According to Texas Czech lore, around the beginning of the last century the Presbyterians in the Czech community of Kovar in Bastrop County locked the Czech-Moravian Brethren out of the church that they jointly had built. This incident came to be known as the Controversy of Bartons Creek (or Bardens Creek as the Czechs frequently called the area).
The roots of the controversy go back to fifteenth-century Bohemia and are intertwined in the events of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The followers of Jan Hus, the Czech Catholic priest who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415, constituted the first church of the Protestant Reformation. A second Protestant Church known as the Unity of the Brethren was established in Moravia in 1457.
Lutheranism developed in Germany, and Calvinism developed in Switzerland early in the sixteenth century. While neighboring countries subsequently were embroiled in religious wars, the Czech Lands were a haven of toleration where Roman Catholics, Hussites, Moravian Brethren, Lutherans and Anabaptists lived side by side.
The situation changed in the seventeenth century. Following the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Austrian Habsburgs who ruled the Czech Lands outlawed all Protestant religions in Bohemia and Moravia and set out to Catholicize and Germanize the unruly Czechs.
Some Protestant families secretly held on to their religious beliefs in the more remote areas of the Czech Lands. These centers of faith, or heresy, depending on one’s interpretation, included northeastern Bohemia and eastern Moravia, areas that sent waves of Czech immigrants to Texas many, many years later.
In 1781 the enlightened Austrian emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Toleration, which allowed the practice of Lutheranism and Calvinism in the Czech Lands. Native Czech Protestant faiths, such as the Moravian Brethren, were excluded from the edict, so they had to set themselves up as Lutheran or Calvinist congregations. That is why in the last half of the nineteenth century Czech Protestant emigrants came to Texas as adherents of the Augsburg Confession (Lutherans) or as adherents of the Helvetic Confession (Calvinists). They commonly referred to themselves, however, as Evangelicals.
Some of these Czech Evangelicals settled in the Kovar community in Bastrop County starting in the 1870s. Traveling preachers, such as Rev. Jindrich Juren, Evangelical minister from Ross Prairie, Rev. Adolf Chlumsky, Evangelical minister from Granger, and Rev. Vaclav Pazdral, Presbyterian minister from Fayetteville, conducted services in settlers’ homes.
A Czech Evangelical congregation was organized at Kovar in 1894. The first officers included Josef Volcik, Tomas Holubec, Martin Palla and Martin Sabrsula. Some sources say that Rev. Juren organized the congregation, while others give credit to Rev. Pazdral. In any event, the Kovar congregation built a church in 1895. Additional Evangelical preachers ministered to the congregation, including Rev. Antonin Motycka from Nelsonville and Rev. Bohumil Kubricht from Wesley.
Kovar was a poor congregation, and some members were concerned about paying off a debt for some repairs made to the church. In 1902 some of the members of the congregation voted to join the Presbyterian Church, which would pay off the debt. Church elder Martin Sabrsula went to a Presbyterian meeting in Taylor, where he petitioned the group to accept the Kovar congregation in the Austin Presbytery. The Presbyterians welcomed them into their fold. According to some sources, Sabrsula was accompanied by Rev. Frank Rundus, popular local school teacher, who was instrumental in getting church members to go Presbyterian. At least one other source says that Sabrsula was accompanied by Presbyterian minister, Rev. Frank Rybar, who subsequently became the Kovar Presbyterian church’s resident pastor.
Joining the Presbyterian Church was not an unheard of remedy for the congregation to take to solve its financial problems. After all, many Czech Evangelicals had come to Texas as adherents of the Helvetic Confession.
The first elders of the Kovar Presbyterian church were Martin Sabrsula, Martin Palla and Josef Volcik. In 1911 the Kovar Presbyterians joined three other Czech Presbyterian congregations (Sealy, Rowena and Penelope) to form the Southwest Czech Presbytery.
Until 1903 the Czech Evangelical congregations in Texas were independent of each other, but they were served by a handful of traveling preachers. In that year Rev. Chlumsky and Rev. Juren organized the Evangelical Unity of the Czech-Moravian Brethren. This group included most of the state’s Czech Evangelical congregations.
Not all Kovar Evangelicals were happy with the 1902 decision to join the Presbyterians. In 1903 some of them invited Rev. Juren to visit Kovar, where he conducted religious services in the home of Josef Spacek. After the services Rev. Juren organized a new Czech Moravian Brethren congregation. Josef Spacek, Tomas Lastovica and Pavel Volcik were elected as its first officers. The new congregation was not able to hold services in the church that they had helped build, so they met in the public school building until they were able to build their own church several decades later (1949).
In summary, the Kovar Evangelicals built a church in 1895. A faction of the congregation decided to go Presbyterian in 1902, and they took the church building with them. Some disaffected members then founded a Czech-Moravian Brethren congregation and had to hold services in the local school. That, in a nutshell, was the Controversy of Bartons Creek.
Ironically, neither Czech Protestant church building is standing in Kovar today. In fact, the only physical evidence giving witness to the Controversy of Bartons Creek is the pair of cemeteries laid out side by side, the Kovar Presbyterian Cemetery and the Kovar Czech-Moravian Cemetery.
The Presbyterian Cemetery contains the names Holubec (3), Kalich (1), Kovar (1), Kubicek (1), Meduna (1), Mikulec (10), Noack (1), Novak (1), Ondrasek (1), Palla (7), Rybar (2), Sabrsula (1), Stepan (6), Susen (4), Syrinek (1), Volcik (11), Weece (2) and Zimmerhanzel (1).
The Czech-Moravian Cemetery contains the names Barcak (1), Barta (4), Biesenbach (1), Bollmeyer (1), Cunek (2), Elsik (2), Hajdik (9), Higgenbotham (1), Hofferek (16), Hribek (6), Kalina (10), Lastovica (19), Malina (6), Meduna (4), Milberger (2), Muran (1), Palla (2), Spacek (3), Stall (2), Stasny (4), Travnicek (2), Valka (1), Wiest (2) and Zeutschel (1).
Note: For more detailed information about the Controversy of Bartons Creek and about the Kovar community see the new Czech Heritage Society publication, Kovar, Texas, and Its Czech Evangelical Community.
– Robert Janak
“The Controversy of Barton’s Creek,” Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), Fall 2009, pages 11, 14.