Revolutionizing Religion in Europe


IT is an interesting and significant fact that, in all the discussion which has taken place concerning the reconstruction of Europe, but little has been said concerning the part that religion might play in it. At Versailles new political boundaries were drawn, new States established. At Genoa, and again at The Hague, the economic reconstruction of Europe was under discussion. But there has been no conference concerning the religious reconstruction of Europe. Nor, apparently, has any great weight been attached by students of European affairs to the influence of organized religion. The natural inference is that such influence as the Church exercises upon the destinies of the nations of Europe to-day is insignificant and negligible.

If this be true, a momentous change has taken place, which, in itself, would be worthy of attention and study. For nowhere in the world has organized religion played such a dominant part in the making of history as in the British Isles and on the Continent of Europe. The Protestant churches of Germany and England, heirs of the Reformation, and the Greek Orthodox churches in Russia, Serbia, Rumania, and Bulgaria have, as well as the Vatican, exercised a very real ‘temporal power,’ in that their influence over temporal affairs has been in many cases determining. Is that power gone, and has that influence been dissipated, so that we can now afford to ignore religious questions in discussing European affairs?

Several instances occur immediately to the most superficial observer of European conditions, in which organized religion would seem to occupy a rôle of paramount importance. Certainly a settlement of the Irish question, for instance, cannot be reached without reference to the religious question involved. One wag has described this situation most aptly. ‘The trouble in Ireland,’ he said, ‘is that the folks in the north of Ireland are Protestant, and those in the south are Catholic. Now if only they were all atheists, they might be able to live together like Christians.’

The Greek Orthodox Church of Russia is destined to play a much more important part in the settlement of that vexed question than is indicated in the reports of the confiscation for famine purposes of the gold and jewels of the cathedrals. Such really insignificant incidents are given wide publicity, but we hear nothing of the grip which the Russian Church still has upon the hearts of the moujiks. The Bolsheviki have called religion an opiate; they may find it to be a stimulant to the conscience of the Russian people, productive of effects most disagreeable to them.

The storm-centre in central Europe to-day is Hungary. The political events of the past year in that country have kept the neighboring states in almost constant process of mobilization, and have consequently considerably delayed a return to ‘normalcy’ in that part of the world. But the political future of Hungary will be determined by the forces of organized religion, voting en bloc, the general alignment being Roman Catholic (Hapsburg royalists) versus Protestants and Jews, who are working for a non-Hapsburg constitutional monarchy — preferably with Admiral Horthy, a Protestant, as king — or for a democratic form of government.

The political situation in Jugoslavia is most complicated, and not altogether reassuring; and here again one of the dominant factors is organized religion. The Serbs are Greek Orthodox to the core; but the Croatians and Slovenians, who are now included in the enlarged kingdom, are equally ardent Roman Catholics. Serbs and Croats speak the same language, only using different alphabets; they are of the same racial stock, but religion divides them. This is one of the reasons why the Croats are now playing the rôle of obstructionists, and threatening the unity of the new state. Again, Jugoslavia includes among its peoples thousands of Mohammedans from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who also form a political as well as a religious bloc.

Again, in Czechoslovakia, the religious question has to be taken into consideration in dealing with the mooted question of autonomy for Slovakia, where the Catholics are separatists, and the Protestants unionists, and with the disposition of Russinia, where the population is of the Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox persuasions.

The religious question in Europe would seem, therefore, to be of some importance; and a study of the religious life of new Europe should be not only interesting, but fruitful, for those who desire the new Europe to be better than the old.

One of the most marked changes in the position of the Church in Europe to-day has been effected by a modification, in a great many countries, of the relation of Church and State. This has been caused, on the one hand, by the downfall of the three governments in which the closest possible affiliation of Church and State has been a long-established tradition. These countries are Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Germany. It matters little that in these three countries the State Churches represented the three great branches of Christian faith — the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church. All these churches were so closely affiliated with their respective governments that the fall of the government inevitably involved a loss of power and prestige for them. The Church had constituted one of the main bulwarks of the old régime; consequently, the new would have none of it.

