I have done a great deal of thinking about my Czech ancestors. I often wish I could just ask them the many questions I have about their lives, not just questions of identity (Veronika Lidiak, can you please tell me who is the father of my illegitimate third great grandmother?), but questions of their personalities, opinions, and beliefs.
I’ve done a lot of thinking and wondering about their religious beliefs. What did they believe? What did their faith mean to them, and how did it impact their lives? I can see a glimpse of a collective image of the influence that the state sponsored religion (Catholicism) had on them in the mid 18th through the 19th centuries, but that isn’t really the same thing, is it!
Personally, as a born and raised latter-day saint (Mormon) I feel that I have an interesting relationship with the Catholic church. My grandpa Vic Vasicek was a second generation 100% (by blood) Czech American, and Catholic. He spoke Czech, though not often; mostly he understood it when the previous generation spoke it. He married my grandma, who as I understand it, had to convert to Catholicism to marry him. She was Baptist before, I think?
Anyway, my dad was raised Catholic. While in college, he met a Mormon girl (not my mom) who shared her testimony with him. He converted to the LDS church, to the disappointment of my Catholic grandparents. They were mostly worried that he was going through a weird phase. He decided to serve a two year full time mission. Before he left, my grandparents reconciled with him and generously agreed to finance his mission. Ever since, my experience has been that they have been kind and courteous about my dad’s religious beliefs.
My dad probably tried very hard to convert my grandpa Vasicek, but I do not know any of the specifics of this. I know pop, and his personality is very passionate. I was 17 when my grandpa passed away in 2003. I do not remember religious conversations with my grandpa. It seemed to me that we were not allowed to talk about religion or politics (my mom has been a Democrat forever, and my dad and his parents are definitely conservative Republicans). But it also seemed that my Grandpa Vasicek loved us very much, and didn’t think we were crazy freaks because we were Mormon.
I remember towards the end of his life, grandpa went to Catholic mass and Baptist Bible study. I went with them when I would visit, as well as to LDS sacrament meeting. And holy moly, that’s a lot of church in one day!!!
My dad has …well…a very low opinion of the Catholic church’s doctrine. In my childhood mind, I would equate some of what he said with a feeling of animosity towards Catholics.As I grew older, in my early teenage years, I had to reconcile those opinions with my real world observations of my very generous, kind Catholic family members. Later, I would have to again readjust my childhood biases with reality as I began to learn more about my Czech ancestors.
“These people are all Catholic. There is no possible way that they can all be bad.” No, of course not. This is obvious to me as an adult, but perhaps not so much as a 15 year old who spent a lot of time thinking about the confusing inconsistencies that surrounded me. (For example, why is it not okay to wear tank tops and low cut shirts but suddenly it’s okay to walk around nearly naked when you’re swimming at a swimming pool? But I digress, since the answer to that question will always remain a mystery.)
In a way, I feel a sort of kinship with my Catholic ancestors. They were baptized, so was I. They attended church, so do I. They valued families, marriage, and children, and so do I. They were taught about Jesus Christ, so am I. While I do not know the actual feelings of faith in their heart, I must assume that many of them were God-fearing. I don’t think they were all just “going through the motions” of Catholicism.
Having lived in both Utah and Massachusetts, among other places, I have experience with being surrounded by people who do and do not share my faith. Basically: I can understand what it is like to live as a person of faith surrounded by a culture of faith. This helps me to relate to my Catholic Czech ancestors in a very interesting way. Culture is not the same as doctrine, but it can sometimes be more influential on a person, especially if they have not developed (or are not allowed to develop) their own feelings of faith.
At the same time, I can also understand what it is like to live where my faith is the minority. Strangely, though I am intimately familiar with living as a religious minority, I do not relate very much to Protestant Czechs of the 19th century and earlier! Perhaps this is because I have not yet found any Protestants in my direct line? Perhaps it’s because the distant Protestant cousins I have found had far, far higher rates of illegitimacy, which is not a recurring and prominent part of my immediate family’s religious culture; basically, it’s very hard for me to relate to people who don’t value the law of chastity (abstinence before marriage, fidelity after.)
