Dec 05 2014

History of HRFA

The Beginnings

In Trenton, New Jersey, a small group of Hungarian ministers and laymen gathered on July 4-5, 1896, to organize the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America. They assembled because they recognized the urgent need to create a bond of union among the widely scattered Hungarian immigrants in America. They discussed ways to organize congregations and worship centers to enable the immigrants from Hungary to practice their faith, and they decided to form a society that would not only support the financial needs of its members and their families in case of death or disaster, but also provide a financial base for the churches and congregations which were to be formed. Thus, the idea of forming the Federation was born.

The aims and goals of the Federation as stated below are from the recollections and works of Rev. Sándor Kalassay:

The aim of the Federation, besides giving material and moral support to the Hungarian Calvinist mission in America, is to pay a death benefit and funeral expenses to the heirs of the members. The Federation will begin to function when it reaches a membership of 500. Any Hungarian who will pay the $1 initiation fee and the annual fee of $1 may become a member. Having reached a membership of 500, the Federation will pay a $250 death benefit and $50 for funeral expenses. The amounts will be collected from the members through proportional assessments.

The group, though small, was fired with missionary zeal and strong faith in the institution they had set up for the common good. They felt that this society, closely allied with the churches, offered a means to practice Christian faith and love. With this attitude, by February 1, 1898, the membership in the Federation had jumped from 320 to 936. Most of these members came from the northern regions of Hungary, namely, Abaúj, Zemplén and Ung (the same region from which came most of the early immigrants who built the Hungarian Reformed churches) and were of Reformed faith (816); however, there also were Lutherans (31); Roman Catholics (86); and Jews (3). While this confederation of faiths was not without its inherent tension - the 1898 convention also saw the coming of a hotly disputed and short-lived resolution requiring Federation officers to have been born into the faith - the calming spirit of liberalism and fraternity soon prevailed. (Our Federation still stands by these principles today. To paraphrase one of our writers from forty years ago: every member, regardless of religion, who is of good moral character and can recognize and respect the background of the Federation is welcome into its folds.)

A remarkable year in the history of the Federation

In 1907 the Federation received its charter from the United States Congress with the help of Tamás Madarassy (b. 1878, Selyeb, Abaúj County; d. 1907, South Bend, Indiana) and a Congressman by the name of Abraham Lincoln Brick (1860-1908). Both were from South Bend, Indiana; one a renowned lawyer and congressman, the other a simple immigrant young man. While there were many differences between them, there were equally many similarities between them. Enthusiastic hearts beat in them; both of them were children whose parents were born of simple stock; both loved Hungarians, and the torch of each of their lives blew out too soon and unexpectedly.

Debate about our Charter in Congress

The significant meeting for our Federation's charter in the Congress in Washington took place on February 4, 1907, in the second session of the 59th Congress. The question of the charter had been discussed three times formerly, on December 19, 1906, on January 10, 1907, and on January 11, 1907. The debate revealed why the bill proposed by South Bend Congressman Abraham Lincoln Brick had such a stormy life. The convention of the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America is not the only place where bills are sent from one committee to the other, because the same thing happened to the bill concerning the charter in the House of Representatives. Originally it was proposed to the committee managing the affairs of the District of Columbia who passed it on to the Committee on the Judiciary. James R. Mann, a representative from Chicago taking part in the charter debate, gave them a piece of his mind; it seems that if a bill is not favorably accepted by the committee it was handed in to, it simply passed it on to another one where it will be treated on more friendly terms. However, Brick refuted this statement saying that there were other reasons for passing the bill to another committee. In any case, when it was presented to the meeting on February 4, the number of the bill was H.R.24046. The debate can be read in the appropriate volume of the Congressional Record. (59th Congress, 2nd session, fourth volume, Chapter 3, pp. 2231-2232.)

Of the 78 representatives at the meeting, 72 voted for the charter and 6 against. Having the two-thirds majority needed, the bill was accepted. The famous "Uncle Joe" Cannon chaired the meeting. Besides Brick, the following representatives took part in the debate: James R. Mann (Illinois), Finis J. Garrett (Tennessee), John S. Williams (Mississippi) and William P. Hepburn (Iowa). When the clerk read the bill being nothing else but the text of the charter, John S. Williams stood up and said, "Now if I understand this bill all right, it is to grant a Federal Charter to this Federation." "Federal Charter" must have been an incorrect expression because representative Brick corrected it to "A District of Columbia charter." In both the question and the answer the word "charter" was used; therefore, it is clear that the Federation asked for and received a charter. This fact refutes the opinion that the Federation does not have a charter but bases its works on an article of law.

The representatives taking part in the debate had two objections. One of them was why the Federation asked for a congressional charter when it easily could be granted a District of Columbia charter. Congressman Hepburn asked, "Why is there a need for the provisions of the Congress?" Brick stated in his answer that there was no actual need for it. However, because the Federation wanted to work nationwide, to form branches in every state and to lay its work not on business but on charity, on patriotic and cultural activity for its members, it asked for the charter to become an article of law granted by the Congress.

The other objection raised against the proposal was that the members of the Federation were members of a certain minority group. "Is it a wise thing for the Congress," asked Hepburn, " to help the formation of such ethnic institutions? I think that somebody who comes to America comes for becoming an American. I cannot see any grounds to support that, by this incorporation, we should in fact separate the Hungarians, the Germans, the Irish or anybody else. They are welcomed here, but if they come let them become Americans and not stabilize their own national features." Brick's answer was that one of the aims of the Federation was to strengthen the American patriotism of its members, so it wanted to realize the same thoughts as those expressed by Representative Hepburn.

