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A History of the Moravian Church

by 'Joseph Edmund Hutton'

Book 1 — The Bohemian Brethren. 1457-1673

Chapter 4 — Peter of Chelcic, 1419-1450

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MEANWHILE a mighty prophet had arisen, with a clear and startling message. His name was Peter, and he lived down south, in the little village of Chelcic.3 As the historian rummages among the ancient records, he discovers to his sorrow that scarcely anything is known of the life of this great man; but, on the other hand, it is a joy to know that while his story is wrapped in mystery, his teaching has been preserved, and that some of the wonderful books he wrote are treasured still in his native land as gems of Bohemian literature. In later years it was commonly said that he began life as a cobbler; but that story, at least, may be dismissed as a legend. He enlisted, we are told, in the army. He then discovered that a soldier's life was wicked; he then thought of entering a monastery, but was shocked by what he heard of the immoralities committed within the holy walls; and finally, having some means of his own, retired to his little estate at Chelcic, and spent his time in writing pamphlets about the troubles of his country. He had picked up a smattering of education in Prague. He had studied the writings of Wycliffe and of Hus, and often appealed to Wycliffe in his works. He could quote, when he liked, from the great Church Fathers. He had a fair working knowledge of the Bible; and, above all, he had the teaching of Christ and the Apostles engraved upon his conscience and his heart. As he was not a priest, he could afford to be independent; as he knew but little Latin, he wrote in Bohemian; and thus, like Stitny and Hus before him, he appealed to the people in language they could all understand. Of all the leaders of men in Bohemia, this Peter was the most original and daring. As he pondered on the woes of his native land, he came to the firm but sad conclusion that the whole system of religion and politics was rotten to the core. Not one of the jangling sects was in the right. Not one was true to the spirit of Christ. Not one was free from the dark red stain of murder. His chief works were his Net of Faith, his Reply to Nicholas of Pilgram, his Reply to Rockycana, his Image of the Beast, his theological treatise On the Body of Christ, his tract The Foundation of Worldly Laws, his devotional commentary, Exposition of the Passion according to St. John, and, last, though not least, his volume of discourses on the Gospel lessons for the year, entitled Postillia. Of these works the most famous was his masterly Net of Faith. He explained the title himself. "Through His disciples," said Peter, "Christ caught the world in the net of His faith, but the bigger fishes, breaking the net, escaped. Then others followed through these same holes made by the big fishes, and the net was left almost empty." His meaning was clear to all. The net was the true Church of Christ; the two whales who broke it were the Emperor and the Pope; the big fishes were the mighty "learned persons, heretics and offenders"; and the little fishes were the true followers of Christ.

He opened his bold campaign in dramatic style. When John Ziska and Nicholas of Husinec declared at Prague that the time had come for the faithful to take up arms in their own defence, Peter was present at the debate, and contended that for Christians war was a crime. {1419.}

"What is war?" he asked. "It is a breach of the laws of God! All soldiers are violent men, murderers, a godless mob!"

He hated war like a Quaker, and soldiers like Tolstoy himself. He regarded the terrible Hussite Wars as a disgrace to both sides. As the fiery Ziska swept the land with his waggons, this Apostle of peace was sick with horror. "Where," he asked, in his Reply to Rockycana, "has God recalled His commands, ‘Thou shalt not kill,' ‘Thou shalt not steal,' ‘Thou shalt not take thy neighbour's goods'? If God has not repealed these commands, they ought still to be obeyed to-day in Prague and Tabor. I have learned from Christ, and by Christ I stand; and if the Apostle Peter himself were to come down from Heaven and say that it was right for us to take up arms to defend the truth, I should not believe him."

For Peter the teaching of Christ and the Apostles was enough. It was supreme, final, perfect. If a king made a new law, he was spoiling the teaching of Christ. If the Pope issued a bull, he was spoiling the teaching of Christ. If a Council of Bishops drew up a decree, they were spoiling the teaching of Christ. As God, said Peter, had revealed His will to full perfection in Jesus Christ, there was no need for laws made by men. "Is the law of God sufficient, without worldly laws, to guide and direct us in the path of the true Christian religion? With trembling, I answer, it is. It was sufficient for Christ Himself, and it was sufficient for His disciples." And, therefore, the duty of all true Christians was as clear as the noon-day sun. He never said that Christian people should break the law of the land. He admitted that God might use the law for good purposes; and therefore, as Christ had submitted to Pilate, so Christians must submit to Government. But there their connection with Government must end. For heathens the State was a necessary evil; for Christians it was an unclean thing, and the less they had to do with it the better. They must never allow the State to interfere in matters within the Church. They must never drag each other before the law courts. They must never act as judges or magistrates. They must

