Synod of Žilina

Katedrálny chrám - miesto konania Žilinskej synody v roku 1610

Several extremely important events have occurred at Žilina in the town’s rich history, which an impact beyond the town limits. One of these was the Synod of Žilina. It all began on 31 October 1517, when Martin Luther presented his 95 theses at Wittenberg, originally intending to launch an academic discussion. Not even Luther imagined how fast his theses would spread and the response they would arouse. He was also surprised by the radicalisation his ideas provoked. He attempted to calm matters. Nevertheless, the authorities responded to the popularity of the theses and Luther’s teachings by declaring him a heretic and outlaw in the Edict of Worms. He was forced to take shelter at Wartburg Castle. He returned to public life in 1522. Together with his colleague Philipp Melanthon, he laid the foundations of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession. The Augsburg Confession is so called because it was presented to Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg on 25 June 1530. This document summarised the Lutheran faith in 28 articles.

Luther’s teachings thus received practical implementation in real life through the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession. It is called “evangelical” because it takes the “good news” of the Gospels and other holy scriptures as the basis of its teaching and moral conduct. This name is used mainly in Central and Eastern Europe and different names are used by Lutheran churches elsewhere.

The spreading of Luther’s ideas
Luther’s ideas spread quickly from the German-speaking countries all over Europe. The territory of present-day Slovakia was no exception. Many priests and nobles came out in favour of church reform. They established the first Protestant congregations. They had no firm structure and operated independently. They tended to depend on the patronage of towns and the nobility. The first attempt at church organisations was launched by the mining towns in 1536. They did not have a chief representative – senior– however. The first senior was Michal Radašín, a pastor from Bardejov, who became the senior of five towns. This example was followed in other parts of Slovakia. This was the first step in the organisation of the church’s internal life. However, the existence of these seniors was not enough to establish a new church. Even before the middle of the 16th century, there began to be calls for larger units. The first synod in the Kingdom of Hungary took place in 1545 at Erdőd. It adopted the rules of conduct of the evangelical (Lutheran) church and the Augsburg Confession. The Synod of Žilina was also not the first synod to take place in the territory of present-day Slovakia. The very first Lutheran synod in Slovakia took place at Prešov a year after the Synod of Erdőd. It was only attended by representatives from five towns in eastern Slovakia and the Spiš and Šariš regions. The synod adopted 16 important articles regulating the internal life of the church and its members. It emphatically stood by the Augsburg Confession. It laid the foundations for a two-tier clergy – the pastor and the senior, who would be roughly equivalent to a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. The Synod of Prešov encouraged Lutherans to organise in the territory of present-day Slovakia.

The origins of the Lutheran church in Slovakia are closely linked to towns because they tended to have large German-speaking populations, especially in the Spiš region. From the mid-16th century, the Lutheran church began to grow throughout the Kingdom of Hungary, and thus also in Slovakia. Some of the most important aristocratic families became Protestants, for example the Thurzos and Ilesházis. Even so, they could not draw the establishment of the Lutheran church in Slovakia to a conclusion. This was finally achieved by the Synod of Žilina in 1610. Miloš Klátik, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia gives the following evaluation: “The Synod of Žilina was the first legislative synod of the Lutheran church in Slovakia. It established the first laws of the church and thus laid a firm foundation for establishing an autonomous church administration for Lutherans in the territory of present-day Slovakia.” This is generally considered the correct opinion by experts in the field. The synod was a significant step to creating an autonomous Lutheran church in Slovakia distinct from others.

The Synod of Žilina and Palatine Thurzo
The organisation of the Synod of Žilina was helped by the favourable conditions in place at the start of the 17th century. The long wars between pro-Habsburg and anti-Habsburg factions had ended with a peace signed at Vienna in 1606. The Hungarian parliament ratified the Peace of Vienna at Pressburg (Bratislava) two years later. The peace established a degree of religious freedom, equality between Protestants and Catholics in electing the palatine (the highest ranking office in the kingdom) and the right of Protestants to organise and elect their own bishops. The new laws offered many opportunities but to put them into practice, the Lutherans would have to convene a conference – synod. The driving force for the synod was the then palatine, himself a Lutheran, with his seat at Bytča – Count George Thurzo. He was born on 2 September 1567 at Lietava Castle. He was the fifth George in his lineage. His father died when he was 9 and he was brought up by his mother and his stepfather Imrich Forgáč. Like other nobles, he was destined for a military career. He won victories and received promotions in government. He became a royal advisor, the master of the cupbearers and later the master of the stewards. He increased his family property. For example, he obtained a hereditary title over the County of Orava.

