Protestants have generally looked to the Englishman, John Wyclif (1330?–1384), and the Bohemian, John Hus (1372–1415) (spellings vary, e.g. Wycliffe, Huss), as the two most significant reformers before the Reformation.
Occasionally it has even been suggested that they are the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3. Hus has been owned by many who are hardly evangelical Protestants. In 1913 Benito Mussolini (or his ghost writer) wrote a biography of Jan Hus, supposedly to arouse ‘a hatred of every form of spiritual and secular tyranny’!
Unitarians often use the flaming chalice of the Hussites as one of their symbols, despite Hus’ commitment to the triune God. It is also interesting that, on 17 December 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed ‘deep regret for the cruel death inflicted on Jan Hus’.
To understand something of John Hus, it is naturally important to understand something of his times.
In 1305 Clement V refused to leave Avignon in France to take up the papal office in Rome. As a result, the papacy resided in Avignon in southern France for the next 73 years — a period which Petrarch referred to as ‘the Babylonian captivity of the church’.
From 1305 to 1378 all seven popes, beginning with Clement V (1305–14), resided in Avignon and were under French domination. Of the 134cardinals who were created by the seven Avignonese popes, 112 were French (with 96 of these from Languedoc), 14 were Italian, two were English and none were German (Francis Oakley, The western church in the later Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 1985, p.42).
Some churches began to agitate for the view that a church council has more authority than any pope. So began what was called the Conciliar Movement.
Worse followed for the western church. In 1378, an Italian, Urban VI, was elected as pope amidst riots, violence and doubts over his sanity. The French cardinals retaliated by electing Clement VII (Robert of Geneva, a cousin of the King of France), who returned to Avignon. The church now had two popes!
The Avignon popes received support from the Scots and Spanish, whereas the emperors and the English favoured the Urbanist line. Of the ‘saints’, Catherine of Siena supported Urban, while Vincent Ferrer supported the French line.
Council of Constance
In an attempt to resolve this scandal, the 26 cardinals, 12 archbishops, 80 bishops, 87 abbots and 300 professors of canon law of the two obediences met at Pisa in 1409, declared both popes to be deposed, and in their place elected Alexander V, who was soon followed by John XXIII (now known as ‘anti-pope’), who apparently had once been a pirate (Carter Lindberg, The European reformations, Blackwell, 1996, p.47)! The unsurprising result was three popes in place of two.
There was no alternative but to call another council, which the Elector Sigismund of Germany managed to do. It was convened at Constance, on the border of what became Germany and Switzerland, in 1414.
It was undoubtedly the greatest ecclesiastical assembly of the whole Middle Ages. The chronicler, Ulrich Richental, listed two popes in attendance, five patriarchs, 33 cardinals, 47 archbishops, 145 bishops and others, including 346 comedians and 700 harlots (Oakley, p.64, n.42).
Voting was conducted on a national, not an individual, basis; i.e. each nation had one vote. John XXIII was forced to flee and declared to be deposed; Gregory XII agreed to resign if he were first allowed to reconvene the council by his own papal authority (the council assented); while Benedict XIII retired to Spain to protest, for the rest of his long life, that he was the true pope.
Eventually, Martin V was elected pope in 1417. No real reforms were introduced, and it was the Council of Constance which burned John Hus at the stake to show its orthodoxy.
Behind Hus was the figure of John Wyclif, who for most of his working life was a don at Oxford University. In 1378 Wyclif published On the truth of Holy Scripture which declared that all Christians should know the Scriptures.
The same year also saw the publication of Wyclif’s On the church, which set forth the teaching that the church consists of the elect of God. This raised the possibility that the pope might not be of the elect. In fact, Wyclif had begun to refer to the pope as the ‘Antichrist’ and ‘Man of Sin’.
By 1379 Wyclif was denying transubstantiation as a ‘blasphemous deceit’ and ‘veritable abomination of desolation in the holy places’. This was a major issue in the Middle Ages, and in 1381 Oxford banished its most distinguished scholar.
Wyclif sent out missionaries, called Lollards (‘mumblers’, referring to their supposedly mumbling heresy), to spread the biblical Word in the vernacular. Opposition came from men like Bishop Reginald Pecock, who told the Lollards that ‘thou shalt not find expressly in Holy Scripture, that the New Testament should be written in English to laymen’.
Indubitably so, but edification requires comprehensibility (1 Corinthians 14:1-19). In any case, Wyclif was to die peacefully in 1384 and be buried in consecrated ground, until his body was exhumed in 1428, burnt, and his ashes thrown into the River Swift.
John Hus’ protests
In was in these turbulent times that John Hus came onto the scene. He was born about 1372. The king of Bohemia at this time (1378–1419) was Václav, sometimes called Wenceslaus. He was an unpredictable drunk, who kept dogs in his bed chambers. They killed his first wife, but his second wife, Zofie, became a supporter of Hus.
The son of unknown peasants, Hus nevertheless studied at Prague University. As early as 1391 he read some of Wyclif’s writings, but in 1393 spent his last coin to buy an indulgence. Although not an exceptional student, he received his bachelor’s degree in 1393 and his master’s degree in 1396. By 1402, he was rector and preacher of the prestigious Bethlehem Chapel of the Holy Innocents.
When he entered the priesthood, Hus recalled: ‘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’ (V. Budgen, On fire for God, Evangelical Press, 1983, p.49).
