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CHAPTER VII.

THE BRETHREN AT HOME.

AS we have now arrived at that bend in the lane, when the Brethren, no longer marching alone, became a regiment in the conquering Protestant army, it will be convenient to halt in our story and look at the Brethren a little more closely—at their homes, their trades, their principles, their doctrines, their forms of service, and their life from day to day. After all, what were these Brethren, and how did they live?

They called themselves Jednota Bratrska—i.e., the Church of the Brethren. As this word “Jednota” means union, and is used in this sense in Bohemia at the present day, it is possible that the reader may think that instead of calling the Brethren a Church, we ought rather to call them the Union or Unity of the Brethren. If he does, however, he will be mistaken. We have no right to call the Brethren a mere Brotherhood or Unity. They regarded themselves as a true apostolic Church. They believed that their episcopal orders were valid. They called the Church of Rome a Jednota;2424Jednota Rimska. they called the Lutheran Church a Jednota;2525Jednota Lutherianska. For the Church Universal they used another word: Cirkey, meaning thereby all those elected by God. they called themselves a Jednota; and, therefore, if the word Jednota means Church when applied to Lutherans and Roman Catholics, it must also mean Church when applied to the Bohemian Brethren. It is not correct to call them the Unitas Fratrum. The term is misleading. It suggests a Brotherhood rather than an organized Church. We have no right to call them a sect; the term is a needless insult to their memory.2626I desire to be explicit on this point. It is, of course, true enough that when the Brethren in later years began to use the Latin language they used the term “Unitas Fratrum” as the equivalent of Jednota Bratrska, but in so doing they made an excusable blunder. The translation “Unitas Fratrum” is misleading. It is etymologically correct, and historically false. If a Latin term is to be used at all, it would be better to say, as J. Müller suggests, “Societas Fratrum,” or, better still, in my judgment, “Ecclesia Fratrum.” But of all terms to describe the Brethren the most offensive is “sect.” It is inconsistent for the same writer to speak of the “sect” of the Bohemian Brethren and of the “Church” of Rome. If the Roman Communion is to be described as a “Church,” the same term, in common courtesy, should be applied to the Brethren. As the Brethren settled in the Valley of Kunwald, the great object which they set before them was to recall to vigorous life the true Catholic Church of the Apostles; and as soon as they were challenged by their enemies to justify their existence, they replied in good set terms.

“Above all things,” declared the Brethren, at a Synod held in 1464, “we are one in this purpose. We hold fast the faith of the Lord Christ. We will abide in the righteousness and love of God. We will trust in the living God. We will do good works. We will serve each other in the spirit of love. We will lead a virtuous, humble, gentle, sober, patient and pure life; and thereby shall we know that we hold the faith in truth, and that a home is prepared for us in heaven. We will show obedience to one another, as the Holy Scriptures command. We will take from each other instruction, reproof and punishment, and thus shall we keep the covenant established by God through the Lord Christ.”2727De Schweinitz. (p. 126) actually sees in this passage the doctrine of justification by faith. I confess that I do not. To this purpose the Brethren held firm. In every detail of their lives—in business, in pleasure, in civil duties—they took the Sermon on the Mount as the lamp unto their feet. From the child to the old man, from the serf to the lord, from the acoluth to the bishop, the same strict law held good. What made the Brethren’s Church shine so brightly in Bohemia before Luther’s days was not their doctrine, but their lives; not their theory, but their practice; not their opinions, but their discipline. Without that discipline they would have been a shell without a kernel. It called forth the admiration of Calvin, and drove Luther to despair. It was, in truth, the jewel of the Church, her charm against foes within and without; and so great a part did it play in their lives that in later years they were known to some as “Brethren of the Law of Christ.”

