Beloved Bohemian Preacher The Story of John Huss
“Not the pope but Christ is the Head of the Church! Again I tell you, Jesus Christ is our Head! The pope? He is the Antichrist!” The voice of the preacher thunders through the room, ringing out into every corner, fairly shaking the rafters. His right arm is outstretched and his finger points emphatically towards heaven. There is a breathless pause. Then his voice drops to a near whisper and his hand comes down to rest on the open pulpit Bible. He asks intensely, “Would you deny Christ His rightful place as King over His people, as Bridegroom beside His Bride, and place an ex-pirate in His place? Would you jeopardize your very salvation by turning your back on the Son of God and favouring a son of Satan?” An audible hush, an almost tangible silence comes over the listening congregation as each emphasized word of the preacher falls like a targeted blow into her midst.
The great wooden doors of the Bethlehem Chapel open and streams of people pour out into the sunny streets. The service is over. The eloquent preacher has again given much food for thought and discussion. In groups of three, four, six or ten, the men, women and children walk though the streets of Prague. Some saunter in quiet meditation. Others talk loudly and heatedly, gesturing wildly with their arms.
Inside the vestry the preacher stands with bowed head before the elderly Archbishop. The latter is furious; angry words rain down upon the thirty-five year old priest. “Have you no sense? Have you no humility? Have you no respect for your church leaders? How dare you defy the pope?” Archbishop Sbinko's voice is nearly cracking with fury. “I had high hopes for you when you were appointed to the Bethlehem Chapel, but now, my friend, you have gone too far! Be warned, you cannot continue like this! I wash my hands of you!” He strides out of the room, chest heaving and fists clenched, his bishop's cloak billowing out behind him. The young preacher sighs and moves slowly to the window. Gazing out into the blue sky he whispers, “Lord Jesus, grant me strength!”
Who is the unsettling orator? What is the controversy? The preacher is John Huss. The controversy involves the moral and doctrinal abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. The year is 1404.
John Huss was born in Husinec, Southern Bohemia on July 6, 1369. His parents were poor and his father died when Huss was still young. He was a gifted young man and his mother did all she could to assist him in his dream of becoming a priest. John Huss attended the University of Prague, supporting himself by singing and manual labour. He received both his Bachelor of Arts and Divinity as well as his Master of Arts degree, and began giving lectures at the university. In 1402 he was appointed as priest in the Bethlehem Chapel and a year later Huss was also chosen to be rector at the University of Prague.
The Bethlehem Chapel had been built in 1391 by two wealthy merchants. These men had stipulated that all preaching done within its doors should be done in the Bohemian vernacular, Czech, so that the common people could follow the preaching from God's Word. Latin was the actual-language of the church but most people could not even understand it. Therefore the Bethlehem Chapel attracted great crowds.
John Huss held two prominent positions and he was very popular. He should have been well satisfied and happy but… he wasn't. The more he studied God's Word and the more he searched out the treasures found in it, the more restless he became. Something was missing. God Himself showed him what that was…
The knocker falls heavily on the door of Huss's house in Prague. Sarah, the elderly and faithful maid, slowly descends the wide staircase to open it. Two young men are standing on the steps. They tip their hats and inquire politely whether or not the professor is in. Sarah leads them to his study.
Huss receives the young men kindly. “What is your mission?” he asks. ”We are students from Oxford, sir, and we bring you a message. May we present it with paint and brush?”
It is a strange request. The young scholars want to decorate the large hall in Huss's house. Curious, Huss grants his permission and the two begin joyfully on their work, a work that will open not only the eyes of the Bohemian preacher but many others as well.
The hall is transformed into a panorama of colour. Under the skilful hands of the two artists four large and splendid pictures take shape. They work for many days. Then their painting is complete and Huss is summoned. How will the message be received?
John Huss strides into the room and then stops short in amazement. He is dazzled by the colourful display. Slowly he walks over to the wall in front of him. With his hands on his back the preacher takes in the scene before his eyes. What he sees makes his throat clamp shut. There stands the Man of Sorrows, the crown of thorns pressed onto His head, poor, mocked, smitten and bitterly scorned.
The artists are standing silently behind Huss. He turns to address them and then the opposite picture catches his eye. The pope, with a beautiful triple crown poised regally on his head is clothed in splendid purple and silk. A large retinue of servants gaze adoringly into his lordship's face.
