Biographers and historians have conferred the title, “Father of Modern Education,” on John Amos Comenius primarily due to his contribution to modern educational methodology. Comenius was born on March 28, 1592, in Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. Much of this Moravian theologian’s writings suggest that the overarching objective of his life and work was of greater consequence than reformed educational method. The examination of the life and works of this seventeenth-century educational reformer will help us to understand if it was the intent of Comenius to influence positively the work of world mission.
This research could be significant to the Christian church’s missionary efforts today. If the writings of John Amos Comenius express his intent to contribute to world mission, his vision for educational reforms may be important for missionary efforts in cultures where the gospel is having little effect. If Comenius’ vision for universal education is of a missionary purpose, his life work may then be understood to encourage cooperation between major cultural and religious blocks of people for more than the commonly accepted social regeneration aims of secularists.
To discover the intent of Comenius’ life and work, we will limit research primarily to his own words, to his reflections, and to his writings in educational philosophy. To put his words into perspective, we will consider what a few biographical and historical sources reveal about his background, his character, and the events that may have influenced his life purpose. Through this research, we shall try to discover the central ideas and the aspects of his work that are important to our question: How are we to understand Comenius’ view of education in light of world mission?
Kenneth Scott Latourette writes that Comenius was “a pioneer in an educational theory which was to exert wide influence.” Comenius’ set out to organize the teaching process in a way that “everything is [sic] taught through the senses.” He demonstrated this idea by including pictures in a textbook on foreign languages, something that had never been done before. Comenius chief task may be found from the title page of his Great Didactic, “teaching thoroughly all things to all men.” However, the purpose of his task of teaching was broader; he sought to “shape the human creature into an image of the divine.”
His proposals for universal education and the use of pictures in children’s education make him a forerunner of many modern developments in the field of education. Comenius advocated many basic principles of our modern educational system, such as “the free and universal opportunity for education of members of all classes, and both sexes”. He is considered the first educator to have put forward the concept of international education. Comenius’ efforts on behalf of universal education earned him the title of “Teacher of Nations.”
Comenius was a member of a small countercultural church known as the Bohemian Brethren. The Brethren experienced a “Reformation before the Reformation” as a direct result of Jan Hus, the early Czech reformer, who was burned at the stake in 1410. The Hussite influence on Comenius may be described in the inscription under Hus’ statue in Prague’s Old Town Square: “Love the Truth. Let others have their truth and truth will prevail.”
His church, his educational background, his tragic personal experiences, and the broader ecclesiastical and political context of his time appear to have influenced Comenius to dedicate his life to the reformation of education for much deeper reasons and much greater purposes than is commonly understood. The Bohemian Brethren were not called a church, but rather chose the name “Unity” because they believed the Church should only refer to the “totality of Christians.” The mindset of the Unity, formed in 1457, was of a “minority church not retreating before martyrdom.” Before Comenius was born, the free people of Bohemia fought hard for “Liberty in the exercise of the Christian religion, and the free election of their king.” The leaders of the self-governed Brethren sought unity in the midst of struggle: “Since the multiplication of ecclesiastical rites and ceremonies avails little as regards salvation and Christian piety towards God, they ought, therefore, the rather be abandoned than insisted upon, and not to form a subject of controversy.”
At the time of Comenius’ birth, the Catholic Church sought to recover territories lost to the Protestant Reformation, doing so by purging heresy and burning renaissance thinkers at the stake. The pope who had the greatest influence on Comenius’ early life was Paul V, a pontiff who was intolerant of the growing numbers of Protestants in Europe, including the Bohemian Brethren. Comenius lived during the time of the first truly worldwide war, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which caused the destruction of wealth, cultural values, and freedoms the Bohemian Brethren had enjoyed. The Bohemians faced the fears and dangers of tyranny, accusations of heresy, and martyrdom. As we shall see, Comenius was not only aware of the over-reach of papal authority in previous generations; he was intimately acquainted with that tyranny in his own generation.
Latourette writes of Comenius saying that he was “uncrushed by seeming disaster,” and he had “indomitable God-centered confidence and optimism through his life of tragedy and exile.” When Comenius was twelve years old, both his parents and his two sisters, Lumila and Susanna, suddenly died as victims of “some epidemic or plague.” Despite the tragic loss, neglect, and very poor educational opportunity, Comenius thrived.
Impressed with his love for books when Comenius was sixteen, one of his teachers gave him the name “Amos.” However, after his parents died, his early education “was greatly neglected by his guardians.” As an older student he witnessed the poor quality of the schools of his day:
They are the terror of boys and the slaughter-houses of minds…places where hatred of books and literature is contracted, where ten or more years are spent in learning what might be acquired in one, where what ought to be poured in gently is violently forced in, and beaten in, where what ought to be put clearly is presented in a confused . . . way.
