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    Jan Hus, Reformer and Martyr

    Herald of the Reformation

    By Charles E. Moore

    July 7, 2021
    5 Comments
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    • Robert

      Indulgences – documents assuring forgiveness of sins swapped for cash. Man, is it still possible that people belive this is a definiton of indulgence.

    • MICHAEL NACRELLI

      I believe it was only as late as Vatican II that Rome rescinded the prohibition on reading the Bible in a language other than Latin without permission from a bishop.

    • Coretta Thomson

      Since several have inquired, yes, there was a Pope John XXIII in the fifteenth century and one in the twentieth century. The first is now considered an antipope.

    Jan Hus was born in 1370 to a poor family of peasants. Hus took his surname from the village of his birth: Husinec, in southern Bohemia (today a region of the Czech Republic). The word hus means “goose” in Czech, and in his later life Hus frequently used his name as a pun in his writings.

    Although little is known of Hus’s parents, his mother taught him to pray as a child, and encouraged him toward the priesthood as he grew. This career path appealed to young Jan, not because he had much interest in the life of a spiritual leader, but to fulfill baser cravings – a priestly position meant significant wealth and prestige.

    Though Hus’s spiritual zeal quickly grew after he enrolled in the University of Prague, his selfish original motives were not unusual. Hus was born into a time of great unrest and complex political struggles within the Catholic Church, many of which centered upon the priesthood.

    Jan Hus

    Jan Hus Image public domain. Colorized.

    The clergy of the day were known for immorality and corruption, accepting bribes, taking lovers in violation of their vows to celibacy, and practicing simony – the buying and selling of ecclesiastical positions. By way of example, in 1402 (the same year Hus was appointed preacher in the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague), a man named Zbyněk Zajíc purchased the archbishopric of the area for the considerable sum of 4,280 gulden, which paid off the debts of his two predecessors. Zbyněk was an ex-soldier, only twenty-five years old and lacking theological training of any kind. Though he originally got along with Hus, their congenial relationship was short-lived.

    While at the University of Prague, Hus was influenced by the work of John Wycliffe, who had fought against the abuses of the Roman Catholic clergy in England. Wycliffe had said, “In a word, the papal institution is full of poison, antichrist himself, the man of sin, the leader of the army of the devil, a limb of Lucifer, the head vicar of the fiend, a simple idiot who might be a damned devil in hell, and a more horrible idol than a painted log.” Hus couldn’t have said it better himself. “Wycliffe, Wycliffe,” once wrote an admiring Hus in a book’s margins, “you will turn many heads.”

    The church owned about half of all the land in Bohemia, and the peasantry resented the heavy land taxes the clergy imposed. The people called for reform. Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where Hus preached, became the heart of this movement in Bohemia. Following Wycliffe’s lead, Hus began to speak out against clerical abuses with language nearly as strong as his hero’s. “They are drunks,” he said of the priests, “whose bellies growl with great drinking and are gluttons whose stomachs are overfilled until their double chins hang down.” He called them “fornicators,” “parasites,” “money misers,” and “fat swine.” “These priests,” he said, “deserve to hang in hell.”

    He even speculated as to what Christ might say about the immorality of the clergy: “Everyone who passes by, pause and consider if there has been any sorrow like mine,” Hus wrote in the voice of Jesus. “Clothed in these rags I weep while my priests go about in scarlet. I suffer great agony in a sweat of blood while they take delight in luxurious bathing. All through the night I am mocked and spat upon while they enjoy feasting and drunkenness. I groan upon the cross as they repose upon the softest beds.”

    For Archbishop Zbyněk, these accusations hit too close to home. Zbyněk grew increasingly suspicious of Hus. The two men became rivals.

    At the time there were two competing popes, one based in Rome and the other in Avignon, France. Catholic nations were divided over which pope to follow. When the Council of Pisa was called in 1409 to settle the matter and reform the church, Hus was elated. Archbishop Zbyněk opposed the council, but Hus had King Václav IV of Bohemia (known as King Wenceslaus) on his side.

    The Council of Pisa voted to depose both the Roman pope, Gregory XII, and his rival, Benedict XIII. In their place, the council elected Alexander V. But neither of the former popes submitted to the ruling of the council, and two popes grew to three. Hus, believing Alexander V represented reform and progress, chose to acknowledge the new pope as legitimate. King Wenceslaus followed Hus’s lead in supporting Alexander V, forcing Archbishop Zbyněk to do the same to stay in step with the king.

