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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 19 — Last scenes of the Bohemian Reformation

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The Two Parties, Calixtines and Taborites – The Compactata Accepted by the First, Rejected by the Second – War between the Two – Death of Procopius – Would the Bohemian Reformation have Regenerated Christendom? – Sigismund Violates the Compactata – He Dies – His Character – George Podiebrad – Elected King – The Taborites – Visited by AEneas Sylvius – Their Persecutions – A Taborite Ordination – Multiplication of their Congregations.

THE Bohemians were now divided into two strongly marked and widely separated parties, the Taborites and the Calixtines. This division had existed from the first; but it widened in proportion as the strain of their great struggle was relaxed. The party that retained most of the sprint of John Huss were the Taborites. With them the defense of their religion was the first concern, that of their civil rights and privileges the second. The latter they deemed perfectly safe under the aegis of the former. The Calixtines, on the other hand, had become lukewarm so far as the struggle was one for religion. They thought that the rent between their country and Rome was unnecessarily wide, and their policy was now one of approximation. They had secured the cup, as they believed, not reflecting that they had got transubstantiation along with it; and now the conflict, they thought, should cease. To the party of the Calixtines belonged the chief magnates, and most of the great cities, which threw the preponderance of opinion on the side of the Compactata. Into this scale was thrown also the influence of Rochyzana, the pastor of the Calixtines. "He was tempted with the hope of a bishopric," says Comenius, and used his influence both at Basle and Prague to further conciliation on terms more advantageous to Rome than honorable to the Bohemians. "In this manner," says Comenius, "they receded from the footsteps of Huss and returned to the camp of Antichrist." [1]

In judging of the conduct of the Bohemians at this crisis of their affairs, we are to bear in mind that the events narrated took place in the fifteenth century; that the points of difference between the two Churches, so perfectly irreconcilable, had not yet been so dearly and sharply defined as they came to be by the great controversies of the century that followed. But the Bohemians in accepting this settlement stepped down from a position of unexampled grandeur. Their campaigns are amongst the most heroic and brilliant of the wars of the world. A little country and a little army, they nevertheless were at this hour triumphant over all the resources of Rome and all the armies of the Empire. They had but to keep their ground and remain united, and take care that their patriotism, kindled at the altar, did not decline, and there was no power in Europe that would have dared attack them. From the day that the Bohemian nation sat down on the Compactata, their prestige waned, they gained no more victories; and the tone of public feeling, and the tide of national prosperity, began to go back. The Calixtines accepted, the Taborites rejected this arrangement. The consequence was the deplorable one of an appeal to arms by the two parties. Formerly, they had never unsheathed the sword except against a common enemy, and to add new glory to the glory already acquired; but now, alas! divided by that power whose wiles have ever been a hundred times more formidable than her arms, Bohemian unsheathed the sword against Bohemian. The Calixtines were by much the larger party, including as they did not only the majority of those who had been dissentients from Rome, but also all the Roman Catholics. The Taborites remained under the command of Procopius, who, although most desirous of composing the strife and letting his country have rest, would not accept of peace on terms which he held to be fatal to his nation's faith and liberty. Bohemia, he clearly saw, had entered on the descending path. Greater concessions and deeper humiliations were before it. The enemy before whom she had begun to humble herself would not be satisfied till he had reft from her all she had won on the victorious field. Rather than witness this humiliation, Procopius betook himself once more to the field at the head of his armed Taborites.

Bloody skirmishes marked the opening of the conflict. At last, the two armies met on the plain of Lipan, twelve English miles from Prague, the 29th of May, 1434, and a great battle was fought. The day, fiercely contested on both sides, was going in favor of Procopius, when the general of his cavalry rode off the field with all under his command. [2] This decided the action. Procopius, gathering round him the bravest of his soldiers, rushed into the thick of the foe, where he contended for awhile against fearful odds, but at last sank overpowered by numbers. With the fall of Procopius came the end of the Hussite wars.

