Glimpses of Bohemia/The Centenary of the Toleration of Protestantism, 1881

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IN May, 1881, the Presbyterian Churches of Britain were invited to appoint delegates to attend the Synods of the Reformed Church in Bohemia and Moravia. In compliance with this invitation the Established Church of Scotland commissioned Rev. Dr. Marshall Lang and Mr. John Neilson Cuthbertson, both of Glasgow. The Free Church, Rev. Dr. Laughton, Moderator of the last Assembly; Rev. James Pirie, missionary to the Jews at Prague; Rev. Andrew Moody, missionary at Pesth; Rev. Thomas Crerar, of North Leith, and myself; while the United Presbyterian Church sent Rev. Dr. Scott, their Home Mission Secretary. The English Presbyterian Synod was represented by the Rev. Robert Lundie and Mr. Samuel Smith, both of Liverpool. The Moravian Synod met on 19th September, the Bohemian on 13th October, 1881. The long interval between the two meetings rendered it difficult for delegates to attend both, only Dr. Scott and Mr. Pirie being able to do so.

Let me here say a word on the relation of Bohemia and Moravia, and of the two synods to each other. The dominions of the Bohemian Crown include Moravia and Silesia, so that, in a conventional sense, Bohemia covers the whole; just as in ordinary language, England covers England and Wales. The case of England and Wales is closely approximate to that of Bohemia and Moravia, for the Crown Prince of Bohemia was Margrave of Moravia, as ours is Prince of Wales. There is not, however, as between the English and the Welsh a difference in race and language. Bohemians and Moravians are alike Czech, and use that Slavonic tongue. The House of Hapsburg finds it convenient to govern Bohemia and Moravia as separate provinces, and decrees that the Reformed Church in each province shall meet in a separate Synod, but in no true sense do these Synods represent separate Churches.[1] Indeed we found that most of the pastors in Moravia were born Bohemians, while some of those in Bohemia were born Moravians.

Mr. Crerar and I, travelling together, reached Prague on the evening of Saturday, 17th September, where we were welcomed by Mr. Pirie. On Monday morning we started with Mr. Pirie for Klobouk, joining Dr. Lang and Mr. Cuthbertson in the train. The journey from Prague to Brünn occupied five hours. With beautiful weather such as we fortunately enjoyed, the scenery, we passed, in itself would have gratified the eye; but as Mr. Pirie poured out historical lore, connecting the different localities with incidents in the Hussite, Thirty Years, Seven Years’, or Seven Weeks’ Wars, any one would indeed have been a heartless being who had not his emotions stirred and his sympathies enlisted in behalf of the people of this most interesting country, which well may be styled the “cockpit” of Europe.

Arrived at Brünn, we were received at the station by Pastor Cisar, who conveyed us in carriages to Klobouk, a town of 3500 inhabitants, quite off the line usually followed by travellers. Indeed, the delegates were informed that they were the first Scotchmen who had been seen in Klobouk within the memory of man, although a Scottish lady had recently visited the Reformed pastors in the Moravian Highlands. Explanation of the choice of such a meeting place is unnecessary to those acquainted with the history of Protestantism in Bohemia and Moravia. The churches erected under the Edict of Toleration were located in the most out of the way situations; they were not permitted to have the outward appearance of churches, nor to have doors opening on a main street, and both steeples and bells were also prohibited. These restrictions were only removed by the decrees of 1863 and 1866. Some of the congregations hastening to take advantage of their new liberties, have recently erected steeples close by their old churches, and aim by-and-by at building churches to these steeples to replace the worn-out, barn-like edifices erected 100 years ago.

