AT 26: ‘Unity Truly of the Universal Christian Faith’

By Ian Randall
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 26, Spring 2001

Although I have for many years had an interest in the Moravian Church, especially because of the remarkable missionary history associated with the Moravians from the eighteenth century (a story that predates the Baptist Missionary Society), it was only when I moved to Prague in August 1999 that I had the opportunity to explore at first hand the roots of the movement in what is now part of Czech Republic. As with most religious issues in this part of the world, the figure of Jan Hus (c.1372-1415), whose statue dominates Old Town Square in Prague, looms large in the story. Those influenced by him took aspects of his teaching from Bohemia to neighbouring Moravia. In this article I want to trace something of the roots and development of what has been variously called the Moravian movement, the Unity of the Brethren, and the Czech Brethren. In 1527 some of the leaders of the movement described how ‘our Unity is truly of the universal Christian faith’. The links, as well as the contrasts, between this movement and Anabaptism will become evident.

The influence of Jan Hus

A crucial issue that provoked Jan Hus to protest against the Catholic Church in the early fifteenth century was that which was to galvan-ise Martin Luther into action a century later – the practice of selling indulgences to remit time in purgatory. Indeed it is arguable that Luther’s reformation was the second reformation, the first being the movement of reform in Bohemia led by Hus. Born and brought up in Bohemia, Hus studied at the University of Prague, took his Master’s degree, and began teaching at the university in 1396. In 1402 he became rector and preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel, Prague. This large, plain building had been founded in 1391 as a centre where people could hear preaching in the Czech language. Hus was committed to this vision (he described Czech as being as precious to God as Latin), eloquently addressing each week a congregation of 3,000 people.1 In 1412 Hus offered an extended critique of the sale of papal indulgences. His message was that only through the grace of God could there be forgiveness.

To add fuel to the theological fire, three young men from Prague who supported Hus – Martin, John and Stašek – were put on trial by Prague’s city councillors for protesting against the sale of indulgences at St Vitus Cathedral, the Týn Church and St James, the three principal churches in Prague. Despite promises of leniency, the three were beheaded, which fanned the flames of unrest. The bodies were taken to the Bethlehem Chapel, with huge numbers of people processing and singing of the young men as saints. Hus himself sang a martyrs’ mass over them. It was a deliberately defiant gesture. Many of the ordinary people of Prague besieged the Town Hall.

Pressure mounted on Hus and Rome excommunicated him. Prague was placed under a papal interdict – there could be no authorised church services in the city – as long as he remained there. There were attacks on the Bethlehem Chapel. King Wenzel asked Hus to go into exile and this he did for a time. During the exile he wrote his famous The Church, in which he argued that the true Church had Christ as its head, not the pope. He took the view that it was right to rebel against a pope who erred. One element of this call by Hus was nationalistic. The Czechs should not tolerate outside domination. But there was a clear theological issue. Hus was taking the same kind of stance as was John Wycliffe in England, whose writing Hus read. The people must not, Hus argued, give unconditional obedience to ecclesiastical rulers without consideration as to whether the decrees being enacted were in accordance with the commands of God. Reform was needed.2

A Council was called at Constance in Germany in 1414 to discuss reform. Hus was invited to attend and was given a promise by Emperor Sigismund that he would have safe passage. But a few weeks after he arrived in Constance he was arrested, put in prison, tried and sentenced to be burned as a heretic. Hus was asked whether he would recant. ‘I shall die with joy’, he affirmed, ‘in the faith of the gospel which I have preached.’3 From this point increasing numbers of people in Bohemia engaged in protest. Moderate Hussite reformers, seeking to persuade the Church to allow the laity to receive the wine as well as the bread, had as their symbol the communion cup. They were called ‘Utraquists’, from sub utraque – under both kinds. A second Hussite branch became militant and because these Hussites were located around Mount Tabor in south Bohemia they received the name Taborites. In the 1420s very large Catholic and Hussite armies fought each other.

The emergence of the Czech Brethren

The more moderate radicals, as we may term them, reached an accommodation with the Catholic Church over issues such as the form of communion. Jan Rokycana, who had been an outspoken preacher at the Týn Church in Prague but had been forced into exile because of his radical views, later became the Archbishop of Prague. In this influential position he aligned himself openly with the Utraquists and attacked ecclesiastical corruption. His condemnation of priests ‘who had put the devil into the elements of the holy communion’, as he put it, led to calls for immediate action, especially from a nephew of Rokyana called Gregory (Rehor), who was a former monk. Gregory asked his uncle for advice as to what should be done.

