My wife and I had the privilege of traveling in Europe for three weeks. Six countries: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Italy. Seven, if you include an airplane switch in Zurich, Switzerland.
The main event was to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, in southern Germany. But it was followed by an 8-day cruise down the Danube, from Regensburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. But what I want to blog about here is something I saw the next three days after the cruise, while touring in Prague, in the Czech Republic. So, make this the third post, in a multipart series looking at church history in Europe.
The Prague Castle is a large complex of buildings overlooking the capital city of today’s Czech Republic, Prague. I had to ask our Czech guide where to find this particular spot, but I was interested in learning where the Thirty Years War technically started. I found it and took the snapshot above.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated Europe. For nearly a century after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at the Wittenberg Church, the Protestant Reformation led to upheaval nearly all over the continent. Europe became divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas. The basic way this all happened was that each particular monarch or city-state would essentially declare what form of Christian worship would be permitted within that particular territory.
This was several centuries before the American Founding Fathers enshrined the concept of religious freedom within a governing document, so there was no room for dissension from any government decision. In other words, whatever the government decided the form of worship should be in a particular territory, then people living in that territory must comply…. or else!
But by 1618, the whole solution became unmanageable. For example, let us say that one particular sovereign declared their land or country to be Roman Catholic. There still were wealthy landowners in that country who were persuaded of the Protestant cause. Would they be forced to worship in a Roman Catholic Church? What about church lands that were being stewarded by certain benefactors? Would the right to earn monies from farming being done on those lands be taken away from benefactors with Protestant convictions? The same type of questions would come up for Roman Catholics living in Protestant areas.
Once one’s personal convictions began to impact the pocketbook, then frustration easily resulted. It did and had serious consequences in 1618, when political power brokers got involved. Some 7% of the land in Central Europe was at one time property of the medieval church, much of it stewarded by church benefactors, which fits in this ambiguous category, which caused all sorts of tension throughout Europe.
The tension came to a head when a group of Protestant landowners met with royal governing authorities representing the Habsburg royal family, who were advocates for the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation efforts in Bohemia, surrounding Prague. Protestantism had grown greatly in Bohemia, dating back to the days of Jan Hus and his protests in the early 15th century. Instead, the Habsburgs wanted to reinstitute Roman Catholic worship throughout their realm, and Prague was under the domain of the soon-to-be new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II. Several Protestant leaders protested against the Habsburg policies and were subsequently arrested. When the Habsburg governors were challenged to release the prisoners, the governors refused to budge.
On May 23, 1618, these Protestant landowners staged a mass demonstration at Prague Castle. They argued with the royal governors, and pushed three Roman Catholic representatives out the third story of window of Prague Castle (above where I am standing in the photo above). This is known as one of the Defenestrations of Prague, in which “defenestrate” means to push someone out of a window.
To the benefit of the victims, they survived the fall. My guide told me one version of the story, that they were saved by landing in a pile of manure at the bottom of the building below the window. That is probably the Protestant version of the story, as another version says that the Virgin Mary miraculously intervened and saved the men from their deaths. Nevertheless, and needless to say, the Roman Catholic governing authorities were not thrilled by this action. Both sides left the meeting intent on building up armies.
Two years later, the Protestant forces were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain, which effectively ended the Protestant revolt in Bohemia. But it was merely the first of many conflicts throughout Central Europe. Eventually, the Thirty Years War evolved from being a Protestant/Catholic conflict to a very complicated affair with alliances that crossed confessional boundaries, intent on settling old scores and exacerbating rivalries. Armies as far as Sweden rushed in across Central Europe, spreading disease with the troop movements, even threatening the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau (the topic of the first blog post in this series).
By the time the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, very little had changed in terms of who controlled what and where. The whole region was exhausted of war. Religious concerns gave way to nationalistic concerns, as the unity of the Holy Roman Empire had effectively crumbled, and different nation/states had formed all across Europe.
Roughly one out of four Europeans had been killed by either disease or battle. Tired of religious disputes, the European world had by then become preoccupied with nationalistic aims and concerns, and the days of European colonialism were in full swing, as new areas across the world, from India to the Americas, gained the attention of Europeans hoping to extend the influence of their native lands and cultures… and take their minds off of intra-European issues. Europe would not experience another major military calamity until Napoleon campaigned across these same lands in the name of Enlightenment nationalism in the early 19th century.
Gone were the days when a united Christian faith, at least under the oversight of the church in Rome, held the glue together for Western society. Denominationalism has since become the defining factor of the Western church.
You can still feel a sense of the Thirty Years War’s impact in the Czech Republic. Another Czech tour guide told me that there is a tragic connection between the religious strife of the Thirty Years War and the loss of Christian faith among most Czech people. For example, according to a 2021 census, for 70 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 48 percent held none, 10 percent were Roman Catholic, 13 percent listed no specific religion, and 9 percent identified with a variety of religious faiths, Protestant evangelical being among that last group. For a country which was once the cradle of Gospel-driven Christianity in Europe in the 15th century, that is a sad statistic.
Lessons learned: denominationalism was never intended by God to happen in Christ’s church. But the combination of denominationalism and forced religious observance of a particular denomination is a recipe for disaster. Be thankful for religious freedom!! Nevertheless, we should use that freedom to engage in dialogue with other believers in Jesus, who do not read the Bible exactly the way we do. Better to learn how to have “impossible conversations” than trying to settle theological and worldview issues with weapons that kill!!!