Bohemia's claim for freedom/The country of the book and the cup


IT was a prominent Scottish divine who thus characterised Bohemia, and she is indeed most deservedly entitled to the designation. The Restitution of the Word of God and the Sacramental Cup to the Laity were her ideals for two hundred years, the most glorious epoch of her history (1415-1620), and her loyalty to these ideals placed her in the van of the Reformation, and is shedding still a sombre lustre on the catastrophe that befell her. Her tragic sin, says a historian, is that of being too small against the formidable powers, that opposed her, and finally crushed her.

"The Cup," says E. Denis in his "Fin de l'Independence Bohème," was the symbol of the purging of the Temple, the Saviour reinstalled upon his throne, the liberty of God's truth regained, paradise reopened, crimes eradicated, commonwealth purified, enemies defeated, victory of the national tongue achieved—all this was implied in the firm resolve not to forsake the Cup, in spite of any sufferings." This is the clue to the Hussite reformation in Bohemia. And the source of the inspiration and energy displayed in those unparalleled struggles, the torch lighting the way towards that ideal goal, was the Book, which "the meanest Hussite woman knew better than any Roman priest." (Pius II.)

The ancient Bohemians were very fond of discussing religious and philosophic questions. It was the disputation concerning the forty-six articles drawn from the writings of John Wycliffe, that enflamed the University of Prague and led to the subsequent disasters. Tracts written during the Hussite wars (1419-1468) were innumerable, and there are still hundreds of them existing, while the invention of printing rather enhanced than diminished the productiveness of the authors of the following age. The output of a man like John Amos Komensky is simply prodigious. And his works are not merely numerous, they are of an intrinsic merit and value. Peter Chelcicky, too, is on a level with the best pulpit orators in the church of all ages, and one of the most trenchant sociologists. The authors of the Commentaries to the Kralice Bible are firstrate theologians, and John Amos Komensky's works are of world renown. The Bohemians proudly call this era their golden age. But the anti-Reformation put a cruel stop to it, and stunned that spirited nation for centuries.

The orders dealing with heretics, which attempted to frighten them out of their belief and to beguile them of their treasures, were nowhere else surpassed in stringency. The hiding and reading of forbidden books meant death. The last victim of these execrable laws in Bohemia was the forrester Thomas Svoboda, sentenced to death at the stake in 1755 for reading the Bible, who by way of mercy was strangled before being burnt. The books seized upon were publicly committed to the flames, while missionaries addressed the people on the eternal punishments of heresy.

Some of the confiscated books were supplied by the emigrants who found a shelter either in Saxony or in Prussia and smuggled the books across the frontiers. Those who exported them did so in the very teeth of death, and their memory is kept alive by their martyrdom. To these dauntless men the later Protestant Church in Bohemia and Moravia owes a great debt. It was they who fed in the deep night the flickering lamps of faith, upraised the sinking hearts, until the day when the streaks of religious toleration shot above the horizon and announced the approach of religious liberty. But, alas! how sad and desolate was the country, once so flourishing, and what amends could ever be made for the irretrievable losses of the past!

Three books stand out as of striking importance and significance in the spiritual and moral development of the Bohemians: the Bible, the Postilla, and the Hymn Book.

Nowhere else does the Bible appear as such a mine of national instruction as in Bohemia.

The Bible influenced directly and indirectly a vast portion of the Bohemian literature. The Bible was the dearest treasure in every family, and the most precious bequest a father could leave to his son. Interesting are the passages in the last deeds of dying parents which make a bequest of the Bible to their heirs. It remains always an object of wonder how it was possible that the Unity of Brethren undertook to publish an edition of the Bible in six big volumes when there were so many excellent editions, as that of Melantrich and Severin, already in circulation. And it seems all the more wonderful when one knows that the same work had three times to be republished within a few years, in a nation numbering then no more than about five millions.

During the persecution (1620-1781) all the Bibles that were clandestinely imported into Bohemia and Moravia were printed abroad by the emigrants.

As regards the modern circulation of the Bible in Bohemia, the Secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society writes as follows.

"The Society has had a very interesting work in the country, as you know, for many years. Apparently we have put into circulation in the Bohemian language:—

325,492 Bibles and Old Testaments.
817,222 New Testaments, with or without the Psalms.
647,819 Portions of the Bible, not less than a single book.
10,000 Diglot Gospels (Bohemian-English in parallel columns).

This makes a total of 1,800,533 volumes. I have not included in these figures the circulation of 1914. In that year we only circulated 44,235 volumes."

The Roman Catholic Church, too, has published several beautiful editions of the Bible during the last fifty years, and those who have learnt to read the signs of the times, declare that: "Nobody can deny the existence of a deep religious spirit in modern Bohemia. Attempts to explain this may vary, but the facts leave no room for doubt that every day the connection between religion and life grows stronger. Religion demands attention, and the interest in it is growing."

The Bible has not spoken as yet its last word in Bohemia. "Sad was the fate of the bodily tabernacles of our once great minds," says a historian. "The ashes of John Hus and Jerome were cast by the enemies into the Rhine. The tomb of Zizka was broken up and smashed in 1622, and in the same year the bones of Rokycana and the heart of King George were burned in the cemetery of the Tyn Church by the Jesuits. The bones and dust of Zerotin suffered a barbarous desecration in 1722. But there is no power that could annihilate the spirit of these our heroes. As soon as the doleful time that shut our nation into darkness of ignorance had passed away, this spirit began to act creatively at the resurrection and moral renewal of our people." May it continue to do so. The present spiritual state of the nation is felt to be contradictory to the past, and the national mind is groping after a new thread that may lead it out of the dismal labyrinth of inward inconsistency.

The Postillai.e., the book of sermons and expositions read on Sabbaths and festivals in the churches—became very early the indispensable companion of the Bible.

The Postilla of Chelcicky is, beside the "De regulis" of Mathew Janovsky, the most remarkable product of the Bohemian mind. Its terse diction, its deep human insight, its profound awe before God and his Word, its spirit of thorough submission to Jesus Christ, its stirring appeals to man and his need of regeneration, its scorn of oppression and love of the oppressed, its buoyant hope in the victory of Christ's Kingdom, all this made the Postilla of Chelcicky another Apokalypsis to the nation. It was printed in 1522 and 1532.

As for the Hymns, they were unknown, in the vernacular, before the time of John Hus. He first introduced them in the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. The people welcomed this innovation with enthusiasm, and the collections of hymns called "Kancionaly" (hymnals) are, next to the Bible, the most important books in devotional use. The Unity of the Bohemian Brethren, especially, took the utmost pains in the preparation of these hymn-books. They are, indeed, peculiar to Bohemia. Being the property of Associations of Choirsingers ("Literatske Sbory"), they were written on parchment, adorned with magnificent initials and miniature paintings, bound in costly covers, and were the pride of the fraternities which counted among their members nobles, scholars, and burghers. There was scarcely a town in Bohemia that could not boast some such treasure of art. Their price now is their weight in gold. A great many of them went abroad along with other spoils during the thirty years war.C. Dusek.