A history of the moravian church

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THE City of Prague was divided into two parts, the Old Town and the New Town. In the middle of the Old Town was a large open space, called the Great Square. On the west side of the Great Square stood the Council House, on the east the old Thein Church. The condemned prisoners, half of whom were Brethren, were in the Council House: in front of their window was the scaffold, draped in black cloth, twenty feet high, and twenty-two yards square; from the window they stepped out on to a balcony, and from the balcony to the scaffold ran a short flight of steps. In that Great Square, and on that scaffold, we find the scene of our story.
When early in the morning of Monday, June 21st, the assembled prisoners looked out of the windows of their rooms to take their last view of earth, they saw a splendid, a brilliant, a gorgeous, but to them a terrible scene {1621.}. They saw God’s sun just rising in the east and reddening the sky and shining in each other’s faces; they saw the dark black scaffold bathed in light, and the squares of infantry and cavalry ranged around it; they saw the eager, excited throng, surging and swaying in the Square below and crowding on the house-tops to right and left; and they saw on the further side of the square the lovely twin towers of the old Thein Church, where Gregory had knelt and Rockycana had preached in the brave days of old. As the church clocks chimed the hour of five a gun was fired from the castle; the prisoners were informed that their hour had come, and were ordered to prepare for their doom; and Lichtenstein and the magistrates stepped out on to the balcony, an awning above them to screen them from the rising sun. The last act of the tragedy opened.
As there was now a long morning’s work to be done, that work was begun at once; and as the heads of the martyrs fell off the block in quick succession the trumpets brayed and the drums beat an accompaniment. Grim and ghastly was the scene in that Great Square in Prague, on that bright June morning well nigh three hundred years ago. There fell the flower of the Bohemian nobility; and there was heard the swan song of the Bohemian Brethren. As the sun rose higher in the eastern sky and shone on the windows of the Council House, the sun of the Brethren’s pride and power was setting in a sea of blood; and clear athwart the lingering light stood out, for all mankind to see, the figures of the last defenders of their freedom and their faith. Among the number not one had shown the white feather in prospect of death. Not a cheek was blanched, not a voice faltered as the dread hour drew near. One and all they had fortified themselves to look the waiting angel of death in the face. As they sat in their rooms the evening before--a sabbath evening it was--they had all, in one way or another, drawn nigh to God in prayer. In one room the prisoners had taken the Communion together, in another they joined in singing psalms and hymns; in another they had feasted in a last feast of love. Among these were various shades of faith--Lutherans, Calvinists, Utraquists, Brethren; but now all differences were laid aside, for all was nearly over now. One laid the cloth, and another the plates; a third brought water and a fourth said the simple grace. As the night wore on they lay down on tables and benches to snatch a few hours of that troubled sleep which gives no rest. At two they were all broad awake again, and again the sound of psalms and hymns was heard; and as the first gleams of light appeared each dressed himself as though for a wedding, and carefully turned down the ruffle of his collar so as to give the executioner no extra trouble.
Swiftly, in order, and without much cruelty the gory work was done. The morning’s programme had all been carefully arranged. At each corner of the square was a squad of soldiers to hold the people in awe, and to prevent an attempt at rescue. One man, named Mydlar, was the executioner; and, being a Protestant, he performed his duties with as much decency and humanity as possible. He used four different swords, and was paid about £100 for his morning’s work. With his first sword he beheaded eleven; with his second, five; with his two last, eight. The first of these swords is still to be seen at Prague, and has the names of its eleven victims engraven upon it. Among these names is the name of Wenzel von Budowa. In every instance Mydlar seems to have done his duty at one blow. At his side stood an assistant, and six masked men in black. As soon as Mydlar had severed the neck, the assistant placed the dead man’s right hand on the block; the sword fell again; the hand dropped at the wrist; and the men in black, as silent as night, gathered up the bleeding members, wrapped them in clean black cloth, and swiftly bore them away.
