“The Father of Reform”
Therefore, faithful Christian, seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, adhere to the truth, defend the truth to death; for truth will make you free from sin, the devil, the death of the soul, and finally from eternal death.
If it can be said that John Wycliffe was the grandfather of the Reformation, then John Hus would be its father. Wycliffe’s ideas and writings found their way to the University of Prague in the late Fourteenth Century—about the same time as John Hus. The University of Prague had risen in recent years to become the most prestigious university in central Europe, and Hus had risen to prominence at the center of it. He was not only her most respected theologian, but among the most compassionate of scholarly priests whose concern for the welfare of common people would put him in direct opposition to the practices of the Catholic Church. His heart’s most ardent desire was to bring Christ to Christians.
Hus loathed the sin and corruption that permeated the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He spoke out boldly from the pulpit of Prague’s most notorious church, Bethlehem Chapel, against the self-serving motives of Catholic bishops, cardinals, and priests. He studied after Wycliffe and made alliances with his supporters seeking to restore the Catholic Church to her original glory, much as Wycliffe had hoped to do. He opposed unchecked papal rule, ignoring its dictates, bulls, and indictments. He continued to preach the truth of God’s Word undaunted by threats of excommunication, imprisonment, and finally death.
Little is known about the childhood of John Hus other than that he was born in 1372, in a village called Husinec in the southern part of Bohemia. Though his parents were poor peasants, his mother had a rich faith in God. She taught John how to pray and trust God, and encouraged him to become a priest. When John was thirteen, she brought him to a school an hour away in the commercial city of Prachatice so that he could begin to secure his future. At the age of fourteen, he left for Prague where he enrolled in a preparatory school and was admitted to the University of Prague at eighteen. This was admirable as few from his area made it to university.
When Hus enrolled in university, he decided to change his name from John of Husinec to simply John Hus. He was a typical struggling student who sang for his supper at nearby churches. Originally he determined to enter the priesthood so he could be financially well off, but as he read the Scriptures he came to a personal knowledge of Christ which further stimulated his hunger for the Word of God.
The Mark of a Reformer
Early in his studies Hus was quoted as saying, “For I know that those things I have learned are but the least in comparison with what I do not know.” That shows the humility and teachable spirit he possessed. He was a seeker of the truth at any cost. Because of his diligence he received his Bachelor of Arts degree by the time he was twenty-one. Three years later, in 1396, he passed the rigors of his Masters degree. From 1398 to 1402 he lived in the King Wenceslas College, a small section of the university, teaching and mentoring students.
Over these ten years he became close friends with a fellow student, Stephen of Palec, and an admired instructor, Stanislov of Znojmo. Palec and Stanislov, along with Hus, formed a tight friendship as they studied and talked together continually. Stanislov taught from Wycliffe’s writings and followed all of his beliefs. Hus began copying some of Wycliffe’s works for his own use. Interestingly, the Swedish Army took one of these manuscripts with them during the Thirty Years’ War and it is now on display in Stockholm.
Hus began lecturing several times a day as well as training students how to use what they had learned and put it into speeches. Two years later, he was chosen to promote students to the degree of bachelor. He loved his role as mentor and friend, and formed many close alliances throughout this time. In 1401, his old friend Jerome of Prague returned from Oxford with chest full of Wycliffe manuscripts that he had copied. He left them with Hus and the other reformist thinkers before leaving on a series of world adventures, not to reappear on the scene until 1412.
In 1402, Hus was appointed to pastor the infamous Bethlehem Chapel—the church that was at the center of the Bohemian reform movement. This appointment demonstrated the confidence Hus inspired as a promising reformer. What made Bethlehem Chapel particularly unique was that all its services were conducted in the native Czech language. Hus would be called upon to exhibit the wisdom and character necessary to live on the front line of the reform movement, not only as a priest, but also as a young Czech patriot.
Bethlehem Chapel held three thousand people and the local population crowded into each service. Out of the cities forty-four churches, twenty-seven chapels, sixteen monasteries, and seven convents this was the only place they could hear a sermon in their own language. Hus was creative in his efforts to reach the common folk, even the illiterate. He painted the walls of the chapel with huge paintings portraying the humility and servitude of Christ juxtaposed with paintings depicting the excessive wealth and pride of the Pope. For example, a painting of the modestly attired Lord Jesus bending down to wash his disciples feet was displayed alongside the Pope in his elaborate robes, crown, and jewels extending his hand to be kissed.