never take any part whatever in municipal or national government. They must never, if possible, live in a town at all. If Christians, said Peter, lived in a town, and paid the usual rates and taxes, they were simply helping to support a system which existed for the protection of robbers. He regarded towns as the abodes of vice, and citizens as rogues and knaves. The first town, he said, was built by the murderer, Cain. He first murdered his brother Abel; he then gathered his followers together; he then built a city, surrounded by walls; and thus, by robbery and violence, he became a well-to-do man. And modern towns, said Peter, were no whit better. At that time the citizens of some towns in Bohemia enjoyed certain special rights and privileges; and this, to Peter, seemed grossly unfair. He condemned those citizens as thieves. "They are," he said, "the strength of Anti-Christ; they are adversaries to Christ; they are an evil rabble; they are bold in wickedness; and though they pretend to follow the truth, they will sit at tables with wicked people and knavish followers of Judas." For true Christians, therefore, there was only one course open. Instead of living in godless towns, they should try to settle in country places, earn their living as farmers or gardeners, and thus keep as clear of the State as possible. They were not to try to support the law at all. If they did, they were supporting a wicked thing, which never tried to make men better, but only crushed them with cruel and useless punishments. They must never try to make big profits in business. If they did, they were simply robbing and cheating their neighbours. They must never take an oath, for oaths were invented by the devil. They must never, in a word, have any connection with that unchristian institution called the State.

And here Peter waxed vigorous and eloquent. He objected, like Wycliffe, to the union of Church and State. Of all the bargains ever struck, the most wicked, ruinous and pernicious was the bargain struck between Church and State, when Constantine the Great first took the Christians under the shadow of his wing. For three hundred years, said Peter, the Church of Christ had remained true to her Master; and then this disgusting heathen Emperor, who had not repented of a single sin, came in with his vile "Donation," and poisoned all the springs of her life. If the Emperor, said Peter, wanted to be a Christian, he ought first to have laid down his crown. He was a ravenous beast; he was a wolf in the fold; he was a lion squatting at the table; and at that fatal moment in history, when he gave his "Donation" to the Pope, an angel in heaven had spoken the words: "This day has poison entered the blood of the Church."4

"Since that time," said Peter, "these two powers, Imperial and Papal, have clung together. They have turned everything to account in Church and in Christendom for their own impious purposes. Theologians, professors, and priests are the satraps of the Emperor. They ask the Emperor to protect them, so that they may sleep as long as possible, and they create war so that they may have everything under their thumb."

If Peter lashed the Church with whips, he lashed her priests with scorpions. He accused them of various vices. They were immoral; they were superstitious; they were vain, ignorant and empty-headed; and, instead of feeding the Church of God, they had almost starved her to death. He loathed these "honourable men, who sit in great houses, these purple men, with their beautiful mantles, their high caps, their fat stomachs." He accused them of fawning on the rich and despising the poor. "As for love of pleasure," he said, "immorality, laziness, greediness, uncharitableness and cruelty — as for these things, the priests do not hold them as sins when committed by princes, nobles and rich commoners. They do not tell them plainly, "You will go to hell if you live on the fat of the poor, and live a bestial life," although they know that the rich are condemned to eternal death by such behaviour. Oh, no! They prefer to give them a grand funeral. A crowd of priests, clergy, and other folk make a long procession. The bells are rung. There are masses, singings, candles and offerings. The virtues of the dead man are proclaimed from the pulpit. They enter his soul in the books of their cloisters and churches to be continually prayed for, and if what they say be true, that soul cannot possibly perish, for he has been so kind to the Church, and must, indeed, be well cared for."

He accused them, further, of laziness and gluttony. "They pretend to follow Christ," he said, "and have plenty to eat every day. They have fish, spices, brawn, herrings, figs, almonds, Greek wine and other luxuries. They generally drink good wine and rich beer in large quantities, and so they go to sleep. When they cannot get luxuries they fill themselves with vulgar puddings till they nearly burst. And this is the way the priests fast." He wrote in a similar strain of the mendicant friars. He had no belief in their profession of poverty, and accused them of gathering as much money as they could. They pocketed more money by begging, he declared, than honest folk could earn by working; they despised plain beef, fat bacon and peas, and they wagged their tails with joy when they sat down to game and other luxuries. "Many citizens," said Peter, "would readily welcome this kind of poverty."

He accused the priests of loose teaching and shameless winking at sin. "They prepare Jesus," he said, "as a sweet sauce for the world, so that the world may not have to shape its course after Jesus and His heavy Cross, but that Jesus

may conform to the world; and they make Him softer than oil, so that every wound may be soothed, and the violent, thieves, murderers and adulterers may have an easy entrance into heaven."

He accused them of degrading the Seven Sacraments. They baptized sinners, young and old, without demanding repentance. They sold the Communion to rascals and rogues, like a huckstress offering her wares. They abused Confession by pardoning men who never intended to amend their evil ways. They allowed men of the vilest character to be ordained as priests. They degraded marriage by preaching the doctrine that it was less holy than celibacy. They distorted the original design of Extreme Unction, for instead of using it to heal the sick they used it to line their own pockets. And all these blasphemies, sins and follies were the offspring of that adulterous union between the Church and the State, which began in the days of Constantine the Great. For of all the evils under Heaven, the greatest, said Peter, was that contradiction in terms — a State Church.