The name of Budowa was second on the list. As many of the records of the time were destroyed by fire, we are not able to tell in full what part Budowa had played in the great revolt. He had, however, been a leader on the conquered side. He had fought, as we know, for the Letter of Majesty; he had bearded Rudolph II. in his den; he had openly opposed the election of Ferdinand II.; he had welcomed Frederick, the Protestant Winter King, at the city gates; and, therefore, he was justly regarded by Ferdinand as a champion of the Protestant national faith and an enemy of the Catholic Church and throne. As he was now over seventy years of age it is hardly likely that he had fought on the field of battle. After the battle of the White Mountain he had retired with his family to his country estate. He had then, strange to say, been one of those entrapped into Prague by Lichtenstein, and had been imprisoned in the White Tower. There he was tried and condemned as a rebel, and there, as even Gindely admits, he bore himself like a hero to the last. At first, along with some other nobles, he signed a petition to the Elector of Saxony, imploring him to intercede with the Emperor on their behalf. The petition received no answer. He resigned himself to his fate. He was asked why he had walked into the lion’s den. For some reason that I fail to understand Gindely says that what we are told about the conduct of the prisoners has only a literary interest. To my mind the last words of Wenzel of Budowa are of the highest historical importance. They show how the fate of the Brethren’s Church was involved in the fate of Bohemia. He had come to Prague as a patriot and as a Brother. He was dying both for his country and for his Church.
“My heart impelled me to come,” he said; “to forsake my country and its cause would have been sinning against my conscience. Here am I, my God, do unto Thy servant as seemeth good unto Thee. I would rather die myself than see my country die.”
As he sat in his room on the Saturday evening--two days before the execution--he was visited by two Capuchin monks. He was amazed at their boldness. As they did not understand Bohemian, the conversation was conducted in Latin. They informed him that their visit was one of pity.
“Of pity?” asked the white-haired old Baron, “How so?”
“We wish to show your lordship the way to heaven.” He assured them that he knew the way and stood on firm ground.
“My Lord only imagines,” they rejoined, “that he knows the way of salvation. He is mistaken. Not being a member of the Holy Church, he has no share in the Church’s salvation.”
But Budowa placed his trust in Christ alone.
“I have this excellent promise,” he said, “Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Therefore, until my last moment, will I abide by our true Church.”
Thus did Budowa declare the faith of the Brethren. The Capuchin monks were horrified. They smote their breasts, declared that so hardened a heretic they had never seen, crossed themselves repeatedly, and left him sadly to his fate.
For the last time, on the Monday morning, he was given another chance to deny his faith. Two Jesuits came to see him.
“We have come to save my lord’s soul,” they said, “and to perform a work of mercy.”
“Dear fathers,” replied Budowa, “I thank my God that His Holy Spirit has given me the assurance that I will be saved through the blood of the Lamb.” He appealed to the words of St. Paul: “I know whom I have believed: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.”
“But,” said the Jesuits, “Paul there speaks of himself, not of others.”
“You lie,” said Budowa, “for does he not expressly add: ‘and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.’”
And after a little more argumentation, the Jesuits left in disgust.
The last moment in Budowa’s life now arrived. The messenger came and told him it was his turn to die. He bade his friends farewell.
“I go,” he declared, “in the garment of righteousness; thus arrayed shall I appear before God.”
Alone, with firm step he strode to the scaffold, stroking proudly his silver hair and beard.
“Thou old grey head of mine,” said he, “thou art highly honoured; thou shalt be adorned with the Martyr-Crown.”
As he knelt and prayed he was watched by the pitying eyes of the two kind-hearted Jesuits who had come to see him that morning. He prayed for his country, for his Church, for his enemies, and committed his soul to Christ; the sword flashed brightly in the sun; and one strong blow closed the restless life of Wenzel von Budowa, the “Last of the Bohemians.”
And with his death there came the death of the Ancient Church of the Brethren. From the moment when Budowa’s hoary head fell from the block the destruction of the Church was only a question of time. As Budowa died, so died the others after him. We have no space to tell here in detail how his bright example was followed; how nearly all departed with the words upon their lips, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit”; how the drums beat louder each time before the sword fell, that the people might not hear the last words of triumphant confidence in God; how Caspar Kaplir, an old man of eighty-six, staggered up to the scaffold arrayed in a white robe, which he called his wedding garment, but was so weak that he could not hold his head to the block; how Otto von Los looked up and said, “Behold I see the heavens opened”; how Dr. Jessen, the theologian, had his tongue seized with a pair of tongs, cut off at the roots with a knife, and died with the blood gushing from his mouth; how three others were hanged on a gallows in the Square; how the fearful work went steadily on till the last head had fallen, and the black scaffold sweated blood; and how the bodies of the chiefs were flung into unconsecrated ground, and their heads spitted on poles in the city, there to grin for full ten years as a warning to all who held the Protestant faith. In all the story of the Brethren’s Church there has been no other day like that. It was the day when the furies seemed to ride triumphant in the air, when the God of their fathers seemed to mock at the trial of the innocent, and when the little Church that had battled so bravely and so long was at last stamped down by the heel of the conqueror, till the life-blood flowed no longer in her veins.
