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Part 1 Birth Pangs
Part 2 Birth
Part 3 Maturity
Part 4 Sick unto Death
Part 5 Burial
Part 6 The Hidden Seed
Part 7 Lessons from the Bohemians
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Disunity of the Unity
The trouble began with money—and prestige.
During their first years at Kunvald and in Southern Bohemia, whoever joined the Unity of Brothers left his fortune behind. Knights and nobles gave up their titles to become simple followers of Christ. Of these, the Baron Strachota of Orlice near Kysperk, left a shining example. Not only did he give up his castle, he took up book-keeping and began to work in a mill. All who knew him respected him as a wise and godly man.
John Kostka and his wife, the owners of Litomysl, also became converted and gave their property to Bohua, their son. Then Bohus wished to join the church too—and things became complicated.
A large number of Unity families lived at Litomysl. By asking Bohus Kostka to get rid of his estate, they would have put themselves on the street. “Could this be fair?” they asked themselves. “What if all the barons should get converted? Would we all have to move all the time?”
A brother from Wotic, also named Gregory, wrote a tract On the Civil Power that, like Peter Chelcicky’s books, warned against any acceptance of government officials, knights, or barons, into the brotherhood. The bishop, Matthias of Kunvald stood with him. So did many more. But to follow Christ in a feudal society did not look easy to the families living and working in the town of Litomysl itself.
Not only did the problem of Bohus Kostka’s membership face them, but because nearly everyone in the town belonged to the church, they faced the question of who to elect for town councilors, judges, and policemen. Every feudal estate was responsible to keep its own order.
“Should we have a worldly and unconverted minority rule over all of us?” the people of Litomysl asked. “Would it not be better to make responsible decisions ourselves?”
Bohus Kostka, owner of the estate, pushed for Unity members to become its officials and could not understand what held them back. Neither could others. A prominent Hussite priest wrote in 1492:
There have been, and still are, people among us who refuse to accept office as town councilor or any other official position. They say they do not want to administer justice, basing their action on the command of Christ, “judge not that you be not judged” which they, of course, interpret in their own way. But if these brothers are indeed so much better than the rest of us, if they are indeed lovers of justice and truth, why should they not take positions of authority to deal out fair and Christian justice so that righteousness may be established among us, and what is wrong put down? ... I think it is perverse of them to regard the rest of us as “unbelievers,” and that they should be punished for it. By trusting in themselves alone, they insult their neighbors and put themselves off from other Christians devoted to God’s truth.
At Litomysl, brothers of the Unity heard this criticism and felt bad. They felt they should do their part as responsible citizens. “But how could you be judges and councilors without exercising violence?” Bishop Matthias and those with him asked. “How could you hold civil office and not swear oaths?”
The brothers at Litomysl did not know. But when their bishop suggested they leave their trades in town and go back to living as shepherds and field workers, they protested. “We cannot all live in the country,” a soap maker answered. “Cows do not give soap, and even if they did, men who work with them get appointed as judges and councilors too!”
During the time these questions troubled the Unity of Brothers, new faces appeared among them. By now, fifty or more years after his death, Peter Chelcicky’s writings were well known. Scholars looked through them, and even though considered heretical, copies of them lay in important libraries. It was there, in the library of the university at Prague, that Luke, a young Hussite, discovered them in the 1470s.
Luke not only read Peter Chelcicky; he visited the brothers at Mount Carmel (Mlada Boleslav) to find out how they lived and believed. They impressed him, and with a circle of scholarly friends, he moved there to join them after his graduation.
This brought more trouble.
The owner of Mlada Boleslav was a woman, the baroness Johanka Tovacovska z Krajku, who also admired the Unity. With the coming of Luke and his friends, she found the believers’ community on her lands even more attractive. Now it no longer consisted of simple farmers and tradesmen. With scholars and gifted educators among them, the baroness felt there might be room for her—with her title and fortune—as well.
The brothers were not sure.
After many meetings, counsel, and prayer, they finally called leaders from the entire movement to Brandys nad Orlici in the early 1490s. Some nobles, interested in joining, came too. So did the scholar, Luke, and his friends from Mlada Boleslav and Litomysl. All troublesome issues came up for a vote in which Brother Matthias—unwilling to cause division—refused to take part, then the brothers drew up a statement of compromise.
