Austria is made up of nine provinces. Tyrol covers one of these provinces and is divided into three parts – east, north and south (the latter falling within Italy). The Lord called us to work in north Tyrol in 1986, and it is of this area that I write.
Well before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the gospel had been active and successful in Austria.
Luther actually travelled through the Tyrol of Austria in 1511 when returning from Rome, and visited Innsbruck, Hall, Schwaz, Rattenberg and Kufstein.
The influence of John Huss (1373-1415) had earlier been felt in Austria; and Anabaptist groups were established even before Luther was born.
In about 1490 Jakob Hutter was born in Tyrol and became a leader among the Anabaptists. His influence seems to have been more moderate than that of others and gave rise to stable Hutterite communities. However, in 1539 he was martyred, being burnt alive in Innsbruck on direct orders from Emperor Ferdinand I.
It is recorded that Hutter’s successor, although frequently suffering imprisonment, baptised over 400 people.
Another prisoner, Jörg Meyer, when examined, confessed that he had been brought to enquire after the faith through the bravery in martyrdom of Jakob Hutter.
Progress and persecution
The first mention of Lutheranism in Tyrol was in connection with the silver-mining town of Schwaz in 1520. Soon the effects of the new teaching were widely felt, with monks and nuns leaving their monasteries and convents.
God was also greatly at work among workers in the silver mines and, when Roman Catholic priests sent emissaries down the mines to ‘reconvert’ them, some of the emissaries themselves were converted!
In the ensuing years Lutheranism became the main voice of Protestantism. It has been said that for a short time Tyrol was 80-90% Protestant.
Over the ongoing centuries, waves of persecution followed one after another, many instigated by the Bishop of Salzburg, whose domains extended over the province of Tyrol. The final persecution was in 1837, when 437 persons were expelled from the Ziller Valley.
Towards the end of the 19th century, religious freedom in Austria was finally guaranteed by law – albeit reluctantly as far as Tyrol was concerned.
In 1953 there was just one Protestant (i.e. Lutheran) church in Innsbruck. Since then, Evangelical churches have been multiplying in Austria, largely through the efforts of American and Swiss missionaries with some British input.
This work has been almost completely confined to the towns, leaving the vast complex of valleys practically untouched, apart from a Bible study group here and there. For instance, Innsbruck, the provincial capital, now boasts six Evangelical churches/groups of differing kinds, and at least two Pentecostal/Charismatic churches.
Virtually all churches that have been established in Tyrol are Arminian by default, having had little clear doctrinal (and even less Reformed) teaching.
While they have not capitulated to the Charismatic movement, they have recently become enamoured with the Willow Creek (church growth) philosophy. In fact, Willow Creek has captured the imagination of the majority of Austrian Evangelicals.
Since the early 19th century, and until recently, Tyrol has been 95% Roman Catholic, with a weak Lutheranism being tolerated. While that percentage has reduced to nearer 80% in the last few years, the losses to Roman Catholicism have, sadly, only contributed marginally to the strengthening of Evangelicalism.
As Patrick Johnstone states in Operation World: ‘Austrians need a personal faith in Christ, and only a minority have clearly heard how they may find one. Over 50% of the population is Christian in name[i.e. Roman Catholic]but with no meaningful link with any church’.
The suicide rate is one of the highest in Europe, and there is alcoholism and drug addiction. This, together with occultism (even among priests), and a growing influence of the cults, cries aloud the spiritual bankruptcy of the land.
Austria depends on Germany and Switzerland for its supply of Protestant literature, and from those sources a small beginning has been made in the provision of Reformed books.
The writings of C. H. Spurgeon have been known here for some time, but Spurgeon’s theology has not been grasped. Today there are a few works available that deal specifically with doctrinal issues. May God vastly multiply these and speed their distribution!
As to the Ziller Valley, where God has placed us as missionaries, Roman Catholic writers of the early 19th century lamented the lack of piety in this valley. ‘There is a very large number wholly given over to indifference, who outwardly retain themselves to the Church and observe its ceremonies, but who, when they meet with others like-minded with themselves, do not hesitate to declare their real opinions’.
The Zillertalers are ‘largely obedient to the [RC] church. They are Catholic because their parents, ancestors, neighbours and the respectable people are so. Catholics, however, in the strict Roman sense of that term, are here … much rarer’.
At the truly spiritual level of the gospel, things in the Ziller Valley do not appear to have greatly changed since those days!
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to remember that in this very area a work of God once took place, as the 1837 expulsion shows.
Now, once more, ancestral traditions and a general attitude of indifference (with the added ingredient of pleasure-loving materialism) are prevailing influences over this nominally Roman Catholic people.
Yet Zillertalers ‘do not hesitate to declare their real opinions’ about the Roman Catholic Church! A strange, contradictory mixture – and hard territory for the gospel!
Yet the door of opportunity is open – there is freedom to evangelise (although local opposition from the Roman Catholic priests is not unknown). Many acknowledge a Creator-God, so religious conversation is not taboo.
We have freedom to insert Bible messages in and contribute religious articles to the valley’s weekly paper.
But the ground remains as hard as ever, giving Austria the reputation of being a missionary graveyard. Austria desperately needs Reformed men who are prepared for the ‘long slog’.