Free Thought and its Impact on Bohemian History and Your Czech Genealogy
As a genealogical historian, I am continually aware of the impact that our ancestors’ religion can have when I am working on family history. This is perhaps at it most important when I am at work on my maternal ancestry, which has centuries of deep Bohemian roots.
The wide-ranging impacts of religion in Bohemia and the continuation of those beliefs by many of the Bohemian immigrants once they arrived in the United States are remarkable and noteworthy. This is true not only as it pertains to the history of the Bohemian lands and her people, but also of Bohemian immigrants in the United States. I can also personally attest that they continued and even impacted my early years.
As I am sure you know, few individuals had a deeper, long lasting impact on the people of Bohemia as did Jan Hus (c. 1369 – July 6, 1415). Born in Husinec, Southern Bohemia, Hus went on to live his early life as a well-educated priest and even served as Rector of the University of Prague. However, Hus was strongly influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe and spent the much of his time as a priest condemning the moral failings of the clergy, bishops, and papacy, especially concerning indulgences. Hus engendered a very significant following across Bohemia who went by the name of Hussites.
As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the powerful Roman Catholic Church and it wasn’t long and in 1409 Hus was excommunicated and in 1415 was burned at the stake for being a heretic. The response of the Bohemian people to the murder of Hus was for them to move even farther away from the Catholic Church. So began a series of three, count them three, crusades by the Catholic Church with the purpose, as stated in a Papal Bull issued by then Pope Martin V that all supporters of Hus be slaughtered in what became more commonly known as The Hussite Wars (1420-1434). All three of these crusades failed and once a peace was negotiated, Czech Protestant King Jiří z Poděbrad, known as the “Hussite King” was elected and was a much beloved and peace-loving king.
But the travails of the Bohemian people were far from over as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. The worst, as you read about in the last issue of Czech Slavnosti was The Thirty Years War. Following the Battle of White Mountain (bitva na Bílé hoře) in 1620 the Holy Roman Empire (the Roman Catholic Church and the Habsburgs) and for the following 150 years all religions except Catholic were banned in Bohemia as was the Czech language in an effort by the Church to exterminate the Bohemian nationality. This period of history is known in Czech history as doba temna, the ‘Dark Age’. Luckily this Dark Age was followed by a nationalist revival moment, which became intertwined with a very strong and enduring backlash against the attempted Bohemian genocide by the Church and it manifested itself in the Freethought, or Freethinking movement.
During the course of my research I have come to believe the best explanation of Freethought and its impact on Bohemian immigrants, their families, and communities is found in the article written by Dr. Karel D. Bicha, titled “Settling Accounts With an Old Adversary: The Decatholicization of Czech Immigrants in America”. Published in the journal Histoire Sociale – Social History (Vol. 8, 1971). It can be challenging to find a copy, but it is worth the search. Dr. Bicha is an excellent researcher, incredibly knowledgeable regarding Bohemian/Czech immigration history, and writes in an engaging style. For a more detailed explanation of Freethought I recommend American Freeethought, 1860-1914, Sidney Warren, PhD, New York, Columbia Press, 1943.
So, what does all this history mean for your work on your Bohemian genealogy work? In short, a lot!
Freethinkers established their own fraternal organizations, Sokols, educational structures, nonreligious Sunday schools, and a myriad of other social organizations. These organizations can each offer their own unique set of resources for the family historian and generalist, which can often be wonderfully rich in detail.
Freethinkers also tended to not marry in churches. In my family this was true as generations of my Bohemian ancestors were married by Justices of the Peace. No parish/church records for these folks. No family Bibles, etc. But on the other hand, I have found a wealth of information that was kept by the Freethought organizations to where they were avid members.
Freethinkers constituted a majority of Bohemian immigrants to Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Ohio, as well as many large cities such Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Omaha.
The genealogy dark-side of Freethought is that, at least in my family, it caused some serious and generation-lasting schisms in the family. This can also be seen in certain author’s writings, such as Jan Habenicht’s History of Czechs in America where his anti-Freethought perspective colors his otherwise good book.
Forewarned is forearmed.