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Jan Hus (1373-1415): Bohemian Reformer & Martyr

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Jan Hus (1373-1415)

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do” (cf. Luke 23:34). Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke these passionate words of forgiveness for the sake of the soldiers who gambled for his possessions at the foot of the Cross. Jesus prayed for those who crucified him and thereby showed future generations of his followers that Christianity was not only a faith of the persecuted, but it was also a faith of those who forgive. Over the centuries there have been many disciples of Jesus who have given up their lives for the cause of Christ. But, perhaps none have so closely paralleled the awful circumstances of our Lord as that of the fiery Bohemian reformer—Jan Hus (1373-1415). Like Jesus, Hus was blatantly betrayed, unjustly accused, and mercilessly killed. Of the many known statements uttered by Jan Hus approaching his death, these best exemplify the forgiving spirit of Christ,

Lord God, pardon my enemies. Thou knowest that I have been falsely accused, and unfairly sentenced. I pray Thee, Thine unspeakable mercy, not to lay it to their charge.

In 1373 Jan Hus was born to a poor peasant family in southern Bohemia from the village of Husinec (from which he received his name “Hus”). His father and mother struggled financially to send their son to the best local schools and eventually, at age thirteen, they sent him away from home to the Elementary School at Prachatice. Although he greatly missed his family he diligently applied himself to his studies and performed well in his examinations. Following his graduation in 1390 Hus enrolled at the University of Prague. In that rarified academic environment he excelled in every subject, distinguishing himself in classical languages, Greek philosophy, and the early Church Fathers. In 1394 he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree and after a few additional years of study he received a Master of Arts degree (1396). Because of his fine academic record he immediately began teaching philosophy at the University in the faculty of arts. But, Hus also had strong religious interests and became an ordained Roman Catholic priest in 1400. After several years of teaching Hus was honored in 1401 by being appointed Dean of the philosophy faculty and in 1402 he became the Rector of the University. Jan Hus had risen far from his lowly beginnings to great heights in his chosen field at the University of Prague—human philosophy. He had every reason to be proud of his accomplishments, but God would soon begin to humble him so that he would become an accomplished preacher of the Word of God.

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John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384)

Unknown to Jan Hus there was a significant event which took place when he was nine years old (in 1382) that would greatly shape his emerging world—the marriage between Princess Ann of Bohemia and King Richard II of England (1367-1400). Traveling with the Princess’s entourage from Bohemia was Professor Faulfash from the University of Prague. While in England the learned professor purchased numerous copies of John Wycliffe’s books and after many years returned with them to Bohemia in 1401. He was greatly stirred by Wycliffe’s writings, agreeing with many of their key tenants. Over time Professor Faulfash began teaching about the abuses and ignorance of the priests in his lectures at the University. He boldly challenged the authority of the priests to represent God at the Mass (i.e. Sacerdotalism), and the power of the priests to give forgiveness to the people (i.e. the absolution of sins). The Czech Roman Catholic priests angrily reacted to these charges by accusing Professor Faulfash of heresy and eventually they appointed a bright young Czech priest and University professor to study his doctrines in order to find their weaknesses—this man was Jan Hus.

Throughout 1401 to 1403 Jan Hus became thoroughly acquainted with Wycliffe’s books during his study of the teachings of Professor Faulfash. As a result, he was forced to turn to the Bible to dispute this heretical propaganda. But, God did not allow Jan Hus to oppose these new found “doctrines of grace,” but instead softened his heart to the gospel bringing Hus to the point of conversion. Aware of his own sin for the very first time, Hus repented and placed his faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross. The Bible took on new importance in his life and he adopted many of the views of John Wycliffe and Professor Faulfash as his own. In his enthusiasm Hus began to preach in various churches about his new-found faith and a popular following arose amongst the common people who in turn thronged to his sermons.

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Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, Czech Republic

Following the completion of his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1402 Hus was providentially appointed Rector and Preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. In his new role as an established preacher Hus began to systematically expound the Word of God teaching the people of Bohemia the great doctrines of the Bible. His fervent sermons became a lightening rod that attracted both enthusiastic approval from the masses and vehement criticism from the offended clergy. He preached with an urgency that contended for the soul of each one of his listeners. As a result, he became the “point man” of the incipient Bohemian reform movement. Specifically, Hus achieved notoriety for preaching the Bible in the common language of the people and for his popular writings against corrupt Church authorities. He stressed the Scriptures over Church canonical law and thus elevated the practice of expounding the Word of God. As a result of his teaching, many other reformers boldly rose up throughout Bohemia.

