In 1473, two years after Jiří Poděbradý and Rokycana died in Prague, Řehoř himself, worn out from years of persecution and travel, died in the “underground” at Brandýs nad Orlicí (Brandeis am Adler) in Bohemia. One of the last things he told the believers gathered around his bed—Brother Matěj the bishop among them—was, “Beware of educated and learned persons who may come after me to corrupt the faith.”
His warning was prophetic. But for the time being, the Unity of Brothers could not comprehend it.
After they buried Řehoř in secret, in a wooded ravine on the Klopot mountain, a strange peace came to believers in Czech lands. The Hussite government, occupied in strife with Hungary, ignored them. A friendly baron, Jan Tovačovský of Mladá Boleslav (Jungbunzlau) gave them an abandoned monastery in which to live, and in its seclusion the Unity of Brothers thrived.
They called the old monastery “Mount Carmel.” In its chapel they met for simple meetings. In its scriptorium they set to copying and binding evangelical books.1 They used one of its halls for a school, and many families moved into its cloistered wings, the surrounding outbuildings, and villages nearby. It did not take long for their witness to result in more congregations taking shape in the nearby town of Vinařice, in Lenešice near Louny, in Brandýs nad Labem (Brandeis an der Elbe), Rýchnov nad Kněž, Benatky, and Německý Brod.
Then another wealthy baron, Jan Kostka of Litomyšl (Leitomischl), far to the southeast, near Lanškroun, provided the brothers with a refuge. This time they named it “Mount of Olives.”
In southern Bohemia the Unity grew rapidly in the old Waldensian areas of Nová Bystřice, Jindřichův Hradec, and around the village of Chelčice—while far to the east, in Moravia, they founded communities at Přerov, Hustopece (Auspitz), Ivancice (Eibenschitz), Slavkov (Austerlitz), and elsewhere. At Fulnek in Moravia, the German Waldensian settlement—now also part of the Unity of Brothers—flourished, until all told, the movement numbered more than a hundred thousand members. But Hussite authorities, watching anxiously from Prague, could not let it go unchallenged.
Tried by Fire
In 1487 a new law in Bohemia made it impossible for workers on feudal estates to move freely from place to place. The same law gave their masters the right to buy or sell their labour (as serfs) and to exercise complete authority, including capital punishment, over them. To make matters worse, Moravia fell under the power of Roman Catholic Hungary. A group of believers fled from there to Moldova in 1488, but many who could not escape had to suffer—like Ondřej, a brother from Kutná Hora,
Seeking escape from constant harassment, Ondřej found refuge at the “Mount of Olives” in Litomyšl. But his wife, a loyal Hussite, would not go with him. When he returned to see her she betrayed him and the authorities forced him to stay at Kutná Hora and attend Hussite services.
Ondřej consented, but not under the conditions imposed.
At his first meeting in the town church he called for silence and began to speak: “Dear friends, what are you doing? What so you worship? An idol made of bread! Oh worship the living God in heaven!”
The priest, outraged at the interruption, ordered the people to seize him. For some time no one moved, but a few rough characters finally grabbed him and smashed his head against a pillar. Then they dragged him to jail.
At his trial the next day, the authorities asked Ondřej, “Why did you act so shamefully? Who gave you the right to act like that?”
Ondřej responded with more questions: “Who told Abraham to leave his father’s idols and worship the living God? Who told Daniel to whom he should pray?”
Torture on the rack could not move Ondřej from his convictions and when they burned him at the stake he cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me!”
“Now he calls on Jesus whose sacraments he despised!” his persecutors jeered. But those who knew Ondřej, Jan and Mikuláš Nadrzibka, Jan Herbek, Matěj Prokop, and others burned with them for what they believed, did not make fun. The witness of the Unity of Brothers struck them to the heart and many kept joining the movement—in spite of persecution—until the evil one brought greater trials upon them.