Huss closes his eyes for a brief moment and then makes a quarter turn to face the third wall. He strides toward the painting and takes it in with one sweep of his eyes. Christ, clothed in the plain garments of a preacher, is standing on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. Beside Him he sees Satan, offering God's Son all the kingdoms of the world, if only He will fall down and worship him. In righteous indignation Jesus replies, “Get thee hence, Satan!”
Making a half turn to the opposite wall Huss again sees the pope. The contrast almost makes him dizzy. The pope, in full battle regalia, has his foot on the neck of the kneeling emperor. His haughty face directed straight at Huss, he declares proudly, “All power is given to me.”
Once more Huss's eyes fly over the four walls of the hall. Then, without a word, he marches out of the room, beckoning the two scholars to follow him. The message has hit hard and directly into Huss's heart.
Behind the study door three voices murmur until far into the night. When the moon is high in the sky and the stars twinkle over the city of Prague, the door to Huss's house opens and the two visitors step into the quiet street. Their mission is finished. On their young faces lies a look of joyful satisfaction and awe. Where God works there are certainly blessed fruits!
Huss falls on his knees before a chair. Through the quiet but powerful message of the two artists his eyes have been opened to the awful truth. What a terrible contrast there is between the pompous haughtiness of the pope and the gentle simplicity and humility of Christ! He must speak out against the heresies in the church, and for that he will need strength from Above.
The preacher has learned much from the two Oxford scholars. They have spoken with him about the great English reformer, John Wycliffe, and have left some of his writings behind. They have explained Wycliffe's views and have opened for him the rich treasures of God's Word.
But how did these students from Oxford come to be in Prague? What connection is there between England and Bohemia?
John Wycliffe was not unknown to John Huss nor were his writings something new. Huss had already become somewhat acquainted with the content of his pen at the University of Prague. Wycliffe's ideas were often discussed. England and Bohemia were, for reasons of royalty, in contact with each other.
The two royal houses of England and Bohemia were joined together when the Bohemian Princess Anna married Richard II, King of England, in 1382. The English King protected Wycliffe and his writings were read eagerly at the royal court. In this way Princess Anna also came to respect and love the English reformer.
Due to the friendly relations between England and Bohemia, as well as the royal approval of Wycliffe's ideas, students travelled freely back and forth between the Universities of Oxford and Prague. Through them God sowed the seed of His Word in increasingly larger fields and eventually some took root and began to grow.
God guided the political situation, molded the hearts and minds of men and women, and used richly motivated students to open the eyes of John Huss and the Bohemian people.
From then on the walls of the Bethlehem Chapel quivered under the fierce but sincere attacks on the corruption of the Roman Catholic church. The crowds which had been attracted to the preaching of John Huss now increased. Even Queen Sophia, fascinated by the preacher's eloquence and sincerity, became a frequent member of the audience. Huss spared no one in his admonitions – not the people, not the monks, not the clergy, not royalty, and not the pope. He pointed everyone back to God's Word and His laws and precepts.
The people accepted his sermons. Huss became the best-loved preacher in Prague. Was it any wonder that they especially enjoyed the direct attacks on the papacy? Most of them had lost all respect for papal authority for at the moment there were three popes who all condemned each other in the name of Jesus Christ. One of them, John XXIII, was even an ex-pirate.
But there are always those who resist God's Word. Many of Huss's fellow professors were against him. Also his former supporter Archbishop Sbinko denounced Huss when he began ridiculing the papacy. Bohemia was stirred up.
Huss continued preaching but … would it go unpunished?
Large orange flames light up the night sky. The fire crackles and hisses as it feeds on its abundant supply of food, namely a heaping pile of paper. An excited crowd of bystanders watches the pages light up, twist and curl, and dissolve into ashes. Loud laughing and mocking shouts echo in the night air. “Our archbishop burns books and doesn't even know what's in them!”
A child, shiveringly fascinated by the mass of flames, tugs on his grandfather's sleeve, “What are the doing? Why are they burning so many books, grandpapa?”
The old man squeezes the little boy's hand. His eyes glow in the flickering firelight as he replies, “Our archbishop hates John Huss. Now he is trying to shame him publicly. There in the fire you see two hundred books by the man John Huss admires very much, the great English reformer, John Wycliffe.” In a whisper he continues, “The archbishop is a foolish man. He cannot read so he doesn't even know what is in the books! Besides that our preacher John Huss is such a popular man, you will see that this will only make the people defend and follow him more! Fire cannot destroy the truth! You may not understand it all, my boy, but keep your eyes and ears open and remember all this when you are older.”