He attacked the great theologians and scholars. Instead of using their mental powers in the search for truth, these college men, said Peter, had done their best to suppress the truth; and at the two great Councils of Constance and Basle, they had actually obtained the help of the temporal power to crush all who dared to hold different views from theirs. What use, asked Peter, were these learned pundits? They were no use at all. They never instructed anybody. "I do not know," he said, "a single person whom they have helped with their learning." Had they instructed Hus? No. Hus had the faith in himself; Hus was instructed by God; and all that these ravens did for Hus was to flock together against him.

Again, Peter denounced the Bohemian nobles. As we read his biting, satirical phrases we can see that he was no respecter of persons and no believer in artificial distinctions of rank. For him the only distinction worth anything was the moral distinction between those who followed the crucified Jesus and those who rioted in selfish pleasures.

He had no belief in blue blood and noble birth. He was almost, though not quite, a Socialist. He had no definite, constructive social policy. He was rather a champion of the rights of the poor, and an apostle of the simple life. "The whole value of noble birth," he said, "is founded on a wicked invention of the heathen, who obtained coats of arms from emperors or kings as a reward for some deed of valour." If a man could only buy a coat of arms — a stag, a gate, a wolf's head, or a sausage — he became thereby a nobleman, boasted of his high descent, and was regarded by the public as a saint. For such "nobility" Peter had a withering contempt. He declared that nobles of this stamp had no right to belong to the Christian Church. They lived, he said, in flat opposition to the spirit of Jesus Christ. They devoured the poor. They were a burden to the country. They did harm to all men. They set their minds on worldly glory, and spent their money on extravagant dress. "The men," said he, "wear capes reaching down to the ground, and their long hair falls down to their shoulders; and the women wear so many petticoats that they can hardly drag themselves along, and strut about like the Pope's courtezans, to the surprise and disgust of the whole world." What right had these selfish fops to call themselves Christians? They did more harm to the cause of Christ than all the Turks and heathens in the world.

Thus Peter, belonging to none of the sects, found grievous faults in them all. As he always mentions the Waldenses with respect, it has been suggested that he was a Waldensian himself. But of that there is no real proof. He had, apparently, no organizing skill; he never attempted to form a new sect or party, and his mission in the world was to throw out hints and leave it to others to carry these hints into practice. He condemned the Utraquists because they used the sword. "If a man," he said, "eats a black pudding on Friday, you blame him; but if he sheds his brother's blood on the scaffold or on the field of battle you praise him." He condemned the Taborites because they made light of the Sacraments. "You have called the Holy Bread," he said, "a butterfly, a bat, an idol. You have even told the people that it is better to kneel to the devil than to kneel at the altar; and thus you have taught them to despise religion and wallow in unholy lusts." He condemned the King for being a King at all; for no intelligent man, said Peter, could possibly be a King and a Christian at the same time. And finally he condemned the Pope as Antichrist and the enemy of God.

Yet Peter was something more than a caustic critic. For the terrible ills of his age and country he had one plain and homely remedy, and that for all true Christians to leave the Church of Rome and return to the simple teaching of Christ and His Apostles. If the reader goes to Peter for systematic theology, he will be grievously disappointed; but if he goes for moral vigour, he will find a well-spread table.

He did not reason his positions out like Wycliffe; he was a suggestive essayist rather than a constructive philosopher; and, radical though he was in some of his views, he held firm to what he regarded as the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. He believed in the redemptive value of the death of Christ. He believed that man must build his hopes, not so much on his own good works, but rather

on the grace of God. He believed, all the same, that good works were needed and would receive their due reward. He believed, further, in the real bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament; and on this topic he held a doctrine very similar to Luther's doctrine of Consubstantiation. But, over and above all these beliefs, he insisted, in season and out of season, that men could partake of spiritual blessings without the aid of Roman priests. Some fruit of his labours he saw. As the fire of the Hussite Wars died down, a few men in different parts of the country — especially at Chelcic, Wilenow and Divischau — began to take Peter as their spiritual guide. They read his pamphlets with delight, became known as the "Brethren of Chelcic," and wore a distinctive dress, a grey cloak with a cord tied round the waist. The movement spread, the societies multiplied, and thus, in a way no records tell, were laid the foundations of the Church of the Brethren. Did Peter see that Church? We do not know. No one knows when Peter was born, and no one knows when he died. He delivered his message; he showed the way; he flashed his lantern in the darkness; and thus, whether he knew it or not, he was the literary founder of the Brethren's Church. He fired the hope. He drew the plans. It was left to another man to erect the building.

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Friday, October 30th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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