The book held pride of place in one of the kitchen cabinets. You could see it very well through the glass door: its thick black covers, the paper yellowish with age. Life at my grandparents’ house revolved around the kitchen, where the most basic necessities of life were always handy, where life itself happened. The book belonged to the basic stuff of life. On Saturday, sometimes Sunday mornings (especially when, because of old age, my grandparents were not always able to make it to church), my grandmother would walk over to the cabinet, take out the heavy tome, and solemnly take a seat at the head of the table. Only a loaf of bread was handled with similar care: you made the sign of the cross on it with your thumb to thank God for his daily provision before you sliced it up. The family, and whoever else was present, would already be seated. We all watched my grandmother attentively, even though we all knew the ritual. I had been brought up to know that the book was special: it had been purchased by my grandmother’s grandparents, and at that time its price was as much as a cow! Whatever else that meant, it clearly meant a lot of money! A lot of money for mountain folk trying to make a living off their meager land.
What was the book? Well, it was not the Bible. The Bible and the hymnals, both Polish and Slovak, had their place in the living room. The book bore the rather ponderous title typical of the time when it was first published, in the 17th century: Sermons, or Expositions of the Holy Gospels [as those are] Orderly Appointed for the Sundays throughout the Year. Gathered from Holy Scripture and the Doctors of the Church, according to the ancient teaching and order of the true Christian Church, to the honor and glory of the Mighty God and the Savior Jesus Christ. By the Reverend Samuel Dambrowski, shepherd of the Evangelical Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, etc. The book, to put it briefly, was a Lutheran postil, a collection of sermons covering all the Sundays, feasts, festivals, and saints’ days of the year. Later on, to my surprise, I found there was even a sermon for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and the Feast of St. Barbara (a saint, we now know, was very much fictitious), and also one for the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Each sermon was preceded by the text of the Gospel lesson, given according to the lectionary, of which the sermon was an exposition, and in the earliest edition also by a woodcut illustrating the Gospel narrative.
In the 16th century, the Duchy of Cieszyn in Silesia became one of the few Polish-speaking areas where the Lutheran Reformation reached the grassroots, rather than being of interest merely to the nobility or merchants. By mid-century the duchy’s population, including the peasants in remote mountainous areas, was predominantly Lutheran.
After the extinction of the local line of Piast dukes (the Piasts had once been Poland’s kings), the duchy came into the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs, who decided forcibly to impose Roman-Catholicism on their Lutheran subjects. As a result, in 1654, the Lutherans lost all of their churches in the Habsburg (Austrian) part of Silesia, Lutheran worship was banned, and, where possible, religious books were confiscated. In spite of the persecution, however, most remained faithful to the Augsburg Confession (this gave rise to the idiomatic expression “tough as the Lutheran faith in the Cieszyn area,” i.e., resilient, difficult to eradicate). For the following six decades (and in some places as late as 1781) the Lutherans met in secret locations up in the mountains to conduct illegal worship services. Nine such sites are known today. Several are still used for occasional services.
Mt. Równica, Ustroń, Poland
Zokamiyń, Nydek, Czech Republic
In 1992 a plaque was unveiled at the “mountain church” on what today is the Czech side of Mt. Czantoria (only a few kilometers away from Mt. Równica). The plaque commemorates the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jiří Třanovský (Polish: Jerzy Trzanowski; 1592-1637), the “Luther of the Slavs.” Třanovský, who was born in Cieszyn, is best known for his Slovak hymnal, the Cithara Sanctorum (Lyre of the Saints), which was first published in 1636 and ran into many subsequent editions. He himself wrote some 150 hymns for this immensely popular hymn collection. My grandmother regularly used our family’s 1818 edition well into the 1990s (she read her Bible and sermons in Polish, but many of her favorite hymns were old Slovak hymns from the Cithara).
