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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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Comenius and the Hidden Seed
John Amos Comenius, the pioneer of modern education and the last bishop of the old Bohemian Brethren, was born on March 18th, 1592, at Trivnitz, a little market town in Moravia. He was only six years old when he lost his parents through the plague. John did more at school than play games and socialize with the young people. He studied the Scriptures earnestly and discovered, to his dismay, how far his church had strayed from what it originally believed. He also made friends with the Anabaptists in surrounding communities and admired them for their inner order and discipline “by which they surpassed all other denominations.” Then, after his ordination, he found his way to the old Waldensian refugee settlement at Fulnek in Moravia.
Living in a room alongside the meetinghouse at Fulnek, John learned to know the descendants of these German believers—plain, industrious, minding their own business on little farms hidden in the valleys of Novy Jicin, Suchdol nad Odrou , and Sehlen. The Kuhlandl—little land of the cows—the Germans called it, and in its quiet seclusion John discovered a remnant of the faith he believed his church had lost. He worked among the German members of the Unity, at Fulnek, with great enthusiasm—until disaster struck.
John’s happiness was speedily turned to misery. The Thirty Years’ War broke out. What part he took in the Bohemian Revolution we have no means of knowing. He certainly favored the election of Frederick, and helped his cause in some way. “I contributed a nail or two,” he wrote, “to strengthen the new throne.” What sort of nail he means, we do not know. The new throne did not stand very long. The troops of Ferdinand appeared at Fulnek. The village was sacked.
Comenius reeled with horror. He saw the weapons for stabbing, for chopping, for cutting, for pricking, for hacking, for tearing and for burning. He saw the savage hacking of limbs, the spurting of blood, the flash of fire.
Fulnek Castle in Moravia, where John Comenius spent some time. Persecution forced him to flee to Bohemia, then later to Poland—never to return “home” again. He asked God to leave a “hidden seed” in his homeland, which indeed came to pass in the form of the Nistchman, Zeisberger, and other Unity families in the Fulnek area who became central figures in the later Renewed Moravian Church at Hernnhut, Germany, with Zinzindorf.
“Almighty God,” he wrote in one of his books, “what is happening? Must the whole world perish?”
His house was pillaged and gutted; his books and his manuscripts were burned; and he himself, with his wife and children, had now to flee in hot haste from Fulnek and to take refuge for a while on the estate of Baron Charles von Zerotin at Brandys nad Orlice. To the Brethren, Brandys had long been a sacred spot. There Gregory had breathed his last, and there his bones lay buried; there many an historic Brethren’s Synod had been held; and there Comenius took up his abode in a little wood cottage outside the town, which tradition said had been built by Gregory himself. He had lost his wife and one of his children on the way from Fulnek; he had lost his post as teacher and minister; and now, for the sake of his suffering Brethren, he wrote his beautiful classical allegory, “The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.”
As Comenius fled from Fulnek to Brandeis, he saw sights that harrowed his soul, and now in his cottage at the foot of the hills he described what he had seen. The whole land, said Comenius, was now in a state of disorder. The reign of justice had ended. The reign of pillage had begun. The plot of the book is simple. From scene to scene the pilgrim goes, and everything fills him with disgust.
Comenius gave them fine sarcastic names. He called the judges Nogod, Lovestrife, Hearsay, Partial, Loveself, Lovegold, Takegift, Ignorant, Knowlittle, Hasty and Slovenly; he called the witnesses Calumny, Lie and Suspicion; he named the statute-book “The Rapacious Defraudment of the Land”. He saw the lords oppressing the poor, sitting long at table, and discussing lewd and obscene matters. He saw the rich idlers with bloated faces, with bleary eyes, with swollen limbs, with bodies covered with sores. He saw the moral world turned upside down.
No longer, said Comenius, did men in Bohemia call things by their right names. They called drunkenness, merriment; greed, economy; usury, interest; lust, love; pride, dignity; cruelty, severity; and laziness, good nature.
