Many things about our church services today can be easy to take for granted. The ability to understand what’s being said and sung, however, is perhaps chief among them.
For roughly half of Christian history, all official services and worship were done in Latin at a time when fewer and fewer understood the language.
But while the efforts of people like John Wycliffe and Martin Luther to translate the Bible into the language of their people often get a lot of notice—and rightfully so—it was on January 13, 1501, when the first non-Latin hymnal was published by the Moravian Brethren in Prague.
Its eighty-nine hymns were translated into Czech, German, and Polish to enable people from the surrounding countries to join in communal worship using a language they could actually understand.
Given that their efforts took place at a time when the vast majority of Christians were still considered Catholic—Luther and other Protestants would not make a more official break with the church for another twenty years or so—publishing their songs in the vernacular was a big risk.
However, the risk was also one the Brethren had become accustomed to taking.
The legacy of Jan Hus and the Moravian Brethren
The Moravian Brethren were the spiritual descendants of Jan Hus, a reformer betrayed and martyred by the Catholic Church in 1415 after roughly a decade of causing a stir in his native Bohemia—our modern-day Czech Republic.
Hus was a proponent of allowing his entire congregation to take both elements of the Lord’s Supper at a time when the cup was most often reserved for the clergy. Over the previous centuries, the Catholic Church had slowly moved away from offering both in an effort to protect the sanctity of the Eucharist and would largely maintain that stance until Vatican II reversed course in the 1960s.
However, it was Hus’ stance on the sale of indulgences that ultimately led to his demise.
Like Martin Luther a century later, Hus strongly opposed the selling of indulgences at a time when they were a large source of income for both the Catholic Church and for the king, who received a portion of the profits. King Vaclav had largely defended Hus (PDF) because his wife was a fan of the reformer. However, she could not protect him from the king’s ire once it meant taking coins from the royal coffers.
Hus was eventually lured under the promise of safe passage to defend his beliefs at the Council of Constance in 1414. However, upon arriving he was immediately arrested and, within a year, burned at the stake as a heretic.
“Truth conquers all”
Hus’ life motto was “truth conquers all,” and those who took up the mantle of his cause following his death sought to live that out, both theologically and militarily.
Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Bohemians defeated invading armies sent by the Catholic Church on six different occasions before eventually negotiating a truce with the papacy that allowed them to keep many of the reforms Hus promoted, such as communion with both the bread and the cup.
Their victory was relatively short-lived, though, as the Bohemian king eventually sought to reinstate a more traditional form of the faith. Those who refused and continued to promote Hus’ theology were eventually known as the Moravians, and their hymns would go on to have an impact that far exceeded their numbers.
John Wesley—one of the founders of the Methodist faith and among the most important figures in the First Great Awakening—was converted, in large part, after witnessing a group of Moravians sing hymns to the Lord in the midst of a terrible storm at sea. The peace they demonstrated amidst the turmoil convicted him of his lack thereof. The Lord used that experience to eventually lead him and his brother Charles to translate many of the German hymns into English and write their own in a style similar to that of the Moravians.
The blessing we have today
The songs we sing in praise of God can have an enormous impact on our spiritual and theological development. Music has a way of sticking with us that simple words often do not.
The Moravians understood that power and the influence it could have on helping people learn about the Lord. They went to war with the Catholic Church, at least in part, because they were not willing to give that up.
While we are blessed to live at a time when we have the freedom to worship God in whatever language we understand best, I know there are times when that freedom has led to complacency in my own life. It can be easy to be lulled into offering thoughtless words in worship to our Lord when there are few things that should be more exciting and humbling than knowing that the God of the universe is listening to us.
So the next time you have the chance to sing praises to the Lord—be it in church, in your car, or wherever else you worship—remember to whom it is your singing. And think back on the example of the Moravians to help you appreciate the blessing that we have to join with others in praising God in a language we can understand.
Christians have not always been so fortunate.