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CHAPTER IX.

THE BRETHREN IN POLAND, 1548–1570.

IT is easy to see what Ferdinand expected. He had no desire to shed more blood; he wished to see Bohemia at peace; he knew that the Brethren, with all their skill, could never sell out in six weeks; and therefore he hoped that, like sensible men, they would abandon their Satanic follies, consider the comfort of their wives and children, and nestle snugly in the bosom of the Church of Rome. But the Brethren had never learned the art of dancing to Ferdinand’s piping. As the King would not extend the time, they took him at his word. The rich came to the help of the poor,3939Gindely’s naïve remark here is too delightful to be lost. He says that the rich Brethren had not been corrupted by their contact with Luther’s teaching, and that, therefore, they still possessed a little of the milk of human kindness for the refreshment of the poor. (See Vol. I. p. 330.) and before the six weeks had flown away a large band of Brethren had bidden a sad farewell to their old familiar haunts and homes, and started on their journey north across the pine-clad hills. From Leitomischl, Chlumitz and Solnic, by way of Frankenstein and Breslau, and from Turnau and Brandeis-on-the-Adler across the Giant Mountains, they marched in two main bodies from Bohemia to Poland. The time was the leafy month of June, and the first part of the journey was pleasant. “We were borne,” says one, “on eagles’ wings.” As they tramped along the country roads, with wagons for the women, old men and children, they made the air ring with the gladsome music of old Brethren’s hymns and their march was more like a triumphal procession than the flight of persecuted refugees. They were nearly two thousand in number. They had hundreds with them, both Catholic and Protestant, to protect them against the mountain brigands. They had guards of infantry and cavalry. They were freed from toll at the turn-pikes. They were supplied with meat, bread, milk and eggs by the simple country peasants. They were publicly welcomed and entertained by the Mayor and Council of Glatz. As the news of their approach ran on before, the good folk in the various towns and villages would sweep the streets and clear the road to let them pass with speed and safety to their desired haven far away. For two months they enjoyed themselves at Posen, and the Polish nobles welcomed them as Brothers; but the Bishop regarded them as wolves in the flock, and had them ordered away. From Posen they marched to Polish Prussia, and were ordered away again; and not till the autumn leaves had fallen and the dark long nights had come did they find a home in the town of Königsberg, in the Lutheran Duchy of East Prussia.

And even there they were almost worried to death. As they settled down as peaceful citizens in this Protestant land of light and liberty, they found, to their horror and dismay, that Lutherans, when it suited their purpose, could be as bigoted as Catholics. They were forced to accept the Confession of Augsburg. They were forbidden to ordain their own priests or practise their own peculiar customs. They were treated, not as Protestant brothers, but as highly suspicious foreigners; and a priest of the Brethren was not allowed to visit a member of his flock unless he took a Lutheran pastor with him. “If you stay with us,” said Speratus, the Superintendent of the East Prussian Lutheran Church, “you must accommodate yourselves to our ways. Nobody sent for you; nobody asked you to come.” If the Brethren, in a word, were to stay in East Prussia, they must cease to be Brethren at all, and allow themselves to be absorbed by the conquering Lutherans of the land.

Meanwhile, however, they had a Moses to lead them out of the desert. George Israel is a type of the ancient Brethren. He was the son of a blacksmith, was a close friend of Augusta, had been with him at Wittenberg, and was now the second great leader of the Brethren. When Ferdinand issued his decree, Israel, like many of the Brethren’s Ministers, was summoned to Prague to answer for his faith and conduct on pain of a fine of one thousand ducats; and when some of his friends advised him to disobey the summons, and even offered to pay the money, he gave one of those sublime answers which light up the gloom of the time. “No,” he replied, “I have been purchased once and for all with the blood of Christ, and will not consent to be ransomed with the gold and silver of my people. Keep what you have, for you will need it in your flight, and pray for me that I may be steadfast in suffering for Jesus.” He went to Prague, confessed his faith, and was thrown into the White Tower. But he was loosely guarded, and one day, disguised as a clerk, with a pen behind his ear, and paper and ink-horn in his hand, he walked out of the Tower in broad daylight through the midst of his guards, and joined the Brethren in Prussia. He was just the man to guide the wandering band, and the Council appointed him leader of the emigrants. He was energetic and brave. He could speak the Polish tongue. He had a clear head and strong limbs. For him a cold lodging in Prussia was not enough. He would lead his Brethren to a better land, and give them nobler work to do.