He saw his Brethren maltreated in the vilest fashion. Some were cast into the fire; some were hanged, beheaded, crucified; some were pierced, chopped, tortured with pincers, and roasted to death on grid-irons. He studied the lives of professing Christians, and found that those who claimed the greatest piety were the sorriest scoundrels in the land. “They drink and vomit,” he said, “quarrel and fight, rob and pillage one another by cunning and by violence, neigh and skip from wantonness, shout and whistle, and commit fornication and adultery worse than any of the others.” He watched the priests, and found them no better than the people. Some snored, wallowing in feather beds; some feasted till they became speechless; some performed dances and leaps; some passed their time in love-making and wantonness.
For these evils, Comenius saw one remedy only: Christ in the heart.
As we linger over the closing sections of his book, we can see that he then regarded the Brethren as almost ideal Christians. Among them he found no priests in gaudy attire, no flaunting wealth, no grinding poverty; and passing their time in peace and quietness, they cherished Christ in their hearts. “All,” he says, “were in simple attire, and their ways were gentle and kind. I approached one of their preachers, wishing to speak to him. When, as is the custom, I wished to address him according to his rank, he permitted it not, calling such things worldly fooling.” To them ceremonies were matters of little importance. “Your religion,” said the Master to the Pilgrim—i.e., to the Brethren’s Church—“shall be to serve me in quiet, and not to bind thyself to any ceremonies, for I do not bind thee by them.”
But Comenius did not stay long at Brandys nad Orlice.133 As Count Zerotin had sided with the House of Hapsburg, he had been allowed, for a few years, to give shelter to about forty Brethren’s ministers; but now commissioners appeared at his Castle, and ordered him to send these ministers away.
The last band of exiles now set out for Poland. John married again, and mounting danger forced him to flee with his father-in-law (a bishop of the Big Group) and a few others across the border, through Silesia, to Poland.
As they bade farewell to their native land, they did so in the firm conviction that they themselves should see the day when the Unity of the Brethren should stand once more in her ancient home; and as they stood on a spur of the Giant Mountains, and saw the old loved hills and dales, the towns and hamlets, the nestling churches, Comenius raised his eyes to heaven and uttered that historic prayer which was to have so marvelous an answer. He prayed that in the old home God would preserve a “Hidden Seed,” which would one day grow to a tree; and then the whole group struck up a hymn and set out for Poland. Pathetic was the marching song they sang:
Nought have we taken with us,
All to destruction is hurled,
We have only our Kralitz Bibles,
And our Labyrinth of the World.
What became of the “Hidden Seed” is another story for another book.134 For the present, they buried their Bibles in their gardens, held midnight meetings in garrets and stables, preserved their records in dovecotes and in the thatched roofs of their cottages, and, feasting on the glorious promises of the Book of Revelation—a book which many of them knew by heart—awaited the time when their troubles should blow by and the call to arise should sound.
Comenius would spend many years in the cause of education of children, becoming known as “the father of modern education”. But in his heart there still burned the vision of the hidden seed bursting forth into new life. For the benefit of those still worshiping in secret in Bohemia and Moravia, he prepared a Catechism, entitled “The Old Catholic Christian Religion in Short Questions and Answers”; and by this catholic Religion he meant the simple faith of the Bohemian Brethren.
“Perish sects,” said Comenius; “perish the founders of sects. I have consecrated myself to Christ alone.” But the purpose of the Catechism had to be kept a secret. “It is meant,” said Comenius, in the preface, “for all the pious and scattered sheep of Christ, especially those at F., G., G., K., K., S., S. and Z.” These letters can be easily explained. They stood for the villages of Fulnek, Gersdorf, Gestersdorf, Kunewalde, Klandorf, Stechwalde, Seitendorf and Zauchtenthal.135
It is probably no accident that from these very villages came the first members of the Renewed Church of the Moravian Brethren—at Herrnhut, with Zinzindorf—who would indeed burst into life a few decades after Comenius was laid to rest in the grave.Go to Part 7 Lessons from the Bohemians
133 In 1628
134 I refer the reader to Peter Hoover’s book “Behold the Lamb” for the continuing story. In short, about 100 years later the Moravian Brethren at Herrnhut picked up where the Unity of Brothers had left off. Eventually they would take the gospel to many parts of the globe.
135I leave the German names here, as obviously he referred to these Moravian villages in that tongue.