Chapter 2: The Martyrdom of John Huss (1374-1415), by K.P. Thomas
Historical and Political Background
Politically Bohemia was brought still closer to England, when King Richard II married a Bohemian princess in 1382. So, that is where the ideas of Wycliff emigrated. When persecuted in England, coupled with the nationalistic sentiments of Czechs, Wycliff’s revolutionary ideas found an echo in the hearts of the people and took deep root in Bohemia. Moreover the Prague university had been founded in 1348 and has established cultural relations with Paris and Oxford.
On the basis of language and traditions, the people of Bohemia were sharply divided from their German neighbors. The movement which Hus initiated became a Bohemian movement. His first desire was to remove the scandal of the papal schism. King Wenceslas of Bohemia had sought the help of the University of Prague in getting neutrality between the claims of the rival popes at the forthcoming Council of Pisa. (C. Mahony, p. 32.)
He was a Bohemian reformer, born of a peasant family at Husina about 1374. He entered the university of Prague in 1390. His parents were poor. In spite of the humble origin, he was able to attend the university where he had distinction and he became the dean of philosophical faculty in 1401. Hus also came to be known as a popular preacher, especially in the Bethlehem chapel, where he preached against the corrupt life of many of the clergy Though it is clear that he was influenced by the writings of Wycliff, he did not show any interest to become an imitator like Wycliff before him, Luther afterward, he began as a pillar of the Church, gradually moved towards an over heretical position.
Different movements and councils were held at Pisa in 1409, in Constance from 1414 till 1418 and in Basle from 1431 to 1449. During this whole period the questions of dominant authority was the important one.
The one main cause of the first council was the existence of schism.
The second cause was reform movement in Bohemia, from 1400 onwards by John Hus.
Three different movements emerged. The movement inspired by Wycliff in England, Gerard Grant in the Netherlands and by John Hus in Bohemia. The Council of Constance dealt with all three movements.
"Hus’ character was strong on the morals rather than the intellectual sides." (H. Bainton, pp. 58-59.) Like Wycliff he denounced the claim of the papacy to the overlordship of the Church, the worldliness of the clergy, and the sin of simony. Hus declared that Church could not try heresy cases. Hus also emphasized the idea of Wycliff’s doctrine. That dominion belonged only to those who kept God’s laws, emerged at times into the position that dominion belonged only to God’s elect. So, the Husites challenged, like the Lollords, all extra biblical rites, institutions and customs, and they laid special emphasis on the withdrawal of the cup from the laity as non-biblical. Hus became a nationalist leader of the Slav party in the empire.
The university of Paris urged on the French king that Christ had submitted to the authority of his mother and Joseph, and pope. No greater than Christ, might well submit to his mother, the Church. Let cardinals, archbishops, bishops, the heads of the monastic, mendicant and military orders be called, let factors of theology and law from the university and the representatives of the Civil power be summoned, and let such a council and the schism, condemn heretics and reform the Church.
The Council met at Constance on 1 November 1414. It was presided over by an emperor called Sigismund and this meeting became a place for the national interest of Europe. The Council was divided ecclesiastically between reformers and conservatives. The latter wished merely to end the schism. Conservatives taught that the Council had authority superior to the pope, and should carry out reforms, but they feared the doctrines of Wycliff and Hus as much as the Conservatives. The Council achieved the ending of schism, the vindication of the Brethren of the common life, and the condemnation of Hus but it failed to reform the Church. (M. Dearnesty, pp. 232-34.)
After considering the whole question of Hus and heresy, they elected Cardinal odo Colonza as Pope V and Europe received the news of the ending schism with enthusiasm. The Council had hoped to proceed with reform after the election. They had already discussed such matters as the reorganization of the Curia, and the college of cardinals. Papal dispensations and indulgences, the suppression of provision and annates.
The Trial and Death of John Hus
Hus’ triumph earned popularity in Bohemia but also bitter dislike in clerical circles outside his own country, coupled with growing hostility in Germany In spite of demonstrations in Hus’ favor, the archbishop burned a large number of Wycliff’s books in the courtyard of his own place and finally ex-communicated Hus.
The attitude of John Hus to the fathers gathered at Constance was based on a common sense observation. How could they accept the authority of a council called by a pope John XXII who was immediately accused and finally deposed from his throne. When the papacy collapsed to the point that it was no longer possible to discern the legitimate pope, when the bishops and most prestigious abbots took contrary decisions, fidelity to Christ and surrender to the spirit became the only entailing refuge for the preservation of the faith. (Ibid. p. 235.)
