Few visitors will recognize Devay’s name. His features are also hardly distinguishable from those of other 16th-century reformers: same hat, same prominent nose, same long beard. In reality, his whole life is still clouded in mystery. He spent most of it on the run, moving from place to place and from prison to prison.
An image of the Hungarian Reformer Matyás Dévay Biró shines through a stained window of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche (Castle Church). He’s in good company, surrounded as he is by other Protestants of his day, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Michael Agricola, and his fellow-Hungarian Leonard Stöckel.
Few visitors will recognize Devay’s name. His features are also hardly distinguishable from those of other 16th-century reformers: same hat, same prominent nose, same long beard. In reality, his whole life is still clouded in mystery. He spent most of it on the run, moving from place to place and from prison to prison. In Hungary, he is remembered as the “Hungarian Luther” and a father of the Hungarian written language.
No Lasting City
Dévay’s last name at birth was Biró. He was called Dévay after his hometown of Deva, in the region of Transylvania (in today’s Romania). His date of birth is unknown, but he was in his early twenties when he studied at the University of Kraków, in today’s Poland. His graduation year, 1526, was one of the saddest in Hungarian history, marking the devastating Turkish victory over the Hungarians at the battle of Mohács.
After joining the Franciscan order, Devay became chaplain at the Castle of Boldogkő, in Northern Hungary. It was probably around that time that he became attracted by the teachings of the Reformation, which were already circulating around Hungary. One of the most influential Protestant preachers in Hungary was Michael Setári, who managed to survive the battle of Mohács where he served as chaplain and devoted the next twenty years of his life to the spreading of the gospel. A powerful speaker, Sétari apparently brought over 120 churches to the teachings of the Reformation.
In 1529, Devai attended the University of Wittenberg and was present at some of Luther’s Table Talks. He is said to have been the first Hungarian student there.
By 1531, he returned to Hungary to pass on to others what he had learned. He started in Buda (today’s Budapest), capital of the Hungarian Kingdom (which included a large portion of Eastern Europe). There, he published fifty-two theses under the name of Rudamenta salutis (Rudiments of Salvation). He also preached in the surrounded area, evading the Roman Catholic authorities until he was finally arrested in Košice (in today’s Slovakia) on the orders of Thomas Szlakay, bishop of Eger. He was imprisoned in Bratislava, but released in 1532 thanks to the intercession of the citizens of Košice.
His freedom didn’t last long. He was arrested again and imprisoned in Vienna by bishop Johann Fabri, who submitted him to heavy interrogations. He was finally able to escape (possibly with the help of some citizens of Košice), and returned to Buda, where he was once again arrested – this time by King János Zápolya (also known as John I of Hungary).