They recommended that no one should take government office of his own free will, that church members should not keep a tavern, go to war, judge others, or apply torture and capital punishment. But if the state, or their position in society demanded it, then no one would judge them for it. Every case should be evaluated on its own, much would be left to individual conscience, and there was to be no more “stirring up of trouble” about things of this nature.
The Unity of Brothers, by this time, was directed by an “Inner Council” elected to help Bishop Matthias. These men, with the approval of others gathered at Brandys, passed a further resolution:
If anyone’s conscience does not permit him to become a town councilor, a judge, or to hold another civil office, he should not feel pressured into doing it by the fact that the brotherhood allows it on certain conditions. Rather, if he holds to his conviction and wants to suffer for it, he shall have the liberty of doing so, only on the condition that he does not criticize those who feel and do otherwise. He should not consider himself any better than those who co-operate with the government and thereby avoid suffering.93
The Inner Council dismissed the brothers at Brandys with a solemn warning not to go home and talk about controversial issues among themselves. If anyone had a complaint, they said, he should come directly to them or to Brother Matthias, the bishop:
If, after thinking this over, or for any other reason, a brother should object to what we have decided, he should neither speak or act, neither openly or in secret, against it. Rather he should bring his complaint in person, or writing. ... Anyone who disregards this instruction should be admonished, and if he refuses to accept correction, and keeps causing a disturbance and division, he shall be held back from communion. If he still remains obstinate, and corrupts others with his point of view, he shall be expelled from his congregation, and if that does not turn him back from his wickedness, he shall be expelled from the Unity of Brothers itself.
In other words, people were allowed to disagree, but they were to keep their mouth shut about it.
Vilemov, Moravia, where a congregation of the Little Group took shape. The Little Group must have felt as lonely as this house on a winter day, when so very few took a stand against the drifting of the Unity. When persecution got heavy in Bohemia, many of the Unity members moved to Moravia, along with Anabaptists from Austria and Germany.
Two men, at least, made their way home from the big meeting at Brandys with heavy hearts. They were Amos Stekensky, a collector of bee’s wax from Vodnany close to Chelcice, and his co-worker, Jacob. Their hearts told them that the Unity of Brothers, in deciding to relax its position on civil office and to allow the wealthy and powerful to become part of it, had made a terrible mistake. No sooner did they come home to southern Bohemia—into the area where Peter Waldo spent his last years, and where Peter Chelcicky had taught—than they began to write, discuss the matter with their friends, and pray.
Amos wrote a tract, describing in simple Bohemian how Christ rejected Satan’s offer of worldly power, and why his followers do the same. He explained why it was right for unbelieving authorities to have power in the world, but why it did not belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. The New Testament, Amos wrote, is the sole authority of Christ’s followers, but the Old Testament is not, in its letter form, an authority at all—the difference being that Christ has now established his Kingdom on earth.
Hundreds of believers in southern Bohemia and elsewhere stood with Amos and Jacob. For a time even Brother Matthias, the bishop, returned to the church’s former position. He declared the compromise of Brandys null and void, and dismissed the Inner Council. However, it did not last. The brothers of Litomysl and Mlada Boleslav—chief among them Luke and his educated friends—criticized the old way. Gregory and Peter Chelcicky were good men, they said, but their teaching was off-balance and impractical. It served a generation of farmers well, but it did not fit intellectuals and people in ‘higher’ walks of life.
Within months, confusion and unrest overtook the Unity of Brothers as never before. Matthias and his conservative friends resigned their leadership, and a team of trained theologians (Luke among them) took over. A new Inner Council, hostile to the old way, re-enforced the compromise of Brandys. To that they added a decree stating that Gregory's and Peter Chelcicky’s writings should no longer be considered authoritative. They allowed Matthias to keep his office, but only as a figurehead. His duties they restricted to officiating at ordinations and to serving as moderator in church meetings.
