Note: This is part of a multi-month blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill will sit down with important figures in the Moravian church to have a cup of (Moravian) coffee, asking questions about his or her life and how they have impacted the church! Look for Bill’s other blog posts here. To accompany his blog posts, he has drawn the images from his trip to Europe on the Roots of the Moravian Church Tour. For more art, visit Bill’s website at BillNeeds.com.
The 1300’s saw discontent rise among priests and monks discouraged by what the Catholic Church (then called the Church of Rome) had become. Individually they began to challenge practices and rituals which had devolved over centuries into traditions and practices far removed from biblical teachings. At first, the challenges were private and internal, then became public pronouncements and writings. Few could read, but those who could studied the Bible, formed “societies,” made pronouncements, and grew into political action groups seeking reformative change and a return to scriptural teachings. Forces that could not be prevented or avoided were causing the church to come apart at the seams. At this time in history, Jan Hus came on the scene in Bohemia.
Coffee with Jan Hus, 1373-1415
Q. Father Jan, would you help me understand the world at the time when you lived?
A. “When I was born, all “civilized Europe” was “Christian” (as defined by the Church of Rome). All who believed otherwise risked banishment or execution. They were considered heretics.
It is important to understand the existence of the Church of Rome was threatened for centuries by Moorish invaders intent on replacing Europe’s Christianity with the religion of Islam. Seeking defense against invasion, the Pope forged relationships with Europe’s Rulers and Emperors to create a militaristic system of self-perpetuation. These relationships continued over 300 years. When I was born the Hapsburg dynasty ruled our part of the world from Germany linked with the Papal dynasty from Rome.
It was not always that way. Christian faith, based upon peace and love was originally introduced to Eastern Europe in 862 AD. Cyril and Methodius, Orthodox missionaries from Constantinople, arrived in our country to find a population of diverse Slavic tribes. To teach us about Christ, they first had to develop an alphabet and create one common Slavic language. Then they taught reading in order to encourage each person to read the Bible. They also fused our tradition of song into their worship. Our culture became rich, cherished and unified.
When political alliances changed, so did our culture. The Church of Rome entered Bohemia displacing orthodoxy with a different form of doctrine and practice. Worship deteriorated from reasoned review of Holy Scriptures for each individual, into a mysterious version of theater for the masses, complete with clouds of bells and smells in a foreign language of Latin. Attendance and obedience were mandatory. Consequences for any who would disrespect the authority of Rome were fearsome. From that Roman version of Christianity grew a medieval society where education, wealth and power were entitled only to the nobility, leaving the underclass poor, powerless and illiterate. I was born into a poor family of this society in the Bohemian village of Hussinec”.
Statue of Jan Hus. Photo via Unsplash.
Q. Tell me how you happened to enter the priesthood?
A. “As a child, I displayed a passion for music which opened a path to the priesthood. I also had intellectual curiosity. It was easy for me to enter into conversation and persuasion. These talents allowed me to be noticed, and opened my path out of poverty to pursue higher education. Then, education was a distinction typically reserved for children of nobility or those who join the clergy. I was honored when accepted at Charles University rather than remain destined to work as a serf.
Upon graduation in 1396, I was ordained a Priest in the Roman Church to serve Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel. I also worked as a Professor at Charles University.”
Q. What influences did you encounter early in your career?
A. “This was a time of change. Europe was emerging from devastating depopulation after the plague. Medieval social and financial order was unbalanced. Farmers migrated from the country to become tradesmen in the cities. The 300-year-old alliance of the Roman Church with the powerful Holy Roman Empire (originally established to defend against invasion from the Moors) was conspicuously rusting away into corruption, overextension, and chaos. The rich were coddled by the church while the poor were taxed. Spiritual care was no more than superstitious practices passed through generations and increasingly costly to those who could least afford it. Knights and princes who had fought crusades in foreign lands returned impressed by different cultures found there. They also began to question the status quo and joined discussions about change.
Universities in London and Paris shared intellectual research and questions with Prague’s prestigious university. I studied John Wyclif writings which were banned due to his criticism of the Church of Rome. In 14th Century England, Wyclif preached the church needed to re-form itself. Wyclif’s insight and his stirring message to the common man stirred me as well.”
Q. Why did you think it crucial to become an agitator against the Roman Church?
A. “That wasn’t my plan. I had sought only an opportunity to sing and learn in comfort and riches provided by the church and academia. However, my parish, Bethlehem Chapel, served Prague’s inner city. My parishioners were a diverse group of souls from all parts of society. My passion shifted to serve these people with all the talents God had given me.
Rather than preaching in Latin as required by Rome, I offered my message in the Bohemian language, imitating the missionaries Cyril and Methodius. I drew on the walls hymns of worship to encourage congregational singing rather than limiting music to clergy or choir. These changes resulted in thought-filled and heart-lifting worship, felt equally by rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The example of worship practiced at Bethlehem Chapel grew in popularity. The people noticed. We also drew attention from Rome and provoked anxiety of noblemen in Bohemia dependent upon Rome.
Understand, my message from the pulpit was meant to educate and restore faith and hope for those demeaned by the toxic influence of a corrupt church allied with an imposing (German Habsburg) government. My message was no more urgent than Wyclif’s. But it seems the response in Bohemia at this time was much more pronounced than in 1300 England. I felt my calling required me to also promote ideas of reform. Above all, my wish was to enlighten leaders of the Church of Rome to consider a return to the simplistic teachings found in the Bible.”
Replica of Bethlehem Chapel, Prague. Drawing by Bill Needs, visit BillNeeds.com for more!
Q. What did you expect when invited to testify at the Council of Constance?
A. “I guess I was naive. When the Roman Church threatened to banish my parishioners because of my influence, I left Prague taking my message into rural areas of neighboring Moravia. My ideas not only refreshed the countryside but also became refined. I thought, I hoped, it would receive rational approval of church officials despite suspicion about me and my prison record.
Although I was promised safe passage to the Council of Constance in Switzerland I was not aware my message had now grown into a threat to political powers on a world stage.
The Roman Church had called the Council of Constance with one primary goal; to resolve the divisions created by 2 men who claimed to be Pope. It was 1415. The old world was in disarray. This was not a good time to suggest further division of that institution.”
Note: This is part of a multi-month blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill will sit down with important figures in the Moravian church to have a cup of (Moravian) coffee, asking questions about his or her life and how they have impacted the church! Look for Bill’s other blog posts, all titled “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” To accompany his blog posts, he has drawn the images from his trip to Europe on the Roots of the Moravian Church Tour. For more art, visit Bill’s website at BillNeeds.com.
About the Author
Photo courtesy of Bill Needs.
Raised in the Moravian Church in Dover Ohio, Bill graduated from Moravian College in 1962. A drop-out of Moravian Theological Seminary, Bill now lives with his wife, Sara in Marietta, Georgia. Bill’s career served disabled individuals and employers in providing realistic vocational choices as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. After retirement in 2004, Bill discovered he had a previously unknown artistic talent for drawing. Now, when Bill and Sara travel, he supplements his photography record with art inspired by the scenes and experiences. For more art, visit Bill’s website at BillNeeds.com. For discussion about art or blog content, email [email protected].