Jan Hus and the fledgling Bohemian reform movement enjoyed five years of nurture under the benevolent protection of Bohemian Archbishop Zbynek. At this time the clerical leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were preoccupied by a controversial split between three rival Popes (one in Rome, a second in Pisa, and a third in Avignon, France). When Pope Alexander V was finally able to depose all “anti-Popes” at the Council of Pisa in 1409 a renewed interest in cleansing all heresies within Roman Catholicism arose. Unfortunately for Jan Hus, this zeal to purge the Church of errant teachings focused on the doctrines of Wycliffe and anyone who taught them. Archbishop Zbynek had previously supported the reform movement in Bohemia; however when the Pope prohibited any “Wycliffite” preaching in chapels to take place the Archbishop changed his loyalty and sought to remove Hus. The final assault against Hus came in the form of a charge of heresy by the Archbishop. Ultimately, Hus did not bow to his authority and in 1410 was excommunicated. The people of Prague arose in anger supporting Jan Hus and his right to preach the Word of God. Eventually, the entire city was placed under a Papal interdict, forbidding any religious services and burial of the dead in consecrated ground. In 1412 Jan Hus fled Prague in order to lift the Papal interdict and to spare the people any further persecution.

Although Jan Hus was removed from his pulpit, he was not silenced. For two years Hus lived in exile in Southern Bohemia where he wrote several powerful treatises: On the Church, On Simony, Expositions of the Faith—on the Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer. Here is a brief quotation on the subject of heresy and the supremacy of the Bible from Jan Hus’ work On Simony (1413). He cogently argues,

…I affirm that heresy is a stubborn adherence to an error contrary to the Holy Scriptures. I say “adherence to an error,” for without that one could not be a heretic. And since there can be no adherence without consent, no man can hold a heresy without consenting to the error. Hence heresy, equally with every mortal sin, has its nest and basis in the heart, that is, in the hearty will. As the Savior said, it is out of the heart that evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, robbery, false witness, and blasphemy proceed. Thus, no man, not even God, can make anyone a heretic without his consent. Secondly, you perceive that heresy can exist in none but a rational spirit which willfully opposes the truth of the Holy Scriptures. For as every mortal sin is found only in a rational spirit, and every heresy is a mortal sin, hence all heresy exists only in a rational spirit. Furthermore, it is stated that heresy implies a stubborn adherence [to the error], such as when a man refuses, temporarily or permanently, to give up. For when a man, holding an error as truth, recognizes that what he has held for truth is an error, and immediately acknowledges it to be such, he is not a heretic…Why? Because they did not perish in the error, but were willing to forsake it and gladly to accept the truth. Accordingly, every faithful Christian should be so minded as not to hold anything contrary to the Holy Scriptures. (Hus, “On Simony,” in Advocates of Reform, 196-197)

With closely reasoned treatises like this, Hus continued to promote the authority of the Bible and to encourage the reading of Wycliffe’s works. In addition, he preached throughout Bohemia always encouraging the efforts of reform into whatever pulpit he was welcomed.

The long-standing rift between the rival Catholic Popes, however, was not completely solved by the Council of Pisa (1409) and therefore in 1414 Emperor Sigismund called for the meeting of the Council of Constance. Since the followers of Wycliffe, such as Jan Hus and several others, were perceived to be a growing problem within Roman Catholicism this issue was also made an agenda of the council. Hus was summoned by the Emperor Sigismund to defend his views and was given a “certificate of safe-passage” to and from the council. After much hesitation, and at the encouragement of the Bohemian King Wenceslas, Hus began his long journey on foot to Constance on October 11, 1414. All throughout his travels in Germany Hus was hailed by the local populace and reform-minded princes as a great preacher and spiritual reformer. He arrived in Constance on November 3, 1414 and was left alone by the papal authorities for one month. However, once he was put at ease, he was treacherously lured into the papal residence one day where he was quickly arrested and imprisoned inside a Dominican monastery.

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Jan Hus under fierce cross-examination by his accusers

The accusers of Hus filed thirty-nine charges against him based on his most popular work, On the Church. Here is a revealing selection from On the Church that demonstrates the kind of stinging rebuke that aroused the ire of the Roman Catholic clergy. Hus boldly declares,

It is one thing to be of the church, another thing to be in the church. Clearly it does not follow that all living persons who are in the church are of the church. On the contrary, we know that tares grow among the wheat, the raven eats from the same threshing floor as the dove, and the chaff is harvested along with the grain. Some are in the church in name and in reality—such as predestined Catholics obedient to Christ. Some are neither in name nor in reality in the church—such as reprobate pagans. Others are in the church in name only—such as, for example, reprobate hypocrites. Still others are in the church in reality and, although they appear to be in name outside it, are predestined Christians—such as those who are seen to be condemned by the satraps of the Antichrist before the church. (Hus, “On the Church,” Chapter 3, in A Concise History of Christian Thought, 138)

Finally on June 5-6, and 8 (1415) the council heard charges against him. Hus was not allowed to be present to defend himself, nevertheless, the council found him to be a heretic. When Hus finally did appear before the council on July 6th, he refused to recant of the charges against him since they did not truly represent his teachings. While on the judgment seat Hus looked to Emperor Sigismund, who had the power to free him instantly, to see if he would abide by the promise of “safe-passage” that he had given to Hus. But, the Emperor had been deceived into thinking that he was not obliged to keep faith with a “heretic.” Emperor Sigismund quietly spoke the death sentence, “Let him be accursed of God and man eternally.” Whereupon Hus replied, “I am willing to suffer for the truth in the name of Jesus Christ.” A tall paper cap was placed upon his head with figures of the devil upon it and the inscription “A RINGLEADER OF HERETICS” emblazoned across the front. Thus, Jan Hus was declared to be an “obstinate heretic” and “a disciple of Wycliffe.” Consequently, he was deposed from the priesthood and sentenced to death.

