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Coffee with Moravian Ancestors: Jan Amos Comenius

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BY 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.

On a hilltop in Northeast Bohemia stands a cluster of sandstone rocks as high as castles. Since the beginning of time, they have overlooked the Jizera Valley, oblivious to imaginary lines drawn by humans to separate tribes.
 
Named the Chalice Rocks, they now represent a state park in the Czech Republic inviting locals to enjoy a holiday. However, if one stands quietly at dusk and listens carefully, the enticing harmony of hymns once sung here can be heard echoing among the rocks. This is where the Bohemian Brethren gathered in secret to reunite in song and worship while attempting to remain transparent in a hostile world.
 
Such was a “church service” for the nearly extinct Unitas Fratrum from before the 1620s into the early 1700s. Without a church building, many without permanent homes, families of the ancient Unitas Fratrum refreshed their faith daily in the solace of their own homes. Occasionally they came together for clandestine meetings which, although illegal, continued to unite.
 

Chalice Rocks-Where Brethren worshiped in secret exile. | Drawing by Bill Needs

Coffee with Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670)

Q. Brother Comenius, you experienced the horrors of the 30 Years’ War as a civilian. Would you tell me what you experienced and observed so I might understand?
 
A. There is no explanation for war except to justify bad behavior. The moral world is turned upside down by greed enforced by the loss of blood. The Pope’s counter-reformation was just a catalyst to ignite King Ferdinand II to strike a mighty blow against protestants in Bohemia.
 
Protestants struck back, of course, motivated by revenge. They hired mercenary soldiers to help even the odds. Foreign mercenaries saw economic opportunity to keep the fight alive. Then heads of other states in Europe added their weight to the war to settle old scores.
 
I had been pastor of the Unitas Fratrum Church in Fulneck, Moravia for only two years when the war began. It was well after the executions on the square of Prague when soldiers arrived in Fulneck accompanied by Catholic clergy. They seized our church, terrorized the Brethren by confiscating homes and businesses. They occupied the Brethren’s school where I also taught and turned it over to the waiting Jesuits. Finally, they invaded Fulnek’s government buildings where all my writings were stored, My manuscripts were gathered and burned the following Sunday at a Catholic mass.
 
I tell you these things not seeking your pity but to describe the utter senselessness that accompanies war. War is an invasion of foreign mobs, intent on overturning the social order of a stable society for personal gain.
 
This same scene unfolded throughout all Bohemia and Moravia in the early days of the 30 Years’ War. We were usually offered options to recant our faith or be imprisoned as a heretic, or be banished.
 
Forced to choose between leaving my fatherland, or remaining to practice my faith secretly, I chose the latter. I fled Fulneck to hide in the obscure hill country of Eastern Bohemia.
 
Q. What was life like while in exile?
 
A. For me, exile was the start of many sad episodes for my life. I had lost my church and my flock of believers. I faced the prospect of losing my country. Then my wife and two sons died from a resurgence of the plague. I sought solace in what remained under my control, my studies. I wrote about maintaining faith and developing the mind. I helped keep the Brethren faith alive by clandestine meetings mostly around villages on the border of Moravia and Silesia. But most importantly, I put my thoughts and feelings about war into writing, found in my allegory The Labyrinth of the World and The Paradise of the Heart.
 
Q. Did writing give you comfort?
 
A. I don’t know if comfort is the proper word. Today you use the word therapy and I suppose that writing was a form of grief therapy for me. A second marriage and beginning a new family restored some sense of purpose.
 
After five years, our hideout was discovered in 1628. Again I led a band of fugitives, this time crossing the mountains into Poland. Arriving in Leszno, a safe harbor for many exiles, I was offered a teaching job at a Brethren’s school. With this, I began to pursue an unfulfilled passion for improving the system of education.
 
Q. To what do you attribute this passion for education?
 
A. Like most things, there are many likely reasons for my passion. I was raised in a modest but educated family during the “Golden Age” of Bohemian Protestantism. My father gave me traditional religious training as expected by the Unitas Fratrum. When both he and my mother died before I reached my teens, my care was turned over to my aunt who assured I continue schooling at a Brethren academy, then to university in Heidelburg, Germany.
 
These schools offered the best teaching of the time, and I was a good student. But the standard method for instruction then was memorization. Failing grades were rewarded by beating. I became obsessed with seeking a better way to teach.
 
Perhaps my obsession was influenced by the manner with which my father taught me the Brethren catechism. A series of gentle questions followed by simple practical answers was an effective technique to reinforce learning. Perhaps I was influenced by the uncompromised drive of the Unitas Fratrum to increase literacy in all Bohemia, thus facilitating individual faith.
 
In the end, for me, practical education and applied religion seemed to go hand-in-hand. I shortened my college career when I decided to pursue a career as a pastor in the Unitas Fratrum. I was sent to my first congregation in Fulneck just as the war began to brew. Within two years, I was cast out to an uncertain future into a world at war.
 
Q. Tell me more about changing the accepted methods for teaching.
 
A. Arriving in Leszno as a refugee, I was asked to teach in a new Brethren school. I leaped at the opportunity to test my theories in the classroom, then to publish my writings which I thought should improve methods of education.
 
I dedicated my 13 years in Leszno to creating models for progressive education. I proposed dividing instruction into 6 different stages to accommodate levels of development for boys, and for girls, as they grew from infancy through college. When published, this concept received international acclaim.
 
In another publication, I introduced a book of science for elementary students. Titled The World in Pictures it was unique because I filled it with illustrations to complement the text. Common today, it was the first-ever publication to use visual references as a teaching aid.
 
