Early in his years as a stern Augustinian monk, Martin Luther rummaged through a book stack of a library and came across a volume of sermons. Reflecting upon the century-aged religious text, Luther wrote, “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and school.” That man was Jan Hus, considered by historians and theologians as the first church reformer, influencing reformists John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Huldrych Zwingli. His teachings and “violent sermons” against the unbridled moral and political corruption laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Casey Titus explains.
Born into poverty in Husinec, Bohemia, Hus’ year of birth is debated to be 1369. From an early age, Hus voyaged to Prague where he supported himself by singing and serving in churches. We know very little of his early personal life, but accounts state that his work ethic was satisfactory and his diligence to his studies was incredible.
In 1393, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Prague, now known as Charles University, and earned his master’s degree in 1396. Four years later he was ordained as a priest. Two years later, Hus made his radical beliefs about reform in the Church known when he began preaching inside the city. That same year he was employed as a faculty member and taught until 1412, serving as both dean of the faculty and rector at the university.
It was during this time that Hus studied the Augustinian theological works of John Wycliffe, another reformer who promoted the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Church authorities banned many of the works of Wycliffe in 1403; nevertheless, his works still traveled to Prague during the 1390s when Hus was still studying as a student. Bohemia itself possessed an extensive history of reform efforts which made fruitful ground for Wycliffe’s ideas. These ideas ingrained themselves in the impressionable Jan Hus who eventually became known for his passionate, orthodox sermons calling for reform that denounced the immoral behavior of the clergy and popular religious practices and teachings such as pilgrimages to see bleeding statues in Germany and the prohibition against unlicensed preaching. He further preached Wycliffe’s ideologies that included support for secular lordship over territorial churches free of Papal control but still held firm to transubstantiation.
A Growing Presence
His sermons were endured, even tolerated, by Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc who appointed Hus a preacher at the clergy’s biennial synod. In 1405, this toleration reached its boundary as Pope Innocent VII commanded the Archbishop to rebuke Wycliffe’s teachings. In addition to religious reform, Hus became a voice and advocate of Czech nationalism. Even before Wycliffe’s writings were condemned by the German faculty at Prague, Czech Bohemians were at odds with the German Bohemians – consisting of Bavarians, Saxons, and Poles – and desired independence from them. In 1408, tensions were continuing to rise and the archbishop of Prague was once again compelled by Czech university masters to condemn Wycliffe’s teachings and suppress its influence on Czech nationalists.
It was at this point in time Hus’ place in history was further elevated when the archbishop’s scheme backfired and resulted in further acceleration for reform of the Bohemian church with Hus as its most influential representative. In 1409, Hus and other Czech nationalists convinced the Bohemian king, Wenceslas IV, to support them against the German nations sitting on the Prague faculty. The support paid off; the Kuttenberg Decree of 1409 allowed Czechs to take control of the faculty and forced the Germans to leave for other universities. While it seemed successful for Czech nationalists like Hus, this move would have future disastrous consequences for reformers and nationalists alike.
Over one thousand students and masters left Prague and spread accusations of Bohemian heresy. The faculty selected Hus as rector at Prague that same year. In 1409, Archbishop Zbyněk appealed to the new Pope, Alexander V, regarding the spread of heretical theology and secular encroachment on the church’s authority in Bohemia. The Pope reacted with a 1409 bull condemning Wycliffe’s theology once again and forbade preaching in Hus’ Bethlehem chapel which Hus defied. A year later, Wycliffe’s works were burned by the archbishop and Hus appealed to the new Pope, John XXIII, regarding the bull instituted by the previous Pope. Consequently, Hus was locally excommunicated by his archbishop and called to Rome for his Wycliffite teaching and disobedience to ecclesiastical superiors in August 1410. Hus refused to stand trial and was excommunicated by the Roman court in February 1411.
Attempts to crush Hus’ power and influence only fueled popular support for him, forcing the Archbishop of Prague to flee. Anti-Papal polemicists joined with Hus as he continued his support for reform. When Archbishop Zajíc died in 1411, the Bohemian Reformation entered a new phase that turned to disputes regarding indulgences, which is defined as forgiveness that has already taken place for certain sins. Pope John XXIII announced a crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, protector of his rival, Gregory XII. The crusade was financed by authorized indulgences and priests encouraging people to give their offerings which Hus preached passionately against, as it was a sign of further corruption in the Church. Even King Wenceslas IV approved the indulgences because the profits were split between him and the Pope, along with anti-Wycliffite theologians at the university. Hus referenced the last chapter of Wycliffe’s book, De ecclesia, which asserted that no Pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the Church and instead should pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him as well as man obtaining the forgiveness of sins by true repentance, not money.
Public demonstrations increased with Hus’ supporters proclaiming opposition to the Pope, whom they addressed as “Antichrist.” Consequently, three protestors were beheaded by a Prague magistrate in July 1412; they were later considered the first martyrs of the Hussite Church. The king forbade the teaching of Wycliffe’s forty-five articles and attempted to bring about peace among the mayhem - which failed. Hus reflected on the tumultuous times and his will to endure it: “Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me, I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty.” A conception of the Church that the doctors of the university put forth arranged that the Pope is the head, the Cardinals the body of the Church, and that Hus and his followers must approve of it – but Hus refused.