A letter from John Hus to two of his friends
"Christianity has remained faithful, without a pope who is only a man, but having Jesus Christ, its head, who guides it perfectly, the heart which gives it life by the life of grace the fountain which waters it with the seven gifts of the Holy spirit, the bosom from which torrents of grace flow, the unfailing and sufficient refuge. It is to him, wretched I am, that I have resort in the firm hope that he will not deprive me of his guidance of the communication of his life and his help. I hope that he will deliver me from my sins and from my wretched present life, and that he will reward me with infinite joy"
John Hus realized that he had fallen into a trap and been condemned in advance. But he refused to compromise when the truth seemed to him to be at stake, and he found the meaning of his struggle in meditating on the passion of Christ.
"I have found great comfort in meditating on the word of the Savior. Blessed are you when men hate you and cast you out from society and torture you and reject your name as evil. For the son of man’s sake rejoice and sing with joy, for your reward will be great in heaven. To rejoice in one’s tribulations is a good, an excellent consolation not so much hard to understand as to realize folly". (Ibid., pp. 135, 237-238.)
He quotes James from the Canonical epistle: "Happy the man who suffers temptation for when he has tried he will receive the crown of life.". "He firmly believed that God will grant him this crown, and grant it to you, most fervent zealots. For the truth, along with all those who love firmly and with perseverance the Lord Jesus Christ who suffered for us and has left us an example so that we may follow in his footsteps. He had to suffer, as he himself said, and he must suffer, so that as his members we may take part in the suffering of the head. For he has said if anyone would follow me, let him forsake himself, take up his cross and follow me. O most merciful Christ, lead us weak as we are, offer you, for unless you lead us we cannot follow you. Give us a courageous spirit, so that it may be ready, and if the flesh is weak, may the grace go before it, accompany it and follow it for without you we can do nothing and above all without you we cannot face cruel death. Give us a bold courage, and upright faith, a firm hope and perfect charity, that we may give our life for you in all patience and all joy."
From the depths of his prison, he drew the lessons of his experience; he made a host of recommendations to his friends to remain faithful to the gospel, and put it into practice in their daily life. (L.W. Spitz, p.34.)
"I ask and expect you to love God, to honor his word to bear it readily and to observe it. I ask you to hold to the Divine truth that I have explained in writing and that I have preached according to the holy scriptures and the discourses of the fathers. I also ask that if anyone has heard me say in private or in my preaching anything contrary to the divine truth, or if I have written anything of this sort, that takes no account of it. I also asked that if anyone has noted any lightness in my words or my actions, he does not imitate that but prays God to pardon me. I ask you to love, praise and honor the priests of good morals, above all those who preach the word of God. I ask you to be benefactors of the poor and to treat them justly. Just servants should be faithful to their masters and their mistresses. I ask masters to lead an honest life and to educate their pupils with diligence. Above all they should love God, and should give themselves over to study For the increase of his glory, the service of the city and their own salvation and not to satisfy their cupidity or their thirst for human glory."
On the eve of his condemnation Hus expressed his determination to his friends for the last time.
Tomorrow at the sixth hour I have to declare: on whether I agree to say that as the articles derived from my writings are false and that I abjure them and proclaim the contrary (2) whether I am prepared to acknowledge that I have preached the articles that are held against me by witnesses. (3) whether I deny them and my reply wilt always be the same, I Jan Hus, servant of Jesus Christ. I hope so. I do not want to declare that any of the articles drawn from my writings are false, for fear of condemning the opinion of the holy doctors, St. Augustine in particular. Secondly I refuse to confess that I have affirmed, preached and accepted the articles which are attributed to me by false witnesses. Finally I do not want to abjure for fear of making myself a perjurer.
In his last letter to his closest companions to whom he makes individual recommendations and asks them to pray to God for him.
I have written this letter in the expectation of my condemnation to death, in prison, in the chains that I suffer. I hope for the divine law.
The last act was played out on 6 July 1415.
The bishop of Laoli gave a sermon heavy with allusions on the pretext of commenting on Paul’s phrase, "may the body of sin be destroyed" (Rom. 6:6) since for the Council, Hus had become the cause and the, visible sign of the misfortunes of the church and its divisions, he had to die as an expiatory victim and to serve as an example to dissuade all the heretics. Another bishop read out the charges. Several times the accused protested vainly and tried to make himself heard. The cardinal of Florence brutally made him keep silent. Hus cried out his innocence: "I beg you, for God’s sake hear me, so that the people around us may not believe that I have professed these errors. Then you may do with me what you will". Unable to explain himself, the condemned man then began to pray publicly. Reciting the litany of accusations went on, regularly interrupted by his protests. When the reading was over, Hus made a short prayer: "Lord Jesus. pardon all my enemies, I pray you of your great mercy you know that they have accused me falsely that they have produced false witnesses and that they have made false articles. Pardon out of your great mercy". Then he was made to undergo the ceremony of public degradation. Having been dressed in his liturgical vestments as though he were about to celebrate the Eucharist, the condemned man had to watch the chalice and the ornaments removed one by one. Then it was the turn of the tonsure which was defaced with scissors. Finally they put on his head a paper crown with three demons on it and the explanation "This man is a heresiarch" (Bruno Chenu, p. 108.)
