John Hus (Jan Husinec) 1369-1415
John Hus (Jan Husinec) 1369-1415
If Wycliffe was the Morning Star of the Reformation, Hus was the Dawn Wind.
Luther, reflecting on his unconverted university days, later wrote:
I found in the library of the convent (of Erfurt) a volume of The Sermons of John Hus. When I read the title I had a great curiosity to know what doctrines that heresiarch had propagated, since a volume like this in a public library had been saved from the fire. On reading 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 skill.1
This article will concentrate on Hus; a further article will cover the ensuing Hussite Wars, the Czech Bible, Jan Comenius, the Moravians, United Brethren and so forth.
I first read a life of Hus as an unbelieving teenager. It was a product of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe, pleading for Hus as a precursor of communism; even in my unbelief it did not satisfy, and I never did read fascist Mussolini’s biography of Hus. Subsequent believing reading of Christian history gave a better view of this lowly protester against the corruption of truth and life in the medieval church.
Over centuries that Roman Church had become a two-party arrangement: the clergy tiers of priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope; then the laity, or ‘not-priests’. Never has the meaning of the word hierarchy (the rule of a priestly class) been better demonstrated. That church claimed sovereignty over and the duty of obedience from the whole of mankind, religious, secular, prince, pauper, living, dying. Yet, our God has His thousands who do not bow the Baalite knee (cf. 1 Kings 19:18); we have looked at the Waldensians (Quarterly Record no. 607, April to June 2014) and Wycliffe (Quarterly Record no. 565, October to December 2003). Jan Hus is the next generation.
John Hus was born in Husinec, south-west Bohemia, and Bohemian was his mother-tongue. The following modern map 2of central Europe shows the Czech Republic with the ancient regions Bohemia and Moravia. Avoiding the need to adjust names to the relevant form of the Holy Roman Empire or the Habsburg Dynasty or the political rearrangements of the twentieth century, ‘Bohemia’ locates us accurately from the fourteenth to the twenty-first centuries.
Slays were settling in the Eastern Alps in the sixth century, and the Great Moravian Empire was in existence particularly in the ninth century. Macedonian missionaries Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity to the region along with the Glagolitic script, adapted from their Greek-derived Cyrillic script. Christianity came into Bohemia from Moravia. Perhaps this sense of an ‘Eastern Church’ origin began the fierce disjunction between the Czech and German languages, especially in matters of religion. It continued long after all eastward-looking had gone from Bohemia, affecting many, including Hus. There is a fascinating coda to this linguistic Greek/Latin/local tension in Bohemia and Moravia: eleventh century attempts to free Bohemia from the imposition of Latin worship brought the response from Rome, it ‘has pleased, and still pleases Almighty God, to direct his worship to be conducted in hidden language...’3Can you believe that?
The Holy Roman Empire came into being at Christmas AD 800, as Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor. The right to give or receive this elevation was at best tenuous. This empire gave the papacy immense leverage in European life, politics and religion at every level for centuries.4
Think of the irony of it. One pope turned a Frankish king into a Roman/German Emperor. By the time of Wycliffe and Hus in the fourteenth century there were two — then three — popes at the same time, a situation triggered by the City of Rome demanding an Italian pope safely at home in Rome rather than Avignon or Pisa. At root both political and nationalistic — compounded by the personal unrighteousness’s of such popes — this Great Schism generated intense rivalry, rioting, confusion, and deadly serious confounding of European affairs.
Nearer the time of Hus, in 1347 there was a king of Bohemia, born Wenceslaus, who became Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1365.5Hus called Charles IV the priests’ Kaiser (caesar)—lover of the clergy and builder of churches. Nevertheless Charles brought to Prague the monk Konrad von Waldhausen, who denounced the profound and open moral evils of that place — not least the avarice of the friars — for ten years.
