Baptists in Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia: Surviving Hostile

Authorities and Well-Meaning Missionaries

R. Tandy McConnell

Martyrdom . . .

During the 1960s and 1970s, Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian expatriate who built a career out of his anti-Communist diatribes, spoke boldly and repeatedly on behalf of the “martyred churches” behind the Iron Curtain. At the same time, he anathematized in the strongest possible terms those Christians in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for whom the cost of discipleship did not include prison, exile, or a life of secrecy. There was for him no room for compromise. Christians who lived under Communist rule were either martyrs or apostates. Christians who cooperated with the Communist authorities, or who avoided conflict simply by remaining quiet, were guilty of denying Christ.

. . . Versus Accommodation

Yet martyrdom was a vocation to which few Christians in Eastern Europe – or elsewhere – appear to have been called. For most, faithfulness to theirreligion and loyalty to the government did not seemaltogether as contradictory as Wurmbrand insisted itought to have been. If Wurmbrand and his sponsors could enjoy a comfortable moral certitude – as well as a comfortable life in the West – most religious people who tried to live out their faith in consistently hostile climates found some compromises unavoidable. Most bishops, pastors, and religious leaders chose their battles carefully. Few followed the uncompromising example of Hungary’s Josef Cardinal Mindszenty. Even Josif Ţon, the Romanian dissident, seems to have made substantial efforts to avoid antagonizing the Ceausescu regime, even as he pushed for greater freedom of religion and church autonomy – issues that put him clearly at odds with the authorities. In an article he wrote for Fundamentalist Journal on “The Christian Church under Communism,” Ţon acknowledged that evening Romania religious oppression, while very real, had not driven the churches underground. The social and political costs of active participation in religion were higher in Romania than in Western Europe, or even in Hungary or Yugoslavia, but not so high that millions of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants were not willing to pay it. But the editors of Fundamentalist Journal knew, as Ţon perhaps did not, that their readership wanted moral absolutes, not ambiguities: Communists were bad. They oppressed the church, killed the saints, tortured the faithful witnesses. Thus the photo layout that headed Ţon’s article pictured a scene from concentration camp: a Bible thrown casually into the mud lay next to an outstretched hand which was crushed beneath a neatly shined jackboot.

This marked incongruity between the dramatic picture and Ţon’s carefully written article neatly summarizes the disjunction between myths and realities in the religious history of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.1 As the experience of Baptists in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania demonstrates, the governments of these countries made extensive use of concentration camps and jackboots when dealing with religion only in the first years of the Cold War era. In the 1960s and 1970s, all three governments sought to diminish the place of religion in society, but the restrictions they placed on religious activities, while certainly a burden on the faithful, still left substantial room for individual religious belief. Religion was of concern to the government only when it threatened the ideological hegemony of the Communist Party.

Baptists in Yugoslavia were few in number and were further divided among six nationalities, including Slovaks, Romanians, and Germans. As a result, they could never have threatened the government’s ideological hegemony, even if that had been their goal.

Hungary’s Diakonia Theology

In Hungary, Baptists were better organized and much more unified than in Yugoslavia, but went to much greater lengths to avoid even the appearance of offering an ideological alternative to socialism.Diakonia theology, emphasizing Christian service to society in cooperation with, and even under the direction of, the Marxist state, served to align Hungary’s Protestant and Catholic churches with the goals of the state. If Hungarian Christians could not embrace Socialism with a whole heart, they were expected, at the very least, to serve the interests of the Hungarian nation and its government. By adopting Diakonia theology, the Hungarian Baptist Church was able to maintain institutional continuity and autonomy throughout the Cold War era. Butane can only wonder what long-term effect such an ideology will have on the denomination’s life.

Romanian Growth Despite Repression

Romanian Baptists endured a longer period of persecution and a more hostile political climate than did Baptists in either Hungary or Yugoslavia, and the regime seems to have succeeded in its campaign to regulate their affairs and subvert their leadership. In the climate of quiet desperation that Ceausescu’s version of socialism engendered, religion offered one of the few places where an independent culture could flourish.