Not long after the burning, disturbing news travels quickly among Huss's followers, “Huss has written the pope. With his fiery pen he has let the pope hear in no uncertain terms that he disapproves of the pope's indulgence selling! Perhaps he is being too bold; this will surely get him into trouble!”
Pope John XXIII is at loggerheads with the King of Naples because the latter favours Gregory XII over himself. Now he is selling indulgences to all who will help him against the King of Naples. Huss, formerly a believer in indulgences, now denounces it as a shameful, anti-Biblical practice. Very soon the pope sends him an answer…
All the bells in Prague are to be silenced. Worship services are to be cancelled, no marriages may be solemnized, baptism may not be administered and Lord's Supper may not be celebrated. The pope places Prague under the interdict. Now Huss will be squelched!
But the pope has not counted with the popularity of the Bohemian preacher. King Wenceslaus is Huss's defender and he orders that the interdict be ignored. Still, things cannot stay as they are. The good king feels that he cannot continue to protect Huss as he has done and Huss is reluctant to place Prague in further difficulties, so in 1412 Huss leaves his beloved city.
In the quietness of a tower room at Kozie Hradek, a castle in Hussinec, Huss continues to labour for his Master. He translates the Bible into the vernacular and starts his greatest work, On the Church. His voice cannot be silenced. Huss continues to preach. The Roman clergy becomes increasingly outraged with the fearless preacher but so far they cannot hurt him. Huss is the much-loved leader of the Bohemian people.
Huss did not agree with Wycliffe in everything and his reformation was by no means a complete one. Huss still acknowledged transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. He also believed in purgatory and good works. However, Huss did say that the communion cup should not be withheld from the laity. His main reformation efforts concerned the papal domination and moral corruption of the church. God was certainly using His servant to begin guiding the Bohemian people back onto the right path.
But Rome made every effort to stifle God's Word and silence the warning voice. How long would it be before they were successful?
It is a hot and humid day in June 1414. The leaves of the trees hang listless and still and the sky is a heavy, hazy blue. The water in the moat around the castle is murky and warm. Then the lazy quietness is broken by a commanding knock on the castle door. A regally dressed, important-looking man is standing on the steps, waiting impatiently to be received. When the door is opened and a servant has summoned the person with whom the man wishes to speak, he barks out his message: “His Royal Highness Emperor Sigismund greets the preacher John Huss. It is his earnest wish that you, O preacher, appear at the Council of Constance to defend yourself and clear yourself of all blame which has been placed upon you. The emperor promises you, upon his word of honour, a safe-conduct; no harm will befall you. This is not a command, it is a request.”
Fear grips the hearts of Huss's friends. Surely Huss will walk directly into a trap if he goes. “Don't go,” they plead. “If you do you will not return.”
Huss's reply is a quiet and gentle one. “My name is Huss, which means 'goose.' The goose is a weak animal. It cannot fly very high. But when the goose is no longer able to fly, there will be other birds which can take their flight to the sun. Do you think God cannot raise up an eagle for Himself?” Having prayerfully considered the summons, Huss decides to go. Will it not be marvellous if, in this way, he can convince the clergy of the error of her ways and guide her back to God's Word?
Two black carriages slowly pull away from the curb. Huss, his friend John of Chlum and two others start the trek to Constance. A large crowd of people lines the street to wave them off but the mood is solemn and tearful. An old shoemaker stretches out his gnarled hands to Huss and says in a trembling voice, “God go with you. I cannot believe that you will return unharmed. The King above, not Sigismund, give you everything good for the blessings we have received through you.” He says what is in the hearts of many. Gradually the carriages disappear from view and the Bohemian people return to their homes. With heavy hearts their thoughts and prayers follow their beloved preacher to Constance.
Had Emperor Sigismund called together a Council only for John Huss? Certainly he wanted the disturbances in Bohemia to be discussed. The king of Bohemia was Sigismund's brother and when
he died, Sigismund would inherit his land. Therefore he was concerned that all the troubles be brought to a good conclusion. But that was not the only reason.
Emperor Sigismund was sick and tired of the confusion and division in the church. The Great Schism had to be healed. The three popes had to be forced to come to an agreement or another would have to be appointed in their place. Wycliffe's doctrines were also to be tabled and discussed.