In Russia we have a notable example of the fate that awaits any religious organization which too closely identifies itself with any political or economic order. The Tsar was not only the Tsar of all the Russias; he was the ’little Father,’ and, as such, was almost deified. And yet his murder called forth no such expressions of horror as one would expect from a devout people who revered their ruler almost as a saint. The Church proved to be powerless to check, much less to guide, the forces of revolution. All it could do was to take the position of passive protest, which Gandhi in India has made famous. But even the huge parades of protestants against the Bolshevist crusade upon the Church proved quite ineffectual. The priests were denounced as parasites, and set to menial labor. The church buildings, which used to be crowded to the doors on Sundays by unusually devout congregations, were, in many places, confiscated by the Soviet and turned into barracks for the Red Army.

At the present time in Russia the Church has no status with the government. It is dealt with as is any other private organization. The ‘religious freedom’ granted by the Soviet government means about as much as the ‘freedom of the press’ which flourishes in the land. The people are ‘ free ’ to support the Bolshevist government, and to worship as they please, so long as the priests are loyal to the Communist régime. But even the Bolsheviki are unable to drive religion out of the hearts of the Russian people. With the great masses of the people it is the only remaining link with the past and the only guaranty for the future. The priests of the Orthodox Church have in their hands one of the most powerful instruments in Russia; and it may be that they will learn how to use it so as to bring better days to that unhappy land.


Then again, in the new states created by the peace treaties, the question of Church and State had, of course, to be taken up de novo. Nowhere in Europe is the religious situation more interesting or significant than in Czechoslovakia, the leader of the ' succession states.’ Here the question of Church and State has taken a most acute form. Here also we may go for an illustration of other characteristics of religious life in Europe as a whole. Everywhere in Europe the old hard-and-fast lines which have kept people true to the faith of their fathers from time immemorial are being broken down, and fresh alignments are being sought. This is supremely true in Czechoslovakia. Then, the growth of extra-ecclesiastical religion in Europe as a whole has been especially noteworthy since the war, as may well be illustrated by the case of Czechoslovakia. Therefore a study in some detail of the religious situation in Czechoslovakia may reveal to us something of the status of religion in Europe as a whole.

The constitution of the Czechoslovak Republic calls for absolute separation of Church and State; but it was left to the Parliament to decide when and how this should be put into effect. Thus far, however, nothing has been done; and although the question is under debate at the present time, the outlook for an immediate and decisive solution is not bright. It is difficult for anyone to understand the present religious situation in Czechoslovakia without some reference to the history of the peoples who now find themselves, after three hundred years of alien rule, citizens of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Whenever central Europeans begin to talk of the present status of their country, they invariably go back at least five hundred years into their history. The columns of our daily papers nearly every day contain communications from nationalists of one or another of the succession states, in which the claims of that state in the present are advanced or defended by reference to the long-distant, and by most Americans forgotten, past. But my incursion into ancient history will at least have the virtue of brevity.

The dominant elements in the population of the Czechoslovak Republic are the Czechs (8,000,000), and the Slovaks (3,000,000). The minority nationalities — Germans (2,000,000) and Magyars (1,000,000) — have religious problems of their own, which, however, affect but indirectly the policy of the government.

The religious situation prevailing among the Czechs is quite different from that which obtains among the Slovaks, and that for reasons partly historical and partly temperamental. The Czechs were originally Christianized from the east by the Slavic missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, who were sent out from Saloniki by the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. Accordingly, even after the Czechs came into the fold of the Church of Rome, they continued to maintain a rather close association with the Eastern Church and the type of religion which it represents, and assumed an attitude toward Rome more independent than that of the nations of western Europe.

Thus the ground was prepared for the reform movement of Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, and by them for that radically Protestant movement instituted by the Bohemian Brethren, which made Bohemia the first Protestant country in the world. The ensuing Hussite wars constitute the glorious period in the history of the Czechs; so that all good Czech patriots connect the Golden Age of their nation with that heroic stand of the Bohemian Protestants against the invading armies which were sent into the land for the express purpose of wiping out the ‘Protestant heresy.’ Similarly do the Czechs associate in their minds the dark age of their history with the assumption of political power by the Hapsburgs, and the restoration of the Roman Catholic faith. This was an era of political and religious persecution for the Czech nation, and continued with but little abatement down to the outbreak of the World War.

