Edmund Alexander De Schweinitz.

The history of the church known as the Unitas Fratrum, Or, The unity of the Brethren, founded by the followers of John Hus, The Bohemian reformer amd martyr online

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sinners to earn forgiveness through meritorious acts.

^ The tendency of German Moravian writers, such as John Plitt, Bishop
Croeger, and especially Dr. Herman Plitt, is to make prominent the weak
points of the theology ot the U. F. prior to the Eeformation, and to ascribe
undue weight to its influence in subsequently shaping that theology. While
no one can deny that the Reformation did exercise an influence, to a certain
extent, upon the doctrinal system of the Brethren, its original biblical
character and evangelical features ought rather to be urged, both of which
are astonishing when we consider the age to which they belonged. John
Plitt accuses the Brethren of a tendency to worship the Virgin Mary !

^ Czerwenka, II. pp. 115-122, according to the " Dekreten."


civil law, were not recognized as a privileged order by the
statutes of the Unity. Not only were these alike binding
upon them and upon the humblest member, but there existed
also special rules for their conduct as manor-lords and office-
bearers under the government. In the same way were pre-
scribed, according to the Scriptures, the duties of dependents
and serfs and servants. The laborer in the field, the artisan
in his shop, and the tradesman with his wares, were not
forgotten. Their concerns were carefully regulated with a
view to industry, to honesty and to the glory of God.
Certain occupations were deemed dishonorable and hence
were forbidden. To this class belonged the manufacture of
dice, the theatrical profession, painting, music, astrology,
witchcraft, usury, alchemy, pandering and prostitution.

Piety adorned especially the homes of the Brethren.
Parental discipline was strict; the children were instructed
in religion ; the spiritual welfare of the servants was pro-
moted ; around the family altar gathered, every morning and
evening, the entire household. Extravagance and immodesty
in dress, immoderate feasting and unbecoming pastimes were
forbidden. From public amusements, especially the annual
village-fairs, the Brethren stood aloof. They were noted, too,
for their temperance in the use of intoxicating drinks, the
retailing of which was discouraged in every possible way.
Not less remarkable was the manner in which they hallowed
the Lord's day, desecrated as it was by the people in general.
The poor and sick were cared for with all tenderness and love.
Whenever a member of the Church undertook a journey, he
notified his priest, or one of the elders, in order that he might
be included in the prayers of the congregation and publicly
committed into the keeping of God.

Such was the religious life of the Unity. While, to a
certain extent, that puritanical element still appears which
was originated by Peter Chelcicky — the picture is attractive.
The Brethren were true to their profession, reached a type of
Christianity unprecedented in their age, and showed them-
selves to be a royal priesthood and a peculiar people.



The Ministry, Constitution, Ritual and Discipline of the Unitas

Fratrum at the Beginning of Luther's Reformation.

A. D. 1517.

Bishops. — Priests. — Deacons. — Their Ordination. — Acolytes. — Synods. —
The Executive Council. — Its President. — The Judge. — Parishes, and
their Lay Officers. —Official Visits. — Installations. — Public Worship
and the Administration of the Sacraments. — Marriages and Funerals.
— Festival Days. — Fast and Prayer Days. — The Discipline,

The ministry of the Unitas Fratrum embraced the three
orders of bishops, priests or presbyters, and deacons.^ Candi-
dates for the ministry were called acolytes and filled a distinct
office in the Church.

Bishops were elected by the priests, who held a secret
meeting for this purpose, after having spent a day in fasting
and prayer. In case they could not all assemble, such only
were convened as resided. in the district where the Executive

^Sources for this chapter are: Dekrete d. B. U., as reproduced in
German by Czerwenka, II. pp. 76-84 ; Gindely, I. pp. 79-88 ; Apologia
verae doctrinse, etc., 1532-1538 ; Quinta Pars, Lydius, I. Second Part, p.
332, etc.; Ratio Disciplinse Ordinisque Ecclesiastici in Unitate Frat. Boh.,
drawn up in 1616, together with the notes of Comenius (Halle ed. of 1702);
and Seifferth's Ch. Constitution of the Boh. Brethren. London, 1866.
The ministry and discipline were the same in 1517 as in 1616, and in the
century that intervened but few changes were made in the constitution and
ritual ; hence the Ratio Discipline constitutes an important authority for
our review. The changes were mostly unessential and are noted in the


