Capek, Norbert

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Norbert CapekNorbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942), a Czechoslovak minister of extraordinary ability, after spending a few years in the United States, returned in 1921 to his native country to found and build in Prague what soon became the largest Unitarian church in the world as well as a vigorous new Unitarian movement across the land. His tragic death, in a Nazi prison camp, was a terrible loss for his church and his country.

Born in June, 1870, in the South Bohemian village of Radomyšl, Norbert was the only son of Josef Čapek and Marie Marek, simple peasant folk of limited education. Josef was a tailor and a religious agnostic, Marie a devout Roman Catholic.

The idealist religious impulse was very strong in Norbert, even as a boy. At age 10 he became an acolyte at St. Martin’s Church, but soon was disillusioned by the priest’s cynical attitudes and behavior toward his parishioners. At age 18 Čapek resigned from the Roman Catholic Church and was baptized a Baptist. At that time he was in Vienna as an apprentice to his uncle, a tailor whose shop supplied the House of Habsburg. A chance encounter had led to his introduction to the Baptist way in religion. The young man entered it with his whole heart and soon became a Bible distributor and Baptist evangelist in Saxony and Moravia. He founded almost a dozen churches from Ukraine to Budapest. While in Moravia he edited several journals, one of which, Nový lid/New People, had a circulation of 80,000.

Čapek’s faith slowly became very liberal. Moreover, his research in the Moravian archives at Brno convinced him that a free Christian faith was native to his people. Though its history was buried and forgotten, free Christianity had been very widely practiced for centuries before the coming of Roman Catholic missionaries and subsequent state-enforced Catholicism. In 1903 Čapek wrote “Úryvky z dějin Kaceřovaných Křest’anů”/”Fragments of the History of Persecuted Christians”. In that paper Čapek documented what he considered the Bohemian and Moravian roots of the free faith he was just then, himself, struggling to articulate. He praised the religious convictions of the Moravian Brethren. “They valued the spiritual life above any teaching or dogmatics.”

Years later, in a 1921 letter to the president of the American Unitarian Association, Čapek described this paper as “out and out Unitarian in conception and purpose.” It was in essence the platform upon which he proposed to start a new religious movement in Bohemia, although he had written it nearly twenty years earlier.

Čapek played a significant role in an international religious organization now called the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), founded in 1900 by Unitarians. At the 1910 Berlin IARF congress, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who later became the first president of Czechoslovakia, introduced Čapek to officers of the American Unitarian Association. Čapek also attended congresses in London, Copenhagen, Boston and Oxford. He frequently pushed IARF leaders to be more ambitious in organizing and recruiting than they were inclined to be.

As the editor of various journals, Čapek was quite outspoken in his anti-clericalism. Threatened government reprisals prompted him in 1914 to leave Bohemia. He accepted a call to serve a Baptist church in New York City. After a year in Manhattan he moved to a larger congregation in Newark, New Jersey. In 1919 he left the ministry for reasons he described as “social, financial, national, political, personal.” In his diary he concluded, “I cannot be a Baptist any more, even in compromise. The fire of new desires, new worlds, is burning inside me.” Čapek and his wife Mája joined the Unitarian Church in Orange, New Jersey in January, 1921, having been led there by their children’s enthusiasm for the church’s religious education program.

Čapek had worked very hard during World War I—writing, speaking and sponsoring public meetings—in a campaign to win U.S. public and governmental support for the independence of Czechoslovakia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at war’s end.

In 1921 the Čapek family returned to their newly independent country, leaving daughter Míla in the U.S. where she had married a Czech American businessman. Norbert Čapek and his beloved wife, Mája, together with daughter Bohdana and her husband, Karel Hašpl, built a vigorous nation-wide religious movement. In just twenty years the Unitarian Church in Prague, with 3,200 members, was the largest Unitarian congregation in the world. Some 8,000 Czechs considered themselves Unitarian.

Čapek created institutions based on his ideas about education. Nearly 300 children and young people were enrolled in the church school. A “School of Religious Science” sponsored by the church had 66 students in training for church leadership. Courses in religious history and philosophy written by Čapek were taught in Prague’s public schools. The Prague church sponsored an extensive counseling program conducted jointly by Čapek and a medical doctor. The program provided, among other things, classes for expectant parents, marriage counselling and conflict resolution courses, and counselling for those suffering the loss of a loved one.

In other thriving towns across the Republic—in Brno, Plzen, Nymburk, Kladno, Louny and Rakovnik—were six lay-led Unitarian “mission stations” (similar to American UU fellowships). These Čapek visited regularly, until the day of his arrest.