A consummate general, a skillful theologian, an accomplished scholar, and an incorruptible patriot, Procopius had upheld the cause of Bohemia so long as Bohemia was true to itself, AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini said of him that "he fell weary with conquering rather than conquered." [3] His death fulfilled the saying of the Emperor Sigismund, "that the Bohemians could be overcome only by Bohemians." With him fell the cause of the Hussites. No effectual stand could the Taborites make after the loss of their great leader; and as regards the Calixtines, they riveted their chains by the same blow that struck down Procopius. Yet one hardly can wish that this great patriot had lived longer. The heroic days of Bohemia were numbered, and the evil days had come in which Procopius could take no pleasure. He had seen the Bohemians united and victorious. He had seen puissant kings and mighty armies fleeing before them. He had seen their arts, their literature, their husbandry,

all flourishing. For the intellectual energy evoked by the war did not expend itself in the camp; it overflowed, and nourished every interest of the nation. The University of Prague continued open, and its classrooms crowded, all throughout that stormy period. The common schools of the country were equally active, and education was universally diffused. AEneas Sylvius says that every woman among the Taborites was well acquainted with the Old and New Testaments, and unwilling as he was to see any good in the Hussites, he yet confesses that they had one merit – namely, "the love of letters." It was not uncommon at that era to find tracts written by artizans, discussing religious subjects, and characterized by the elegance of their diction and the rigor of their thinking. [4] All this Procopius had seen. But now Bohemia herself had dug the grave of her liberties in the Compactata. And when all that had made Bohemia dear to Procopius was about to be laid in the sepulcher, it was fitting that he too should be consigned to the tomb.

One is compelled to ask what would the result have been, had the Bohemians maintained their ground? Would the Hussite Reformation have regenerated Christendom? We are disposed to say that it would not. It had in it no principle of sufficient power to move the conscience of mankind. The Bohemian Reformation had respect mainly to the corruptions of the Church of Rome – not those of doctrine, but those of administration. If the removal of these could have been effected, the Bohemians would have been content to accept Rome as a true and apostolic Church. The Lutheran Reformation, on the other hand, had a first and main respect to the principle of corruption in the individual man. This awoke the conscience. "How shall I, a lost sinner, obtain pardon and life eternal?" This was the first question in the Reformation of Luther. It was because Rome could not lift off the burden from the conscience, and not simply because her administration was tyrannical and her clergy scandalous, that men were constrained to abandon her. It was a matter of life and death with them. They must flee from a society where, if they remained, they saw they should perish everlastingly. Had Huss and Jerome lived, the Bohemian Reformation might have worked itself into a deeper groove; but their death destroyed this hope: there arose after them no one of equally commanding talents and piety; and the Bohemian movement, instead of striking its roots deeper, came more and more to the surface. Its success, in fact, might have been a misfortune to Christendom, inasmuch as, by giving it a reformed Romanism, it would have delayed for some centuries the advent of a purer movement.

The death of Procopius, as we have already mentioned, considerably altered the position of affairs. With him died a large part of that energy and vitality which had invariably sustained the Bohemians in their resolute struggles with their military and ecclesiastical enemies; and, this being so, the cause gradually pined away.

The Emperor Sigismund was now permitted to mount the throne of Bohemia, but not till he had sworn to observe the Compactata, and maintain the liberties of the nation (July 12th, 1436). A feeble guarantee! The Bohemians could hardly expect that the man who had broken his pledge to Huss would fulfill his stipulations to them. "In striking this bargain with the heretics," says AEneas Sylvius, "the emperor yielded to necessity, being desirous at any price of gaining the crown, that he might bring back his subjects to the true Church." [5] And so it turned out, for no sooner did the emperor feel himself firm in his seat than, forgetful of the Compactata, and his oath to observe it, he proceeded to restore the dominancy of the Church of Rome in Bohemia. [6] This open treachery provoked a storm of indignation; the country was on the brink of war, and this calamity was averted only by the death of the emperor in 1437, within little more than a year after being acknowledged as king by the Bohemians. [7]

