Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
While we usually consider Luther’s act of nailing his 95 theses on the chapel door of the church of Wittenburg to be the beginning of the Reformation, the fact remains that God began the work of reformation long before the days of Martin Luther.
Two men are called “Pre-reformers” by historians: John Wycliffe of England and John Hus of Bohemia. Perhaps to call them pre-reformers really does them no injustice; but they were more than pre-reformers; they were reformers in the truest sense of the word – and perhaps Hus even more than Wycliffe. The reformation of the church in the 16th century would have been impossible without them.
The two men were different. Wycliffe was first of all a scholar for whom preaching was secondary. Hus was above all a preacher, and scholarly studies were subordinate to preaching. The dusty library was Wycliffe’s home; the pulpit was Hus’. Wycliffe labored all his life for reform and left no movement that continued to the. Reformation. Hus started a movement of reform that not only lasted to the, Reformation, but has come down to the present in almost pure form, primarily in the Moravians. Wycliffe’s teachings were almost identical to those of Luther and Calvin; Hus, apparently, was never able to condemn the Roman Catholic corruption of the Lord’s Supper. Wycliffe reflected all his life the middle class gentility of his upbringing; Hus, after the pattern of Luther, was of rough peasant stock. Wycliffe, it seems, did not know what it meant to laugh; Hus could banter and joke with his students even while lecturing. Wycliffe went to the grave in peace; Hus was burned to death on a martyr’s pyre. But God used them both.
In Luther’s famous debate with John Eck at Leipzig, Eck charged Martin Luther with being a Hussite because Luther appealed to the supreme authority of Scripture. Luther was not sure about this, but spent the noon break reading what Hus had written. At the beginning of the afternoon session he surprised everyone by loudly proclaiming: “Ich ben ein Hussite!” (I am a Hussite.)
John Hus was born in 1373 in the southern part of Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) in the village of Husinec – hence his surname, Hus. The name Hus means “goose,” a word which Hus often used in referring to himself. While he was imprisoned in Constance, he wrote his friends in Bohemia that he hoped the goose might be released from prison and that “if you love the goose,” try to secure the king’s aid in delivering him from prison.
He was born of poor peasant parents, all of which meant that his early life was one of hardship and cruel poverty under the crushing heel of lords and princes. The difficulties of such a life were, amongst a peasant population, broken only by wild and riotous orgies of drinking and fornication. While it is clear from Hus’ later letters that he was as riotous as his fellows, nevertheless, he earnestly confessed that he was never guilty of the immorality of his peers. From this the Lord saved him in preparation for greater work.
While his parents were not noted in any way for their piety, and apparently gave little thought to John’s spiritual instruction, they did want him to go to school because they saw education as the only way for John and for them to escape their grinding poverty. In fact, they apparently considered an education for the priesthood to be the surest way to wealth, an irony that spoke volumes concerning the sad state of affairs in the Romish Church.
Although John became a highly educated man, his peasant upbringing remained with him all his life, and his enemies repeatedly taunted him for his crude and rough origins.
In 1385, at thirteen years old, John began his formal education in elementary school at Prachatice. Finishing this part of his education in 1390, he went to the University of Prague, acquiring a B.A. degree in 1393 (at the age of 20); a M.A. in 1396; and a B.D. in 1404. Until he earned his M.A., life was financially difficult; and he earned a bit of money by singing and doing manual work. But upon gaining his M.A. degree, he was qualified to teach, which also he did in the university. He was soon the most popular teacher in the university, partly because he broke old traditions by refusing to be the stern and unbending professor, preferring to laugh, joke, and socialize with his students.
In 1402 John was appointed rector and preacher at the Chapel of the Holy Infants of Bethlehem in Prague. Thus John occupied two of the most strategic positions in all Bohemia – although he was probably unaware of their importance. The city of Prague had a lengthy tradition of reform and could boast some outstanding preachers, who even preached from the Scriptures. To this tradition Hus fell heir. The University of Prague was in the very center of the reform movement and was a place of ferment as new ideas and programs for the church were constantly being discussed. The chapel to which Hus was appointed was raised in 1391 by a rich merchant as a center for reform preaching.
