The oldest Protestant church

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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Last week, I was privileged to help Labrador Moravians celebrate their 550th anniversary as the oldest Protestant church by presenting two lectures at the Labrador Interpretation Centre in North West River.

The anniversary event featured the Hopedale schools brass band under the inspiring direction of Nicole Burt, award-winning music teacher at Amos Comenius school.

Amos Lyall of North West River and the provincial chair of the Moravian Church in Labrador, Joan Andersen of Makkovik, presided.

My anniversary lectures included these reflections.



In 1457, sixty years before Martin Luther began his Reformation in Germany, followers of the reformer Jan Hus settled in a small community in northern Bohemia.

Huss attempt to reform and revive a church in crisis had led to his arrest, trial and subsequent burning at the stake in Constance four decades earlier, resulting in upheaval and bloodshed among the Czech people.

Eventually, a national church movement emerged, in search of spiritual, theological and institutional renewal.

Huss revival and martyrdom spawned a spectrum of different factions, especially radical Taborites (named after their main city) in southern Bohemia and more moderate reformers under Archbishop Rokycana of Prague.



Powerful preacher

Yet even in Pragues famous Tyne Church, where Rokycana continued Huss legacy as a powerful reform preacher, people led by the archbishops nephew, Brother Gregory, a tailor, came to believe that hope did not lie with institutions and individuals but in communities guided by Christ through his holy spirit.

The movement around Brother Gregory grew and received new spiritual impulses from Peter Chelcicky, a lay theologian and original thinker who powerfully contrasted the church of his day with the apostolic ideal.

In his most famous book, The Net of Faith, Chelcicky compared the Christian message based on scripture with a large fishing net that pulled humans from the ocean of the world.

As humankind struggled for salvation, two great whales had torn the net of faith a worldly pope and pagan emperor.

Chelcicky counselled his fellow Christians to abstain totally from earthly power and to separate themselves wherever possible from the world.

Brother Gregorys group, influenced by people like Rokycana and Chelcicky, moved into the mountain village of Kunvald, in the parish of a congenial and blameless priest, Father Michael.



Churchs beginning

This separation from the world, expressed in the move to Kunvald in 1457, marks the beginning of the Old Moravian Church. Over the next 10 years, the movement defined itself gradually as a religious fellowship separate from the Roman Catholic Church and distinct from other Hussite groups.

This process of normative self-definition transformed the group into a Christ-centred body of believers with its own priesthood and bishop, elected by the drawing of lots.

Their most distinctive spiritual experience was the effort to arrive at unanimous decisions in community.

Thus God renews his church by renewing his holy spirit, they declared in an early synodal statement, so that they might serve him and each other through the love of the Spirit, so that in the last days like in the beginning of the apostolic faith many are of one heart and of one soul.

Their search for unity in unanimity found expression in the official Latin name for the Moravian Church, Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren), and the Czech original name, Jednota Bratrska (Brotherly Community).

Setting high ethical standards for themselves, Moravians have always sought to avoid conflict and competition with other Christians by planting their missions in places where no other missionaries had gone as, for example, on the north coast of Labrador.

Although they were often persecuted, Moravians nevertheless made significant cultural contributions, such as translating the Bible into the common language of people who received them.

They also promoted universal education for male and female children, which became a reality in Labrador as early as 1780. One of the founders of modern education was the 17th-century Moravian bishop Amos Comenius, after whom the school in Hopedale is named.

In the 15th century, people in German-speaking areas of Moravia responded to the evangelization of the Czech Brethren but experienced much repression after the Thirty Years War.

Many German-speaking Moravians fled to Saxony, where Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf permitted them to practice their religion freely and settle on his estates in Herrnhut.

Zinzendorf renewed the old Moravian Church in 1727 and established a worldwide missionary effort.



Labrador link

There is an especially relevant link between the Old Moravian Church in todays Czech Republic and Labrador Moravians. Among the earliest missionaries to the Inuit who established Nain in 1771 was a couple from Moravia, Johann and Elisabeth (Ertel) Schneider.

Johanns and Elisabeths families were leaders in preserving the old Moravian Church in Moravia during the persecution. On Feb. 19, 1776, in Nain, Johann Schneider baptized Kingminguse, who became the first Inuk to be converted in Labrador.

That baptism related Labrador to Moravia in a direct way, spiritually and personally.

The Schneiders later pioneered in Okak and Hopedale, and lie buried in the oldest graveyard in Hopedale, where their withered stone markers can still be seen today.



Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca

Organizations: Old Moravian Church, Protestant church, Labrador Interpretation Centre Amos Comenius school Pragues famous Tyne Church Roman Catholic Church Brotherly Community

Geographic location: Labrador, Hopedale, Czech Republic North West River Germany Northern Bohemia Southern Bohemia Moravia Prague Saxony Herrnhut Okak

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