner or later to be dragged into the woeful conflict of the Second World War which led to its eventual devastation and humiliation. After May 1947, the country was no longer politically or economically free. On 7 October 1948, the Hungarian Reformed Church lost over thirteen hundred elementary schools, twenty secondary schools and several colleges, including the one in Sarospatak. An educational system of Marxist principles was violently imposed on the Hungarian youth. As a result, the college became known as Rakoczi Gimnazium. For four decades afterwards, it completely depended on the pretentious largess of the Communist state while its students were strongly discouraged from going to church and expected to be entirely loyal to the new ideology.
The two most remarkable events happened to the college in March and August 2006. Firstly, the Great Library finally got back the 146 unique manuscripts unlawfully taken to Russia in 1945. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of its most precious codex, the Polish Bible of 1455, is still unknown. Secondly, it joyfully marked its four hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary to which more than ten thousand official guests and former students were kindly invited, some of whom had been present at all the previous celebrations since October 1931.
This year we are all with our great pride and submission are remembering the four hundred and eightieth jubilee of the establishment of our ancient college.
1 September 2011.