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.
By the late 1400s, refugees to Kunwald were known by the nickname “Bohemian Brethren.” They were joined by other pilgrims, mostly poor, illiterate, also considered breakaway heretics. Although clothed as peasants, they were rich in other ways: they all had an obsessive devotion to God expressed through a humble manner, honest lifestyle, intense work ethic and burning desire to learn to read and discuss.
To enter that unique society of Brethren, however, applicants were required to actually be destitute, expected to give up rank and wealth. The Unitas Fratrum in Kunwald was becoming a monastic commune removed from all things secular. When Luke of Prague joined the Unitas Fratrum, the printing press and moveable type also entered the modern world. Luke saw in this new technology an opportunity to not only standardize a common language to promote use throughout all Bohemia, but also to spread a message of Christian life and practice to all who would read and believe for themselves.
Coffee with Luke of Prague (1460 – 1528)
Q. Brother Luke, how did you get involved with the Bohemian Brethren?
A. “I studied writings of Peter of Chelcic while attending Charles University in Prague. This was 20 years after Peter’s death. I felt inspired by what I read so once I graduated in 1481, I decided to join the Brethren.
When I was received into their membership, significant conflict was obvious within the leadership of the Unitas Fratrum. Older Brethren wanted to continue seclusion from the world as charged by Gregory the Patriarch. Monastic isolation was preferred by many other emerging protestant societies.
Younger brethren had missionary leanings, wanting to share their faith with others. I was asked to join an envoy of brethren assigned to travel to Turkey and the Balkans to search for other societies rumored to be living the “apostolic faith.” After three years, we found no such groups of believers with whom we could sincerely bind. We returned to find forces at work within our brotherhood threatening destruction of our unity. Decisive action was needed and I was chosen as a Bishop in 1500 to help make that happen.”
Q. What prompted you to direct the Bohemian Brethren from isolationism into broadened community activism?
A. “Humanistic thought was receiving wide acceptance throughout Europe. Economic and social opportunity as fashioned by medieval Europe was becoming reshaped, partly as a result of the plague. Knights and barons who focused their attention on political issues were briefly distracted from persecuting us. Strange as it seems, some of our strongest opponents died of natural causes during this time. An omen from God? Maybe.
Believing the Lord had a greater purpose for our church, I embraced and encouraged a culture of outreach knowing that heart-wrenching division would occur. Despite this split, our reputation grew. Soon our band of believers and dreamers who originated in Kunwald had reached deep into other communities of Bohemia”
Q. To what do you attribute such growth?
A. “King George was quite liberal. It seems he really wanted to free Bohemia from the Pope’s control and create a State Church of Bohemia. Emboldened by these liberal leanings, Bohemian noblemen grew confident to confront German Hapsburgs and Roman Popes after decades of accepting their domination.
Remember, King George originally opened a door to Kunwald for the early Brethren who fled Prague. By extension, his liberal leanings continued to open other doors throughout Bohemia allowing us to spread a unique simple and understandable message about God’s love through Christ. After King George’s death, Ladislaus II, his successor, continued his tolerant policies.
Of course, persecution of Brethren continued. Sympathizers of the Roman Church felt we threatened their authority and livelihood. Utraquists felt our success challenged their legitimacy. Most didn’t understand us, nor cared to know us. So they bullied us, or worse, terrorized us. In 1508 we were nearly destroyed and I was imprisoned.
Despite challenging conditions, our growth continued. Brethren who moved into other communities around Bohemia engaged with influential property owners who desired to join us because of our reputation.
By expanding our outreach to others, the Unitas Fratrum became more diverse. We even held conversations about collaboration with Martin Luther as the wave of Protestantism gathered force in neighboring states.”
Luke used the printing press to promote Christian messages and values across Bohemia. The success of the Unitas Fratrum in Bohemia under the leadership of Bishop Luke was undeniable. The Brethren spread their message through migration, personal example, and effective use of the printing press. When Martin Luther began expanding the reformation movement into Germany, the Church of Rome had to establish a serious plan for resistance. | Drawing by Bill Needs.
Q. Aside from your effort to redirect and organize the Unitas Fratrum, what other contributions did you make?
A. “It seems I have an innate gift and desire for order and organization as well as writing. So I set out using these gifts to give direction to the Unitas Fratrum.
