CZECH SOCIETY AND RELIGION
The history of the contemporary Czech Republic is full of events that had
influence on the continuity of social and cultural development. The Christianization
of the country is one of those aspects, with roots in the period of the Great
Moravia. In 863, its leader named Rostislav decided to send messengers to
Byzantium to request the sending out of a Christian mission. The arrival of
the Byzantine missionaries Constantinus and Methodius was a turning point
in the cultural development of the territory. They introduced a literary Slavonic
language, which influenced the liturgical language.
Before the foundation of the Premysl state, Bohemia was an area under influence
of the Salzburg archbishopric, the bishops in Regensburg and Passau (in Germany),
and later during the Great Moravia, too. Secular landowners applied their
laws in the churches and cloisters built on their land.
In the 9th and 10th century Bohemia was a part of the bishopric diocese Regensburg.
The foundation of the bishopric in Prague between 973-976 had importance for
the state sovereignty. The Prague bishopric was submitted to the archbishopric
in Mainz (Germany). The new bishopric was also founded in Olomouc (Moravia)
In the 10th and 11th century the majority of churches were founded by the
Prince or his vassals near castles, and later in the countryside. Different
affairs, such as masses, baptisms, funerals, and feasts took place there.
In 1150-1200, with the support of landowners, churches became more independent
and started to create parish areas as known to us nowadays. The relationship
of secular owners was slowly changing into a position of donators and churches,
and priests started to be managed by a bishop. The right of the investiture
of the Prague bishop was forwarded from an emperor to the Czech king already
in 1197, but definitely it was confirmed when the Golden Sicilian Bull was
issued in 1212.
In 1222 the Czech King Premysl Otakar I issued the chart confirming judicial
exemption of clergy and declared that church land and inhabitants living on
church land belonged to the Church. Nevertheless, a long time passed before
this declaration became a reality. First it became valid on the royal dominions.
On dominions of the Czech aristocracy the special right was applied (called
"patronatni pravo"). The point of this right was to supervise
church property, but an owner was not allowed to appoint a priest. He was
allowed only to recommend him to a bishop who confirmed or abolished a person
in the position. At the end of the 13th century dioceses were subdivided into
deaneries as a level between priests and the bishop. Priests voted a dean
who took care of orders, discipline, announced church resolutions, and collected
the "tenth" (a kind of tax). In 1344 the Prague bishopric was promoted
into the archbishopric, supervising the bishopric in Olomouc and Litomysl.
At the beginning of the 15th century, reformatory ideas influenced some clerks.
At the starting point were the ideas of John Wickliff, Milic from Kromeriz
or Matej from Janov. Their studies were explored and floated by other well-known
scholars like Jan Hus, Jeronym Prazsky, Jakoubek from Stribro and Mikulas
from Dresden (Germany). High criticism was focused against church indulgences
and contemporary society. It had a very important influence on the Hussite
In 1420 a new bishop was elected in Tabor. This town became a centre for the
new Church, which was independent of the Catholic Church. The Prague Archbishop
converted to reformatory ideas in 1421. Catholics considered this an archbishopric
vacancy so that the Prague diocese was lead by the Prague Chapter House.
After the Hussite Movement people were allowed to profess the Catholic religion,
with a centre in the Upper Consistory (Horni konzistor), or the Calixtin
religion (Kalisnicke vyznani), a centre in the Lower Consistory (Dolni
konzistor). From the thirties of the 16th century Calixtins were influenced
by Lutheran ideas, but some of them inclined to Catholicism. The Catholic
Church was strongly supported by Jesuits who came into Bohemia in 1556. In
addition, recovery of the Prague Archbishopric in 1561 supported the effort
to restore a national unity on behalf of the Catholic religion. Until 1567
it was a centre for Catholics and Calixtins, but some Calixtins longed for
The turning point was the Diploma of the Emperor Rudolf II (Rudolfuv majestat),
issued in 1609, providing guaranty to freeedom of religion. The Estates were
allowed to establish members of the Lower Consistory without permission of
the Czech king. New Utraquists (Novoutrakviste) and the Unity of Brethern
(Jednota bratrska) shared it as an administrative centre. The Lower
Consistory took over responsibility for the establishment of church administration
(parish, deanship, and archdeanship offices).
The basic unit in the Unity of Brethern was the community. A priest was the
highest authority in a community. All communities had representatives in the
highest assembly, called the Assembly of Communities. This assembly elected
a senior / bishop. Four seniors used to be elected since 1500, as well as
a judge, usually the eldest senior. The assembly also elected 14 members who
had a fuction similar to the Lower Consistory.
In 1621 the Lower Consistory was abolished. All priests, except Catholic ones,
were expelled from the country. The Diploma of the Emperor Rudolf II was abolished
and forced re-catholization was applied there. We talk about the Counter-Reformation.
