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Coffee with Moravian Ancestors: Peter of Chelcic & Gregory the Patriarch

BCM Spotlight BannerBY WILLIAM NEEDS |

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.

Although the papal schism was resolved, problems for the Church of Rome persisted. Corrupt practices remained obvious. Each element of practicing the faith required a fee charged by the priest. The cost of not paying the required fee was eternal damnation. Christianity in Europe was based upon ignorance, superstition, and fear.

In Bohemia, the memory of Hus execution continued to touch a raw nerve among those who knew him and believed in his message for reform. By 1419, fights broke out between Bohemians loyal to Rome and Bohemians who publicly protested church corruption. Knights were enlisted from foreign lands, turning the fights into intense crusades against the Hussites. After 15 years, spearheaded by the Hussites from Tabor, the Hussite Wars ended with total defeat of forces loyal to Rome.

 

Tabor – Home of the feared Hussite warriors, victors in the Hussite Wars.

 
By 1435 the King of Bohemia and Roman Church offered a compromise of sorts to achieve lasting peace with Hussites. Reluctantly, the right to coexist in Bohemia was granted to Hussites under the condition they join a modified version of the Roman Church, called the Utraquist Church.
 
Among churches designated Utraquist, Prague’s Thyn Church was architecturally outstanding. Clergy were allowed to serve Holy Communion of bread and wine and say mass in the local language rather than in Latin.  Here ended the “reform”. But not really! These limited changes underestimated a nationalistic desire for more extensive reform. Hussites had sought and died for more. Dissatisfaction persisted.
 
Under these conditions, please join me for another coffee conversation with two Hussites who contributed to fulfilling the promise for change.
 
Coffee with
Brother Peter of Chelcic (1390 -1460) and Gregory the Patriarch  (1400?- 1473) 
 
Q.  Peter, what brought you to Prague?
 
A. “I was nearly 30 years old when I came to Prague hoping to start a new life in the city, perhaps as a cobbler. Hussite Wars were concluding and work in Prague was plentiful. I worshipped in the newly consecrated Utraquist Thyn Church. Eager to learn and broaden my circle of friends, I learned Latin which also helped me study the Bible.  I admit I had opinions to share. I searched for friendships in this bustling city to have meaningful conversations.”
 
Q.  You were not formally educated, nor a nobleman or clergy. How did you happen to step into the role of leader, to pick up where Hus dropped off?
 
A. “Every Bohemian knew about Jan Hus and believed his message of reform. Many new friends in Prague were proudly Hussites. Our conversations often settled on disenchantment with the message taught in the Thyn Church. There was no continuation of the vision of Hus. The purpose of the Hussite Wars was ignored. We could openly worship now in our own language without fear of arrest and we did receive wine with communion. But that didn’t change the fact that three hundred years of Papal powers continued its merger with Imperial powers to distort the intentions of Christ that I read about in the Bible.
 
I made notes when studying the Bible. Comparing my notes to what I saw as shortcomings in the church, I became convinced that true Christians should live in peace among each other, show devotion to God by a personal relationship with Jesus, and avoid making vows to man, king, or nobleman. My notes turned into writings which I shared to encourage dialogue. Admittedly some writing expanded into other themes: doctrine suggested by Wyclif; practices influenced by his Lollards and Waldensians, and ethics inspired by humanist thinkers.
 
My writings did spark discussion among Hussite readers and even influenced some to band together into a “society” of believers. At this time the Roman Church allowed societies or fraternities. Our group organized around the desire to experiment living a simple Christian life described in the Bible. We were perhaps akin to an idealistic Sunday School class, but more.”
 
Q. What do you mean “more?”  How did this “society” impact others?
 
A. “For starters, we interpreted the Sermon on the Mount and, as a group, we pledged to practice these lessons as marching orders, daily. Our little group took the name Brethren of Chelcic. We then agreed to denounce war by pronouncing non-violent resistance, and avoid making promises we found contrary to our Christian belief. We opposed the union of Church and State.
 
Ultimately, our experiment evolved into a serious commitment to live these principles as true Christians. For us, we became duty-bound to break away from the Church; both Roman and Utraquist. We assumed a simpler life would provide us freedom to personally experience teachings of Christ and His apostles- a life similar to that described in the sermon on the mount.
 
I’m sure these pious practices attracted Gregory. In hindsight, it seems my words framed an argument for reform; Gregory then joined us to frame a plan for action.”
 

Reading and discerning the Word, essential for the formation of faith.