To begin with, it seemed to me that faith should connect directly to behavior. That concept first drew me to the Brethren. They seemed to have a good handle on practicing what they preached. When I became Bishop, I felt duty-bound to promote this quality as unique and common to our religious culture. I had a gift with words so I settled down to put the theological principles of what we truly believe into written statements. Because membership in the Unitas Fratrum was diverse, I deliberately kept my words simple. I avoided emphasis on dogma, superstition, or emotion in order to minimize confusion. My statements were simple and rational and followed the example of Jesus’ presentation of the Beatitudes.
Linked to developing a practical and dynamic Christian faith, I wanted to advance literacy throughout Bohemia. I believe the ability to read develops insight. In turn, that insight instills confidence to share with others. Sharing with others binds diverse individuals into a community. When the printing press was invented with moveable type, I considered the use of this tool would spread one language for common use across all Bohemia. Peasants leaving farms to establish themselves in trades and businesses could compete if able to read and write. Documents from our printing press advanced literacy and promoted a form of continuing adult education supporting vocational and skill development.
The printing press also became a critical tool to promote a message of Christianity. There was a time when only 5 printing presses existed in all of Bohemia. Brethren owned and operated 3 of them! We published scriptures and songs. You may consider it a technique to spread propaganda but churches became convenient distribution centers for anyone hungry to devour our publications. We even bound printed scriptures into sizes small enough to be carried in one’s pocket. Our “Confession of Faith” was written and printed as a theological position paper, eventually to be sent to the King and other emerging protestant groups.
Since Medieval Times, the opportunity for children of commoners to receive an education was limited. Illiteracy was widespread. I was passionate about wanting to develop a method for early education for all children. What better opportunity than to teach mothers to read and educate their young at home? When I developed a catechism titled “Questions to the Children” it quickly became a standard instructional primer for children and adults in every household. It was written in our own language, of course. However, it was designed in the form of questions with answers; answers offered as examples of Christian behavior. The Unitas Fratrum promoted no pet doctrine; religious debate was avoided; a simple motto separating essentials from nonessentials was our practical guide for daily living. So the “answers” offered in this catechism became a standard for morals and behavior passed on to future generations.
I always felt group worship should be dignified, fulfilling, and understandable so I encouraged laymen and women to be prominent in worship. In 1501, we published the first Protestant hymnal in our own language. It contained 89 hymns. It standardized practice for group worship and guidance for individual worship. Praising God using musical harmony was a fine complement to our Bohemian heritage of melodic folk songs.
Finally, I was obsessed with keeping accurate written records. In days when motives of the Unitas Fratrum were continually scrutinized, I felt it critical that the affairs of our church be maintained as proof we had no desire to undermine the authority of the Church of Rome. Accurate historical entries became an accounting of our practices but also a way to justify our survival.”
Q. How did Rome and it’s allies respond to the Unitas Fratrum?
A. “Our success was resented in Rome, but this was a time when papal attention was focused upon political issues in Rome. Besides, Latin was not our language and our culture did not represent Rome. Pope Alexander VI was especially hostile toward the Brethren and all reformist societies. In a Papal Bull of 1500, he vowed to “crush us to powder.” He tried to strengthen his ties with Bohemia’s royalty who depended upon Rome’s political and financial favors. This was only partially successful. Sporadic persecution and banishment simply weren’t working. Other methods had to be explored to rebuild the shrinking Roman Church in Bohemia but apparently would be left for a future Pope.
Tolerances allowed by King George and his successor fostered growth in the ranks of Unitas Fratrum. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Unitas Fratrum churches numbered 400 with a membership of 200,000. Only 20% of the population of Bohemia claimed membership in the Roman Church while the Unitas Fratrum continued to exert influence upon Bohemia’s spiritual life as well as culture and society.
Then came Martin Luther, a Roman priest who’s eloquent pronouncements for reform in neighboring Germany and prominent support among German nobility, fueled papal animosity and desire to mount a response.
Through friendly dialogue I had established with Father Martin, the Unitas Fratrum shared our Catechism and Confessions of Faith. Our respect was mutual despite some differences in issues of doctrine and discipline.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517 a major tear opened in the fabric of the Roman Church.”
Next, we will have coffee with Pope Alexander VI who served during the time of Luke and Luther. Although leaders of the Catholic Church may not be considered “Moravian Ancestors,” their decisions are exactly why the Moravian Church was formed and exists today. Please join us on April 18 as we talk with the Pope over a cup of coffee.
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].