M.B. Czechowski: First Contact With Europe

10 Min Read

The border security guard held up his hand to halt the innocuous hay wagon that approached the checkpoint. The farmer obediently pulled his meandering animals to a halt and sat still while the guard circled the wagon. Underneath the enormous pile of hay, Michael Belina Czechowski tried to remain as motionless as possible. He had been looking for an opening to get across the border for days before he came up with this ingenious idea. He had stopped a hapless farmer that had been wending his way down the dusty road towards the border and had begged him for the opportunity to hide underneath his considerable wagon load of hay.

The man had been obliging. After all, Czechowski was dressed like a Franciscan monk and the farmer had been in a generous mood. Now as he lay quietly concealed underneath the hay, Czechowski held his breath, hoping that the farmer would pass through the checkpoint without incident. He could hear muffled voices outside. Straining he tried to hear the exchange but he couldn’t. It sounded like the guard was barking orders at the farmer and the man was meekly replying but Czechowski couldn’t make out what was being said.

A moment later there was a soft whistling through the hay and the pointy end of a sword came swishing through the fine strands stopping a hair's breadth away from Czechowski’s nose. The startled monk drew in a sharp breath and began to pray. The guard circled the wagon viciously thrusting his sword through the payload of hay again and again in the hopes of skewering any hapless stowaway that might be trying to sneak across the border.

Finally, the ordeal came to an end and the satisfied guard motioned the farmer to continue on his way with a smug smile on his face. He was sure no one was hiding in the hay, if there had been they would have surely been harpooned by the business end of this trusty sword.

Underneath the hay, Michael Czechowski breathed an audible sigh of relief. He was sure that God had sent an angel to spread his wings over him, if that hadn’t been the case he would surely have been bleeding quite profusely by now.

Michael Belina Czechowski was born in Poland in 1818 and became a Franciscan monk as a youth. He was forced to escape Poland when the monastery he was part of became embroiled in a political crisis. He was the type of person that attracted trouble like a magnet most likely because of his lively confrontational personality. However, what Czechowski lacked in tact and diplomacy he more than made up for in integrity and devotion to truth. He loved God and was devoted to championing the truth regardless of the costs.

This devotion got him into hot water more often than not. During his time as a Franciscan monk, he became deeply disillusioned by the lack of spirituality among his brethren and set about trying to reform the monastery. This led him from one hair raising situation to the next until completely exasperated and having exhausted all his other options he appealed to the Pope regarding the matter. He was then imprisoned for a year and exiled for three years in France before finally finding his way to Switzerland.

While in Switzerland he followed in the footsteps of other famous monks before him and renouncing his vows, got married, and started a family. A year later in 1851 he set sail for America where he worked with the Baptists in Canada for a while before becoming a Sabbatarian Adventist in 1857 as a result of a series of meetings in Findlay, Ohio. Soon after he was asked to work among the French-speaking ethnic groups together with the Bourdeau brothers.

He became somewhat of a celebrity among Sabbatarian Adventists who were fascinated at the thought of having a real live ex-Catholic priest in their midst and such a zealous one to boot. His many sacrifices on behalf of the truth and his ongoing zeal to share it garnered him many a mention in the review.

Another thing that attracted attention was his perennial poverty. The Whites helped him out financially on several occasions before James White realized that he needed advice with regards to financial management more than he needed financial assistance.

But this was not the only curious eccentricity that Czechowski possessed. After a year of working with the French-speaking Adventists at the Canadian border, Czechowski grew tired of the work and cast his eyes around for something else. He then decided, impulsively, and somewhat ill-advisedly to launch an expensive migrant missionary endeavor in New York which not only failed miserably but also managed to get him up to his eyeballs in debt. Then in 1861 when the Whites visited the Eastern States in an attempt to organize conferences Czechowski and James White clashed. Czechowski preferred to march to the beat of his own drum and felt restricted by the brethren counseling him with regards to what he should do. This confrontation with James White marked a turning point in Czechowski’s ministry. He dropped out of the ministerial team and attempted to support himself as a freelance writer which didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. Then against the advice of his brethren, he went back to live near New York City.

Amidst all this confusion Czechowski’s real dream was to go back to Europe and to share the three angels’ messages there. As early as 1858 he had written to Ellen White expressing his desire to begin missionary work in Europe. Ellen White commended him for being conscientious and perfectly honest before God but told him not to mark out a course for himself that was independent of his brethren. She also warned him not to allow unbelievers to lead him astray with empty praise. Unfortunately, Michael Czechowski was a man who was slow to hear and swift to act.