During the Lent season of 1495, Matthias and Luke made a final attempt to keep the south Bohemians in the Unity of Brothers. They met with Amos Stekensky, and those who agreed with him, in Jacob’s house, not far from the historic village of Chelcice. All day they discussed the way of Christ and the way of the world. It turned dark. The time for the evening meal came and went. The the men reached no agreement. Matthias had firmly decided to keep the church together at all costs. Luke pushed for a more open and “balanced” understanding, spending much time explaining what Christ meant when he forbade the swearing of oaths—that there are three kinds of oaths, the false, the careless, and the true, and that Christ only condemned the first two. But the south Bohemians stood firm.
No matter how grandly Matthias and Luke promised their views full toleration in the church, the Mensi strana—the ‘Little Group’ as it came to be called—had no desire to be “back in a net with the rich, the powerful, and those who defend their lives with the sword.” For this “insubordination” and “sowing of discord”, the leaders of the church finally excommunicated Amos Stekensky, Jacob, and all who supported them, and the Unity’s disunity became final.
Tracing the Little Group’s Journey
Nothing, in the face of the Big Group’s apostasy, surprised those of the Little Group more than the fact that their own group was so little.
Even though a vast number of brothers and sisters sympathized with them, only a few, at the last moment, sided with Amos, Jacob, and those who determined with them, to stick to the way of Christ at all costs. Perhaps they hesitated because of the Little Group’s unconditional tone. “There is no middle way between carrying the the commands of Christ in every detail, and conforming to the world on the other,” Amos wrote in a letter to Jacob. “Farmers take better care of their pigs,” Jacob, in turn, wrote to Matthias, “than what you have taken care of the Lord’s flock.”
But here and there, in southern Bohemia and Moravia, in Klatov and Beroun, in Lanskroun, and even at the “Mount of Olives” in Litomysl, congregations of the Little Group took shape. Matous a weaver of Lanskroun, Andrew a cobbler, John a miller from Susice, Riha a weaver from Votice, Havel a tailor from Litomysl, Jirik a cooper from Votice, and Pavel a convert from the extinct Taborites became active workers among them.
At the old monastery in Vilemov, the brothers reprinted Peter Chelcicky’s The Net of True Faith, and circulated hand written tracts. They took a dim view of higher education and because they would not take oaths—required in larger businesses—they contented themselves with working as farmers or craftsmen.
For years after the division, those of the Big Group tried to woo the Little Group back into their number, but without success. In a reply to them, Jacob wrote:
Now the Brothers say, “Let us open the gates of the fold to gather in more sheep. But when they open it up, the sheep already inside run out and the wolves tear them to pieces. ... The gates of the fold are the commandments and prohibitions of Christ who is the strait path and the narrow door. Whoever tries to make this gate wider and says a brother may be a town councilor or a judge, take oaths, or exercise the bloody rights of the sword, is a thief and a murderer trying to come in some other way.
In the same tract, Jacob explained more beliefs of the Little Group:
From the beginning of the world good people have had to suffer. Those who have fallen away from the faith94 have tried to prove that if a person suffers, being able to defend himself, his suffering is only like that of a donkey or another animal. But Christ did not take this view. He did not hesitate to lay his yoke upon his disciples and ask them, for the sake of the Kingdom, to renounce their property and families. Christ found his followers among the lowly and poor, among servants, not rulers; for it is not the poor who rule the world, but the rich. Christianity is a religion that blesses the poor and promises nothing but misery to the rich.
During the early years of the Unity, many renounced great estates, honor, fame, and a luxurious life. They suffered great trials, imprisonment, torture, and even death itself, with joy. Some of these, like the Sarovec and Sudomer families and our Brother Votik, lived afterwards on the same level as the simple Brothers. But now people with estates, the rich, the honored, and those who are friends with the world are coming into the church just as they are.
Throughout the centuries, the true Christian faith has been held by only a small minority of those who say they believe. Whenever the church grew very large the seed of true faith disappeared among them, but God preserves it among the faithful few. It is better to be on the right path with the chosen few then on the wrong path with the majority. It was to the small flock that Christ’s words of comfort were directed, and when the great church fell away in the time of Constantine, it was only a few—the Waldensians—who stayed with the Truth. But now even they have departed from their former teachings.
