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A History of the Moravian Church

by 'Joseph Edmund Hutton'

Book 1 — The Bohemian Brethren. 1457-1673

Chapter 14 — The Downfall, 1616-1621

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THE dream of bliss became a nightmare. As the tide of Protestantism ebbed and flowed in various parts of the Holy Roman Empire, so the fortunes of the Brethren ebbed and flowed in the old home of their fathers. We have seen how the Brethren rose to prosperity and power. We have now to see what brought about their ruin. It was nothing in the moral character of the Brethren themselves. It was purely and simply their geographical position. If Bohemia had only been an island, as Shakespeare seems to have thought it was, it is more than likely that the Church of the Brethren would have flourished there down to the present day. But Bohemia lay in the very heart of European politics; the King was always a member of the House of Austria; the House of Austria was the champion of the Catholic faith, and the Brethren now were crushed to powder in the midst of that mighty European conflict known as the Thirty Years' War. We note briefly the main stages of the process.

The first cause was the rising power of the Jesuits. For the last fifty years these zealous men had been quietly extending their influence in the country. They had built a magnificent college in Prague. They had established a number of schools for the common people. They had obtained positions as tutors in noble families. They went about from village to village, preaching, sometimes in the village churches and sometimes in the open air; and one of their number, Wenzel Sturm, had written an exhaustive treatise denouncing the doctrines of the Brethren. But now these Jesuits used more violent measures. They attacked the Brethren in hot, abusive language. They declared that the wives of Protestant ministers were whores. They denounced their children as bastards. They declared that it was better to have the devil in the house than a Protestant woman. And the more they preached, and the more they wrote, the keener the party feeling in Bohemia grew.

The next cause was the Letter of Majesty itself. As soon as that Letter was closely examined, a flaw was found in the crystal. We come to what has been called the "Church Building Difficulty." It was clearly provided in one clause of the Letter of Majesty that the Protestants should have perfect liberty to build churches on all Royal estates. But now arose the difficult question, what were Royal estates? What about Roman Catholic Church estates? What about estates held by Catholic officials as tenants of the King? Were these Royal estates or were they not? There were two opinions on the subject. According to the Protestants they were; according to the Jesuits they were not; and now the Jesuits used this argument to influence the action of Matthias, the next King of Bohemia. The dispute soon came to blows. At Klostergrab the land belonged to the Catholic Archbishop of Prague; at Brunau it belonged to the Abbot of Brunau; and yet, on each of these estates, the Protestants had churches. They believed, of course, that they were in the right. They regarded those estates as Royal estates. They had no desire to break the law of the land. But now the Catholics began to force the pace. At Brunau the Abbot interfered and turned the Protestants out of the church. At Klostergrab the church was pulled down, and the wood of which it was built was used as firewood; and in each case the new King, Matthias, took the Catholic side. The truth is, Matthias openly broke the Letter. He broke it on unquestioned Royal estates. He expelled Protestant ministers from their pulpits, and put Catholics in their place. His officers burst into Protestant churches and interrupted the services; and, in open defiance of the law of the land, the priests drove Protestants with dogs and scourges to the Mass, and thrust the wafer down their mouths. What right, said the Protestants, had the Catholics to do these things? The Jesuits had an amazing answer ready. For two reasons, they held, the Letter of Majesty was invalid. It was invalid because it had been obtained by force, and invalid because it had not been sanctioned by the Pope. What peace could there be with these conflicting views? It is clear that a storm was brewing.

The third cause was the famous dispute about the Kingship. As Matthias was growing old and feeble, it was time to choose his successor; and Matthias, therefore, summoned a Diet, and informed the Estates, to their great surprise, that all they had to do now was to accept as King his adopted son, Ferdinand Archduke of Styria. At first the Diet was thunderstruck. They had met to choose their own King. They intended to choose a Protestant, and now they were commanded to choose this Ferdinand, the most zealous Catholic in Europe. And yet, for some mysterious reason, the Diet actually yielded. They surrendered their elective rights; they accepted Ferdinand as King, and thus, at the most critical and dangerous point in the whole history of the country, they allowed a Catholic devotee to become the ruler of a Protestant people. For that fatal mistake they had soon to pay in full. Some say they were frightened by threats; some say that the Diet was summoned in a hurry, and that only a few attended. The truth is, they were completely outwitted. At this point the Protestant nobles of Bohemia showed that fatal lack of prompt and united action which was soon to fill the whole land with all the horrors of war. In vain Budowa raised a vehement protest. He found but few to support him. If the Protestants desired peace and good order in Bohemia, they ought to have insisted upon their rights and elected a Protestant King; and now, in Ferdinand, they had accepted a man who was pledged to fight for the Church of Rome with every breath of his

body. He was a man of fervent piety. He was a pupil of the Jesuits. He regarded himself as the divinely appointed champion of the Catholic faith. He had already stamped out the Protestants in Styria. He had a strong will and a clear conception of what he regarded as his duty. He would rather, he declared, beg his bread from door to door, with his family clinging affectionately around him, than allow a single Protestant in his dominions. "I would rather," he said, "rule over a wilderness than over heretics." But what about his oath to observe the Letter of Majesty? Should he take the oath or not? If he took it he would be untrue to his conscience; if he refused he could never be crowned King of Bohemia. He consulted his friends the Jesuits. They soon eased his conscience. It was wicked, they said, of Rudolph II. to sign such a monstrous document; but it was not wicked for the new King to take the oath to keep it. And, therefore, Ferdinand took the oath, and was crowned King of Bohemia. "We shall now see," said a lady at the ceremony, "whether the Protestants are to rule the Catholics or the Catholics the Protestants."

