The Life and Martyrdom of John Huss

We are sometimes inclined to think of the Protestant Reformation as something that came out of nowhere. However, long before Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, there were already men whom God was using to prepare the way. One of those men was John Wycliffe. Another was John Huss.

Who was John Huss? (Also referred to as Jan Hus.) John Huss was a man of God. John Huss was a preacher. And John Huss was a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice for confessing the truths of the gospel. And, in a display of God’s glorious providence, God would use the events of John Huss’ life, and his writings, to encourage the young Martin Luther in his own stand for the truth. Only three years into the Protestant Reformation, the young Martin Luther would declare, “All this time, I was a Hussite, without even knowing it!” About John Huss, Luther would go so far as to say this: “Oh, that my name were worthy to be associated with such a man.”

His Life

Born about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia (which today is part of the Czech Republic), John Huss was truly born into a dark age. Among the church leaders there was rampant immorality, appalling illiteracy, and political corruption. The knowledge of the Scriptures was practically non-existent among the priests, and the preaching of the Scriptures even more so. The church leaders oppressed the common folk with such heavy taxes that the church leaders were very wealthy, while the vast majority of lay persons were poverty-stricken peasants.

In God’s providence, Huss was not born into a family that had connections to church leaders. Rather, Huss was born into a peasant’s family. As such, Huss was also born into a class of people that was growing more and more upset with the gross immorality and hypocrisy of a church hierarchy that was placing huge financial burdens upon them.

In 1398, after paying his own way through university at the University of Prague, Huss began lecturing at the university. It appears that at this point in his life, Huss was immersing himself in the writings of John Wycliffe. From Wycliffe, Huss was learning more about the biblical doctrine of the church—the church as the company of the elect.

In 1401 Huss was ordained as a priest, and in 1402 he began preaching at Bethlehem Chapel. It was here in his preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel that Huss really began to show that he not only had a knowledge of the gospel, but also a love for the gospel. Bethlehem Chapel was a unique church in all of Prague, for this church had been built by two men for the express purpose of preaching the Scriptures in the common language of the people (which was very rare). And that is exactly why Huss accepted the offer to serve as pastor in this church. Huss loved the gospel and he wanted to preach the gospel. And Huss wanted the peasants to have the gospel preached to them in a language they could understand. It did not take long for the people to realize that Huss was not an ordinary, ignorant, immoral priest, but rather a gifted, godly, devoted young preacher. And it did not take long for Bethlehem Chapel to become the second largest religious center in the entire city of Prague.

As he started to preach the gospel, Huss also began to preach against the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church and the immorality of his fellow-priests. Huss called for a complete reformation of the lifestyles of the clergy. As a result, two things happened: Huss soon found himself at the head of a popular reform movement; and he soon found himself in disfavor with the Roman Catholic Church.

In the next stage of Huss’ life, there were two main events that shaped how he was going to die. First, around 1403 there was a push in the theological school in Prague to ban the reading and teaching of Wycliffe’s writings. This was, no doubt, due to the fact that Huss had started to teach and preach what Wycliffe had written. As a true servant of God, Huss responded by saying to himself, “The Scriptures need to be preached! The people need to hear the truth! I ought to obey God rather than man!” And so Huss started to focus more and more of his preaching on the doctrine of the church. He started preaching that the church is the company of the elect, the company of the predestinated. The people loved him for it, but Huss became a marked man by the religious authorities. In 1410, Bethlehem Chapel was forced to close down, and all the books and tracts of Wycliffe had to be handed over to the church to be burned. That same year, Huss was excommunicated.

The second thing that shaped Huss’s life was this: In 1412, the King of Bohemia made a deal with the pope that allowed the pope to sell indulgences in Bohemia. Indulgences were little pieces of paper issued by the church that certified that because you gave a certain amount of money to the church, a measure of your sins was forgiven, and your time in purgatory was shortened. Huss could not allow his beloved people to be taken advantage of in such a way. He began nailing posters to doors in Prague, challenging anyone who would publicly debate him on the topic of indulgences. Soon enough, the ban was placed on Huss.

The ban involved the following, among other things: that everyone had to avoid contact with the cursed individual, that they could not offer him food or drink, that he could not be offered sanctuary…. Furthermore, a reward was offered to anyone delivering the heretic—dead or alive….1

Because of the ban, Huss went into exile. During the next two years, hiding in castles, Huss worked on a translation of the Bible into the vernacular. He also wrote his most important work, On the Church.