The city of Constance became a busy, bustling place. Every day crowds of people passed through its gates, coming from North, South, East and West. There was hardly room to house them all so long rows of barracks were built where thousands of guests could sleep. Arriving for the Council were 29 cardinals, 3 patriarchs, 33 archbishops, 150 bishops, 300 abbots, thousands of servants, as well as princes, nobles and knights with their subordinates, and numerous interested citizens. More than 70,000 people went to Constance to attend the Council. In the midst of the hubbub two simple carriages from Bohemia arrived, bearing the preacher John Huss and his friends…
The waters of the Rhine are fresh and blue. Little waves ripple over its surface. The sky above is clear and sunny. Breaking the even blue of water and sky is an island, rich and luscious with green vegetation. Rising from the middle of the island is a stately Dominican monastery.
Inside the monastery, at the end of a long maze of passages, rooms and steps is a heavy iron-covered door. The room behind the door is dark, cold and musty. There is a filthy, rotting smell. Rats scurry over the wet, earthen floor. Something is lying in the corner of the room, on a small heap of moist straw. It is a man.
The man's face has a deathly pallor. His frame is like that of a skeleton, so thin. The hair of his head and beard is scraggly and dull and his eyes are hollow, sunk deep into his skull.
Who is the poor wretch? He is a simple preacher from Bohemia. His name is … John Huss. Yes, John Huss is in prison.
On November 28, even before Emperor Sigismund arrived in Constance, and before Huss had an opportunity to defend himself, he was captured and thrown in prison. What had happened to the emperor's promise of safe-conduct?
Emperor Sigismund had ranted and raved when he made his appearance in Constance and heard of John Huss's arrest, but that was all. He was told, “One does not have to keep a promise made to a heretic” and so… Emperor Sigismund did nothing about it! Lugismund – lying mouth!
Huss becomes very ill but he bears everything patiently. His friends weep when they receive a letter from their beloved pastor, bearing the message, “This is my deserved punishment for all my sins but also a sign of God's love for me. For now I learn to comprehend the psalmist, to pray as I ought and to understand how much Christ and the martyrs suffered.”
Huss's captors do not want their prey to die. Huss must recant, then they will emerge as victors. Therefore he is transferred to a better room in another prison and given somewhat more proper care. Almost daily, however, the preacher is tormented by malicious visitors who try in every conceivable way to get Huss to take back all he has preached against the church. Pale and weak-kneed Huss stands before his accusers but he does not waver. Only after his tormentors leave does God's servant totter, tremble and weep as he falls before the Throne of Mercy, seeking strength and comfort.
On June 5, 1415, heavy boots sound, hollow and loud, through the prison corridor. Large keys jangle and bars clank as the door to Huss's cell is opened. Six rough, fully-armed soldiers enter, crowding the tiny room. “You are to appear before the Council,” one barks at the surprised man in the cell.
Hope dawns in Huss's eyes as he is led out of the prison. When he comes into the bright sunshine the light dazzles the sickly, fragile man so much that the soldiers have to support him. He can hardly walk on his own.
There Huss stands in front of the Council, alone, against thousands of men who are ready to judge him even before he opens his mouth. Alone? No, not quite, for Huss knows himself supported by thousands of angels and comforted by God's presence.
“Do you recant?” The question is hurled at the preacher. When Huss tries to speak a hand is slapped over his mouth. “Simply answer yes or no!!”
“I cannot…,” Huss begins to say.
The Council erupts into shouts, cries and whistles of hatred and rage. It is a despicable tumult. John Huss cannot make one word understood. Finally he cries out, “I had supposed it would be more dignified at a Council!” Hands lay hold of him and drag him out of the room. A bishop spits at his feet as Huss passes him. Are these the leaders of the people?
The next three days Huss is brought again and again before the Council. A piece of paper is presented to him. On it are listed thirty accusations. “You have despised the Holy Supper, encouraged rebellion and revolution, claimed to be the fourth person of the Trinity…” A large percentage of them are completely twisted and false. Huss can hardly stand as he faces the men of the Council and the paper trembles in his thin hand, but his voice is firm, “Reverend fathers! I cannot take back what I have never said! That would be a lie. God and my conscience are my witnesses!” Amid mocking cries Huss is led away.
By the door a hand reaches out to touch Huss's arm. It is his friend John of Chlum. His eyes are filled with tears and in a voice heavy with emotion he says, “Be comforted, beloved pastor! People fail and leave you but the Lord has already taken you to Himself!”
When will Huss be sentenced? The emperor must pronounce the verdict for the church may not blemish itself by condemning anyone to death. That is the duty of the state. Hypocrites!