Romanian Baptist churches grew rapidly under Ceausescu, and it is tempting to relate the existence of an outspoken Baptist dissident movement with the denomination’s growth. But there are many factors that influence a denomination’s growth and decline: the effectiveness and charisma of the leadership, competition from other religious and non-religious institutions, and the perceived social, as well as spiritual, benefits of joining.

Southern Baptist Missions

The influence of Southern Baptist missionaries and mission dollars in all three countries remains problematic. Hungary, because it was the oldest of the Baptist unions and the most institutionally advanced, was relatively less influenced by Southern Baptists in the inter-war era than Romanians, where Southern Baptists established a seminary, or Yugoslavia, where the denominational organization was established under Southern Baptist leadership. Yet it is meaningless to typify relationships between missionaries and natives in Europe in this era, for there were no typical missionaries and no typical relationships. If in the 1920s and 1930s Southern Baptist missionary Everett Gill exhibited proprietary interest in the educational and other activities of the Baptist Unions of Eastern Europe; he also clearly believed he knew what was best for them. He also understood that his ability to influence events in Eastern Europe was exceedingly limited, and that the one tool he did have at his disposal– money from America – could create a sense of dependency he wanted to avoid. Whatever his faults, he did not want the Baptist Unions of Romania, Hungary, or Yugoslavia to become clients of the Southern Baptist Foreign Missions Board. And had that happened, they would likely not have survived the Cold War era when contacts and support becamelimited or non-existent. And if missionary John Allen Moore also felt responsible for the welfare of Baptists in Eastern Europe, he knew, even in1938, that he too would be limited in his ability to influence them. Baptists in Yugoslavia, where Moore worked before the war, accepted Southern Baptist money, but stubbornly resisted any perceived attempts to meddle in their internal affairs. Yet even Slovak Baptist insistence on an unpaid, uneducated clergy, and the consequent difficulty in establishing a centralized Baptist Union, while it frustrated Moore, insulated the denomination from the sort of official meddling that constantly plagued better-organized Romanian Baptists.

In summary, from 1920 until the beginning of World War II, Southern Baptist missionaries to Eastern Europe played a supporting role in the work of indigenous Baptist organizations. After the war, all the Foreign Mission Board had to offer these organizations was friendly advice, an occasional grant of financial aid, and the encouragement that comes from knowing that one’s plight is a matter of concern for people in another part of the world. Ironically, when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989and Southern Baptists could more freely relate to their East European fellow believers, missions no longer served the same role in Southern Baptist life that it had earlier. Professional foreign missionaries came to lose their luster in the late1970s and 1980s. Increasingly, upscale Baptist congregations began sending their own “mission teams” and short-term missionaries to work for several weeks or months on specific projects. The Foreign Mission Board had encouraged the use of volunteers in a number of settings, but in 1990 and1991, thousands of such “missionaries” poured into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Some of the professional missionaries working with the Foreign Mission Board sought to slow this tide, arguing that traditional missionaries were needed that would spend years learning to speak the language and understand the culture. Nevertheless, their reservations were brushed aside by the increasingly fundamentalist-controlled Board. If long-term missionaries had learned anything in the last 50 years, it was, they argued, that only indigenous Baptist churches, not transplanted Southern Baptist churches, could survive the test of time and political change.2 F


1 Josif Ţon, “The Christian Church underCommunism,” Fundamentalist Journal 2 (July-August 1973), 21-28.

2 Keith Parker, interview by author, 28 June 1994,Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Edited excerpts published with permission from R.Tandy McConnell, “Indigenous Baptists and Foreign Missionaries: Baptist Communities in Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, 1872-1980,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of South Carolina, 1996.

R. Tandy McConnell is the Charles Ezra Daniel Professor of History, Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. McConnell is currently writing book on Romanian Baptists.