Milicz of Moravia, a friend of Charles and archdeacon of Prague, gave up all privilege and began to preach simply to the people in the 1360s. His Moravian accents offended the Bohemians of Prague, and hearers were few, but Milicz, anticipating Samuel Rutherford, said that if he could save but one soul, he would be satisfied. In open dependence on the spirit of Christ he found ability to preach five times daily: once in Latin, once in German, then in Bohemian. He travelled to post a notice on the door of St. Peter’s, Rome, announcing that Antichrist was come. He died in an Inquisition prison in 1374, when Jan Hus was about five years old.
Another such was Mathias of Janov, who openly even from childhood declared his love for the Bible. In 1389 he wrote De Regulae Veteris et Novi Testamenti (Principles of the Old and the New Testaments), looking specifically to the Bible, not tradition, for the principles of Christian practice. He addressed the ‘simple people in Christ; challenging the orthodoxy of the day. Specifically Mathias deplored striving for justification by many labours, as if Christ were still dead. He urged more frequent participation of the Lord’s Supper, the only qualification needed being a great simplicity of faith. All of this provoked the clergy to outrage, and he was compelled to read a retraction. He died at Prague in November 1394; Jan Hus was about twenty-five.
Jan Of Husinec —The Goose←⤒🔗
The name Hus is an abbreviation of his birthplace but very similar to the Bohemian word husca meaning ‘goose’: again and again Hus refers to himself as ‘The Goose’. Drawn to the clerical life (for less than worthy reasons), he studied at Prague in the 1380s, the time of Wycliffe’s death in Lutterworth, England. An undistinguished student, he came to ordination as a priest in 1400, desiring the comfortable life, security and status of clergy. John Hus became dean of the philosophical faculty, and then rector.
During these years changes become apparent. Jan of Husinec began to reproach himself of levity, of anger, of an obsession with chess which could lead to blows! Conscience, if not yet heart, was becoming tender.
The same years brought the influence of Wycliffe to bear, through an impressive providential sequence. In 1382 Anne of Bohemia (1366-94), daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and sister of Wenceslaus, married Richard II of England. You must seek elsewhere for her influence in England before her death from the plague in 1394, but an Oxford/Prague University connection developed. Jerome of Prague came to Oxford in 1402, and copied out two of Wycliffe’s treatises. He became an ardent Wycliffe man for the rest of his life, taking his copies and enthusiasm back to Prague. There he firmly declared that without study of Wycliffe, students would never find the true root of knowledge. Hus may well have been first attracted only to the deeply philosophical parts of Wycliffe’s work; he soon learned from the Englishman that the root of true knowledge was the Bible, preferably in the common tongue, testifying of Christ Jesus.
There was a morass of theological, philosophical, and political furore in multi-pope Europe: mud was thrown to stick, and guilt by any slight association with the name Wycliffe was a favourite trap sprung for all unorthodoxy. Three popes, apparently, was not ‘unorthodox’, nor was proud, luxurious immorality amongst the clergy, from the triple papal heads of the church to the least priest; but the slightest appearance of appeal to any other authority than that of ‘Mother Church’ was sure heresy without redress. Hus was very sensitive about his clear dependence on Wycliffe, and towards the end, 1414, he stoutly declared ‘Whatever truth Wycliffe has taught I receive, not because it is the truth of Wycliffe, but because it is the truth of Christ’.6
In 1402 Jan Hus was appointed preacher at the Bethlehem Church in Prague. The chapel had been erected and endowed in 1391 on the condition that its minister should preach every Lord’s Day and festival exclusively in the vernacular (Bohemian) language. The Chapel could hold three thousand hearers. Bethlehem is in Hebrew ‘house-of-bread’, and in Prague it was where the people would be refreshed with the bread of God’s Word preached. Opponents called it an insidious den of Wycliffists.