As a chess player, he was very competitive and could become angry. He also professed a fondness for rich clothing. Yet he began to preach reform in the church, and especially attacked simony — the practice of selling church offices to the highest bidder.
He also viewed ‘miraculous’ appearances of Christ’s blood on communion wafers as a hoax. Unworthy priests were denounced as fornicators, parasites, money misers and fat swine. He began to campaign vigorously for the communion cup to be given to the laity — something which the medieval church had withheld.
On 16 July 1410, Zbynek, the Archbishop of Prague, had the works of Wyclif (not Hus) burned in his palace courtyard. Hus mocked: ‘Such bonfires never yet removed a single 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’.
Zbynek excommunicated Hus three times before he (Zbynek) died, perhaps after being poisoned by his cook. In 1411 Hus was excommunicated for contumacy and non-appearance, not heresy. Cardinal Colonna had cited Hus to the papal court, but Hus had refused to go, and instead sent representatives.
After an indulgence was preached in 1412, which Hus denounced as a money-making exercise, matters came to a head. An interdict was placed on Prague, which deprived all its residents of the sacraments of the church. To save the city, Hus left it.
For the next two years he preached and wrote in the villages and fields of southern Bohemia. In autumn 1412, he wrote of his inner conflict as he wrestled with John 10:11-12 (‘a true shepherd does not flee’) and Matthew 10:23 (‘when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next’) (John Huss, Letters, trans. Matthew Spinka, Manchester University Press, 1972, p.75).
Ever the pastor, he told the people of Prague that ‘your salvation was, is now, and shall remain my desire until my death’ (Budgen, p.185). He wrote to encourage them ‘in this corrupted age’ not to grow weary in the struggle against the Antichrist.
Hus’ views had become more decided: ‘Accordingly, I humbly accord faith, i.e. trust, to the Holy Scriptures, desiring to hold, believe and assert whatever is contained in them, as long as I have breath in me’.
He also wrote: ‘Finally I rest with the conviction that every word of Christ is true; and what I do not understand, I commit to his grace, in the hope that I shall understand it after my death’ (Budgen, pp. 169,170).
Drawing on the teaching of Jerome, Augustine and other Church Fathers, he claimed that ‘obedience to superiors is obligatory only in lawful matters’ (John Huss, Letters, ed. by Emile de Bonnechose, trans. Campbell Mackenzie, Edinburgh, 1846, p.28). He urged believers: ‘Meditate, then, dearly beloved, on these two things — the benefits of the Saviour at his first coming, and his justice and judgment at his second advent — and fortify your hearts by grace and the cross’ (Letters, ed. de Bonnechose, p.48).
Hus’ De ecclesia, published in 1413, was clearly much indebted to Wyclif. Hus even wrote that ‘the unity of the catholic church consists in the bond of predestination’. Hus only condemned unworthy popes (he listed 15 of them), and he accepted the real presence in the Eucharist, complete with transubstantiation.
He never denied the intercession of saints or the existence of purgatory. On the papacy he declared, without a great deal of logic, ‘I acknowledge that the pope is the vicar of Christ in the Roman church, but do not hold it as an article of faith’ (M. Spinka, John Hus, Princeton University Press, 1968, p.176). He condemned indulgences, and stated that a wicked pope would be damned.
In autumn 1414, when John XXIII convened the ecumenical council in Constance, he summoned Hus to attend.
Sigismund (who was also half-brother of Václav) promised a safe-conduct to Hus to go to the council, but at Constance Hus was arrested on John XXIII’s orders — a promise given to a heretic was not regarded as binding. Hus was imprisoned for several months in a cell in theDominican monastery on an island in Lake Constance (now a luxury hotel).
The conditions were so terrible and his health so poor that he nearly died. He looked to God: ‘The God of all goodness at one time consoles, at another time afflicts me, but I hope he will not forsake me in my trials’ (Letters, ed. de Bonnechose, p.92).
So, he prayed, ‘O most kind Christ, draw us weaklings after thyself, for unless thou draw us, we cannot follow thee! … Give us a valiant spirit, a fearless heart, the right faith, a firm hope and perfect love, that we may offer our lives for thy sake, with the greatest patience and joy’ (Letters, trans. Spinka, p.187).
Thirty charges were brought against Hus, including that he considered himself the fourth person in the Godhead! The presiding cardinal was Pierre d’Ailly — a conciliarist — and the vote on the council to condemn Hus to death was not unanimous.
On 6 July 1415, at Constance cathedral, the Bishop of Lodi preached on Romans 6:6 (‘that the body of sin be destroyed’). Hus, devoid of his priestly garments, had to recant or die that very day.
Hus, however, refused to recant: ‘Assuredly it is fitting for me rather to die than to flee a momentary penalty and fall into the hand of the Lord, perchance, into everlasting shame’.
Hus’ motto was, ‘He who fears death loses the joy of life. Truth conquers all things’ (Budgen, p.260). He was burnt at the stake, crying out, ‘Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me’.
He had prophesied that though they might burn a goose (‘Hus’ means ‘goose’ in Bohemian), a swan would follow — a prophecy which was remembered 100 years later, in Luther’s time.
Out of the moderate Hussite wing grew the Bohemian Brethren, later known as the Moravian Brethren, who had such an influence on hymnody and missionary work, and, not least, the emergence of the Wesleyan Methodists.
Hus’ conscience was bound to Scripture, and his wonderful courage was the product of his deep faith. As Luther himself put it: ‘If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, no person under the sun can be looked on as a true Christian’ (Letters, ed. de Bonnechose, p.4).