Jan Comenius and the Unity of the Brethren

Jan Comenius and the Unity of the Brethren*

One of the most brilliant sons of the Church is a man almost nobody remembers today, although he belongs indisputably to the whole Christian church.

His name is Jan Amos Comenius, a follower of Jan Hus of Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), the martyr burned at the stake in 1415 for his preaching. Hus taught that God's Word should be read in the language of the people, instead of Latin. He also preached the equality of believers, and opposed Catholic hierarchy and its assumption of spiritual authority over the lives of common believers. Huss broke away from the Catholic Church in protest. Many others followed and founded several groups that later joined their efforts with the following century's European Reformation.
Comenius (1592-1670) was a pastor of one of these break-away Protestant groups in Bohemia, called Unity of the Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum, a subgroup associated with the Moravian Brethren. The Thirty Years War began in Bohemia, Comenius's homeland, when Jan was twenty-six years old. Many citizens, mostly Protestants, were unhappy when the new Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria took the throne and cracked down against Protestants. Determined to restore all his territory to Catholicism, he closed and destroyed most Protestant churches across the land. In the decisive Battle of White Mountain in 1620, near Prague, he defeated the Protestants, became the Holy Roman Emperor, and ordered the arrest of all non-Catholics. Most of these fled the country.
Comenius became Unity's leader in exile. The Brethren dispersed throughout Europe. Some fled with Comenius to Poland; some to Transylvania (now part of Hungary); some to Germany. Wherever they went, they found persecution, caught between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics, all government sponsored churches at the time. The Unity of the Brethren were never allowed to return to their homeland. From different countries where Comenius resided, sometimes in caves or hollowed out trees, or with friends, Jan wrote to his scattered church.
He too preached the equality of believers and opposed ecclesiastical hierarchy. He condemned both the use of force in matters of faith and the participation of Christians in political power struggles, especially in war. He preached against materialism and the amassing of secular power, and thought the true church should avoid them. These notions did not sit well with the authorities. The Unity was outlawed and persecuted by secular and religious powers alike. Though he watched his scattered church die out during his lifetime, Jan continued each day to work for his church and its renewal.
Comenius contributed much to Christian life in Europe during his lifetime. He called for other denominations to embrace and welcome into their fold the Unity Brethren, which many groups did - Moravian Brethren, Herrnhut and Zinzendorf, and many more. In the band of Brethren who came to Herrnhut, Zinzendorf sensed a community dedicated to one concept: “serving the Savior to save the world.” The seed grew in Herrnhut, but it did not stay there.

The strength of the church was renewed when it reached out from the small Herrnhut community into the world with the simple gospel message. David Nitschmann and Leonard Dober became its first missionaries to the West Indies. Others followed to Greenland, to Africa, to Asia, to North America. The “hidden seed” came to life and bore fruit for the Savior throughout the world.
Known as the "Father of Modern Education," Comenius presented a "scientific" approach to curriculum design, particularly to childhood education. His use of visuals to convey content was revolutionary, and he wrote and published the first picture book for children. His advocacy for all people to learn, "from the cradle to the grave," included men, women, girls, and boys alike, and earned him global acclaim. Even Jean Piaget heralded Comenius as “the first to conceive a full scale science of education.” And with his Janua Linguarum, he unlocked languages so that the rich and poor could learn to read.

Comenius also worked for peace. Citing Luther, he urged governments to spend 100 times as much on education as they did on preparation for war. He prayed earnestly for the day when “peace would come” to all lands, but he knew that the only true peace came from knowing Jesus Christ, the Savior. He personally went to the peace conference at Breda in May of 1667, three years before he died, to plead for peace.
Finally, in what sounds like the ecumenical language of today, Comenius wrote: “To all Christians together I bequeath a lively desire for unanimity of opinion and for reconciliation among themselves, and for union in faith, and love of the unity of spirit.” His hope and prayer was that all the world should come to know the saving Word of God.
At his death, Comenius had written 154 books and was the last surviving pastor of the Unity church tradition. He died on 4 November 1670 in Amsterdam, having lived in exile for forty-two of his seventy-eight years. There is now a Comenius museum in Naarden, Holland, the place of his burial. We salute this month the quiet, wandering, thinking giant of the Church, and his enduring hope for restoration, unity, and peace.
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
*Much of the material in this article is adapted from Christian History Magazine, Issue 13, 1987.
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