Hus had prepared for his Bethlehem ministry in a profound study of the Bible, not only the content and teaching but its very nature. He wrote to an English friend,
I must tell you, dear brother, that the people will listen to nothing but the Holy Scriptures, especially the gospel and the epistles ... As a result, Satan hath arisen: for now the tail of Behemoth himself hath been set in motion, and it remains for the Lord Jesus Christ to bruise his head.7
In the pulpit Hus found his place and formed the conviction that preachers count for more than prelates in the church. After the example of Christ and the Apostles he gathered and taught disciples, making use of a nearby hospice, called Nazareth, for their room and board. Preaching godliness, Hus castigated corrupt priests, urging them to preach the gospel and not entertainments, fables, untruths or plain lies. How else would attentive listeners hear enough of the gospel to accept it?
Challenge and question are painfully relevant in twenty-first century Protestantism. But compare Hus’s exhortation to the people of Launy in 1410, ‘...love God with all your heart and put your trust in Him; for He will honour you in His glory for the merits of Jesus Christ and will make you partakers of His kingdom. Amen’.8
As Bohemian interest moved from Wycliffe’s philosophy to his theology, the University Rector issued an order forbidding discussion of such works. This order simply reaffirmed and extended the condemnation by the English synod of 1382 — styled the ‘earthquake synod’ because London coincidentally suffered an earthquake then — of the twenty-four theses taken from Wycliffe’s writings. But the hasty forbidding was hurriedly forgotten. Hussites found reading Wycliffe altogether eye-opening as to the nature of the Bible, the unique foundation of truth and authority.
A Prague ‘Earthquake’←⤒🔗
Several ‘foundation plates’ were grinding together in the Bohemian capital: nationalism, religion, philosophical dispute and political concerns. In people’s lives these categories were not distinct, and yet Hus became a point of focus. He was preaching Christ from the sole authority of the Bible, unintentionally but inescapably challenging every accepted pillar of the medieval European community.
No one could disagree with his denunciation of clergy immorality, but to relate that to the power of Antichrist and a false view of the church, as Hus did, outraged the clergy, who defined themselves as ‘The Church, and alarmed the rulers whose own authority was dependent on the church’. ‘Against this whole ecclesiastical system Huss raised his voice. He declared that the Church consisted of the whole body of the elect; that it is built alone on Christ, who is its sole head’.9
By that time, at the Lord’s Supper Rome withheld the cup from all but priests.10Hus demanded that all should partake of the bread and the wine, the view subsequently embedded in Protestant articles and confessions. Disgruntled Bohemians flocked to Hus’s preaching and looked to him as a leader.
So disturbing was this to all authorities that between 1410 and 1412 Hus was excommunicated four times. In 1412 he agreed, with misgivings, to go into voluntary exile from Prague for the sake of peace in the city. Returning briefly into the city for a farewell sermon, he appealed in the pulpit from the pope to Christ, quoting directly from Wycliffe. Hardly peaceful you may say, but for Hus truth had been declared from the Bible, not only by him, but by Wycliffe before him. How could truth be sacrificed to peace? There is a godly simplicity, a holy naivety in great men of God.
Many dear friends now fell away. Hus wrote of Paletz in 1413,
He was once my closest friend and companion: now he has become my most hateful opponent ... I said to him, and I have not spoken to him since, ‘my friend is Paletz, and my friend is likewise the truth; between these two duty bids me to prefer the truth’.11
Early friction between Paletz and Hus had been over Hus’s opposition to indulgences: shades of Peter Waldo, echoes of Wycliffe, foreshadowing of Luther, all alike committed to the Bible.
Writings and the Bible←⤒🔗
Chasing the Goose away from his pulpit produced golden eggs — he concentrated on writing. ‘The Goose also must needs flap his wings against the wings of Behemoth, and against his tail, which always conceals the abomination of the beast Antichrist’.12He was always a letter writer, honest, winsome, and unmistakably plain, urging the hope of the Second Coming, joy in the Incarnation and the peace of Christ, yet identifying and denouncing the works of Antichrist. Writings begun or finished then were De Ecclesia (The Church) and De Simonis (On Simony),13the Postil — a selection of sermons — and the Expositions of the faith, the Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer. Most of these exist in Czech and Latin, some now in English. The Church gives us,
It is, therefore, plain which faith is the foundation of the church — the faith with which the church is built upon the Rock, Christ Jesus, for it is that by which the church confesses that ‘Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God’. For Peter spoke for all the faithful, when he said: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’.14
On Simony — right on target for a corrupt Papacy — will search any Christian reader to a harrowing depth as to personal, spiritual honesty and integrity.