It was a political movement in the baroque period, which came into being as
reaction to the Reformation. The movement was especially enforced after the
final defeat of the Czech Protestant Estates in the Thirty Years´ War
(1618-1648) and was already supported by the Council of Trident in the 16th
Emperor Charles V convoked the Council of Trident in 1545 and its discussion
prolonged until 1563. The Council focused to the reformation of the Catholic
Church and decided to accept several dogmas to reinforce Catholic influence.
The problem of kepping vital registers was also discussed. Bohemia preserved
some vital registers, which have an origin in the second half of the 16th
century (Cheb, Kutna Hora, Praha, Slany), usually kept by non-Catholic priests.
After the Thirty Years´ War, only Catholic priests kept registers. Alas,
a lot of registers were destroyed during the war. Records of baptism, marriage,
and death were recorded in one register, but in 1784 the Emperor Joseph II
ordered registers kept separately.
As part of his reformatory activities, the Emperor Joseph II, declared the
Edict of Religious Tolerance (Tolerancni patent), published on Oct.
13, 1781. This edict gave religious freedom to the followers of Lutheran,
Calvinist (Helvetics), and Orthodox religions. About 45,000 Protestants were
not allowed to return to the old ideals of the Unity of Brethern. Many pastors
of Slovak and Hungarian origin came over and helped to establish the Czech
Protestant church. Henceforth, the Catholic Church had dominant influence
in the church and school affairs. Calvinists and Lutherans kept vital registers
from 1782, but supervision of Catholic priests was abolished in 1849.
After 1781 Lutherans and Calvinists were allowed to perform private services,
not public ones. Their communities were established in areas where at least
100 people professed the religion. Communities supported schools and built
churches that did not have the shape of a church with the official name "meeting-house".
Due to a lack of non-Catholic Czech pastors it was necessary to ask foreign
communities in Silesia, Hungary and Germany to provide them.
Czech Lutherns and Calvinists had authority centres in Vienna (2 consistories).
The Lutheran Consistory had an origin in the consistory which was removed
from Tesin. Members of both consistories were established by the state and
had a common presidium, led by Catholics. The highest representative was a
superintendent, one for Lutherans and one for Calvinists. Bohemia and Moravia
were devided into several administrative districts (senioraty). Lutheran
districts were devided into German and Czech ones in Bohemia and districts
called Silesia, Brno, and Suchdol in Moravia. Calvinist districts had local
names like Praha, Podebrady, and Chrudim in Bohemia, then eastern and western
ones in Moravia. Communities were allowed to establish pastors if they could
support their expenses, but final decision was forwarded to the consistories.
Catholic priests kept non-Catholic vital registers. Non-Catholic pastors were
permitted to keep only nonpublic registers, which became public ones in 1829.
The charter from 1861 declared equal rights to Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists.
As the supervision of Catholic priests became weaker, other churches or religions
were allowed to keep vital registers out of authorities of the Catholic Church:
from 1868 Jews, 1877 Old Catholic Church, 1920 Czech Brethern, 1923 Czech
Orthodox Community, etc.
A special group of non-Catholic inhabitants were Jews. Those from Bohemia
and Moravia pertained to the central Europian and east Europian cultural region.
Some settlements were founded about the 11th - 13th century in Praha, Brno,
Litomerice, Jihlava, Olomouc, and other administrative and merchant centres.
At the beginning they were supplied with special status of free people or
guests who founded their merchant colonies in main centres, but since the
13th century they started to lose these rights. They became subjects submitted
to the Royal Chamber (financial authorities).
Soon many people found Jews unwanted competition and asked for their expulsion
from royal towns in the 15th and 16th century. A lot of organized public pogroms
were held against them and the state tried to expel majority of Jews several
times (e.g. 1541, 1557, 1744-1748). Despite this, Jewish inhabitants settled
also in non-royal towns. A rabbi led their congregations. He was a teacher,
head of rabbi court of justice, and authority in the Jewish law. The higher
institution was the Prague Jewish Community with a superior rabbi. Moravian
communities were more independent and they did not have only one administrative
centre. The spiritual centre was established in Mikulov. The Family Act (Familiantsky
zakon) of 1726 limited the number of Jewish families in Bohemia to 8,541;
in Moravia to 5,106. Only the eldest son was permitted to marry. Other sons
had to stay unmarried or to leave the country. In addition, Jewish inhabitants
were allowed to live in restricted suburbs, and out of churches.
Since 1781 Jews did not have to care a special symbol on clothes and were
permitted to visit schools and universities or to practise a different trade.
In 1784 their judicial activities were abolished, but still solved the internal
problems of Jewish religion. In Prague there was an administrative centre
for all communities, consisting of 5 council members council led by the Prague
rabbi. The Prague synagogue founded the Jewish spiritual school. A very controversial
order changed Hebrew surnames to new German ones in 1787. German became the
main active language. A release happened after 1848 when many restrictive
laws were abolished.
World War II broke hundreds of years of lasting Jewish roots in the Czech
Today, after 40 years of communist rule when people were limited to practise
their chosen religion, the Czech people are trying again to find a connection
to old roots and habits.
Published in "Koreny (Roots)", Vol. 8, No. 4, September 2004, Page