Notwithstanding the insinuating dust by which we were now thoroughly begrimed, we were enjoying the drive to Klobouk, through the rich undulating plains near Brünn, little dreaming of the succession of surprises before us, when we reached the village of Selowitz, where we had been told the horses would be changed. On alighting, we were received by the Superintendent (permanent Moderator) of the Synod, Pastor Benes, who delivered an address of welcome in Latin. The cortege, now consisting of seven carriages, each drawn by a pair of the fiery little horses of the country, proceeded rapidly over the ground occupied by the Russians during the battle of Austerlitz, and had made some progress in ascending the heights beyond, when, at a point where the road dipped into a hollow, the astonished delegates found themselves surrounded by a brilliant escort of forty mounted peasant youths, each bearing a gaily-emblazoned Hussite banner. Presently the carriages stopped, and an elder of the Klobouk congregation, advancing from a crowd of the people, who had come to the confines of the parish to meet the Superintendent and delegates, delivered an address in Czech. The feelings of the moment were too intense to allow one to think of such a trivial circumstance as the picturesqueness of the incident; but now one cannot but recall the surroundings. The winding road is visible only for a few hundred yards above us. The highest point is occupied by the advance guard of the brightly dressed cavaliers, with their beaded hats, embroidered coats, elaborate saddle-cloths, and glittering banners. Then the line of carriages stretches down from the point at which we stand, with a couple of the escort between each, and the rearguard, half hid by the fruit trees which line the road, are two or three hundred yards below. On the bank to the left of the foremost carriage, a crowd of peasants, mostly women, in the gay costume of the district, consisting of bright, highly-wrought bodice, large Elizabethan-like collar, red head-covering, variously coloured dress, and Hessian boots, but also including a good many hard-featured, clear-eyed, weather-beaten men, stand separated by a short space from the small group of pastors, plainly dressed in black, among whom are five travel-stained foreigners. In the space between, two tall, erect figures stand by themselves-one the stalwart elder, a powerful, active man, past his prime; the other the venerable-looking Superintendent, a man of noble presence. The elder delivered an address of welcome, the Superintendent and Dr. Marshall Lang briefly reply, the latter speaking through an interpreter.

Proceeding towards Klobouk, still six miles off, the procession passed slowly through hamlets decorated with flags, and was constantly greeted by fresh groups of peasants. Between the villages a brisk pace was maintained, and soon we were within earshot of the Klobouk bells. The town lies embosomed in a valley, white houses rising tier above tier almost to the ridge of the enclosing hills, on one of which several windmills stand, as if they were colossal sentries keeping watch and ward. The houses are separated by gardens and vineyards, while the streets are lined with beautiful acacia trees. The Protestant houses bore flags of the Austrian and Moravian colours, many of them bearing the symbolic cup in the centre. At the entrance to the village square, a floral arch had been erected, bearing in large letters, “Vitejte!” the Bohemian for “Welcome.” Passing under the arch, the procession entered the square, where a large crowd had assembled to witness the arrival of the delegates at the principal inn, and received them with every mark of respect.

On the evening of arrival, the opening sermon was preached to the Synod by Pastor Cisar. The church was packed in every part, and numbers of people also stood round the open windows and door. The appearance of the congregation was most striking. The women were all to the right of the pulpit, the men to the left, the red head-dresses and white collars of the former contrasting more vividly with the dark costumes of the latter when thus arranged en masse. The children occupied the gallery, boys and girls being separated by the organ. The large number of young men present was remarkable. All listened most attentively to the sermon, which was first preached in Czech, and then re-preached in English for the benefit of the strangers, the congregation patiently waiting through the delivery of the English, although so many of them were standing. Pastor Cisar, in his welcome to the delegates, spoke of them as the first of those who did not, like the priest and the Levite, pass by, but like the Samaritan, helped the poor maltreated and oppressed Protestants of Bohemia. In the course of his sermon, he compared with much ingenuity the trials of Bohemia during the anti-reformation times to the plagues of Egypt, the Jesuits who had specially endeavoured to destroy the evangelical literature of the old Unitas Fratrum being set down as the devouring locusts. God had not, he said, forgotten Bohemia in 1621, but Bohemia turned away from God, who allowed her own sons to shed each other’s blood on pretext of defending the faith. The Bohemians had brought misfortune on themselves by electing an inexperienced German youth as king. The exiled Bohemians, who fled after the defeat of 1621, had become blessings to the countries where they found refuge, but they had lost their language, and all recollection of their connection with the Fatherland; and their descendants could now only be reached by the general appeal for aid to the Churches who had profited so much from their labours, and who were the spiritual offspring of the Bohemian Sion. The Emperor Joseph II., Pastor Cisar compared to Cyrus in a most interesting manner. The Edict of Toleration called the Protestant Church into life again, but gave it no sustaining power. Protestants were still, he said, looked upon by the authorities as a nuisance—a necessary evil.

