On March 1, 1457, one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, the Moravian Church, formally known as the Unity of the Brethren, was founded in the village of Kunvald, in the Kingdom of Bohemia, during the Bohemian Reformation.
The Hussite movement that was to become the Moravian Church was started by Jan Hus, a rector at Charles University and a preacher at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, who objected to some of the practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church. Among other things, he wanted the liturgy to be celebrated in Czech.
Jan Hus also denounced the moral failings of bishops and even the papacy from his pulpit and opposed the sale of indulgences, Church documents which supposedly shortened or terminated a soul’s stay in purgatory. Notably, he spoke out against Antipope John XXIII for selling indulgences in Bohemia to raise money, which did not sit well with King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, who had received a share from indulgence sales.
When the Council of Constance assembled in 1415, Hus was asked to be there and present his views on the dissension within the church. But when he arrived, he was immediately arrested and put in prison. Refusing to recant his views, Jan Hus was burned at the stake for heresy.
Hus’ followers, who became known as Hussites, refused to elect another Catholic monarch and took up arms. So Pope Martin V published a papal bull in which he ordered Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to organize a crusade against the Bohemian Hussites. But the crusading army was defeated by Hussite commander Jan Žižka at the Battle of Vítkov Hill in 1420.
The Hussites defeated four more consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 in what became known as the Hussite Wars, before the religious conflict turned into the so-called Hussite civil war, fought between the more compromising Utraquist and the radical Taborite factions of the Hussite movement.
Nonetheless, within fifty years of Jan Hus’ death, some of his followers had become independently organised as the “Bohemian Brethren” (Čeští bratři) or Unity of the Brethren (Jednota bratrská) in Kunvald. Since these actions predate the Protestant Reformation by a century, some historians claim the Moravian Church was the first Protestant church.
Schools and printing-shops established by the Moravian Church began to flourish throughout the Bohemian Crown, and by the middle of the 16th centuy, as many as 90 per cent of the inhabitants of the Czech lands were Protestant. Bohemia and Moravia remained majority Hussite for two centuries until Catholicism was reimposed by the Emperor after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620.
Severely persecuted during the counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War, the Moravian Church was forced to operate underground and eventually dispersed across Northern Europe as far as the Low Countries. The largest remaining communities of the Brethren were located in Leszno in Poland, which had historically strong ties with the Czechs, and in small, isolated groups across Moravia.
In the early 18th century, a small group of the Bohemian Brethren who had been living in northern Moravia as an illegal underground remnant surviving in the Catholic setting of the Habsburg Empire for nearly 100 years, arrived at the Berthelsdorf estate of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a German nobleman who had been brought up in the Lutheran traditions.
The refugees established a new village called Herrnhut, not far from Berthelsdorf, which became the centre of a major movement for Christian renewal and mission during the 18th century. Within 30 years, the Moravian Church led the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement, sending hundreds of missionaries across the world, including the Caribbean, North and South America, the Arctic, Africa, and the Far East.
The modern Moravian Church, with about 750,000 members worldwide, continues to draw on traditions established during the 18th-century renewal. They place high value on ecumenism, personal piety, missions, and music. The Moravians continue their long tradition of missionary work, which is reflected in their broad global distribution.
The Moravian tradition is continued in the Czech and Slovak Republics today, although they only account for 0.8% of the population…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.