The Jan Hus Gavel
October 12, 2015
The Presbyterian Historical Society holds a treasure trove of stories you can read on paper, including pastor diaries, church minutes, and rare library books. Other stories lie hidden inside objects from our museum collection.
In anticipation of this year’s Reformation Sunday, we’d like to tell you about one such object--a 400-year-old gavel with a history of ownership just as interesting as the materials it was made from.
On January 3, 1915, Rev. Dr. Vincent Pisek, pastor at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York, NY, presented the Jan Hus gavel to Rev. J. Timothy Stone, a pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL, and the 125th Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The gavel was presented as a gift from Rev. Dr. Dusek of the Reformed Church of Bohemia at the dedication of the Hubbard Memorial Mission Church--a new branch of Fourth Church that ministered to the Czech community of Chicago. While the gavel wasn’t actually used by Jan Hus (also known as "John" and “Huss”), the Czech reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415, its parts are significant to the great Reformer’s story.
At the presentation, Rev. Pisek described the gavel’s elements and their importance:
"The handle is made from wood of the doorpost of the house where John Huss was born….The iron frame on the gavel is from the Prague University of which Huss was a professor, rector magnificus and university preacher. The great nail in the mallet was picked up by the sender in the ruins of the castle Kozi where Huss spent two years just before he set out under the emperor’s treacherous safe conduct to the Council of Constance, and where his most effective popular writings were composed. The silver ore is from the mines of Kunta Hora into which during the years 1419 to 1421, at the beginning of the Hussite wars, 5,296 of his followers were cast as heretics.
"The coins upon the handle are pence of the Bohemian nation fighting for the law of God, and a shilling of the Hussite king, George Podiebrad, who replied to the threats of the pope’s legate: ‘I and my queen, and my beloved children, will remain faithful to the Cup and the Gospel of Christ until our death, and we are ready to lay down for them not our crown only, but also our lives.’ Then there are in the gavel Bohemian garnets, the bloody tears of the Bohemian ecclesia dolorosa, shed over the departed glory of the sun that sank behind the White Mountain on Nov. 8, 1620."
The gavel was assembled in Prague, the capital of today’s Czech Republic, and is at least 100 years old in its present state; as Pisek wrote, “there is not a single part… which is less than 400 years old.” While the gavel’s origins before 1915 are unknown, the history of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church highlights the influence of the Presbyterian Church on immigrant groups in the United States.
Rev. Pisek took on the role of pastor at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in 1880 when he was only 21 years old and studying at Union Theological Seminary. An enthusiastic pastor, he was devoted to the Czech community that attended church services. The new congregation was the first in New York City to offer services in the Czech language and support the growing Czech community in the city. Pisek thanked the wider Presbyterian Church when he presented the gavel to Fourth Church:
"We, the Bohemian Protestants of America, descendants of the Bohemian exiles, are proud of being members of the great Presbyterian Church which welcomed us into its communion and supported our weak congregations, and we are thankful to have such true friends as your pastor. The Presbyterian Church need not regret the assistance it has given us."
We do not know how long the gavel resided at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, nor how it came to be owned by two couples in Miami, FL--the Seviers and the Landsmans. We do know that the gavel was appraised at $40,000 around the time those two families donated it to the Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Montreat, NC, in 1969. When some of the collections at Montreat were transferred to Philadelphia in 2006, the gavel came with them.
Every year, on the last Sunday in October, Presbyterian congregations around the country reflect on their Protestant roots by observing Reformation Sunday. As a part of this commemoration, PHS supplies churches with downloadable and printable bulletin inserts, and this year’s subject is Jan Hus.
The gavel and its history show what a major impact Hus had on Reformation history. The gavel also shows how items from the PHS collection can tell hidden stories of the kind featured in our new in-house exhibit, Journeys of Faith: Artifacts from the Mission Field. While you won’t see the gavel on display in our lobby, you can rest assured that this gem of an object representing so much to so many is safe at PHS.