On July 6, 1415, in Konstanz, Germany, the cathedral was filled to capacity. The air was heavy as Jacob Balardi Arrigoni, bishop of Lodi, preached from the text “that the body of sin be destroyed” (Rom. 6:6). Cardinals, replete with miters, sat in a semicircle around a man in chains, his body emaciated from hunger after having spent a year in prison. The Holy Roman emperor, Sigismund, occupied the regal throne. In the nave, a variety of sacerdotal garments were laid out on a table.
For the man in chains, a decision awaited him: recant or go to the stake.
Beyond the cathedral was the stake waiting to be lit.
Jan Hus was born in 1370 in a peasant home in southern Bohemia (today a part of the Czech Republic).1 His father died while Jan was still a child. He was brought up by his mother, who instilled in him piety and influenced him to enter the priesthood. As a student he once used the last bit of his money to procure an indulgence, a certificate assuring the forgiveness of sins.
For the most part, his early life was unexceptional with the exception, perhaps, of his hunger for education. Hus obtained a master’s degree in 1396 from the University of Prague and became much better known when, in 1402, he was appointed preacher of Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, a church founded in 1391 to facilitate preaching in the vernacular.
Two key factors had impacted citizens of Prague. Early Waldensian missionaries had circulated copies of the Scripture in the vernacular, and two early wandering missionaries drew pictures contrasting between the lowly Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and all the pomp surrounding a papal retinue.2 Equally important were copies of writings from an English reformer. “Wyclif, Wyclif,” noted Hus in one such early manuscript, “you will turn many heads.”3 Hus balanced his preaching with a distinguished academic career, but life for the citizens in Prague was soon polarized.
Debates over Wyclif were overshadowed by the Papal Schism (1378–1417) as rival popes anathematized each other. Although Hus never took a direct role in the conflict, two men close to him did play an active role, which, in turn, impacted Hus.
The first was King Václav IV (Wenceslaus), who was a weak and unpopular ruler with a foul temper, surrounded by incompetent advisers, and a drunkard, twice imprisoned.4 His reign (1378–1419) spiraled gradually downward with the exception of his second wife, Žofie, who gave her husband, on the occasion of their wedding, a wagon full of conjurers and juggling fools. Queen Žofie chose Hus as her confessor, attended his sermons at Bethlehem Chapel, and used her influ-ence to further reform and protect Hus.
The second person to influence Hus was Zbyněk, who in 1402 at the age of 25, outbid other contenders to obtain the archbishopric of Prague for 2,800 gulden. However, as a pious military man, he still lacked theological training and was therefore inept at church administration. The writings of Wyclif were declared heretical before he took office. As the Papal Schism dragged on, concern about heresy in Bohemia grew as a major concern of the papacy.
Václav, for his part, hoped that if he supported the right papal contender that he could regain the title of Holy Roman emperor, a title lost in 1400. In 1409, he shifted his support from the Roman pope, Gregory XII, to the newly elected Pisan pope, Alexander V. The task of Zbyněk was simple: eliminate heresy and help Václav regain his title, but after the king changed his papal allegiance, Zbyněk refused to recognize Alexander V.
Hus was a powerful and charismatic preacher. As the power struggle played out, he condemned papal corruption. In 1405, he denounced supposed appearances of Christ’s blood during Communion as one of a series of elaborate hoaxes. Hus ridiculed the power that priests claimed for themselves. He was not afraid to thunder against abuses. “These priests deserve hanging in hell,” he warned, because they were “fornicators, parasites, money misers, and fat swine. They are drunks whose bellies growl with great drinking and are gluttons whose stomachs are overfilled until their double chins hang down.” Of course simony (the selling and buying of ecclesiastic privileges) was the worst heresy, he argued, and a sin against the Holy Spirit.5 In the process, Hus turned to the Bible as the benchmark for all aspects of Christian doctrine and lifestyle.
