In the sixteenth century the Czech Lands were a haven of peace and toleration in a Europe beset with religious strife and persecution. In spite of sporadic outbreaks of suppression fostered by the Habsburg emperors that were sitting on the Bohemian throne, Catholicism, Judaism and several Protestant religions flourished in the Czech Lands. The Anabaptists were one such Protestant faith. The Anabaptists were so numerous in Moravia, in fact, that they became that country’s third largest religion, and they fared so well there, that Moravia became the Promised Land of the Anabaptists.
The Anabaptist religion began in Switzerland in the 1520’s. Its adherents held rather radical religious and social ideas. They lived and worked in communes and conducted themselves according to Biblical teachings. Because the Swiss were not ready for such a radical reformation at that time, the Anabaptists suffered great persecution. Many fled to more tolerant countries, including the Czech Crown Land of Moravia.
Moravian nobles welcomed Anabaptist immigrants to their lands. They were hard-working craftsmen who were a great asset to their patrons. The Anabaptist immigrants established communes all over south Moravia, and their numbers grew to the tens of thousands. Unfortunately the great prosperity that the Anabaptists found in Moravia lasted only a century. In 1622 the Habsburg King Ferdinand II expelled them in his purge of Protestantism after the Battle of White Mountain and the resulting loss of Czech independence.
Some of the Moravian Anabaptists fled across the border to Hungarian Slovakia, where the forces of the Counter-Reformation were not so absolute as they were in Bohemia and Moravia. Habsburg intolerance and persecution eventually caught up with them, however, and many Moravian Anabaptists moved on to the Romanian principalities of Transylvania and Wallachia.
In 1770 the Russian government invited the Moravian Anabaptists to settle in the Ukraine, where they were offered rich farmland, religious freedom and exemption from military service. The Moravian Anabaptists experienced another century of calm, until their exemption from military service was revoked in 1874. Since the Anabaptists were devout pacifists, it was time for them to move on. This time they set out for South Dakota.
These were not the first Anabaptists to immigrate to what is now the United States. During our colonial period Mennonite and Amish settlers came to the East Coast from Western Europe. The Moravian Anabaptists, also known as Hutterites after one of their leaders Jacob Hutter who was burned at the stake in the Tyrol in 1536, settled first in South Dakota, and then throughout the American North West and adjacent regions of Canada.
Today there are about two hundred Hutterite colonies in the United States and Canada. And although their wanderings from the Swiss Alps across Europe to Russia and beyond found them for only one hundred years in Moravia, they are nevertheless beneficiaries of the Bohemian Reformation and the toleration that reigned in the sixteenth-century Czech Lands.
- Robert Janak
“Moravia — The Promised Land of the Anabaptists,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), May 1997, page 9.