On the 28th of March, 1941, Čapek and his daughter, Zora, aged 29, were arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pankrac Prison. Zora was accused of listening to foreign broadcasts and distributing the content of some BBC transmissions; Čapek himself of listening to foreign broadcasts and of “high treason.” Several of his sermons were cited as “evidence” of the latter charge. Listening to foreign broadcasts was a capital offense under the Protectorate. Two separate trials were held, the first at Pankrac Prison soon after their arrest; the second, an appeal of the original decision, at Dresden in April 1942. The appeals court found Čapek innocent of the treason charge, recommending that, given his age, the year between his arrest and the appeals trial be counted toward his jail time. The Gestapo, ignoring the court’s recommendation, nonetheless sent Čapek to Dachau, Zora to forced labor in Germany. Čapek’s name appears among prisoners sent on an invalid transport on October 12, 1942 to Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria, where he died of poison gas.

Of the half dozen books he authored, Čapek considered K slunnému brehu/Toward a Sunnier Shore (1929) his most important work. On the eve of World War II, in 1939, “at a time of great sadness for my nation,” he published a second edition, wishing it might spread “a few rays of sun to the wounds of the heart” the war would bring. Its essential message was that “people can choose their own moods [and] direct their own feelings,” and that they should, above all, “try everything with humor.” The book’s recommended approach to life bears a strong resemblance to Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.

Subscribing to no theological system, Norbert Čapek celebrated the “hidden cry for harmony with the Infinite” in every soul. “Every person,” he wrote, “is an embodiment of God and in every one of us God struggles for higher expression.” “Religion,” he said, “can never die because human beings. . . cannot but be religious regardless of the form of [their] religion.” Religion should, before all else, provide that “inner harmony which is the precondition of strong character, good health, joyful moods and victorious, creative life.”

“It is my ideal,” he wrote, “that unitarian religion in our country should mean a higher culture. . . new attitudes toward life and practically a new race. . . . In short, unitarian religion should mean the next advanced cultural level of a certain people.” The church’s task, he felt,”must be to place truth above any tradition, spirit above any scripture, freedom above authority, and progress above all reaction.”

As for an afterlife, he felt that “if death were the end of everything, then life would be the stupidest of all comedies and would lack all meaning or purpose. . . . How could Providence abandon and betray us when our lips have barely touched the rim of the cup of life?”

Čapek defined religious education as “an endeavor to awaken the inner forces of the child and teach him how to organize, harmonize and adapt them to the ever-changing influences which come to him from outside.” He identified five ‘fundamental’ and five ‘supplementary feelings and abilities’ which a modern religious education should elicit from a child. They included, in his terms, the ability to have faith and confidence, the ability to hope, the feeling of worship (akin to Albert Schweitzer’s reverence for life), charity or selfless love, and conscientiousness. One characterized by these qualities could be said to be a truly religious person.

His was a sun-drenched, pre-Holocaust faith, one that sustained thousands of his compatriots during the darkness of Nazi occupation, 1939-45. His faith enabled him to endure his own martyrdom with an equanimity and heroism confirmed by survivors of the concentration camp in Dachau who knew him there.

Small of stature, Čapek was nonetheless acclaimed as one of the nation’s leading orators. He wrote more than 90 hymns, often composing the music as well as the verses. Several became widely known popular songs. His hymns are still sung. Three were included in a new American UU hymnal published in 1993. The flower communion, a ceremony he invented, is now celebrated annually in most congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It would please him to know that the ritual has also been a part of interfaith services at international meetings of the IARF.

Čapek’s sermons, diaries, scrapbooks, books, and other files and papers are housed in the Čapek archive at Unitaria in Prague, Czech Republic. Other primary materials, including records of the American Unitarian Association and the Unitarian Service Committee as well as Čapek writings, are at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are also substantial holdings at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Čapek edited a number of journals: Slova pro zivot/Words for Life (1899-1901), Probuzení/Awakening (1901-08), Moravský bratr/Moravian Brother, 1906-09, Nový lid/New People (1909-14), Mysl a srdce/Mind and Heart (1914-18), Besedy l’udu/Chats with People (1916-17), and Cesty a cíle/Ends and Means (1921-41). The latter was the official journal of the Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia. Čapek’s songs are found in Písne náboženské společnosti československych unitařu/Songs of the Czechoslovak Unitarian Society (1923).

Richard Henry’s Norbert Fabián Čapek: A Spiritual Journey (1999) is the only major published biography. There is also a Unitaria pamphlet, Norbert Fabián Čapek, zivot a dilo/Norbert Fabián Čapek, His Life and Work (1995), by Petr Tvrdek. Other biographies and biographical fragments, written by members of Čapek’s family, exist in manuscript form. Another manuscript, written by Dusan Kafka, minister of the Prague church, was left incomplete at Kafka’s death in 1993.

Article by Richard Henry
Posted July 28, 2000