Glimpses of Bohemia/Progress of the Church, 1781-1881

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THE phrase “Edict of Toleration,” applied to describe an imperial decree, is apt to convey to Britons and Americans accustomed to real toleration, a wrong impression of the scope and effect of the edict. To understand the subsequent history of the Bohemian Church, it is essential that one should have a distinct idea of what the provisions of the edict actually were, and some knowledge of the character and position of its author. I will, therefore, submit a summary of the Edict, and then briefly notice its Imperial author.

Summary of the Edict of 1781.

I. In all parts of the Empire where Protestants have been prohibited by law from holding meetings, they shall now have liberty to meet privately for Divine worship, without any inquiry being made whether Protestant meetings have been held there before or not.

II. His Majesty declares the meaning of these private meetings to be, that in every district where there are one hundred or more families possessing conjointly the means of erecting a meeting-house, a school-house, and a dwelling for the pastor, without lessening their power to pay the taxes to the Government, they shall be at liberty to build, and their pastor shall be free to visit the sick who may wish to see him. He, however, shall be answerable, if any Protestant person wishing to see a Catholic priest, should be hindered in his desire. The meeting-houses are allowed to be built of any material; it is prohibited, however, that they should resemble churches,—they, therefore, shall not have bells or spires, and their entrance shall not be direct from the street.

III. The Protestants are permitted to erect, at their own expense, their own denominational school. The schoolmaster is, like the pastor, to be supported by the congregation; the Magistrates have the right of ing over the method of teaching.

IV. The Protestants supporting their pastor themselves have the right of electing the pastor; to his Majesty, however, remains reserved the right of recognising the elected.

V. The fees usually paid for funerals, weddings, and so on, belong to the Roman Catholic priest of the parish as before.[1]

VI. Religious matters of the Protestants shall be always taken into consideration by the civil magistrates, to whom one of the pastors and Protestant divines shall be added for the sake of closer information.

VII. The Protestants are permitted to buy houses and land properties, and are admitted to dignities and offices in the civil government and in the army.

The remaining nine articles contain only detailed instructions to carry out the preceding seven articles.

A prominent feature in the character of the brilliant Maria Theresa—by whose son, Joseph II., this Edict was given—was her unlimited devotion to the Romish Church. It is not surprising then to find that the education of her son was confided to bigoted ecclesiastics, nor is it greatly to be wondered at that he, an active, venturesome boy, should have felt keenly the crisis of the Seven Years’ War, and shown more anxiety to join the army than to continue his studies in which his priestly instructors had quite failed to interest him. Although on the death of his father, when he was in his twenty-fourth year, Joseph was appointed Emperor and co-Regent with his mother, yet he was allowed no real share in the administration; and for sixteen years he continued his education, not by the study of books but by observation, travel, and intercourse with men of all ranks, from the peasant upwards. Frequently travelling incognito he learned much that he could not otherwise have ascertained of the real state of the different classes of his subjects, and acquired great popularity by the frankness of his manner and many acts of kindness which from time to time were traced to his hands. Maria Theresa died in 1780, and Joseph, then in his fortieth year, entered upon the full discharge of his imperial duties.

Throughout the Empire the feudal system generally prevailed, vesting all power in the nobility and clergy, and holding the people in a state of vassalage, if not of serfdom. Joseph’s aim appears to have been to abolish feudal oppression and annihilate superstition. This end he hoped to attain by converting the Empire into one family directly under the imperial control, freed from all distinctions of religions, languages, and manners. As he proceeded to work out this scheme, it was seen to be paternal government with a vengeance, and as he acted as his own general and minister, every department of the State centering in himself, he soon, by violent and arbitrary acts, raised discontent on every side, so that on his early death, which occurred when he had reigned but ten years, he was regretted by few.[2] Notwithstanding the comparative failure and the many defects of his great scheme, Joseph’s work has been permanently beneficial to his country, and his name is now remembered with gratitude.

“As soon as the Imperial patent of 1781 was issued,” writes Mr. Dorfl, “crowds of people rushed to the Government offices confessing with great joy that they were professors of the old creed, and the descendants of the Bohemian brethren. This was beyond all Roman Catholic anticipation. The heretical doctrines of the heretical nation, which they supposed to be completely destroyed, were not dead, but just rising from a long, long sleep; of course Roman Catholic interference was unavoidable. Every one who confessed himself to be an adherent of his ancestor’s faith was, at first, reasoned with, then threatened, and not seldom forced to renounce his heretical ideas; or, as it was called, he was examined by Roman Catholic priests, who had to ascertain whether he was fit for Protestantism or not! It can easily be imagined that by such measures many a one was entirely alienated from our Church.

