They Searched for the Cramped Road
NEARLY 550 years ago, small groups of professed Christians living in Prague, Chelčice, Vilémov, Klatovy, and other cities in what is now the Czech Republic left their homes. They settled near the village of Kunwald, in a valley in northeastern Bohemia, where they built cottages, tilled the land, read their Bibles, and named themselves Unity of Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum in Latin.
The settlers included people from varied backgrounds. They were peasants, nobles, university students, rich and poor, men and women, widows and orphans, who all had a common desire. “We turned in prayer to God Himself,” they wrote, “and besought Him to reveal to us His gracious will in all things. We wanted to walk in His ways.” Indeed, this Unity of Brethren, or the Czech Brethren, as this community of believers came to be called, searched for the ‘cramped road leading to life.’ (Matthew 7:13, 14) What Bible truths did their search uncover? How did their beliefs differ from those accepted in that era, and what can we learn from them?
No Violence—No Compromise
Several religious movements contributed in the middle of the 15th century to the formation of the Unity of Brethren. One was the Waldenses, a movement dating back to the 12th century. Initially, the Waldenses withdrew from Roman Catholicism, the State religion in Central Europe. Later, however, they partially returned to Catholic teachings. Another influential group was the Hussites, followers of Jan Hus. They represented the religion of the majority of the Czech population, but they were far from being united. One faction fought over social issues, while another used religion to further political causes. The Brethren were also influenced by chiliastic groups as well as by local and foreign Bible scholars.
Peter Chelčický (c. 1390-c. 1460), Czech Bible scholar and reformer, was familiar with the teachings of the Waldenses and the Hussites. He rejected the Hussites for the violent turn their movement had taken, and he turned away from the Waldenses because of their compromising stand. He condemned war as unchristian. He felt that “the law of the Christ” should govern a Christian, no matter what consequences that would have. (Galatians 6:2; Matthew 22:37-39) In 1440, Chelčický penned his teachings in the book Net of the Faith.
Gregory of Prague, a younger contemporary of scholar Chelčický, was so taken with Chelčický’s teachings that he left the Hussite movement. In 1458, Gregory persuaded small groups of former Hussites to abandon their homes in different parts of Czechia. They were among those who followed him to the village of Kunwald, where they established a new religious community. Later, groups of Czech and German Waldenses joined them there.
A Window on the Past
From 1464 to 1467, this fledgling but growing group held a number of synods in the region of Kunwald and accepted several resolutions that defined their new religious movement. All resolutions were painstakingly recorded in a series of books, now known as the Acta Unitatis Fratrum (Acts of the Unity of Brethren), which still exist. The Acta serve as a window on the past, providing a vivid picture of what the Brethren believed. The books contain letters, transcripts of speeches, and even details of their disputes.
Concerning the beliefs of the Brethren, the Acta state: “We are resolved to set our administration by the sole Reading and by the examples of our Lord and the holy apostles in silence, humility and long-suffering, loving our enemies, doing and wishing good to them, and praying for them.” The writings also show that initially the Brethren engaged in preaching. They traveled in pairs, and women proved to be successful missionaries locally. The Brethren abstained from political office, took no oaths, did not involve themselves in military activity, and did not carry weapons.
From Unity to Disunity
After some decades, though, the Unity of Brethren failed to live up to its name. Disputes about how literally their beliefs should be practiced led to divisions. In 1494 the Brethren split into two groups—the Major and the Minor parties. While the Major Party watered down its original beliefs, the Minor Party preached that the Brethren should remain firm in their stand against politics and the world.—See box “What About the Major Party?”
For instance, one Minor Party member wrote: “People walking on two roads have little guarantee that they will stay with God, as only rarely and in minor things are they willing to offer themselves and submit to Him, whereas in major things they take their own way. . . . The ones who are of untouched mind and good conscience—every day following the Lord Christ on the cramped road with their cross—among those we long to be counted.”
Members of the Minor Party viewed the holy spirit as God’s active force, his “finger.” Their understanding of Jesus’ ransom was that the perfect man Jesus paid with his human life for what the sinner Adam lost. They did not venerate Mary, Jesus’ mother. They restored the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers without the vow of celibacy. They encouraged public preaching by all congregation members and expelled unrepentant sinners. They exercised strict separation from military and political activities. (See box “What the Brethren of the Minor Party Believed.”) Since the Minor Party clung to the resolutions in the Acta, it considered itself to be the true heir of the original Unity of Brethren.
