For as much as they would have liked to, no Inquisitors in France ever caught Pierre Valdés. They chased him instead to Czech Bohemia where, according to reports, he died in 1218 at Klaster near Nová Bystřice, in the Czech territory of Jindřichův Hradec.
He brought something with him.
In a few years of Pierre’s death, great numbers had joined the Poor in Czech Bohemia and Moravia. They threw out the images of Roman Catholic saints. They stopped swearing oaths, carrying arms in self-defence, and baptising infants. Here and there, in Plzeň (Pilsen), České Budějovice (Budweis), Prague, Bratislava, Ostrava, and Brno, they began to meet in Jesus’ name and new messengers went out from among them to Hungary and Poland.
In the face of unrelenting persecution the Waldenses prospered in Czech lands through a hundred years. But what persecution could not accomplish happened eventually through spiritual decline. Zealous messengers died and none took their place. Waldensian congregations quieted down and stopped attracting new members as their desire to please Christ grew faint. Then new voices made themselves heard.
Suddenly, in the mid-1300s, old Prague, the capital city of Czech Bohemia, woke up. A new king, named Václav (Wenceslas) for his good ancestor, made the city wealthy, modern, and famous. But wickedness thrived on its back streets after dark and Tomáš, a believer from the Czech village of Štítný, began to speak boldly against it. Taking courage from his bold witness, Konrád Waldhauser and Jan Milíč of Kroměříž (Kremsier) in Moravia also took the Gospels and began to teach from them.
Thousands felt in their hearts what these Czech prophets said was right. Eagerly, week after week, they gathered to hear Christ’s simple but revolutionary statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Along with this, they loved to hear from Paul, James, and the first Christians. So many crowded around Konrád, speaking in Prague, that no building could hold them, and he had to call meetings in the marketplace. A Moravian bishop described him:
His bearing was calm, his thoughts were set forth with great clearness, his language was plain but forcible and eloquent. With a boldness that came from God and feared neither man nor the devil he exposed the vices of the times and called sinners to repentance. The result was wonderful. Women who had been leaders of extravagant and immodest fashions laid aside their costly robes, glittering with gold and pearls, and devoted themselves to works of charity. Usurers fattening themselves on unrighteous gains made restitution. Notorious libertines set an example of holy living.1
In particular, Konrád called on the mendicant friars (Dominicans and Franciscans) to repent and change their ways. “If the men who founded your orders would see the worldliness in which you live,” he said, “they would be horrified.” But the monks did not like Konrád’s challenge and threatened to kill him. They made fun of Jan Milíč for teaching the people in Moravia’s Czech dialect and resented his work among the poor in Prague.
Neither Konrad or Jan worried about the angry clergy. They put their teaching to practice and a whole block of city brothels closed down when hundreds of prostitutes, thanks to their efforts, found Christ. Jan wrote a book De Antichristo, and with the help of city believers founded “Jerusalem,” a home for wayward girls.
Of all who listened to the capital city prophets, none, perhaps, let the words of Christ transform his life more drastically than a young man named Matěj, the son of a Czech nobleman from Janov.
No one expected Matěj to turn out different from his friends—riding horses, playing, dancing, and jousting on feast days. But after he discovered the joy of following Christ, nothing else attracted him anymore. Instead of seeking lively company, Matěj spent long periods out on the fields, and in the woods, alone. He spoke continually with Christ, and when his former companions met him, he warned them earnestly to “turn from images to the real person.” Like Jan, his teacher, Matěj spoke to the people in ordinary Czech. He believed Christians should take part in frequent (daily if possible) communion in bread and wine. He spoke against the exaltation of the clergy and identified the “many rules made by the church to take the place of Scripture” as the “chief cause of corruption” in mediaeval Europe.
In 1389 a meeting of bishops in Prague decided to stop Matěj’s influence at all costs. They ordered him to stop preaching on pain of death and forbade him to attend religious meetings outside his hometown. Five years later, suffering continual harassment, he died. But the seeds he had sown, lived on.
