Bohemian Brethren

views updated


Members of the Unity of Brethren (Jednota bratrská, Unitas fratrum ) in Bohemia and Moravia, almost all Czech-speaking, and including a later branch in Poland. With the Bible as their rule, interpreted according to the community, they followed a simple, humble life, renouncing violence and recognizing Christ as the only mediator. They held that the sacraments were valid only if administered by a worthy priest to a believer. They denied transubstantiation, having no cult of the Eucharist but admitting the presence of Christ when communion was given. Public faults were to be publicly confessed. The religious songs of the Unity were assigned importance.

The Unity originated in Prague in the early 1450s in the group around the utraquist Archbishop-elect John Rokycana and was led by his nephew Řehoř. Rokycana brought the Brethren into contact with Peter Chelčický, who in a number of writings in Czech (e.g., The Net of Faith) called for a return to primitive Christianity. He viewed the functions of ruler, judge, and soldier as incompatible with the Christian calling; and he rejected oaths, serfdom, and town life. His doctrines were taken over by Rehor's followers, who in 145758 settled at Kunvald in northeastern Bohemia. A church discipline was promulgated in 1464. In 1467, at a meeting at Lhotka (near Rychnov), the group broke with the Utraquists when they drew lots to choose three priests from their midst; these were confirmed by a Waldensian elder. The step brought renewed persecution for nearly 150 years.

At first most Brethren were countryfolk or artisans. But in the 1490s pressure from younger, university educated priests led by lukÁŠ of prague and difficulties due to the Brethren's position toward secular authority caused the Unity to reject this social radicalism. A small minority who split off soon disintegrated.

Lukáš reorganized the Unity, strengthened church discipline, reformulated theology, and wrote constantly in its defense. Soon after his death, Lutheran doctrines found acceptance in the Unity. Their main protagonist was John Augusta. Brethren nobles, who now played an increasingly important role in the Unity, participated in the resistance of the Czech estates in 1547 and provided Ferdinand I with an excuse to suppress the Unity in Bohemia. Some Brethren went into exile in East Prussia and Poland. The Polish Unity worked closely with other Polish Protestants, e.g., the Union of Koźminek (1555) and the Consensus Sandomiriensis (1570). It died out in the 18th century.

In the early 1550s pressure on the Bohemian Unity relaxed. During Augusta's imprisonment (154864) John Blahoslav, historian, humanist, and Biblical scholar, rose to prominence. His Czech version of the NT and that of the OT carried out after his death, together known as the Kralice Bible (157994), is a landmark in Czech literature. The Brethren had now emerged from their cultural isolation. While Augusta strove for Protestant union, Blahoslav believed the Brethren should preserve an independent testimony. Yet by 1575 the Unity had virtually gone over to a Calvinist doctrinal position. As a result of renewed Catholic activity, Brethren and Lutheran-minded neo-Utraquists drew together and composed a common statement of faith: the Confessio Bohemica (1575). In 1609 the Unity obtained full religious freedom with the Letter of Majesty. After the Czech defeat at the White Mountain in 1620, the Unity was suppressed in 162728. Among those who went into exile was the theologian John Amos comenius. Two bodies claim the heritage of the Unity: the moravian church, whose episcopacy derives from the Unity's Polish branch and whose earliest members included descendants of German-speaking Brethren in Moravia; and the Evangelical Czech Brethren Church in the Czech Republic.

Bibliography: r. rÍČan, Dějiny Jedňoty bratrské (Prague 1957), abr. as Die Böhmischen Brüder, tr. b. popelÁŘ (Berlin 1961), with bibliog. j. t. mÜller, Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder, 3 v. (Herrnhut, Ger. 192231). p. brock, The Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren (The Hague 1957). m. spinka, "Peter Chelčický, Spiritual Father of the Unitas Fratrum," Church History 12 (1943) 271291. m. s. fousek, "The Pastoral Office in the Early Unitas Fratrum," Slavonic and East European Review 40 (1962) 444457. y. congar, Catholicisme 2:109111. j. weisskopf, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 2:563565. h. renkewitz, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 1:143539.

[p. brock]