Fortunately, Comenius had a love for learning. Friends in the Unity sent him to a high school at Herborn, one of the most important reformed centers of higher education in the early seventeenth century.” Then at the University at Heidelberg in Germany, he excelled in philosophy and theology. Comenius returned to Moravia to become schoolmaster and later the church pastor. It was there at his first parish in Fulneck that he experienced a short time of relative peace happily married to Magdalena Vizouská, a woman of a wealthy background.
The first decisive battle of the Thirty Years War between the Protestant and Catholic States in Europe directly affected Comenius when Catholic armies defeated Czech Protestant armies in 1620 at the “Battle of the White Mountain.” Comenius witnessed the horrors of Protestant leaders publicly executed in Prague and the brutal imposition of Catholicism on the total population of his people in Bohemia and Moravia. Comenius lost “all his property and library in 1621 when the town was taken by the imperialists.” All protestant clergy were banished from Bohemia by an Imperial mandate in 1624. Comenius fled to the mountains to hide but secretly visited his congregation as often as he could. Exiled from his congregation, his home, and his family, Comenius began the life of a writer who eventually had an international influence.
While he was in hiding away from his home, his wife and two children died in a plague. Comenius was apparently free from bitterness over his great losses. However, he did express his sorrow in one of his first major books: “The arrows of death struck.” He was a gentle and modest man with an immovable commitment to Christ and others. He writes: “Everything sways for one not firmly anchored in Christ.” Though personal tragedy marked the life Comenius, it appears his love for Christ and the world only grew.
Comenius had an extraordinarily large circle of acquaintances, including royalty, and people from all branches of the Church. His life of travels afforded the breadth of multi-cultural relationships he developed. “I led a wandering life, I had no homeland. I was constantly propelled from one place to another, never and nowhere did I find a permanent home.” As a refugee, he came in contact with many of the intellectual leaders of his time in Germany, Poland, Sweden, England, and Holland. In 1641 he was called to London and in 1642 he traveled to Sweden and then to Prussia where he lived until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. After the war, he lived in Hungary, in Poland, and finally in Amsterdam until his death in 1670. Comenius maintained correspondence communicating his ideas with several learned men, church leaders, publishers, and historians. His extensive travels granted an ever-widening influence through which to share his dream.
Comenius possessed a passionately optimistic view of the future. His optimism appears to have come from his understanding of the character and purposes of God. He writes: “Focus on Jesus Christ as the Coming One, the Lord of the Future, Christus Renovator.” He apparently lived in expectation of God’s promises and at least their partial fulfillment in human history. As Comenius saw it, education was the best way out of the Thirty Years War. Comenius lived in a time when war was tearing apart the political, religious, and social fabric of Europe. His view of the world and apparently his work as an educational reformer was informed by his faith in God’s plan. He writes,
Jesus Christ is Lord. He is not only the Savior of souls and the teacher of wisdom but the king of the Church and of the world. He will reign! What really matters, then, is to live in conformity with his coming kingdom and in this light to shape the alienated world, first within the Church, and then also in society.
Comenius’ dream was that “all men would participate in a universal civilization.” Out of his biblical view of the world, he pioneered an educational system that promised that all people could acquire the knowledge that led to understanding and peace. He called it “Pansophism”, an integrative and holistic system embracing all knowledge. If this system is indeed intended to make a positive contribution to world missions, further examination of his major published works will reflect that intent.
In 1628 Comenius settled in Leszno, Poland, where he wrote his first books calling for the reform of the education system: The Great Didactic, The School of Infancy, and The Gate to Languages Unlocked. Early in his life, he was apparently seized with the desire to write, especially books in his own mother tongue for the benefit of his own people. While still in high school in 1612, he began to write a lexicon, a collection of root words of the Bohemian language. In 1614, he accepted a job as superintendent of the school of the Brethren at Prerau. His first attempt to improve the method of instruction was by writing some simple grammatical rules, published in 1616 in Prague. Divine Theatre was published that same year, a book he wrote in the Bohemian language about the six days of creation.
His major work, Labyrinth of the World and the Palace of the Heart, was written in 1623, his first year in hiding. The Labyrinth describes the “wanderings, bewilderment, errors, vanities, and miseries of all of every age and sex, in all circumstances and conditions.” It is a devotional classic written in the Czech language in which he describes “the journey of a pilgrim through the marketplace of seventeenth-century Europe.” Comenius identified with the “pilgrim” who he portrays as “an outsider, a voluntary exile, searching for a spiritual home,” and “a wandering scholar who worked in seven countries and was doggedly pursued by war and personal misfortune.”
