John Huss (c. 1372-1415)

Light of truth

John Huss (in Czech Jan Hus) was a Bohemian Reformer and was born of a peasant family at Husinec (whence the name Huss) in Bohemia, approximately the Czech Republic today. He was a student, and then a popular teacher at the recently founded University of Prague. Ordained priest in 1400, he was elected dean of the philosophy faculty in the following year. Alongside his university teaching, Huss became well known as a preacher at the Bethlehem chapel, a large church with close links to the university. There he preached in the Czech language rather than in Latin or German. Hus was attracted to the teachings of John Wycliffe because this was a time when knowledge of John Wycliffe’s writings had become widespread in Bohemia through its closer relations with England following a marriage alliance between the two royal houses. Huss was attracted to some of the teachings of Wycliffe, especially his criticism of excessive wealth and hierarchical structures in the church, and his emphasis upon predestination and the church of the elect. He translated several of Wycliffe’s works into Czech.

At first Huss received encouragement from the Archbishop of Prague but soon matters turned sour. The university condemned some 45 propositions of Wycliffe but Huss continued to uphold them and preached violent sermons on the morals of the clergy. This was the time of the Western Schism and Christendom was divided among three Popes, all claiming legitimacy. Huss could not see any resemblance between the true church and the institution calling itself the church. He was now convinced that the church was the community of the elect. He set out to reform this sinning church and to make it return to the poverty of the gospel. An increasingly impassioned preacher, he came up against the rich clergy of Bohemia and the archbishop of Prague. He was denounced to Rome in 1407 and the Archbishop forbade him to preach. The university soon came under the influence of Huss and became a stronghold of Wycliffe’s doctrines. The archbishop obtained permission from the Pope for the destruction of all Wycliffite books and sought from Huss the retraction of his doctrines. To stop his influence, he forbade him from preaching at the Bethlehem chapel. He was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1412. He was removed from Prague and found refuge with his supporters among the Czech nobility. Huss now devoted to writing his chief work, De Ecclesia which he completed in 1413 and had a lot of materials from Wycliffe. In 1415 He was summoned to the general council of Constance (1414-18) where he was tried and condemned, despite protestation that his beliefs were not being fairly represented, and in breach of the guarantee of safe conduct by the emperor, he was burnt to death at the stake. His close colleague Jerome of Prague met with the same fate at the council ten months later. His last words are telling: “God is my witness that I have never taught nor preached what is attributed to me on the testimony of false witnesses. My prime intention in my preaching and all my actions has been to extricate men sin. I am ready to die with joy in the truth of the gospel, which I have written, taught and preached in accordance with the tradition of the holy doctors.”

When news of his death reached Bohemia, Huss quickly became a national hero. The University of Prague declared him a martyr. Four hundred and fifty-two nobles of Bohemia and neighbouring Moravia affixed their seals to a protest to the council of Constance. In 1420 the Hussites, as the followers of Huss were called now, proclaimed the “Four Articles of Prague” which laid down a programme of reform involving secularisation of church lands and property, Uttraquism (the word derives from the Latin uterque meaning both) whereby the laity would receive communion in the forms of both bread and wine, use of the Czech language in the liturgy, and various other elements of the church reform which anticipated the Protestant Reformation in important ways. It led to the Hussite Wars (1420-30) but they were able to implement much of their ideas in Bohemia, and the “Bohemian Brethren” (later, “Moravian Brethren”) were much influenced by this movement.

Isaac Padinjarekuttu
(Professor of Church History at
Oriens Theological College, Shillong)

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