In 1382, four years after King Václav (the Emperor Charles IV) died, his daughter married Richard, the fifteen-year-old king of England. With this, even more people found their way to Prague.
English and Czech nobility came to know one another. Conversing in Latin they shared information—and ideas. Among them, they shared the ideas of the famous English theologian, John Wyclif, then translating the Bible at Oxford University.
John Wyclif and his admirers questioned the authority of the Roman Catholic church. Even though they strongly believed in the right of “Christian” popes, kings, and nobles to order the lives of “commoners,” they believed no rule is of God unless it follows the Bible. They also believed that everyone, both rulers and commoners, should know what the Bible says. When the rector of the university at Prague, a man named Jan Hus, heard of this idea, it captivated him completely.
Besides the lectures he delivered at the university (to its approximately seven thousand students) Jan Hus also preached at a private Catholic church in the city, the Bethlehem Chapel. He held Bible studies in Czech and wrote articles. For criticising the pope, and Catholic veneration of relics—particularly the shrine at Vilsnac on the Elbe, where a supposedly blood-soaked wafer found in a ruined church drew pilgrims from as far away as Scandinavia and the Netherlands—Jan suffered excommunication in 1407.
Not much happened right away. But when two men with chests and drums appeared in Prague in 1412, selling “certificates of pardon” to the highest bidder (to raise money for the pope to fight his enemies) Jan Hus protested even more vehemently. A riot broke out on the streets of Prague. Three young men lost their lives and many dipped their fingers or handkerchiefs into their blood, promising revenge—and leading the pope to put the city under an interdict (forbidding others to trade with it). Then, when a great council of the Roman Catholic church met at Konstanz in 1414, the pope ordered Jan Hus to appear.
Setting out with thirty armed horsemen and three wagons, Jan Hus, agreed to meet the pope who swore not to injure him in any way. But he found the Council at Konstanz a hotbed of treachery and intrigue. Besides pope John XXIII—one of three rival popes then struggling for control of the church—the Holy Roman Emperor, thirty cardinals, four patriarchs, thirty three archbishops, one hundred and fifty bishops, several hundred doctors of theology, four electors, twenty four princes and dukes, seventy eight counts, six hundred seventy-six barons, and a multitude of retainers, visitors, and related officials had converged on the city of Konstanz. Numbering around fifty thousand people, most of them had camped around the city.
Shortly after Jan Hus arrived, smooth talking officials lured him into the pope’s quarters where they seized him and locked him into the dungeon of a Dominican monastery. There, after a stormy trial and a public burning of his books, they set a paper cap on his head with the words Hic est Haeresiarcha (This is the Chief of Heretics) and burned him too.
When the news of Jan Hus’s execution drifted into Prague, the city burst out in violent revolution. Jan’s followers drove out the Roman Catholic archbishop, chased the priests away, and under the leadership of a rebel clergyman, Jan Rokycana, began holding mass in the Czech language. Because they used both bread and wine sub utraque specie (the mass in both forms) many Europeans called the Hussite rebels “Utraquists.”
In the country around Prague yet much greater changes took place. Czech people everywhere celebrated their liberty from Rome. Some did so with wild and drunken feasting. Bands of armed men destroyed churches and monasteries, smashing altars and tearing religious paintings from their frames. Others saw their chance to reform the church and society according to what they believed. On a mountain near Bechyně, in southern Bohemia, great crowds began to meet for communion and fellowship meals under the open sky. They called the mountain “Tabor” and set up a “holy government” for themselves, loosely patterned after Old Testament Israel.
By July, 1419, more than forty thousand militant Hussites had gathered on “Mount Tabor” and riots broke out. King Václav IV, a heavy drinker (in spite of his initial support for Jan Hus), died in a fit of rage and King Zikmund, the Holy Roman Emperor who followed him, called a crusade to bring the situation under control.
By fall Bohemia stood in blood. Roman Catholic troops fighting against the Hussites won great victories. At the battle of Kutná Hora so many Hussites fell captive the Catholics grew weary of cutting off their heads and threw 1600 of them—the living with the dead—into an empty silver mine. Then Jan Žižka appeared.