Not, indeed, till the last breath of Church life had gone did the fearful stamping cease. The zeal of Ferdinand knew no bounds. He was determined, not only to crush the Brethren, but to wipe their memory from off the face of the earth. He regarded the Brethren as a noisome pest. Not a stone did he and his servants leave unturned to destroy them. They began with the churches. Instead of razing them to the ground, which would, of course, have been wanton waste, they turned them into Roman Catholic Chapels by the customary methods of purification and rededication. They rubbed out the inscriptions on the walls, and put new ones in their places, lashed the pulpits with whips, beat the altars with sticks, sprinkled holy water to cleanse the buildings of heresy, opened the graves and dishonoured the bones of the dead. Where once was the cup for Communion was now the image of the Virgin. Where once the Brethren had sung their hymns and read their Bibles were now the Confessional and the Mass.
Meanwhile the Brethren had been expelled from Bohemia. It is a striking proof of the influence of the Brethren that Ferdinand turned his attention to them before he troubled about the other Protestants. They had been the first in moral power; they had done the most to spread the knowledge of the Bible; they had produced the greatest literary men of the country; and, therefore, now they must be the first to go. What actually happened to many of the Brethren during the next few years no tongue can tell. But we know enough. We know that Ferdinand cut the Letter of Majesty in two with his scissors. We know that thirty-six thousand families left Bohemia and Moravia, and that the population of Bohemia dwindled from three millions to one. We know that about one-half of the property--lands, houses, castles, churches--passed over into the hands of the King. We know that the University of Prague was handed over to the Jesuits. We know that the scandalous order was issued that all Protestant married ministers who consented to join the Church of Rome might keep their wives by passing them off as cooks. We know that villages were sacked; that Kralitz Bibles, Hymn-books, Confessions, Catechisms, and historical works of priceless value-- among others Blahoslaw’s “History of the Brethren”--were burned in thousand; and that thus nearly every trace of the Brethren was swept out of the land. We know that some of the Brethren were hacked in pieces, that some were tortured, that some were burned alive, that some swung on gibbets at the city gates and at the country cross-roads among the carrion crows. For six years Bohemia was a field of blood, and Spanish soldiers, drunk and raging, slashed and pillaged on every hand. “Oh, to what torments,” says a clergyman of that day, “were the promoters of the Gospel exposed! How they were tortured and massacred! How many virgins were violated to death! How many respectable women abused! How many children torn from their mothers’ breasts and cut in pieces in their presence! How many dragged from their beds and thrown naked from the windows! Good God! What cries of woe we were forced to hear from those who lay upon the rack, and what groans and terrible outcries from those who besought the robbers to spare them for God’s sake.” It was thus that the Brethren, at the point of the sword, were driven from hearth and home: thus that they fled before the blast and took refuge in foreign lands; thus, amid bloodshed, and crime, and cruelty, and nameless torture, that the Ancient Church of the Bohemian Brethren bade a sad farewell to the land of its birth, and disappeared from the eyes of mankind.
