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Interview on Michael Belina Czechowski

Adventist Review; Christian B. Schäffler; Jacques Frei;

In 1863, a group of Christians in North America chose to call themselves “Seventh-day Adventist.” This name reflected their core beliefs: The Sabbath theology and the expectation of Christ’s return. In May of 1863, representatives of this growing community of about 125 congregations with 3,500 members met in Battle Creek (Michigan, USA) and organized the “General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.”

This seemingly insignificant new denomination, amongst hundreds of others originating on North American soil, grew within 150 years into an internationally known church with more than 18 million adult baptized members. Today, it is represented in most countries around the globe. However, it took a decade before the local church leadership became aware of missions beyond the borders of the U.S.A. It was not until 1874, that John N. Andrews (1829-1883) was sent as the first official Adventist missionary to Europe.

In 1856 Michael Belina Czechowski, a native of Poland and former Catholic priest, was introduced to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was baptized in 1857. From 1858 onward, he worked as an evangelist for the church. In 1863, he wanted to be the first Adventist missionary sent to Europe, but his request was denied because he was regarded as headstrong and incapable of managing the financial resources made available to him.

Christian B. Schäffler (right), a journalist, founder, and longtime director of the Adventistischer Pressedienst (APD) in Basel, Switzerland, interviewed Jacques Frei (left), a retired pastor and recognized expert on the life of Czechowski who currently lives in Lopagno, Switzerland.

How would you briefly describe Czechowski’s life work?
Czechowski was an idealist, full of ideas and he had an entrepreneurial spirit. From an early age, he was a political activist for the independence of Poland and since the 1850s, a tireless gospel preacher of the crucified, risen and returning Lord Jesus Christ. He was a writer, publisher, evangelist and the first missionary of the Advent message in Europe. He worked in many countries, even though he was not commissioned by the General Conference. Czechowski contributed significantly as a self-supporting missionary to the development of a global missionary understanding in the Adventist Church.

Was he therefore a visionary and a pioneer of global missions?
Yes. Here are two examples: First,Czechowski was a pioneer of world evangelism to the church.Second, as one of the first evangelists to proclaim the Advent message in a big city, New York, he was, next to Ellen G. White, a pioneer of Seventh-day Adventist big city evangelism. Since 2011 the mission work of the Adventist Church in big cities has become a priority. People in 650 cities around the world are to be reached with the Gospel message. The evangelistic outreach of NY13 last year focused on an urban center with a population of about 19 million people and 800 different language groups.

Which were Czechowski’s areas of service?
His work can be divided into three phases: from 1818 (birth) to 1851 (departure to New York), he lived in Europe. From autumn 1851 to April 1864 he worked as a bookbinder, preacher, and evangelist in the USA and Canada. From May 1864 until his death in 1876, he was active in different European countries.

How did the amazing transformation from monk, priest, and reformed Catholic to a herald of the “Three Angel’s Message” take place?

Czechoswki was born on September 25, 1818, in Sieciechowice near Krakow in Poland. At the age of seventeen he entered the Franciscan monastery of Stopnica as “Brother Cyprian” and on June 25, 1843, he took his sacred vows as a Franciscan monk in Warsaw. He took part in a coup for the liberation of Poland from Russian rule. Repeatedly he had to flee because of his political activities. He was also troubled by the immoral conditions in the Polish monasteries. As a result he went to Rome, and in October 1844 obtained an audience with Pope Gregory XVI. But his petition for monastic reform written in Latin met with no interest. The Bishop of Breslau then sent him as a chaplain to Reichtal. After working there for thirteen months, he was arrested in August 1846 by the Prussian police, who mistook him for a Dominican monk with the same name. After months of detention, he went to Paris via Hamburg and London, where, as chaplain, he joined a volunteer force fighting for the liberation of Poland. When the attempt ended in defeat in Miroslaw, in present-day Slovakia, he took refuge in Lancy near Geneva, where he joined the Polish Community for a few months and served as their chaplain.Eventually Czechowski left the Roman Catholic Church and was married in 1850 to Marie Virginie Delevoet in Solothur. They went to Belgium and Czechowski worked as a bookbinder in Brussels. On the run from the Jesuits he came to London, where he met some Baptists. They helped the couple obtain a free passage to New York. In Montreal (Canada), he found work as a bookbinder. In 1852, the Baptists offered him a job as an evangelist among the French-speaking Canadians in New York. He was so successful there that he was ordained as a pastor. In 1856 he met a group Advent believers (that at that time had not yet organized the Seventh-day Adventist Church), joined them and from then on, wherever his travels took him, he taught the Advent message of the imminent return Christ

Did Czechowski intend to start organized churches?

Czechowski saw his first responsibility in the proclamation of the “everlasting Gospel” (Rev. 14:6). His goal was not to organize churches, but simply to speak to people so that they could prepare themselves for the Second Coming of Christ. Czechowski believed that preparation for Jesus’ Second Coming included the believer’s baptism by immersion, obedience by faith, and observance of the Sabbath. Naturally, as a result of the dissemination of his writings and the evangelistic meetings he held, many small groups that resembled churches were formed. However, nowhere did he work towards any type of organizational integration of his newly formed groups into the larger body of North American Seventh-day Adventist believers.