“If the want of ministers could have been supplied by Bohemians, our Reformed Church should have, most probably, become the predominant Church of Bohemia. For, however strange it may sound, yet it is true, the dawn of the Bohemian Church brought forth the morning of the Bohemian nation. She, too, awoke from her dream, but alas! how different from what she had once been! She arose still wrapped in shrouds in which the Jesuits had laid her down in the grave of the White Mount; a strong voice out of the Church perhaps would have brought her back to Christ, but she herself having been without national ministers and active leaders was too weak to defend her own rights.”

In some seventy places the people declared themselves to be Protestant in sufficient numbers to entitle them to be recognised by the Government as congregations, and the whole country was divided as regards its Protestant inhabitants into parishes attached to these congregations. It thus happens that the Reformed pastors have a recognised position over a large tract of country, an advantage of great importance in a country where the right of public meeting is not yet fully attained. The number of people who professed Protestantism at this time is very striking, but one has some idea how it came about when one remembers that during the whole dark night of persecution from 1620 to 1781, many secretly continued to read the Bible, and assembled at night in woods, or in stables and cellars for conference and prayer. A revival among such secret worshippers, early in the seventeenth century, led to the emigration of some Moravians to Saxony, where they founded the settlement of Herrnhut, from which has sprung the active and devoted Church usually spoken of as “The Moravian Brethren,” which has since encircled the world with its missions.

The Romish party laboured hard to counteract the Edict, and on Joseph’s death in 1791 succeeded in obtaining from his successor, Leopold, another Edict, which declared the Roman Catholic religion, the only “dominating” religion of the Empire, warned Protestants that they had only obtained the “grace of being tolerated,” that such grace was revocable by the Emperor at pleasure, and that it was thoroughly inexpedient to look upon the Edict of Toleration as a law which should last for ever, or should form a part of the Constitution of the State. The priests also exercised the most perverse ingenuity in interpreting the law to the disadvantage of the Protestants—e.g., persons wishing to join a Protestant Church were ordered to receive instruction for six weeks. The priests laid it down that six weeks was a period of 1008 hours, and that only those hours should be reckoned which were spent at the priests’ house. Thus they spun out the examination for years. It cannot be wondered at, that with these restrictions the Reformed Church made little progress under this species of “toleration.” If the concessions of Joseph had been allowed their full effect on the national life, Protestantism would have gained ground more rapidly, but progress was much retarded by the wars of Napoleon, in the course of which Bohemia suffered terribly. Undoubtedly the gallant struggle of the Poles, and later, the brave attempt of the Hungarians to preserve their nationality, had an inspiriting effect upon the Bohemians. Their circumstances were not such as to give the same provocation for an appeal to arms, as were those of the Poles or the Hungarians, nor were they qualified for such an attempt. It must be kept in mind that the landed estates, and hence the means, are still in the hands of foreign lords; the Bohemian gentry having been laid in the grave in 1620; and that the towns are largely occupied by Germans. The Bohemians have since had a wonderful lesson in the achievements of Hungary during the last thirty years. What Kossuth and his compatriots, were unable to achieve by violent means in 1848, Deak and his followers have quietly gained by appeals to reason and the use of constitutional efforts. Making all allowance for the outward pressure upon Austria, which greatly helped the Hungarians in regaining their constitution, it cannot be denied that the recent history of Hungary has given the world an example which should lead to greater faith in parliamentary government. The Bohemians have not yet a leader of equal capacity and determination with Deak to lead to a constitutional victory in the same way, and the opposition of their German fellow-countrymen is still too much for them. Although divided amongst themselves, they are undoubtedly developing constitutional government, and by degrees obtaining concessions from Austria. Thus they have recently obtained permission to use the Czech language in the deliberations of their Diet, and have re-established the Bohemian University, of which John Huss was Rector in Prague.

The events of 1859 and 1866 greatly helped the Bohemians. The Protestants, specially, benefited by decrees issued in 1861, 1868, and 1874. A perusal of these decrees would lead one to believe that complete religious freedom had now been granted; and while nominally this is true, as the laws are worked out by officials frequently over zealous for the Romish Church, and as there is still too much of the vexatious meddling of the paternal kind so peculiar to Austrian bureaucracy, practically a great deal has yet to be secured.

The Evangelical Alliance have recently drawn attention to a victory, by constitutional means, of great importance to the civil and religious liberty of the whole Austrian Empire, secured on 22nd April last, when the Supreme Court of law at Vienna decided that parents who had for conscience’ sake left the Romish Church, should be allowed to bring up their children in their own religious convictions. The Government had decided that such children, under pain of compulsion, should be taken to the Romish priest for baptism and for instruction, but the Supreme Court cancelled the order, and declared that, according to Austrian law, parents have the responsibility and the privilege of determining the religious status of their children.