Although Jan of Husinec had access to manuscript Scriptures in Latin and in German, his most dear work was the revision of a fourteenth-century Bible translation15into Bohemian. As with Luther’s German and Tyndale’s English later, so definitive, consistent and simple was the language of this Hus Bible that when printing began this was the Czech Bible. It was the fifth Bible language in Europe to be printed, and six distinct editions or separate portions were printed before 1500 — a special bibliographic category called incunabula.16
In exile Hus still preached indefatigably and people still streamed to hear him, but his absence from Prague led to alignments forming among his followers. Those who were chiefly concerned about the administration of the Lord’s Supper were the ‘calixtines’17or ‘utraquists’18and tended to be the more peaceful. The more forceful gathered in the town Tabor after Hus’s martyrdom; these became the Taborites, radicals of the ensuing Hussite Wars
The Council of Constance←⤒🔗
The affairs of the popes were now so parlous that a general council, long urged by faithful Roman Catholics, had to be called. It was to be at Constance, on the German shore of the lake. Bohemia’s Hus problems were almost incidental to the main business of resolving the Great Schism. The Council was convened in October 1413, and suggested at one point that the three popes should abdicate and a new one be elected. Jan Hus, now back in Prague, had more than once appealed for a council hearing and was now bidden to attend. By this time he knew the nature of his opponents, and feared for his safety. King Sigismund of Hungary promised him safe conduct, a free and safe trial, and free and safe return to Prague whatever the outcome.
At a pantomime children would be screaming ‘Don’t do it, Goose!’ He went, was waylaid and imprisoned with the Franciscan friars in Constance; there would be a heresy trial and a burning, as Hus well knew. Writing from prison to the Prague University Rector, John of Chlum, he declared
The Lord delivered Jonah from the whale’s belly, Daniel from the lions’ den, the three children from the fiery furnace ... and He can deliver me, if expedient, for the glory of His name and for the preaching of His word. But if a death precious in the Lord’s sight shall fall to me, the Lord’s name be blessed. If I could only see the King once more along with our Bohemian friends, I should be comforted.19
The pathos of the last two sentences touches deeply.20
Hus should now confess his errors, promise never to hold or preach them and retract them publicly. Hus declined, not insolently but firmly. As no errors had been proved from Scripture, how could he confess or retract them? He declared to John of Chlum,
...if I was conscious that I had written or preached aught against the law, gospel, or Mother Church, I would gladly and humbly recant my errors. God is my witness. But I am anxious now as ever that they will show me Scriptures of greater weight and value than those which I have quoted in writing and teaching. If these shall be shown me, I am prepared and willing to recant.21
The Council laboured to obtain recantation. To bring pressure they publicly burned his books and declared a Bohemian associate as heretical for teaching Communion in two kinds. To Prague University Hus wrote,
I, Master John Hus, in chains and in prison, now standing on the shore of this present life and expecting on the morrow a dreadful death ... find no heresy in myself, and accept with all my heart any truth whatsoever that is worthy of belief.22
With a paper cone on his head inscribed ‘heresiarch’ he went to the stake, 6 July 1415. Being dead, his bodily remains, stake and chains were burnt again; the heart being found separately was held on a stick over these last embers. You may well be asking with Luther, ‘Why did they burn him?’ Going to the supposed roots of the Papacy he had shown the fifteenth century edifice as built on another foundation, but for Hus as for his ‘dear Christ’, it was claimed that ‘we have a law, and by our law he ought to die’.23
To his ‘Faithful Bohemians’ Jan Hus wrote,
I am trusting that God will raise up others after me, braver men than there are today, who shall better reveal the wickedness of Antichrist and lay down their lives for the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will grant eternal joy both to you and to me. Amen.24
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