Jan Hus Martyrdom

The burning of Jan Hus in Constance, Germany (1415)

When face to face with the executioner Hus spoke these prophetic words, “You are now going to burn a goose (“Hus” signifying “goose” in the Bohemian language), but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil!” Unknown to Jan Hus the great German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) would claim the swan as his own symbol. In the midst of the flames Jan Hus bravely sang Kyrie Eleeson (a Christian prayer, meaning “Lord, have mercy”). The influence of the life of Jan Hus, even in death, was significant. Hus was declared a national hero and became the catalyst of an even greater reform movement in Bohemia. Although Jan Hus died in 1415, the entire Czech nation aligned itself with the efforts of reform until 1620 when they were conquered and were forced to return to Roman Catholicism. To this day both the doctrines John Wycliffe and Jan Hus are considered to be heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Consider this revealing entry in The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Heresies – “Forerunners of Luther, taking their cue from the anarchists, were the Wyclif heresy and that of John Huss. Wyclif, a Yorkshireman, born about 1326, became a well-educated reformer who maintained among other teachings that God is sovereign but man in the state of grace becomes sovereign over the entire universe through God; hence the Papacy lost its power. The Hussites following John Huss who was born in 1369, came forward with a strange collection of teachings such as: the scriptures alone are the source of truth, the papacy is only an institution in which Christ has no part, all superiors of religious orders lose their authority if they fall into sin, and that the Church is made up only of the predestined, and that predestination is infallible. Some of these ideas were to recur later when Luther took up his reform.” (Broderick ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, 261)

The animosity that leaders in the Roman Catholic Church have against both John Wycliffe and Jan Hus has not diminished despite the fact that five hundred years have now passed. As some wise men have noted, “Hatred dies a hard death.”

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The Jan Hus Memorial in Prague, Czech Republic

These somber words, however, were not the end of the story—for God was at work in raising-up other men who would carry forth the truth of the gospel in the years ahead. Merle D’Aubigne summarizes the impact of Jan Hus’ ministry in this way,

John Huss preached in Bohemia a century before Luther preached in Saxony. He seems to have penetrated deeper than his predecessors into the essence of Christian truth. He prayed to Christ for grace to glory only in his cross and in the inestimable humiliation of his sufferings. But his attacks were directed less against the errors of the Romish church than the scandalous lives of the clergy. Yet he was, if we may be allowed he expression, the John-Baptist of the Reformation. The flames of his pile kindled a fire in the Church that would cast a brilliant light into the surrounding darkness, and whose glimmerings were not to be so readily extinguished. (D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, vol. 1, 92)

Thus, Jan Hus became the preeminent catalyst of reform in central Europe during the 15th century. What John Wycliffe initiated in England, Jan Hus carried on in Europe, and Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bullinger, Knox, and many others would carry throughout the entire world.

Resources for Further Study: 

Broderick, Robert C. ed. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Revised Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987.

D’Aubigne, Merle. The History of the Reformation in the 16th Century. Volume 1. Dublin, Ireland: James M’Glashan, 1849; Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2001.

Douglas, J.D. ed. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.

  • “Avignon,” by James Taylor
  • “Bohemian Brethren,” by Peter Toon
  • “Constance, Council of,” by Robert G. Clouse
  • “Czechoslovak Church,” by J. G. C. Norman
  • “Great Schism, The,” by C. T. McIntire
  • “Hus, Jan,” by Matthew Spinka
  • “Luther, Martin,” by Carl S. Meyer
  • “Reformation, The,” by Robert D. Linder
  • “Wycliffe, John,” Robert G. Clouse

Christy-Murray, David. A History of Heresy. London, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Coffin, Charles C. The Story of Liberty. Originally published in 1879. Reprint, Gainesville, FL: Maranatha Publications, 1987.

Douglas, J.D. ed. Who’s Who In Christian History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992.

Dowley, Tim ed., The History of Christianity. Revised Edition. Oxford, Great Britain: Lion Publishers, 1990.

Fox, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.

Houghton, S.M. Sketches from Church History. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980.

Hus, John. “On Simony” in Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus. Edited by Matthew Spinka. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics, no. 16. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1953.

Hus, John. “On the Church” in A Concise History of Christian Thought. Revised Edition. Edited by Tony Lane. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. Volume 1. Revised Edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.

Woodbridge, John D. ed. Great Leaders of the Christian Church. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988.

Wylie, James A. The History of Protestantism. 3 Volumes. Kilkeel, N. Ireland: Mourne Missionary Trust, 1990.

Copyright September, 2017   Dr. Marcus J. Serven, ThM and DMin
Used by Permission.  All Rights Reserved.