What sword and fire could not do, among the Czech believers, a lack of unity brought about by the late 1400s.
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 Kyšperk, left a shining example. Not only did he give up his castle. He took up book keeping and began to work in mill. All who knew him respected him as a wise and godly man.
Jan Kostka and his wife, the owners of Litomyšl, also became converted and gave their property to Bohuš, their son. Then Bohuš wished to join the church too—and things became complicated.
A large number of Unity families lived at Litomyšl. By asking Bohuš 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 our barons should get converted? Would we all have to move all the time?”
A brother from Wotic, also named Řehoř, wrote a tract On the Civil Power that like Petr Chelčický’s books warned against any acceptance of government officials, knights, or barons, into the brotherhood. The bishop, Matěj 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 Litomyšl itself.
Not only did the problem of Bohuš Kostka’s membership face them. Because nearly everyone in the town belonged to the church, they faced the question of who to elect for town councillors, 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 Litomyšl asked. “Would it not be better to make responsible decisions ourselves?”
Bohuš 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 councillor 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 neighbours and cut themselves off from other Christians devoted to God’s truth.2
At Litomyšl, 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 councillors without exercising violence?” Bishop Matěj and those with him, asked. “How could you hold civil office and not swear oaths?”
The brothers at Litomyšl 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 councillors 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, Petr Chelčický’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 Lukas, a young Hussite, discovered them in the 1470s.
Lukas not only read Petr Chelčický. He visited the brothers at Mount Carmel (Mladá 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 Mladá Boleslav was a woman, the baroness Johanka Tovačovská z Krajku, who also admired the Unity. With the coming of Lukas and his friends she found the believers’ community on her lands even more attractive. No longer did it only consist 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 Brandýs nad Orlicí in the early 1490s. Some nobles, interested in joining, came too. So did the scholar, Lukas, and his friends from Mladá Boleslav and Litomyšl. All troublesome issues came up for a vote in which Brother Matěj (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 Matěj. These men, with the approval of others gathered at Brandýs, passed a further resolution:
If anyone’s conscience does not permit him to become a town councillor, 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 criticise 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.
The Inner Council dismissed the brothers at Brandýs 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 Matěj, 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. (Brock pg. 131)
Two men made their way home from the big meeting at Brandýs with heavy hearts. They were Amos Štěkenský, a collector of bee’s wax from Vodňany close to Chelčice, and his co-worker, Jakub. 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 Pierre Valdés spent his last years, and where Petr Chelčický had taught—than they began to write, discuss the matter with their friends, and pray.
Amos wrote a tract, describing in simple Czech 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 use 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 no 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 Jakub. For a time even Brother Matěj, the bishop, returned to the church’s former position. He declared the compromise of Brandýs null and void, and dismissed the Inner Council. But it did not last. The brothers of Litomyšl and Mladá Boleslav—chief among them Lukas and his educated friends—criticised the old way. Řehoř and Petr Chelčický 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. Matěj and his conservative friends resigned their leadership, and a team of trained theologians (Lukas among them) took over. A new Inner Council, hostile to the old way, re-enforced the compromise of Brandýs. To that they added a decree stating that Řehoř and Petr Chelčický’s writings (for teaching a “work’s religion” and not leading the church “to trust in the cross of Christ”) should no longer be considered authoritative. They allowed Matěj 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, Matěj and Lukas made a final attempt to keep the south Bohemians in the Unity of Brothers. They met with Amos Štěkenský and those who agreed with him in Jakub’s house, not far from the historic village of Chelčice. 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. But the men reached no agreement. Matěj had firmly decided to keep the church together at all costs. Lukas 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 would not be reconciled.
No matter how grandly Matěj and Lukas promised their views full toleration in the church, the Menši strana (the Little Group) 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 Štěkenský, Jakub, and all who supported them, and the Unity’s disunity became final.