Let us review the story of that wonderful Church. What a marvellous change had come upon it! It began in the quiet little valley of Kunwald: it ended in the noisy streets of Prague. It began in peace and brotherly love: it ended amid the tramp of horses, the clank of armour, the swish of swords, the growl of artillery, the whistle of bullets, the blare of trumpets, the roll of drums, and the moans of the wounded and the dying. It began in the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount: it ended amid the ghastly horrors of war. What was it that caused the destruction of that Church? At this point some historians, being short of facts, have thought fit to indulge in philosophical reflections; and, following the stale philosophy of Bildad--that all suffering is the punishment of sin--have informed us that the Brethren were now the victims of internal moral decay. They had lost, we are told, their sense of unity; they had relaxed their discipline; they had become morally weak; and the day of their external prosperity was the day of their internal decline. For this pious and utterly unfounded opinion the evidence usually summoned is the fact that Bishop Amos Comenius, in a sermon entitled “Haggai Redivivus,” had some rather severe remarks to make about the sins of his Brethren. But Bishops’ sermons are dangerous historical evidence. It is not the business of a preacher to tell the whole truth in one discourse. He is not a witness in the box; he is a prophet aiming at some special moral reform. If a Bishop is lecturing his Brethren for their failings he is sure to indulge, not exactly in exaggeration, but in one-sided statements of the facts. He will talk at length about the sins, and say nothing about the virtues. It is, of course, within the bounds of possibility that when the Brethren became more prosperous they were not so strict in some of their rules as they had been in earlier days; and it is also true that when Wenzel von Budowa summoned his followers to arms, the deed was enough, as one writer remarks, to make Gregory the Patriarch groan in his grave. But of any serious moral decline there is no solid proof. It is absurd to blame the Brethren for mixing in politics, and absurd to say that this mixing was the cause of their ruin. At that time in Bohemia religion and politics were inseparable. If a man took a definite stand in religion he took thereby a definite stand in politics. To be a Protestant was to be a rebel. If Budowa had never lifted a finger, the destruction of the Brethren would have been no less complete. The case of Baron Charles von Zerotin proves the point. He took no part in the rebellion; he sided, in the war, with the House of Hapsburg; he endeavoured, that is, to remain a Protestant and yet at the same time a staunch supporter of Ferdinand; and yet, loyal subject though he was, he was not allowed, except for a few years, to shelter Protestant ministers in his castle, and had finally to sell his estates and to leave the country. At heart, Comenius had a high opinion of his Brethren. For nearly fifty weary years--as we shall see in the next chapter--this genius and scholar longed and strove for the revival of the Brethren’s Church, and in many of his books he described the Brethren, not as men who had disgraced their profession, but as heroes holding the faith in purity. He described his Brethren as broad-minded men, who took no part in religious quarrels, but looked towards heaven, and bore themselves affably to all; he said to the exiles in one of his letters, “You have endured to the end”; he described them again, in a touching appeal addressed to the Church of England, as a model of Christian simplicity; and he attributed their downfall in Bohemia, not to any moral weakness, but to their neglect of education. If the Brethren, he argued, had paid more attention to learning, they would have gained the support of powerful friends, who would not have allowed them to perish. I admit, of course, that Comenius was naturally partial, and that when he speaks in praise of the Brethren we must receive his evidence with caution; but, on the other hand, I hold that the theory of a serious moral decline, so popular with certain German historians, is not supported by evidence. If the Brethren had shown much sign of corruption we should expect to find full proof of the fact in the Catholic writers of the day. But such proof is not to hand. Not even the Jesuit historian, Balbin, had anything serious to say against the Brethren. The only Catholic writer, as far as I know, who attacked their character was the famous Papal Nuncio, Carlo Caraffa. He says that the Brethren in Moravia had become a little ambitious and avaricious, “with some degree of luxury in their habits of life”;53 but he has no remarks of a similar nature to make about the Brethren in Bohemia. The real cause of the fall of the Brethren was utterly different. They fell, not because they were morally weak, but because they were killed by the sword or forcibly robbed of their property. They fell because Bohemia fell; and Bohemia fell for a variety of reasons; partly because her peasants were serfs and had no fight left in them; partly because her nobles blundered in their choice of a Protestant King; and partly because, when all is said, she was only a little country in the grip of a mightier power. In some countries the Catholic reaction was due to genuine religious fervour; in Bohemia it was brought about by brute force; and even with all his money and his men King Ferdinand found the destruction of the Brethren no easy task. He had the whole house of Hapsburg on his side; he had thousands of mercenary soldiers from Spain; he was restrained by no scruples of conscience; and yet it took him six full years to drive the Brethren from the country. And even then he had not completed his work. In spite of his efforts, many thousands of the people still remained Brethren at heart; and as late as 1781, when Joseph II. issued his Edict of Toleration, 100,000 in Bohemia and Moravia declared themselves Brethren. We have here a genuine proof of the Brethren’s vigour. It had been handed on from father to son through five generations. For the Brethren there was still no legal recognition in Bohemia and Moravia; the Edict applied to Lutherans and Calvinists only; and if the Brethren had been weak men they might now have called themselves Lutherans or Calvinists. But this, of course, carries us beyond the limits of this chapter. For the present King Ferdinand had triumphed; and word was sent to the Pope at Rome that the Church of the Brethren was no more.