Son of a poor Czech family, one-eyed Jan Žižka, in charge of a motley Hussite-Taborite army—peasants wielding iron tipped flails, clubs, and sickles—faced over one hundred thousand imperial troops at the Witkovberg, east of Prague, on July 14, 1420. Overwhelmed in numbers, but believing themselves on the Lord’s side, they fought like David against Goliath. They blocked the road with hay wagons and turned the Catholics back. Four other crusades against them failed. Joan of Arc’s dire prophecy—threatening them with divine punishment if they did not return to the Catholic church at once—did not come to pass, and after attacks on Austria, Silesia, Bavaria, Hungary, Franconia, and Saxony, the Czech Hussites stood established as the “terror of Europe.”
But they fought among themselves.
When the Utraquists in Prague agreed on a cease-fire with Catholic forces in 1432 (after driving back another 130,000 crusaders under the Margrave of Brandenburg), the Taborites called them traitors. Fierce fighting broke out between them at once, Czechs killing Czechs, all defending Jan Hus’s movement, all fighting “in the name of Christ,” but leaving the rest of Europe to look on in horror as Bohemia became a devastated land.
Under the leadership of a twenty-four-year-old nobleman, Jiří Poděbrady and their unordained archbishop, Jan Rokycana, the Utraquists finally overcame the Taborites and annihilated them by 1452.
Unnoticed by the world, pushing up through the rubble of war in Bohemia’s dark and bloody Hussite Revolution, a seed planted by the Poor came back to life.
In southern Bohemia, not far from Nová Bystřice in the territory of Jindřichův Hradec—where they said Pierre Valdes had died 170 years earlier—a little plant grew and a flower began to bloom again.
For generations, descendants of the Poor in southern Bohemia had lived in quiet obscurity. But when civil war broke out in their midst (“Mount Tabor” sits only a short distance north of Nová Bystřice) they had to get involved on one side or the other—or else take a totally different way.
Not only the Poor, but others in whom events of the time had awoken their consciences, returned to seeking the way of Christ. In a former Benedictine monastery in the south Bohemian town of Vilemov a group began to meet to study the Bible. Vojtěch, the town priest, led their discussions and all made startling discoveries.
Christ’s way was neither Hussite nor Catholic, neither Utraquist nor Taborite. It was the way of peace. Letting loose from the world for eternal gain. Through the Gospels, earnest seekers in southern Bohemia rediscovered their spiritual ancestors: the Poor in Lombardy and southern France, the Albigenses, the Bogomili, and the first Christian church in Asia. Then, in the midst of war and chaos, everything began to make sense!
And Petr Chelčický joined them.
For years Petr had pondered serious issues, at home on his farm near the village of Chelčice. Even though he spent his days working with cattle and hoeing turnips, his mind was not tied to common earthly things. He read much and listened to what people said. Books, all copied by hand in his day, were scarce. But he collected a considerable number and knew the Scriptures well.
Petr did not read to pass the time. He read eagerly, determined to find out what mattered and how things were for real. As he read he also drew conclusions.
In 1420, determined to find out for himself what was happening, he travelled to Prague and listened to the Hussites (the Utraquist group) defending their views in the Bethlehem chapel. What they said did not convince him. “You will not bring the kingdom of heaven to earth,” he told them, “as long as the hell of hatred burns in your hearts.”
Early in his encounter with Christ, Petr had become convinced that all bearing of arms (even arms for self-defence) was wrong. He believed soldiers guilty of “hideous murder” no matter what the war, and that worldly authorities could never be Christian. “Kings and Princes invade the church as wolves among a flock of sheep,” he said, and utterly rejected John Wyclif’s idea that God predestined men to three classes: rulers, clergy, and commoners.
The Hussites, whom Petr quickly identified as “raging locusts,” and the new rulers of Prague about whom he wrote as “red faced, full bellied lords, sitting smugly in their castles” did not take kindly to his criticism. In fact, they soon made it dangerous for him to remain in the capital city and he returned to his south Bohemian farm—but not before a friend had given him a copy of Matěj of Janov’s writings and the book of Dionysius.