In the year 1864, the late Dr. Duncan, Professor of Hebrew in the New College, Edinburgh, visited Bohemia, and initiated the intercourse between the Reformed Church of Bohemia and the Free Church of Scotland, which has already borne so much fruit. Through his exertions bursaries for Bohemian and Hungarian students of divinity were instituted in the New College, by which twenty-two Bohemians have now been enabled to prosecute their studies in Scotland.

In 1866 seasons of revival were enjoyed by several of the Bohemian congregations, and from that date the Reformed Church has gone on steadily increasing in numbers and in vigour. Several new congregations have been formed. The history of the origin of one such preaching station may be given:—

In the neighbourhood of the town of Koenigratz, where the decisive battle between the Austrian and the Prussian armies took place in the year 1866, is a little town called Horitz, the population of which for the most part consists of quarrymen and stone masons, who work extensive quarries close by. The relatives of Prussians who fell in the great battle desired to raise monuments on the battle-field to the memory of their slain, and some of the masons of Horitz were employed to erect them. The Protestant Prussians in many cases wished a verse of Scripture graved upon these tombstones, and to ensure accurate quotation a German Bible. was sent from Prussia to one of the masons who executed the carving. The man to whom the Bible was thus sent took to reading it, at first mainly from curiosity; but he had not read far when he discovered that the book upon which the Roman Catholic religion is so largely founded contained severe denunciations against much of what is done and taught by that Church. Curiosity and interest now led to serious alarm. At last he told his wife, who, so far from sympathising with his doubts and fears, only remonstrated with her husband for reading a heretical book, and for venting heretical opinions, and straightway told the parish priest, who came to the house with the view of taking possession of the Bible. The husband, however, had hidden his treasure, and the priest was disappointed. Soon afterwards the wife contrived to get possession of the Bible, and for a time her husband was deprived of it; but he subsequently recovered it, and ultimately succeeded in convincing his wife that the Bible was no heretical book,—that it was the only source from which the Roman Church professed to derive its authority. From reading the Bible, this stone-carver took to reading the sermons of John Huss and of other Protestant divines, and succeeded in obtaining some knowledge of Protestant doctrines.

Meanwhile the effect of the change which was being carried out in him began to be seen in his life and conversation. Such a love and admiration had he for the Bible, that he commenced to read it to his neighbours, and in this way a meeting for Bible reading was set agoing almost unconsciously. About this time he happened to meet Pastor Havelka, one of the Evangelical pastors of the Reformed Church, in a railway carriage, and entering into a conversation with him, told him of the manner of his acquaintance with the Bible, and of the Bible readings held in his house, and expressed the desire that Pastor Havelka should visit them. This the pastor did, and the result of further instruction from him was the renunciation by several of the people of Horitz of Roman Catholic superstitions, their admission into the Reformed Church, and the formation of a Protestant preaching station in the town. The leaven thus hid in the midst of a Roman Catholic population has since gone on spreading and increasing, and the station is now one of the most hopeful of those under the charge of the Continental Society of London.

The difficulties with which the Reformed Church has had to contend have not been entirely from without. Twenty years ago Rationalism had a firm hold within her own ministry, but for several years the Evangelical pastors have had a majority in the Church Courts, and now exercise a most beneficial influence over the whole Church. The leading part in recent aggressive movements was taken at first by Senior Janata, distinguished as much for his urbanity of manner and power of suasion as for his poetic gifts and evangelical earnestness, and by Pastor Schubert, gifted with a voice of thunder, and a special aptitude for itinerant preaching and educational work. These two worthies are well supported by the younger generation of ministers, most of whom studied in Edinburgh, the best known of whom are Kaspar, Dusék, Karafiat, and Cisar.

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  1. Thus, if there was a Protestant wedding, the fee belonged to the priest, and the Protestant pastor was responsible for paying it, and so with funerals.
  2. Joseph issued to the schools a politico-moral catechism, which among other extraordinary and incongruous precepts contained the following:—
    “Thou shalt forbear all occasions of dispute relative to matters of faith, and thou shalt according to the true principle of Christianity affectionately and kindly treat those who are not of thy communion.
    “Thou shalt not hold in thy house any private assembly for devotion.
    “Thou shalt not transport out of the land hares’ skin and hares’ ‘fur.’
    “Thou shalt not keep any useless dogs.
    “Thou shalt not plant tobacco without permission of thy lord.”