On Tuesday, 20th inst., the church was crowded to overflowing by eight o’clock in the morning. After sermon by Senior Nespor, the delegates were introduced, each making a short speech, Mr. Cisar showing wonderful readiness in translating English, German, Italian, and Latin, into Czech.

The remainder of the day was spent by the delegates in private intercourse with the pastors, most of whom are highly cultivated and earnest men. The delegates were also able to see a little of the neighbourhood. The land in this district is entirely in the hands of peasant proprietors, the average holding being about ten acres. The population appear to be quite independent of the outside world, and to have food, wine, and clothing, all of their own production, in abundance; but there is no trade, and money rarely passes through their hands. With no middle or upper class to bestir energy and introduce new ideas, this peasantry have lived for generations, son after father, in the same simple way. Habits of cleanliness are notably prevalent, a slovenly dressed person or an untidy house being alike exceptional.

On the following morning there was still a large attendance, although the church was not overcrowded as on the previous days. After devotional services in Czech and in English, a very striking address was delivered in Czech by Mr. Karafiat, of whom more immediately. A solemn farewell service followed, and before noon most of the delegates were off on their homeward journey.

From Klobouk, Mr. Crerar and I drove to Auzpitz—two hours distant. This town is in the parish of a Pastor Sèbesta, who was educated, and for sometime acted as a pastor, at Elberfeld. The church and manse are situated in a secluded village, with a small population, some five or six miles off; but the Pastor, having acquired through his father-in-law a property in the town, has removed his residence to Auzpitz, where he is assiduously engaged in forming a congregation. Part of the property he has converted into a preaching hall, and he has already gathered about 150 people. The teaching of the old Hussites still influences the people in the rural districts, notwithstanding the efforts of the Romish priests to counteract and defeat it. In this neighbourhood, the pastor said, family worship, including reading of the Scriptures and psalm singing, was quite common until about thirty years ago, even among those who were registered as Romanists, but the Jesuits have now almost succeeded in stamping this practice out. Pastor Sèbesta’s colporteur, however, lately found a Roman Catholic family in which the Bible was read night and morning, and on inquiring how it came about that they observed this habit, he was told, “It has come down to us from our fathers.” In the same neighbourhood, two years ago, a priest found a man with a Bible. Seizing the book the priest said, “To the peasant belongs the hay-fork, to the priest the Bible.” “No,” replied the peasant, as he wrested the book from the other’s grasp, “the Bible is mine, and I will keep it.”