How did a connection to the in 1863 organized Seventh-day Adventist Church come about?
It was a coincidence through which this connection was established. In 1867 Albert Vuilleumier (1835-1923), leader of the Tramelan congregation in Jura (Switzerland), discovered a copy of the Adventist magazine Review and Herald in a side room used by Czechowski in their small chapel. Vuilleumier understood that the magazine came from an organization of Adventists in the U.S.A. and wrote to the editor in Battle Creek, Michigan, that he was the leader of a small group of fellow believers in Tramelan. After Czechowski’s departure, Vuilleumier asked for the deployment of a missionary. However, it took until October 16, 1874, for John N. Andrews (1829-1883), as the first official missionary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to arrive in Neuchâtel, accompanied by Vuilleumier.

The founding of many other congregations of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in eastern Europe can probably be traced back to the missionary work of Czechowski.

Where did he work in Europe after his return from the U.S.A. in 1864?
He was primarily active in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Hungary, and Romania. In 1876 he died on a journey to Vienna due to exhaustion.

On June 6, 1864, Czechowski arrived with his family of six in London together with a secretary who also helped in the household. From there he traveled on to Torre Pelice in the Waldensian valleys of northern Italy. Despite opposition from the local clergy, his evangelistic work was relatively successful. Sometimes he preached with permission in the Waldensian churches or rented a hall for his lectures. But he also just preached on the street.

His monthly reports indicate, for example, that he preached 36 sermons in August of 1864 and held 18 lectures in September of 1864. He sent these numerous reports to his sponsors in the U.S.A. without mentioning to them that he actually proclaimed the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, including the Sabbath message. On the other hand, he did not share with his audience the existence of Adventists back in America. After a year, the first group of Sabbath-keeping Christians was established through Czechowski’s proclamation. In 1865 he undertook short mission trips to Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Saxony, and Prussia.

In September 1865 he left the Waldensian valleys and moved with his family and his secretary to Switzerland where he stayed in Grandson, in the Canton of Vaud. He left the recently established group in Italy in the care of his new co-worker François Besson.

Did the Waldensian town of Torre Pellice attract Adventists?
The main town of the Waldensian valleys, Torre Pellice, played an important role in the early history of Adventism. Ellen G. White, one of the movement’s co-founder, visited the small town three times after Czechowski’s death, and one could say that she harvested the seeds that he had sown there. But also Czechowski’s sponsors, the First-day Adventists were eager to harvest his mission seeds. So it happened once that Ellen G. White was giving lectures on the ground floor of a house, while the First-day Adventists were holding meetings on the first floor of the same building. First-day Adventists had also arisen from the Millerite movement and proclaimed important parts of the Advent message.

The Adventist history of Italy is closely connected with Torre Pellice through names like François Besson, Joseph Jones, and Oscar Cocorda. Furthermore, Catherine Revel was baptized there—the grandmother of Adventist theologian Alfred Vaucher—and also Jean-David Geymet who later became the first Adventist literature evangelist.

What did travel from the Waldensian valleys to Switzerland look like in these days?
For the Czechowski family this trip was certainly not a “picnic in the park:” The tunnel through Mont Cenis was still under construction and there was not enough money for a trip with horse-drawn carriages over the 2084 m high mountain pass. They managed the crossing on foot with luggage and young children (the youngest was just 8 months old). Then they continued by train to Yverdon where the railway line ended. When they got there they were invited into a farmhouse to enjoy a warm soup and spend the night sleeping on straw. The next day Czechowski was able to rent an apartment in Grandson. From there he traveled from village to village, renting a hall or asking permission to speak in the local church.

In Switzerland, Czechowski had mixed experiences of success and bitter disappointments. Share some of them with us.
Soon after his arrival in Grandson, Czechowski, wanting to better disseminate the Adventist teachings, began the publication of his magazine “L’Évangile Eternel” (The Eternal Gospel). In October 1866 he moved to Cornaux near Neuchâtel, and founded the “Mission Evangélique Européenne et Universelle de la Seconde Venue du Sauveur” (European and Worldwide Mission of the Savior’s Second Coming) and established a printing press in the “Le Buisson” house. From there he disseminated his magazine not only in Switzerland, but also in Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Poland, and Hungary. He also published French and German pamphlets, some of which had been written by American Adventist authors. Furthermore, Czechowski traveled throughout Switzerland, gave lectures, baptized, and formed small groups of Sabbath-keepers who believed in the Second Advent. One of these groups was established in Tramelan, which later became the first official Seventh-day Adventist Church in Europe.

In 1867 Czechowski faced great financial difficulties, since he spent more on spreading the Gospel than he received in donations. In addition to his debt, the publishing house in Cornaux burnt to the ground in the spring of 1867. After the fire he went to Hauterive, where he took out a large mortgage and moved into a house. His income, however, was not enough to pay the interest due.

Did he continue as an itinerant traveling preacher despite his poverty?
In early 1868 the American Missionary Society who had been supporting Czechowski, found out that in addition to the message of Christ’s Second Coming, he was also teaching the “Jewish Sabbath” and so they ceased their payments to him. In the same year Czechowski left Switzerland without having paid his debt, and embarked on extensive missionary journeys that took him to Freiburg, Baden-Baden, Karlsruhe, and Stuttgart (all in Germany), as well as to France, Hungary, Romania, and the Ukraine. His wife, whom he left behind in Switzerland, died on July 22, 1870, and was buried in St. Blaise. Czechowski spent his last days in Vienna. On February 2, 1876, he collapsed on the street, and was admitted to the Poor- and Invalid house, a division of today’s General Hospital of Vienna, where on February 25, at the age of 57, he died of “exhaustion.”

Saint or Rebel?
Michael Belina Czechowski was neither a saint nor a rebel, but he was the first Adventist pioneer missionary in Europe.

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