    While Zbyněk was ignorant on spiritual matters, he was still a cunning politician, and one with few scruples. He begged Alexander V to support his work prosecuting heresy, and sent the new pope a large bribe to ensure his support. After this, Alexander V issued a bull prohibiting free preaching in private chapels. Thus, the archbishop had the pope’s permission to censor Bethlehem Chapel.

    But Jan Hus refused to obey the pope’s orders. He continued his preaching and ministry in Bethlehem Chapel. Outraged, Zbyněk decided to destroy the chapel altogether. Hus described the attack: “Clad in armor, with crossbows, halberds, and swords, they attacked Bethlehem while I was preaching … wishing to pull it down, having conspired among themselves.” But Hus had more than two thousand incensed worshipers on his side. Zbyněk’s plan failed. King Wenceslaus, valuing Zbyněk’s support, took no side in the matter.

    Undeterred, Archbishop Zbyněk gathered more than two hundred copies of John Wycliffe’s writings, brought them to the palace courtyard, and burned them to ashes. Hus condemned the archbishop’s actions, saying, “I call it a poor business. Such bonfires never yet removed a single sin from the hearts of men. Fire does not consume truth. It is always the mark of a little mind that it vents its anger on inanimate objects. The books which have been burned are a loss to the whole people.”

    In light of such demonstrations of the church’s petty fury, the Bohemian people rioted, ridiculing Zbyněk on posters and in song, chanting: “Bishop Zbyněk, ABCD, burned books not knowing what was written in them!” The archbishop fled to his castle in Roudnice, and from its safety summarily excommunicated Hus – a severe punishment in a day when the church held huge influence in public life.

    Still, Hus refused to stop preaching. He had the support of the people. But Zbyněk had the support of the pope. Persuaded by generous gifts from the archbishop, Alexander V issued another notice of excommunication. Hus ignored this one, too. But Zbyněk, emboldened by the pope’s support, took the fight a step too far. He excommunicated royal officials in Prague, and in so doing incited the wrath of King Wenceslaus, who had stayed out of the conflict until this point.

    When Hus was summoned to appear in Bologna as part of papal investigations into heresies, Wenceslaus replied, “If anyone wants to accuse Hus of any charges, let them do it here in our kingdom. … It does not seem right to give up this useful preacher to the discrimination of his enemies.” Zbyněk hit back, pronouncing an interdict against the city of Prague, suspending all church activities – including marrying, burying, blessing, preaching, and administering communion.

    With the support of his magistrates, King Wenceslaus demanded that Archbishop Zbyněk relent and cease all action against Jan Hus. The king obtained a writ from Pope John XXIII (who replaced Alexander V after his sudden death) terminating action against Hus. The king ordered Archbishop Zbyněk to make a public declaration clearing Hus of all heresy. But before the archbishop could follow orders, he died. According to old Czech annals, Zbyněk was poisoned by his cook – possibly a supporter of church reform.

    With the archbishop’s passing, it appeared Hus would be free from persecution. But then something happened that forced him to once again speak out against the church and the magistrate. In 1411 troops backing rival pope Gregory XII seized control of Rome. To pay for a counteroffensive, Pope John XXIII authorized the sale of indulgences – documents assuring forgiveness of sins swapped for cash by the clergy. King Wenceslaus, as Pope John XXIII’s supporter, shared in the proceeds.

    Indulgences were seen by the people of Bohemia as yet another corruption of the money-grubbing clergy. Although he could have remained silent, Hus’s conscience would not let him. He led the outcry against the sale of indulgences, calling for a boycott. He said he would not be persuaded to support indulgences, “even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me.”

    This brave action lost him the support of his greatest ally and protector, King Wenceslaus. Furious that he might lose the lucrative revenue stream generated by the sale of indulgences, the king said, “Hus, you are always making trouble for me. If those whose concern it is will not take care of you, I myself will burn you.”

    Hus remained defiant even in the face of the king’s wrath, saying, “Shall I keep silent? God forbid! Woe is me, if I keep silent. It is better for me to die than not to oppose such wickedness, which would make me a participant in their guilt and hell.” Hus was excommunicated a fourth time, and the city of Prague was, once again, placed under interdict. This time King Wenceslaus did nothing to stop it. Fearing for the city, Hus left Prague for the countryside. He never ceased to preach or write.