Finis J. Garrett from Tennessee was interested in the financial state of the Federation. Representative Mann made a related remark that by a proposal of Congressman Crumpacker, the Congress was working on limiting the wealth of such societies to one million dollars. The answer was that the Federation was not a business enterprise. The only real estate it would need was a headquarters for its offices. It was also Garrett who mentioned that he thought that the reason for the Federation to ask for a charter was to raise its prestige, its moral weight. "So it is really the PRESTIGE they get from this incorporation that is the main thing." Brick's answer was: "Yes, it is so." The debate ended with this.

The last word was Brick's. When he confirmed his fellow representative's opinion about the moral weight of the charter, he started his concluding speech. This speech is one of the most beautiful declarations that an American public figure has ever spoken about Hungary and the Hungarian nation, and it will be a glory for the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America that these wonderful lines are recorded in the Congressional Record forever.

(Vasvári Ödön: "Hogyan kapta meg egyesületünk 1907-ben a kongresszusi chartert" Református Ujság, 1935. június, pp. 45-46.)

Congressman Brick's speech which influenced Congress to vote for the charter to be given to the Federation

Referring to the racial character of this organization alluded to by the gentleman from Iowa, I want to say this:

They have come to us to better their conditions, and I want to make them feel at home. They are here to swell the stream of our best citizenship, numbering now over a quarter of a million souls. They have come to make this country their permanent dwelling place, to live and abide with us in the truest and most loyal of American sentiment and patriotism.

They inhabit every state and territory of the United States, and everywhere have they entered into the very essence of our national spirit, hope and enterprise; and among other things, this organization is founded upon the lively behest of that desire. Why, Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the members of the House: Have you read and pondered over the thrilling story of Hungary's heroic struggle, during a thousand years, for just such liberty as we possess?

An accurate history of Hungarian wars and their heroes would teach even the sons and daughters of the Mayflower and the Concord the awful magnificence of a martyrdom endured by a great people for freedom. These children of a heroic ancestry come to us with all institutions of our civilization implanted in their hearts through twenty generations of turmoil in the pursuit of liberty, they find here.

Every Hungarian in this country can look back over the red pages of their fathers' struggles and trace with boundless pride and satisfaction a strange and startling resemblance between the Hungarian revolution and our own. Under Kossuth, and Bem, and Klapka, and Dembinski, what did they fight for that would make them alien or strange to us? Nothing.

They performed unheard of and astonishing deeds with one great idea - the freedom of independence. They alone of all Europe held aloft the blazing torch of liberty with dauntless heart and unshaken hand. They fought with God-like valor for the freedom of the press, a constitution, a ministry and a representative body to govern their own destinies. They fought for equality before the law in all civil and religious affairs - equality in taxation, trial by jury and local self-government.

These were the principles of the declaration of independence Kossuth and his followers lived and died for. Don't you believe that the children of the great Kossuth, the Washington of Hungary; of Klapka, the Wayne of the Magyars, have within their breasts and in the bounding flow of their veins the elements of our most appreciative and liberty-loving, loyal citizenship?

Gentlemen, they are here, because they have learned to know, as one of us, our institutions and the American idea taught to them on mother's knee, in the lives of the Washingtons, the Franklins, and the Hancocks of Hungary. They come here, as Kossuth did, driven out by a tyranny worse than was suffered by us when revolution was conceived and the republic born. I compare their great names with our own, because struggle is the mother of greatness and makes us all akin.

I say it because they have been rocked roughly by the same rude barbarous nurse, because they have been trained to hearts of oak and nerves of steel in the same strenuous war for independence, and for this reason I champion their cause. They have my unbounded sympathy and admiration, because I believe in the cause they have so valiantly fought for, because they came to me with the same hopes and aspirations that I have myself, because I rejoice in the splendid history of their race and the genius of their sons who have enriched the world with the rarest treasures of thought.

I sympathize with and admire them, because I know Joseph Eötvös, the friend, intimate and supporter of Kossuth - poet, writer and statesman - who more than any other Hungarian influenced the course of European literature of his time; because I know Madách and have read his "Tragedy of Man," the soul of which was the clarion message of his life sent out to all eternity --struggle, man and trust;" because I know and love Maurice Jókai, the Hungarian Shakespeare, who has filled the world with hundreds of the matchless masterpieces of his mind - and, Mr. Speaker, they have my sympathy and admiration, because I know Petôfi, a "fallen star in the Magyar sea," who of all the singers of the first half of the nineteenth century, brought to poetic creation an inextinguishable glow of passionate patriotism.

He lived a life of meteoric glory that has not faded, nor will it die.

He vanished like a dream in manhood's morn.

The spot, where he has fallen, no man knows, and the pathos of his song, the wish of his life, that when all was over flowers might be scattered where he slept, must remain forever unfulfilled.

But the bloom of his day shall fill the earth with the perfume of his immemorial glory.

Yes, Mr. Speaker, they spring from a race of unrequited heroism; a people full of the genius that touches liberty with love and the state with serenity.

They will people the future with a proud progeny.

The sons of Petôfi must, and will glorify us through the generations - of Petôfi, who smote all the singing chords of that harp of a thousand strings, the Hungarian heart with deathless strains of immortal valor:

Upon our graves shall dawn a brighter sun,
Our children rise to bless the natal earth;
Here shall they kneel, and when our course is run,
Bless the fair land that gave them a free birth.
By the great God of Hungary we swear
The yoke of slaves we will no longer bear!

Mr. Speaker, with that spirit in their blood, they will surely bless the fair land that gives them a free birth.

I ask for a vote on the bill before the House.

(Vasvári Ödön: "Brick képviselô beszéde, amelynek hatására megszavazták az egyesület kongresszusi charterjét" Református Ujság, 1935. augusztus, pp. 3-5.)



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