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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

And the Unitas Fratrum of Bohemia


As early as the times of Meister Eckhart (d. 1327), of his disciples Tauler (d. 1361) and Suso (d 1366), of the mysterious "Friend of God in the Oberland" and his associates (among them the Strassburg merchant Rulman Merswin (d. 1382)), and of the Brussels curate John Ruysbroeck (d. 1381), the leaders of the mediaeval Mystics had been accustomed to gather their followers together into praying circles; and the custom was perpetuated long after their departure. How these pious associations continued to exist in the half century before the Reformation, and what forms their organisation took, it seems impossible to say with any accuracy. The school system of the _Brethren __ of the Common Lot_, which always had an intimate connection with the _Gottesfreunde_, in all probability served to spread the praying circles which had come down from the earlier Mystics. It seems to have been a custom among these _Brethren of the Common Lot_ to invite their neighbours to meet in their schoolrooms or in a hall to listen to religious discourses. There they read and expounded the New Testament in the vernacular. They also read extracts from books written to convey popular religious instruction. They questioned their audience to find out how far their hearers understood their teaching, and endeavoured by question and answer to discover and solve religious difficulties. These schools and teachers had extended all over Germany by the close of the fifteenth century, and their effect in quickening and
keeping alive personal religion must have been great.

(_c_) Then, altogether apart from the social and semi-political propaganda of the Hussites, there is evidence that ever since the circulation of the encyclic letter addressed by the Taborites in November 1431 to all Christians in all lands, and more especially since the foundation of the _Unitas Fratrum_ in 1452, there had been constant communication between Bohemia and the scattered bodies of evangelical dissenters throughout Germany. Probably historians have credited the Hussites with more than their due influence over their German sympathisers. The latter had arrived at the conclusion that tithes ought to be looked upon as free-will offerings, that the cup should be given to the laity, etc., long before the movements under the leadership of Wiclif and of Huss. But the knowledge that they had sympathisers and brethren beyond their own land must have been a source of strength to the German nonconformists.

Our knowledge of the times is still too obscure to warrant us in making very definite statements about the proportionate effect of these three religious sources of influence on the small communities of _Brethren_ or evangelical dissenters from the mediaeval Church which maintained a precarious existence at the close of the Middle Ages. There is one curious fact, however, which shows that there must have been an intimate connection between the Waldenses of Savoy and France, the _Brethren_ of Germany, and the _Unitas Fratrum_ of Bohemia. They all used the same catechism for the instruction of their children in divine things. So far as can be ascertained, this small catechism was first printed in 1498, and editions can be traced down to 1530. It exists in French, Italian, German, and Bohemian. The inspiration drawn from the earlier Mystics and _Gottesfreunde_ is shown by the books circulated by the _Brethren_. They made great use of the newly discovered art of printing to spread abroad small mystical writings on personal religion, and translations of portions of the Holy Scriptures. They printed and circulated books which had been used in manuscript among the Mystics of the fourteenth century, such as the celebrated _Masterbook_, single sermons by Tauler, Prayers and Rules for holy living extracted from his writings, as well as short tracts taken from the later Mystics, like the _Explanation of the Ten Commandments_. It is also probable that some of the many translations of the whole or portions of the Bible which were in circulation in Germany before the days of Luther came from these praying circles. The celebrated firm of Nuernberg printers, the Koburgers, who published so many Bibles, were the German printers of the little catechism used by the _Brethren_; and, as has been said, the Anabaptists, who were the successors of these associations, did not use Luther's version, but a much older one which had come down to them from their ancestors.

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