The Church of the Brethren Repudiated the Teachings of Their Visionary Patriarch Within a Generation

Joseph Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church, Part 3

The Church of the Brethren had its beginning in about 1457. At the time, they considered Peter of Chelcic to be their spiritual father.

Peter wasn’t part of the church. He was either dead or close to death by 1457. Still, his influence was acknowledged by all. His books were their guiding teachings. They were second only to the Bible.

By 1495 this had changed. In that year, the Church of the Brethren officially declared that no documents were authoritative for them except the Bible.

Their approach to the Bible had not changed. They made the declaration because they wanted to be free from the teachings of Peter of Chelcic.

And so, within 38 years, the new church was completely transformed. The memory of their founding father began to fade.

Their problem with Peter’s teaching was more practical than theological.

Peter of Chelcic was wary of higher education. In his view, the universities corrupted morals. So did the military, the entire government, and most businesses. Basically everything.

Here is Joseph Hutton on how Peter said the church must live:

They must never, if possible, live in a town at all. If Christians, said Peter, lived in a town, and paid the usual rates and taxes, they were simply helping to support a system which existed for the protection of robbers.

For true Christians, therefore, there was only one course open. Instead of living in godless towns, they should try to settle in country places, earn their living as farmers or gardeners, and thus keep as clear of the State as possible.

For Peter of Chelcic, the best way to be “in the world but not of it” was to not be in it.

The first generation of the Church of the Brethren followed Peter’s advice. They were strict about who could join them, and strict about what their members could and couldn’t do.

Their strict discipline led to spiritual vitality. This attracted people from all walks of life. Soon, businessmen and government officials wanted in.

The first-generation leader of the church, Gregory the Patriarch, held to Peter’s vision. On his death-bed he warned his friends, saying, “beware of the educated Brethren!”

The second-generation leader was himself university-educated scholar named Luke of Prague. He led the church in turning away from the vision of Peter of Chelcic.

Joseph Hutton treats Luke of Prague favorably, saying, “he read the signs of the times, and took the tide at the flood.”

To this day, the Brethren are often considered the spiritual heirs of John Hus. It wasn’t that way in the beginning, however. According to Hutton, they revised their own history:

No longer did they honour the memory of Peter; no longer did they appeal to him in their writings; no longer, in a word, can we call the Brethren the true followers of Peter of Chelcic. Instead, henceforward, of regarding Peter as the founder of their Church, they began now to regard themselves as the disciples of Hus. In days gone by they had spoken of Hus as a “causer of war.” Now they held his name and memory sacred.

Luke of Prague died in 1528. He had successfully implemented the changes he wanted in his church. By the 1520’s, he was the one trying to keep the church from changing any further.

In the quote below, Hutton describes how the great church innovator was himself wary of the innovations of yet another reform movement, the Lutherans.

Gregory the Patriarch had said, on his death-bed, “beware of the educated Brethren!”

Now Luke of Prague, nearing his end, warned that “marriage never made anyone holy yet.”

As Gregory the Patriarch had gone to his rest when a new party was rising among the Brethren, so Luke of Prague crossed the cold river of death when new ideas from Germany were stirring the hearts of his friends. He was never quite easy in his mind about Martin Luther. He still believed in the Seven Sacraments. He still believed in the Brethren’s system of stern moral discipline. He still believed, for practical reasons, in the celibacy of the clergy. “This eating,” he wrote, “this drinking, this self-indulgence, this marrying, this living to the world — what a poor preparation it is for men who are leaving Babylon. If a man does this he is yoking himself with strangers. Marriage never made anyone holy yet. It is a hindrance to the higher life, and causes endless trouble.”

In the next post we will consider something Luke of Prague had in common with the Lutherans: the prolific use of the printing press.