Moravian Roots of the Covenant Churches

by Christina Ekström

Translated from Swedish by Elder Lindahl

When one seeks the roots of the 19th Century revivals, its doctrines and musical expression, one often studies Pietism, the movement which, simply expressed, was a counterpart of Lutheran orthodoxy. But, are there, perhaps, other paths to examine that led up to the 19th century revivals—revivals which found expression in, among others, the Swedish Mission Covenant and the Evangelical Covenant Church of America?

Parallel with the Lutheran Reformation in Germany during the 16th century, upheavals occurred in the Catholic Church in many other places in Europe. The Anglican Church began in England as a consequence of the Reformation. In Switzerland, the 16th century reformers, Zwingli and Calvin, brought the Reformed church into being. Changes occurred in other Catholic territories in and with the Counter Reformation during the same period. This is the usual picture painted of Southern and Western Europe.

But, what happened farther east in Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries?

The Growth of the Moravians (Unitas Fratrum)

Let us focus on Czechoslovakia and its parts, Moravia and Bohemia. During the 15th century and on, a growing opposition to the Catholic Church developed, which included some Czech nationalism. Jan Hus was the most well-known represent-ative of this movement. He was a priest, and for several years he was also rector of the university. Accused of spreading the "false" doctrines of Wycliffe, he was burned at the stake in 1415. His martyrdom became the stimulus for the revolutionary Hus movement, which developed into the Hussite Wars over his convictions. Hus’ ideals were similar to those of the Englishman Wycliffe 50 years earlier and to those which Luther articulated 100 years later. Hus was critical of the Pope’s sovereignty, he argued for the right to use one’s native language in church, and he insisted that the Bible be available in the language of the people. Similarly, Hus emphasized the importance of songs in the native language. In addition, Hus urged all believers to participate in songs in church, exhorting congregational singing. The song, forceful and full of burning pathos, became an effective tool in the fight against Catholicism.

Even outside the church, the Hus movement encouraged the collective song world, including lively war songs. One can even say that the Hus songs became a musical symbol for the rebirth of the Czech people.

In 1467, one element of the Hus movement constituted itself as a brotherhood with its own priesthood. The official name was Unitas Fratrum (The Moravians). By 1500, they had approximately 100,000 members. They stressed not only Christ and discipleship, but also Christ as ruler, for, they affirmed, he is not only the soul’s deliverer, but also the Church’s king who shall rule. The Moravians did not want to be called a church because they believed that that name should be reserved for all Christians.

After the war, the Hus songs lived on in both the public music world and in the music of the church. Reacting to the adorned liturgical music, a so-called literary brotherhood developed as a response in Bohemia and Moravia. Liturgical music dominated the Catholic church then, and professional choirs more or less demanded it.

At first, the song was unison and performed without accompaniment, but little by little the repertoire increased as polyphonic work grew and the organ came into use. Within the Catholic sphere, the organ symbolized imperial pomp and splendor. The literati were amateurs who organized themselves as craftsmen. The repertoire of the literary brotherhood was assembled in splendid songbooks.

The song was central for both the literary brotherhood and the Moravians.(1) The latter were among the first to publish a songbook in the common language. A volume published in 1501 contained 89 songs, among which were Gregorian chants as well as current popular melodies with a religious text. Another volume published in 1561 included 744 hymns and was used by the Moravians for over 100 years. The eighth and final edition was published in 1659.

Because of the wars, Bohemia and Moravia were somewhat isolated from the expansion of music in the rest of Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, including the grand polyphony of the so-called Netherlands school. Rather, a special, evangelistic music developed in Moravia, of which, sadly, not much remains. Rediscovery of this music stands as a challenge for researchers.

During the 16th century, the Moravians came under heavy persecution in their land. Because of this, many believers emigrated to, among other places, Poland where they joined with another Reformed group in 1570.

After a short period of toleration, the whole group was oppressed, beginning in 1621 when the German Hapsburg family tried to make Bohemia and Moravia Catholic again. Many of the Moravians went into exile at that time. One of these was Jan Amos Comenius who became the Moravians’ last Bishop. He developed pansophism and advocated it throughout his life. This universal teaching united philosophical, religious, and pedagogical thought and aroused great interest.

Jan Amos Comenius

Jan Amos Comenius was born in Moravia in 1592. At 24, he became a Moravian pastor in the city of Fulnek. Throughout his life, he was confronted personally with political and religious disturbances both in his land and in the rest of Europe. He lived much of his life as an exile, living in nine different countries. One was Sweden, where he was employed to produce new educational materials as an assignment from chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. At the end of his sixth year in Sweden, a disturbing wind blew against Comenius, a wind which rejected the Latin textbook, Methodus linguarum novissima, designed in the Comenius method and written by John Matthiae, teacher of Queen Christina. Paradoxically, this book is now considered one of the best Comenii method books.

