Kata Bethlen – A Faith Preserved

Kata Bethlen – A Faith Preserved

            Kata Bethlen (1700-1752) started her autobiography with her most painful memory: her forced marriage, at age 17, to her Roman Catholic half-brother.

            Her family – one of the wealthiest and most influential in Transylvania – had firmly adhered, for generations, to the tenets of the Protestants Reformation. In fact, her ancestors had contributed to the creation of the independent Transylvanian state, a small but staunch Reformed region surrounded by powerful Roman Catholic and Muslim nations.

            In 1711, the Roman Catholic Hapsburgs were able to impose their rule over Transylvania. Kata’s uncle Miklós Bethlen (1642-1716), one of the last “freedom fighters,” spent his last years in prison and exile.

A Painful Marriage

            Kata inherited the religious zeal of her forefathers, and the idea of marrying a Roman Catholic was distressing and frightening. Her protests proved futile, as did her brothers’. Her mother, Borbála Nagy, had made up her mind.

            Kata’s prospective husband was Count László Haller, the son of Borbàla’s second husband – also Roman Catholic. László was a nice young man with a happy disposition and a healthy sense of humor. What’s more, he was sincerely in love with Kata.

            He would have made a great husband, if it hadn’t been for his religion. Kata knew the biblical warnings against marrying outside of one’s faith, but couldn’t see a way out, especially when Borbála reinforced her parental authority with a threat: If Kata refused the engagement ring, she would no longer be her daughter.

            Kata found the pressure overwhelming. She didn’t want to displease her mother. Besides, the idea of being sent out without any form of support was frightening. Most of all, she felt completely unprepared to make such a serious decision.

            “What could I have done?” she wondered. “Not daring to reply, I put the ring on my finger. Oh, unfortunate moment! This normally joyous occasion became for me a source of indescribable pain and sadness.”[1]

            That night, she couldn’t sleep, tormented by prospect of a union so deeply divided and of the “poisonous fruits of this type of marriage.”

            Her worst fears materialized. Immediately, the local church began pressuring her to convert. Kata held her own, so much that the priest assigned to her case required to be sent to any mission – no matter how arduous – as long as it didn’t involve talking to Kata.

            Her husband’s family was a tougher foe. She was still in labor with twin boys when the family staged what we would call an intervention to persuade László to act quickly – before she could negatively influence her children.

            “They asked my husband, among other things, if he had any hope of seeing me recant my religion.” Kata recalled. “He said I didn’t seem at all inclined to do so. Then, one by one began to teach him how he could weaken me more speedily.”

            Her sister-in-law gave specific instructions. László had to be forceful, even cruel. Since Kata’s mother had died and her brothers were away, she had no one to run to. He should use sleep deprivation, knocking at her door when she was tired, then give her the silent treatment. If she inquired about his bad mood, he should answer, “I have good reason to be in a bad mood! I’ll never be in a good mood until you leave your religion!”

Hope for an Antagonistic Husband

            László’s conscience must have told him this was not a good idea. Even a local priest confirmed it. It would only alienate Kata, the priest said. In spite of this, László tried it out. When Kata threatened to leave him, he backed out and asked for her forgiveness.

            He never again tried to convert her, although the twins – Samuel and Paul – were baptized as Roman Catholics. In fact, László warned the religious authorities to leave her alone. After this, Kata began to nurture strong hopes for his salvation. Soon, he began to read her Bible daily – a Magyar translation by the Reformer Gáspar Károli.

            Their marital bliss didn’t last long. In 1719, László fell prey to an outbreak of pestilence. Kata stayed by his bed, keeping him in prayer and reminding him that eternal life could be obtained only “through the perfect redemption and intercession of Jesus Christ … denying any attachment to his own merits and to the prayers of saints.”

            After some time, he became delirious, and couldn’t recognize anyone. His last words were the Apostolic Creed in song. He died without any Roman Catholic ceremony, leaving Kata with the twins and pregnant with a baby girl, Borbàla. Samuel died a year later, when he was only two.

            For a while, László’s family left Kata alone, thanks to the intervention of two brothers-in-law who defended her interests, in spite of their religious differences. “I thank my good God,” she wrote, “who mercifully granted me, among these relatives of a foreign religion, a peaceful and happy life.”

New Conflicts and Pursuits

            When she remarried in 1722, however, some members of László’s family claimed the customary right to keep her two remaining children. Kata fought back, backed by her second husband, Count József Teleki, and by most people in her village. As it often happened with complaints leveled by the nobility, her case reached the imperial court, that concurred with László’s family.

            “So my children were taken away so that I could not raise them as a mother according to my religion,” Kata wrote. “This provoked in me so many gloomy thoughts and serious temptations that at times my heart seemed to be melting.”

            József Teleki was a widower, 26 years older than Kata, and shared her religious beliefs. The couple had three children, who died in the summer of 1731 from a widespread epidemic. József died the next year, leaving Kata alone. “My God has left me like a solitary hut in a harvested vineyard,” she said. From then on, she affixed the word arva (orphan) to her name.

            She moved to a property she had inherited from her family. But her troubles were not over, as she had to battle with ill health and defend her properties against both unfair legal claims of her in-laws and sudden disasters.

            In spite of this, she devoted time and resources to projects that were dear to her heart: the founding and maintenance of Reformed churches and schools (including a school for girls), the publication of Reformed writings in Hungarian, the building of a library (one of the largest of her time), and the support of Reformed preachers.

            She also worked for the improvement of the region where she lived, creating gardens and shops for the production of paper, embroideries, and glassworks. She studied medicine and science in order to help the community with their medical and farming needs.

            Two of her protegees were the Reformed pastors Mihály Aitai and Péter Bod, who studied at Leiden with her support. In 1743, Bod became Kata’s personal chaplain. After her death in 1759, he published her writings, which included her autobiography, letters, and a collection of prayers.

Faith and Trust

            Kata’s writings are pregnant with a sense of God’s sovereign wisdom and care for his own, in both easy and trying circumstances. “I have been like Moses’s bush,” she said, “enveloped in powerful flames, without being consumed.”

            This analogy became particularly real in 1751, when a fire engulfed her house, leaving her temporarily homeless and destitute. “It’s a good thing that, before going to bed, I said in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy will be done,’” she wrote. “Strengthen me now, my God, as you accomplish your holy will, to accept it with a heart that is pleasing to you.”

            The story of her life is interspersed with such prayers, which are as frequent and natural as her thoughts. She mostly asked for confirmations of God’s grace as the only source of true comfort: “I only ask, my sweet God, that into the dreadful torment of my soul you pour a droplet of the consolation of your grace.” 

            Her style is both elegant and colloquial, marked by a refreshing honesty about her feelings and shortcomings. Fully persuaded that her sins merited far worse than her misfortunes, she asked God for perseverance: “Don’t let me retreat from the hope that is placed on you. Rather, relight my heart, that I may keep knocking at the door of grace.” It is a prayer that was fully answered.

 



[1] Most references are my translation from the French version by Jean de Saint Blanquat file:///C:/Users/Simone/Downloads/Kata_Bethlen_lorpheline.pdf. The English translation of her biography, by James Adam, is published under the title A Short Description of the Life of the Countess Kata Bethlen by Herself: Written in Transylvania in the 1740s, Lincolnshire: Shaun Tyas, 2004. (The library copy I read is no longer available).