Mendel and the Legacy of Protestant Schools

Gregor Johann Mendel as an Augustinian abbot is clearly associated with the Catholic confession. It is forgotten that, like František Palacký, for example, he came from the Enlightenment environment created by the Brno evangelicals on the Kunín estate, and was in contact with this environment for a long time, actually also through his predecessor, the liberal abbot Cyril Franz Napp.

10 Nov 2022 Petr Peňáz Thomas Donaldson Sparling

Viktor Heinrich Riecke (1759-1830).

The celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Johann Mendel's birth have quite naturally focused on the person of Mendel himself. It is equally important, however, to be aware of the specific context of Moravian public life at the time, which made it possible for Mendel's talents to be recognized and such an exceptional personality to develop. This very specific milieu is described by Jiří Kroupa in Alchymie štěstí (The Alchemy of Fortune), where he explains how, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, European Illuminati and Freemasons brought to life an intellectual and economic centre in Brno that drew the attention of the whole of Europe.

An interesting aspect of this year's Mendel celebrations has been how Brno and its institutions have identified so closely with a representative of German Catholic Moravia. In the interwar years the Czechoslovak state did much to promote the traditions of Czech Protestantism; after World War II, this shifted to "Czech progressive traditions". As reflected in Czech schools and popular educative efforts in the second half of the twentieth century, Řehoř (not "Gregor") Mendel was a kind of Czech natural science amateur who lived in the Staré Brno monastery from existential necessity. Beyond this image presented in the media, only small groups of individuals at the time had a better understanding of Mendel's Germanness and his scientific work or viewed him primarily as an Augustinian abbot.

It is crucial to understand that the intellectual life of both the German and the Czech elements in Moravia shared a common ground in the Enlightenment. At the same time, the Enlightenment also linked the Catholic majority to the Protestant minority. The Protestant faith had prevailed in Moravia in the sixteenth century, re-emerged with the Toleration Patent of Josef II (1781) and in subsequent years went on to play an absolutely key role in the rise of Brno. One individual in particular, whose importance in Enlightenment Brno remains underappreciated, was the pastor of the Lutheran congregation that took shape in the wake of the Toleration Patent. This body was the initiative of the banker and industrialist Johann Leopold von Köffiller (1743-1814). In 1767 he had launched the manufacture of fine cloth in a large, four-courtyard complex close to the later city graveyard between Große Neugasse (Velká Nová street, today's Lidická) and Friedhofgasse (Hřbitovní, now Kounicova). The factory's products were praised by Josef II, and Brno soon earned the epithet "the Austrian Manchester".

Christian Karl André (1763-1831).

The majority of the senior employees of the textile factory were Protestants from Germany, and they took advantage of Köffiller's political influence to create what was in effect a factory parish. Their pastor was the enlightened young Württemberg theologian Viktor Heinrich Riecke (1759-1830), son of the City Doctor in Stuttgart. He spent twenty years in Brno as the congregation's minister before being forced to leave for political reasons. Not only did he shape the congregation at the textile factory as a kind of intellectual centre that was later to develop into a regional institution for the Lutheran Superintendents of Moravia, but during those years he also managed to completely change the intellectual atmosphere of Moravia: as a Freemason, he had no linguistic, political or religious prejudices. Drawing on the heritage of the great seventeenth century philosopher, pedagogue and Unity of the Brethren bishop John Amos Comenius, whose pansophic works in fact laid the foundation for European Freemasonry and whose intellectual legacy at the time was more alive in Germany than in the Czech lands, Viktor Riecke viewed education and public enlightenment as the starting point for all of his efforts at betterment. In this spirit, he devoted great time and energy to the publication of forward-looking educational works and the foundation of schools. His key colleague in this was the highly regarded German pedagogue Christian Karl André (1763-1831). First entrusted with running the Protestant school in Brno, he brought to Brno many of the publishing activities and the devotion to enlightened causes that had made him famous in Germany. These had an impact far beyond the confines of Brno, a development that only became evident over time and was particularly important in the difficult period after the founders of the Brno congregation, left with no choice, returned to Germany.

Marie Walburga hraběnka von Truchsess‑Zeil (1762-1828).

