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Women in Church History

Zsuzsanna (Lorántffy) Rakoczy: Patroness of the Hungarian Church

Women in Church History Zsuzsanna (Lorántffy) Rakoczy

Around 1600, in the town of Sárospatak in northern Hungary, a girl named Zsuzsanna Lorántffy was born into a noble Protestant family. Despite her noble status, her childhood was not easy. While Zsuzsanna was still young, her mother died while giving birth to another daughter; and her father was often away from home, attending to business. From an early age, she learned to seek refuge in prayer.

Zsuzsanna’s life brightened when her father remarried, and she gained a kind-hearted and well-educated stepmother who saw to Zsuzsanna’s learning, too. Zsuzsanna was blessed to be born into the region where the Reformation first took hold in Hungary; Sárospatak was the site of the country’s first Protestant college, and she received biblical instruction from some of its professors. 

At age 15, Zsuzsanna met sorrow again when both her father and stepmother died, leaving her to care for her young sister and stepsister. Even while shouldering these responsibilities as a single woman, she continued studying and tending to the sick as she had opportunity. She also used her inherited wealth to support poor students who were studying at the college of Sárospatak, setting a pattern she was to follow for the rest of her life.

In 1616, Zsuzsanna married Prince George Rakoczy, who, like her, was staunchly Reformed in his faith. They had four children. Zsuzsanna continued to devote much of her energy and resources to supporting the growing Protestant university at Sárospatak, even hiring a well-known Czech theologian, John Amos Comenius, to teach there. Comenius was a religious refugee and influential educational reformer who favored, among other things, vernacular education and educational opportunities for women. Zsuzsanna seems to have shared these priorities, as she advocated for girls’ literacy and biblical education throughout her life. Also, before her death, she sponsored a notable Hungarian translation known as the Várad Bible. When the family moved to Transylvania (now part of Romania), Zsuzsanna continued to labor alongside her husband George to bring Protestant reform to the Transylvanian church. She even became the target of criticism, especially from Catholic Jesuits, when she published a theological work titled “Moses and the Prophets.”

Zsuzsanna’s life ended much as it had begun—her husband and sons predeceased her, so her last years seem to have been spent alone. However, they were not entirely lonely ones, as she continued pouring herself into supporting the church and university. She died quietly in 1661.

By this point in 17th-century Hungary, Counter-Reformation (Roman Catholic) persecution was growing particularly fierce. Although Reformed teaching had been gaining ground in Hungary since the mid-16th century, it was brutally repressed within a decade of Zsuzsanna Rakoczy’s death. The years 1671 through 1681, in fact, have been referred to as the Hungarian Reformed Church’s “decade of mourning.” With the support of the Habsburg monarchy and Catholic members of the nobility, more than 400 Protestant pastors and teachers were imprisoned and tortured in Bratislava. While many recanted their Protestant beliefs, 41 refused and were sentenced to life aboard slave ships on the Adriatic Sea. Holland and Switzerland eventually intervened and ransomed the 26 survivors. Though little-known in English-speaking churches, the hymn “Lift Thy Head, O Zion, Weeping,” was written to commemorate the experience of the persecuted Hungarian church. One of its stanzas reads, “Though the sea his waves assemble / And in fury fall on thee, / though thou cry, with heart a-tremble, / “O my Savior, succor me!” / Though untroubled still He sleep / Who thy hope is on the deep, / Zion, calm the breast that quaketh / Never God His own forsaketh.”

This history of persecution—seldom recalled today—is important to remember for many reasons. One point worth considering is that, at the time of her death, Zsuzsanna Rakoczy had every reason to suppose that the Hungarian church was on track to flourish for decades. Yet, within a few short years, it had been bereaved of most of its leadership and even the public toleration it had enjoyed up to that time. But, taking a longer view, we’ll never know how much the Hungarian church’s ultimate survival owed to Zsuzsanna’s efforts to equip both its pastors and ordinary members with knowledge of Scripture. None of us can guess the church’s future, but like Zsuzsanna, we can joyfully promote its purity and peace through our various walks of life, entrusting our labors to the Lord.  

Sarah White
(PCA member residing in PA)

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