Every movement, even though God begins it, suffers decline and corruption with time, because of the enemy’s wickedness. Now that is happening to the Unity of Brothers. Those looking on can see, by comparing the Unity to what it used to be, that what began in the Spirit is ending in the flesh. This is happening because the brothers wanted to avoid persecution and win large numbers of people into the church who were unwilling to make the sacrifices formerly demanded for entry into the brotherhood.
Every word of Christ means exactly what it says, and He will in the end accept only those who accept His teaching. Heaven and earth will pass away before the least of His words. This is true in the matter of the oath. When Christ says, “Swear not at all,” he means every kind of oath, just as James in James 5:12. And when Christians begin to set this aside and break His rule, they soon break his command to love their enemies as well—along with the rest of his commands in the Sermon on the Mount. Any attempt to do away with this one command is an attack on all the rest.
There is no proof whatsoever that men exercising civil power have ever belonged to or had part in the holy church. To try and mix the two [the church with civil power] would be like mixing fire with water. Christian groups who do not listen to Christ’s commands in the Sermon on the Mount, and who allow their members to participate in the government are in fact the legions of damnation. You [of the Big Group] say you have not accepted the ways of the unbelieving world. But what else is it? Not only have you accepted them but with pious words you try to hide the fact that you have now given liberty for brothers to take office, swear and fight in wars, deliver thieves up to justice, to the rack and the scaffold and to return evil for evil.
Why have we broken away from you? In the first place, it is because you oppress us by force. In second place, because you set yourselves up to judge but are not in a position to do so. In third place, because we cannot submit to your prostitution of doctrine through which you have corrupted what the Holy Scriptures teach.
In reality it is not we who have separated ourselves from you, but you from us. We are the ones who have stayed with what we formerly believed, and you are the ones who have brought in new and unheard of changes. The doctrine we now hold, many among you—like Brother Matthias, for instance—held for years, and we are minded to hold to it until we die. It is the doctrine we believed for years under Brother Gregory, and many brothers and sisters still hold it dear. But now you, Matthias, have of your own free will, as you say in a letter, deserted these teachings. Not only this, you have gone so far as to warn the congregations of the Unity against them.
Community at Letovice in Moravia
After the division of the Unity of Brothers, darkness and danger settled on Czech lands. By this time, the crown of Bohemia had passed to a son of the King of Poland. He married a French Catholic princess and persecution increased. Here and there, believers who refused to conform, suffered burning at the stake.
Among the believers of the Little Group, not everything went peacefully. When the time came to ordain new leaders, Amos and Jacob disagreed on how to go about it. Jacob returned to the Big Group and many others lost interest. Then a new face appeared among the faithful.
A knife grinder from Prague, a young man named John Kalenec, who had eagerly sought the way of Christ, first among the Hussites, then among the Lutherans, turned to the Unity of Brothers. Like Luke years earlier, he traveled to Mlada Boleslav and Brandys, to see how they lived and what they believed.
Unlike Luke—with whom he spoke at Mlada Boleslav—John saw with grief and displeasure the worldly ways of those who had joined the Unity. The thirst for the Truth gave him no rest until he discovered the Little Group, among whom he became a member with great joy around 1520.
So energetic was John Kalenec in his newfound brotherhood that the congregation at Prague grew rapidly, and when old Amos died in 1522, he became the Little Group’s leader. This alarmed the Hussite rulers of the city who branded him on his face, whipped him publicly, and expelled him from the city in 1524. Two sisters and a brother lost their lives by burning, and others got long jail sentences.
From Prague, John fled to a settlement of the Little Group at Letovice, far to the east, in Moravia. Other believers found their way there, and it became the center of the movement. From there, John carried on a lively correspondence and studied the New Testament eagerly to discover even more about the way of Christ. Under his leadership, the Little Group returned to baptizing only adults, on confession of faith. Although they never received the appellation of “anabaptist”, they certainly practiced just that. Their testimony against all forms of violence and swearing of oaths stood firm. And they chose to live, like Christ, in voluntary poverty.95 Like in early Christian times, and among the Waldensians and Albigenses before them, they had all things common, and many of them remained single.
No writing from the community at Letovice appeared in print.96 But from John’s letters that survive, their strong feeling against all forms of “worldliness” become clear. To those of the Big Group, John wrote:
You permit your members to carry on trades that you did not formerly allow. Now they take interest on money. They buy things cheap and sell them for much more. Many of you who could exist on a single craft, freely pursue several trades. More than that, you add field to field, you continually make more gardens, meadows, and vineyards, and buy up house after house, even village after village. . . .