Born to empire, not devoid of natural parts, and endowed with not a few good qualities, Sigismund might have lived happily and reigned gloriously. But all his gifts were marred by a narrow bigotry which laid him at the feet of the priesthood. The stake of Huss cost him a twenty years' war. He wore out life in labors and perils; he never knew repose, he never tasted victory. He attempted much, but succeeded in nothing. He subdued rebellion by subtle arts and deceitful promises; content to win a momentary advantage at the cost of incurring a lasting disgrace. His grandfather, Henry VII., had exalted the fortunes of his house and the splendor of the Empire by opposing the Papal See; Sigismund lowered both by becoming its tool. His misfortunes thickened as his years advanced. He escaped a tragical end by a somewhat sudden death. No grateful nation mourned around his grave.

There followed some chequered years. The first rent in Bohemian unity, the result of declension from the first rigor of the Bohemian faith, was never healed. The Calixtines soon began to discover that the Compactata was a delusion, and that it existed only on paper. Their monarchs refused to govern according to its provisions. To plead it as the charter of their rights was only to expose themselves to contempt. The Council of Basle no doubt had appended its seal to it, but the Pope refused to look at it, and ultimately annulled it. At length, during the minority of King Vladislav, George Podiebrad, a Bohemian nobleman, and head of the Calixtines, became regent of the kingdom, and by his great talents and upright administration gave a breathing-space to his distracted nation. On the death of the young monarch, Podiebrad was elected king. He now strove to make the Compactata a reality,

and revive the extinct rights and bring back the vanished prestige of Bohemia; but he found that the hour of opportunity had passed, and that the difficulties of the situation were greater than his strength could overcome. He fondly hoped that AEneas Sylvius, who had now assumed the tiara under the title of Pius II., would be more compliant in the matter of the Compactara than his predecessor had been. As secretary to the Council of Basle, AEneas Sylvius had drafted this document; and Podiebrad believed that, as a matter of course, he would ratify as Pope what he had composed as secretary. He was doomed to disappointment. Plus II. repudiated his own handiwork, and launched excommunication against Podiebrad (1463) [8] for attempting to govern on its principles. AEneas' successor in the Papal chair, Paul II., walked in his steps. He denounced the Compactata anew; anathematized Podiebrad as an excommunicated heretic, whose reign could only be destructive to mankind, and published a crusade against him. In pursuance of the Papal bull a foreign army entered Bohemia, and it became again the theater of battles, sieges, and great bloodshed.

Podiebrad drove out the invaders, but he was not able to restore the internal peace of his nation. The monks had returned, and priestly machinations were continually fomenting party animosities. He retained possession of the throne; but his efforts were crippled, his life was threatened, and his reign continued to be full of distractions till its very close, in 1471. [9] The remaining years of the century were passed in similar troubles, and after this the history of Bohemia merges in the general stream of the Reformation.

We turn for a few moments to the other branch of the Bohemian nation, the Taborites. They received from Sigismund, when he ascended the throne, that lenient treatment which a conqueror rarely denies to an enemy whom he despises. He gave them the city of Tabor, [10] with certain lands around, permitting them the free exercise of their worship within their allotted territory, exacting in return only a small tribute. Here they practiced the arts and displayed the virtues of citizens. Exchanging the sword for the plough, their domain bloomed like a garden. The rich cultivation that covered their fields bore as conclusive testimony to their skill as husbandmen, as their victories had done to their courage as warriors. Once, when on a tour through Bohemia, AEneas Sylvius came to their gates; [11] and though "this rascally people" did not believe in transubstantiation, he preferred lodging amongst them for the night to sleeping in the open fields, where, as he confesses, though the confession somewhat detracts from the merit of the action, he would have been exposed to robbers. They gave the future Pope a most cordial welcome, and treated him with "Slavonic hospitality." [12]