Convinced by now that the “learned fools” of Prague had nothing to offer, and further strengthened in his beliefs by what Matěj wrote, Petr turned wholeheartedly to the new believers at Vilemov for fellowship and moral support. After Vojtěch, the converted priest, fell into Roman Catholic hands and was burned at the stake in Budějovice, he also became their leader.
Petr Chelčický did not take his responsibility lightly. As leader of the fellowship at Vilemov he spoke out against all use of force in the name of Christ. Working hard as a farmer, he condemned the laziness and wealth of the nobility, and called for justice for the poor. “One cannot improve society,” he believed, “without first destroying the foundations of the existing social order.”
Writing neatly on parchment, in thick black lines, Petr wrote what he believed in simple words. He wrote in Czech. Book after book appeared from his pen, and even though Hussites and Catholics joined in their condemnation, multitudes of common people begged to hear them read.
Petr wrote like a common man. Largely self-taught, his spelling was not always correct, and when he used the word kopyto (“hoof” in Czech) instead of kapitola (chapter) his enemies did not miss their chance. “Doctor Kopytarum” (hoof doctor) they called him, and made fun of his largest and most significant work The Net of Faith he wrote between 1440 and 1443.
Community at Chelčice
After Petr’s writings became known through Czech lands, the community that formed around him and the brothers at Vilemov attracted many visitors. Peter Payne, a wandering Lollard from England seems to have spent time among them. So did Mikuláš of Pelhřimov, a Taborite bishop, and Martin Húska, leader of a bizarre Hussite cult. Waldensian believers appeared “out of the woodwork” together with other non-Roman-Catholic believers. But no matter who came, or which way the winds of doctrine blew, the brothers resolutely continued with what they had begun.
Wearing long grey robes with cords tied around their waists, they shared their belongings and worshipped Christ in simple services around bread and wine. People called them Pikarts (heretics), but the witness of their lives far outshone the slander circulated about them, and even in Hussite Prague some became seriously interested in what they believed.
No one became more interested than Řehoř, son of a Czech nobleman and nephew to Rokycana, the Hussite archbishop.
Community at Litice
Řehoř, after leaving a monastery in disgust, had begun to meet with a circle of friends in Prague. Not content with the Hussites’ reforms, they longed to go all the way with Christ. When they spoke to Rokycana about it he told them, “You appear to be of the mind of Petr Chelčický!” And to be sure, in the writings of the south Bohemian farmer they discovered a gateway to Christ. Step by step, as their understanding grew, Řehoř and his friends separated themselves from Prague’s ungodliness to live like the first Christians. Řehoř wrote and spoke well. As the vision of a Christ-like community took shape in his mind, he discussed it with his friends and they searched ever more diligently for a way and a place to live it out.
An unexpected door opened for them.
In the mountains of Moravia, south of the road from Hradec Králové (Königgrätz) to Breslau in Silesia, the Hussite general, Jiří Poděbrady, owned a large estate called Litice (Lititz). During the revolution it had suffered neglect. Most of the peasants who lived there moved away. Now Jiří looked for new people to work the estate, and when he learned what Řehoř and his friends looked for, he offered it to them.
They arrived in 1457.
Under the shadow of the old Litice castle they found the peasant village of Kunvald almost deserted. But the few who lived there received them kindly, and the young men and women set to work with a will. On steep fields above the Orlice, roaring and foaming down the canyon, they began to plant crops. They cared for cows and tended bees. From forests high above them they brought wood to repair the houses and build more. Fruit trees in the village began to bear again, after careful pruning, and vegetables thrived in the fertile soil.
But the new settlers at Kunvald set their goal on far more than material prosperity. Slowly, peacefully, they returned to following Christ. One by one they dropped the superfluous ceremonies of the mediaeval church and worked out a brotherly agreement on how to worship. At first they called themselves Fratres Legis Christi (brothers in the law of Christ). But the Czech name Jednota Bratrska (meaning “unity of brothers,” Unitas Fratrum in Latin) eventually became more common.