Huss and his friends wait. Each day when the prisoner hears footsteps outside his cell his heart beats faster and his palms become wet. Will the decision fall today? Huss is not afraid but still, life is precious. There is so much work to do! However, each day passes without a word from the emperor.
Then, on July 5, footsteps stop by his cell door. The hinges creak and the bars rattle as the heavy iron door is pushed open. Freedom or verdict? – Neither, only the message, “You must appear before the Council.”
“Recant!” Huss is told. He cannot. He may not. He will not.
Grinding their teeth in fury the men of the Council demand that Huss be removed from before their eyes. Back in his prison cell, Huss hears the verdict. The emperor commands: burn him at the stake. Tomorrow!
Huss kneels before his God and Father. What must he pray? He cannot find any words. God's servant stammers, “Lord, take Thou the words of my heart and place them in my mouth. I do not know how to pray as I ought!” After this stumbling start the words pour forth and Huss empties his soul before God. For many hours he kneels on the cold, damp floor seeking strength and comfort from Above, imploring God's nearness to all those he will leave behind, and seeking a blessing over the work he has done.
The first sunshine rays steal into the prison cell as a new day dawns, July 6, 1415. The forty-two year old preacher stands and gazes out at the small patch of sky he can see through the little window. With a break in his voice he cries out, “Salve dies natalis! – Greetings, O day of my birth!” His lips tremble as he adds passionately, “O mother, if you had known how the one, whose birth you awaited with such joy, would depart from this earth, your heart would have broken! But I thank Thee, my God and Saviour, that I, since Thou has found me worthy to suffer for Thy sake, may know that I will enter into Thy eternal Light. Help me to die as a true Christian.”
Again footsteps are heard outside the cell. Huss is brought once more before the Council. Still he is not permitted to defend himself. Each time he attempts to speak out against the accusations that are flung at him, the members of the Council begin shouting insults. Finally Huss cries out angrily, “For God's sake let me speak! I did not even have to come here but I came of my own free will, trusting in the safe-conduct of the emperor!”
A deep red colour slowly spreads over Emperor Sigismund's face. He lowers his eyes in shame before Huss's steady and reproachful eyes. Lugismund!
The final moments have arrived. Malicious hands lay hold of Huss. The cloak of a priest is draped over his shoulders and the communion cup is pressed into his hand. Then, amidst mocks and taunts his garments are torn from his body and the cup is taken away. “O accursed Judas, we take this cup of salvation from you!”
Huss replies calmly and worthily, “I trust in God that He will not remove it from me. I will drink the cup new with Him today in His kingdom!”
A large procession goes through the streets of Constance. In its midst a man stumbles along. On his head is a cone-shaped paper hat bearing the words “Here is the Heresiarch” as well as two painted black devils.
The day is warm, bright and sunny. All the trees and flowers are in rich, full bloom. The birds sing their merry songs and the insects buzz about. John Huss takes it all in – will heaven be more glorious than all of this? His eyes hold an almost holy light as he stands by while his books are being burned in the main square.
Then he is led to a woodpile with a pole in its middle. Now a convulsive shiver takes hold of his body. Must he really part with all he holds dear on this earth? Falling on his knees he prays aloud the words of Psalms 31 and 51. Huss does not forget his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
Huss is tied with wet ropes to the pole. Straw is piled by his feet for faster burning. A horse comes galloping up. Its rider calls out, “For the last time, do you recant?”
“I am prepared to die for the Gospel!” comes the steady answer.
The fire is lit. Hungry flames lick at the straw and creep up to the ropes. Smoke begins to drift over the watching crowd. A hush falls over the audience. From within the now dense smoke a voice cries out, “Jesus, Thou Son of the Living God, born of a virgin, have mercy on me!” Three times the cry tears through the silence. Then Huss is relieved from his earthly suffering and his soul is carried by angels to heaven. The Bohemian preacher, John Huss, joins the ranks of witnesses who sing their hallelujahs before the Throne of the Lamb. Huss's ashes are gathered up and scattered on the Rhine. The Council is victorious – or is it? No, God is the Victor, for John Huss is in heaven and his work will continue to bear fruit with God's blessing. The members of the Council will forever be held accountable for the death of one of God's servants.
The great voice of the Bethlehem Chapel was silenced. But the spirit of reform lived on. Bohemia did not sit still after the death of her beloved preacher. She took to arms. In the church, other voices took up Huss's cry and his message continued to live in the hearts of the Bohemian people.
God prepared the way for a greater reformation. Does not His hand guide all things according to His purpose? He continues, through all ages, to preserve His church and gather to Himself His own.