However, Swedish schools were influenced by his visit, if unwillingly. A short time after Comenius left, the council of the country took a new orientation to school education. Only the Counselor and Queen Christina’s teacher knew that the concept on which it was based had the mark of Comenius. Thus, one can say that the essentials of the Swedish school system of today are based on the ideas which were once worked out by the Moravians!

Many epoch-making ideas are found in Comenius’ pedagogy. These ideas include giving instruction to all, boys and girls, rich as well as poor, adapting instruction to the children’s stage of development, giving instruction clearly (thus, pictures have a prominent place in Comenius’ pedagogy), and adapting the instruction to living, not grammatical demands. Another major premise was: begin with the mother tongue, not Latin. Comenius’ thinking can be found in his works: Didactica Magna (great doctrines of instruction in which he systematizes everything from the school system to retirement), Informatum Maternum (Mother’s school, a systematization of how children from infancy to six years are best taught by the mother in the home), Orbis sensualium pictus (the world in pictures which was the first illustrated instruction book), and Janua linguarum (the opened language door, an instruction book in Latin which took its point of departure in the child’s own concepts of the world).

Music and song, central and natural, were included in Comenius’ large authorship. His writings urged daily songs, both inside and outside of school, not only for aesthetic reasons, but also for moral development of the students.

Among Comenius’ hymnal work is the noted Amsterdamer Gesöngbuche (kancional) 1659, which has been mentioned as an important factor in the modern development of how music is written. Of the total of 606 songs in this collection, 135 are written by Comenius.

According to the American researcher, Marta Asti, the Moravians published another songbook in 1659 which contains 744 hymns. Some were printed for the first time in 1561. In 1659, it came out in an eighth edition as mentioned above. This means that two different songbooks were published in 1659, an impressive quantity of hymns.

What is the source of Comenius’ conception of songs? Is it not that songs are an integral part of everyday and holidays, that they serve as instruments in spiritual and moral education, and that they are in the mother tongue? It is reasonable to assume that the tradition of the Hus songs and the brethren songs are echoed in Comenius.

In addition to pedagogical literature, Comenius also wrote books which touch directly on spiritual questions. For example, Via Lucis (The Way of Light), The Labyrinth of the World, and The Paradise of the Heart (newly translated into English in 1998). Briefly, they deal with a person’s journey through the world and gradually, standing before God. There, one is accepted and, forgiven. One is commanded by the Lord to return to the world, because a transformed and renewed person or church must bring renewal into the society. As he put it in chapter 53: "Be in the world with your body, but with me in your heart."

This contrasts with other Christian tendencies that emphasize consciousness of sin, struggle for penance, conversion, and holiness. These stages are not found in Comenius. Outstanding features in his understanding are triumph, peace, and blessing. Despite the difficult exterior circumstances of his own life, he often showed a never-ending well of happiness, strength, and hope.

After almost a whole life in exile, Comenius received an invitation from the French cardinal Richelieu to establish a school on the concept of pansophism (all knowledge). He also received an offer from America to become the president of Harvard University. Before he could respond, Comenius died in Amsterdam in 1670, concluding an epoch in Moravian history.

Moravian knowledge lived on through books and piety and through a few persons spreading the movement. For example, in the 18th century, a group of Moravians settled down in Hutberget on Count Zinzendorf’s property in Sachen, Germany. From these elements came the seeds that were planted in the renewed Moravians about 50 years after the passing of Comenius.

Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf was the first to take up the succession as Bishop in the renewed Moravian society after Comenius. Zinzendorf became devoted to the office of the highest pastor in the court of Fredrik I in Berlin, Jablonsky, who was the grandchild of the last Bishop of "the old" Moravians, Jan Amos Comenius.

I quote from Jan Milic Lotchman to conclude this exploration of one of the roots of the Evangelical Covenant Church and Swedish Mission Covenant Church.

The breadth of Comenius’s spirituality was such that it could provide inspiration for two increasingly divergent trends in the Pietist movement—the educational and social thrust of Francke’s Halle "Foundations" and the "religion of the heart" represented by Zinzendorf.(2)

Yes, perhaps the idea of looking farther back in history than we usually do and attending to the geographical signals is relevant in understanding our own context. Next year is the 300th anniversary of Count Ludvig von Zinzendorf’s birth. I think its appropriate to return with several lines about Zinzendorf and about "The Renewed Unitas Fratrum" in Herrnhut and in doing so describe the revival in Sweden and, to some degree, in America during the 18th century.

1. 1. Whether this so-called literary brotherhood was the same as or made up of the Moravians remains to be researched.

2. 2. From Jan Milic Lotchman’s, Foreword to: Comenius, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, 1998, page 44.

Christina Ekström is a musician and scholar from Torestorp, Sweden.

See all articles by Christina Ekström