The Big Group
Once free of constant criticism by the Little Group, the Větši strana, the “Big Group,” as people called it, made bold and rapid moves toward society and the world. Lukas, with the support of the Unity’s publishing house at Mladá 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, Lukas returned to Jan Hus and John Wyclif’s teaching of a threefold society (rulers, clergy, and commoners). 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.”3
Matěj 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 too who believed in Christ, such as the Roman Centurion, were men with authority.4
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 Lukas expressed disgust at the primitive writings and viewpoints of “unlearned innovators.”
In another meeting of its leaders the Unity decided to tolerate tavern ownership and liquor brewing among them, providing its members did not drink to excess, and Lukas’ statement on civil power became their own:
Civil power, with its laws and punishments, may be exercised in our Unity and in the holy church. A lord owning estates, castles, fortresses and towns may be accepted into our 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.5
After Matěj died and Lukas became bishop of the Unity, he reintroduced elaborate rituals, silver and gilt communion vessels, and embroidered robes for its priests. Financed by the baron, Bohuš Kostka (by now a member of the church), he and other delegates travelled to Greece, Asia Minor, and Europe to find like-minded people and support for their actions.6 But they found none, and in a later historian’s words,
Out of Bohemian puritans who followed Petr Chelčický rather than Jan Hus, 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, honourable householders, very successful businessmen, respected town officials and sworn in, very active generals and statesmen.7
The Little Group
Nothing, in the face of the Big Group’s apostasy, surprised those of the Little Group more than the fact that it was so little.
Even though a vast number of brothers and sisters sympathised with them, only a few, at the last moment, sided with Amos, Jakub, 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 out the commands of Christ in every detail, and conforming to the world on the other,” Amos wrote in a letter to Jakub. “Farmers take better care of their pigs,” Jakub, in turn, wrote to Matěj, “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 Lanškroun, and even at the “Mount of Olives” in Litomyšl, congregations of the Little Group took shape. Matouš a weaver of Lanškroun, Ondřej a cobbler, Jan a miller from Sušice, Řiha a weaver from Votice, Havel a tailor from Litomyšl, Jiřík 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 Petr Chelčický’s Net of 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 win the Little Group back into their number, but without success. In a reply to them, Jakub 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 councillor 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, Jakub 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 faith [referring here to Lukas and other leaders of the Big Group] 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, honour, fame, and a luxurious life. They suffered great trials, imprisonment, torture, and even death itself, with joy. Some of these, like the Šárovec and Sudoměř families and our Brother Votík lived afterwards on the same level as the simple Brothers. But now people with estates, the rich, the honoured, 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 dirercted, and when the great church fell away in the time of Constantine it was only a few—the Waldenses—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 Matěj, 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 Rehor and many brothers and sisters still hold it dear. But now you, Matěj, 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.8
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 Jakub disagreed on how to go about it. Jakob 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 Jan Kalenec, who had eagerly sought the way of Christ, first among the Hussites, then among the Lutherans, turned to the Unity of Brothers. Like Lukas, years earlier, he travelled to Mladá Boleslav and Brandýs, to see how they lived and what they believed.
Unlike Lukas (with whom he spoke at Mladá Boleslav) Jan saw with grief and displeasure the worldly ways of those who had joined the Unity. His 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 Jan 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, Jan 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 centre of the movement. From there, Jan 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 baptising only adults, on confession of faith. Their testimony against all forms of violence and swearing of oaths stood firm. And they chose to live, like Christ, in poverty. Like in early Christian times, and among the Waldenses and Albigenses before them, they practised community of goods, and many of them remained single.
No writing from the community at Letovice appeared in print. (Printing in those days was still a complicated and expensive procedure.) But from Jan’s letters that survive, their strong feeling against all forms of “worldliness” become clear. To those of the Big Group Jan wrote:
You permit your members to carry on trades 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 Lukas 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.9
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 baptise 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 neighbours was too great to miss. But Sebastian Franck was not nearly the first, nor the only one, to notice it.