Outspoken and Persecuted
The Minor Party outspokenly criticized other religions, including the Major Party. “You teach to baptize little children who lack their own faith,” they wrote about such religions, “and in this you follow the institution of a bishop called Dionysius, who at the instigation of some unwise people emphasized infant baptism . . . The same do almost all teachers and doctors, Luther, Melanchthon, Bucerus, Korvín, Jiles̆, Bullinger, . . . the Major Party, all gravitating together.”
Not surprisingly, the Minor Party was persecuted. In 1524 one of its leaders, Jan Kalenec, was flogged and scorched. Later three members of the Minor Party were burned at the stake. The Minor Party seems to have faded away about 1550, after the death of their last leader.
Even so, the believers of the Minor Party left their mark on the religious landscape of medieval Europe. Granted, since “the true knowledge” had not yet become abundant in the days of the Minor Party, they did not succeed in dispelling the long-standing spiritual darkness. (Daniel 12:4) Nevertheless, their strong desire to search for the cramped road and to follow it in the face of opposition is something for Christians today to note.
[Blurb on page 13]
Fifty of the 60 Bohemian (Czech) books printed from 1500 to 1510 are said to have been by members of the Unity of Brethren
[Box on page 11]
What About the Major Party?
What became of the Major Party? After the Minor Party disappeared from the scene, the Major Party continued as a religious movement, still known as the Unity of Brethren. In time, this group adjusted its original beliefs. At the end of the 16th century, the Unity of Brethren formed a confederation with the Czech Utraquists,* who were essentially Lutheran. The Brethren remained active, however, in translating and publishing the Bible as well as other religious books. Interestingly, the title pages of their early publications featured the Tetragrammaton, as the four Hebrew letters of God’s personal name are known.
In 1620, the Czech kingdom was forced back under Roman Catholic dominion. Consequently, many Brethren of the Major Party left the country and continued their activities abroad. There, the group later became known as the Moravian Church (Moravia being a part of the Czech lands), which still exists.
From the Latin word utraque, which means “each of two.” Unlike the Roman Catholic priests, who withheld the wine from the laity during Holy Communion, the Utraquists (diverse groups of Hussites) administered bread and wine.
[Box on page 12]
What the Brethren of the Minor Party Believed
The following quotes from the 15th- and 16th-century Acta Unitatis Fratrum show some of the beliefs held by the Minor Party. The statements, written by leaders of the Minor Party, are primarily directed to the Major Party.
Trinity: “If you glance throughout the entire Bible, you will not find that God is divided into a kind of Trinity, three persons by names, as people fabricated in their fancies.”
Holy spirit: “The holy spirit is God’s finger and a gift of God, or a comforter, or God’s Power, which the Father gives to believers on the basis of Christ’s merits. We do not find in the Holy Scriptures that the holy spirit should be called a God or a Person; nor do the apostolic teachings show that.”
Priesthood: “They falsely give you the title “priest”; if you take away your tonsure and finger ointment, you do not have anything above the most common lay person. Saint Peter calls on all Christians to be priests, saying: You are the holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices. (1 Peter 2)”
Baptism: “The Lord Christ told his apostles: Go into all the world, preach the Gospel to all creation, to those who would believe. (Mark, chapter 16) And only after these words: and being baptized, they will be saved. And you teach to baptize little children who lack their own faith.”
Neutrality: “What your early brothers viewed as bad and unclean, to join the army and murder or to walk the very roads clothed with weapons, all that you consider to be good . . . So we feel that you, along with other teachers, look only with your left eye at the prophetic words that point out: Thus he broke the power of the bow, the shields and the sword and the battle. (Psalm 75) And again: They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the Lord’s earth shall be full of the divine knowledge, and so forth. (Isaiah, chapter 11).”
Preaching: “We well know that, initially, females have brought more people to repentance than all the priests along with a bishop. And now the priests settled at their places and their apportioned rectories. What a mistake! Go into the entire world. Preach . . . to all creation.”
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(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Pictures on page 10, 11]
Left: Peter Chelčický; below: page from “Net of the Faith”
[Picture on page 11]
Gregory of Prague
[Picture Credit Line on page 13]
All images: S laskavým svolením knihovny Národního muzea v Praze, C̆esko