Rokycana’s response was very significant for the story of the Czech Brethren. He had been reading the writings of Petr Chelchický, a native of south Bohemia (probably born about 1390) who had been influenced by Hus and who developed his own thinking about the ‘law of love’ as the centrepiece of Christ’s teaching and thus of Christian living.4 This led him to pacifism, and thus to disagreement with Hus and especially with the militants who followed him. Rokycana suggested to Gregory that he should read the writings of Chelchický and meet him. One record, from 1547 (about one hundred years after these events), describes what happened: ‘Master Rokycana showed to the brethren Gregory and his friends the writings of Peter Chelchicky, admonishing them to read these books which he himself read so frequently … obeying his advice the brethren read the writings of this man with much diligence and had even many talks with him … from which they obtained much knowledge of the right way of life.’5

The life and thinking of Chelchický has been thoroughly researched and analysed by Murray Wagner, who has shown Chelchický’s independence of thought. Dependence on Hus is evident, but since Chelchický did not go through the theological education of his time he was perhaps more able to develop a fresh approach. His views had similarities to the thinking of the Walden-sians (whose base of operations in the fourteenth century was in the Piedmont valleys), particularly in the way he understood the church as a ‘separate’ community while not making separation from the existing Church an ideological principle. Since there were links between the Waldensians and the Hussites, there may well have been Waldensian influence on the communities around Chelchický in south Bohemia. But it is likely that Chelchický came initially to his conclusions about the church as a community of believers through his own study. As Wagner argues, his ‘primitive Christianity arose within the context of the fresh criticism of official Christendom by Bohemian reformers.’6 This was an indigenous movement of reform.

As such, it appealed greatly to younger leaders such as Gregory. He read the works of Chelchický – such as his most famous book The Net of Faith – with great excitement and subsequently put into practice Chelchický’s thinking about living out the Christian faith. In The Net of Faith God’s net pulls in believing people, but it is ripped by the pope and the emperor. Only the shreds remain of the primitive church. Killer whales have been at work.7 Gregory and his friends attempted to return to what they saw as early church life, and a community was set up near a Czech village called Kunwald in 1467. It was this group that was called ‘a Unity of Brethren’ – in Czech Jednota bratrská and in Latin Unitas Fratrum. This step, creating a community that had all the distinguishing marks of a separate church, went beyond what had been done by Chelchický. Nonetheless, it is right to see Chelchický as the father of this new movement. Although Hus wrote about the church, it was Chelchický who envisaged a community in which everyone would be committed to the same practice of faith. This vision has continued to be influential. Leo Tolstoy, in his The Kingdom of God is within You, described Chelchický’s The Net of Faith as ‘a most remarkable production of human thought, both from the profundity of its con-tents and the wonderful force and beauty of its popular language’.

The Unity and the Anabaptists

The Unity of the Brethren was not primarily a doctrinal movement, at least in its early stages. Rather it was, like the Anabaptist movement, primarily an attempt to return to the simplicity of the early church. Yet there were powerful doctrinal implications in the steps that were being taken. At the same time as the community in Kunwald was established as the Unity of the Brethren, the members put in place their own ordained ministry. Two Waldensians ordained the first bishop of the Brethren. There was a stress in this community – and here the thinking of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England was influential - on having the Bible in the language of the people.

The Brethren also gave particular attention to the teaching of the New Testament about the nature of the church and about living a life of peace, in contrast with the warlike Taborites who drew inspiration from some Old Testament passages about the people of God going to war.8

In 1473 Gregory died and Luke (Lukáš) of Prague succeeded him in the leadership of the Brethren. As someone who wanted to bind the movement more closely together at a time of strain and division, Luke wrote extensively. He produced a catechism and a hymnbook. Divisions occurred between those Brethren who wished to be more open to engagement with society and those who remained closed in their thinking. One small group within the Brethren held almost entirely to Anabaptist views. J. K. Zeman, a major writer on the Czech Brethren (as he terms the Unity), speaks about the date of 1525 as both the start of Anabaptism and the end of the creative period in the thinking of the Unity of the Brethren in Bohemia and Moravia. By that year Luke of Prague, the leader of the largest ‘party’ within the Brethren, had completed his ‘restitutionist’ theology in which he explored more fully the limits of the idea of the early church being restored.9 As the Czech Brethren worked out the further implications of their view of the church, they began to encounter Anabaptists who were moving into Moravia.