The most important and most noteworthy offshoot of the efforts of the Brno Protestants was the Philanthropinum, an educational institution located in the small northern Moravian town of Kunvald (German: Kunewald, today the Czech Kunín) and situated on the estate of Countess Maria Walburga von Truchsess‑Zeil (1762-1828), née von Harrach. The daughter of an Austrian field-marshal and heiress to the Moravian branch of the Harrach family, she was born in Brno and was regarded as one of the most beautiful and best educated women in the Austrian monarchy. In 1779 she married Count Clemens Alois von Waldburg-Zeil-Hohenems (1753-1817), with whom she enjoyed a brief romantic interval, first in Milan and later on the Harrach estate in Kunewald. But in the course of six years the couple lost three children, and the Countess's despair led to a crisis that culminated in the pair separating in the 1780s.

Subsequently the Countess found new meaning in life in the milieu of the secret society of Illuminati in Brno. Two important figures in this development were Ignaz Mehoffer, Master of one of the Freemason lodges in Brno, an enthusiastic supporter of the pedagogical ideas of Riecke and André, who promoted them in his role as an imperial school inspector, and Bernard Seybold, another member of the lodge, a Catholic priest and the Countess's advisor. Both recommended the German pastor to the Countess, and so in 1788, at the same time he was founding his own school in Brno, Riecke designed the curriculum for the educational institution in Kunewald as well as the contents of its library. Later, at the suggestion of Riecke, the Countess and her personal chaplain Johann Schreiber visited Herrnhut in Saxony, since she was interested in the Renewed Unity of the Brethren, which had originated there on the initiative of individuals from her own estate, as well as educational institutions of the Illuminati in Germany, including a school founded by the educational reformer Christian Gotthilf Salzmann that was inspired by the famous Philanthropinum of Johann Bernhard Basedow. Following this, the Countess founded her own Philanthropinum on the Kunewald estate; thanks to Riecke it boasted the best pedagogical library in Moravia at the time.

František Palacký (1798-1876)

The Countess's institution, though formally Catholic and German, enjoyed such a high reputation owing to its enlightened, ecumenical, supra-confessional and innovative pedagogical character that it convinced even the patriotic Czech Lutheran teacher Jiří Palacký of Hodslavice to send his son František Palacký (1798-1876) there. The Protestant Palacký, who later Czechs were to refer to as the "Father of the Nation", was offered membership in the preparatory committee for the German Parliament in Frankfurt in 1848 and later the position of Minister of Education by the Emperor Franz Josef I. In fact he was the intellectual child of Riecke's Brno team, even though he became familiar with Riecke and Andrés pedagogical principles after they had been forced to leave Brno. In his autobiography, Palacký mentions among his teachers the priest Josef Ignaz Turek (1783-1850) and Karl Josef Jurende. He makes no mention of Johann Schreiber, who had to step down from his position as the Countess's chaplain in 1806. These three young men replaced each other in turn in such close relationship to the Countess that this attracted the attention of the public and was later a factor in the Governor of Moravia's decision to close the institution down.

Johann Andreas Edmond Schreiber (1769-1850) was the first of these friends and confidants of the Countess. He travelled through Germany as her personal chaplain during the first study tour in 1796 and helped found the school in Kunewald. Like the Countess, he was in personal contact with Viktor Riecke. Though a Catholic, he supported the Countess's interest in the Renewed Unity of the Brethren in Herrnhut, and in honour of Comenius actually took the name Amos himself. As chaplain, Schreiber was even inspired by Riecke's liturgical practices and included some Protestant hymns in the Kunewald mass. In addition, he was an experienced teacher in the school there, particularly knowledgeable in biology. But in 1806 a new favourite, Karl Josef Jurende, appeared at the Countess's side. She arranged a place for her chaplain in a newly founded parish on her estate at Petersdorf (Czech: Vražné), from where till at least 1808 he travelled to Kunewald to teach at the school there.