New Brothers in Czech Lands
Only a few years after Jan Kalenec fled from Prague to Moravia, he learned of a new group settling around Mikulov (Nikolsburg), Hustopeče (Auspitz), Slavkov u Brna (Austerlitz) and elsewhere on the lands of the Lords von Lichtenstejn. Like the Waldenses, coming to Moravia years before, they were refugees. And like the Waldenses 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 neighbours and discover what they believed. The results were interesting, but did not lead to 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 “Bruderhöfe” (Brotherhood communities) flourished on estates of Big Group nobility.10
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 Jan 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, Jakob Hutter, had moral problems among them that they did not always take care of. In the Moravian town of Žadovice (Schadowitz) 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!”11
Jan 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, baptising 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,12 the Czech brothers stood ready to help where they could.
Community at Habrovany
Just as close to the centre 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 Petr Chelčický and Řehoř, and the trial of persecution under Hussite and Catholic authorities. But they did not stand in direct association.
In 1528 a Moravian nobleman, Jan Dubčanský, decided to follow Christ. Unlike Bohuš Kostka, however, he did not try to be a Christian and live in luxury at the same time. He took the Sermon on the Mount as his guide and rejected violence and civil office at once. That brought him into contact with Václav of Lileč, the former rector of the monastery at Vilemov near Chelčice, and with Matěj, a poustevník (hermit) from Zatec (Saaz) in western Bohemia.
Long a refuge of the Waldenses, 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 Reformation. On the Czech side, Matěj, a trapper who spent long times in the forest alone, discovered peace in Christ and on his return to civilisation, began to preach on streets and squares, calling everyone to repent “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” A year after Matěj 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 offence.
Matěj spoke fearlessly against the corruption of wealth and power. In 1525 the Hussites threw him into prison. When they released him, a year later, they drove him from Prague and he went to live with Jan Dubčanský, the converted nobleman at Habrovany in Moravia. There Václav of Lileč joined them and in 1528 they established a new congregation along the lines of Petr Chelčický and Řehoř’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 Czech books and tracts appeared.
Then, in 1537, the authorities imprisoned Jan Dubčanský and Czech believers fell on even harder times.
Trouble in Czech Lands
With three hundred thousand soldiers, the Turkish sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, had stormed neighbouring Hungary (including Slovakia) in 1526. Not only had this set Czech lands in danger. It pitted Protestants against Roman Catholics in their defence and by the 1530s the Czechs found themselves in a struggle for survival.
While the Big Group made peace with the Hussites and joined forces with them in armed resistance to the Roman Catholics from Austria, the Little Group divided over the use of costly dress material and ornaments in their homes. Jan Dubčanský died and what was left of his followers at Habrovany joined the Anabaptists. Then, in 1546, Austrian troops crossed from Moravia into Bohemia. Prague fell into Roman Catholic hands. The Hussites “made peace with the pope” to avoid annihilation, and two years later the Holy Roman emperor banished the Unity of Brothers by royal decree.
Unwilling to face persecution as an “illegal church” thousands from the Big Group went over en masse to the Hussites. A minority that refused, about 1500 people, fled on foot and in refugee wagon trains through Silesia to Poland. The Anabaptists fled east, to Hungary, and the Little Group, with the brothers at Habrovany simply disappeared.
A Waning Light
Twenty five years after the Austrian take-over of Czech lands, a trickle of Big Group Unity members returned from Poland. Little by little they re-established their congregations, their schools, and publishing works. At Kralice in Moravia, they printed a beautiful Czech Bible in red and black ink with arabesque designs. At Ivančice (Eibenschitz) and on the vast Žerotín estates, they cooperated with the Anabaptists—also returned from Hungary—in large farming, ceramic, and wine-making enterprises. But very little of the Unity of Brothers’ love for Christ returned with their peace and prosperity. The difference between them and their Hussite or Catholic neighbours was primarily in name.