Besides a focus on education, I also researched and published revolutionary models for social order, ecumenical applications for religion, and more. Educators in countries that embraced Protestantism invited me to lecture and even to oversee a reformation of school systems in Sweden and England during the 1640s.
 
Q. You traveled extensively throughout the 30 Years’ War? How did you happen to do that?
 
A. It is important to remember that the reason for war, any war, seems to evolve over time. This war began as a dispute between Catholics and Protestants in a fractured part of the Holy Roman Empire called Bohemia. It rapidly spread outside Bohemia as various leaders sent troops to intervene, usually for political gain.
 
While battles occurred in hot-spots mostly throughout the Holy Roman Empire, domestic activity continued in a near-normal fashion where bloodshed was not rampant. I did not go into war zones. I was able to travel where it was safe and to make my contribution when it was accepted. I became a world traveler in a very unsettled time.
 
Another advantage grew out of my international reputation. Promoting my theories on education gave me a forum to present the plight of the Bohemian Brethren in exile. Everyone knew I wore two hats: that of an educator and that of a bishop of the renowned Unitas Fratrum. Speaking engagements offered me an opportunity to promote the continuance of the Unitas Fratrum to those in positions of influence.
 

Jan Amos Comenius | Drawing by Bill Needs

 
Q. Your description sounds like you became an international ambassador for the Unitas Fratrum. Is this accurate?
 
A. I guess you might say that. I was elected Bishop of the Unitas Fratrum in 1632 while living in Poland. For 20 years I was privileged to cross borders of Europe and England practically at will. I thought I had made my case to promote the noble cause for the continuation of the Unitas Fratrum. But, alas, my attempts were fruitless.
 
Did I not approach the right people of influence? Was my argument ill-conceived because I also promoted an ecumenical model for Christianity similar to Jan Augusta? Did the remnants of the Unitas Fratrum appear broken into too many pieces to ever recover?
 
Even in hindsight, I don’t know the answer. Despite my efforts, nothing would come of it. Our mother church was doomed.
 
Q. What do you mean, nothing would come of your efforts?
 
A. The 30 Years’ War finally burnt itself out in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The map of Europe was redrawn to appease the winners. States’ rights and a sense of nationalism prevailed.
 
The Peace of Westphalia was not so equitable in addressing the question of religious freedom. Religious tolerance was equally distributed to “mainstream denominations:” i.e. Lutherans, Calvinists (reformed church), and the Roman Catholic Churches. Member states were bound by treaty to allow freedom of worship, freedom of thought. Minorities and dissidents who chose other religions were free to migrate at will.
 
However, in lands retained by the Hapsburgs, this standard of toleration did not apply to non-Catholics! We had no seat at the table to negotiate the deal. My voice was never heard through any of the international contacts I tried to convince. The continued existence of the Unitas Fratrum in Bohemia was denied, this was final. Even in his death, Ferdinand II had kept his promise to the Pope.
 
My heart was broken. I had failed to keep the Unitas Fratrum alive. There was no church; no reason for fundraising, no promotion of a faith that now existed only in the memory of broken people and on pages of crumpled parchment, scattered across the landscape of a new Europe.
 
Q. What happened next?
 
A. I returned to Poland to continue my studies and publishing. I still represented what remained of the Unitas Fratrum in name, and occasionally found some in Europe willing to contribute, perhaps out of pity, to this lost cause.
 
Within 15 years following the end of the 30 Years War, Poland was invaded by the Swedish Empire. All Poland was sacked in 1658. My home was burned again. All my current research, publications, and remaining records of the Unitas Fratrum were destroyed, again. This time, destruction did not occur out of religious fury but as a spoil of war. Once again I was forced into exile.
 
This time I fled Leszno for Amsterdam where I tried to rewrite from memory and the contents of some burned documents. I remained there for nearly 12 years in relative safety until my death in 1670. Meanwhile, the Bohemian Brethren were left to evaporate into the cloak of legally authorized Christianity or into the uncertainty of continued hiding.
 
Study my writings and you will know my mind. I harbor deep regret for having walked away from the “mother church,” leaving with her only my prayer that a hidden seed representing the Unitas Fratrum might, by the grace of God, someday take root to grow again in Bohemia. I carried this prayer to my death.
 
The Peace of Westphalia technically ended the land and power grab of the 17th Century. As cities and states awoke to shake off the dust of war, a new set of rulers emerged to define new borders of nations. Bohemia and Moravia were renamed the Czech Lands in the west, and part of Hungary in the east.
 
The Netherlands gained independence from Spain; Sweden gained control of the Baltic; France became the preeminent Western power. The power of the Holy Roman Emperor was broken leaving German states decentralized and partially free to independently determine the religion of their lands.
 
As far as religion goes, the understanding that each state must adhere to one single religious identity was overturned. The Peace of Westphalia guaranteed most individuals the right to worship as they wished and to educate their children in their own faith. This guarantee did not apply to Bohemia, however, where the Roman Catholic church prevailed as the state church. There were no other legal options.
 
In rural Moravia and Bohemia, there remained a few pockets of stubborn descendants who clung to the memory and secretly practiced the simple rituals of the ancient Unitas Fratrum. They were considered outlaws.
 
Time passed. Rituals were also passed from generation to generation. Then in the 18th century, a remnant of the “Bohemian Brethren” was discovered by a caring itinerant Lutheran Preacher known as Christian David.
 
Brother Christian joins us for coffee on August 8.
 
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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