Hus used the term “The Lord’s fat ones” to denounce simony and the practice of buying spiritual offices. This unequivocal denunciation put him at odds with his own bishop, Zbyněk, who was guilty of buying the archbishopric. Hus was also at odds with many of his fellow clergy who collected fees before administering the sacraments. Some clergy even purchased multiple church positions without ever serving the people. Worst of all, the Scriptures were eclipsed through church tradition.
Hus confronted the archbishop: “How is it that fornicating and otherwise criminal priests walk about freely . . . while humble priests . . . are jailed as heretics and suffer exile for the very proclamation of the gospel?”6
Such a direct confrontation turned Zbyněk to be his sworn enemy. Zbyněk often sent spies to listen to Hus’s ser-mons. In one instance, Hus accosted one such spy from the pulpit: “Hey, you in the hood, make a note of this, you sneak, and carry it over there,” he told the infiltrator as he pointed toward the archiepiscopal residence.7 Hus was afterward cited before a hearing but suc-cessfully defended himself with popular support from the queen and the public.
Zbyněk now complained to Pope Alexander V, who issued a papal bull calling for an investigation of heresy and demanding that preaching of Scripture in private chapels immediately stop. Hus spoke publicly against the bull, which prompted even more hostility from Zbyněk. In return, on July 16, 1410, more than 200 works of Wyclif were set ablaze.
“I call it a poor business,” responded Hus. “Such bonfires never yet removed a 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.”8
The king and archbishop upped the ante, which culminated in a writ of excommunication against Hus in February 1411. In the end, Zbyněk was forced to back off and clear Hus of all charges. In the process that was supposed to vindicate Hus, the archbishop strategically moved the final public declaration to the city of Bologna. The king, fearing a trap, forbade Hus from going. “If anyone wants to accuse Hus of any charge, let them do it here in our kingdom. . . . [I]t does not seem right to give up this useful preacher to the discrimination of his enemies.”9 It appears likely that Queen 2ofie prompted Václav’s protective maneuver.
Politics in Italy spilled over into a new push for indulgences. In 1412, Pope John XXIII (one of the three popes who emerged during the Papal Schism) proclaimed a crusade against the king of Naples, who had taken over Rome. In order to fund this new venture, the pope began a widespread sale of indulgences. Revenues raised in Bohemia would be split with the king, so even Václav stood to profit from the venture. Prague quickly became a center of indulgences.
Hus once again was outspoken, using Scripture to condemn these indulgences. He was incredulous that a holy war was planned in order to secure the power of the papacy. Now Hus was summoned to appear before the newly elected archbishop of Prague, Albík. “Even if the fire to burn my body were placed before my eyes,” he stated defiantly, “I would not obey.”10 The king ordered Hus to submit to ecclesiastical authority.
Until now Hus had tried to reform the church from within. Now everything had changed. “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 more horrible idol than a painted log.”11
Protests turned ugly in Prague. The preaching of Hus electrified the people. Three protesters were beheaded, becoming the first Hussite martyrs. The whole business was an embarrassment to King Václav, who denounced Hus as a troublemaker. Even Queen 2ofie was unable to quench the king’s wrath. The conditions for reconciliation were simple: Hus must agree that the pope is the head of the church and must be obeyed. Hus refused to compromise and was excommunicated yet a fourth time. Prague was placed under interdict (no church ordinances or services could take place), and on October 15, 1412, Hus went into a voluntary exile. “I am a fugitive,” he noted to a friend.12
In late 1414, Pope John XXIII convened a council in Constance with two purposes: to end the Papal Schism and to eradicate heresy. Hus accepted an invitation to attend the council. On October 11, 1414, he drafted his will and departed, riding on his horse Rabštýn. Friends warned him that this was a trap, but Emperor Sigismund, Václav’s half-brother, promised him safe conduct. Along the way a herald announced that there was a dangerous man chained to a wagon who could read minds. The publicity created opportunities for Hus to share his faith. At each inn he stayed in, he left behind a printed copy of the Ten Commandments.13
When Hus first arrived in Constance, the site of the council, in one of his earliest surviving letters he noted the high cost of food.14 This may have at least partially reflected his concern for money because he borrowed funds to pay for the trip. During this early period his letters to his friends are even somewhat playful. He liked to make jokes about his name “Hus” (which means “goose”), noting that “the goose is not yet cooked and is not afraid of being cooked.”15 Within a week he was arrested.