No portion of the Church was more carefully watched than the ministers. As the chief object which the Brethren set before them was obedience to the Law of Christ, it followed, as the night the day, that the chief quality required in a minister was not theological learning, but personal character. When a man came forward as a candidate for the ministry he knew that he would have to stand a most searching examination. His character and conduct were thoroughly sifted. He must have a working knowledge of the Bible, a blameless record, and a living faith in God. For classical learning the Brethren had an honest contempt. It smacked too much of Rome and monkery. As long as the candidate was a holy man, and could teach the people the plain truths of the Christian faith, they felt that nothing more was required, and did not expect him to know Greek and Hebrew. In vain Luther, in a friendly letter, urged them to cultivate more knowledge. “We have no need,” they replied, “of teachers who understand other tongues, such as Greek and Hebrew. It is not our custom to appoint ministers who have been trained at advanced schools in languages and fine arts. We prefer Bohemians and Germans who have come to a knowledge of the truth through personal experience and practical service, and who are therefore qualified to impart to others the piety they have first acquired themselves. And here we are true to the law of God and the practice of the early Church.”2828This letter was probably written by Luke of Prague. Instead of regarding learning as an aid to faith, they regarded it as an hindrance and a snare. It led, they declared, to wordy battles, to quarrels, to splits, to uncertainties, to doubts, to corruptions. As long, they said, as the ministers of the Church of Christ were simple and unlettered men, so long was the Church a united body of believers; but as soon as the parsons began to be scholars, all sorts of evils arose. What good, they argued, had learning done in the past? It had caused the translation of the Bible into Latin, and had thus hidden its truths from the common people. “And therefore,” they insisted, “we despise the learning of tongues.”

For this narrow attitude they had also another reason. In order to be true to the practice of the early Christian Church, they laid down the strict rule that all ministers should earn their living by manual labour; and the result was that even if a minister wished to study he could not find time to do so. For his work as a minister he never received a penny. If a man among the Brethren entered the ministry, he did so for the pure love of the work. He had no chance of becoming rich. He was not allowed to engage in a business that brought in large profits. If he earned any more in the sweat of his brow than he needed to make ends meet, he was compelled to hand the surplus over to the general funds of the Church; and if some one kindly left him some money, that money was treated in the same way. He was to be as moderate as possible in eating and drinking; he was to avoid all gaudy show in dress and house; he was not to go to fairs and banquets; and, above all, he was not to marry except with the consent and approval of the Elders. Of marriage the Brethren had rather a poor opinion. They clung still to the old Catholic view that it was less holy than celibacy. “It is,” they said, “a good thing if two people find that they cannot live continent without it.” If a minister married he was not regarded with favour; he was supposed to have been guilty of a fleshly weakness; and it is rather sarcastically recorded in the old “Book of the Dead” that in every case in which a minister failed in his duties, or was convicted of immorality, the culprit was a married man.

And yet, for all his humble style, the minister was held in honour. As the solemn time of ordination drew near there were consultations of ministers with closed doors, and days set apart for fasting and prayer throughout the whole Church. His duties were many and various. He was commonly spoken of, not as a priest, but as the “servant” of the Church. He was not a priest in the Romish sense of the word. He had no distinctive sacerdotal powers. He had no more power to consecrate the Sacrament than any godly layman. Of priests as a separate class the Brethren knew nothing. All true believers in Christ, said they, were priests. We can see this from one of their regulations. As the times were stormy, and persecution might break out at any moment, the Brethren (at a Synod in 1504) laid down the rule that when their meetings at Church were forbidden they should be held in private houses, and then, if a minister was not available, any godly layman was authorised to conduct the Holy Communion.2929Müller’s Katechismen, page 231. And thus the minister was simply a useful “servant.” He gave instruction in Christian doctrine. He heard confessions. He expelled sinners. He welcomed penitents. He administered the Sacraments. He trained theological students. If he had the needful gift, he preached; if not, he read printed sermons. He was not a ruler lording it over the flock; he was rather a “servant” bound by rigid rules. He was not allowed to select his own topics for sermons; he had to preach from the Scripture lesson appointed for the day. He was bound to visit every member of his congregation at least once a quarter; he was bound to undertake any journey or mission, however dangerous, at the command of the Elders; and he was bound, for a fairly obvious reason, to take a companion with him when he called at the houses of the sick. If he went alone he might practise as a doctor, and give dangerous medical advice; and that, said the Brethren, was not his proper business. He was not allowed to visit single women or widows. If he did, there might be scandals about him, as there were about the Catholic priests. For the spiritual needs of all unmarried women the Brethren made special provision. They were visited by a special “Committee of Women,” and the minister was not allowed to interfere.

