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Secret operation in higher service by Kilian Kirchgeßner (epd)

In a hidden valley grows a rose without thorns. The faithful pray outdoors. They secretly print the Bible in Czech: a journey to the roots of the Bohemian Reformation brings history to life.

Church in Kralice (Bild: epd-Bild)

The wooden printing press groans. Museum worker Monika Dolezalova gives the handle a strong turn and explains, “They printed here 400 years ago, on handmade paper that was secretly brought in barrels." The old printing operation was a secret operation in higher service. Here they printed a Bible in Czech, the “Kralice Bible”. The religious community of the Bohemian Brethren, who were formed in the early years of the Reformation, sought to bring God’s word to all.

A life devoted to the Bible

Today a museum in Kralice preserves the memory of the printing shop. The parish in the south of the Czech Republic is one of the places that are forever linked to the Bohemian Reformation. For about 100 years before Martin Luther a movement was formed in today’s Czech Republic that wished to distance itself from Rome. The movement demanded a Church that renounced worldly power. Its leading figure was Jan Hus, burned 600 years ago at the Council of Constance.

For those who want to return to where it all started it’s a 2 ½-hour drive north from Kralice. Winding roads lead to Kunvald in the Orlické Mountains on the Polish border. In 1457 Christians came to this secluded valley to live a life devoted solely to the Bible. They called themselves the Unity of Brethren or simply “Bohemian Brethren”.

The king had allocated to them this strip of land far from the capital, Prague. “Simply because of their faith they gave up worldly benefits, including their homeland – just so that they could read the Bible honourably, sing their songs and pray,” says Petr Silar, a man approaching 60, strongly built and with a full beard. He manages the heritage site in Kunvald for today’s Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. 

Kunvald: the roots of the faith

Today a wooden hut is the most important place of memory in what was the Brethren’s inner sanctum. It stands on the spot where the first brothers would gather for prayer. Classes of school children come to the remote valley every summer to live Czech history. Buses bring tourists from all over the world. “When communities of Brothers from other countries visit the Czech Republic, they always stop here, because this is where the roots of their faith are,” says Petr Silar.

They often pray in the open air; it is only a short walk to a valley known simply as “the valley of prayer” – a densely wooded depression in the mountains where the faithful met during the persecutions. Here, in the middle of nature, is where they held their services.

In this valley there grows to this day a special kind of rose that has no thorns. “It is said to date back to this time,” says Petr Silar. “We Bohemian Brethren don’t have any saints, but we do have our traditions.” He has planted a shoot from this rose in his garden.

(Bild: epd-Bild)

Education drive and Moravian stars

Today there is no longer a parish in Kunvald. Six hundred years ago, the Brethren could only live in solitude for a few years before they were forced into exile for the first time. They kept moving on, settling where those in power were well disposed to them, even if that just meant a few towns down the road under the protection of the next nobleman.

When the influence of the Catholic Habsburgs grew in Bohemia, many Reformed believers fled for Prussa. Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf took in religious refugees from Moravia on his land in Upper Lusatia in 1722 and together with them he formed the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeinde (Herrnhut Community of Brethren). Today it’s a free church, known for its Moravian stars and its watchwords.

Constant persecution also transformed the Unity of Brethren. “The first generation wanted to live a modest life in accordance with the Bible, they did not want to engage with the public,” says Petr Silar. “It was the next generation that placed great emphasis on education. If you want a better society, you have to educate the children.”

Soon the Unity of Brethren schools became renowned. They were the first to make education accessible for the children of the common people. The pedagogue and theologian Jan Amos Comenius was also a product of this tradition.

The Kralice Bible in a plastic bag

One of the most impressive legacies of the community is the “Kralice Bible”. “Bishop Jan Blahoslav translated the New Testament into Czech, and this translation was the cornerstone of the Kralice Bible”, explains Monika Dolezalova. Experts estimate that around 2,000 copies were produced over the years, painstakingly printed page for page.

The Kralice Bible also had a large influence on the development of the Czech language. And today it remains a bestseller, despite the antiquated wording. Many of the originals, hundreds of years old, have been preserved – they are passed from generation to generation as heirlooms. “Once a man came to the museum by motorcycle, dressed all in leathers, and pulled from his backpack a book he had inherited from his grandfather,” Dolezalova tells us.

The expert leafed through it and immediately realised it was an original copy from the year 1613. “And just imagine, he had it in his backpack, wrapped in a plastic bag! He promised to look after it better in future.” Ever since, the man with the motorbike exhibits his Bible once a year in the little museum in Kralice – whenever the Bohemian Brethren celebrate the founding of their printing shop.