Now as Hus sat in a dark and putrid Dominican prison, he grew sick. In some of his letters, he requested warm clothes and food. Hus was beginning to starve and would have died from disease had not a papal physician relocated him to better quarters. As he recovered, he requested a Bible several times from his friends. His heart longed to study the Scriptures. Just as painful, for Hus, was the fact that he was deprived of Communion.16 Hus recognized just how grave his situation was, warning friends not to open his letters until they were certain of his death.17
Hus prayed to God to give him strength to remain faithful to Christ and Scripture, and despite whatever judgment the council might determine, he regularly observed that all humans must answer before the divine judgment of God.18 As the council proceeded, one can see one of Hus’s most profound theological contributions that laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation a century later: he argued that it was Christ, not the pope, who stood as the true head of the church.19 A thorough study of the Scriptures finally led him to condemn the church he initially hoped to reform. He acknowledged that not every believer is by default a member of the Catholic Church. Instead, a person must be “of the church” or a genuine member of the church of Christ, even if one was not a part of the Church of Rome. Hus matured in his understanding of the church. He thus developed a distinctive ecclesiology away from Rome and paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.20
Once Hus made this distinction between the Roman Church and Christ, it was not very difficult to see that mortals, including popes and councils, can err. Hus championed biblical authority. Scripture should and must reign supreme over all human authority. “For this truth [of faith], on account of its certitude, a man ought to risk his life. And in this way a man is not bound to believe the sayings of the saints that are far from Scripture; nor should he believe papal bulls except insofar as what they say is founded on Scripture simply.”21
Together, Hus’s view of the church combined with his understanding about the supreme authority of Scripture represented a scathing rebuke of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. The life of Hus demonstrates the gradual unfolding of a man who discovered his mission. He believed that all authority should rest on the Bible alone. In this sense “Hus was not an original theologian.”22 Instead, his skill lay in taking the ideas of Wyclif as a radical rejection of a flawed power system that had developed within the church. In this way, Hus served almost as a “dress rehearsal” for later Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther, who frequently referenced Hus.23
The cooked goose
As the Council of Constance continued its proceedings, Hus tried to initially refute charges and defend himself, but he was routinely shouted down by conciliar fathers who denounced him as arrogant or stubborn. One such person, a Polish bishop, shouted “Do not permit him to recant; even if he does recant, he will not keep to it.”24
The final session arrived on July 6. Thirty charges were presented against the accused heretic. Some were simply outrageous—one even insinuated that Hus believed that he was the fourth member of the Godhead. Hus, of course, rejected such outlandish charges, but he was unable to defend himself. At the end, Pierre d’Ailly, the presiding cardinal, gave Hus one last opportunity. Hus responded by asking them to prove his errors from the Bible. The bishops dismissed him for being “obstinate in heresy.”25 All the way to the end Hus stuck to his bedrock belief in the primacy of Scripture.
Hus was now ordered to be silent. He dropped to his knees on the stone floor. His books were condemned to be burned. Hus prayed out loud to Christ to forgive his judges and accusers. One last time the council offered: “Recant or die.”
The Bishop of Lodi next gave his sermon about destroying the body of sin, followed by seven bishops who placed priestly vestments upon Hus. He was defrocked. In turn each bishop tore off the vestments from his body saying “O cursed Judas . . . we take from you the cup of redemption.” They finally concluded with the words “we commit your soul to the Devil.” Crowned with a paper miter with the inscription, “This is a heresiarch,” he was then led through the streets of Constance to the place of death. Hus was bound to the stake with a sooty chain and wood piled to his chin.