Then on March 28, 1592, Martin and Anna Komenský, a Big Group Unity couple of Nivnice in Moravia, had a little boy they named Jan Ámos. By the time he was twelve, they had both died, and after four miserable years, he found his way into the Unity of Brothers’ school at Přerov (Prerau).
Jan Amos Komenský (John Amos Comenius), did more at school than play games and socialise 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, Jan Amos learned to know the descendants of these German believers—plain, industrious, minding their own business on little farms hidden in the valleys of Neutitschein, Zauchenthal, and Sehlen. The Kühländl (little land of the cows) the Germans called it, and in its quiet seclusion Jan Amos 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.
For many years after the Austrian take-over of Bohemia, the Hussites had lived in an uneasy peace with their Roman Catholic rulers. But when the Catholics, spurred on by Jesuits and the “Counter Reformation” put pressure on the Hussites in the early 1600s, they rebelled. In a hasty trial of officials accused of favouring the Catholics they threw two men from a window at the Hradčany castle in Prague and a popular revolution began.
Austria closed in on Czech lands.
Coming in overwhelming numbers, Roman Catholic troops fought the united Hussite and Big Group Unity forces on November 8, 1620, at the Witkov (Weissenberg, White Mountain) just outside the city. The battle lasted one hour. Hussite and Unity forces disintegrated. Total Catholic rule began with the public decapitation of Hussite and Unity leaders in Prague, while Austrian troops on the rampage raped, murdered, and plundered the Czech people and devastated their land.
Industry collapsed. Hundreds of thousands fled. Entire towns stood empty and the population of Bohemia sank from over three to less than one million people. In Moravia both Hussites and Big Group Unity members became Catholics by force, or fled. Given free reign, Catholic troops plundered and burned the Anabaptist Bruderhöfe on Žerotín lands. All non-Catholic books they could find, including Kralice Bibles, they burned.
Not even the peaceful Kühländl, the area around Fulnek in Moravia, escaped. Catholic troops fell on Jan Amos Komenský’s library and burned it on the town square. Jan Amos, with his family and other refugees fled to the mountains near Brandýs in Bohemia. There, in a hiding place in the woods, he wrote The Labyrinth of The World and The Paradise of The Heart. Then even this refuge was taken from him.
A Hidden Seed
After his wife and child died, and Jan Amos married again, 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.13 Leaving on a cold night, in January, 1628, the group of refugees halted on the last high pass from which they could look back over Bohemia, dark and silent beneath them. They sang a hymn of the Unity of Brothers. Then they knelt, and Jan Amos asked God to have mercy on the Czech people and preserve among them a seed of faith.
God heard the prayer.
Almost a hundred years after the flight to Poland the Czech lands lay quiet and thoroughly “catholicised.” The Unity of Brothers had died out. The last Anabaptists, even though they still made pottery and lived in community of goods, had long forgotten their background and went to mass every week. Even the Hussites had forsaken what their founders stood for and as an organisation had ceased to exist. But a seed remained.
In the mountains around Fulnek in Moravia, in the villages settled by German Waldensian refugees—Landskron, Hermanitz, Rothwasser, Zauchenthal, Schönau, Seitendorf, and Sehlen—not everything stood as the Jesuits (leaders in the Counter-Reformation) supposed.
In the Martin Schneider home at Zauchenthal, meetings took place after dark. In the Kutschern home, an old grandmother, the daughter of a shepherd, told the children how their ancestors had lived in Christian community. In Mährisch-Kuhnwald the Nitschmann family met in secret to read the Bible and pray—as did the Melchior Kunz, Johann and David Zeisberger, Andreas Beyer, and Matthäus Stach families in other villages. And old Georg Jäschke lived at Neutitschein near Sehlen. . . .
Old Georg, as everyone knew among the German settlers, had not “bowed his knee to Baal.” A steadfast believer in Christ and his peaceable Kingdom, he taught his family from the Sermon on the Mount—even though he had to do it in utmost secrecy. His daughter, Judith, married Georg Neisser and they taught their five sons likewise.