About the year 1455, the Taborites formed themselves into a distinct Church under the name of the "United Brethren." They looked around them: error covered the earth; all societies needed to be purified, the Calixtines as well as the Romanists; "the evil was immedicable." [13] So they judged; therefore they resolved to separate themselves from all other bodies, and build up truth anew from the foundations. This step exposed them to the bitter enmity of both Calixtines and Roman Catholics. They now became the object of a murderous persecution, in which they suffered far more than they had done in common with their countrymen in the Hussite wars. Rochyzana, who till now had befriended them, suffered himself to be alienated from and even incensed against them; and Podiebrad, their king, tarnished his fame as a patriotic and upright ruler by the cruel persecution which he directed against them. They were dispersed in the woods and mountains; they inhabited dens and caves; and in these abodes they were ever careful to prepare their meals by night, lest the ascending smoke should betray their lurking-places. Gathering round the fires which they kindled in these subterranean retreats in the cold of winter, they read the Word of God, and united in social worship. At times, when the snow lay deep, and it was necessary to go abroad for provisions, they dragged a branch behind them on their return, to obliterate their footsteps and make it impossible for their enemies to track them to their hiding-places. [14]

Were they alone of all the witnesses of truth left on the earth, or were there others, companions with them in the faith and patience of the kingdom of Jesus Christ? They sent messengers into various countries of Christendom, to inquire secretly and bring them word again. These messengers returned to say that everywhere darkness covered the face of the earth, but that nevertheless, here and there, they had found isolated confessors of the truth – a few in this city and a few in that, the object like themselves of persecution; and that amid the mountains of the Alps was an ancient Church, resting on the foundations of Scripture, and protesting against the idolatrous corruptions of Rome. This intelligence gave great joy to the Taborites; they opened a correspondence with these confessors, and were much cheered by finding that this Alpine Church agreed with their own in the articles of its creed, the form of its ordination, and the ceremonies of its worship.

The question of ordination occasioned the Taborites no little perplexity. They had left the Roman Church, they had no bishop in their ranks; how were they to perpetuate that succession of pastors which Christ had appointed in his Church? After many anxious deliberations, for "their minds were harassed," says Comenius, "with the fear that the ordination of presbyter by presbyter would not be held valid," [15] they proceeded according to the following somewhat novel fashion. In the year 1467 their chief men, to the number of about seventy, out of all Bohemia and Moravia, met in a plain called Lhota, in the neighborhood of the

town of Richnovia. Humbling themselves with many tears and prayers before God, they resolved on an appeal by lot to the Divine omniscience as to who should be set over them as pastors. They selected by suffrage nine men from among themselves, from whom three were to be chosen to be ordained. They then put twelve schedules or voting papers into the hands of a boy who was kept ignorant of the matter, and they ordered him to distribute these schedules among the nine persons already selected. Of the twelve voting papers nine were blanks, and three were inscribed with the word Est – -i.e., It is the will of God. The boy distributed the schedules, and it was found that the three bearing the word Est had been given to the three following persons: – Matthew Kunwaldius, "one of the most pious of men;" Thomas Przelaucius, "a very learned man;" and Elias Krzenovius, who was "distinguished for his great parts." They received ordination, by the imposition of hands, from a body of Waldensian pastors, including two whom Comenius styles bishops, and one of whom, Stephen, soon thereafter suffered martyrdom at the stake in Vienna. [16]

The death of Podiebrad and the accession of the Polish prince, Vladislav, in 1471 brought them deliverance from persecution. The quiet they now enjoyed was followed by an increase in the number of their congregations. Their lot was cast in evil days, but they knew that the appointed years of darkness must be fulfilled. They remembered the words first uttered by Huss, and repeated by Jerome, that a century must revolve before the day should break. These were to the Taborites what the words of Joseph were to the tribes in the House of Bondage: "I die, and God will surely visit you, and bring you out." The prediction kept alive their hopes in the night of their persecution, and in the darkest hour their eyes were still turned towards the horizon like men who watch for the morning. Year passed after year. The end of the century arrived: it found 200 churches of the "United Brethren" in Bohemia and Moravia. [17] So goodly was the remnant which, escaping the destructive fury of fire and sword, was permitted to see the dawning of that day which Huss had foretold.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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