By examining this personal disclosure, we can learn something of the difficult personal journey and profound calling of Comenius:
I came to the decision that I should first look into all human affairs under the sun and then only, having wisely compared one with another, choose a vocation and arrange for myself the things necessary for leading a peaceful life in the world. A pilgrim who wishes to visit the world in order to choose his vocation views all the ranks and occupations of mankind, and finds shams and confusion reigning everywhere, he withdraws from the world into his inner self and, as a true Christian finds solace in converse with Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals to him a society constituted by his true disciples whose lives are governed by the precept of disinterested love for one’s fellow man.
The Labyrinth reveals how Comenius saw the turbulent social system of his day and the way that God called him to love his fellow men, bringing reformation to more than the Church. Comenius took on huge projects such as his Didactica Magna or The Art of Teaching All Things to Everybody. Apparently, this is a change from his earlier work. His concern was no longer only with teaching children; his vision was broadened with concern for all men.
Comenius was a theologian of hope, hope for a new generation. He believed a new order of society could be established, but with a special devotion to Jesus Christ. He writes of the need to prepare “for generations of those and future times, a simple system of training . . . to qualify youth for the discharge of the important duties of life and fit them for their highest, their eternal calling.” He set out “to accomplish the means of disenthralling the world from the meshes of false principles in the affairs of religion and state,” and to compile “suitable educational works.”
Through the “means” of education, Comenius devoted his life to bringing peace to the church, the state, and ultimately in the world. He stood out among the Reformers as a true peacemaker. “In his day, we hardly find any theological thinker who was as energetically involved for the unity and harmony of Christians as he.” His hope was for the unity of all Christians. However, it was not limited to the Church alone; he hoped for “the integration of all civilization under the leadership of religion.” He wished to unite the warring Christian factions, “whose strife was wreaking unprecedented havoc upon Europe of the Thirty Years War period.”
His passionate concerns were for the souls of men, his own devastated country, and his fellow expatriates from the Unity of the Brethren. All of these things “completely engrossed his soul.” However, disappointment and failure seemed to stalk him. His greatest discouragement came in 1648 when he felt deeply betrayed by the Swedish Chancellor who failed to support the Unity of Brethren’s case in the Peace of Westphalia, a treaty that completely altered the socio-political framework of nations. No provision was made for the Protestants in Bohemia or Moravia. If they returned, they would live under the rule of the Hapsburgs with no permission to practice their Protestant faith. Rather than accept failure, the indomitable Comenius decided to work for the unity of the universal Church.
Comenius was an “apostle of reconciliation who dreamed a better future that could be built only by better men.” While war and destruction were brought through the unbridled powers of the State or the institutional Church, he argued “the only constructive task capable of really changing the world [is] molding better men by educating and inspiring them to strive after more humane ideals.” “Comenius’ inspiring motive was that of all leading educationalists, social regeneration,” writes the historian Laurie. But society, as the secularists see it, was not all he intended to reform. In his final work published in 1668, Comenius writes of his hope for “a utopian church to unite all religions in Christian love through education.” His view of the goal of schooling was “to mold students into the image of Christ.” For Comenius, Christian character, not just absorption of facts, was the goal. Comenius was an early pioneer for ecumenism, but not at any cost. He disagreed with Michael Servetus’ idea that unity could be achieved even with the Turks if we sacrificed the Trinitarian dogma. He believed unity must be sought, but not at the cost of the truth.
Comenius wrote a tract entitled: The Way of Light. His purpose was to bring about a “national disquisition as to the manner in which wisdom, the intellectual laws of minds, may now at length towards the evening of the world be felicitously diffused through all minds in all nations.” The university is important as a teaching institution, but what is essential, Comenius writes, is “learned men in all parts of the world devoted to the advancement of God’s glory.” It is in his unique vision for the university that Comenius stands out as a true pioneer and apostolic leader in Church history. Not only did he call for universal education, but Comenius also had a vision for his pansophic encyclopedic college to “be found in every kingdom or large province.” His plan was for an international university that would have the same curriculum for training young men and women to embrace all knowledge, scientific and biblical, and teach all peoples of all nations the truth. His hope was that this universal education scheme would bring an end to all war and discord. His pansophic vision was to begin in Christian nations “and go from there to the Muslims, Pagan, and finally the Jews.”