The village of Heinzendorf (Czech: Hynčice) formed part of the Petersdorf parish and it was here on 20 July 1822 that Johann Amos Schreiber christened Johann Mendel (1822-1884), son of the German small-holder Anton Mendel. The future discoverer of the laws of genetics began attending the school in Heinzendorf while Countess Wallburga was still alive. His teacher was Thomas Makita (1774-1837), originally from Klogsdorf, but Johann Schreiber, as a stronger intellectual authority, had a greater influence on the boy. Schreiber experimented with fruit trees in his garden, he and Anton Mendel also carried out experiments with bees, and to the disapproval of his ecclesiastical superiors he was the parish expert in the fields of phylotechnology and beekeeping. As an admirer of Riecke and André, Schreiber contributed to the bulletin of the Moravian-Silesian Society for the Improvement of Agriculture, the Natural Sciences and the Study of the Homeland, which had been founded in Brno by André. After the departure of Riecke and André its contributors included the former director of the Kunewald school Karl Josef Jurende as well as the Brno Augustinian abbot Franz Napp, who served as the learned society's chair. It was Schreiber who recognized Johann Mendel's talent, and through his experiments motivated him to study (first at the Piarist school in Leipnik (Lipník), later at the grammar school in Troppau (Opava) and then at the Faculty of Arts in Olomouc), even though the original plan was for the young Johann to take over his father's holding.

So the German Catholic Johann Mendel, like the Czech Lutheran František Palacký, was the intellectual child of Riecke's pedagogical influence in Moravia, even more so in that Mendel's later time in Brno was also linked to Protestant activities. The scientific atmosphere that Christian André created in Brno with the help of Count Johann Nepomuk Mittrowsky attracted to the city another member of Countess Walburga's circle, Karl Josef Jurende, who worked there as a journalist, as well as the Augustinian abbot Cyrill Franz Napp, who contributed to the scholarly journal of André's Moravian-Silesian Society. Franz Napp (1792-1867), rather untypically for a monk, came from a German Protestant family; his father converted to Catholicism and the son became a very open, enlightened Catholic. Quite consciously he continued the scientific and popularizing work of the Brno Protestants and made the Augustinian monastery the intellectual heir of Riecke and André's efforts, among other ways by offering Johann Mendel financial assistance and the opportunity to pursue a higher education.

When, thanks to the initiative of Gregor Johann Mendel, the Naturforschender Verein (Natural Science Society) was founded on 15 December 1861 - the same society in whose annual publication Mendel was to publish the results of his genetic experiments only a few years later - it was no accident that the patron of the society was Count Wladimir Mittrowsky (1814-1899), grandson of Count Johann Nepomuk Mittrowsky, who had sponsored the activities of Christian Karl André many years earlier. And after Gregor Johann Mendel succeeded Cyrill Franz Napp as Abbot of the Augustinian monastery, he had the parish priest from his childhood, Johann Schreiber, whose model and inspiration was the Protestant André, depicted in one of the ceiling frescoes in his study to serve as personal inspiration.


List of used literature for volume 8:

K. R. Riecke, Heinrich [online]. In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 28 (1889), pp. 508-512. Quoted 1. 10. 2021. Available from:

BOLOM-KOTARI, Sixtus. Victor Heinrich Riecke a Brno jako osvícenské srdce moravského protestantismu. In: Brno v minulosti a dnes 28 (2015), pp. 195-225.

Denkmal für Victor Heinrich Riecke von einigen Verehrern und Freunden des Seligen aus der Brünner Gemeinde A. C. Wien 1831. Quoted 1. 7. 2021. Available from:

KROUPA, Jiří. Alchymie štěstí: Pozdní osvícenství a moravská společnost 1770-1810. 2., edited ed. Brno: Era 2006.

SMUTNÝ, Bohumír. Brněnští podnikatelé a jejich podniky: 1764-1948: encyklopedie podnikatelů a jejich rodin. Brno, 2012. ISBN 978-80-86736-28-0. Available also from:

TRAUTENBERGER, Gustav. Geschichte der evangelischen Kirche in den königlichen Städten Mährens, besonders der königlichen Landeshauptstadt Brünn. Brünn: Evangelische Gemeinde, 1864. Available also from:

TRAUTENBERGER, Gustav G. Aus der evangelischen Kirchengemeinde in Brünn. 1. díl [online]. Brünn: G. G. Trautenberger 1866. Available also from:

TRAUTENBERGER, Gustav G. Aus der evangelischen Kirchengemeinde in Brünn. 2. díl. Brünn: G. G. Trautenberger 1867.

ZEZULČÍK, Jaroslav: Mládí Františka Palackého v Hodslavicích a na škole v Kuníně. In ORLITA, Zdeněk a Radek POLÁCH, Jaroslav ZEZULČÍK. Památník Františka Palackého v Hodslavicích. Hodslavice: Muzeum Novojičínska, Obec Hodslavice 2018. Pp. 57-86.

Editor: Zuzana Jayasundera

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