Hus was determined to fill the hearts and minds of the people with God’s principles of truth. He was an attentive and revolutionary pastor who believed it was his duty to look after the spiritual and eternal welfare of his flock. In a year’s time, Hus would preach over two hundred fifty sermons at Bethlehem Chapel alone, in addition to lecturing and mentoring the students at the university. He also established a home for the poorest students behind the chapel which he personally supervised. He identified with the peasant class and they, along with the educated and well to do of the city, became his loyal followers.
After Hus had been pastoring for four years, he took on the challenge of revising and improving the Czech New Testament. He also revised portions of the Old Testament. Eventually, he would revise the entire Czech Bible in order to make it easier to read. Hus hoped to free all people, including the clergy, from the bondage of sin and death through a personal revelation of Christ.
Champion of Truth
In seeking to bring people to an authentic relationship with God, Hus found the Church to be his greatest obstacle. Foremost on his mind was persuading the priests to live a lifestyle free from lustful greed and immorality. This message alone set the entire Church hierarchy ablaze. Hus fearlessly called for a complete reevaluation of Church doctrine and what it meant to be a priest. He stated that the true authority of the priest was linked to his character, not his office. He went on to say that the love of money had destroyed their morals.
Hus denounced the elite attitudes of the clergy and their excessive wealth. He rebuked priests who used their churches for personal gain and prestige, who indulged in sexual immorality, and then bought and sold pardons to excuse and further prosper themselves. In a very bold statement he declared that no one should attend a Mass conducted by a priest who was involved in providing ministerial duties for financial gain or engaged in sexual indiscretions. He further declared that people should withhold their tithes from such priests.
Friends Turned Foe
By now the Pope taken notice of these Bohemian reformers. In 1408, Hus’s old friend and confidante, Stanislov, capitulated under persecution for his Wycliffe teachings and increasingly distanced himself from Hus and the other reformers. Stanislov convinced their mutual friend Palec to do the same and the two became outspoken enemies of Hus. Still, for all their efforts to realign themselves with the papacy, they were summoned to appear before the court in Italy and subsequently thrown in prison.
Amazingly, Hus was not yet formally accused of heresy—only of causing division in the Church because he denounced the sins of the clergy. He had, however, fallen out of favor with the King of Bohemia and the Archbishop of Prague, who at one time had been one of Hus’ most ardent supporters. Together they set out to quiet Hus in an effort to preserve the peace, and more importantly, secure favor with the Pope.
The Battle Lines Are Drawn
As Hus continued to write and preach on the necessity of Church reform, the Pope issued an order prohibiting preaching in any place except a Catholic cathedral or monastery. This was directed at Hus because his chapel was the only place not deemed a cathedral. Hus refused to stop preaching and garnered even more dedicated backing from his followers who loudly pledged their support for the cause.
In outrage and retaliation, on July 16, 1410, the Archbishop of Prague ordered all of Wycliffe’s books to be burned in a public ceremony. Hus responded with a public declaration, “Such bonfires never yet removed a single sin from the heart’s of men. Fire does not consume truth. It is always the mark of a little mind that it vents its anger on inanimate objects.” This remark caused the Czech citizens to openly revolt. They mocked the Archbishop who became outraged and excommunicated Hus. He then fled Prague for his life.
By the fall of that year, Hus was ordered to appear in Italy to explain why he disobeyed papal orders. He ignored the summons, as well as the Archbishop’s attempt to excommunicate him, and continued to preach and carry on his duties at the chapel. In February of 1411, Hus was excommunicated yet again by a superior cardinal in Italy for not appearing before the Pope. After a series of battles and hearings in Prague, riots ensued and the King feared for control of the city.