Comenius understood that “neither one man nor one generation is sufficient for this great task.” To accomplish this vision, he needed a place to start. Unable to raise funds at Lissa, he resigned with these words: “Man proposes, God disposes.” Despite the failure to raise the needed funds, his Reformation of Schools tract outlining his pansophic college vision was distributed and read throughout Europe. “It was the pansophic proposal which aroused such an enthusiastic interest in England that in 1641 he was called to that country by an influential group of churchmen and the nobility.” The English friends who invited him to England had in mind to present him “a plan for the propagation of the gospel among the heathen.” Parliament actually considered assigning the “Chelsea College, near London, as a suitable place for the Pansophic College with which the Comenian scheme was to be inaugurated.” Once again, Comenius faced disappointment and failure when the Irish Rebellion of 1641 put the plans for his pansophic college in England to an end. Parliament was permanently distracted from the Chelsea College project.
The fame of Comenius reached distant America. According to Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia Christi Americana, Comenius received an invitation to emigrate to Puritan New England, possibly with a view to becoming president of the newly founded Harvard College. Mather writes:
That brave old man, Johannes Amos Comenius [sic], the fame of whose worth has been trumpeted [sic] as far as more than three languages could carry it, was indeed agreed withal, by one Mr. Winthrop in his travels through the LOW COUNTRIES, to come over to New England, and illuminate their Colledge [sic] and country, in the quality of a President, which was now become vacant. But the solicitations of the Swedish Ambassador diverting him another way, that incomparable Moravian became not an American.
Comenius has been remembered for the reforms that began the modern secular field of education. During his life span, his books earned him a reputation through much of Europe. He was invited first to England, and then to Sweden and Hungary to reform school systems. Comenius completed the reformation of the Swedish schools in 1648. His book, Orbis Sensualium Pictus, 1658, was the first illustrated textbook that was used for 200 years. Czechoslovakia, which passed into history in 1992, celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Comenius throughout that year. Recognition of Comenius was given in seventy other lands as well. The influence and fame of Comenius are reflected in a 2002 poll that shows over 27 percent of the Czech people consider him the most famous Czech in history.
University projects, societies, and centers of language study have developed in honor of Comenius as his work has been interpreted in recent generations.
His stated missionary purpose, however, is not equal to the stated purposes of these modern developments. One possible reason may be related to developments in modern philosophy at the time. When Comenius visited René Descartes, the two great men spent several hours together discussing their ideas, but they parted without finding agreement between their systems of thought. Descartes’ division between mind and matter was unacceptable to Comenius. Descartes wrote a letter to Comenius, saying: “beyond the things that appertain to philosophy I go not; mine, therefore, is that only in part, whereof yours is the whole.” History shows that the integrative and holistic system of thinking of Comenius was outstripped by a very different philosophical system with a sacred-secular dichotomy and with emphasis on individualism, rationalism, and reductionism. Comenius is remembered primarily for his educational reforms that have consequently been reduced to the teaching of individuals and not his underlying commitment to the Church and world mission.
It can be concluded that John Amos Comenius labored through his life of tragedy and loss with the intent to contribute to the task of world missions. In 1656, the Swedes were involved in the War over Poland pushing back the Catholic rule. He had high hopes for Swedish victory and freedom when it was dashed on April 29 as the Catholics looted and burned Lezno for supporting the Swedes. Comenius and his brethren again lost everything. Besides the destruction of his library and print-press, his greatest loss was pansophic manuscripts and the Latin-Czech Dictionary he had worked on for 46 years. Not surprisingly, the missions-minded Comenius shortly thereafter wrote to a Turkish Sultan urging him to read the Scriptures as he ruled over many Christians. Even after the loss of his greatest work, he continued his efforts to write and publish from Amsterdam with missionary fervor.
It is evident that John Amos Comenius was a pioneer in the task of world missions. With apostolic zeal, he worked toward international peace through universal education. Comenius may be remembered as an educational innovator, but he lived his life intentionally working to advance the cause of Christ and world mission. His vision was more than proud human optimism. Comenius dreamed of the equality of human races and an all-embracing brotherhood of humanity. However, he was far too experienced and too familiar with the forces that destroy and divide humanity to conclude that he was just a pious dreamer hoping for a pure utopia. His own words and his work exemplify a life responsive to Christ’s Great Commission, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations” (Mt. 28:19 KJV). His apostolic passion is revealed in this paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer in The Way of Light:
Through the whole of Europe, of Asia, of Africa, of America, through the Magellanes [the southern parts of present-day Chile and Argentina], and through all the islands of the sea, may thy kingdom come, may Thy will be done!… raise up men to write Thy purpose in books, but books such as Thou Thyself mayest write in the hearts of men. Make schools to be opened in all parts of the world to nurse Thy children! And do Thou raise up Thine own school in the hearts of all men in the whole world that they may ally themselves together for Thy praise.