Jan Hus: The Unknown Protestant Reformer
In 1519, two years after Martin Luther had distributed his ninety-five Theses and started the Protestant Reformation, he was asked if he was a Hussite. To the shock of all those listening, he affirmed that he was.
Leaving their mouths agape.
Luther had just told them he wanted to completely separate from the Catholic church. Being a Hussite was heresy and an admission that Luther, who had at first wanted to reform the Catholic church internally, no longer desired that course. He was done and ready to move on to creating a separate church in Germany.
Being a Hussite was akin to treason.
The movement had been named after a Catholic priest from a hundred years earlier named Jan Hus. Hus was born in 1372 in the country currently called the Czech Republic. At the time, it was called Bohemia and was loosely associated with Germany. Hus was born in a small, rural town on the outskirts of Prague. He was certainly not born into wealth and would not even have been considered middle class. Hus wanted more from life than to labor in the fields.
He applied to the University of Prague to study theology and was accepted. This was not because he was interested in developing a higher morality but because he wanted to live more comfortably than those who lived in his hometown.
It is important to understand how the political state of Bohemia impacted how the University of Prague was run. Knowing this helps explain why future events occurred. The brother of the Emperor of the Holy Empire was the political leader of Bohemia, and the Emperor was also the king of what is now Germany. Further complicating the political situation in the 14th century, the Emperor of the Holy Empire had a very heavy influence on religious life and served with the Pope. As a result, most of what happened in Bohemia was heavily influenced by Germany and the Catholic church.
The University of Prague was affected by this entanglement.
More than 75 percent of educators were German, while more than half of the students were Bohemian or Czech. At the University, Hus was an excellent student and went on to earn a master’s degree. He also developed a stronger sense of his connectedness with Jesus. He prepared himself for ordination and to go on to obtain a doctorate degree.
In Prague and in a number of urban areas in Europe, there were chapels where young ordinates, like Hus, could hold service. Hus went to the Bethlehem chapel.
Remarkably, he became a minor celebrity. People flocked to his chapel to hear his sermons. He preached in the vernacular—the language of the people. Having studied Wycliffe and Wycliffe’s notes while at the University, he tried this form of preaching. For the students at the University of Prague, he became someone to look up to as well.
At the same time, the students at the University of Prague began to resent the heavy influences of Germany and the Catholic church. Like Hus, they admired the new theories of Wycliffe. Their resentment of outside influence coupled with the radical ideas of Wycliffe led to a movement.
Naturally, they followed Hus as their leader.
When the Archbishop of Prague got wind of Hus’s efforts, he asked him to stop. Hus refused and kept preaching. Then the Archbishop excommunicated him.
As we all know, the worst thing to do is to try to silence a young person who believes fully in their mission. The Archbishop’s attempts to suppress Hus didn’t work; he continued to preach and became louder in his protests.
Hus didn’t believe in selling indulgences, as most of the population and clergy did. His belief was that, if the church had the power to prevent people from going to hell, then church leadership should do it without thought of profit. Otherwise, selling indulgences was nothing more than extortion.
He had other views as well.
For instance, he disagreed with the church’s view of not letting those taking communion to share in the wine. In other words, they only received the bread of the body while the wine, or blood of the body, was reserved exclusively for the priest.
Hus saw this an insult to the parishioners—a sign that they weren’t considered as worthy as the priest. Again the populace agreed with Hus.
As time wore on, Hus was excommunicated a second time—this time by the Pope. Again, this did not put out the fire of revolt; it only increased the native population’s resolve and emboldened Hus’s voice.
The Emperor saw the potential danger of the situation and offered mediation. He invited Hus to attend the Council of Constance in 1414. Hus, excited to go and resolve the issues at hand, left before he received his letter of invitation.
This is important, as the invitation also contained a safe-conduct agreement. In other words, he would be safe to travel there and back. But the Pope had carefully worded the safe conduct agreement and only arranged for Hus’s safe arrival and not for his return home.
If Hus had waited, he would have realized the ruse.
He arrived and was immediately defrocked. Not allowed to defend himself, he was only allowed to answer yes or no to inquiries. He was found to be a heretic. On his knees and disrobed, he prayed and asked for forgiveness for all his enemies.
He was bound, led outside, and burned at the stake. His ashes were thrown into the river so that his followers and loved ones would be denied any physical remembrance of him.
The outcry back in Bohemia was enormous. The populace revolted, and went to the building in Prague where all the powerful men worked and threw them out of the windows. They all either died from the fall or were killed by the mob waiting below.
The local churches separated from the Catholic church and became independent. The Pope and Emperor asked for crusaders to invade Bohemia to regain control. After five unsuccessful attempts by the crusaders, a peace deal was finally struck. Bohemia was free, and the people there worshipped in churches that preached in the vernacular and had wine during communion.
They remained free for three hundred years.
While Luther gets the credit for the Protestant Reformation, his real contribution was carrying on the efforts of Wycliffe and Hus. Luther would mature their theology in later years, but he was certainly inspired by their lives.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.
Photo by Richard Hodonicky on Unsplash