It was about the time that Hus began preaching that he also was converted. It seems as if his conversion was centered in his calling to preach. Prior to 1400 Hus had studied for the priesthood in the firm conviction that this was the way to escape from poverty. But when actually confronted with the task of preaching, his life underwent a fundamental change and he was overcome by the consciousness of the great task of preaching the gospel of Christ. He himself wrote of how important he considered preaching: “By the help of God I have preached, still am preaching, and if his grace will allow, shall continue to preach; if perchance I may be able to lead some poor, tired, or halting soul into the house of Christ to the Ring’s supper.”1
The teachings of John Wycliffe hadcometoBohemiaasearlyas1390. A close alliance had been established between England and Bohemia because England’s king, Richard II, had married Anne of Bohemia, the sister of Bohemia’s king. Scholars had traveled between the countries, and one eminent scholar, Jerome of Prague, had spent some time in Oxford, Wycliffe’s school, where he had absorbed the teachings of Wycliffe. On his return, he had spread Wycliffe’s writings and teachings throughout Prague and the university.
Although reform had been in the air for many years, the spread of Wycliffe’s teachings gave it direction and a doctrinal foundation. John Hus had become thoroughly familiar with the teachings of Wycliffe and, convinced of their truth, he had himself begun to teach them in the university and preach them in the pulpit. It is not surprising that the full fury of the Roman Catholic Church was soon turned against him. When general reform, especially of clerical corruption, was preached, even many Roman Catholics supported the reform movement. But when Hus and others began to preach doctrinal reform as well as moral reform, Rome turned in a rage against the reformers, and especially against Hus.
It seems as if from the time Hus began preaching, Hus was under suspicion. A curious document turned up near the end of Hus’ life which was a collection of quotes from Hus’ preaching and teaching taken secretly and obviously with the intent of using them to charge Hus with heresy. But the more Hus emphasized that at the root of Rome’s evils lay doctrinal error, the more Hus lost the support of the church, of the politicians, and of most of those in authority: It was the students Hus taught in school, and the common people who loved his preaching, who continued to support him.
As the opposition to Hus grew, pressure of many kinds was put on him. First 45 statements, purported to be Hus’ teachings, were condemned. Then preaching was forbidden in all the chapels. Then, when Hus refused to stop preaching, he was excommunicated by the archbishop. Soon he was summoned to Rome for trial; but, knowing that he would never escape Rome alive, he refused to go and was excommunicated by the pope. Even this was not enough; Prague was put under the interdict so that no religious services could be performed in the entire city. Gradually the might of Rome was squeezing Hus into a corner.
In pity for the citizens of the city, and so that the interdict could be removed, Hus left and returned to the area of his hometown. But his new residence soon became a center for preaching in all the surrounding countryside and it gave him the quietness that he needed to write. Perhaps this move did not lessen his effectiveness, but was Gods means of spreading Hus’ teaching beyond the confines of Prague.
At any rate, Rome could tolerate Hus no longer. He was summoned to the Council of Constance in 1414, a council meeting called to settle the papal schism. Three popes were all claiming to be the legitimate pope, and the outrageous situation was making a mockery of the claims of the church.
The Emperor Sigismund promised Hus a safe-conduct both to and from Constance regardless of the outcome of Hus’ trial. And it was for this reason that Hus determined to go, although he was not at all certain that he would emerge from the trial alive. He told his friends, however, that a faithful testimony to his Lord and Savior required that he go.
Hus would have been safe in his hometown. He testified to this in Constance before his accusers when he told them: “I have stated that I came here of my own free will. If I had been unwilling to come, neither that king (Wenzel) nor this king (Sigismund) would have been able to force me to come, so numerous and so powerful are the Bohemian nobles who love me, and within whose castles I should have been able to lie concealed.”
For one month, while in Constance, Hus was permitted to move about freely, even administering the Lords Supper daily in his lodgings, the home of a widow whom he called his “widow of Zarephath.” But Rome’s godless and treacherous clerics could not permit Hus to remain free, and so he was imprisoned on the trumped up charge that he had attempted to escape the city in a wagon.