As the Brethren had already been driven from Poland, the task which Israel now undertook appeared an act of folly. But George Israel knew better. For a hundred years the people of Poland had sympathised to some extent with the reforming movement in Bohemia. There Jerome of Prague had taught. There the teaching of Hus had spread. There the people hated the Church of Rome. There the nobles sent their sons to study under Luther at Wittenberg. There the works of Luther and Calvin had been printed and spread in secret. There, above all, the Queen herself had been privately taught the Protestant faith by her own father-confessor. And there, thought Israel, the Brethren in time would find a hearty welcome. And so, while still retaining the oversight of a few parishes in East Prussia, George Israel, by commission of the Council, set out to conduct a mission in Poland {1551.}. Alone and on horseback, by bad roads and swollen streams, he went on his dangerous journey; and on the fourth Sunday in Lent arrived at the town of Thorn, and rested for the day. Here occurred the famous incident on the ice which made his name remembered in Thorn for many a year to come. As he was walking on the frozen river to try whether the ice was strong enough to bear his horse, the ice broke up with a crash. George Israel was left on a solitary lump, and was swept whirling down the river; and then, as the ice blocks cracked and banged and splintered into thousands of fragments, he sprang like a deer from block to block, and sang with loud exulting voice: “Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps; fire and hail, snow and vapour, stormy wind fulfilling his word.” There was a great crowd on the bank. The people watched the thrilling sight with awe, and when at last he reached firm ground they welcomed him with shouts of joy. We marvel not that such a man was like the sword of Gideon in the conflict. He rode on to Posen, the capital of Great Poland, began holding secret meetings, and established the first evangelical church in the country. The Roman Catholic Bishop heard of his arrival, and put forty assassins on his track. But Israel was a man of many wiles as well as a man of God. He assumed disguises, and changed his clothes so as to baffle pursuit, appearing now as an officer, now as a coachman, now as a cook. He presented himself at the castle of the noble family of the Ostrorogs, was warmly welcomed by the Countess, and held a service in her rooms. The Count was absent, heard the news, and came in a state of fury. He seized a whip. “I will drag my wife out of this conventicle,” he exclaimed; and burst into the room while the service was proceeding, his eyes flashing fire and the whip swinging in his hand. The preacher, Cerwenka, calmly went on preaching. “Sir,” said George Israel, pointing to an empty seat “sit down there.” The Count of Ostrorog meekly obeyed, listened quietly to the discourse, became a convert that very day, turned out his own Lutheran Court Chaplain, installed George Israel in his place, and made a present to the Brethren of his great estate on the outskirts of the town.

For the Brethren the gain was enormous. As the news of the Count’s conversion spread, other nobles quickly followed suit. The town of Ostrorog became the centre of a swiftly growing movement; the poor Brethren in Prussia returned to Poland, and found churches ready for their use; and before seven years had passed away the Brethren had founded forty congregations in this their first land of exile.