In earlier times, Brother Luke warned those who dealt in clothing, those who dyed material, and tailors, to keep themselves from the vanity and wickedness of the world. But now you wear stylish clothes and live in luxurious houses. In the same way, your sisters, following your example, wear costly robes of velvet and lace. They put on fancily embroidered under-clothing, and dresses decorated with silk and gold.
Sebastian Franck, a contemporary historian describing the Little Group in Moravia, wrote in 1531:
They agree altogether with the Anabaptists. Like them, they hold all things in common. They baptize no children and do not believe that the body of the Lord is present in the sacrament.
Indeed, the similarity between some Czech believers and their Anabaptist neighbors was too great to miss. Thus Sebastian Franck was not nearly the first, nor the only one, to notice it.
New Brothers in Czech Lands
Only a few years after John Kalenec fled from Prague to Moravia, he learned of a new group settling around Mikulov , Husstopece, Slavkov u Brna and elsewhere on the lands of the Lords von Lichtenstein. Like the Waldensians, coming to Moravia years before, they were refugees. And like the Waldensians they were German people. But they came from Switzerland and Austria, and they belonged to the new “Anabaptist” movement.
Even though communication was a problem, both the Little and Big Groups of the Unity of Brothers in Moravia hastened to meet their new neighbors and discover what they believed. The results were interesting, but did not lead to full-fledged unity.
On one hand, those of the Big Group had become far to involved in commerce and government for the Anabaptists to feel at one with them. Instead of coming to terms in spiritual matters, they came to terms materially, and at least eighteen Anabaptist “Bruderhof” flourished on estates of Big Group nobility.97
On the other hand, the Anabaptists did not live up to the ideals of the Little Group, patterned after centuries of careful and serious-minded following of Christ. Some Anabaptists—those in the city of Mikulov under Balthasar Hubmaier—did not hold a clear testimony against the use of the sword. Others, as reported by John Kalenec, tolerated “worldly and frivolous professions” like wood carving, painting, the cutting of jewels, and tavern-keeping. Worst of all, even the most conservative group, those named for their leader, Jacob Hutter, had moral problems among them that they did not always take care of. In the Moravian town of Zadovice a group of Hutterite men, out for something to drink, stole several barrels of beer from the manorial brewery. In another incident, Hutterites were rightfully accused of stealing wood from a private forest. “And such men,” a Czech brother wrote, “claim that they have mortified their flesh and are born again!”98
John Kalenec, after lamenting the Anabaptists’ spiritual pride and lack of love in condemning all who did not practice community just like them, praised them, however, for what he found good. “We rejoice in the fact that you have condemned infant baptism,99 baptizing a second time in faith,” he wrote to them, “and also that you have attained the equality of the First Kingdom, that is, of the Church, where none may say: This is mine.” And when the Anabaptists faced persecution, the Bohemian brothers stood ready to help where they could.
As time went on the Little Group seems to have been absorbed into this “new” movement.100 By the late mid-16th century, they disappear from the records as a distinct group.
The Community at Habrovany
Just as close to the center of the Little Group at Letovice as the Anabaptists, and even closer to them in background and belief, stood the community at Habrovany, a short distance north of Slavkov u Brna.
The Habrovany brothers shared with the Little Group the spiritual background of the Waldensians in southern Bohemia, the revivals under Peter Chelcicky and Gregory, and the trial of persecution under Hussite and Catholic authorities. But they did not stand in direct association.
In 1528, the Moravian nobleman John Dubcansky decided to follow Christ. Unlike Bohus Kostka, however, he did not try to be a Christian and live in sumptuosity at the same time.101 He took the Sermon on the Mount as his guide and rejected violence and civil office at once. That brought him into contact with Vaclav of Lilec, the former rector of the monastery at Vilemov near Chelcice, and with Matthias, a solitudinarian from Zatec in western Bohemia.
