In early 2014, a team at the Moravian Theological Seminary began work on ways to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus. One result was the Jan Hus Memorial Tour, a nine-day adventure to the Czech Republic and Germany to trace the roots and branches of the early Unity of the Brethren and Moravian Church. More than 50 travelers—Moravian and non-Moravian alike—experienced the sights and sounds of the world where our present-day church began.
The trip was timed to coincide with the actual 600th anniversary—July 6, 2015—of Hus’ death at the Council of Constance. He burned at the stake for heresy and questioning the authority of the church. Hus felt strongly that Christians should follow the laws of Jesus, even if that meant disobeying the laws of the Church.
In the Czech Republic, Hus is viewed more as a national hero than a religious martyr. The 6th of July is a holiday there and this year saw major celebrations of his life and contributions.
What follows is a tour in words and pictures of the 2015 Jan Hus Memorial Tour. Jane Weber, director of administration for the Moravian Theological Seminary, documented the trip in words, while Mike Riess, executive director of the Interprovincial Board of Communication, took more than 3,500 photos and nearly 1,000 video clips to capture this historic trip. More images are available at www.moravian.org.
Day One: Following an overnight flight from New York City, the 50 travelers arrived in Prague, Czech Republic. Others would join the tour a day later from different parts of Europe. To acclimate to the six-hour time difference, tour participants headed out on a two-mile walk to Old Town Square, the historic center of Prague. Our tour guide, Irena Balcarova, led us down narrow cobblestone streets flanked by architecture that revived our weary senses—buildings adorned with sculptures and paintings, massive and intricately carved wooden doors with hand-forged ironwork, ornate monuments and breathtaking views of the city. We crossed the Charles Bridge (built in 1354) with its imposing stone and gilded statues honoring saints and heroes, and then wound our way towards Old Town Square.
The statue of Jan Hus is the centerpiece of the Square and faces Our Lady Before Tyn Church where, after Hus’ death, Gregory the Patriarch was inspired to create the Unity of the Brethren. Across the square from Tyn Church is the Old Town Hall, where in 1627, 27 Czech noblemen and citizens, including members of the Hussite Church, were beheaded for their role in the religious rebellion against the Habsburgs that began in 1618.
So began our introduction to the complex history that is Prague. Amid the absolute beauty and artistry is a past that is full of humanity at its best and worst—reformers, murderers, kind and vicious rulers, religious zealots, priests and leaders committed to all people receiving the chalice in communion and worshiping in the common language.
Day Two: Our second day included visits to more historic sites in Prague: first to the Strahov Monastery, which today serves as a library for rare and old Czech literature; then to the massive Prague (Hradcany) Castle, the seat of government for the kingdom of Bohemia, where in 1618, Czech nobles insisted that the newly-crowned emperor Ferdinand of Habsburg respect the previous ruler’s edict of religious toleration. The emperor’s representatives were thrown from a castle window by Czech reformers when they communicated that religious toleration would no longer be the order of the day.
During the Hus celebrations, a flag with a chalice representing Czech Protestantism flew alongside the Czech national flag on the government buildings at the Castle site. Visitors also saw St. Vitus Cathedral, which stands impressively in the middle of the castle grounds, with its beautiful stained glass window of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, designed by the famous Czech artist Alphone Mucha.
Later that day, travelers visited Bethlehem Chapel, the reconstructed chapel originally built in 1391 as part of the Czech Reformation. The chapel was named Bethlehem, or “House of Bread,” because the Bread of Life—the Gospel—was given to the worshipers in their own language. Jan Hus became the lead preacher there in 1402 and lived on the second floor. Hus encouraged hymn singing, and musical scores with lyrics in Czech were painted on the wall. Those words and notes, along with a number of other restored paintings, now grace the walls of the Chapel.
While there, Seminary professor the Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood gave a lecture on the importance of Hus’ reforming work. Participants sang ancient and current hymns, toured the chapel and the small museum above the chapel and heard a beautiful organ concert played by the Chapel’s current organist.
Day Three: Following two days in Prague, tour participants traveled south into the countryside of Bohemia. After Hus was expelled from preaching in Prague for his radical views, he fled to South Bohemia where he preached in the countryside and, on occasion, under a large linden tree believed to be growing since 1209. The outer shell of the original tree still stands, with a large tree growing up inside of it. The tree is marked as a national landmark, although it is in the tiny village of Chlistov in a farmer’s back yard. At the tree, the Rev. Dr. Riddick Weber read the Daily Texts and spoke about the impact of Hus’ preaching on the Czechs. Once again, participants sang hymns, accompanied on guitar.
The tour then proceeded to the small town of Husinec, the birthplace of Jan Hus. While there, the group toured the tiny, humble apartment where Jan Hus lived as a child. It is part of a brand new museum commemorating his life, which features interactive multimedia screens, paintings and sculptures and informational displays on the life of Hus and the Czech Reformation. In Husinec, the group prayed in Czech and English with a local pastor.