Couucil had its seat. The election was by ballot and each
ticket contained three names. The tickets were given to the
presiding Bishop, who was not permitted to examine them
until the third day, when they were opened and counted in
the presence of the Executive Council. In order to a choice
a unanimous vote was necessary. If the result was not
unanimous, a second ballot, restricted to those who had
received the highest number of votes, was ordered; in case
they scattered even now, the presiding Bishop, after con-
sulting with the Council, decided which of the candidates
should receive the appointment. This mode of election was
gradually changed in so far, that bishops were publicly
chosen at a General Synod and by a majority of votes ; but
the tickets were still opened and counted in private by the
Council. Priests only could be elevated to the episcopacy.

The consecration of bishops was conducted with the utmost
solemnity — in early times, in secret, at a later period, in
public — and generally the day after the result of the election
had been determined. The priests, or in subsequent times
the entire Synod, having assembled and engaged in religious
exercises, the presiding Bishop announced that God had heard
the prayers of His servants ; that a new bishop had been
chosen ; and that it was the duty of the brother thus elected,
when his name would be made known, to obey the divine
call without hesitation and present himself before God and
the Church. Thereupon another bishop published the name.
This was the first intimation which the priest, who had been
chosen, received of his election. His feelings may be imagined
when he came forward and was asked by the presiding Bishop,
in presence of the entire assembly, whether he believed that he
had been called of God and whether he was willing to offer
the service of his life to God and the Church ? If he
answered in the affirmative, the duties of the episcopal office
were read to him from the apostolic canon ; after which he
took the solemn oath prescribed for bishops, promising to
discharge his episcopal obligations and functions faithfully,
sincerely and constantly. Thereu]3on the whole assembly fell


on their knees and the presiding Bishop prayed that God
would ratify in heaven what had been done on earth, that He
would endow His servant with the gifts necessary for the
office he was to fill, and grant to him the spirit of wisdom
and power. The act of consecration immediately followed,
the presiding Bishop invoking the name of God and repeating
the prescribed formula, while all the bishops present took
part in the imposition of hands. Meanwhile the congregation,
still kneeling, engaged in silent intercessions and, when the
consecration had taken place, united in the Veni Creator
Spiritus. At the conclusion of this hymn the bishops
embraced their new colleague and welcomed him to their
ranks as a brother, while the other ministers pledged to him
their right hands in token of obedience. The service was
closed with the celebration of the Holy Communion.

The official title commonly given to a bishop was " Senior."
This, says the Ratio DiscipUnce, was owing to the fact that
the former name " had become odious through the anti-
Christian abuse of it ;" nevertheless it very frequently occurs
in the writings of the Brethren.

The special duties of the bishops were : the ordination and
the superintendence of the ministers; official visits to the
churches; watching over the doctrine and discipline; over-
seeing the publication offices of the Unity ; and providing for
the training of youths of good parts for the service of the
Church. Districts, or dioceses, were assigned to the bishops
at an early time, and when the Unitas Fratrum had increased
to three Provinces, the episcopacy was represented in each

When deacons were to be advanced to the priesthood, they
were subjected to a very careful examination, first by members
of the Council and then by a bishop. The latter examination
was particularly strict. It was " a trial of the conscience" of
the deacon : whether he proposed to follow Christ from pure
love or for a livelihood ? whether he sought the flock or the
fleece? whether he was ready to impart to his hearers not
the Gospel of God only, but his own soul also? (1 Thess.


2 : 8.)- The testimonials furnished by the elders of the
parishes in which the candidates had served as deacons, were
scrutinized by the priests assembled at a Synod, on which
occasion the ordination took place. Their assent to these
testimonials, or their dissent from them, was sent to the
bishops in writing.

Priests were usually ordained in the ember weeks, on a
Sunday ; in the early period of the Church, with closed doors,
but in a later period publicly. The candidates were pre-
sented to the Bishop by two members of the Council, with
these words :

"Venerable brother in Christ, the Bishop, we bear witness
before God and this Church, that these men are of worthy
parentage and education, and that their lives have hitherto been
honest and unblamable ; also, that having been examined by us,
they have been found to be sound in doctrine and faith, and of
a sincere intention to serve Christ and the Church. We therefore
request, in the name of the congregations they are to serve, that
you would confer on them the pastoral office, by the power com-
mitted to you by Christ and the Church, and that you would
confirm them in the same."

The Bishop replied :

"This testimony of yours, given in the presence of the Church
of Christ, is admitted ; and your petition shall be granted in the
name of God." ^

Thereupon a series of questions was put to the candidates ;

having answered these they took the prescribed oath of fidelity

to God and the Church. Then the Bishop addressed them

and said :

"Beloved brethren, that you may entertain a firm hope of
divine assistance, listen to Christ, the eternal High Priest inter-
ceding for you; who, when about to sanctify himself as a victim
for the sins of the world, most fervently commended to His
Father all His followers who should proclaim redemption."

^ " This last trial of the conscience," says Comenius, " was sometimes
so affectingly conducted, that instances are not wanting of persons having
shrunk from the office through alarm of conscience, or their age, or inex-
perience ; feeling more disposed to work out their own salvation than to
be engaged in caring for that of others." Seifferth's Ch. Con., p. 188.

^ Comenius, in Seiiferth's Ch. Con. pp. 188 and 189.


Another bishop now read, from the seventeenth chapter of
St. John, the high priestly prayer of Christ. " It was seldom
heard without tears," says Comenius. The act of ordination
followed, with prayer and the imposition of hands, the Bishop
repeating the prescribed formula and the congregation kneeling
and, as at episcopal consecrations, singing the Veni Creator
Spiritus. Finally the Bishop delivered a charge to the newly
ordained priests, at the close of which, during the singing of
the one hundred and thirty-third psalm, they pledged to him
and his colleagues their right hands in token of obedience,
and to the other ministers in token of fellowship. The
service was generally concluded with the celebration of the
Holy Communion.

At the head of each parish stood a priest. It was his duty
to preach and administer the sacraments, to solemnize mar-
riages, to instruct the old and young in the truths of religion
according to the catechism and the Confessions of the
Brethren, and to devote himself to pastoral work. Theo-
retically he was permitted to marry, but practically obstacles
were thrown in his way. Permission must, in each case, be
given by the Executive Council, and a married priest was
debarred from the discharge of certain ministerial functions.
In later times, however, such restrictions were removed. A
priest was supported, in part, by the voluntary gifts of his
parish, and, in part, by the work of his own hands.*

The priests were assisted by deacons. These instructed
the young in the truths of religion, preached, baptized, and
distributed the elements at the Lord's Supper. They were
not allowed to administer this latter sacrament, and could
baptize only by direction of a priest. Deacons were advanced

* Dr. Kiisebrot, in his attack upon the Unity, ridiculed this custom. In
their reply the Brethren said: "Let him consider the beginning of the
primitive Church, whether there were many of the noble, powerful, wise or
rich, in these offices. We are not ashamed of our priests because they
labor with their own hands; for both apostolic teaching and example so
lead us, and indeed we would rather see this, than that, giving way to
indolence, they should frequent taverns, and follow vanity and vice."
Seifferth's Ch. Con. p. 188.


to their office from the ranks of the acolytes, and their ordina-
tion was conducted in a way similar to that of the priests.

Acolytes were youths living .with the priests and preparing
for service in the Church. They engaged in the prescribed
studies ; read the Scriptures at private worship and sometimes
delivered a brief exhortation; taught the catechism to the
children in the schools; attended the priests on their
journeys ; opened, closed and lighted the chapels, and rang
the bell for public service. Acolytes were formally inducted
into their office at Synods. Their duties were read to them ;
they promised faithfulness and obedience ; and pledged their
right hands to a bishop in token of both.

We turn to the constitution of the Unitas Fratrum.

Its highest authority was the General Synod which, in the
period under review, met once a year ; in later times, every
three or four years. To it came the bishops, the members of
the Executive Council, the priests, the deacons, the acolytes
and the patrons of the churches, so that there were often
several hundred persons gathered. But only the bishops, the
members of the Council and those priests who had charge of
parishes, took part in the deliberations and were entitled to a

On the day before the opening of the Synod a preliminary
meeting of the Executive Council was held. At this meeting
an opportunity was given for a fraternal interchange of views
with regard to the personal relations of the members. After
a searching charge by the presiding Bishop to the whole
Council, he and his episcopal colleagues conferred together in
one apartment and the remaining members in another.
Faults were freely confessed and forgiven, differences ad-
justed and offences removed. Then the entire body again
assembled, their mutual trust and love renewed, and agreed
on an order of business.

In the evening of the following day the Synod was opened,
in the chapel, by the presiding Bishop, who gave thanks unto
God and welcomed the brethren. The next morning a
synodical sermon was preached, and then legislation began.


But it was not carried on by the Synod in one body. There
were, what might be called, two Houses ; the upper consisting
of the bishops and Council, the lower of the priests. In the
former the presiding Bishop occupied the chair; the latter
chose its president. The two Houses interchanged their
propositions and nothing of moment was transacted without
the consent of both. Meanwhile, under the supervision of
the bishops, the deacons and acolytes held meetings of their
own at which theological studies were carried on and exami-
nations instituted. The bishops also consulted with the
patrons in relation to the business which these might wish
to bring forward. Religious services took place every
morning, afternoon and evening; and daily sermons were
preached. On such occasions the entire Synod assembled.
It was closed with a charge to the ministers by one of the
bishops, to which a priest replied in the name of the former^
thanking the bishops for their paternal care. Then followed
the celebration of the Holy Communion. The Acts of the
Synod were registered and each bishop received a copy.

Particular Synods — Particulares Synodi — as they were
called, met frequently. These consisted of a smaller number
of bishops and priests, and transacted business that was local
in its character. The Acts of such Synods were communi-
cated to all the bishops.

The executive authority was vested in the Council. This
consisted of the bishops and generally of ten other members,
among whom, in the earliest period of the Unity, were lay-
men.^ At a later time priests only were chosen ; and
eventually an election to the Council involved a consecration
as assistant bishop. Thus the body became exclusively
episcopal. The tenure of office was for life and new mem-
bers, after taking an oath of fidelity, were inducted by the
presiding Bishop. Vacancies were filled by the Council
itself, but its choice was restricted to such priests as the

^ In the long period in which Matthias was the only bishop, the Council
embraced thirteen members.


churches nominated. In course of time this rule was
abrogated and the General Synod filled vacancies. The
members of the Council resided in different parishes and its
chief seat was occasionally changed. It was the province of
this body to appoint priests to the various churches ; to pro-
vide for official visits ; to elect the Ecclesiastical Judge ; and
in every particular to care for the welfare of the Unity. In
this way an associate form of government was produced. No
bishop could act independently. In all matters of moment
he was bound to consult not only his episcopal colleagues but
also the other members of the Council. At the same time,
however, the bishops ranked according to the priority of their
consecration, and the President of the Council exercised great
influence. He was the presiding Bishop of the whole Unity,
convened the Executive Council and the General Synod, and
took the lead at both.

At the meetings of these bodies he afforded every member
an opportunity to speak on every question, beginning with
the youngest and ending with the oldest. When all present
had expressed their opinions, he rehearsed and weighed them,
showed whether they could be reconciled, and in what manner
a common conclusion could be reached. If this was impos-
sible, he pointed out the different results to which the views
of the members had led and the reasons for each result, and
then presented the question for renewed discussion, always
striving to bring about unanimity if possible.

An office of great authority was that of the Ecclesiastical
Judge. Although not inhering in the episcopacy, it seems
to have been filled by the presiding Bishop, except toward
the end of the episcopate of Matthias, in 1495, when it was
given to Prokop, in whose hands it remained for twelve
years. This was owing, however, as we have shown in
another connection, to the arbitrary course which Matthias
pursued. The Judge settled all disputes in the Church, that
were referred to him, making known his decision publicly ;
in the event of his finding it impossible to adjust a case, he
laid it before the Council. From this body an appeal could


be taken to the General Synod ; but such an appeal was
final. In course of time the office of Ecclesiastical Judge

The various churches of the Unity were all governed by
the same rules and developed according to one system.
Inquiring more closely into the character of both, we find
many points of interest, which become attractive and memor-
able when we call to mind the age to which they belonged.

The membership of a Brethren's church was classified ;
embracing Beginners {Incipientes), Proficients (Proficientes),
and the Perfect {Perfecti), or those "going on unto per-
fection."^ Beginners were such as were "learning the first
elements of religion" — children and converts from "the
idolaters;" Proficients, such as "having become well ac-
quainted with those elements, exercised themselves, more and
more, in the knowledge of the will of God and in its practical
observance ; " and the Perfect, " such as had made eminent
attainments in the knowledge of divine things and had
become so established in faith, love and hope, as to be able to
enlighten others."^ Hence this last class generally furnished
a church with its lay-officers.

Of these there were three boards : the elders, the almoners,
and the sediles. They were elected by the people. The elders,
or overseers, watched over the membership with pious care
and, in every other way, assisted the priest in his pastoral
work. Associated with them was a body of female elders —
widows and single women — whose duty it was to oversee and
labor among their own sex. Their ministrations to the sick
and their other works of charity were distinguished. The
almoners provided for the poor of the parish and had charge
of the money contributed toward their support. Individual
gifts were frequently received ; at Christmas and on the Day
of John the Baptist (June the twenty-fourth), collections

^ "Sive ad perfectionem tendentes." 1 Cor. 2:6; Heb. 5 : 13 and 14.

' Seifferth's Ch. Con. pp. 104 and 105. This classification is set forth in
full in the third part of the Conf. of 1532-1538 (Lydius, Part II, p. 177,
etc) ; it undoubtedly existed in 1517.


were, every year, instituted. The rediles formed the trustees
of a church. They managed its financial affairs; looked
after the parsonage and chapel and school-house; and
rendered an annual account to the parish, whose contribu-
tions were paid quarterly.

The centre of every parish was the Zbor, or the parsonage.^
It was a large edifice in which lived not only the priest, but
also the deacons who assisted him, the acolytes under his
charge, and usually the female elders of his church. Not
unfrequently, too, superannuated ministers found a home
there and traveling brethren a lodging-place. The entire
household was governed by strict rules. There were fixed
hours for rising, for private devotions, for family- worship,
for study and manual labor and for retiring to rest. Idleness
was unknown ; from morning to night the parsonage teemed
with activity and life. Nor did the parishioners fail to
frequent its apartments. They came to engage servants, to
seek counsel, to lodge complaints and to settle disputes. So
constant were these visits that the enemies of the Brethren
reviled them for "running into the House" about every
trifle. The chapel, for public worship, was either under the
same roof with the parson age, or constituted a separate edifice.
In early times the parsonage included the parochial school
likewise; at a later period school-houses were constructed.
Noblemen belonging to the Unity, or the parishes themselves,
erected all these buildings ; the town and village churches
remained in the hands of the Utraquists and Catholics.

Every parish was visited, once a year, by the bishop set
over the diocese to which it belonged. He was generally
accompanied by several members of the Council and by some
of the neighboring priests. In case he was prevented from
appearing in person, a member of the Council took his place.
Such visits were very thorough, involving a close inspection

* The Zbo7- or sbor (a church) was also called Dum (the house); hence
the phrase do sboru jeti, that is, " to go into the house," gradually came to
mean "to attend divine service." Herrnhut, 1875, No. 6, Feb. 6, upon
which authority is based the description which follows.


of the parish in every particular. The pastor was examined
in relation to its state and his own work and life ; the deacons
and acolytes were questioned with regard to the manner in
which they discharged their duties; the elders were inter-

Online LibraryEdmund Alexander De SchweinitzThe history of the church known as the Unitas Fratrum, Or, The unity of the Brethren, founded by the followers of John Hus, The Bohemian reformer amd martyr → online text (page 20 of 64)