But perhaps the more telling reason is that Mormons as a group don’t consider ourselves Protestants in the first place. Our founding story is not about “reformation” but “restoration
.” This term surprisingly hearkens to Catholicism’s same rhetoric during the Thirty Year’s War, and that comparison makes me shudder, because I admit that it was a very horrible war that used religion as a bloody means to a political end.
It’s weird that I don’t relate very well to Czech Protestants of the past. 70% of Americans are Christian, the majority of which are Protestant.
Only 1.6% of Christians in America are Mormon. You would think that this would help me relate to the Czech Protestants who were a minority after Catholic domination. I don’t understand why it doesn’t. The fact is, I relate to my Catholic
Anyway, as I realized this, and also as I came to my own personal religious and political beliefs, I could clearly see that the very great majority of Catholics – and truly, of all religious people – value and honor many of the same things that I do. In fact, we can work together to achieve many of the best goals. On my mind in particular recently is the issue of religious freedom in America. It is very important to me that my country elects somebody who is not going to persecute people for their faith, specifically Muslims. My country is supposed to be a haven of religious freedom in this world.
This idealistic perception of America brings me to a very interesting article
about Czech motivation for immigration in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. Though this article is about Nebraska Czechs specifically, I found its analysis fascinating.
Granted, I think the article gives a very one-sided view of the history of religion in the Czech lands. It’s basically this: Jan Hus’s protestantism was squashed by Catholics, and then later the collective majority protestantism was squashed again by Catholics at Bilá Hora. There is a lot of interesting nuance that this article completely ignores, and it basically jumps straight from Bilá Hora to 19th Century Czech Nationalism. However, despite the gross oversimplification of the history of religion in Czechia, its analysis of motivation for immigration rang very true to me.
“Despite the Czechs’ awareness of past oppression and of existing uncertainty, neither political nor religious reasons primarily accounted for Czech immigration to the United States. The foremost causes were worsening economic conditions and overpopulation in rural Bohemia and Moravia, situations exacerbated in South Bohemia by enclosure of the land on large estates. Nationalistic Czech leaders discouraged people from leaving Bohemia or Moravia for whatever reasons, arguing, in one instance, that “love of fatherland, if nothing else, should deter Czechs from emigrating.” But the urge for greater economic security was too strong. Stories of the discovery of gold in California in 1849, sensationally magnified in newspapers, lured some Czechs across the Atlantic. Thirteen years later, the 1862 Homestead Act provided a real inducement to peasants who had to eke out an existence on inadequate land holdings. The wars in which the wobbly Austro Hungarian Empire was continuously engulfed, and which provided many more defeats than victories for the armies of the emperor, encouraged Czech lads to avoid military service by quietly slipping to the promised land across the ocean. Some Czechs also came to the United States as political refugees, but their number was insignificant in contrast to several hundred thousand immigrant farmers and artisans.”
Basically, my Czech ancestors’ reasons for emigrating likely had more to do with economics than with politics or religion. It’s a very, very interesting thing for me to study because so many of my other ancestors came primarily for political and religious reasons. For example:
- My 1620’s Mayflower ancestors certainly were motivated by all three factors: politics, religion, and economics, but my understanding is that religion and economics were more important to them than politics.
- My colonial American ancestors of the 1700’s-1780’s, about whom I admittedly know very little, probably mainly came because of the prospect of political freedom and the dream of owning more land. So politics and economics.
