Saturday, 25 June 2022

Persecution drives Refugees to a new home

Persecution drives Refugees to a new home

Refugees the world over have three huge challenges to face: persecution that drives them from their homes; a difficult journey into the unknown and finally settling in a new place to live. On the foundations of refugees leaving Moravia in 1722 is one of the reasons that the Moravian Church as we know it today is built. During the late seventeenth century, the Unitas Fratrum had been driven underground as most areas in that region had reinstated Catholicism as the official religion, forcing Protestants to practice their faith secretly and so the Brethren disappeared as an organised church. However, the first steps in creating Herrnhut, the birthplace of the renewed Moravian Church, were taken on 17th June 1722; hence this day is the Moravian Memorial Day to mark the renewal of the Brethren's Church.

Despite many years of persecution, the Brethren living in Moravia and beyond were holding onto their faith. Before his death in 1670 Jan Comenius had actively encouraged them and had raised money from England to buy bibles in their own languages. Living in countries with religious intolerance, reading a bible in the vernacular was one of the many dangerous acts that helped them to uphold their faith. They were banned from holding services and if they could not produce a certificate showing they had been to confession they could be imprisoned. Brothers and sisters were not to be defeated and in face of the many dangers, they met in secret. On cold winter nights they dared to walk in single file through the snow into the woods to worship together. The person at the back had to use a branch to cover their footsteps. Kindly neighbours would whistle to warn of danger.

People realised that they needed to move, to find a place where they could worship together peacefully upholding their beliefs. Although some were losing hope there were others who believed that a new home could be found. One such person was George Jaeschke who, on his death bed, told his family that he felt a long journey was ahead and that this would lead to being offered a home in a new land. In fact, it was from the village where he lived, 'Sehlen' in Moravia, that the journey was to start. 'Sehlen' is how it is often spelt in Moravian Church documents but it is 'Sšhle' in German, and 'Zilina' in Czech: now a district of the town of Novy Jic’n in the Czech Republic.

Christian David, an advocate for the persecuted Protestants in Moravia, was to lead a small group from Sehlen to Saxony, where they had been offered land to settle on the estate in Berthelsdorf that Count Zinzendorf had recently purchased. After saying fond farewells to family, they each slipped out quietly into the night. Among the first group was Michael, the son of George Jaeschke. From Sehlen they travelled on side roads and crossed the Silesian border, arriving in Saxony nine days after leaving their home village.

The journey of over 350 km was hard for the fit, imagine the difficulties for those with young children and the very old. For some the journey was never completed; they were arrested and returned to a cruel death of hard labour. Despite the hardships many repeated the journey to bring family and friends; Christian David did the journey twelve times.

When they arrived Count Zinzendorf was away in Dresden. Initially they received a cold welcome and were nearly sent away. The possibility of them settling in the village of Berthelsdorf was considered, however Zinzendorf's steward, Johann Georg Heitz, realised that new settlers may not be welcome, their trade as cutlers was not needed and he was concerned they may introduce infection.

In the meantime, the refugees stayed in an old farmhouse about a mile from the village but it was on a dismal, swampy stretch of ground which was dreary and bleak, although the neighbouring woods of pines and beeches relieved the bareness of the scene.

The steward was instructed to find a suitable place that would enable them to build a new home where the community could become established and grow. He spotted a place with a thick mist that suggested to him a spring. He offered a prayer on their behalf, and registered the solemn vow, 'Upon this spot, in Thy name, I will build for them the first house.' In addition to land, he ensured they had a cow to help them meet their basic needs. He inspected the site with Christian David and marked the trees he might fell; thus encouraged, Christian David seized his axe, struck it into a tree, and, as he did so, exclaimed, 'Yea, the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself.' The date was 17th June 1722 and the first step in building Herrnhut had been taken. From Herrnhut, the Moravian Church was to grow and become the worldwide Church of today.

The Czech Moravian History Association in Suchdol and Odrou, which is in the Novy Jic’n District, set up the 'Moravians exile way' (Via exulantis) with a map of the route and places where some of the original refugees stayed along the way. About 550 inhabitants left this historic region of KuhlŠndchen (Czech: Kravarsko) in the east of the Czech Republic. Information about this can be found at the website below.

As we approach Refugee Week, 20-26th June 2022, it is sad to reflect on how many refugees on different continents of our world are on the move, and at a time when Ukrainian refugees are now staying in Herrnhut. Each is a person like us with family, friends, hopes and faith; as a refugee each is facing the same three challenges faced by the brothers and sisters who set out from Sehlen. Exulantis_EN.aspx.

Sr Mary Holmes

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Church House is the Headquarters of the Moravian Church in the British Province and is located in London at:
Moravian Church House, 

5 Muswell Hill, 
N10 3TJ


020 8883 3409

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