Finally, during the Roman council of 1412-1413, the cardinal declared Hus excommunicated for the last time and ordered that if Hus did not appear before the council in twenty days, the entire city of Prague, or any city that harbored Hus, would be under interdict. This meant that no one would be allowed to interact with Hus in anyway, and that wherever Hus was found, that place would have all church services suspended for three days. Hus again refused to appear before the council, only this time for the welfare of the people he retreated to the surrounding countryside.
Lies and Deception
From October of 1412 until Easter of 1413, it is unknown where he resided. He used this time to write several manuscripts including his most renowned document entitled “On The Church” in which he outlined his beliefs on how the true church should be governed—with Jesus Christ as its head. Meanwhile, kings and councils were plotting to ensnare Hus for the last time.
When the Pope called for the next council, the King of Hungary and Germany, who had by now been deemed the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, designated that the council be held in his jurisdiction. He plotted with his half-brother, the King of Bohemia, to invite Hus to the council under the pretense of allowing him to present his views. Despite the eminent danger, Hus agreed to go having been promised safety under the King’s protection.
Two knights came to escort him to the council who firmly believed they were to protect Hus throughout his journey. On October 11, 1414, in the company of the two knights, he set off for Constance, Germany fully prepared to make his presentation before the council. The Pope lifted the interdict and Hus and the knights experienced a peaceful journey and were welcomed upon their arrival. They stayed together in the home of a widow for one month before being summoned by the Pope. Although one of the knights’s sensed danger, Hus calmed him down and agreed to go.
After arriving at the Pope’s residence, Hus was questioned by a Franciscan theologian. Later that evening, Hus was told he would have to remain but the knights could leave. When they resisted, they were assured that Hus would be taken care of since he had been brought this far in order to state his case before the council. Reluctantly they left him in the hands of his inquisitors and eight days later Hus found himself in a dark dungeon on an island off the shore of Lake Constance. He was held there for three and a half months, never having the opportunity to present his position to anyone.
The Next Six Months
Now it was January 1415, and Hus was being roughly interrogated about whether or not he agreed with all of Wycliffe’s forty-five articles. When Hus finally managed to calm his interrogators down, they agreed to allow him to submit his response in writing. Hus wasn’t prepared to address every detail of Wycliffe’s articles, that’s not what he had come to Germany to discuss. Hus did not agree with everything Wycliffe wrote and did not base his doctrine completely on Wycliffe’s beliefs. He had his reservations regarding thirty-two of the articles and stated that he could only partially support thirteen of them.
Hus did not hear a word back for another several months. His health was beginning to fail due to his living conditions in the prison. By spring, the King revoked the safe conduct passes that had been issued to anyone still in Constance.
Finally, his former close friend and associate, Palec, was assigned the task of preparing a list of errors from Hus’ own writings. Palec compiled a twenty-page thesis outlining Hus’ errors, embellishing it with other accusations. When Hus received a copy, he found it full of lies and malice, yet he answered every error listed and accusation made in one night. He humbly requested that he be shown where any of his replies were not consistent with Scripture, and added that if this were so, he would recant.
Hus’ supporters in Prague were up in arms over the news of his arrest and almost five hundred noblemen signed a petition demanding his release. Though these nobles were ordered to appear before the council, they refused. The council was preoccupied with deposing Pope John XXIII for immoral crimes including murder and sodomy for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. The changing of the guard only meant a change of prisons for Hus. He was moved from the dungeon to a castle in Gottlieben where he was kept in strict isolation—his feet bound by day and one of his hands chained to the wall by night.
The Czech and Polish nobles were finally able to intervene on Hus’ behalf stating that only a public trial would prove if Hus was guilty or not. After five months in prison, the council promised to hear Hus at a public meeting on June 5, 1415. When June 5th arrived, the council held the meeting without Hus. When word got to the nobles they demanded that the King intervene. The King ordered the meeting stopped until Hus was summoned. When Hus arrived, weak and filthy, he stood before his accusers. None of his supporters were allowed inside. Every time Hus attempted to give an answer, he was cut off, told to answer only “yes” or “no,” and if he did not answer quickly, it was taken as an admission of guilt.