They had, however, another great mission to fulfil. As the Brethren spread from town to town, they discovered that the other Protestant bodies—the Lutherans, Zwinglians and Calvinists—were almost as fond of fighting with each other as of denouncing the Church of Rome; and therefore the people, longing for peace, were disgusted more or less with them all. But the Brethren stood on a rather different footing. They were cousins to the Poles in blood; they had no fixed and definite creed; they thought far more of brotherly love than of orthodoxy in doctrine; and therefore the idea was early broached that the Church of the Brethren should be established as the National Church of Poland. The idea grew. The Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists and Brethren drew closer and closer together. They exchanged confessions, discussed each other’s doctrines, met in learned consultations, and held united synods again and again. For fifteen years the glorious vision of a union of all the Protestants in Poland hung like glittering fruit just out of reach. There were many walls in the way. Each church wanted to be the leading church in Poland; each wanted its own confession to be the bond of union; each wanted its own form of service, its own form of government, to be accepted by all. But soon one and all began to see that the time had come for wranglings to cease. The Jesuits were gaining ground in Poland. The Protestant Kingdom must no longer be divided against itself.

At last the Brethren, the real movers of the scheme, persuaded all to assemble in the great United Synod of Sendomir, and all Protestants in Poland felt that the fate of the country depended on the issue of the meeting {1570.}. It was the greatest Synod that had ever been held in Poland. It was an attempt to start a new movement in the history of the Reformation, an attempt to fling out the apple of discord and unite all Protestants in one grand army which should carry the enemy’s forts by storm. At first the goal seemed further off than ever. As the Calvinists were the strongest body, they confidently demanded that their Confession should be accepted, and put forward the telling argument that it was already in use in the country. As the Lutherans were the next strongest body, they offered the Augsburg Confession, and both parties turned round upon the Brethren, and accused them of having so many Confessions that no one knew which to take. And then young Turnovius, the representative of the Brethren, rose to speak. The Brethren, he said, had only one Confession in Poland. They had presented that Confession to the King; they believed that it was suited best to the special needs of the country, and yet they would accept the Calvinists’ Confession as long as they might keep their own as well.

There was a deadlock. What was to be done? The Brethren’s work seemed about to come to nought. Debates and speeches were in vain. Each party remained firm as a rock. And then, in wondrous mystic wise, the tone of the gathering softened.

“For God’s sake, for God’s sake,” said the Palatine of Sendomir in his speech, “remember what depends upon the result of our deliberations, and incline your hearts to that harmony and love which the Lord has commanded us to follow above all things.”

As the Palatine ended his speech he burst into tears. His friend, the Palatine of Cracow, sobbed aloud. Forthwith the angry clouds disparted and revealed the bow of peace, the obstacles to union vanished, and the members of the Synod agreed to draw up a new Confession, which should give expression to the united faith of all. The Confession was prepared {April 14th.}. It is needless to trouble about the doctrinal details. For us the important point to notice is the spirit of union displayed. For the first, but not for the last, time in the history of Poland the Evangelical Protestants agreed to sink their differences on points of dispute, and unite their forces in common action against alike the power of Rome and the Unitarian4040The Unitarians were specially strong in Poland. sects of the day. The joy was universal. The scene in the hall at Sendomir was inspiring. When the Committee laid the Confession before the Synod all the members arose and sang the Ambrosian Te Deum. With outstretched hands the Lutherans advanced to meet the Brethren, and with outstretched hands the Brethren advanced to meet the Lutherans. The next step was to make the union public. For this purpose the Brethren, a few weeks later, formed a procession one Sunday morning and attended service at the Lutheran Church; and then, in the afternoon, the Lutherans attended service in the Church of the Brethren {May 28th, 1570.}. It is hard to believe that all this was empty show. And yet the truth must be confessed that this “Union of Sendomir” was by no means the beautiful thing that some writers have imagined. It was the result, to a very large extent, not of any true desire for unity, but rather of an attempt on the part of the Polish nobles to undermine the influence and power of the clergy. It led to no permanent union of the Protestants in Poland. Its interest is sentimental rather than historic. For the time—but for a very short time only—the Brethren had succeeded in teaching others a little charity of spirit, and had thus shown their desire to hasten the day when the Churches of Christ, no longer asunder, shall know “how good and how pleasant it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity.”

And all this—this attempt at unity, this second home for the Brethren, this new Evangelical movement in Poland—was the strange result of the edict issued by Ferdinand, King of Bohemia.


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