When he became palatine in 1609, he was in a good position to promote the practical implementation and institutionalisation of the Lutherans’ rights. That year he took the first steps towards convening the Synod of Žilina. He organised two meetings of pastors. The first was with pastors from Žilina and nearby in July 1609 and the second with pastors from the vicinity of Sučany in August 1609. The synod was provisionally scheduled to start at Žilina on 28 March 1610. Everything was well prepared. Thurzo sent out official invitation letters on 13 March, a fortnight before the opening of the synod. These speak of his efforts to ensure that every religion had its own representatives and superintendents of its faith. To put all the articles of the Pressburg laws into effect, it was necessary to convene a synod of the 10 Cisdanubian counties at Žilina on 28 March. The reason for choosing Žilina was, in his approximate words, that it offered “comfortable accommodation”. He asked the lords of each region to send one preacher and one representative of the population to the synod. These members of the convention would have the job of electing the superintendents.

The proceedings of the synod
The synod was attended by 20 representatives of the nobility, 3 representatives of the royal towns from Bratislava and Modra and 28 pastors and seniors from 10 Upper Hungarian counties. The number of participants may appear small, but they were representative. The leading voices were Palatine George Thurzo and the senior of the Upper Trenčín seniorate, the pastor of Bytča, Eliáš Láni. The opening ceremony of the synod took place in Žilina parish church with the singing of the hymn “Veni Sancte Spiritus”. It was chaired by Juraj Thurzo. His opening remarks reminded the attendees of the main reasons for the synod: the establishment of an autonomous Lutheran church, the creation of a new organisation, the election of the church’s own superintendents and establishment of rules for the internal life of Lutherans. The meeting continued for three days, during which the attendees adopted the first synodal laws of the Lutheran church and elected its first superintendents (bishops).

The authors of the first 16 laws and the superintendent’s oath were Eliáš Láni, Alexander Socovinus, and the secular representatives Jaroslav Zmeškal and Juraj Lehotský. Palatine George Thurzo confirmed the synodal laws and had them printed at Bardejov. He then distributed them to the ten counties of Upper Hungary. This established the institutional framework for the ecclesiastical administration of the Lutheran church in Slovakia. It also led to the legal independence of the Lutherans from the Catholic Church. According to Petrík, the Synod of Žilina was also important on the political level. Its conclusions regarding administrative regions in the ten counties of Upper Hungary represent, in essence, the first institutional recognition of the Slovak character of a certain territory. The territory of the ten Upper Hungarian counties were divided into three superintendencies: Trenčín (Trenčín, Orava and Liptov), the Mining Regions (Turiec, Zvolen, Hont and Novohrad) and Nitra (Nitra, Bratislava and Tekov). The synod also elected the church’s first superintendents in a secret ballot. Eliáš Láni, the pastor of Bytča and the Upper Trenčín senior became the Trenčín superintendent. Samuel Melík, pastor of Brezno, became superintendent of the Mining Regions. Izák Abrahamides, pastor and provost of Bojnice was elected superintendent of Nitra. The synod also established a certain form of national reconciliation because the Lutheran church in Slovakia brought together people of Slovak, German and Hungarian nationality. So that other nationalities would be duly represented – all the superintendents were Slovaks – the office of overseer (inspector) was created for each of the three areas. The overseers for the Hungarian and German nationalities acted as deputies to the superintendent. All the overseers were members of the clergy. Šimon Heuchelin, a German pastor in Bratislava, became inspector for the German congregations in Bratislava, Nitra and Tekov counties and Pavel Lentz, the pastor of Banská Štiavnica, became inspector for the mining towns. Hungarian congregations in the Bratislava, Nitra and Tekov counties were overseen by a pastor from Sereď, Štefan Kürti.

Eliáš Láni and Samuel Melík were inducted into their offices on 30 March 1610. Izák Abrahamides was not present and his induction was carried out later. The inauguration ceremony was carried out in Žilina parish church with the pastor of Hlohovec, Ján Fabricius, presiding. The superintendents swore the oath laid down in the 16th synodal law. The archbishop and cardinal of Esztergom, František Forgáč, lodged a complaint against the Synod of Žilina and its conclusions. In April, immediately after the end of the synod, he issued a file of objections to all the resolutions. The Lutherans responded with arguments defending the synod. These were published at Košice in 1610 under the title “Apologia pro synodo Solnensi ejusque constitutionibus” with the patronage of Palatine Thurzo.

Significance of the Synod of Žilina
The articles were reprinted at Žilina by Viliam Kander almost a century later. An edition was also published by Alexander Lombardini, who had a strong interest in the Synod of Žilina mainly because he was a strong admirer of George Thurzo. A total of 16 laws were promulgated at Žilina as a guide for the life and organisation of the Lutheran church. The very first law exhorted priests to adhere to the pure teachings of the Apostle Paul and to keep religion in its true form. The fourth law was practical and laid down rules for parish management. It was necessary to ensure that property and economic activity were not disrupted. Nor were they to be reduced, and if that happened at all, the political authorities had to be contacted at once. The ninth law could be considered a penal code, relating to the offence of heresy and the like. The competences of the clergy were divided into major issues, which only a superintendent could decide on, and smaller matters, which could be handled by the overseers and seniors. The punishments of members of the clergy and their handing over to the secular authorities was a matter reserved for the superintendents. Although the synod was concerned with the internal problems of a single church, it was an important milestone in the history of Žilina and is considered one of the most significant events to happen in the town during its history.

Source: M. Mrva

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