The believers at Kunvald did not intend to begin a “new group.” They believed the Lord wanted them to let their light shine within Christianity at large. But following the pattern of the community at Chelčice they agreed on a way of life that led to profound ethical separation.
In their “brotherly agreement” they decided not to testify in court, swear oaths, do civil service of any kind, manage inns, or get involved in buying or selling anything more than the bare necessities of life. They also decided that no one among them could hold worldly rank or privilege. No one should make dice, attend or work in a theatre, paint pictures or play music for a living, go to fairs or celebrations of feast days, take interest on money, or be involved with astrology, witchcraft, or alchemy. A very modest type of dress was agreed on, and all were expected to take part in daily prayers and the care of the sick.
Soon after their arrival in Kunvald the community chose twenty-eight men for its leaders. “At that time,” a member wrote, “friend longed for friend and brother for brother, so that more persons continually joined the group and their numbers increased.”2 In 1459 a small group led by an ex-Taborite priest, Štěpánek, joined at Klatov in Moravia. Řehoř travelled continually, visiting interested seekers. Then the quiet Poor—descendants of Waldensian families in southern Bohemia and Moravia’s mountain regions—began to find their way into the new movement, and it grew rapidly to include several thousand members.
With the coming of the Waldensians, Řehoř and his friends at Kunvald, acquired a wealth of practical information on how to operate a Christian community. Even though they had languished for years in spiritual decline,3 the Waldensians remembered how their forefathers had lived. They still treasured what they wrote, and here and there, functioning scholae survived.
This led the believers at Kunvald to an idea.
Little by little, as their walk with Christ matured, their hopes of functioning as a spiritual “church within the church” faded. They saw less of a future all the time for the Czech Hussite movement and began to think seriously of doing things another way. (Up to this point, a Hussite priest had served them communion.)
In 1467, at a general meeting of the brothers near Rýchnov (Reichenau), a day’s journey west of Kunvald, everyone felt the time had come to elect their own leaders and detach themselves from the Hussite church. After prayer and earnest exhortation, they chose their candidates. Then they put twelve slips of paper into a clay pot. Nine of the slips were blank. Three said jest (it is). A little boy pulled them out and gave them to the brothers.
Matěj, a twenty-five-year-old farmer of Kunvald, Tůma Přeloučský, a book keeper, and Eliáš Chřenovický, a miller drew the jest slips. But who would lay hands on them and give them their charge? The brothers knew if anyone of them did it, the Hussites would accuse them fiercely. After considerable discussion they decided to send the three chosen brothers, along with a Waldensian as guide, to the south. There, just across the Austrian border from Nová Bystřice in the territory of Jindřichův Hradec, an old bishop of the Poor, a man named Stefan, ordained them for service in the Lord’s church.
Three cords, coming from Languedoc and Lombardy, from Chelčice, and from Hussite Prague (by way of Kunvald), united—and the test to see how much they would hold together came quickly.
When Rokycana, the Hussite archbishop, and Jiří Poděbrady, the landlord of Litice and Kunvald, heard of the ordinations at Nová Bystřice they were furious—both with the Waldensians and the Unity of Brothers.
In his earlier years Rokycana had spoken in favour of New Testament methods. He had shared many of Řehoř’s concerns about the Hussites. But now that a vigorous new movement, in every way more Christ-like than his own, sprang up around him, he hated it. Preaching against the “new heretics” he stirred up the rulers of Bohemia and Moravia against them.
Old Stefan, the Waldensian bishop, fell into the hands of Roman Catholic authorities that burned him alive in Vienna, in 1467. In Bohemia, the Hussites tortured Jakob Hulava in front of his family and burned him, along with four peasants on the estate of the Baron Zdenek Kostka at Richenburg. Throughout other Czech regions they seized the brothers’ possessions and drove them, with their families, from their homes. But none suffered more than the community at Kunvald itself.