    In 1414, three men were still calling themselves pope, and there was no reconciliation in view. Sigismund, the king of Hungary and half-brother of King Wenceslaus, arranged for a new council to end the papal schism and eradicate heresy from the Western church. Sigismund invited as many magistrates and clergymen as he could. When all had arrived in the city of Constance, Germany, they formed the largest church council since the Council of Nicea in 325.

    Jan Hus was among those invited. Sigismund personally promised Hus safe conduct. Despite the warnings of his friends, Hus believed him. When he arrived in Constance, he sent his friends a letter joking, “The goose is not yet cooked and is not afraid of being cooked.” But a few weeks later, his enemies, hearing a rumor that Hus planned to flee the city, imprisoned him in the dungeon of a Dominican monastery. King Sigismund was furious that his promise of safe conduct had been breached, but the prelates who had imprisoned Hus convinced him that he was not bound to honor promises made to a heretic.

    Pope John XXIII established a committee of three bishops to investigate the accusations against Hus. The pastor was not allowed an advocate for his defense. Things were bad, but soon his situation worsened considerably. The Council of Constance voted to force Pope John XXIII and the other two popes to abdicate their positions. They said, “If anyone … including also the pope, shall refuse to obey the commands, statutes, and ordinances of this holy council … he shall be subject to proper punishment.” Pope John XXIII fled the city disguised as a laborer, and Hus was given over to King Sigismund.

    The king now revealed his true beliefs about the “goose” from Bohemia. “I was but a boy,” he said, “when this sect began and spread in Bohemia, and now look how strong it has already become.” Hus, chained at all times and poorly fed, became severely ill. Finally King Sigismund said, “There is enough evidence to condemn him. If he will not recant his errors, let him be burned.” Though hundreds of Czech nobles signed petitions to free Hus at the Council of Constance, King Wenceslaus said nothing in his defense.

    Hus suffered through a number of public trials, where excerpts from his writings were read and witnesses were called to speak against him. He was commanded to recant his heretical beliefs. Hus only replied that he would do so if his errors could be proved from scripture. He denied defending Wycliffe’s more radical conclusions, but said that he could only wish his “soul might sometime attain unto that place where Wycliffe’s is.” At his final trial on June 8, 1415, thirty-nine sentences were read to him, all taken from his writing. Again, Hus said he would recant if they could prove his error from scripture.

    But Hus’s fate was already sealed. Any attempt he made to argue his case was drowned out by shouts from the attending clergy. One old Polish bishop cried out that the law was clear on how to deal with heretics. “Do not permit him to recant,” another priest shouted. “Even if he does recant, he will not keep to it.”

    On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was condemned to death before the council. He said to a friend that he preferred to be burned publicly than killed in private “in order that all Christendom might know what I said in the end.” While Hus’s books were condemned to be burned, Hus fell to his knees and prayed aloud for God to forgive his accusers.

    He was dressed in his priestly vestments, but only as a mocking symbol – each piece was torn from him. As different bishops removed his stole, chasuble, and other vestments, they said, “O cursed Judas … we take from you the cup of redemption.” They concluded by saying, “We commit your soul to the devil.” A tall, paper miter such as a bishop would wear was placed on his head, bearing the image of three demons and the words, “The leader of a heretical movement.” Guards ushered him away to the stake. A crowd of people followed.

    At the stake, the executioner undressed Hus, tied his hands behind his back, and bound his neck to the stake with a chain. Wood and straw was then piled around him up to his neck. The imperial marshal asked Hus one final time to recant and save his life. Hus answered, “God is my witness that … the principal intention of my preaching and of all my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn people from sin. And in that truth of the gospel that I wrote, taught, and preached in accordance with the sayings and expositions of the holy doctors, I am willing gladly to die today.” With that, the executioner started the fire.

    According to some, the executioner had some difficulty intensifying the flames, prolonging Hus’s suffering. As the flames leapt higher, Hus cried out in agony, “Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on us!” From the roaring blaze he sang those same words three times. Then he died. After the fire had subsided, his ashes were thrown into the Rhine River.

    A hundred years later Martin Luther would ignite widespread church reform, influenced by the life and teachings of Jan Hus.


    From Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship. Based on articles by Elesha Coffman, Thomas A. Fudge, and Maartje M. Abbenhuis in Christian History and Biography 68 (October 2000).

    Contributed By photo of Charles Moore Charles E. Moore

    Charles E. Moore is a writer and contributing editor to Plough. He is a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional community movement based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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