Students of Bohemian history foresaw that the fall of the Hapsburg power and the reëstablishment of political independence for the Czechs would involve a break with Rome. And such indeed has been the case. The official government census of 1921 indicates that no less than 1,100,000 Czechs have left the Church of Rome since the establishment of the Republic. Instead of 96 per cent, the Roman Catholics now represent but 76 per cent of the Czech population.

A large percentage of those who have left Rome have gathered around a group of ex-Roman Catholic priests, to form a new ecclesiastical body, called the Czechoslovak Church. The story of the origin and development of this church forms a unique chapter in modern church history. In 1920 a number of Roman Catholic priests banded together to demand from the Vatican certain reforms — principally, the abolition of the celibacy of the clergy, the right to administer the communion in both kinds, and the use of the native tongue in the Mass. When these demands were categorically denied by the Pope, a large number of these priests seceded from Rome, and proceeded to form their own church. Excommunication held no terrors for them, or apparently for their people; about 800,000 people flocked to the standard of the new Church. This great mass movement was at the outset something in the order of a political or patriotic demonstration; but the religious motive plays a much more prominent part in it than was the case with the German Los von Rom movement some decades ago. In some districts, the entire parish followed their priest. In others, all the people left the Catholic Church except the priest, his housekeeper, and the sexton, who have retained control of the church building, and constitute the entire congregation at Mass. Feeling runs high, and in some villages there have been regular pitched battles between the Roman Catholics and the seceders, over the possession of the church property.

The leaders of the new movement were astonished at the success of their efforts and overwhelmed by the problems involved. They have had to face and solve practical problems concerning the forms and ceremonies to be used in this non-Catholic church, the members of which have known no other form of worship than the Catholic. A dogmatic basis for this new Church had to be established. They had to thresh out with the government the question of their legal status. They were compelled to decide whether they should align themselves with the Protestant Church, or with the Orthodox Church, or remain independent.

As it was manifestly impossible to solve all these knotty questions at once, during the initial period each congregation was pretty much a law unto itself. Most priests retained the Mass, with its attendant ceremony, but administered the cup as well as the wafer to the communicants. The adoration of the Virgin Mary was also continued, but given a subordinate place. National heroes, such as Jan Hus, were added to the calendar of the saints. But everywhere the mass and preaching were in the Czech language, and the Scriptures were given to the people to read and interpret for themselves. After wavering between Protestantism and the Eastern Church, affiliation was finally made with the Greek Orthodox Church of Serbia. Reverend Pavlik of Olomouc was consecrated as first bishop of the new Church by the patriarch at Belgrade, thus assuring the apostolic succession and the support of the national Church of a friendly State.

Nevertheless, the relations with the native Protestant Church have remained most cordial. In many places both churches use the same building; in some the Protestant minister serves both congregations, and gives religious instruction to the children of the new church as well as to those of his own. A proposal has even been made that the recently organized Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Prague admit to its courses candidates for the priesthood in the Czechoslovak Church, and join in the training of such candidates.

In matters of dogma, the Athanasian Creed and the decisions of the first six Œcumenical Councils were adopted as a creedal basis. But lest this should be too conservative for some, a declaration was made that these creeds were to be interpreted in the light of modern thought, and even of the results of Higher Criticism! So the church has been made all things to all men, that it might by all means save some!

But the new church has secured not only the recognition of the government, but even some measure of financial support, it being dealt with on the same basis as the other churches which, pending separation of Church and State, are partially supported by State funds. Undoubtedly the government will also grant to the Czechoslovak Church the right to use former Roman Catholic Church buildings for their services of worship in places where their numbers warrant it. Some of these buildings were originally Protestant, but as the Catholics have been using them for three hundred years, they will scarcely give them up.

The native Protestant churches and the mission churches established by the Congregational, Methodist, and Baptist churches of America have all profited largely by this movement away from Rome. The Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren, the natural heir of the old Protestant traditions of the land, has nearly doubled its membership. New congregations are springing up all over the country, and the church authorities have been unable to provide pastors to care for them all. In fact any sort of religious meeting in Czechoslovakia is sure to be crowded to the doors; and instead of the ministers having to think up new ways of inducing the people to come to church, as is the case here, it is the people who are hunting for ministers to come and preach to them.

