(This Perspective is the second in a short series of mini-biographies on several key leaders in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a tremendously significant period in history when God graciously brought about the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.)
John Hus, like John Wycliffe, ministered and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation officially got underway. Wycliffe and Hus were the two most prominent and influential individuals in paving the way for the Reformation that followed their lifetimes. Hus (also commonly spelled Huss) helped lay the foundation for the Reformation through his courageous proclamation of the truth, even when doing so cost him his life.
John Hus was born around 1372 of poor parents in Bohemia (part of modern Czech Republic). He was educated at the University of Prague, where he earned the Bachelor of Arts degree (1393), the Master of Arts (1396) and the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, 1404). He was ordained in 1400 and two years later was appointed as rector and preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. That chapel had been founded a decade earlier as a center for reform preaching. So Hus was placed in a key position within the reform movement taking place in Bohemia at that time.
Since the marriage of England’s King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382, there had been close ties between their two countries. John Wycliffe’s earlier philosophical writings and his later, more-radical theological works made their way from England to the University of Prague, where they were discussed and debated. Hus, like most Bohemian reformers, rejected Wycliffe’s attacks on transubstantiation, but he readily agreed with his strong disapproval of clerical corruption. Hus especially opposed simony – the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, such as pardons from sin or benefices (appointments to salaried positions within the church). Hus also accepted Wycliffe’s teaching on the Church that opened the door (1) to rejecting the authority of sinful church leaders and (2) to appealing to the authority of Scripture over that of the institutional church.
In 1409 Hus was selected to be the rector of the University of Prague. But the Archbishop of Prague, who opposed some of Hus’s views and wished to silence him, obtained from the pope a ban on preaching in chapels, including the Bethlehem Chapel. Hus refused to obey, so was excommunicated by the archbishop in 1410. When the archbishop burned 200 volumes of Wycliffe’s works that same year, Hus and others defended Wycliffe’s orthodoxy.
Two years later Pope John XXII launched a crusade against the king of Naples and offered full remission of sins to all who supported him. Hus attacked the pope’s selling of indulgences. As a result, Hus was excommunicated by Rome, and the city of Prague was placed under an interdict so long as Hus remained there. No religious services, including baptisms and funerals, could take place while he was still in the city. Under those circumstances, Hus felt compelled to leave Prague. He moved to southern Bohemia, where he wrote two of his most important works on The Church and Simony.
In 1414 the Council of Constance met in Germany to seek to heal some of the long-standing divisions within the Roman Catholic Church. Emperor Sigismund of Germany invited Hus to participate and promised him safe conduct to and from the council, even if some tried to bring a case against him. With considerable hesitation Hus decided to attend, but he was arrested and imprisoned in Constance. The council put him on trial and convicted him of heresy, though many of the charges brought against him were untrue. (This was the same council that condemned Wycliffe, posthumously, of having been a heretic.)
Hus was repeatedly invited to recant of his supposed heresies and thus avoid execution by burning at the stake. He steadfastly responded that he was willing to yield himself to the teaching of the church when instructed by Scripture in what way his teaching was wrong.
During his eight-month imprisonment in Constance, Hus prayed: “O most holy Christ, draw me, weak as I am, after Thyself. For if Thou dost not draw us, we cannot follow Thee. Strengthen my spirit, that it may be willing. If the flesh is weak, let Thy grace precede us; come between and follow, for without Thee we cannot go for Thy sake to cruel death. Give me a fearless heart, a right faith, a firm hope, a perfect love, that for Thy sake I may lay down my life with patience and joy. Amen.”
On the day of his execution – July 6, 1415 – Hus was taken to the cathedral at Constance, where he was dressed in, then stripped of, his priestly garments. His head was shaved, and a paper crown decorated with images of demons was placed upon it. While being led to the stake, Hus passed through a churchyard and saw copies of his books being burned. He laughed and told the bystanders not to believe the lies being circulated about him.
At the place of execution, as they tied him to the stake, Hus prayed aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, it is for Thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray Thee to have mercy on my enemies.” When given one final opportunity to recant, Hus responded: “God is my witness that the evidence against me is false. I have never thought nor preached except with the one intention of winning men, if possible, from their sins. In the truth of the Gospel I have written, taught, and preached. Today I will gladly die.” He was heard quoting from the Psalms until the flames, rising up around him, extinguished his earthly life. Afterwards his executioners gathered his ashes and threw them into the nearby lake.
Nearly all Bohemians were indignant and repudiated the Council of Constance for this travesty in condemning and executing Hus. Several different groups, including members of the nobility, bourgeoisie and lower class, came together in their continued demands for reform in the church. On several occasions during the next fifteen or so years, Bohemian forces successfully repelled a number of crusades that the pope brought against the Hussites. Many Bohemians left the Catholic Church and eventually formed the Unitas Fratrum (“Union of Brethren”). For a time their numbers grew rapidly in Bohemia and nearby Moravia. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, remnant groups of the Unitas Fratrum established ties with both Lutherans and Calvinists.
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Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp.348-53; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp.248-51; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp.183-86.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie