Another Czech hero

July 25, 2005

WE PARKED OUR BUS JUST OUTSIDE THE STAR-SHAPED DEFENCE EMBANKMENTS AND WALKED INTO THE PICTURESQUE TOWN, just twenty minutes’ drive outside of Amsterdam. A large bronze statue outside the first church we came to told us we were headed in the right direction. Few Dutch people could tell you who this imposing figure represented, but any Czech would proudly testify that he was one of their two greatest national heroes.

The one is immortalised in bronze in Prague’s old Town Square, as we wrote about last week: Jan Hus, the 15th century martyr. The other is buried, strangely enough, in this small Dutch town of Naarden-Vesting. In one of the back streets of this fortress-town, we found the modest mausoleum of this great Czech reformer, recognised globally as the ‘father of modern education’: Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670).

Comenius, also known by his Slavic name Komensky, is a key link in the chain of men and movements we referred to last week. This chain started with the Orthodox missionary brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who gave the Slavs the Bible in their own language, and whose work Jan Hus later developed in his insistence on the Bible’s authority; through Comenius, it continued directly on to Count von Zinzendorf, then to John Wesley and the Evangelical Revival in England, and even to William Carey and the modern missionary movement. And, as we said last week, out of the Wesleyan movement came the Salvation Army, the Holiness movement and eventually the modern pentecostal movement.

We filed into a small museum theatre attached to the mausoleum and learned from a video how Comenius had lived through the tumultuous religious wars following the Reformation. Catholic forces successfully wrested back control of Prague and Bohemia and Moravia, today’s Czech republic, after victory at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Over 150 years earlier, Hussites (followers of Hus) had formed the Unitas Fratrum, or the Ancient Moravian Church, as a reform movement before the Reformation itself. As Luther, Zwingli and Calvin catalysed this huge upheaval in the spiritual landscape of German- and French-speaking Europe, the Hussites rose up on the side of the Reformation.

Comenius was the last bishop of the Unitas Fratrum, and at the same time as caring pastorally for his flock, became a scholar in correspondence with leading academics across Europe. He developed very progressive concepts in education, insisting that education should be made available for all, rich and poor, girls and boys. All knowledge, he believed, was integrated in God’s Truth. Since everything would be reconciled together in Christ, he taught, there was a comprehensive cohesion to all wisdom. All truth was God’s truth. Comenius developed this idea into what he called Pansophy (all wisdom), based on Colossians 1:28 – ‘we proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom.’

In a radical innovation, Comenius developed the world’s first picture book for children, a concept we totally take for granted today. He believed learning should happen through all the senses, and took children on ‘field-trips’ to the local blacksmith to let them hold the hammer and smite the molten metal themselves.

But the destruction, plague and death spread by the religious wars of the Counter-Reformation cost Comenius his wife and children, as well as all his written manuscripts hidden under the floorboards when his house went up in flames. Finally when the Catholic forces regained control of Moravia and Boehmia, members of the Unitas Fratrum were forced to recant, face death, go underground or leave the country.

And so in 1628, a small straggling band of refugees led by their bishop, Comenius, set off on foot to cross the mountainous border into Poland. As they stopped to take one last look back at their homeland, Comenius led them in a prayer that God would preserve a ‘hidden seed’ in that land that would one day bear fruit to bless the world. From Poland, Comenius was invited to Sweden and to Hungary to help reform education in those lands where the Reformation had a foothold. He was offered the first presidency of Harvard, the college near Boston being established by the Puritan immigrants from England. He turned all these invitations down, in favour of one from Oliver Cromwell, and crossed the channel to England to begin work on reforming education there.

That stay was as shortlived as Cromwell’s efforts to reform the nation as a whole, and Comenius was forced to return to Poland where wars with Sweden again cost him his library and manuscripts. Comenius traveled westwards once more to that city of religious refuge, Amsterdam, which has espoused the reformation a few decades earlier. Here he spent the last decade of his life, writing and discoursing with the greatest minds of his age, Christian and non-Christian. He wrote many books, including The Order of Discipline, a history of the Unitas Fratrum, which would later be discovered by Count von Zinzendorf and lead directly to the revival of the Moravian Church.

Despite all the personal setbacks Comenius suffered, and the ravages of his times, he continued to believe the world had a future, and that God’s purposes would be worked out despite the setbacks of history.

Just outside the defence walls of Naarden-Vesting stands yet another stone statue of Comenius, a gift from the then-communist government of Czechoslovakia, in honour of their countryman who was a world reformer in education, literature and philosophy. Although his memory is all but forgotten by western Christians, we were to encounter Comenius again and again as we continued our journey on to Herrnhut, where the revived Moravian Church has its headquarters today, and on to Prague.

Immortalised on Czech money bills, both the old 20 korun communist variety and the new 200 korun post-Velvet Revolution issue, his noble image is etched with long hair and beard, a skull cap and an academic gown, and in fine print, the words: Jan Amos Komensky 1592-1670.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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