Feast of John Amos Comenius (November 15)   4 comments

John Amos Comenius

Image in the Public Domain



Father of Modern Education


In The Emperor’s Club (2002), one of my favorite movies, William Hundert tells his young students,

Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance.  What will your contribution be?  How will history remember you?

Jan Amos KomenskyJohn Amos Comenius in the Anglicized version of his name–suffered because of insignificant conquests with lasting effects and left a fine legacy in the realms of education and the church.  Not only did he preserve the “Hidden Seed” of the persecuted, underground Moravian Church (partially by publishing the Ancient Unity’s last hymnal, small enough to fit inside an exile’s pocket, in 1659 and a catechism in 1661 from exile in Amsterdam, The Netherlands) until Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) stepped up to provide a safe haven for Moravians in 1722, but our saint also became the Father of Modern Education and the Father of the Elementary School.

Perish sects.  Perish the founders of sects.  I have consecrated myself to Christ alone.

–Comenius in his later years

The life of our saint was replete with difficulties, including wars, religious persecution, and times of exile.  Comenius, born at Nivnitz, Moravia, on March 28, 1592, grew up in the Moravian Church, the oldest Protestant denomination.  His parents died of plague, making him an orphan at six years of age.  Our intelligent saint studied at Nassau, Rhineland-Palatinate, and at Heidelberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, before serving as the Rector of the Moravian school at Prerov, Moravia (1614-1616), then as the minister at Fulnek, Moravia.  Then warfare and religious intolerance descended upon Comenius.

Europe was far from a hotbed of religious toleration in the 1600s.  In fact, religious toleration was one of the more admirable values of the Enlightenment (late 160os-1700s), itself partially a rejection of the excesses of Christendom.  The Moravian Church went underground for about a century (1620-1722), the period of the “Hidden Seed”  Comenius started 1620 as the Moravian minister at Fulnek, Moravia.  The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was young and about to change the life of our saint and the lives of all members of the Unitas Fratrum drastically.  That year the Spanish Army pillaged and plundered Fulnek, committing violence against non-combatants.  Comenius lost all of his possessions and manuscripts in a fire then his wife and one child en route to refuge at the estate of Baron Charles von Zerotin at Bradeis-on-the-Adler, Moravia.  Our saint’s first exile had begun.  Comenius and other Moravians whom Baron von Zerotin sheltered had to leave the estate in 1628 due to pressures from the Hapsburg Dynasty.  Moravian exiles had settled many corners of Europe starting in 1620; Comenius led a band of Moravians to Lissa, Poland.  There, in 1636, he became a bishop–the last bishop of the Ancient Unity, in fact.

At Brandeis Comenius wrote an allegory, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (1623), to comfort Moravian exiles.  He wrote of Moravians as ideal Christians in that classic work of Czech literature.  Our saint depicted the violence and upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War and condemned social problems and endemic lack of concern for others.  His prescription for remedying the situation was a renewed dedication to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Moravian Church expressed it.  Competition among sects had contributed to much violence in Europe, so the cessation of such rivalries, replaced with unity to realize God’s will, would bring peace, he reasoned.

In Poland Comenius, who hoped for better times despite appearances of current events, started his educational revolution, which he spread to other countries, such as England, Hungary, Prussia, and Sweden.  The theologically mystical bishop advocated for universal, liberal arts education with a classical core.  He considered science and religion complementary, not antagonistic.  Our saint argued for teaching in vernacular languages, not Latin, not that he opposed Latin.  In fact, our saint revolutionized the teaching of that dead language.  His Latin textbooks, which came to exist in seventeen languages, set the standard in the field during his lifetime.  And Comenius supported a rigorous education for girls and women.  After all, were not mothers the first teachers of their children?  He recognized that holding about half of the population back “in its place” constrained entire societies also.

Comenius traveled widely in Europe.  He lived and worked in England in 1641-1642, inspiring the eventual founding of the Royal Society there and of similar institutions elsewhere.  In 1642 our saint rejected an offer to become the President of the new Harvard College.  He did, however, leave England, where the first of three civil wars within a decade was starting, for Sweden, where the government invited him to reform the schools.  Comenius had to leave after a few years, for his involvement in ecumenical activities angered some prominent ministers in the state Lutheran Church.  He returned to Poland, where, in 1648, he became the leader of the entire Moravian Church.  War struck again in 1656, when Comenius lost all his manuscripts in another fire related to a military action.  Thus Comenius relocated to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where he died on November 15, 1670, about fifty-two years before Zinzendorf rescued the Moravians and started the modern era of the denomination.

The Moravians survived as a church until 1722 in large part due to the labors of Comenius.  His published theological works–including the 1659 hymnal and the 1661 catechism–kept the flame burning for a few more decades.

Some of our saint’s published works exist in English.  These include a hymn I found in the 1923 and 1969 North American Moravian hymnals and some of his books, such as those for which I have found texts at archive.org and linked into this post.






O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.

We thank you for the faithful legacy of [John Amos Comenius and all others]

who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.

May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Psalm 103

Philippians 4:8-9

Mark 12:28-34






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