 
(Warming my coffee, I now turn to Gregory…)
 
Q. Brother Gregory, Father Rokycana, Priest of the Thyn Utraquist Church in Prague, was your uncle. Yet he encouraged you to join the Brethren of Chelcic. Why did he do that and what happened next? 
 
A. “My uncle expected me to be drawn to the Brethren. Although middle-aged, my temperament was more that of rebellious youth. While I respected him and his clerical position, I argued with him that it was not enough to simply long for and pray for reform of the Roman Church; we needed to work actively for reform!
 
When I joined that little group of Brethren, they had already begun a secret study in homes rather than public worship at Church. Our absence made us conspicuous-it still wasn’t safe to wander too far from the practices of Rome. Even Utraquist members cautioned us, feeling we were becoming radical and might attract Rome’s attention and wrath. It was becoming dangerous to remain in Prague.
 
The final straw came when the government ordered all Bohemian citizens to join either the Roman Church or the Utraquist Church. There were no other options, leaving Prague became obvious and urgent”
 
Q.  How did Kunwald happen to be chosen as a destination for sanctuary?
 
A. “Plague and economic depression had depopulated the little village of Kunwald. Located in the estate of Lititz on Bohemia’s eastern border, owned by King George.
 
Father Rokycana knew King George was engaged in a difficult balancing act: how to enforce rules imposed by Rome while pleasing Bohemian royalty and Hapsburg emperors reliant upon Rome. All while maintaining an uneasy peace with the nationalistic Hussites. It was Rokycana who negotiated with King George a crafty option: our safe migration to his estate in order to minimize public embarrassment and political stress in Prague.
 
Since many of us had previously moved from country villages to Prague to pursue prosperity, departing Prague to live our faith in peace was an easy decision. Being so remote, Kunwald was virtually hidden. With our unseen migration to Kunwald, everybody won.
 
We arrived in Kunwald with no plan to form a new religious sect. We had no political agenda. Our quarrel with Rome was over. We sought only a peaceful life among others who also desired God-centered relationships in life and work. Other pilgrims heard about our experiment and began arriving in Kunwald. With growth of numbers and unity of purpose, Kunwald again took life as a vibrant community.
 
In 1457, we felt the time had come to give ourselves an identity. Our society chose the Latin name “Unitas Fratrum” and formally became a church. We elected a management team of 27 elders intent on pursuing a three-fold ideal of faith, fellowship, and freedom. As a community, all brothers and sisters vowed to practice Christian living as described in the Bible rather than man-made doctrines promoted by Utraquist and Roman Church traditions. We became known, informally, as “Bohemian Brethren.”
 
Q. How did the rest of Bohemia view the unique presence of the Brethren? 
 
A. “I guess one would say Kunwald became our ghetto in rural Bohemia. We lived apart from others. We preferred to dress in starkly simple practical clothing. We placed strict requirements for membership which raised some eyebrows. We were pacifists. We caused no problems.
 
But as our community and businesses became successful, that success brought scorn from some who did not know us. I think this reaction was much like that experienced by Jews in Europe who were scorned due to their appearance, exclusive cohesion and economic success also built upon religious devotion. Of course, our circumstances differed from Jews; our background was Christian, we spoke one language common to Bohemia, and we did not carry the social stigma of mysteriously contributing to the Black Plague.
 
While sporadic persecution continued, it faded over time leaving us free to practice our faith, our work, and our lives in relative calm.”
 
Q. Then, residents began leaving Kunwald, right? What caused that to happen?
 
A.“Kunwald was different.  Other protestant societies were popping up throughout Bohemia but it seems God looked most favorably upon the Unitas Fratrum. Our practice was unique, requiring each person to center his or her own life upon a personal relationship with Christ. There was no dictate about how that should occur. Our community was His Church. Our devotion was to be expressed not only in worship but also in daily activities of work and play, as neighbors and as families. Our “doctrine” was simple and understandable. All who came to Kunwald were required to share this outlook and value system. Our brotherhood thrived, our faith deepened, our village prospered. We were unique.
 
In time some Brethren decided to leave the sanctuary of Kunwald and relocate to other villages. Some left to reunite with family members. Others sought economic opportunity. Some received an invitation from lords of other manors wishing to stimulate their community with our values. In all cases, migrants took with them the model of faith rooted in Kunwald. The reputation of Bohemian Brethren spread throughout all Bohemia and Moravia; not trouble makers but skilled craftsmen, self-taught in trades, well educated, disciplined, honest, eager to apply religion to everyday practices, and strangely joyful in so doing. Wherever Brethren settled, they planted their unique seed of pious influence and values causing those communities and neighbors to prosper as well.
 
Then along came the printing press and Luke of Prague.”
 
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].


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