Beginning with the arrest of some of its leaders, left to suffer in the Litice castle dungeons, the settlement built up with so much joy disintegrated in untold grief. Driven from their homes in the middle of winter, many perished in the fields from hunger and cold. Some whom the authorities captured had their hands cut off. Others they dragged along behind horses until they died, or burned at the stake. Hunted like deer, the brothers hid in mountain forests, daring to make fires only at night. When it snowed they moved from place to place in single file, the last one with a branch to obliterate their tracks.
Feeling sorry for them, but not daring to help, residents of the area called them jamnici (cave men). But the brothers did not lose heart. In the forests at night they read from precious Scriptures and prayed. Whenever possible they returned good for evil, and when invited, they even dared make trips to visit seekers in Czech towns.
On a secret trip, of this nature, to Prague, Řehoř finally walked into a trap laid for him by his enemies. Rokycana, determined to “convert” him, had him severely tortured and kept in jail. In response, the brothers wrote him a letter:
Have we deserved the persecutions you have brought upon us? Have we not been your disciples? Have we not followed your own words in refusing to remain in connection with the corrupt church? Is it right to invoke the civil power against us? Civil power is intended for the punishment of those who have broken the laws of society and must be coerced within proper bounds. But it belongs to the heathen world. It is absolutely wrong to use it in matters of faith. . . . Are you not of the world and bound to perish with the world?4
In 1471, within a short time of one another, Rokycana and Jiří Poděbrady died, and persecution let off. Then, cautiously reappearing out of the woods, the believers who survived returned to Kunvald.
More Brothers and Sisters
Not only did the survivors return. Nine years after Rokycana’s death and the end of persecution under the Hussites, the Czech Unity of Brothers received a most significant group of new members. Arriving penniless—hungry children with big eyes, widows in rags, old men pulling carts or pushing wheel-barrows—they were German Waldenses from Königsberg (Chojna) and Angermünde in the province of Brandenburg. In Czech lands they settled in and around Lanškroun east of Litomyšl and around Fulneck on the lands of Jan of Zerotin, between Olomouc (Olmütz) and Moravska Ostrava (Mährisch-Ostrau).5
Through these immigrants and the ordination under old Stefan, the Unity established its “apostolic succession.” Of much greater importance, two hundred and fifty years later, it was through their descendants (who never lost their German language and culture) that the Unity of Brothers survived to burst into magnificent bloom.
1 De Schweinitz, The History of the Church Known as the Unitas Fratrum, pg. 21.
2 Jan Jaffet, in Goliath’s Schwerdt.
3 In southern Germany and Switzerland they had departed even more drastically from Christ’s way than in Czech lands. Under Hussite influence during the 1400s, many of them returned to Italy to reclaim what had been their historic home. There they joined with others of their background in the Cottian Alps and resisted Catholic troops sent to subdue them. Fierce fighting, beginning in 1450, lasted off and on through the remainder of the century. By the 1530s, only a small number survived in fortified mountain strongholds. They made contact with Geneva’s Calvinist Reformers and, in 1532, adopted a confession of faith stating Christians may swear oaths, take interest on money, own private property, hold civil office, and go to war, without sinning. They also accepted Calvinist teaching on predestination and the sovereignty of God. Conflict with the Catholic governments of Italy and France continued, however, until 1848 when they received full civil rights. In the latter part of the nineteenth century some Waldensians from Italy formed a colony in Uruguay. From there they spread to North Carolina and elsewhere. The Waldensian Church today, with headquarters at Torre Pellice in Italy, co-operates closely with other Protestant groups.
4 De Schweinitz, op. cit.
5 Since 1458 the Waldenses of Brandenburg had suffered heavy persecution. In 1479 they sent their leader, a brother named Peter, to establish contact with believers in Bohemia. The following year, four brothers of the Unitas Fratrum set out to visit them, in return. At Kladsko in Bohemia, Hussite officials detained them, but one, a German citizen named Tomáš, from the district of Lanškroun, was allowed to continue on his way. Through this contact the Waldenses of the Brandenburg lowlands decided to move to Czech lands.