By this time, Hus’ theological ideas were widely accepted in Bohemia and spread resentment among the Church hierarchy. Riots erupted in parts of Bohemia over the attacks against Hus by the Pope. King Wenceslaus IV took the side of Hus and the power of his allies increased daily. Hus continued to preach at the Bethlehem Chapel. The churches of Prague were put under a ban, and an interdict was proclaimed against Prague. No citizen of Prague could receive Communion or be buried on church grounds as long as Hus continued his ministry. For the city’s protection, Hus fled into the countryside towards the end of 1412 where he continued to write and preach. One of his writings argued that Christ alone is head of the church, that a Pope “through ignorance and love of money” can make many mistakes, and that to rebel against a corrupt Pope is to obey Christ. He preached in local neighborhoods and Bohemian Wycliffism spread to the nearby countries of Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria. He no longer put his trust in an irresolute king, an antagonistic Pope, or a useless Council. Instead, on October 18, 1412, he appealed to the highest Christian authority, Christ himself, bypassing centuries of laws and structures of the medieval Church, the final straw for the Church.
Hus and the Council
In November 1414, the Council of Constance assembled and Hus was urged by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, brother of King Wenceslaus IV, to attend and explain his doctrine on the promise of safe conduct and the council’s promise of significant church reforms. Sigismund of Hungary was heir to the Bohemian crown and determined to end religious dissent within the Church. The Council of Constance became the 16thecumenical council recognized by the Catholic Church, lasting from 1414 to 1418. Hus’ suspicions over his fate may have been the reason behind making his will before departing. He arrived on November 3, 1414.
Hus was still openly defiant to the Church, violating restrictions decreed by the Church such as continuing to preach and celebrating Mass. Due to the presence of enemies and a rumor that Hus intended to flee, Hus was arrested on November 28, 1414 and imprisoned at a Dominican monastery. Sigismund, guarantor of Hus’ safety, was furious and threatened the bishops with dismissals. The prelates successfully persuaded him that he could not be bound by promises to a heretic.
The situation turned for the worse for the eccentric preacher when Pope John XXIII fled Constance to avoid abdicating. Through the Pope, Hus was in constant communication with his friends and supporters, but now was delivered to the bishop of Constance who transferred him to the castle, Gottlieben on the Rhine. Here he remained for 73 days, chained day and night, poorly fed, and ill. Hus’ supporters, including the king, were at last able to sway the council to hold a public hearing for him in June 1415. With an ongoing investigation against Hus, the reformer was not allowed to speak in his defense and instead asked to recant his views. Hus merely replied, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.” He was brought back to his cell where others begged for him to recant. On July 6, 1415, Hus has taken to the cathedral, dressed in his priestly garments, and then stripped of them one by one. The Bishop of Lodi delivered a speech on the duty of eliminating heresy and read some theses of Hus and Wycliffe.
From there, a tall paper hat was placed upon his head with the writing, “Haeresiarcha” (i.e., the leader of a heretical movement), and led away to the stake under a heavy guard of armed men. At the place of execution, Hus knelt, spread his hands, and prayed out loud. He was undressed, his hands bound behind him, and wood and straw piled up to his neck. He refused to recant one last time to save his own life where he prayed, “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.” He was reportedly heard reciting Psalms in the midst of the flames.
His executioners scooped his ashes and tossed them into the Rhine River so that nothing would remain of the “heretic.” Despite their attempts at physically removing Hus’ remains, some Czechs collected bits of soil from the ground where Hus was executed and brought them back to Bohemia as a memorial.
The Papal establishment’s execution of the Czech reformer was met with public outrage and horror, resulting in the Bohemian people straying further from Papal teachings rather than be frightened back into submission.
When King Wenceslaus IV died in August 1419, his brother Sigismund of Hungary was unable to institute a functional government in Bohemia due to the Hussite revolt. The rebellion was so intense that Rome was roused to declare a crusade against them on the first of March 1420, five years following Hus’ death. Pope Martin V issued a Papal bull permitting the execution of all supporters of Hus and Wycliffe.
Two Czech commanders, Jan Žižkaand Prokop the Great, were followers of Hus and after the Hussite community evolved into a major military power, the Hussites defeated the crusade instigated by the Pope followed by three more crusades that lasted until 1436. The fighting only ceased after a negotiation was reached to authorize Bohemia to practice their new branch of Christianity – Hussitism. A century later, ninety percent of the Lands of the Bohemian Crowns’ subjects would adhere to Hussite theology.
Because of Hus and his reformist predecessor, Bohemia experienced one of the most significant pre-reformation movements that revolted against what Hus viewed as Papal thralldom and idolatrous practices. Just over a century after Hus’ execution, the Leipzig Debate of 1519 took place and accused Martin Luther of being a Hussite for rejecting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther fired back, asserting that the Council of Constance wronged Hus by condemning and executing him and that Papal council was subordinate to Scripture. In 1520, Luther read Hus’ De ecclesia, declaring that Staupitz, St. Augustine, and the apostle Paul were “all Hussites.”
What do you think of Jan Hus’ legacy? Let us know below.
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“Jan Hus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus.
Nichols, Stephen. “The Morning Star of the Reformation: John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384).” Desiring God, 28 Mar. 2019, www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-morning-star-of-the-reformation.
Person. “John Huss.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, Christian History, 31 Mar. 2016, www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/john-huss.html.
Stacey, John. “John Wycliffe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wycliffe.