In 1863 when the General Conference was organised it began lay plans to send a missionary to Europe and F.B Snook was put forward as a potential candidate. Czechowski begged John Loughborough, who at that time was holding a series of meetings in New York City, to put in a good word for him with the committee but Loughborough was reluctant. He felt that Czechowski was too rash and impulsive for the job but not wanting to discourage an already down and out brother he concealed his true feelings and instead told Czechowski that the General Conference didn’t have the money to send a missionary at that juncture, which was in fact true.

When the General Conference committee rejected his offer to go to Europe he was disappointed but not one to be deterred when he had set his mind on something he took his pitch elsewhere. He went to the Advent Christians and told them about his dreams to take the message of the Second Advent to Europe. His pitch was so fervent and so convincing that he won their praise and their endorsement, not to mention their financial backing, directly contrary to what Ellen White had counselled him to do.

The Advent Christians were former Millerites who had not accepted the Sabbath and Sanctuary messaged but had accepted the Biblical teaching regarding the state of the dead. In his excitement, Czechowski failed to mention that a significant portion of the message he intended to preach would include both the Sabbath and the Sanctuary. It was an error of omission that got him in the door and had him on a ship to Europe sooner than he had expected.

In 1864 accompanied by his wife, four children and Miss Anna Butler, the sister of George Butler, later president of the General Conference, Czechowski set sail for Europe. For 14 months he worked in and around Torre Pellice in Waldensian Country. There he converted several individuals to the Sabbath, notably J.D. Geyment, Francis Besson and Mrs Catherine Revel who was the first to be baptised into Sabbatarian Adventism. However the opposition to his work soon grew to be so strong that he moved his base of operations to Switzerland with John Geyment in tow.

In Switzerland Czechowski and Geyment visited from house to house, preached in public meeting halls, sold tracts and published a periodical titled “Le Evangile Eternel” (The Everlasting Gospel). Three years later when Czechowski left Switzerland for good he left behind 40 baptised members worshipping several companies. Their main church, which was in Tramelan was organised in 1867 an was the first Sabbath-keeping Adventist church outside of North America.

During this time Czechowski was bankrolled by his Advent Christian friends and also successfully managed to hide the fact that there were other Sabbatarian Adventist churches in America from him European converts. But it turned out that he couldn’t keep them in the dark for long.

One day in 1867 Albert Vuilleumier, who knew just enough English to read with the aid of a dictionary noticed a copy of the Review and Herald among Czechowski belongings. Grabbing it he slowly read through the paper and was both gobsmacked and excited to discover that there were, in fact, other Sabbath-keeping Adventists in North America. He sent a letter, post haste, in French to Battle Creek. For their part, the folks at Battle Creek after they had managed to translate the letter were equally dumbfounded and excited to find out that there was a group of Sabbath-Keeping Adventists in Switzerland. They exchanged correspondence back and forth and it was discovered that the building and the equipment that Czechowski had bought for publishing L’Evangile Eternel was heavily mortgaged and due to be paid off. Meanwhile, Czechowski; himself was happily off doing missionary work in Italy.

The creditors extended the loan to 1869 and the Americans invited the Swiss to send over a representative and then they set about raising the money to bail out the struggling debt-ridden printing press. They managed to raise the money but on the condition that if the American’s bailed out the press then the title to the press must be held by the Swiss brethren as a whole and not by a single individual. Czechowski refused and the press was lost.

Around this time Czechowski left Switzerland permanently and began to hopscotch his way through Europe working in France, Germany and Hungary before finally settling in Romania where he supported himself and made yet another group of converts. He died of exhaustion and overwork in February 1868 in Vienna aged 57. Czechowski was a man of paradoxes. Single Mindedly devoted to God and the truth and yet lacking the tact and diplomacy needed to work with his brethren. Proverbially poor and bad at managing finances but rich in missionary zeal. The spiritual depth and quality of his converts were noteworthy and many of them went on to become full-time missionary workers. Men like Geyment, Besson and Jonah Jones gave up everything they had in favour of preaching the gospel. Albert Vuilleumier who was a watchmaker by trade doubled as an active and devoted elder. James Erzberger was already a minister in training when he became an Adventist and went on to become a pillar of the work in Europe and Mrs Revel despite severe opposition at home was a faithful Sabbath keeper.

Czechowski colourful life is checkered at best and has hanging over it the blazing words “What if?” What if he had been more open to counsel? What if he had been willing to accept his weaknesses? What if he had been willing to work with his brethren? What if he had been more honest with the Advent Christians and his new converts? The list is long and paints a picture of a man who might have accomplished so much more than he already did had he been willing to yield his will just an inch. Some serious food for thought.

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