The history of the Czech people is long and filled with waves of great change. No one knows for certain when the first Slavs arrived in what is now known as the Czech Republic – they probably migrated from the Black Sea-Carpathian region around the 6th century A.D. The first known “government” was established in the 7th century under a Frankish king named Samo. In the 9th century Rastislav, ruler of Greater Moravia, appealed to the Byzantine emperor to send Christian missionaries to his country.
In response, the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius were dispatched from Thessalonica and arrived in Moravia in 863. These men translated portions of the Bible into the Czech language, wrote a worship liturgy in Czech, and evangelized far and wide in both Moravia and Bohemia. Methodius was named archbishop of Moravia and either he, or one of his disciples, influenced Bořivoj (the father) and Ludmila (the grandmother) of Václav I (aka Good King Wenceslaus of Christmas carol fame) for Christ.
Most Czech kings were loyal to the Roman Catholic popes, including the famous Karel IV (Charles IV) who was anointed Holy Roman Emperor in 1355. The reign of Karel IV is generally regarded as the high point of Czech History. He brought the seat of the Holy Roman Empire to Prague, built many lasting national monuments and institutions, and was a patron of the arts.
The period following Karel’s reign was extremely turbulent and eventually brought the Bohemian lands into a subservient position to the mighty Habsburg Empire. The depth of corruption within the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church in the latter days of the 14th century was intolerable. Ordained clergy neglected their duties to pursue debauched lifestyles. Surprisingly, however, the piety of the general populace was on the increase at the same time. When the 39 year “Western Schism” started in 1378 with two men claiming the divine right to the papacy, it angered many devout Czechs, including a young priest named Jan Hus. Hus read the writings of John Wycliffe and was drawn to the conclusion that the Roman Church had strayed far away from the teachings of the Bible. He began to preach, in Czech, at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague in 1402, espousing ideas that sounded very much like those of the much better known Martin Luther, who followed 100 years later.
When Hus was condemned to death for his views at the Council of Constance in 1415, after having been promised safe conduct by the Emperor himself, his followers rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church and established a Protestant church. Over the next 200 years, war between the Hussites and the Catholics devastated the land and divided the people. In 1621, the Protestants were finally, fully defeated by the Austrian Habsburg king and the Protestants were given three choices: convert, leave, or die. There followed 200 years in which Protestantism was heavily persecuted in the Czech lands. One of the more prominent protestant groups at the time of the Catholic triumph was the Jednota Bratrská or Unity of the Brethren.
In 1722, after a century of practicing their faith under cover, a group of these Christians sought refuge at the estate of Count Nikolas Zinzendorf in eastern Germany and there founded the Moravian Church. From Herrnhut, the name Zinzendorf gave his city of refuge, the Moravians launched the first broad scale missionary movement in modern history, sending missionaries to many parts of the new world, and started a prayer meeting that lasted 100 years.
The Czech nation remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. They enjoyed a very brief period of freedom, during which the infant nation rose to 10th place in industrial production in the world. When her allies abandoned her to Adolf Hitler’s demands in Munich in 1938, and signed away her sovereign rights without any Czech representation, the Czechs rightfully felt betrayed by the West. In some measure this explains the move toward the East, and the communists of the Soviet Empire, after World War II ended.
After more than 40 years of deep suffering under communist rule, the nation again found freedom in 1989. But her soul had been scoured by the harshness of her oppressors, leaving only a tiny fraction of believers among her people. Today, the majority of Czechs self-identify as atheists. The protestant evangelical church accounts for less than 1% of the population.