Born March 28, 1592, orphaned early, educated at the universities of Herborn and Heidelberg, Comenius began working as a pastor and parochial school principal in 1618, the year the Thirty Years war began. After the defeat of the Protestant armies in the Battle of White Mountain— one of the most disastrous events in Czech history—he barely escaped with his life while his house was burned down by enemy soldiers. Later, his young wife and two small children died of the plague. For seven years he lived the life of a fugitive in his own land, hiding in deserted huts, in caves, even in hollow trees. Early in 1628 he joined one of the small groups of Protestants who fled their native Moravia to await better times in neighboring Poland. He never saw his homeland again.

For 42 years of his long and sorrowful life he roamed the countries of Europe as a homeless refugee. He was always poor. His second wife died, too, leaving him with four children to care for. The political allies of the Czech nation either died or were killed in the war. The beloved fatherland lay in total desolation. The scattered, impoverished church whose bishop he had become was in danger of disintegrating after years of exile. The Polish city of Leszno, his home for a number of years, was burned to the ground by the enemy. His treasured library and numerous manuscripts— some of them results of decades of work— were totally destroyed in the fire, leaving Comenius, an old man of 64, with virtually nothing but the clothes on his back. Homeless and penniless, he made it to Amsterdam, Holland, where friends took him in and cared for him until his death in 1670.

Such was the life of this great man. And yet, under these adverse circumstances, he never failed to serve his Lord and his fellow men. During his years as a fugitive, he wrote not only a number of small tracts and homilies, but also one of his most famous works, The Labyrinth of the World. He pictures in it a pilgrim who seeks peace and happiness in a deceptive world and finds them at last in union with Christ. The book was a great source of comfort to other fugitives, and many of them, fleeing their homeland, took it along as one of their few prized possessions. In exile, Comenius ministered faithfully to the needs of his scattered congregation, supporting it with the proceeds from his writings. Strangely enough, these came mostly from his books on education—a field which he himself considered secondary to his pastoral ministry.

How did Comenius become an authority on education? He was a minister, and later a bishop, of a church commonly known as Unitas Fratrum (The Unity of Brethren), which attained great theological, literary and cultural achievements immediately preceding the Thirty Years War. While small in numbers, it spurred the whole Czech nation to great cultural advancement. Not only religious freedom and political independence, but also a rich cultural life perished in the Battle of White Mountain. The exiled Brethren rightfully saw themselves as guardians of Czech spiritual treasures. Hoping that one day they would return home, they were trying to prepare for the great task of rebuilding the land and the society devastated by war, and they knew that education would play a vital part in it. Comenius had this task in mind when he began to write a comprehensive book on education, Didactica Magna. He wrote it originally in Czech and kept postponing its publication until the expected return; but as the years passed and the situation did not change, he rewrote it in Latin so the rest of Europe could read it.

Unity and the Brethren

The idea of Christian unity was a very important part of the Brethren’s theology. There were very few churches in those times of religious fanaticism which did not proclaim themselves to be the only true church. Yet the Brethren stated in an official proclamation,

Thus believing according to the Holy Writ in a Holy Church, we do not hold that we alone compose the Holy Catholic Church, or that salvation is obtained only among us, or that we alone shall be saved.

Comenius supported his church’s position from the very beginning of his ministry and carried on a crusade for interchurch co-operation and understanding all his life. Faithful to his church’s teaching, he stressed purity of life more than theology, and showed a remarkable broadmindedness about the two main matters of dispute among the various Protestant groups of his time—the Lord’s Supper and predestination. About the Lord’s Supper he wrote,

Whether this sacrament is received by mouth or by faith alone, why do ye quarrel about it? Why do ye wish to discuss that about which the Scriptures are silent? … Remember that we all know only in part, and especially remember that this mystery was ordained not that the hearts of believers may be torn asunder thereby, but rather that they be bound together into one.

As for predestination, he advocated searching the Scriptures. Since they furnish grounds for both sides, he contended that there must be some truth in both views. He also suggested that all religious communities drop their identification labels—Lutherans, Calvinists, Hussites, Waldensians—and proclaim Christ to be their leader by calling themselves simply Christians.

Comenius not only worked toward Christian unity himself, he also supported the work of other ecumenical workers. He befriended John Dury, son of a Presbyterian minister at Edinburgh, Scotland, who traveled all over Europe in the cause of church unity. Dury was well received in the Unity, which ordered public prayers in all congregations for the good outcome of his work. His cause failed, though, for lack of interest from other denominations. Comenius also supported the work of Georg Calixtus, professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Helmstedt, who even called an ecumenical conference in 1645 for a dialogue between representatives of various Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics. Because of his great tact, patience and gentleness, Comenius was asked to try to bring the Lutherans and Calvinists into a united front in negotiations with the Catholics. He did not succeed. He complained bitterly about some Lutherans, that they “know nothing, but call fire from heaven on both the papists and the Calvinists.”

The most moving expression of Comenius’s longing for Christian unity is expressed in a small book called The Bequest of the Dying Mother, the Unity of Brethren. He wrote it when the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War, put an end to all hopes of returning to the native land and reestablishing the perishing church. He pictures the Unity as a dying mother who, “if the Lord should confirm what men do,” must prepare for her last sleep and who therefore bequeaths “the treasures that God entrusted to her” to various nations, churches, or groups. Having distributed most of them to churches in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere where the Brethren were kindly received, she makes the following bequest,

To all Christian churches together I bequeath a lively desire for unanimity of opinion and for reconciliation among themselves, and for union in faith, and love of the unity of spirit. May the spirit which was given to me from the very beginning by the Father of spirits be shed upon you all, so that you would desire as sincerely as I did the union of all who call upon the name of Christ in truth!

Though Comenius saw his church as a dying mother, he continued to serve her—and to serve mankind—for the rest of his earthly life. Matthew Spinka, the translator of The Bequest into English, writes aptly in his introduction to the book,

Having lost his native land,… he became a citizen of the world. His courage and deathless hope for the future proved that a man who believes in God can never despair of the ultimate victory of the forces of righteousness.

Eve C. Bock is Associate Professor of German at Doane College in Crete, NE.