She was right. Forthwith the Protestants realised their blunder, and made desperate efforts to recover the ground they had lost. Now was the time for the Twenty-four Defenders to arise and do their duty; now was the time, now or never, to make the Letter no longer a grinning mockery. They began by acting strictly according to law. They had been empowered to summon representatives of the Protestant Estates. They summoned their assembly, prepared a petition, and sent it off to Matthias. He replied that their assembly was illegal. He refused to remedy their grievances. The Defenders were goaded to fury. At their head was a violent man, Henry Thurn. He resolved on open rebellion. He would have the new King Ferdinand dethroned and have his two councillors, Martinic and Slawata, put to death. It was the 23rd of May, 1618. At an early hour on that fatal day, the Protestant Convention met in the Hradschin, and then, a little later, the fiery Thurn sallied out with a body of armed supporters, arrived at the Royal Castle, and forced his way into the Regent's Chamber, where the King's Councillors were assembled. There, in a corner, by the stove sat Martinic and Slawata. There, in that Regent's Chamber, began the cause of all the woe that followed. There was struck the first blow of the Thirty Years' War. As Thurn and his henchmen stood in the presence of the two men, who, in their opinion, had done the most to poison the mind of Matthias, they felt that the decisive moment had come. The interview was stormy. Voices rang in wild confusion. The Protestant spokesman was Paul von Rican. He accused Martinic and Slawata of two great crimes. They had openly broken the Letter of Majesty, and had dictated King Matthias's last reply. He appealed to his supporters crowded into the corridor outside.

"Aye, aye," shouted the crowd.

"Into the Black Tower with them," said some.

"Nay, nay," said Rupow, a member of the Brethren's Church, "out of the window with them, in the good old Bohemian fashion."

At this signal, agreed upon before, Martinic was dragged to the window. He begged for a father confessor.

"Commend thy soul to God," said someone. "Are we to allow any Jesuit scoundrels here?"

"Jesus! Mary!" he screamed.

He was flung headlong from the window. He clutched at the window-sill. A blow came down on his hands. He had to leave go, and down he fell, seventy feet, into the moat below.

"Let us see," said someone, "whether his Mary will help him."

He fell on a heap of soft rubbish. He scrambled away with only a wound in the head.

"By God," said one of the speakers, "his Mary has helped him."

At this point the conspirators appear to have lost their heads. As Martinic had not been killed by his fall, it was absurd to treat Slawata in the same way; and yet they now flung him out of the window, and his secretary Fabricius after him. Not one of the three was killed, not one was even maimed for life, and through the country the rumour spread that all three had been delivered by the Virgin Mary.

From that moment war was inevitable. As the details of the struggle do not concern us, it will be enough to state here that the Defenders now, in slipshod fashion, began to take a variety of measures to maintain the Protestant cause. They formed a national Board of Thirty Directors. They assessed new taxes to maintain the war, but never took the trouble to collect them. They relied more on outside help than on their own united action. They deposed Ferdinand II.; they elected Frederick, Elector Palatine, and son-in-law of James I. of England, as King of Bohemia; and they ordered the Jesuits out of the kingdom. There was a strange scene in Prague when these Jesuits departed. They formed in procession in the streets, and, clad in black, marched off with bowed heads and loud wailings; and when their houses were examined they were found full of gunpowder and arms. For the moment the Protestants of Prague were wild with joy. In the great Cathedral they pulled off the ornaments and destroyed costly pictures. What part did the Brethren play in these abominations? We do not know. At this tragic point in their fateful story our evidence is so lamentably scanty that it is absolutely impossible to say what part they played in the revolution. But one thing at least we know without a doubt. We know that the Catholics were now united and the Protestants quarrelling with each other; we know that

Ferdinand was prompt and vigorous, and the new King Frederick stupid and slack; and we know, finally, that the Catholic army, commanded by the famous general Tilly, was far superior to the Protestant army under Christian of Anhalt. At last the Catholic army appeared before the walls of Prague. The battle of the White Hill was fought (November 8th, 1620). The new King, in the city, was entertaining some ambassadors to dinner. The Protestant army was routed, the new King fled from the country, and once again Bohemia lay crushed under the heel of the conqueror.

At this time the heel of the conqueror consisted in a certain Prince Lichtenstein. He was made regent of Prague, and was entrusted with the duty of restoring the country to order. He set about his work in a cool and methodical manner. He cleared the rabble out of the streets. He recalled the Jesuits. He ordered the Brethren out of the kingdom. He put a Roman Catholic Priest into every church in Prague; and then he made the strange announcement that all the rebels, as they were called, would be freely pardoned, and invited the leading Protestant nobles to appear before him at Prague. They walked into the trap like flies into a cobweb. If the nobles had only cared to do so, they might all have escaped after the battle of the White Hill; for Tilly, the victorious general, had purposely given them time to do so. But for some reason they nearly all preferred to stay. And now Lichtenstein had them in his grasp. He had forty-seven leaders arrested in one night. He imprisoned them in the castle tower, had them tried and condemned, obtained the approval of Ferdinand, and then, while some were pardoned, informed the remaining twenty-seven that they had two days in which to prepare for death. They were to die on June 21st. Among those leaders about a dozen were Brethren. We have arrived at the last act of the tragedy. We have seen the grim drama develop, and when the curtain falls the stage will be covered with corpses and blood.


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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