“Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.” Jan Hus
From foolishness to faith
Born in 1372 Jan Hus was to become an early pre-Reformation reformer. He came from very humble beginnings and to escape poverty he turned to the priesthood, “I had thought to become a priest quickly in order to secure a good livelihood and dress and to be held in esteem by men.” He earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and then finally a doctorate degree from the University of Prague. Along the way he was ordained and began preaching at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel in Bohemia.
During these years, Jan Hus underwent a change. Though he spent some time with what he called a “foolish sect,” he finally discovered the Bible, “When the Lord gave me knowledge of Scriptures, I discharged that kind of stupidity from my foolish mind.”
He eventually would embrace the reformed teachings of John Wycliffe and proceeded to preach them with boldness from the pulpit and in writing. The university authorities, fearful of the consequences from Rome, forbade him to teach these doctrines and banned the teachings of Wycliffe.
These very same writings of John Wycliffe which had stirred Hus’ interest in the Bible would soon be spreading through Bohemia and gaining advocates. The University of Prague was already split between Czechs and Germans, and Wycliffe’s teachings only divided them more. Early debates hinged on fine points of philosophy (the Czechs, as was Wycliffe, were realists; the Germans more abstract). The Czechs warmed up to Wycliffe’s reforming ideas and although they had no intention of altering traditional Church doctrines, they wanted to place more emphasis on the Bible and promote the moral reform of the clergy. As for Hus, he began increasingly to trust the Scriptures, “desiring to hold, believe, and assert whatever is contained in them as long as I have breath in me.”
A political struggle ensued, with the Germans labeling Wycliffe and his followers heretics. With the support of the king of Bohemia, the Czechs gained the upper hand, and the Germans were forced to flee to other universities.
The situation was further complicated by European politics, which watched as two popes vied to rule all of Christendom. A church council was called at Pisa in 1409 to settle the matter. It deposed both popes and elected Alexander V as the legitimate pontiff (though the other popes, repudiating this election, continued to rule their factions). Alexander was soon “persuaded” — that is, bribed — to side with Bohemian church authorities against Hus, who continued to criticize him and his followers. Hus was forbidden to preach and was excommunicated, but only on paper. With the local Bohemian authorities backing him, Hus continued to preach and minister at Bethlehem Chapel.
In November 1414, the Council of Constance assembled, and Hus was urged by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to come and give an account of his doctrine. Because he was promised safe conduct, and because of the importance of the council (which promised significant church reforms), Hus went. When he arrived, however, he was immediately arrested, and he remained imprisoned for months. Instead of a hearing, Hus was eventually hauled before authorities in chains and asked merely to recant his views.
When he saw he wasn’t to be given a forum for explaining his ideas, let alone a fair hearing, he finally said, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.” He was taken to his cell, where many pleaded with him to recant. On July 6, 1415, he was taken to the cathedral, dressed in his priestly garments, then stripped of them one by one. He refused one last chance to recant at the stake, where he prayed, “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.” He was heard reciting the Psalms as the flames engulfed him.
His executioners scooped up his ashes and tossed them into a lake so that nothing would remain of the “heretic,” but some Czechs collected bits of soil from the ground where Hus had died and took them back to Bohemia as a memorial.
Hus would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Hus preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. The Reformers would also look to Hus’ life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.
“How brilliant are the ruby crowns of the martyred saints. From the stake, from the gibbet, from the fire, they ascended up to God; and among the bright ones they are doubly bright, fairest of the mighty host that surrounds the throne of the Blessed One. What crowns they wear! A noble way of serving Christ, to have stood calmly in the midst of the fires, and have clapped one’s hands, and cried. “I can do all things, even give my body to be burned for his dear names sake!” For it was his love that helped them to endure; it was by his blood that they overcame.” Charles Spurgeon