The third day continued with a visit to Tabor, a small town that became the center of the radical Hussite movement after Hus’ death. Under the priest Nicholas, the Taborites established the first truly independent church in Europe in 1421. Nicholas was elected bishop, and his liturgical and theological works became the origin of the Unity’s liturgy and doctrine—including communion on a plain table with ordinary vessels, with liturgy spoken in Czech emphasizing obedience to Christ rather than secular authorities.
Initially the Taborites were pacifists and practiced communal living, but during the Hussite Wars they became feared warriors led by Jan Zizka, the blind Hussite general. The group toured the impressive Hussite Museum in Tabor, which featured displays commemorating Hus, the Hussites and the reformation and churches that resulted from their presence. The visit to the museum included touring the tunnels under the town square that were used for food storage, incarceration, indigent housing and safe passage.
Day Four: Early in the morning the group began the journey to Herrnhut, Germany.
En route, the group stopped in Mlada Boleslav to see the largest house of worship built by the Unity in the Czech lands. Constructed in the 1500s, it now serves as a museum and performance space. Mlada Boleslav was also an important center for the Unity and was home to the printing office and other church activities in the 16th Century.
From there, the group traveled to Chalice Rocks, the sandstone mountain refuge where members of the Unity hid among the huge stones and worshiped in secret to avoid persecution. Craig Atwood led the group through the rocky terrain to a worship space where Scripture verses are painted on the rocks. There, the group worshiped and sang in a service led by Riddick Weber.
The delight of the day came when the group visited a modern Moravian Church in Zelezny Brod, and met the pastor, his wife and several church leaders who conveyed an all too familiar story of outreach and commitment… and shrinking church membership. Following a talk by the pastor and a question and answer session about their church, the congregation members welcomed the travelers with hospitality and conversation.
The travelers arrived in Herrnhut around dinnertime on Friday. For many, arriving in Herrnhut felt like “coming home.” An unexpected surprise greeted the travelers: leaders from Moravian schools across the Unity were also meeting in Herrnhut working on worldwide Moravian theological curriculum, among them recent Moravian Theological Seminary graduates Michael Persaud (Suriname), Tuntufye Mwenisongole and Revocatus Meza (Tanzania), and Erdmute Frank (Herrnhut). Our evening concluded with Craig Atwood giving a stage-setting lecture on the events that led to the founding of Herrnhut.
Day Five: The group woke to roosters crowing at 7 a.m. and the realization that central Europe was experiencing a heat wave of 34°C—in the upper 90s! With no air conditioning or ceiling fans we were surprised at how well we could handle the heat due to buildings with three-foot-thick walls and cross ventilation. Erdmute Frank, who works in Herrnhut and does the English translation of the Moravian Daily Texts, guided us to the Herrnhut Church and God’s Acre. These landmarks demonstrate Moravian building traditions used throughout Europe and America—simple churches with little ornamentation and the arched entry gate leading into a cemetery of flat gravestones.
While touring God’s Acre, participants walked past the gravestones of so many early leaders, including Leonard Dober, Christian Gregor and the Zinzendorf family. We climbed the tower at the pinnacle of God’s Acre called the Hutberg, which offers a 360-degree panorama of the rolling countryside, including views of small towns, and three energy sources—fields of solar panels, wind farms and a nuclear power plant. It also provides a beautiful view of Herrnhut itself, and visitors can see Poland and the Czech Republic from there.
A trip to Herrnhut wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Herrnhuter Sterne (Moravian Star) factory at the edge of town. From this small, modern factory, Moravian stars in paper or plastic are made and shipped throughout the world. In the lobby of the factory, visitors watched women silently working to create paper stars; the group also toured the factory where parts for the plastic stars are molded and assembled. The group then had an amazing lunch right in the Star Factory Cafeteria and almost bought out the entire stock of stars in the store!
After lunch, the group traveled about a mile from Herrnhut to Berthelsdorf, the central village of the estate that Zinzendorf purchased from his grandmother in 1722. Visitors toured the newly restored Manor House, originally built by Zinzendorf after marrying Countess Erdmuth Dorothea von Reuss. The manor house includes exhibits about Moravian Church history and is now used for cultural events and special occasions.
A major highlight of the entire tour was the visit to the Lutheran Church of Berthelsdorf, where the early Moravian settlers first worshiped with local Lutherans and other persecuted groups seeking religious freedom. The small, unadorned, remote church holds great significance for Moravians, as it was there that the “August 13th, 1727 Experience” occurred—a service that healed years of religious doctrinal tension, marked the renewal of the Unitas Fratrum, and gave us the tradition of the Lovefeast.
The group then traveled a few miles further to GrosHennersdorf to the ruins of the manor house of Zinzendorf’s grandmother, Baronness Henrietta Katherina von Gersdorf. Until the age of 10 when he left for boarding school, Zinzendorf lived here with his grandmother after his mother remarried and moved away with her new husband.
