It is the 23rd of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1549.
Today we turn our attention to Transylvania, which might be a little daunting if your only frame of reference for the historical region is Count Dracula. And don’t worry, with apologies to our Hungarian and Romanian listeners, I’m going to walk you through a little Transylvanian history with an eye to celebrating the greatest reformer you’ve probably never heard of.
Today, Transylvania is a region in Romania, it is not the same as historic Transylvania, but it puts you in the right area. Go to Ukraine and go south, just west of the Black Sea, to Romania. If you look at a topographical map, you see what looks like a capital letter D in the middle of the country. That “D” is made up of mountain ranges, and the valley on the western side is historic Transylvania.
(Perhaps you remember that Pennsylvania stood for “Penn’s Woods,” Transylvania means “across the woods,” likely named by Hungarians who knew of the land as the place beyond the forest that divided Hungary from Transylvania. But all of this in the Early Modern era is Hungary. Hungary was like all the Balkans north of Greece between Turkey and Austria.)
This land beyond the woods had often given the western church headaches. After the Council of Nicaea, an Arian population still hung out with the new Athanasian crowd. Photinus had some influence in the region around the same time. Photinus was roundly criticized as an arch-heretic by the Roman West. By the 11th century, King Stephan brought Western Roman Christianity to the region, and in Transylvania, the “Three nations” unified around the faith.
The three nations were the Magyars, the Transylvanian Saxons, and the Szeklers. And while the union was nice while it lasted, a book fair in Leipzig in 1519 attracted the Transylvanian Saxons who came back home with Luther’s earliest pamphlets. The breach had begun. After 1526 and the Battle of Mohacs, Hungarian hegemony was shattered. The Transylvanians were, by and large, on their own. With Saxon ancestry, it became popular to send young Transylvanians to Saxon Universities. And while there was no college ranking guide in those days, one Saxon school loomed over the rest: Luther’s Wittenberg University.
Because of this, Transylvania would become a Lutheran stronghold in Eastern Europe. But it would need a leader, and today we remember the man Luther called “the Lord’s Evangelist” and Philip Melanchthon called “a man of special scholarship and virtue who guides the faithful teaching of faith in [Transylvania].” He is the unheralded, the unheard of, and the unread, at least in the English language. Johannes Honterus was born in 1498 in Brasov, Transylvania. He would serve as a mapmaker, publisher, woodworker, theologian, and pastor until his death on the 23rd of January in 1549.
Honterus made his mark with his “Rudimenta Cosmographia.” This atlas, history, map of heaven and earth was part of a popular genre and a particular instance of a very popular cosmography at that. Its popularity, his name attached to this very early published book, and his reputation amongst Humanist scholars lent him an air of authority. When he published his “Reformationsbüchlein,” or little book of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote of it: “Everything you ask me you will find in that book, better written than I could do it myself. How much I love everything, he wrote with much wisdom, honesty, and faith! Read this book and advise with the scholars of the Braşov community; they will be your best helpers for your church reform.”
It’s a curious book for modern eyes, a kind of church manual that included a catechism, hymns, church orders, directions for schools, and a plan for general education, as well as for instructions on caring for the poor and orphans. The parish had one Bible, maybe. And for readings, singing, celebrating the sacraments, they needed what Honterus’ book delivered. Honterus contribution to the church was not only the book but also the way he managed to speak with Catholic authorities about the reform movement. His judicious language allowed him to skate out of a few imperial dustups. Furthermore, he is one of the early ecumenical figures in the history of the dialog between the Reformation and the Orthodox in the East.
So now, along with Dracula, you’ve got another Transylvanian to talk about. Johannes Honterus died on the 23rd of January in 1549.
The last word for today comes from a Hungarian poet, János Pilinsky. This is his “On the Third Day.” A quick note: the last line is a Latin phrase from the Nicene Creed, which translates as “and he rose again on the Third Day.”
And the ashen grey skies start blustering, the trees of Ravensbrück towards dawn. And the roots start to feel the light. And wind rises. And the world resounds. Because perfidious mercenaries may have killed him, and his heart may have stopped beating, – on the third day he triumphed over death. Et resurrexit tertia die.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who reminds you that the antichrist in the Left Behind series comes from Transylvania, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.