Jiří Třanovský – A Singer of Comfort
Jiří Třanovský – A Singer of Comfort
Many populations, in the history of the church, have identified a particular man as their “Luther,” someone who brought the gospel of grace alone through faith alone to their country. The Polish pastor and hymn-writer Jiří Třanovský has been called “the Luther of the Slavs.” While he was not the first one to bring the gospel to his region, he produced an accurate translation of the Augsburg Confession and a collection of hymns that has formed the basis of Czech and Slovak hymnody until the present and has helped to sustain the church by pointing her to the Scriptures and to Christ.
Třanovský was born on April 9, 1592, in Těšín (now Cieszyn, Poland), a town in the region that was then known as Silesia. Wanting to give him a good education, his parents sent him first to Guben, about 280 miles northwest of Těšín, then to Kolberg, on the Baltic sea, where we learned the Latin language and literature. In 1607, he was admitted to the University of Wittenberg, where he stayed until 1612.
After graduation, he probably traveled briefly through Silesia and Bohemia. He later worked as a teacher, first at Prague’s St. Nicholas Gymnasium, then in Holešov, Moravia, and finally in Valašské Meziříčí, a town in what is now Czech Republic.
In Meziříčí, he became a member of a singing society. The primary function of these societies was to provide men who could lead the singing during church services and special occasions and could make sure that the hymns that were sung were in every way Scriptural. The members of these societies were also required to live a pious life and give assistance to the poor.
It was in Meziříčí that he married Anna Polany, a native of Silesia, niece of the esteemed Reformed theologian Amandus Polanus (1561-1610). Anna and Třanovský had their first child, Mary, in 1617.
In 1616, after a sudden removal of the local pastor, Třanovský was elected in his stead. Conscious of the importance of creeds and confessions as means to clarify issues and strengthen convictions, in 1620 Třanovský produced a new and improved Czech translation of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession.
What Times Are These?
The same year, after the disastrous battle of White Mountain, the Roman Catholic House of Augsburg took over Bohemia, and any protest was crushed by the imperial army. Sometimes, local populations were implicated without a valid reason.
That’s what happened in the cold February of 1621, when, after an insurrection, the people of Meziříčí had to flee the town. Some moved to the neighboring mountains and some traveled as far as Silesia. Třanovský followed them, settling back in his native Těšín. There, Anna gave birth to their second child, Constantine.
When, months later, the population returned to Meziříčí, Třanovský had to face a tough work of reconstruction, comforting families who had lost most of their goods and some of their loved ones.
It was then that he wrote his hymn, Ach, Boze, k jakemu veku (Ah, God, for what age”), taken from the famous words of the Turkish martyr Polycarp: Deus, ad quae nos tempora reservasti? (“Lord, what times are these?”). The hymn was a reminder of why the world hates the church, ending with a prayer that echoes David’s supplication: “Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (1 Chron. 21:13).
Troubles continued throughout the course of the war. For Třanovský, they were compounded by the death of his son Constantine in 1622. In 1623, after a Polish army entered Meziříčí, Třanovský was arrested on false accusations, and was kept in prison for several months. After he was released, a pestilence raged through Meziříčí, taking the lives of over 2000 of his 8000 parishioners, including his two remaining children. Mercifully, another son, Samuel, was born that year.
The crucible Třanovský experienced in Meziříčí ended in 1625, when the emperor ordered all Lutheran pastors to leave Moravia and Bohemia. Once again, Třanovský returned to Silesia, where he received a call to serve first as court preacher for Baron Jan Szunyogh, then as town pastor. At this time, a fifth child, David, was born.
In 1627, the war forced both Třanovský and Szunyogh to flee with their families. Třanovský moved to Slovakia, where he became court preacher at the Orava Castle. During that time of relative peace, he and his wife had two more daughters.
Třanovský’s Works and Last Years
In 1631, he finally settled Liptovsky Mikulas, Hungary, where he wrote a prayer book, Phiala Odoromentorum (“A Vial of Sweet Incense”) and the work that made him famous, the Cithara Sanctorum (“Harp of the Saints”): a collection of 412 hymns in Czech, 150 of which were either his translations or compositions. The collection has stood the test of time because every hymn is rooted in Scriptures. Regrettably, only a few have been translated into English.
From 1631 until 1637, Třanovský was pastor at a church in Liptovský Svätý Mikuláš in present-day Slovakia. His health, already failing, took a turn for the worse in 1636, forcing him to spend the last eight months of his life in bed, in constant pain. He died on 29 May 1637 and was buried in an unmarked grave at his church.
He left behind his wife, three sons, and two daughters. His son Samuel followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a pastor and translator. He also followed in the path of suffering. He was in fact imprisoned by Jesuits, who took over his church and sent his son John to Vienna to be trained as a Roman Catholic priest. John remained a priest and turned against his father.
Like the German Paul Gerhardt (and King David in the Psalms), Třanovský can communicate the anguish of human suffering as only those who have descended into their depths can do. In this, he put into words the feelings of most men and women of his time. But he also lifted them up to grasp the reality that lays behind this suffering and to clutch with confidence the reality of Christ’s redemption and the assurance of God’s love.
His trinitarian hymn, Známe to, Pane Boze nas (“Your Heart, O God, Is Grieved”) is a good example of this. Třanovský knew that every form of evil in this world is a consequence of sin. If we find it overwhelming, we may start to understand how grieved God’s heart must be. But Třanovský doesn’t stop there. Immediately after expressing this thought, almost with the same breath, he adds, “Upon your cross-forsaken Son, our death is laid, and peace is won.”
Another encouraging hymn is Pán Bůh jest má sila, translated as “God, My Lord, My Strength.” The song starts by recalling Psalm 27. “In our needs by night and day,” Třanovský says, in spite of anything our foes or Satan may do, “God shall have his way.” It also reminds us of who we are in Christ.
Christ in me, and I am freed for living
Heart of flesh for lifeless stone;
Now bold to serve him,
Now cheered his love to own,
Because of this wonderful reality, after a challenging year, Třanovský tells us that we can face the future with courage. These are not empty words of someone who wants to sell books or albums. These are the testimony of someone who underwent some of the fiercest trials a man could experience, and could still say:
Up, weak knees and spirit bowed in sorrow!
Shall arise to beat you down;
God goes before you
And angels all around;
On your head a crown!