Three months he was in a dungeon in a Dominican convent with a cell alongside the latrines. On March 24, 1414, he was chained and transferred to a castle dungeon at Gottelieven, where he was handcuffed and bound to a wall at night, while free to walk around in chains during the day. After 73 days, he was transferred to a Franciscan friary where he was subjected to cruel and heartless hearings in efforts to make him recant. Through all his imprisonment he was permitted no books, not even his Bible. He was nearly starved to death at times, and throughout he was so cruelly treated that he suffered from hemorrhage, headaches, vomiting, and fainting spells.
When finally he was brought before the council, he was permitted to say nothing, although repeatedly he made an effort to give the testimony to his faith he longed to give. God did not will that his testimony would be that of a confession of his mouth; his testimony was to be the far more powerful testimony of martyrdom.
The trial was a joke, a violation of every rule of justice, a farce of the worst sort. But during its proceedings, Hus was repeatedly made the object of mockery, derision, humiliating treatment of the worst sort, and a cruel deposition when he was stripped of all his clerical clothing and publicly defrocked.
Finally he was sentenced to burning at the stake, and the council, afraid of spilling the blood of a man, turned him over to the secular authorities to carry out the sentence.
One interesting sidelight gives a glimpse into the magnificent wisdom of God. When Hus was sentenced to death, he appealed to the Emperor Sigismund, who was present, to rescue him, reminding Sigismund of his promise of a safe-conduct. While Sigismund did not have the courage to keep his promise, he did have the grace to blush a fiery red at Hus’ rebuke. All this would not mean so much in itself. But just over 100 years later, Luther went to Worms under the safe conduct of Charles V, emperor of Germany, and made his courageous stand for Scripture. Then too the Roman Catholic Church wanted Luther killed, but Charles insisted on the safe conduct being enforced. When Charles was later asked why he permitted the dastardly heretic, Luther, to escape, Charles replied that he remembered all too well the blush of shame on the face of Sigusmund, when Sigusmund treacherously went back on Hus’ safe conduct.
Several times on the way to the place of execution, Hus attempted to speak to the people, but was in every case silenced. Finally, when the crowd arrived at the stake, Hus, with tears in his eyes, kneeled in prayer. It was noon. Hus’ hands were tied behind him and his neck bound to the stake with a sooty chain. The straw and wood were piled around him up to the chin and rosin was sprinkled on the wood. When he was asked to recant once last time, his response way: “I shall die with joy to-day in the faith of the Gospel which I have preached.” As the flames arose around him, he sang twice: “Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me.” Praying and singing until the smoke began to choke him, he died a faithful martyr of Jesus Christ. To remove all possible opportunities for his relics to be preserved, his clothing was thrown into the fire and all the ashes were gathered and thrown into the Rhine River.
So died this faithful man of God sealing his testimony with his blood.
Hus was a godly man throughout his reformatory career, and he won the grudging praise of his enemies. A Jesuit testified: “John Hus was even more remarkable for his acuteness than his eloquence; but the modesty and severity of his conduct, his austere and irreproachable life, his pale and melancholy features, his gentleness and affability to all, even the most humble, persuaded more than the greatest eloquence.” Another Roman Catholic, later a pope, wrote: “He was a powerful speaker, and distinguished for the reputation of a life of remarkable purity.”
Hus was not the original thinker that Wycliffe was, and indeed borrowed most of his thoughts from Wycliffe – especially Wycliffe’s views of the church as the elect body of Christ and the sole authority of Scripture. But Hus was, what Wycliffe never attained, a powerful preacher of the Scriptures. By preaching he moved a nation. And by preaching he established a church in Bohemia which Rome could never destroy, but which joined the Reformation just over 100 years later.
Rome has the blood of countless people of God on her hands. She has never expressed one word of sorrow or regret for this. The blood of the martyrs still cries from under the altar against Rome: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”
But to Hus, along with the other martyrs of Christ, was given a white robe and the testimony that they should rest a little while until their brethren should be killed as they were.
1. Victor Budgen, On Fire For God. This book is far and away the best biography of John Hus which I have seen. It is accurate, detailed, but interestingly written and in a popular style.