Hus then left the church dressed like this, passed close to a stake on which his books were burning and praying all the time, went through the crowd to his own stake, which was set up at the gates of the city. While he was being stripped and attached to a post, he continued to pray, "Lord Jesus Christ, it is for the sake of the gospel and the preaching of the word that I undergo with patience and humility their terrifying, ignorant and cruel death." To the two lay officers responsible for asking him to abjure before the fire was lit, Jan Hus replied: "God is my witness that I have never taught nor preached what is attributed to me by the depositors of false witnesses. I am ready to die with joy in the truth of the Gospel, which I have written, taught and preached according to the tradition of the holy doctors."
While the flames were mounting, Hus’ voice rang out a last time. "Christ, son of the living God have mercy on us." (Ibid., p. 109.)
When the pyre was entirely consumed and it was possible to see what remained of Hus’ body suspended by the chain which was attached to his neck, the soldier pulled down the great post collected in a pile. What remained of the bones of their victim, they relit it, having added a new cartful of wood and straw. They seized the skull, broke it with their mattocks and threw it on the fire. One of them held the heart of Jan Hus in the fire at the end of a pointed stick. They even threw his tunic and his other vestments upon it. The incarceration was complete. His friends from Bohemia were not to be allowed to come and gather relics from the place of execution. When only ashes were left, they carefully put them on a cart and dipped them into the Rhine. The will of the Council was that nothing should be left of poor Master Jan of Husiric. (Ibid., pp. 110-111)
It mainly consists of two elements: First regarding the indulgence controversy, secondly his teaching on the church.
Indulgence controversy: In this Hus found that papal agents seemed to sell forgiveness for money -- Hus and his supporter Jerome of Prague publicly preached against indulgences. They questioned the existence of purgatory and protested against church collecting money to spill the Christian blood. Hus called Pope as the money grabber and as an anti-Christ. Many others supported his views. (Lefever, p. 81.)
When Pope heard this, he excommunicated John Hus. This threat continued to John Hus. Finally, on the advice of the king, Hus left Prague and remained in rural seclusion for two years. During these years he wrote his major works; some in Latin and some in Czech, all inspired by Wycliff. His writing cited anticlericalism, he rejected image worship, he condemned priests for taking fees for baptism, confirmation, masses, marriages and for the burials. (Mahony, p. 33.)
The Church: During his retirement period (1412-1414) he wrote De ecclesia (concerning the Church). In this he applied Wycliff’s teaching on the Church to the actual circumstance of the Church in Bohemia. He taught that head of the Church is Christ who is the rock on which the Church is built. Rome by its long history is the principal regional Church, but it is not by any means the whole or even the center of the Church. It is to be esteemed only so long as its Pope and the cardinals follow Christ. If they do not follow Christ then they belong to anti-Christ.
The Pope or priest cannot forgive sins. He can only declare God’s forgiveness and real forgiveness depends partly on the penitence of the sinner and on the true Christian character of the priest. God’s word is the standard of truth and the Pope and cardinals are to be obeyed only insofar as their decisions are in accordance with it. (Durant, pp. 104-5; Lefever, p. 35.)
1. Hus had the national consciousness and the political involvement with the Reformers.
2. The reformation was not from the rich people but from the common people and peasants.
3. Following Hus as an example we may be able to live a faithful life.
4. One of the important teachings was his emphasis on the scripture. All through his time he was known as the "morning star of reformation".
Chenu Bruno, et. al, The Christian Martyrs, pages, 107-118.
O. Mahony Christopher, Church History (Courage -- Institute of Theology and Philosophy, 1974), pp. 32-34.
Bainton, H. The Context of the Reformation, Hutchinson Edward Ltd., in 1968, pages 58-62.
M. Dearnesty, History of the Medieval Church, pages 270-338.
Spitz, L.W, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, 1971, pages 34-35.
Durant Will, The Reformation. New York, Simon, 1959, pages 104-105.
Lefever, H.C., The History of the Reformation, pgs 31, 34, 35.