Long a refuge of the Waldensians, the Zatec area had a history of radical Christianity. On the German side of the mountains, at Zwickau, a group of prophets helped launch the Protestant Reformation. On the Bohemian side, Matthias, a trapper who spent long times in the forest alone, discovered peace in Christ, and on his return to civilization he began to preach on streets and squares, calling everyone to repent “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” A year after Matthias began to preach, in 1520, a terrible plague struck Bohemia. Afraid to die, many, even in Prague, listened to his warnings and got converted. Others took deep offense.
Mathias spoke fearlessly against the corruption of wealth and power. In 1525 the Husssites threw him into prison. When they released him, a year later, they drove him from Prague and he went to live with John Dubcansky, the converted nobleman at Habrovany in Moravia. There Vaclav of Lilec joined them, and in 1528 they established a new congregation along the lines of Peter Chelcicky and Gregory’s teaching, based on the Sermon on the Mount.
Like the Little Group of the Unity, the brothers at Habrovany took a clear stand against all types of violence, the swearing of oaths, and participation in civil government. The “outward sacraments” of baptism and communion however, were not as important to them, and believing in the priesthood of all believers, they had no ordained leaders. At Lulec in Moravia, they set up a print shop from where, after 1530, a steady stream of books and tracts appeared. In 1537, the authorities imprisoned John Dubcansky, and not long after this group also disappeared from the records.
Tracing the Big Group
Once free of constant criticism by the Little Group, the Vetsi strana, the “Big Group” as people called it, made bold and rapid moves toward society and the world. Luke, with the support of the Unity’s publishing house at Mlada Boleslav, wrote voluminous works defending the oath and participation in war. He explained why “turning the other cheek” is only a spiritual, not a physical concept, and following his teaching that to hold possessions is “morally neutral,” members of the Unity began to see wealth and prestige as signs of the blessing of God.
Along with this, Luke returned to John Huss and John Wycliffe’s teaching of a threefold society. Christ did not come to restructure society, he said, but to correct its abuses. And the idea of correcting them by force did not bother him. “To kill and destroy the enemies of the Lord, providing it is done justly and without hatred, is not inconsistent with showing them love... Moderation should of course be used, but I cannot say it is wrong to go about with daggers.”102
Matthias, the old Bishop that had been with Gregory, himself wrote in defense of what the Unity now practiced:
We do not forbid you to lead the rich toward voluntary poverty, to snatch them from civil offices that endanger their souls, and lead them toward a more perfect life and closer imitation of Christ. But that is not for all men. Christ said it is difficult, but not impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Some who believed in Christ, such as the Roman Centurion, were men with authority.
Against the Little Group’s accusation that higher learning and the study of theology had corrupted the church, a theologian in the Big Group wrote a book, On the Learned Men, and Luke expressed disgust at the primitive Unity writings and viewpoints of “unlearned innovators.”
During this time, they made their position still clearer. Instead of taking Peter Chelcicky as their ‘guide’, they now took “the Bible and the Bible alone”. “We content ourselves,” they solemnly declared, at another Synod held at Rychnov, “with those sacred books which have been accepted from of old by all Christians, and are found in the Bible.”103
No longer did they honor the memory of Peter Chelcicky; no longer did they hold to his views in their writings. Now, instead of counting Peter as the founding voice of their movement, they began to regard themselves as the disciples of John Huss. In days gone by, they had spoken of Huss as a “causer of war.” Now they held his name and memory sacred; and from this time onward the real followers of Peter’s teachings were, not the Brethren as a whole, but the “little group” led by Amos and Jacob.
In another meeting of its leaders, the Big Group decided to tolerate tavern ownership and liquor brewing among them, providing its members did not drink to excess; and Luke's statement on civil power became their own:
Civil power, with its laws and punishments, may be exercised in the Unity and in the holy church. A lord owning estates, castles, fortresses and towns may be accepted into the Unity without having to relinquish the sword, and may become a brother while continuing to order punishments and executions... It is not impossible to hang a man while having love towards him in one’s heart.
