Michael Belina Czechowski
Seventh-day Adventist hero or rebel?
By Nathan Gordon Thomas
At first the sect that called itself Advent Christians supported him, totally unaware that he was accepting their funds while proclaiming Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.
In 1856 James White’s evangelistic tent meetings at Perry’s Mills, New York, attracted Michael Czechowski’s attention. Baptized the next year at Findlay, Ohio, this former priest and revolutionary began a lengthy preaching career that his church was sometimes reluctant to support. Historians are divided about his memory. Was Czechowski a headstrong rebel, or a Polish national hero who was Seventh-day Adventist?
Born in Poland in September of 1818, Czechowski was educated until 1835 in the important southern city of Kraków. When an eloquent sermon by a Franciscan priest set his resolve to work for the church, he entered the Franciscan monastery at Stopnica, the first of several at which he would study. But some time after being ordained in the capital of Warsaw, he became convinced that what he had supposed to be real devotion on the part of the clergy was sheer hypocrisy. Czechowski became involved in national reform movements, barely escaping arrest by the Russian authorities who occupied that part of his native country.
In October 1843 he decided to visit Rome to complain about priestly corruption. Arriving in October of 1844, he accomplished little in his visit with Pope Gregory XVI. Traveling to Paris, he found the French clergy no different from the Polish. Repeated disappointments with people helped confirm his commitment to God’s guidance through the Bible. His zealous agitation for social integrity, his Bible study classes, temperance reform, and welfare improvement groups hardly pleased those whose selfish practice he kept disrupting. After about a year of such reform, he was imprisoned for political activities.
Released, he traveled to London and the security of friends’ company. But after only a few months he was back in Paris to work for Polish émigrés. He again immersed himself in political activities, as his countrymen back home chafed under the control of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian partitioning powers. The irrepressible curate even organized a “liberation” army to free Poland, but like most Polish nationalistic efforts of that period, his uprising was a miserable failure. He returned to Paris and worked until July 1849, when certain religious authorities expelled him as a disturber of the peace.
Within 15 months thereafter, Czechowski exchanged vows of celibacy for those of matrimony. In September 1850 he resigned from the priesthood, and in October he married Marie Virginia Delavouet. He moved to London to escape further persecution, then moved on, with his bride to New York, arriving in 1851, in a free and happy land where he would not have to worry about his former persecutors. He would live and work in North America for the next 13 years. With $4 in hand, he looked for work, finding a brickmaking job in New Jersey after three days. The heavy, all-day work, was too much. Kind friendship advanced him enough money to reach Montreal, Canada, where he found bookbinding, a less strenuous job. He was, moreover, a trained bookbinder. In three months he bought a shop of his own, but an 1852 fire destroyed that part of the city. Then the Baptist Home Missionary Society invited him to labor among the French Canadians in Clinton County, Upper New York. They were proud to have this educated man, whom they considered of noble birth, who spoke seven different languages and preached with indefatigable zeal. His work is remembered as quite successful, converting many souls from Catholicism, his own former religion, and in general changing Clinton County for the better.
But there was more for Czechowski to do than help the Baptists in Clinton County, as he learned when James White’s preaching came to his town. His constant thirst for truth urged him forward to accept the gospel message for his time and become part of God’s remnant church. He rejoiced in the news of Jesus’ speedy return and was converted to the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Shortly thereafter, he was baptized at a tent meeting in Findlay, Ohio, where he had moved, and departed for Battle Creek, Michigan, headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Established again as a bookbinder, he became acquainted with James and Ellen White, who welcomed him to Battle Creek, impressed by both his personality and spirituality. They had never seen a new convert to Adventism quite like him. They agreed to finance him on a missionary trip back to northern New York to preach present truth, new truth to his old friends.
Czechowski did have loose ends to tie up back in Clinton County. He still owed money to his former supporters, the Baptists. In fact he still owed $50 on a house and lot that he had purchased while there. James and Ellen each gave him $5, and other church members helped him pay that debt.
In northern New York, Czechowski worked very successfully among the French-speaking peoples. James White testified of his worth, writing that “providence has placed him with us.”* Along with another French-speaking minister he was able to organize a conference among them when almost suddenly it seems, he decided to leave for New York City to work among its various ethnic groups. He was no farmer, he explained, had accomplished his mission in northern New York, and could not support his family where he was.
Czechowski Keeps Moving
Elder White seemed to understand. He and Ellen continued to help Czechowski and his family with money. However, things changed somewhat after Ellen was shown in vision on August 3, 1861, the wrongness of his move. He had not sought good advice for the move, she rebuked, and had followed his judgment only. But Czechowski pressed on, organizing small groups of Poles, French, Germans, Swedes, and English into congregations he called churches. James White advised him to go back and work in Vermont and northern New York State until a more organized system could be established in New York City. It was becoming clear that, good points notwithstanding, Czechowski was not manageable at all. Nevertheless, he did move to Vermont where Elder D. T. Bourdeau had found him a house. While ministering there, he wrote his autobiography, hoping it would make him some money. It didn’t. Having alienated church support by his poor business skills and inability to take anybody’s advice, Czechowski set out on his own for Europe on May 14, 1864, to realize his great desire of taking his newfound faith to his European countrymen. He would labor there for the next 12 years. At first the Advent Christians supported him, totally unaware that he was accepting their funds while proclaiming Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.
He began in Italy, then moved on to Switzerland, where on February 7, 1866, he baptized Seventh-day Adventism’s first two European converts in the frigid waters of Lake Neuchâtel. By June he reported seven evangelists supporting his European mission. But his greatest success, and the source of his downfall, would be Tramelan, site of Adventism’s first organized church in Europe.
Albert Vuilleumier, who had hosted some of Czechow-ski’s earliest lectures, discovered a copy of the Review and Herald in his room, wrote down the address, and communicated with Uriah Smith, the paper’s editor. Church leaders in America were astonished to discover that there were Seventh-day Adventists in Europe, as Vuilleumier and his French church learned to their own amazement that other Seventh-day Adventists existed somewhere. Though Czechowski had brought them the truth, they could never, thereafter, trust the man who had kept secret the existence of his denomination. Not much later, the Advent Christians learned of his seventh-day-Sabbath preaching and ended their support for him. For these reasons, or perhaps under some other motivation of which we cannot be sure, this singular man then chose to continue his enigmatic story by departing for Hungary in 1869.
[to be continued in October]
Nathan Gordon Thomas, Ph.D, is professor emeritus of history at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, United States. (firstname.lastname@example.org)