There was such an uproar, that the trial was reconvened for the following Friday when a weary Hus was brought in again to undergo the same battery of questions without truly being given the opportunity to speak. Finally the court ordered that Hus’ writings be condemned and Hus knew his fate was sealed. In a letter he wrote: “This is my final intention in the name of Jesus Christ: that I refuse to confess as erroneous the articles which have been truthfully abstracted and, to abjure [renounce] the articles ascribed to me by false witnesses. For God knows that I have never preached those errors which they have concocted.”
On the morning of July 6, 1415, Hus stood before the council one final time. He looked nothing like the former preacher and pastor, but was so frail he could hardly stand. Thirty articles were read against him. When he tried to protest he was told to keep silent and that he could speak at the end, but when the end came, he was not allowed to speak. The bishop stood and read the sentence. As an incorrigible heretic, he was to be stripped of his priestly office and turned over to the secular authorities and burned. His writings were also to be publicly burned at the same time. When Hus quietly asked if his writings had ever been read, the angry shouts quickly silenced him. Hus fell to his knees and prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus Christ, I implore Thee, forgive all my enemies for Thy great mercy’s sake.”
Hus was ordered to mount a platform and put on priestly vestments. He stood holding the communion cup which was ripped from his hands as a curse was spat upon him. Hus loudly answered back, “I trust the Lord, Almighty God . . . that He will not take the cup of His salvation from me. I have the firm hope that I shall today drink of it in His Kingdom.” Then, after cutting his hair, they placed a paper crown upon his head depicting three devils fighting for his soul. They mocked and cursed him as they violently stripped his vestments from his body. After they humiliated him to their satisfaction, he was turned over to the soldiers.
A procession of accusers, townspeople, and sympathizers followed as he was escorted out of town past a cemetery where his writings were already being burned. Nearby, stripped of all his clothing except a thin shirt, he fell to his knees one last time to pray. He was pulled up by his executioner and tied to a stake with wet rope, his neck secured to the pole by a rusty chain. Bundles of wood and hay were stacked around him up to his chin.
Before the fire was set, he was asked one last time to recant. Hus lifted his voice over the hush of the crowd and speaking in German said, “God is my witness that . . . the principal intention of my preaching and all of my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn men 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.”
The executioners were ordered to set the fire and as the flames mounted, Hus was heard singing a hymn before the flames overtook him and his head bowed in prayer. Hus’ ashes were loaded in a cart and thrown into the Rhine River.
Revenge of the Husites
News of Hus’s execution shook Bohemia and nearly five hundred nobles gathered in Prague to protest his trial and death. They entered into a solemn covenant pledging to defend Hus’s teachings and the Czech reformation against all threats. Four years later, in 1419, the Husites were a force to be reckoned with. They refused to diplomatically resolve their disputes with the Catholic Church since the deception of the Hus trial, and from then on took matters in their own hands. If the Catholic councilmen held reformers in jail and refused to release them, the Husites would throw the councilmen out the window to their deaths.
The Husites became a trained militia called the “Warriors of God.” They had fortified settlements, were armed with weapons, and used innovative battle strategies. They created a banner depicting the communion cup that became the symbol of the entire movement. The banner read, “Truth conquers.” It was said that the Husites created such fear by their fighting that an army once fled at the sight of their banner. For twenty-one years the Husites remained a force to be dreaded by governments and the Catholic Church.
The legacy that Hus left behind changed the course of history. The next generation of great reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and George Fox were influenced by his teachings. Martin Luther once said, “We are all Husites.” Through the Moravians (a Husite Branch), Hus’ influence reached John Wesley. Hus brought to light truths that are central to the message of Christ and have become the foundation of the modern Church.
Matthew Spinka, John Hus’ Concept of the Church (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966): 320.
Matthew Spinka, John Hus: A Biography (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968): 29.
Bruce L. Shelley, “A Pastor’s Heart,” Christian History Magazine, 19, no. 4, issue 68:30.
Thomas A. Fudge, “To Build a Fire,” Christian History Magazine, 19, no. 4, issue 68: 13-14.
Spinka, John Hus’ Concept of the Church, 374-375
Paul Roubiczek and Joseph Kalmer, Warrior of God (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1947): 241
Liardon, God’s Generals, 109
Timothy George, The Reformation Connection,” Christian History Magazine 19; no. 4, issue 68:36.