[See also the recently published: Leśne kościoły. Miejsca tajnych nabożeństw ewangelickich w Beskidzie Śląskim ‘Forest Churches. The Sites of Secret Lutheran Services in the Silesian Beskids’ (Bielsko-Biała: Augustana, 2009); ISBN 978-83-88941-93-1. The text is in four languages: Polish, Czech, English and German, and the book also gives directions and route maps.]
DAMBROWSKI’S POSTIL (1620)
In addition to the Cithara Sanctorum, another book that made it easier for the Lutherans to survive the Counter-Reformation years was a sermon collection by Samuel Dambrowski.
Dambrowski (1577-1625) studied theology and philosophy at the Universities of Wittenberg and Königsberg. Early in his career he served as a pastor in Greater Poland. While there, he engaged in polemic with anti-trinitarians. Driven away by the Counter-Reformation, Dambrowski became a pastor in Vilnius and superintendent of the Lutheran congregations in the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania. He was renowned as both a theologian and a preacher.
Dambrowski’s Postil was first published in 1620. Its title page reads: “Sermons, or Expositions of the Holy Gospels [as those are] Orderly [Appointed] for the Sundays throughout the Year. Gathered from Holy Scripture and the Doctors of the Church, according to the ancient teaching and order of the true Christian Church, to the honor and glory of the Mighty God and the Savior Jesus Christ. By the Reverend Samuel Dambrowski, shepherd of the Evangelical Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession at Vilnius, superintendent of God’s congregations in Lithuania and Samogitia.” The Postil was used by Polish Lutherans for over three centuries, hugely contributing to the preservation not only of Lutheranism in Austrian Silesia but also of the Polish language among the Lutheran populations of East Prussia and Silesia. During the Counter-Reformation in Silesia it was often the only source of regular exposure to Lutheran preaching.
Interestingly, because the Lutheran population in the Austrian part of Silesia was Polish and Polish-speaking, this produced a curious reversal of the common stereotype: the Lutherans were Polish, while the German-speaking population was Catholic.
JESUS CHURCH, CIESZYN
This church was one of the “grace churches” whose erection was provided for by the Treaty of Altranstädt (1707) between Charles XII of Sweden and Emperor Joseph I Habsburg. The treaty brought an end to religious persecution in the Austrian part of Silesia and ushered in a period of moderate toleration. The Lutherans, who for over six decades had been forced to meet in secret “forest churches” in the mountains, were now able to worship in relative freedom and openness, although Roman Catholicism remained the privileged confession for yet another century. Its privileged status manifested itself, for example, in the requirement that Lutheran churches have entrances away from the street; in addition, Lutheran houses of prayer were initially not allowed steeples or bells.
The year 2009 marks the 300th anniversary of the Jesus Church, which already in the early years of its construction became a vital center of Lutheranism in Central Europe.
Because of its resilience and its spiritual and intellectual impact, the Lutheran Church in Cieszyn Silesia has been aptly described by one author as the “Mother-Church of many nations” [Oskar Wagner, Mutterkirche vieler Länder.Geschichte der evangelischen Kirche im Herzogtum Teschen 1545-1918/20 (Böhlau, 1978)].
A former Lutheran church, now Roman-Catholic, in Bartoszyce, northern Poland (formerly Bartenstein, East Prussia). Though there were Polish-(Mazurian dialect)-speaking Lutherans in East Prussia, the political and ethnic situation was obviously much different from that in Silesia. In Prussia Lutheranism was the established religion, and most of the Lutherans were German speakers. Toward the end of, and in the years following, World War II most of the German population fled, was killed, or resettled, while East Prussia was split between the Soviet Union and Poland. The majority of the population today is not indigenous and is predominantly Catholic.
Lutheranism “in diaspora.” This photo shows the interior of the present Lutheran church in Bartoszyce. Unlike the pre-World War II congregation, which was largely German, the congregation today is all Polish and quite small. Note the ornate pulpit, which was salvaged from a Lutheran chapel in Barciany.