Hus uttered his last words: “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 men from sin. And in that the 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.” As the flames and smoke rose, his voice could be heard in song: “Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy on me.”26 At last the goose was cooked.
A mission to uphold the Scripture
All throughout Hus’s life, Hus developed a theology of suffering. He was fiercely loyal to the church, which is quite ironic since it was the church that condemned him to death. “He bound his conscience to truth and refused to deviate from the pathway of truth, regardless of cost or consequence, without regard for personal safety or ultimate destination.”27 For Hus, the Scriptures were the source of all truth about Jesus Christ. And as a man on a mission, he exalted Jesus Christ who suffered for him as his true model. In fact, it was but a small thing and a privilege to suffer for Christ. “Do not fear to die for Christ if you wish to live with Christ,” he admonished one priest.28 As a man on a mission, this meant that he would stand for truth, no matter the consequences.
In the final days and weeks leading up to his death, Hus was plagued with a series of dreams. In some of them, he was haunted by dark and foreboding thoughts. In one such dream he saw a group of painters come and destroy the walls of his beloved Bethlehem Chapel where there were painted biblical scenes. As the vandals destroyed the artwork, he saw another group of painters who repainted the scenes in even more vivid colors.29 He believed all the way to the end that if it were God’s will, He could spare his life just as he had done for many other individuals in salvation history. Yet, he also knew that perhaps God had a purpose in his laying down his life. During his execution he was reported to say: “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.”30
Hus spawned a movement. He rejected any doctrine or practice not found in the Bible. Similarly, he denounced the abuse of power within the church. His stubborn insistence about the primacy of Scripture caused one papal visitor to label him the most dangerous heretic since Christ came to this earth!31 Hus placed the authority of the Bible above the church. Thus, perhaps the greatest tribute to this man on a mission was the translation of the Bible into Czech, the Kralice Bible, which is still used today.
1 Some of the basic biographical information is constructed from Thomas A. Fudge, The Memory and Motivation of Jan Hus, Medieval Priest and Martyr (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2013); The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jan Hus: Religious Reform and Social Revolution in Bohemia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).
2 See Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911). White based her account of Hus upon the nineteenth-century historians J. H. Merle d’Aubigné and J. A. Wylie.
3 Thomas A. Fudge, “To Build a Fire,” Christian History 68, no. 4 (2000): 10–18.
4 Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought: The Fascinating Story of the Great Christian Thinkers and How They Helped Shape the World as We Know It Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 172.
5 The Letters of John Hus, tr. Matthew Spinka (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1972), 5, 6.
6 Jan Hus to Archbishop Zbyněk, July 6, 1408, in The Letters of John Hus, 22.
7 Quoted by Fudge, “To Build a Fire.”
12 The Letters of John Hus, 92.
13 Ibid., 126, 132.
14 Ibid., 130.
15 Quoted by Fudge, “To Build a Fire.”
16 See The Letters of John Hus, 135, 153–55.
17 Ibid., 121.
18 Ibid., 148.
19 Cf. The Letters of John Hus, 96–101. For an extended treatment of Hus’s ecclesiology, see Matthew Spinka, John Hus’ Concept of the Church (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966).
20 Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 576–77.
21 John Hus, De Ecclesia, tr. David S. Schaff (New York: Scribner’s, 1915), cited by Allison, Historical Theology, 84.
22 Hill, The History of Christian Thought, 175.
23 Ibid., 176.
24 Quoted by Fudge, “To Build a Fire.”
27 Fudge, The Memory and Motivation of Jan Hus, 247.
28 The Letters of John Hus, 170.
29 Ibid., 149.
30 Hill, The History of Christian Thought, 176.
31 The Letters of John Hus, 161.