Our next visit was to Lhota, in the Little Carpathians, the highland parish of which Mr. Karafiat is pastor. The journey was one which neither of us will readily forget. From Auspitz we had taken train to Vienna, where we spent a couple of days. Leaving Vienna at 8 P.M., we reached a town in the eastern part of Moravia, named Pohl, at four next morning. At that early hour, in the dark, and with several degrees of frost, we had to transfer ourselves from the warm railway carriage to a cold, draughty, cumbrous “post waggon,” not unlike, but much heavier than the old mail-coaches we were familiar with at home. In this conveyance we were jolted over rough roads at a leisurely pace until seven o’clock, when we reached Wallachish Meseritsh, a town of about 6000 people. Here we were met by Mr. Karafiat’s beadle, who was to guide us over the hills to his master’s house. After breakfasting in the principal inn, at the cost of twopence each (12 kreuzers), we hired a carriage, in which we drove to Stritez, a village with a good Protestant congregation., From Stritez we had to walk, as there is no proper road over the hill, although occasionally, after special preparation, carriages have been brought over. The ridge between Stritez and Lhota forms the watershed, the streamlets on the north draining to the Baltic, while those on the south find their way to the Danube and Black Sea. Three-quarters of an hour’s sharp climbing brought us to the top of the ridge, at a point where it was clear of wood, and then we had the full enjoyment of the view. Glimpses through the trees had given us some foretaste of what we might expect, but had not prepared us for so grand a panorama as now lay before us. We were looking down on a broad strath of fertile country, dotted with towns and villages, and enlivened by a meandering river which here and there showed a glistening bend in the sunshine. Wooded hills, of pleasing contour, rose on the opposite side of the valley, while the higher hills of Silesia appeared beyond. Away to the north-east we could also see the cloud-capped tops of great mountains on the Hungarian frontier. Resuming our march, and looking to what was nearer us, we were surprised to find the grass full of crocuses, a sight we don’t see at home in September. Then a shepherd boy marched past us with his flock following, the leading sheep having a bell of roughly-hammered metal suspended from its neck. Soon we reached the southern side of the ridge and commenced the descent to Lhota. The view here was also most striking—totally different from that to the north. Instead of a broad strath, we looked down on a twisting glen, almost a ravine, well wooded, and surrounded by a sea of hill tops clad with pine, and exhibiting great variety of configuration, reminding one somewhat of the Deeside scenery about Ballater. Mr. Karafiat’s manse, a substantial little house, stands high on a hill, side, so embosomed in trees as to be quite invisible until one is close to it. The church stands a few yards apart from the manse. It is a wooden building, erected in 1784, in such a curious style that one might puzzle a long time over the purpose for which it was built before venturing to set it down as a church. We found it, however, to be most suitable, alike to the locality and the circumstances of the people.

On Sabbath we heard Mr. Karafiat preach to a congregation of nearly four hundred. The interior of the church we found to be well arranged, and wonderfully comfortable. In appearance, the congregation presented a great contrast to that at Klobouk. Here the people were darker and smaller, and had a pinched, weather-beaten look such as one finds among the poor classes of the Irish peasantry. For many years drunkenness has had a baneful effect in this district. It does not pay innkeepers, we were told, to bring up either wine or beer from the lowlands, hence they keep only brandy; and brandy-drinking, with insufficient feeding, has so deteriorated the physique of the people that now few of the men can be taken for military service. Mr. Karafiat was preaching a temperance sermon, which was listened to with the deepest attention. His kirk-session, he afterwards told us, are so keenly alive to the necessity of discountenancing drinking that they take on discipline all who are seen in the tap-room of an inn. We were struck by the great social gap between Mr. Karafiat, one of the most scholarly and cultured men either of us had ever met, and his people, who are comparatively uneducated, and all of the crofter class, earning a scanty subsistence from their little properties of from five to ten acres, eked out by occasional employment as woodsmen in the forests of the graf, whose huge estates surround this glen. But, notwithstanding, under the quickening and refining influence of God’s Spirit, a greater number of these men are capable of giving real help in the congregational work than is usually found in our congregations in Britain and America, Mr. Karafiat has evidently been useful, not only in promoting the spiritual, but also the temporal welfare of his flock, and his influence is extending over neighbouring pastors and people. Here at Lhota we found evidence of the good done through Pastor Schubert’s institution for girls at Krabschitz. Four girls belonging to this parish have now returned after undergoing training at the institution. One has married, and is not now able to undertake much work; one, while still in a hopeful way, appears to have scarcely sufficient decision to enable her to bear the cross in the way which work for Christ in such a community implies. The other two, however, are giving valuable assistance, both in Sabbath-school and sewing-class work, the latter being practical instruction in the use of the needle, which, it seems, the women sadly need. In the interval between the diets of worship on Sabbath, one of these girls was conducting a prayer meeting, with about thirty women, in the churchyard as we passed. If the institution sends but two such workers to every parish in Bohemia and Moravia, who can estimate the good which may result?

