Bohemian Brethren

Later known as Unitas Fratrum and Moravian Brethren.* In Prague during 1453-54, the preaching of Archbishop Rokycana (who gave Holy Communion in both kinds) led to the foundation of a community in the city guided by his nephew Gregory. This congregation then associated itself with the followers of Peter Chelcicky* (d. 1460). The members sought to fulfill the law of Christ as given in the gospels, and also rejected military service and many aspects of town life. Yet they still believed in the celibacy of priests, the seven sacraments, and other Catholic doctrine; they nonetheless required that their priests be men of integrity, that they give Communion in both kinds, and that they emphasize the place of faith in God through the sacraments.

In 1457 they settled in the village of Kunwald. In the community were three groups: the beginners or penitents, the advanced, and the perfected (the priests). The latter preached and heard confessions in addition to administering the sacraments. Eventually the priesthood was wholly separated from that of the Roman Catholic and Utraquist* churches. The supreme power in the community was vested legally in the synod, comprising all the clergy, but the “Close Council,” made up of ten members of the synod, exercised the real power. As the movement grew there were area synods and dioceses. The latter had a bishop with priests and deacons at the parish level. Discipline and respect for others was instilled at all levels. Schools were regarded as important. A significant holder of the post of presiding bishop in the formative years of the Brethren was Lukas, who dominated the activity from 1496 to 1528, though he was bishop only from 1517. He sought to unify the community and systematically express in writing its doctrines.

Despite persecution, the Brethren increased in numbers and influence in Bohemia. After the death of Lukas the leadership was in the hands of men who were pro-Lutheran; the nobility also assumed greater prominence within the movement-which gave King Ferdinand the excuse he wanted to crush the Brethren in 1547. The seat of government of the Brethren was transferred to Moravia. Many Brethren escaped to Poland, where they helped the cause of reform and eventually joined the new Calvinist church. The leader in Bohemia, John Augusta,* was tortured and kept in prison for sixteen years. By 1609 the Brethren who had returned to their homeland managed to gain state recognition for their religion, but only through a confederation with the Utraquists, who were now Lutheran in theology. The Brethren were thus able to retain their own organization and regulations, and even their own Creed (1564), while the Bohemian Lutherans held to the Augsburg Confession.* Both groups claimed their confession to be in harmony with the Bohemian Confession of 1575.

Definitive form was given to the polity and discipline of the Brethren at the Synod of Zeravic in 1616, but it was never fully implemented: the Battle of the White Mountain (1620) virtually destroyed Protestantism in Bohemia and Moravia for over 150 years. Scattered groups of Brethren managed to survive, and these accepted the invitation of Count Zinzendorf* to join the Herrnhuter in 1721. One famous seventeenth-century bishop was J.A. Comenius.*

Biblography: J.T. Müller, Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder (3 vols., 1922-31); E. Langton, A History of the Moravian Church (1956); M. Spinka, John Hus and the Czech Reform (1941).