Recently a path has been built between Herrnhut and GrosHennersdorf incorporating a sculpture garden that artistically depicts the experience of the early Moravians. The final sculpture is one of Zinzendorf joyously talking to young children.
The day ended with a bilingual singstunde with members of the Herrnhut congregation who hosted an outdoor barbecue picnic with our group, in part to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Day Six: On Sunday morning, the group participated in a bilingual worship service in Herrnhut where Craig Atwood preached on the significance of Jan Hus; the Rev. Petr Vogt, pastor of the Herrnhut Church translated. During the service Craig presented the congregation with a Moravian Seminary bicentennial commemorative chalice and, for his library, gave the pastor a copy of the recently released book, A Time of Sifting, by Paul Peucker, Northern Province Archivist.
After worship, the group traveled to another Moravian settlement town, Niesky, to tour the church and learn about the hospital founded by the Moravians there. Also in Niesky, visitors saw the largest paper indoor Moravian star in the world that is displayed each Christmas in the church. (The Moravian star was invented in Niesky in 1830 as a geometry project for students.)
The 100-plus degree temperature in this part of Germany limited some of the walking initially planned for this part of the trip. The group drove past the Mission School where many missionaries to Africa and the Caribbean were educated in the 19th century and continued on to the small town of Kleinwelka, where the visitors were warmly greeted at the Moravian Church by the pastor and his wife. Instead of a walking tour of the town, he shared a presentation of the founding of this Moravian settlement and the important role it played with a school for the children of missionaries in the cool, very Moravian sanctuary.
After returning to Herrnhut, the group participated in a bilingual communion service with members of the Herrnhut congregation and the visiting theological representatives.
Day Seven: The seventh day of the tour was July 6th—the 600th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus. The day started in Herrnhut with a visit the Archives of the Unitas Fratrum, where Archivist Olaf Nippe shared treasures of the Unity, including the first Daily Text, Zinzendorf’s bishop’s cap, a land deed from Catherine the Great, Anna Nitschmann’s lot and a book of Zinzendorf’s sermons that he personally bound for his wife Erdmuth Dorothea. The group then concluded their stay in Herrnhut by praying the Easter Liturgy in God’s Acre.
Following the two-hour bus ride back to Prague, the group arrived in time to participate in the city’s community-sponsored Jan Hus Festival. The Old Town Square was alive with people, horse-drawn carriages, vendors and stages. Many of the group witnessed an ecumenical worship service attended by thousands, watched a musical production of Hus’s trial at Constance, and joined the candlelight procession through the streets that ended at the Vltava River where participants floated candles on the water. It was truly an honor and inspiring experience to be part of the crowd commemorating this historic event.
Day Eight: The final day trip out of Prague was to Kunwald where the Unity of the Brethren began in 1457. We toured the small museum in the restored meeting house where the Unity was formed. Exhibits there included a Kralice Bible, the first complete Bible to be published in the Czech language; a chalice from the 1500s; and banners commemorating all of the provinces of the Unity.
The visitors gathered on the yard of the Kunwald museum and sang hymns, then walked to the Valley of Prayer where the Brethren worshiped in secret during times of persecution. We visited another linden tree that was planted in 1547–48 by the Brethren when they fled in hopes that they would return. When they returned it had three boughs—Faith, Hope and Love—the essentials of faith. The tree is still growing though one bough broke in 1930. Wood from that bough was made into a chalice that was given to the Czech Bishop who passed it on to Bishop Kay Ward, who in turn has given it to the Moravian Theological Seminary collection. On the return to Prague, we stopped in Kutna Hora to witness an unusual site—the Sedlec Ossuary. A small Catholic chapel, the ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.
Day Nine: The final day in Prague began at the Church of St. Martin in the Wall, where Hus’ student and successor, Jakoubek of Stribro gave the chalice to the laity for the first time in October 1414. Craig Atwood lectured from the pulpit about the significance of the chalice and the long struggle for all to worship equally. This was the group’s final opportunity to sing hymns in a space with wonderful acoustics—by the end of the trip, the harmonies were beautiful!
The group then walked a few blocks to the Church of our Lady of the Snows. Today it is an ornate baroque Catholic Church, but in 1419 it was a Hussite Church pastored by Jan Zelivsky. In that year, all Hussite priests were removed from their pulpits because they were no longer allowed to serve the chalice to the laity. Zelivsky led a popular uprising to New Town Hall where the mob ejected the councilmen from the windows which began the Hussite Wars. The complex and complicated history of religious freedom…
The trip came to a close with a banquet in the Brevnov Cloister, a Benedictine Abbey founded in 993. The group honored Irena, our tour guide, with a Moravian Theological Seminary chalice, a copy of Craig Atwood’s book on the early Unity and a gift offering. The participants also wrote and performed a song in appreciation of the leadership of Craig Atwood and Riddick and Jane Weber. Good cheer overflowed!
From the September 2015 Moravian Magazine