Mr. Karafiat certainly is a. man who “seeks souls for his hire,” and with whom one cannot be in contact without feeling something of the reality and power of practical godliness.

In the afternoon of the Sabbath we spent at Lhota, we walked to Stritez, where, after sermon by Pastor Jelinek, Mr. Crerar gave an address in English, translated by Mr. Karafiat, as had been done at Lhota in the morning. The Austrian Government apportioned the whole country into Protestant parishes, and Mr. Jelinek’s parish stands out as the largest, embracing as it does the whole province of Silesia, in addition to a big slice of north-eastern Moravia. The law gives him the right, either by himself or an authorised vicar, to preach in any place where he finds a Protestant, and he is anxious to take advantage of this right. This important opportunity for evangelistic effort should not be neglected.

With the assistance of the Gustavus Adolphus Society, large ecclesiastical edifices have been put up in some of the Moravian parishes, but they prove veritable white elephants to the people. Mr. Karafiat’s wooden church is kept in constant repair by members of his own session, at a trifling cost, while the large churches I have referred to require tradesmen, such as masons and plasterers, who have to be brought great distance at considerable expense. We saw one such church, the congregation meeting in which were in the greatest anxiety as to how they were to raise funds to keep it in repair. A lesson this to our committees if they think of helping in the building of new churches.

Reluctantly saying farewell to Mr. Karafiat on Tuesday morning (27th September), and travelling all that day, we reached Kolin, in the centre of Bohemia, late at night. Once a fortified stronghold, Kolin is now a busy manufacturing town, with a population of 12,000. The fortifications are hid by the tall factories, the old palace of King George of Podiebrad is used as a municipal office, the castle as a brewery. Still, the town has an attractive appearance, especially when seen from the opposite bank of the Elbe. In the days of Huss, Kolin declared for his views, and it was for long a stronghold of the Taborites. But from the disaster of 1621, until Mr. Dusék’s appointment in 1868—that is, for almost 250 years the town was without a Protestant pastor. Mr. Dusék’s congregation is now in possession of some interesting relics of the Taborite times. They were found in the neighbourhood of Kolin in 1866, along with two skeletons, one of which is now supposed to have been that of Prokopius, the Taborite priest, while the other was evidently that of a knight. Beside the priest were found a beautiful communion cup of beaten silver, with exquisitely chased ornamentation, part of a glass plate used for the sacramental bread, black glass buttons, and the remains of the brass clasps and leather binding of a book, doubtless a Bible. Beside the knight, silver spurs and buckles, and the rusted remains of a sword.

The first day with Mr. Dusék was spent in visiting Kuttenberg, once the second city of Bohemia, and remembered on account of the wholesale martyrdom which took place at its silver mines, down the shafts of which upwards of 4000 Hussites were thrown. It is famous also in Bohemian history for the victories gained by Zizka in its neighbourhood. Its population 400 years ago was 30,000, now it has barely 16,000, of whom only 200 are Protestants. There are many interesting buildings in this town, including a ruined castle of the Bohemian kings, the old mint, and silver exchange. The latter, with its heavy masonry and grated windows, bears a striking testimony to the former wealth of the city. The half-finished church of St. Barbara, standing conspicuously on the highest part of the town, a splendid specimen of Bohemian Gothic architecture, is specially worthy of a visit, for not only has it several unique architectural features, but in the course of recent restorations, ancient frescoes of great interest, supposed to date prior to the Hussite times, have been disclosed. The features given to our Lord, the Virgin, and others, are entirely different from those we see elsewhere, and suggest a sceptical view of the authenticity of the generally received portraits.