After Georg’s family had grown and left home, his wife died. But he still felt young and strong. He married again, and after turning 77 rejoiced in the birth of his youngest son, Michael.
Six years later his age caught up to him and he lay sick in bed. Judith and her family, along with others of the “secret church” came to visit him. His wife and little Michael stood beside his bed. Then Old George, still strong in spirit, looked over the group and said:
Our days of freedom are over. Many of our people have given way to a worldly spirit and the pope’s religion devours them. It may seem as though the Unity of Brothers has come to an end. But listen to me, children: I believe you will see a great deliverance. A remnant will be saved! I do not know for sure whether deliverance will come in Moravia, or whether you will have to “go out of Babylon.” But I believe it will come in the not too distant future. I tend to think an exodus will take place and you will be offered a refuge where you may serve the Lord without fear.
When the time of your deliverance comes, be ready! Watch out that you do not get left behind.
After telling them of his hope and faith, old Georg Jäschke placed his hands on the heads of his son and each of his grandsons in turn. “Remember what I told you,” he said, “and that Michael belongs to Jesus. I commend him into your keeping. Take care of him, and when you depart from this place, take him with you by all means!”
Soon after Georg Jäschke died, a boy from Senftleben, at the foot of Mt. Radhost in far southeastern Moravia, found a job with a carpenter. His name was Christian David and his new boss, Michael Ranftler of Holeschau, came from a German family that had belonged to the Unity of Brothers.
Christian David could not read. He had spent his childhood herding goats on the mountains and knew little about God. His parents had taught him a prayer to Saint Anthony, but it did nothing to quiet the unrest in his heart. When he saw Michael Ranftler’s eight-year-old son reading on winter evenings by the fire, he asked to learn the alphabet. Then, under the eaves in his attic bedroom, he found what would change his life: a little book published by the Unity in its better years.
Night after night Christian David read from the book. In it he learned the way of Christ and his Kingdom. Every word fell on fertile soil. Christian David could not contain his enthusiasm for what had come to him, but no one dared talk with him about it. “It is too dangerous,” they said. “Be quiet or you will get a short haircut (you will get beheaded)!”
Desperate to find a place where believers could openly live for Christ, Christian David struck out on foot across the mountains to Protestant Slovakia. But the people there did not trust him and gave him a cold shoulder. Then he found his way through Silesia to southern Germany.
In Germany Christian David met disappointment. German Protestants, even though they spoke about Christ and correct doctrine, made fun of him for taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. They laughed at his convictions and told him to go join the army.
For several years Christian David wandered about, disillusioned, confused, and wondering if anyone on earth still knew or loved Christ. Then the town of Görlitz in Oberlausitz burned. Four hundred houses lay in ruins and Christian David found work cleaning up and rebuilding.
Working at Görlitz Christian David met the first Germans in whom he discovered a joyful love for Christ. Some of them—under the influence of Philipp Jakob Spener and Jean de Labadie—met in homes to pray. They studied the Scriptures and sang songs. For the first time in his life Christian David could freely share his inner convictions. His gratefulness to God knew no bounds, especially after he found a wife—Anna Elisabeth Ludwig—among believers in the nearby village of Niederwiese.
Christian David’s new-found happiness might have been complete, had not the thought of his friends in Moravia, languishing in darkness and fear, touched it with sorrow. Then he spoke with a converted nobleman, Nicholas Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf, who offered to settle what refugees Christian David might bring, on waste land at Grosz Hennersdorf, southwest of Görlitz on the road between Löbau and Zittau.
Only three months after his marriage Christian David returned to Moravia on foot, crossing the mountains alone at risk of his life. (Moravian authorities caught and killed anyone they suspected of spreading “heresy.”)