The good man did not even possess a home of his own. Instead of living in a private manse he occupied a set of rooms in a large building known as the Brethren’s House; and the minister, as the name implies, was not the only Brother in it. “As Eli had trained Samuel, as Elijah had trained Elisha, as Christ had trained His disciples, as St. Paul trained Timothy and Titus,” so a minister of the Brethren had young men under his charge. There, under the minister’s eye, the candidates for service in the Church were trained. Neither now nor at any period of their history had the Bohemian Brethren any theological colleges. If a boy desired to become a minister he entered the Brethren’s House at an early age, and was there taught a useful trade. Let us look at the inmates of the House.

First in order, next to the Priest himself, were the Deacons. They occupied a double position. They were in the first stage of priesthood, and in the last stage of preparation for it. Their duties were manifold. They supplied the out-preaching places. They repeated the pastor’s sermon to those who had not been able to attend the Sunday service. They assisted at the Holy Communion in the distribution of the bread and wine. They preached now and then in the village Church to give their superior an opportunity for criticism and correction. They managed the domestic affairs of the house. They acted as sacristans or churchwardens. They assisted in the distribution of alms, and took their share with the minister in manual labour; and then, in the intervals between these trifling duties, they devoted their time to Bible study and preparation for the ministry proper. No wonder they never became very scholarly pundits; and no wonder that when they went off to preach their sermons had first to be submitted to the head of the house for approval.

Next to the Deacons came the Acoluths, young men or boys living in the same building and preparing to be Deacons. They were trained by the minister, very often from childhood upwards. They rang the bell and lighted the candles in the Church, helped the Deacons in household arrangements, and took turns in conducting the household worship. Occasionally they were allowed to deliver a short address in the Church, and the congregation “listened with kindly forbearance.” When they were accepted by the Synod as Acoluths they generally received some Biblical name, which was intended to express some feature in the character. It is thus that we account for such names as Jacob Bilek and Amos Comenius.

Inside this busy industrial hive the rules were rigid. The whole place was like a boarding-school or college. At the sound of a bell all rose, and then came united prayer and Scripture reading; an hour later a service, and then morning study. As the afternoon was not considered a good time for brain work, the Brethren employed it in manual labour, such as weaving, gardening and tailoring. In the evening there was sacred music and singing. At meal times the Acoluths recited passages of Scripture, or read discourses, or took part in theological discussions.

No one could leave the house without the pastor’s permission, and the pastor himself could not leave his parish without the Bishop’s permission. If he travelled at all he did so on official business, and then he lodged at other Brethren’s Houses, when the Acoluths washed his feet and attended to his personal comforts.

The Brethren’s rules struck deeper still. As the Brethren despised University education, it is natural to draw the plain conclusion that among them the common people were the most benighted and ignorant in the land. The very opposite was the case. Among them the common people were the most enlightened in the country. Of the Bohemian people, in those days, there were few who could read or write; of the Brethren there was scarcely one who could not. If the Brethren taught the people nothing else, they at least taught them to read their native tongue; and their object in this was to spread the knowledge of the Bible, and thus make the people good Protestants. But in those days a man who could read was regarded as a prodigy of learning. The result was widespread alarm. As the report gained ground that among the Brethren the humblest people could read as well as the priest, the good folk in Bohemia felt compelled to concoct some explanation, and the only explanation they could imagine was that the Brethren had the special assistance of the devil.3030This was actually reported to the Pope as a fact by his agent, Henry Institoris. See Müller’s Katechismen, p. 319. If a man, said they, joined the ranks of the Brethren, the devil immediately taught him the art of reading, and if, on the other hand, he deserted the Brethren, the devil promptly robbed him of the power, and reduced him again to a wholesome benighted condition. “Is it really true,” said Baron Rosenberg to his dependant George Wolinsky, “that the devil teaches all who become Picards to read, and that if a peasant leaves the Brethren he is able to read no longer?”

