The Hussite Wars
When the Council of Constance executed Jan Hus in 1415, his followers in Bohemia were outraged. They protested to the Council. Sigismund of Hungary, the head of the Holy Roman Empire and brother to King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, had been convinced by the Council that Hus was a heretic, and he was determined to stamp out Hus’s ideas. He threatened to cross the border with his army and drown all followers of Hus or Wycliffe that he could find. This further angered the Bohemians.
The situation deteriorated until on July 30, 1419, a Hussite procession broke into New Town Hall in Prague and threw a number of government officials out of an upper story window, killing several of them. This was the First Defenestration of Prague and signaled the beginning of the Hussite Wars.
Wenceslaus died shortly after the defenestration and was succeeded by his brother Sigismund of Hungary. Sigismund asked Martin V, the new pope elected by the Council of Constance, to declare a crusade against the Hussites. A vast army from all over Europe marched into Bohemia and besieged Prague, but the attacking force soon fell apart. The Hussites captured Sigismund’s fortresses, and the crusade ended as a failure.
Four more crusades were called against the followers of Hus in Bohemia, and all of them ended in disaster. The Hussite forces consistently defeated every army sent against them and even raided across Germany as far as the Baltic without losing a single major battle.
They managed to do this despite two major liabilities. First, they were divided into competing factions. The more radical wing of the Hussites became known as the Taborites after the city of Tabor which grew where they had their headquarters. They believed in only two sacraments, baptism and communion, and enforced a puritanical morality and military discipline among their followers. They also operated completely on democratic lines, which made the neighboring territories in the Holy Roman Empire very nervous. The moderate Hussites were known as Ultraquists or Calixtines. They were much closer to Catholic practice but insisted that the laity receive both bread and wine in communion.
The Taborites and Calixtines managed to agree on four demands, known as the Four Articles of Prague: The Word of God was to be preached freely in Bohemia; the laity was to receive communion “in both kinds”; clergy were to give up secular authority and wealth and live in evangelical poverty; and mortal sins were to be proscribed and punished by the appropriate authorities.
Despite their agreement on these points, the two sides fought each other regularly between crusades, even to the point of civil war.
Their second liability was that their armies consisted overwhelmingly of untrained peasants who were fighting professional soldiers. Fortunately, Jan Žižka, the leader of the Taborites, was a military genius of the first order. He adopted weaponry that was easy to use and developed a tactical system that consistently defeated every army that was sent against him.
After Žižka’s death, the Calixtines destroyed the Taborite army and thus emerged as the unchallenged leaders of the Hussite movement. They were more open to negotiation than the Taborites had been, and in the face of their consistent defeats of the crusading armies, the Catholic Church was forced to give major concessions to Bohemia. It signed the Compacts of Basel, giving in on the Four Articles of Prague and in effect allowing the Bohemians their own national church.
The Unity of Brethren
In 1457, a group broke off from the main body of Hussites. These were influenced by the Taborites, but held to a strict interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, including pacifism, not swearing oaths, and not accumulating wealth. They thus considered themselves separate from the majority Hussites, and with the help of the Waldensians—another medieval reform group labeled heretics by the Catholic Church—set up their own bishop and system of ordination.
By 1500, 90 percent of the population of Bohemia, including most of the nobility, were involved in a Hussite church, either under the Compacts of Basel or the Unity of Brethren. They translated the Bible into Czech, with an impact on the language like that of the King James Bible on English, and established schools in every town in Bohemia.
With the Protestant Reformation, many of the Hussites became followers of Luther or Calvin; in fact, in the Czech Republic today the Hussites are considered the first Protestants. However, when the 30 Years’ War broke out (due to the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618), Catholic armies destroyed the Bohemian army at the Battle of White Mountain (1620), and the kingdom was forcibly re-Catholicized. Protestant schools were closed, Protestant noblemen executed or exiled, and in the course of the war the kingdom lost nearly three quarters of its population.
The Moravian Brethren
The Unity of Brethren did not go away, however. Many went into exile across northern Europe, though some stayed underground in the borderlands between Moravia and Silesia. In the face of ongoing persecution, in 1720 these underground churches contacted Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Pietist known for helping those in need, and asked for permission to settle on his estates. He agreed, and so they moved to Germany and established the town of Herrnhut on Zinzendorf’s property.
Unfortunately, the town was soon divided into factions over theological differences that threatened to tear the refugees apart. Zinzendorf intervened and helped restore unity to the town through the “Brotherly Agreement” adopted by the Moravians on May 12, 1727. Then on August 13, the group experienced a renewal that they compared to Pentecost, in which they “learned to love one another.” This marked the beginning of the Renewed Unity of the Brethren, also known as the Moravian Brethren or the Moravian Church.
On August 27, 1727, two weeks after the renewal, 24 men and 24 women agreed to spend an hour each day in scheduled prayer, covering all 24 hours in the day, seven days a week. The idea soon grew, and the practice of continuous prayer went on nonstop for over one hundred years.
Out of this prayer meeting, the Moravians felt called to engage in foreign missions. England and other Protestant countries had engaged in limited mission activity in their own colonies; this was the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement not connected to colonization. Within 65 years they had sent 300 missionaries across the world, including North and South America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Arctic. They were the first to evangelize slaves, even in some cases selling themselves into slavery so they could reach them. The Moravians were also the first to send laypeople into the mission field, rather than just ministers.
Moravian missionaries were central to the conversion of John Wesley. He first encountered the Moravians on a voyage to Georgia. Wesley was impressed with their deep piety and faith. At one point, in a storm, the ship’s mast broke. While all the English were panicking, the Moravians calmly prayed and sang hymns. When Wesley returned to England, he sought out the Moravians, and at one of their meetings at Aldersgate, Wesley “felt [his] heart strangely warmed” and he had his conversion experience. From there, he worked with the Moravians for several years until he decided that their approach to Christianity was not active enough. He accused them unfairly of being antinomians and quietists who neither worshiped nor did good works until they felt moved by the Spirit. For their part, the Moravians decided not to respond to Wesley’s public accusations against them.
The Moravians thus played a critical role in triggering the Wesleyan Revival, in the start of Methodism, in the beginnings of British evangelicalism, and therefore in everything that comes from those movements.
In the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the Daily Watchwords, a set of Old and New Testament Bible readings that the Moravians have been producing since 1731, for his devotions. They thus helped shape his piety as well. Daily Watchwords is one part of a rich liturgical tradition the Moravians developed out of their belief that all of life was to be an act of worship to God. They have a particularly profound tradition of sacred music, often accompanied not only by organs but by strings, brass bands, even trombone choirs.
Despite his execution in 1415, Hus and his followers have had an outsized impact on church history—yet they remain largely unknown and forgotten or, in the case of Wesley, maligned. Their legacy continues, however, and their example can challenge and inspire us if we take the time to learn about them.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.