Jan Hus (often anglicized to “John Huss”) was an important Bohemian (now Czech Republic) clergyman who taught at Charles University in Prague, eventually becoming the head clergyman at the University of Prague. As a university student, he was known as an excellent chess player but also managed to excel in his studies.
Upon assuming his professorship, Hus experienced a remarkable change that transformed his life and commitment to Christ. He’d entered the priesthood because it promised a life of comfort. This life change was likely influenced in large part from the writings of Wycliffe, whose works had come to Prague and were beginning to stir up controversy.
Like other reformers, Hus never intended to tear apart the church. Rather, he wanted to restore the purity of the doctrine and life of the church. Wycliffe’s ideas came to Prague because Czech students had studied at Oxford and carried his ideas back to Prague.
While Wycliffe exerted most of his preaching and teaching influence through the university, Hus used his position as preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague to get his message to the masses. In 1403, concern over Wycliffe’s teachings in Prague came to a head. Hus sided with the pro-Wycliffe folks. His preaching became a clarion bell warning against the corruption in the church.
The archbishop of Prague managed to obtain a papal decree banning Wycliffe’s books and ordering that preaching must done only in cathedrals, monasteries, or parish churches. Since Bethlehem Chapel was none of these, this amounted to an attempt to shut up Jan Hus. Yet after much internal wrestling, Hus elected to disobey and continue preaching.
The papal decree ended up forcing Hus into increasingly clear views. He now rejected the authority of the pope, because he believed that anyone who wouldn’t submit to the Word of God shouldn’t be obeyed.
Excommunication & Exile
When Hus continued to preach, the archbishop condemned Hus as a heretic and excommunicated him from the church. Ironically, it was the archbishop who then had to flee Prague, for fear of the people. The pope followed the archbishop’s lead and condemned Hus as well and placed Prague under interdict (a declaration that clergy couldn’t preach or perform any sacred duties in the city).
God used the state to protect Hus. King Wenceslaus used his influence to protect Hus (the king’s 10th-century forebear is the subject of a Christmas carol). Eventually, the pope ordered a sale of indulgences in Bohemia to pay for a war. Because King Wenceslaus got a cut of the sales, he forbade anyone from condemning indulgences. Hus couldn’t comply in good conscience and in 1412 went into exile in southern Bohemia for two years. These years produced some of his most fruitful writing.
Like many Reformers, Hus was a work in progress. Unlike Wycliffe, he accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation and believed that good works play some role in our justification. On the whole, though, he condemned the moral excesses and doctrinal aberrations of the Catholic Church—condemning the worship of Mary and the saints, condemning the withholding of wine in communion, and arguing for the purity of the church. His thoughts about the church sound remarkably similar to Wycliffe’s: “The pope is not the head, or are the cardinals the whole body of the holy, catholic and universal church. Only Christ is the head, and his predestined are the body, and each is a member of that body.” Perhaps most importantly, Hus held that Scripture is infallible and is authoritative over the church and that it alone is our rule for faith and practice.
Trial & Death
In 1414 Hus was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance, the same Council that would condemn Wycliffe. Hus was promised safe conduct and thus agreed to attend the council (he hoped to influence church leaders toward the important reforms of the church). However, Hus was arrested when he arrived and imprisoned until his trial in 1415.
On July 6, 1415, Hus was stripped naked, had a dunce cap placed on his head, was paraded through the streets, tied to a stake, and then burned to death. As the flames rose up around him, he sang a hymn and committed his soul to God. Roman Catholic officials took his ashes and spread them on the Rhine River, so that his followers couldn’t rally around his remains.
Hus’s last name means “goose” in Czech. Legend has it that he spoke to his executioners just before he died: “Today you burn a goose, but in one hundred years a swan will arise which you will prove unable to boil or roast.” While it was actually Luther who took some of Hus’s words and crafted this particular statement, a “swan” did arise in Germany a century later.
On December 17, 1999, Pope John Paul II traveled to the Czech Republic and offered a posthumous apology (“deep regret for the cruel death”) for the Catholic Church’s persecution of Hus. Too little, too late, but God had used this man to pave the way for what was to follow.