In 1414, the Roman Catholic Church summoned the Council of Constance. At this Council, among other things, the church was going to deal with this so-called heretic, John Huss. Huss was invited to the Council, and King Sigismund promised him a safe passage to the Council and a safe passage back home. Huss accepted the invitation, thinking in all likelihood that attending the Council would give him an opportunity to defend the gospel.

The king’s promise of safety meant nothing. Soon after his arrival, Huss was seized and thrown into prison. After six months, Huss was given the option of either recanting all his views or being burned at the stake. Huss’ response was this: “I will repeal anything and everything that I have taught, so long as the Council first proves that what I have taught is contrary to the Scriptures.” This, however, was something the Council was not concerned about doing, and Huss was given four more weeks in prison to consider his options. But four more weeks in prison would not change Huss’ mind. Huss would stand faithfully for the truths of the gospel, even unto death. On Sunday July 6, 1415, Huss was burned at the stake, dying a martyr’s death, confessing the name of Jesus Christ with his last breaths.

His Emphases

Why? Why was John Huss willing to be burned at the stake? Why did the Roman Catholic Church want to get rid of Huss so badly? The answer is this: because of two central doctrines that Huss always emphasized in his preaching.

First, Huss emphasized the scriptural doctrine of the church. This is perhaps what Huss is best known for. In his most significant work, On the Church, Huss defines the church as follows: “…the holy catholic—that is, universal—church is the totality of the predestinate… or, all the predestinate, present, past, and future. This definition follows St. Augustine.”2 After quoting from Augustine, Huss says:

From this statement it appears that the holy universal church is one, the church which is the totality of the predestinate, including all, from the first righteous man to the last one to be saved in the future. And it includes all who are to be saved who make up the number…. For the omniscient God, who has given to all things their weight, measure and number…has foredetermined how many shall ultimately be saved.3

This is the exact same doctrine of election and predestination that the apostle Paul had taught, that Augustine had taught, that Gottschalk of Orbais had taught, that Thomas Bradwardine had taught, and that John Wycliffe had taught. And now Huss had been given the eyes to see it too.

But the Roman Catholic Church hated this teaching. It hated this teaching because this teaching threatened the control that the Roman Catholic Church had over the ignorant people. The Roman Catholic Church taught that simply by being a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, you will certainly go to heaven; but as soon as you fall out of the good graces of the Roman Catholic Church, you will automatically go to hell. You can see how that would have kept the ignorant people in fear and under the oppressive control of the Roman Catholic Church. But Huss said, “No! It is not the Roman Catholic Church that determines your salvation; it is God who saves, and who saves according to His own sovereign decree and His own particular and irresistible grace. And,” Huss added, “those who are elect, those who are the true children of God, will be those who are characterized by godliness, and not by the gross immorality and rampant corruption that characterizes so many of the priests.”

The second doctrine Huss emphasized (and the chief doctrine he emphasized) was this: the absolute authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Huss emphasized the Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and conduct. Whatever decisions men might make, whatever decisions the church fathers might have come to, whatever decisions the church councils might have made, whatever the pope might say, it is the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone which are the infallible, authoritative rule for all thinking and for all living. This is how Huss was truly a pre-Reformer. This explains why Luther, over a hundred years later, would say, “All this time I was a Hussite without even knowing it!” And this is ultimately why, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, Huss needed to be put to death. And it is for this reason Huss was willing to die.

Ultimately, the question John Huss raised was this: “Who is the Lord of the church? Who is Lord? The Roman Catholic Church? Or Jesus Christ as He has spoken through His Word?”

John Huss was used by God to begin a reformation in Bohemia that would last all the way to the Protestant Reformation, and beyond. If Huss had been given more time to develop his thinking on other points of doctrine, and if the people actually had access to their own copy of the Scriptures, who knows how far Huss’ reformation would have spread. In God’s perfect timing, however, that would have to wait until over a hundred years later, when God would raise up such men as Luther, Calvin, and others.


1 B.J. Van der Walt, “John Hus: A Reformer in His Own Right,” in Our Reformational Tradition: A Rich Heritage and Lasting Vocation, Institute for Reformational Studies (Silverton, South Africa: Promedia Publications, 1984), 42.

2 De Ecclesia, 3.

3 As quoted in Victor Budgen, On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus (Welwyn, England: Evangelical Press, 1983), 196.