After old Bishop Matthias died and Luke became bishop of the Unity, he reintroduced elaborate rituals, silver and gilt communion vessels, and embroidered robes for its priests. Financed by the baron, Bohus Kostka—by now a member of the church—he and other delegates traveled to Greece, Asia Minor, and Europe to find like-minded people and support for their actions.104 But they found none, and in a later historian’s words,
Out of Bohemian puritans who followed Peter Chelcicky rather than John Huss—people who admired celibacy like Paul, who swore no oaths, who held no civil office, who indulged in no luxury, who tolerated no wealth, who charged no interest on money, who took no part whatsoever in war—had arisen well-to-do capitalists, honorable householders, very successful businessmen, respected town officials and sworn in, very active generals and statesmen.
On Dec. 11th, 1528, Luke of Prague, the Big Group’s Bishop, breathed his last. As Gregory had gone to his rest when a new party was rising among the Brethren, so Luke of Prague crossed the cold river of death when new ideas from Germany were stirring the hearts of the Big Group.
He was never quite easy in his mind about Martin Luther. He still believed in the Seven Sacraments. He still believed in the Brethren’s system of moral discipline—despite the fact that he was responsible for compromising it. He still believed, for practical reasons, in the superiority of celibacy for the clergy. “This eating,” he wrote, “this drinking, this self-indulgence, this marrying, this living to the world—what a poor preparation it is for men who are leaving Babylon. If a man does this he is yoking himself with strangers. Marriage never made anyone holy yet. It is a hindrance to the higher life, and causes endless trouble.”
Above all, he objected to Luther’s way of teaching the “great doctrine” of justification by faith.
“Never, never,” he said, in a letter to Luther, “can you ascribe a man’s salvation to faith alone. The Scriptures are against you.105 You think that in this you are doing a good work, but you are really fighting against Christ Himself and clinging to an error.” He regarded Luther’s teaching as extreme and one-sided. He was shocked by what he heard of the jovial life led by Luther’s students at Wittenberg, and could never understand how a rollicking youth could be a preparation for a holy ministry. As Gregory had warned Matthias against “the learned Brethren,” so Luke, in his turn, now warned the Brethren against the loose lives of Luther’s merry-hearted students; and, in order to preserve the Brethren’s discipline, he now issued a comprehensive treatise, divided into two parts. The first was entitled “Instructions for Priests”, and the second “Instructions and Admonitions for All Occupations, All Ages in Life, All Ranks and All Sorts of Characters”. As he lay on his death-bed at Mlada Boleslav, his heart was stirred by mingled feelings. He would rather see his Church alone and pure than swept away in the Protestant current.
But it was too late. He who had given the flesh six inches, now had remorse when it was taking a yard.
During these times, the use of printed literature was growing. Seeing it as an avenue to reaching souls, the Brethren put this new technology to use.
“Very rarely,” says the historian Gindely, “has a Christian [group] sent into the world so many writings in its defense.” The number of their works, from their foundation to their almost complete extinction, after the death of Comenius in 1670, is much larger than that of all other contemporary literature combined. They were the first to have the Bible printed in the mother tongue (in Venice), so that in this respect the Bohemians took precedence of all other nations. At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were five printing establishments in Bohemia—one Catholic in Pilsen, one Utraquist in Prague, and three belonging to the Bohemian Brethren in Mlada Boleslav, Litosmyl, and Weisswasser respectively. Even these three could not always meet the demands made on them, and occasionally they had their books printed in Nurenberg. During the first decade of the 1500s, fifty of the sixty works published were from the Brethren.
Peculiar, but strictly in accord with their firm discipline, was the regulation that no member should write and publish a book without the consent of the community. “No one with us,” says their Church ordinance, “has permission to publish books before they are previously examined by the other members of the community, and authorized by their unanimous approval.”
Johannes Lasitzki, a Pole, who visited the Brotherhood in 1571, writes as follows in his work, De origine et rebus jestis Fratrum Bohemorum:
“No book appears without a previous examination by several elders and Church officials, chosen and appointed for the purpose ... It is also the custom not to allow any work to be published in one member’s name only (except under special conditions), but in the name of the whole Brotherhood. Thus each member of the spiritual body gets quite as much honor from the work as any other, and every opportunity is removed for the indulgence of the vain thirst for fame which as a rule titillates the minds of authors, while the writings themselves acquire so much the greater weight and esteem.”