In Austria the Government keep the growth, manufacture, and sale of tobacco a monopoly in their own hands. The leaf is allowed to be grown only in Hungary, a restriction which gives the Bohemians one of their many grudges against the Hungarians, but there are manufactories in various parts of the empire. Near Kuttenberg there is a large cigar factory, employing 3000 women. I once saw them come out from work, and it was an extraordinary sight, so many women, and not a man visible, except the porter, a gigantic old soldier, who looked all the bigger that the girls streaming past him were mostly small and slim. Cigar-making is not a healthy employment, and the appearance of these poor girls is said to have cured some men, if not of smoking, at least of smoking cigars.

Close to the cigar factory is a church, in the crypt of which is a huge collection of human bones. In many parts of Europe, even in England, one sees “bone houses;” but I have never seen or heard of one so beautifully arranged as this. As you enter the staircase to descend into the crypt, you are confronted by a shield formed of the larger bones, with the Schwarzenberg arms (Prince Schwarzenberg is Lord of the Manor), wrought with finger and toe bones. At the sides are large vases, the rims of which are formed of skulls. When you get to the floor you find yourself between four pyramids of skulls, reaching from floor to ceiling; while festoons formed of an alternate skull and fore-arm hang between. There are chandeliers and candlesticks, even crucifixes, all of bone, and on the confessional box a death’s head and cross bones, not in paint, but in grim reality. In a side room one is shown skulls of men killed in battle, with all the marks of various weapons; so that one may study the different fractures caused by stones, bullets, shells, swords, or maces. This terrible collection had been recently arranged when I visited it in 1874, and I was told that it now contains only one-fifth of the bones which formerly lay in the church. The bones were, I understand, mostly bleached in the battlefields of the neighbourhood. They are certainly clean and well preserved, and to me there was nothing repulsive or fearsome in the sight, but I did feel that there was something sacrilegious and outrageous to natural feeling in this treatment of human remains. The church is a great place of pilgrimage at certain seasons of the year.

The Synod of the Bohemian section of the Church was to meet at Prague on the 13th October, but unfortunately neither of us was able to attend. What follows regarding it is from letters written by Mr. Dusék and Mr. Pirie.

The Synod met in St. Clements, the only Reformed Church in Prague, on 13th October, the very anniversary of the Edict of Toleration. The church was crowded by about 2000 people, many of them from distant parishes, and of the forty-six pastors thirty-seven were present, the remaining nine being detained either by old age or illness. Both the singing and the prayers were unusually solemn and hearty, while Pastor Schubert in the opening sermon, avoiding the historical allusions usual on such occasions, declared from Luke xix. 41 and 42 the message of the Gospel, and urged his fellow-pastors to be faithful in bringing men to Christ. The Superintendent then delivered an opening address from the 129th Psalm. The church was decorated with evergreens and banners, the latter bearing the Hussite symbol—a sacramental cup on a Bible. The pastors wore gowns and bands, and formed a striking group as they stood round the Superintendent’s rostrum. Addresses were delivered by the foreign delegates—Dr. Laughton, moderator of the General Assembly, and Mr. Pirie, missionary to the Jews, from the Free Church of Scotland; Dr. Scott of the United Presbyterian Church; and Dr. Cattel, of La Fayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania.

In the evening a meeting of the Bohemian Evangelical Alliance—a kind of missionary society—was held. Senior Janata opened with an historical survey. Pastor Szalatnay then read a memoir by his grandfather, one of the Hungarian pastors who came to Bohemia after the proclamation of the Edict, and several others delivered stirring addresses. On the following day the Synod adjourned until 28th November, as the lay members could not remain from home until the completion of the beet harvest.

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  1. See Report by Pastor Cisar to Committee on Confessions of Presbyterian Alliance. Proceedings of Philadelphia Council, p. 1097.