Christian David returned to German-speaking descendants of Unity families at Senftleben and from there to Fulnek and the villages of the Kühländl. Here and there frightened people consented to talk with him, but only in secret, and when he spoke of fleeing to Germany they shook their heads. “We could not evade the police,” they told him. “And even if we could, our wives and little ones would not survive the trip.”
Wherever Christian David went he met doubts and fears. No one dared leave Moravia, and even though some believers thanked him for the invitation, they told him he should be quiet and return quickly to Germany or else he would lose his head. Then he came to Neutitschein near Sehlen.
In a secret meeting in the home of Agustin Neisser (one of old Georg’s grandsons) Christian David presented his daring plan. He begged the ones gathered with him to pack up in faith and join him to build a congregation for the Lord in Germany. “Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters, or father or mother or children or fields for Christ’s sake,” he told them, “will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
The Neissers looked at one another. They remembered, as clearly as if it would have happened the day before, old Georg’s last instructions. Was this what he had seen?
“Let us think and pray,” they told Christian David.
A decision did not come easily. To leave Moravia meant forsaking everything but what they could carry on their backs. It meant leaving in utmost secrecy, at the risk of capture, imprisonment, and quite likely death. But when the little cluster of believers at Neutitschein remembered old Georg’s challenge and what would happen to them if they stayed in Moravia (almost all of their friends had already renounced the faith and become Roman Catholic), they knew they could do only one thing. All that remained was to decide, who, when and how.
None of the neighbours dare notice a difference in activities. No packing or food preparation dare take place openly.
On the moonless night of Wednesday, May 27, 1722 Agustin and Martha Neisser, Martha’s niece Susanna Dürlich, Jakob and Anna Neisser with their children Wenzel (6), Anna (3), twins Joseph and Juliana (13 weeks), and old Georg’s son, Michael Jäschke (by now twenty-one) left Neutitschein, praying no dog would bark. Up through the woods into mountains along the Silesian border they found their way on silent trails. They carried bundles, and the little ones on their backs. And with them they carried a spark of hope that would end the long eclipse of the believers’ church in Bohemia and Moravia.
1 Along with works of an instructive nature (the writings of Petr Chelčický and Řehoř) the Brothers produced the first non-Catholic hymnal in Europe.
2 From a letter from Koranda to Bohuš Kostka.
3 From a writing of Lukas against the Little Group: Odpowěd na spis Kalencuo.
4 From a letter written by Matěj, presumably after his meeting at Jakub’s house in Štěken.
5 Peter Brock, The Political and Social Doctrines of the Brethren, pg. 171
6 On this trip they visited the Waldenses in the Cottian Alps, by now far removed from their forefathers’ beliefs, and witness the burning of Savanarola in Florence.
7 Anton Gindely, Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder II, pg. 312
8 Condensed from Akty Jednoty bratrské.
9 From Peter Brock, The Political and Social Doctrines of the Brethren, pp. 265, 268
10 Among these were the lords von Žerotín, 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 Ročice (Rossitz), Pouzdrany (Pausram), Židlochovice (Seelowitz), and Breclav (Lundenburg).
11 Reported in a letter copied at Kyjov in Moravia, on July 1, 1589.
12 Among the first Anabaptists burned at the stake in Moravia, at Brno (Brunn) in May, 1528, was Jan Cizek, a former member of the Unity of Brothers.
13 In Poland the Czech refugees lived at Leszno (Lissa). After sixteen years the Russians, at war with Poland, passed through their settlement and destroyed it. Jan Amos saved some of his books by throwing them into a well. But Russian soldiers used the rest to the start fires on which they roasted the immigrants’ cattle. Not many years later, the Swedes attacked Poland, and in the struggle they suffered even more. Their meetinghouse, school, and almost all their homes burned down. The town of Leszno itself burned for three days and several hundred wagon loads of women and children fled. This time Jan Amos lost the only manuscript of a Czech dictionary he had worked on for forty years. But he did not lose heart and travelled to England and the Netherlands where his writings became well known.