- My husband’s and my 1830’s-1870’s Mormon pioneer immigrant ancestors from England, Scotland, Denmark, and Sweden were undoubtedly motivated mainly by religion. This is a topic about which I have done much study and reading, and while I am sure that the motivation of individuals varied, I can confidently affirm that faith was the main factor in their emigration. In fact, they made significant economic and political sacrifices as they sold their property in Europe for far less than its value in order to speedily obey what they perceived as a commandment from a Prophet of God: “gather in Zion.” Their political sacrifices came later as government sponsored persecution and murder of Mormons drove them en masse out of Missouri and Illinois into the desolate Utah Territory. I have ancestors who lost limbs from frostbite on their pioneer trek across Iowa, where I now live. Yes, surely my Mormon pioneer ancestors’ collective story is one in which faith is the main player.
So you can see that it is very interesting to me to learn that my Czech ancestors had completely different motivations for coming here.
“The attitude of Czech immigrants toward religion is most perplexing to American observers. Unlike the immigrants of other nationalities, who generally retained their native religion, the Czechs in large numbers abandoned their allegiance to the Catholic church, to which they customarily belonged in Bohemia. While over ninety percent of the population in Bohemia was considered Catholic according to official Austrian statistics, less than half the Czech immigrants retained their membership in that church in the United States. In some communities the percentage of secularists or freethinkers was even larger. One writer, Rose Rosicky, defined the term “freethinkers” as “all the groups ranging from atheists (or more properly speaking Pantheists, for Czech atheists believe in nature as the guiding force) to those who believed in a Creator but did not attend church.”
The reason for many Czechs’ rejection of organized religion lay in their experience with the Catholic church in Bohemia, where it represented an arm used by the Habsburgs to keep the Czechs in political subjugation and economic dependence. In the United States, they simply expressed their freedom by not joining any church or by formulating spiritual alternatives. These “unchurched” were far more numerous among the freethinkers than were the doctrinaire atheists. The latter, however, organized themselves first in the Unity of Freethinkers and later in the Association of Freethought Societies. By their press they propagated rationalism and atheism with the missionary zeal of early Christians. Their vitriolic attacks against Christianity in general, but more particularly at the Catholic church, made cooperation among various Czech-American groups difficult.”
On my recent trip to the Czech Republic, I found it very fascinating to observe religion and religiosity on the ground. Despite everything that I had read calling the Czech Republic the most atheist country in Europe, I literally did not meet a single atheist while I was there.
It was more like…well…how do I say this?
My observation was that the vestiges of religion are literally everywhere. Like, literally every village and hamlet has some sort of kostel or kaplička. And then of course there’s Prague, is the city of 100 spires, and each of those spires is literally church. The most remarkable statues were the ones that were not centuries old Saints or Prophets, which are frankly, ubiquitous. They are everywhere. To me it felt almost suffocating. I could not help but juxtapose the extravagant displays of wealth with my ancestor’s peasant farm strips.
And it was very easy for me to imagine myself losing my faith in Communist Czechia, where faith (and anything remotely related to culture or history!) was a problem. I would really love to learn more about this time period. I know that I only know a tiny fraction of what there is to know. I am not claiming to have all the knowledge. It’s just that the tiny fraction of truth is my observation that it would be very difficult to remain a person of faith while being under both a regime (Communist) that condemned faith and also being surrounded by artifacts of a bygone era when faith was used for political purposes by different regimes (Austro Hungary, Hapsbourg, etc.). The symbolism in these artifacts is lost, the art that was once beautiful and meaningful is strange and grotesque to our modern sensibilities (e.g. fat cherubs? Seriously? What’s the deal with fat cherubs everywhere?)
It would be difficult to relate to this monolithic institution of Catholicism. It would also be very difficult to find the courage to speak publicly, openly, or candidly about very deep inner feelings of religion and truth. I can imagine holding those feelings inside my heart and not sharing them with others. I can imagine feeling a sense of frustration and irritation with foreign influences coming to my country to try to convert me.