In this instance, however, the devil was innocent. The real culprit was Bishop Luke of Prague. Of all the services rendered by Luke to the cause of popular education and moral and spiritual instruction, the greatest was his publication of his “Catechism for Children,” commonly known as “The Children’s Questions.” It was a masterly and comprehensive treatise. It was published first, of course, in the Bohemian language {1502.}. It was published again in a German edition for the benefit of the German members of the Church {1522.}. It was published again, with some alterations, by a Lutheran at Magdeburg {1524.}. It was published again, with more alterations, by another Lutheran, at Wittenberg {1525.}. It was published again, in abridged form, at Zürich, and was recommended as a manual of instruction for the children at St. Gallen {1527.}. And thus it exercised a profound influence on the whole course of the Reformation, both in Germany and in Switzerland. For us, however, the point of interest is its influence in Bohemia and Moravia. It was not a book for the priests. It was a book for the fathers of families. It was a book found in every Brother’s home. It was the children’s “Reader.” As the boys and girls grew up in the Brethren’s Church, they learned to read, not in national schools, but in their own homes; and thus the Brethren did for the children what ought to have been done by the State. Among them the duties of a father were clearly defined. He was both a schoolmaster and a religious instructor. He was the priest in his own family. He was to bring his children up in the Christian faith. He was not to allow them to roam at pleasure, or play with the wicked children of the world. He was to see that they were devout at prayers, respectful in speech, and noble and upright in conduct. He was not to allow brothers and sisters to sleep in the same room, or boys and girls to roam the daisied fields together. He was not to strike his children with a stick or with his fists. If he struck them at all, he must do so with a cane. Above all, he had to teach his children the Catechism. They were taught by their parents until they were twelve years old; they were then taken in hand by their sponsors; and thus they were prepared for Confirmation, not as in the Anglican Church, by a clergyman only, but partly by their own parents and friends.

The Brethren’s rules struck deeper still. For law and order the Brethren had a passion. Each congregation was divided into three classes: the Beginners, those who were learning the “Questions” and the first elements of religion; the Proficients, the steady members of the Church; and the Perfect, those so established in faith, hope and love as to be able to enlighten others. For each class a separate Catechism was prepared. At the head, too, of each congregation was a body of civil Elders. They were elected by the congregation from the Perfect. They assisted the pastor in his parochial duties. They looked after his support in case he were in special need. They acted as poor-law guardians, lawyers, magistrates and umpires, and thus they tried to keep the people at peace and prevent them from going to law. Every three months they visited the houses of the Brethren, and inquired whether business were honestly conducted, whether family worship were held, whether the children were properly trained. For example, it was one of the duties of a father to talk with his children at the Sunday dinner-table on what they had heard at the morning service; and when the Elder paid his quarterly visit he soon discovered, by examining the children, how far this duty had been fulfilled.

The Brethren’s rules struck deeper still. For the labourer in the field, for the artizan in the workshop, for the tradesman with his wares, for the baron and his tenants, for the master and his servants, there were laws and codes to suit each case, and make every trade and walk in life serve in some way to the glory of God. Among the Brethren all work was sacred. If a man was not able to show that his trade was according to the law of Christ and of direct service to His holy cause, he was not allowed to carry it on at all. He must either change his calling or leave the Church. In the Brethren’s Church there were no dice makers, no actors, no painters, no professional musicians, no wizards or seers, no alchemists, no astrologers, no courtezans or panderers. The whole tone was stern and puritanic. For art, for music, for letters and for pleasure the Brethren had only contempt, and the fathers were warned against staying out at night and frequenting the card-room and the liquor-saloon. And yet, withal, these stern Brethren were kind and tender-hearted. If the accounts handed down are to be believed, the villages where the Brethren settled were the homes of happiness and peace. As the Brethren had no definite social policy, they did not, of course, make any attempt to break down the distinctions of rank; and yet, in their own way, they endeavoured to teach all classes to respect each other. They enjoined the barons to allow their servants to worship with them round the family altar. They urged the rich to spend their money on the poor instead of on dainties and fine clothes. They forbade the poor to wear silk, urged them to be patient, cheerful and industrious, and reminded them that in the better land their troubles would vanish like dew before the rising sun. For the poorest of all, those in actual need, they had special collections several times a year. The fund was called the Korbona, and was managed by three officials. The first kept the box, the second the key, the third the accounts. And the rich and poor had all to bow to the same system of discipline. There were three degrees of punishment. For the first offence the sinner was privately admonished. For the second he was rebuked before the Elders, and excluded from the Holy Communion until he repented. For the third he was denounced in the Church before the whole congregation, and the loud “Amen” of the assembled members proclaimed his banishment from the Brethren’s Church.