Naturally, the Roman Catholic Church is viewing all these developments with some alarm, and is marshaling all her forces to hold her position. Although the trend among the Czechs is against Rome, she is still very powerful and is well organized politically in what is known popularly as the Clerical Party.

The Roman Catholics have a valuable political ally in the Slovak People’s Party, which is led by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Hlinka, and largely composed of his coreligionists. Hlinka and his party are not only devout adherents of Roman Catholicism, but the most active protagonists of Slovak autonomy. Although the government is committed to autonomy for the Slovaks as a matter of principle, it does not feel that the time is yet ripe for it. Hlinka is, on this account, bitterly anti-Czech, and is conducting a very noisy and not altogether ineffectual campaign for autonomy for the Slovaks. The situation is not without some elements of danger to the integrity of the Republic, for the Magyar irridentists, who would restore Slovakia to Hungary, are aiding and abetting the Slovak autonomists to the best of their ability, and seeking to widen the breach between the Czechs and the Slovaks. Under these circumstances the government is obliged to deal most diplomatically with Hlinka and his followers, and diplomacy dictates that it is not wise to go too far or too fast in the separation of Church and State, which would operate more to the disadvantage of the Roman Catholics than of any other church, because of their large property holdings. Furthermore, the Slovaks, being conservative by nature, are adhering to their old religious affiliations. But while the government is seeking to conciliate all parties concerned, and to avoid any defection on the part of the Slovaks, the breakdown of the old religious affiliations among the Czechs goes on apace, and religion is a topic of vital interest and constant discussion.

But although the people of Czechoslovakia are ardently seeking a positive solution of their religious questions, many of them are as yet unaffiliated with any ecclesiastical organization, and are finding satisfaction of their religious needs and interests outside of the organized churches. Spiritualism is in great vogue, over two hundred séances being held each week in Prague alone. Theosophy and New Thought have thousands of adherents. The Salvation Army has made a place for itself. Volná Myslenka, or the Free Thought movement, although anti-Church, is not nearly so anti-religious as the name implies. Many thoughtful men claim to be religious, but do not work with the churches. Among these is the great President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Thomas G. Masaryk. Although a nominal member of the Czech Brethren Church, Masaryk has never been a churchman, and seldom, if ever, attends church services. Nevertheless, he is a deeply religious man, and has often declared that a positive answer to the religious question is of paramount importance to the Czech nation. In one of his earliest addresses as President he declared that the Czechoslovak nation must choose between the ideals of Jesus of Nazareth and the ideals of Cæsar. Himself a total abstainer, President Masaryk and his able daughter, Dr. Alice G. Masaryk,1 have been most active in the furtherance of the cause of total abstinence. Formerly a Professor of Sociology at the University of Prague, and for many years a close observer and careful student of both social and international problems, President Masaryk has become one of the great statesmen of Europe. There is no one who has a firmer grasp of the problems which beset Central Europe. In the solution of these problems he believes that religion has a great part to play. His lack of coöperation with the existing churches may be attributed to his conviction that too many of their activities resemble an ecclesiastical goose-step on the parade-ground, instead of a march against the enemies of national and international welfare of a host which would enroll as brothers in arms men and women from all classes of society. To gain the interest and active allegiance of men like President Masaryk, the Church must prove itself to be socially effective. The new conditions now prevailing in Czechoslovakia give the Church an unprecedented opportunity to prove its worth.

The future of the churches in Czechoslovakia depends upon their ability to convince, not only the intellectuals, but the Socialist workingmen as well, that theirs is the organization best fitted to inculcate the spirit of the Nazarene in the life of the nation and in the life of Europe. For the first time in its history the ability of the Church to speak with authority and to lead with effectiveness in the moral and spiritual regeneration of the nations of Europe is being seriously challenged by large groups of people in each nation. If the Church can meet the challenge and prove its right to leadership, organized religion will have a momentous part in the construction of that better Europe of our dreams. And nowhere has the Church a better opportunity really to lead than in Czechoslovakia, for there religion is popular, and the people are clamoring for religious leadership.

  1. Author of ‘From an Austrian Prison,’Atlantic Monthly, Nov. and Dec., 1920.