The Pre-Reformation Protestants Search for Like-Minded Brethren

Joseph Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church, Part 5

By 1491, the Church of the Brethren was successfully established as a Bible-based, independent alternative to the State-sponsored church.

There were two perspectives they could have taken at this point.

They could have said to themselves, “There’s no church like us in the world. We’re the only ones.”

Instead, they took a healthier view of things. They said to themselves, “There must be other churches like us in the world. We can’t be the only ones.”

They were committed to this idea. They sent their top leaders far and wide in search of like-minded churches or movements.

Joseph Hutton tells the story in his History of the Moravian Church. The man who initiated the search was Luke of Prague, who we looked at in a previous post. In the end, their labors were in vain, but Hutton tells the story as more of a comedy than a tragedy:

If the Brethren, thought he, were true to their name, they must surely long for fellowship with others of like mind with themselves. For this purpose Luke and his friends set off to search for Brethren in other lands. Away went one to find the pure Nestorian Church that was said to exist in India, got as far as Antioch, Jerusalem and Egypt, and, being misled somehow by a Jew, returned home with the wonderful notion that the River Nile flowed from the Garden of Eden, but with no more knowledge of the Church in India than when he first set out. Another explored the South of Russia, and the third sought Christians in Turkey. And Luke himself had little more success. He explored a number of Monasteries in Greece, came on to Rome {1498.}, saw the streets of the city littered with corpses of men murdered by Cæsar Borgia, picked up some useful information about the private character of the Pope, saw Savonarola put to death in Florence, fell in with a few Waldenses in the Savoy, and then, having sought for pearls in vain, returned home in a state of disgust, and convinced that, besides the Brethren, there was not to be found a true Christian Church on the face of God’s fair earth. He even found fault with the Waldenses.

Although they made no significant contacts, I think the effort paid off in another way. It showed, at a great price, their commitment to reaching other churches.

The Church of the Brethren was reborn, more than 200 years later, as the Moravian Church. The Moravian Church retained this kind of ecumenical outlook. It became fundamental to their identity.

There was also a more immediate effect of their efforts, I imagine. It must have increased their joy at hearing the news of the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformers, for their part, seemed impressed with the Church of the Brethren. Hutton reports the praise the Brethren received from Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others:

Formerly Luther, who liked plain speech, had called the Brethren “sour-looking hypocrites and self-grown saints, who believe in nothing but what they themselves teach.” But now he was all good humour. “There never have been any Christians,” he said, in a lecture to his students, “so like the apostles in doctrine and constitution as these Bohemian Brethren.” “Tell your Brethren,” he said to their deputies, “to hold fast what God has given them, and never give up their constitution and discipline. Let them take no heed of revilements. The world will behave foolishly. If you in Bohemia were to live as we do, what is said of us would be said of you, and if we were to live as you do, what is said of you would be said of us.” “We have never,” he added, in a letter to the Brethren, “attained to such a discipline and holy life as is found among you, but in the future we shall make it our aim to attain it.”

The other great Reformers were just as enthusiastic. “How shall I,” said Bucer, “instruct those whom God Himself has instructed! You alone, in all the world, combine a wholesome discipline with a pure faith.”

“We,” said Calvin, “have long since recognised the value of such a system, but cannot, in any way, attain to it.”

“I am pleased,” said Melancthon, “with the strict discipline enforced in your congregations. I wish we could have a stricter discipline in ours.””

Nobody would have guessed at the time, but this kind of approval would have a far-reaching effect. When the Moravian Church emerged in the 1700’s, Lutheran and Calvinist churches were legal. Other varieties of churches were not.

The Moravians could use their Protestant credibility to defend themselves to the government. They were not a new sect, they were the ancient Church of the Brethren. They were not heretics, they had received praise from Luther and Calvin themselves.

In the next post in this series, we are going to jump ahead to 1722 and see how that Moravian rebirth took place in the shadow of the Lutheran Church.