BUT the cause of the Brethren’s Church was not yet lost. As the Brethren fled before the blast, it befell, in the wonderful providence of God, that all their best and noblest qualities--their broadness of view, their care for the young, their patience in suffering, their undaunted faith--shone forth in undying splendour in the life and character of one great man; and that man was the famous John Amos Comenius, the pioneer of modern education and the last Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren. He was born on March 18th, 1592, at Trivnitz, a little market town in Moravia. He was only six years old when he lost his parents through the plague. He was taken in hand by his sister, and was educated at the Brethren’s School at Ungarisch-Brod. As he soon resolved to become a minister, he was sent by the Brethren to study theology, first at the Calvinist University of Herborn in Nassau, and then at the Calvinist University of Heidelberg. For two years (1614-1616) he then acted as master in the Brethren’s Higher School at Prerau, and then became minister of the congregation at Fulneck. There, too, the Brethren had a school; and there, both as minister and teacher, Comenius, with his young wife and family, was as happy as the livelong day. But his happiness was speedily turned to misery. The Thirty Years’ War broke out. What part he took in the Bohemian Revolution we have no means of knowing. He certainly favoured the election of Frederick, and helped his cause in some way. “I contributed a nail or two,” he says,54 “to strengthen the new throne.” What sort of nail he means we do not know. The new throne did not stand very long. The troops of Ferdinand appeared at Fulneck. The village was sacked. Comenius reeled with horror. He saw the weapons for stabbing, for chopping, for cutting, for pricking, for hacking, for tearing and for burning. He saw the savage hacking of limbs, the spurting of blood, the flash of fire.
“Almighty God,” he wrote in one of his books, “what is happening? Must the whole world perish?”
His house was pillaged and gutted; his books and his manuscripts were burned; and he himself, with his wife and children, had now to flee in hot haste from Fulneck and to take refuge for a while on the estate of Baron Charles von Zerotin at Brandeis-on-the-Adler. To the Brethren Brandeis had long been a sacred spot. There Gregory the Patriarch had breathed his last, and there his bones lay buried; there many an historic Brethren’s Synod had been held; and there Comenius took up his abode in a little wood cottage outside the town which tradition said had been built by Gregory himself. He had lost his wife and one of his children on the way from Fulneck; he had lost his post as teacher and minister; and now, for the sake of his suffering Brethren, he wrote his beautiful classical allegory, “The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.”55 For historical purposes this book is of surpassing value. It is a revelation. It is a picture both of the horrors of the time and of the deep religious life of the Brethren. As Comenius fled from Fulneck to Brandeis he saw sights that harrowed his soul, and now in his cottage at the foot of the hills he described what he had seen. The whole land, said Comenius, was now in a state of disorder. The reign of justice had ended. The reign of pillage had begun. The plot of the book is simple. From scene to scene the pilgrim goes, and everything fills him with disgust. The pilgrim, of course, is Comenius himself; the “Labyrinth” is Bohemia; and the time is the early years of the Thirty Years’ War. He had studied the social conditions of Bohemia; he had seen men of all ranks and all occupations; and now, in witty, satirical language, he held the mirror up to nature. What sort of men were employed by Ferdinand to administer justice in Bohemia? Comenius gave them fine sarcastic names. He called the judges Nogod, Lovestrife, Hearsay, Partial, Loveself, Lovegold, Takegift, Ignorant, Knowlittle, Hasty and Slovenly; he called the witnesses Calumny, Lie and Suspicion; and, in obvious allusion to Ferdinand’s seizure of property, he named the statute-book “The Rapacious Defraudment of the Land.” He saw the lords oppressing the poor, sitting long at table, and discussing lewd and obscene matters. He saw the rich idlers with bloated faces, with bleary eyes, with swollen limbs, with bodies covered with sores. He saw the moral world turned upside down. No longer, said Comenius, did men in Bohemia call things by their right names. They called drunkenness, merriment; greed, economy; usury, interest; lust, love; pride, dignity; cruelty, severity; and laziness, good nature. He saw his Brethren maltreated in the vilest fashion. Some were cast into the fire; some were hanged, beheaded, crucified;56 some were pierced, chopped, tortured with pincers, and roasted to death on grid-irons. He studied the lives of professing Christians, and found that those who claimed the greatest piety were the sorriest scoundrels in the land. “They drink and vomit,” he said, “quarrel and fight, rob and pillage one another by cunning and by violence, neigh and skip from wantonness, shout and whistle, and commit fornication and adultery worse than any of the others.” He watched the priests, and found them no better than the people. Some snored, wallowing in feather beds; some feasted till they became speechless; some performed dances and leaps; some passed their time in love-making and wantonness.

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