Honestly, I can also relate to the idea of not wanting to be aligned with any organized religion. I would probably have also come to that conclusion if I had not gained a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true. I read it and prayed about it, and I know it is true. Therefore, I understand why Mormon missionaries sacrifice two years of their lives to be sent to places like the Czech Republic, where people are generally very hesitant and weary to hear about this book and its teachings: it is because if I find truth, I want to share it with people, because truth itself is good. Knowing truth is better than living in darkness and ignorance. And knowing spiritual truth can bring us true joy and happiness now, as well as in the world to come.
So that is why it was so incredibly fascinating to me to observe that none of the people I met were atheists. My experience with atheists is that they actively deny the existence of a higher power, and they seek to use ____ (“Science” with a capital “S”, secularism, history, etc.) to convince everybody else that organized religion is stupid. Nobody did that. And all the Czechs I met believe in God.
The Czechs I met were private with their religious thoughts and feelings. I perceived that it was something deeply personal to them. Because I greatly value and honor our relationship, and of course also because I value agency (the freedom to choose), I did not ever attempt to, “wear my religion on my sleeve,” or, “shove my religion down their throats.” However, the most amazingly fulfilling part of my trip was that I was able to live my faith without being pushy, and I felt true tolerance. When Danny and I quietly prayed over our restaurant food, our Czech friends did not treat us like freaks. When I was asked why I am so interested in genealogy, and I responded that it is because in my faith, my family is everything, it was well received. When the missionaries – the most prominent and blatantly public symbol of my faith – came with us to help translate, all the Czechs there were extremely kind, courteous, and not weird about it, and we had a great day. As we spent some time with our Catholic air bnb hosts, who were our age, we both shared some of our important thoughts about spiritual things, and it was very well received on both ends. These, along with other personal experiences – they led to the best feeling. Basically it was the feeling of loving these people as people, instead of as objects to be converted. I felt a very strong connection of love towards them. It was an indescribably good feeling.
I know that I was not there long enough and did not travel to enough places to be able to qualify my experience as being typically Czech. Still, I tend to think that it probably was. The more I immerse myself in the study of Czech history, the more I come to the conclusion that “being Czech” is more about a collective struggle against _____ (Catholicism, Austro-Hungary, the physically draining reality of manorialism, Germany, Communism, etc.) than it is about standing proud for an ideal, which is definitely what it means to “be American.” If there is anything that I wish my fellow American countrymen could learn from Czechs, it is humility!!!! Seriously!!!!!!
I honestly do not know what Czechs can learn from Americans. Perhaps courage to face your faith and live it boldly despite the very real challenges of doing so there today. But would I were I born a Czech? Of course I wonder about this often: who would I be if my ancestors did not immigrate. I do not know the answer. I cannot judge them for their privacy.
What I can do is extend that same sense of tolerance to them. I can give my Czech friends space to develop their own religious ideologies. It was such a breath of fresh air for me, honestly, because this deep sense of tolerance gave me the permission to only say the things that were truly “me.” I did not feel an outside pressure to try to convert my Czech friends and family. I only shared what I truly believe, and only when it felt right. Which honestly, that’s how missionary work should be anyway! Nobody likes to have religion shoved down their throat, period, because everybody likes to be treated like a person who is loved and valued.
On the 9 hour plane ride back home, I sat next to an unmarried Evangelical Christian woman who was slightly younger than me. She had been in Southern Bohemia as a leader at a religious camp for Czech youth sponsored by her church. How vastly different her experience in the Czech Republic was from mine. I felt really frustrated that she came and left with the same perception: that Czechs are atheist and we should pity their ignorance as we try to convert them. I do not think this attitude is a very effective missionary strategy, and not only that – it’s insultingly patronizing. Sure, I do feel that I have some truth that my Czech friends and family do not, and I would love to share it with them. But they certainly have many truths that I do not have. There is much that I can learn from them. I don’t like the attitude of pitying a people.
So back to the original idea: were my Czechs really Catholic? If so, how Catholic were they? What kind of evidence do the observations in my own life give for my Czech ancestors’ feelings of faith?