As the Brethren downplayed University education, it is natural to draw the plain conclusion that among them the common people were the most benighted and ignorant in the land. The very opposite was the case. Among them, the common people were the most enlightened in the country. Of the Bohemian people in those days, there were few who could read or write; of the Brethren there was scarcely one who could not. If the Brethren taught the people nothing else, they at least taught them to read their native tongue; and their object in this was to spread the knowledge of the Bible.
However, in those days a man who could read was regarded as a prodigy of learning. The result of this education was widespread alarm. As the report gained ground that among the Brethren the humblest people could read as well as the priest, the good folk in Bohemia felt compelled to concoct some explanation, and the only explanation they could imagine was that the Brethren had the special assistance of the devil. If a man, said they, joined the ranks of the Brethren, the devil immediately taught him the art of reading, and if, on the other hand, he deserted the Brethren, the devil promptly robbed him of the power, and reduced him again to a wholesome benighted condition.
In this instance, however, the devil was innocent. The real culprit was Bishop Luke of Prague. In spite of his compromise, he made a positive step in basic education of the Brethren. The greatest was perhaps his publication of his “Catechism for Children,” commonly known as “The Children’s Questions”. It was a masterly and comprehensive treatise, published first, of course, in the Bohemian language in 1502. It was published again in a German edition for the benefit of the German members of the Church in 1522. Both the Lutheran and the Reformed Church printed and used it among their congregations. And thus it exercised a profound influence on the whole course of the Protestant Reformation, both in Germany and in Switzerland.
This was not a book for the preachers. It was a book for the fathers of families; a book found in every brother’s home. It was the children’s “Reader.” As the boys and girls grew up in the Brethren’s church, they learned to read, not in national schools, but in their own homes.
Among them, the duties of a father were clearly defined. He was both a schoolmaster and a religious instructor. He was the priest in his own family. He was to bring his children up in the Christian faith. He was not to allow them to roam at pleasure, or play with the wicked children of the world. He was to see that they were devout at prayers, respectful in speech, and noble and upright in conduct. He was not to allow brothers and sisters to sleep in the same room, or boys and girls to roam the daisied fields together. He was not to strike his children with a stick or with his fists. If he struck them at all, he must do so with a switch. Above all, he had to teach his children the Catechism.Go to Part 5 Burial
93Uh-oh.... “Avoiding suffering”!?
94Referring here to Luke and other leaders of the Big Group
95The words “voluntary poverty” scare some Christians. But what is meant here is a non-accumulation of money or goods. It does not mean that the believers went about begging to make a living, as some of the Catholic Orders mistakenly did.
96 Printing in those days was still a complicated and expensive procedure.
97 Among these were the lords von Zerotin, prominent members of the Unity of Brothers (Big Group), who protected the Anabaptists on many occasions, and granted them material concessions. Important Anabaptist communities on Big Group lands were Rocice (Rossitz), Pouzdrany (Pausram), Zidlochovice (Seelowitz), and Breclav (Lundenburg).
98 Reported in a letter copied at Kyjov in Moravia, on July 1, 1589. It is to be noted that these incidents were probably the exceptions, not the rule. The early Hutterites had a good reputation all-in-all.
99While the Little Group praised them for rebaptism, the Big Group moved further away from it. It is recorded that three meetings took place between the Anabaptists and the Big Group to discuss unity. After the unsuccessful talks, Luke, the Bishop of the Big Group, wrote in a personal letter that rebaptism was unnecessary and ought to be dropped from the Big Group's practice.
100 Among the first Anabaptists burned at the stake in Moravia, at Brno in May, 1528, was John Cizek, a former member of the Unity of Brothers. Other records indicate that John Kalenec, the Little Group bishop, visited among Anabaptists congregations.
101This is something we North Americans seem bent on trying to prove wrong: that one can live sumptiously on earth and still make heaven.
102 From a writing of Lukas against the Little Group
103Sounds good: “the Bible and the Bible alone.” What this really translated into in this case was “applying our understanding of the Bible, instead of Peter Chelcicky’s.” This good sounding phrase can mean something other than what it is supposed to!
104 On this trip they visited the Waldensians in the Cottian Alps, by now far removed from their forefathers’ beliefs, and witness the burning of Savanarola in Florence.
105Do a search to find the only place where “faith” and “alone” are found together in the English Bible, and what that verse says.