What, then, were the links between the Czech Brethren and Anabaptism? The rise of Anabaptism in Moravia, where there was unusual religious freedom, can be dated to 1526, when Balthasar Hubmaier and others arrived in the town of Mikuluv. It is possible that he already knew of the Czech Brethren. Certainly leaders of the Brethren had been in touch with Erasmus in 1521, the same year in which Hubmaier visited him, but Hubmaier himself makes no reference to Hus and acknowledges no debt to the Bohemian reformation.10 In his early period in Mukuluv, Humbaier won over to Anabaptism some Germans in the area, and he had contact with Utraquists, but there is no evidence that he had dealings with the Czech Brethren. Zeman describes this as astonishing, given the many doctrinal parallels between the teachings of Hubmaier and of the Czech Brethren in this period.11

Although Hubmaier’s time in Moravia was limited – he was arrested in July 1527 and put to death in 1528 – the Anabaptists remained in Moravia for much of the next 100 years. Strangely, only once during that period, in 1528, did they engage in any dialogue with local Christian communities with a view to a possible coming together. This dialogue was with the main group of Czech Brethren, and although there was initially some thought that some Anabaptists on the ‘spiritualising’ wing of the movement in Moravia might merge with the Brethren, the discussions soon foundered. Why was this? One problematic issue was the Lord’s Supper. The Brethren held to a view of the ‘real presence’ that was not shared by the Anabaptists. No doubt the Brethren’s retention of infant baptism alongside the practice of believer’s baptism was a problem, although it is not mentioned in the records of the discussions. Finally, most Anabaptists had come into Moravia from elsewhere, and most were German-speaking. Very few were Czechs or spoke Czech. The Czech Brethren expected Anabaptists to fall in line with their own older, indigenous tradition. The newcomers refused to do so.12

From the 1530s through to the 1560s there were further contacts between the Anabaptists – the largest group in Moravia being the Hutterites – and the Czech Brethren. Leonard Gross, in The Golden Years of the Hutterites, draws attention to Czech Brethren criticisms of the Hutterites in the 1570s. According to the Czechs, the Hutterite craftsmen were robbing local craftsmen of their jobs, were buying up food supplies and were even stealing barrels of beer.13 By this time the major leaders within Czech Brethren were aligning themselves to a much greater extent with the mainstream Protestant Reformation. In 1620 the Protestant cause in the Czech lands was defeated by Austro-Hungarian Catholic forces and the Brethren were forced to leave Moravia. Initially many, including Jan Komenski, the renowned, progressive educator, went to Poland. The Moravian church, or the Renewed Unity of the Brethren, was reconstituted in 1727 in a settlement named Herrnhut (the Lord’s watch or protection) in Germany, and it was from this period that Moravianism’s remarkable world missionary vision developed.

Conclusion

The story of the Czech Brethren has been significant for many people, not only those within the radical Christian tradition. T. G. Masaryk, the philosopher-politician who founded Czechoslovakia and became its first President in 1918, was inspired by this example of free church life and thought.14 From 1919 to the 1960s, Baptists in Czechoslovakia used the name Unity of the Brethren of Chelchický. The Masaryk tradition has been espoused by the current President of Czech Republic, Václav Havel. The missionary example of later Moravianism, as its missionaries made immense journeys across the world, is also powerful. In some respects Herrnhut incorporated elements of community life that mirrored the Hutterites. This highlights, however, one of the great ironies of the story of the Czech Brethren and Anabaptism – the lack of attempts to achieve understanding. The way in which Hutterites and Czech Brethren lived side by side for decades yet had so little meaningful contact may serve as a warning. The Chronicle (1525-1665) of the Hutterites relied for its information on the Czech Reformation on writings, from the 1520s, of a Dominican inquisitor!15 Those within the Anabaptist radical tradition sometimes feel that other Christians misunderstand them. Efforts often need to be made, however, to overcome mutual misunderstandings.

Ian Randall teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, and Spurgeon’s College, London.

Notes

1. M. Spinka, Jan Hus: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 47-52.

2. P. Roubiczek and J. Kalmer, Warrior of God: The Life and Death of John Hus (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1947), p. 159.

3. A.W. Schattschneider, Through Five Hundred Years: A Popular History of the Moravian Church (Winston-Salem, NC: Moravian Church, 1996), p. 16.

4. P. Brock, The Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (The Hague: Mouton, 1957), p. 44.

5. Schattschneider, Through Five Hundred Years, p. 21.

6. M.L. Wagner, Petr Chelchický: A Radical Separatist in Hussite Bohemia (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983), pp. 46-55.

7. Wagner, Petr Chelchický, p. 132.

8. Brock, Political and Social Doctrines, p. 86.

9. J.K. Zeman, ‘Restitution and Dissent in the Late Medieval Renewal Movements: The Waldensians, the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. XLIV (1976), pp. 17ff.

10. J.K. Zeman, The Anabaptists and the Czech Brethren in Moravia (The Hague: Mouton, 1969), pp. 122-3; 138-43.

11. Zeman, The Anabaptists, p. 173.

12. Zeman, The Anabaptists, chapter 4, pp. 177-241.

13. L. Gross, The Golden Years of the Hutterites (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1998), p. 38.

14. For books on T.G. Masaryk see K. Capek, Talks with T. G. Masaryk (North Haven, CT: Catbird Press, 1995).

15. Zeman, The Anabaptists, pp. 269-71.