The system of government was Presbyterian. At the head of the whole Brethren’s Church was a board, called the “Inner Council,” elected by the Synod. Next came the Bishops, elected also by the Synod. The supreme authority was this General Synod. It consisted of all the ministers. As long as the Inner Council held office they were, of course, empowered to enforce their will; but the final court of appeal was the Synod, and by the Synod all questions of doctrine and policy were settled.

The doctrine was simple and broad. As the Brethren never had a formal creed, and never used their “Confessions of Faith” as tests, it may seem a rather vain endeavour to inquire too closely into their theological beliefs. And yet, on the other hand, we know enough to enable the historian to paint a life-like picture. For us the important question is, what did the Brethren teach their children? If we know what the Brethren taught their children we know what they valued most; and this we have set before us in the Catechism drawn up by Luke of Prague and used as an authorised manual of instruction in the private homes of the Brethren. It contained no fewer than seventy-six questions. The answers are remarkably full, and therefore we may safely conclude that, though it was not an exhaustive treatise, it gives us a wonderfully clear idea of the doctrines which the Brethren prized most highly. It is remarkable both for what it contains and for what it does not contain. It has no distinct and definite reference to St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. It is Johannine rather than Pauline in its tone. It contains a great deal of the teaching of Christ and a very little of the teaching of St. Paul. It has more to say about the Sermon on the Mount than about any system of dogmatic theology. For one sentence out of St. Paul’s Epistles it has ten out of the Gospel of St. Matthew. As we read the answers in this popular treatise, we are able to see in what way the Brethren differed from the Lutheran Protestants in Germany. They approached the whole subject of Christian life from a different point of view. They were less dogmatic, less theological, less concerned about accurate definition, and they used their theological terms in a broader and freer way. For example, take their definition of faith. We all know the definition given by Luther. “There are,” said Luther, “two kinds of believing: first, a believing about God which means that I believe that what is said of God is true. This faith is rather a form of knowledge than a faith. There is, secondly, a believing in God which means that I put my trust in Him, give myself up to thinking that I can have dealings with Him, and believe without any doubt that He will be and do to me according to the things said of Him. Such faith, which throws itself upon God, whether in life or in death, alone makes a Christian man.” But the Brethren gave the word faith a richer meaning. They made it signify more than trust in God. They made it include both hope and love. They made it include obedience to the Law of Christ.

“What is faith in the Lord God?” was one question in the Catechism.

“It is to know God, to know His word; above all, to love Him, to do His commandments, and to submit to His will.”

“What is faith in Christ?”

“It is to listen to His word, to know Him, to honour Him, to love Him and to join the company of His followers.”3131From the German edition of 1522; printed in full in Müller’s “Die deutschen Katechismen der Böhmischen Brüder.”

And this is the tone all through the Catechism and in all the early writings of the Brethren. As a ship, said Luke, is not made of one plank, so a Christian cannot live on one religious doctrine. The Brethren had no pet doctrines whatever. They had none of the distinctive marks of a sect. They taught their children the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Eight Beatitudes, and the “Six Commandments” of the Sermon on the Mount. They taught the orthodox Catholic doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Birth. They held, they said, the universal Christian faith. They enjoined the children to honour, but not worship, the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and they warned them against the adoration of pictures. If the Brethren had any peculiarity at all, it was not any distinctive doctrine, but rather their insistence on the practical duties of the believer. With Luther, St. Paul’s theology was foremost; with the Brethren (though not denied) it fell into the background. With Luther the favourite court of appeal was St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians; with the Brethren it was rather the Sermon on the Mount and the tender Epistles of St. John.

