A Reformation a hundred years before Martin Luther
Updated: May 16, 2022
A hundred years before Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther, there was a Bohemian Reformation, also called the Czech Reformation because Bohemia was a region of the Czech Republic. When did Catholics start to ask for reforms from their leadership?
In the 14th century, John Wycliffe, an English scholar, theologian, and Bible translator was a dissident within the Roman Catholic church and an important predecessor to Protestantism. He questioned the wealth and power of the Catholic bishops and cardinals. Wycliffe and his followers completed translating the Bible into common English in 1384.
In the late 14th century, three well-known Bohemian reformers were active, teaching that the Catholic church was not building up the morality of the people or helping the people spiritually. Konrad von Waldhausen was influential in Germany and died in 1369. Milicz von Kremisier (1374) was a great orator and spoke largely about the coming of the Antichrist, personified in the Pope. Matthias von Janow (1394) was a prominent Behemian reform writer.
Having been excluded from participation in public life, women joined the reform movement of the Hussites. Revolutionary forces opened up ways for women to act publicly, to show their will in political and religious life. However, the gains women made were temporary, and after the early years of the revolution, Czech women were slowly excluded from public life and land ownership.
John Huss began to preach in Prague in 1402, criticizing leaders of the Catholic church as being unethical, materialistic, and focused on secular political power rather than leading people to the Christian faith. Huss encouraged all people to study the Bible in their native language. He spoke against the relics of saints, calling it a form of deceit by the priests, and told people they should instead believe in the Word of God.
This Council of Constance in 1414-1418 was a meeting of Catholics which demoted several people who claimed to be the true pope and elected Pope Martin V. By this time in the late middle ages, the church and society were hierarchical and there was an increased focus on being pure and keeping the elements of communion pure. Lay people (non-clergy) were excluded from administering it, the bread was given directly from the priest to the person's tongue, and the chalice was not offered. Catholicism teaches that Christ is present under each kind, the bread and wine, so only one is needed.
In 1414, Bohemian reformer Jacob of Mies offered Communion including both bread and wine and the following year, the Council of Constance banned the practice of offering the chalice of wine to the people. There were military crusades against the followers of John Huss, largely financed by the pope. The Hussites defended their religious freedom and finally, the Catholic church allowed the Bohemian Brethren to use the chalice at the communion service.
The Council found John Hus guilty of heresy and turned him over to the secular court. Huss was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415 and in Czechoslovakia, July 6 remained a day to commemorate Huss until the 1900s. The rulers of the nations joined the Roman Catholic church in stopping protestors. Protestant marriages were not recognized; they were banned from burials in holy cemeteries; spies and bounty hunters brought Protestants to rulers.
Also in the 15th century, another reformation movement was growing in Moravia, another region of the Czech Republic. Moravian members called themselves Brethren and held everything in common, following the example of Acts 2. The Moravian Church was founded on the belief that education is essential for all, regardless of gender, social class, or race. Through education, ordinary people could read the Bible and realize spiritual rebirth, devotion, and evangelism. Many Moravians emigrated to Pennsylvania, where in 1742, they founded the Bethlehem Female Seminary, the first college that was open to women students. Moravians taught that a woman's chief duty was to God and community, as opposed to husband and children, so women worked in jobs benefiting the larger community, often as missionaries or evangelists.
Martin Luther's Reformation began in Germany in 1517 and resulted in the branch of Christianity called Protestantism, referring to the many religious groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church due to differences in doctrine. Martin Luther credited John Huss for paving the way for the Reformation. At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, it became legal for Catholics and Lutherans to coexist in Germany. Each domain could select its religion and allow free emigration of residents who dissented.
When Ferdinand II became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he forced citizens to follow Roman Catholicism, breaking with the religious freedom given in Augsburg. In 1618, Protestant representatives threw Ferdinand's representatives out the windows of Prague Castle and the Thirty Years' War was fought from 1618 to 1648.
The Thirty Years' War resulted in estimated deaths of 4 to 8 million while the population in some areas of Germany (Munich, Augsburt, Bavaria, Wurttemberg) declined by over 50% due to death, refugees and emigration. When the war ended, the Pope sent a delegation to destroy the Bohemian Brethren's books and writings, making it difficult to find any surviving documents showing their doctrines. The war fostered a fear of the "other", increasing distrust of different ethnicities and religious faiths.
The Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War gave autonomy to Czech, Bavarian and German-speaking states that were formerly states of the Holy Roman Empire. The separation of church and state began as a legacy of this long war. It resulted in residents of a state being subject to the state and not to other institutions, secular or religious.
The Reformation was a long and painful process that has left scars today on Christians of different branches. Women's roles in the middle ages varied, with the highest calling being that of a virgin in service to God. An Abbess could rule over a monastery of both men and women and hold land and power. After the Reformation, as the Protestant reformation moved away from praying to saints or the Virgin Mary, rejecting priestly mediators, the highest calling for women seemed to move to that of being a wife and mother. Just as Catholic priests of the middle ages asked for reforms in their leadership, Protestants today are speaking out for reforms in Biblical interpretation. Christians are recognizing faults in past doctrines including women's roles, racism, slavery, apartheid, LGBTQ2S minorities, colonial assimilation efforts and lack of respect for indigenous peoples.