Again the Brethren differed from Luther in their doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. As this subject was then the fruitful source of much discussion and bloodshed, the Brethren at first endeavoured to avoid the issue at stake by siding with neither of the two great parties and falling back on the simple words of Scripture. “Some say,” they said, “it is only a memorial feast, that Christ simply gave the bread as a memorial. Others say that the bread is really the body of Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God. We reject both these views; they were not taught by Christ Himself. And if anyone asks us to say in what way Christ is present in the sacrament, we reply that we have nothing to say on the subject. We simply believe what He Himself said, and enjoy what He has given.”3232Compare our Queen Elizabeth’s view:—Christ was the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, And what that Word did make it, That I believe, and take it.

But this attitude could not last for ever. As the storms of persecution raged against them, the Brethren grew more and more radical in their views. They denied the doctrine of Transubstantiation; they denied also the Lutheran doctrine of Consubstantiation; they denied that the words in St. John’s Gospel about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ had any reference to the Lord’s Supper. They took the whole passage in a purely spiritual sense. If those words, said Bishop Luke, referred to the Sacrament, then all Catholics, except the priests, would be lost; for Catholics only ate the flesh and did not drink the blood, and could, therefore, not possess eternal life. They denied, in a word, that the Holy Communion had any value apart from the faith of the believer; they denounced the adoration of the host as idolatry; and thus they adopted much the same position as Wycliffe in England nearly two hundred years before. The Lord Christ, they said, had three modes of existence. He was present bodily at the right hand of God; He was present spiritually in the heart of every believer; He was present sacramentally, but not personally, in the bread and wine; and, therefore, when the believer knelt in prayer, he must kneel, not to the bread and wine, but only to the exalted Lord in Heaven.

Again, the Brethren differed from Luther in their doctrine of Infant Baptism. If a child, said Luther, was prayed for by the Church, he was thereby cleansed from his unbelief, delivered from the power of the devil, and endowed with faith; and therefore the child was baptised as a believer.3333Letter to the Brethren, 1523. The Brethren rejected this teaching. They called it Romish. They held that no child could be a believer until he had been instructed in the faith. They had no belief in baptismal regeneration. With them Infant Baptism had quite a different meaning. It was simply the outward and visible sign of admission to the Church. As soon as the child had been baptised, he belonged to the class of the Beginners, and then, when he was twelve years old, he was taken by his godfather to the minister, examined in his “Questions,” and asked if he would hold true to the faith he had been taught. If he said “Yes!” the minister struck him in the face, to teach him that he would have to suffer for Christ; and then, after further instruction, he was confirmed by the minister, admitted to the communion, and entered the ranks of the Proficient.

Such, then, was the life, and such were the views, of the Bohemian Brethren. What sort of picture does all this bring before us? It is the picture of a body of earnest men, united, not by a common creed, but rather by a common devotion to Christ, a common reverence for Holy Scripture, and a common desire to revive the customs of the early Christian Church.3434There is no doubt whatever on this last point. If the student will consult any standard work on the history of the early Christian Church, he will see how closely the institutions of the Brethren were modelled on the institutions of the first three centuries as pourtrayed, not only in the New Testament, but also in such documents as the Didache, the Canons of Hippolytus, and the Apostolic Constitutions. For English readers the best guide is T. M. Lindsay’s The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries; and the following references will be of special interest: (1) For the Brethren’s conception of priesthood, see p. 35; (2) for their rule that the clergy should learn a trade, p. 203; (3) for their ministry of women, p. 181; (4) for their contempt of learning, p. 182; (5) for their preference for unmarried ministers, p. 179; (6) for the term “Brotherhood” (Jednota) a synonym for “Church,” p. 21; (7) for Acoluths and their duties, p. 355; (8) for their system of discipline, Matthew xviii. 15–17; (9) for Beginners, Proficients, and Perfect—(a) Heb. v. 13, (b) Heb. v. 14, vi. 1, (c) 1 Cor. ii. 6, 2 Cor. vii. 1, Rom. xv. 14, Philipp iii. 15. In some of their views they were narrow, in others remarkably broad. In some points they had still much to learn; in others they were far in advance of their times, and anticipated the charitable teaching of the present day.


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