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John Huss Jan Hus

Compiled & Edited David L. Brown, Ph.D.

John HussIn the library at Prague there is displayed a triad of medallions dated 1572. The first contains the figure of Wycliffe striking sparks from a stone, the second Huss kindling a fire from the sparks, the third Luther holding high a flaming torch. The medallions tell in symbolic form the story of the Reformation as it began, continued, and crystallized under the touch of an Englishman, a Bohemian, and a German.

Like Luther, John Huss was born into a peasant family. His surname means Goose. John often employed it, and gradually his friends took it up. He enrolled at the University of Prague, where in 1393 he was given the degree of Bachelor of Arts, the next year Bachelor of Divinity, two years later Master of Arts.

The Roman Catholic Church ordained him a priest. He taught at the university and preached on Sundays. Eventually, he became rector of the Bethlehem Chapel. Embracing Wycliffes tenets, he proceeded to propound them with all boldness both orally and in the form of written articles. The university authorities, fearful of the consequences, forbade him to teach evangelical doctrines and placed his articles under ban.

The archbishop of the see of Prague, one Zbynek Zajic of Hazmburk, at first showed a friendly regard for Huss. In 1405, Pope Innocent VII sent word to Zbynek to stop the propagation of the Huss teachings. The prelates attitude underwent a sharp change. He turned against Huss, and renewed the public condemnation of his writings.

A crisis developed in the university. Two thousand Bavarian, Saxon, and Polish professors and students left, reducing the student body to five hundred. Immediately the authorities, recognizing the unusual ability of Huss, promoted him to the office of university rector.

He was now a controversial figure. Swarms of people filled the Bethlehem chapel whenever he preached. He grew more and more vocal in his attacks on clerical abuses, and openly questioned the Catholic doctrine of the Mass.

Zbynek ordered his writings burned. Two hundred of his manuscripts on non-theological subjects, such as philosophy and logic, were seized and thrown into the fire. The archbishop placed the city of Prague under interdict.

Events began to move rapidly. Zbynek died under mysterious circumstances. Rumors suggested he was murdered. John Stokes, an Englishman, succeeded him. A sworn foe of all that Wycliffe and Huss stood for, he determined to quench the flames Huss was fanning throughout Bohemia.

Then the papacy opened a sale of indulgences in Prague. Huss, supported by his friend Jerome of Prague, denounced the practices with blazing indignation. Three of his sympathizers were killed for protesting. The pope accused Huss of heresy, and commanded his arrest. Even though popular sentiment favored Huss, he had to flee from Prague and live in the country, a virtual exile.

In exile, he published his most notable work, De ecclesia, (Concerning the Church). In it he challenged the authority of the pope and cardinals. They were not the Church, he said. The Church had once existed without them. The foundation of the Church was Christ, not Peter. Significantly, he took the same position on this that Augustine had in his Retractions.

A general council was called to convene at Constance, Switzerland. The pope summoned Huss to appear. His friends warned him that he was likely walking into a trap. But, Emperor Sigismund promised him safe conduct to and from the council. Taking the Emperor at his word, Huss got on his "strong and high spirited" horse Rabstyn and headed for Constance arriving in November of 1414.

Within a month he was arrested and cast into a dungeon in the Dominican convent. The Church authorities changed his prison twice prior to his trial the next summer. First violent illness, then starvation, almost rendered the trial unnecessary.

The preliminary hearing turned out to be a dreadful fiasco. Whenever Huss would attempt to answer the charges of heresy or explain his position, wild shouts would go up, "Down with your sophistries (false reasoning). Say, Yes or No!" At the trial proper he was confronted with his written pronouncements questioning the authority of popes and cardinals, with demands that he repudiate them. He replied that he would do so only if the statements could be proven to be false to Scripture. "You are an obstinate heretic," his judges told him.

His accusers then said, "We take from you the cup of redemption." Huss replied, "I trust in the Lord God Almightythat He will not take away from me the cup of His redemption, but I firmly hope to drink of it today in His kingdom."

On July 6, he was conducted to the city cathedral. After they had celebrated the Mass, the ecclesiastical leaders had him led into the church and seated on a high stool. The sentence was read: "The holy council, having God only before its eye, condemns John Huss to have been and to be a true, real and open heretic, the disciple not of Christ, but of John Wycliffe." Without one dissenting vote, he was remanded to the civil authorities for execution. Six bishops stripped him of his vestments, crushed on his head a cap covered with pictures of the devil, and committed his soul to the devil.

At this point, I will share the account published in The Massachusetts Spy and Worcester County Advertiser Wednesday, September 27, 1826.

The procession moved on Huss, absorbed in pious meditation, was only awake to joyful hope; and the momentary weakness which had come over him in the church, had given place to the most calm and settled fortitude. Arriving at the gate of the Episcopal palace, he saw a pile of wood, and believed that he was already at the place of execution. He was soon undeceived, for the wood being fired, he saw his writings brought forward, and successively thrown into the flames. A smile played on his features, which he tried but in fain to smother while he witnessed this vain experiment, and turning to the crowd with the utmost composure, he declared that his writings were consumed, not for the errors which they contained, but to gratify the ignoble rage of his adversaries.

The sun shown bright, but a shower of rain had fallen, and within the circle to which Huss was admitted to view the destruction of his books; he saw a large earthworm in this path. He stepped a little aside to avoid treading on it. One of his guards, who observed this place his foot on the reptile with an air of bravado.

"I would call the worm my brother," said the martyr! "and truly we are brothers in misfortune, for we perish by the same cruelty."

He now approached the large area, which had been cleared from the crowd, who still anxiously pressed forward wherever the vigilance of the guards was relaxed. I was opposite the gate of Gottlebian, and between the gates and gardens of the suburbs. In the center he saw an accumulation of faggots, amidst which a strong post was erected. Several men were employed in carrying more wood in the open space, and four large bundles of straw were placed inside the faggots. A man of ferocious aspect stood near the post about which the faggots were being piled. He was engaged in disentangling the coils of a rope, which had been recently immersed in water, and tow or three chains were laid across a bench, with he appearance of careful arrangement. Huss had no difficulty in recognizing the man, his executioner; and in the place to which he had now been conducted, the spot on which he was to die.

Though the unfortunate Huss was surrounded by being who had wrought themselves up to suppose that the torture and death of a virtuous man would be an acceptable spectacle to a God of mercy, there were many among the crowd, whose piety fell far short of that zeal which could contemplate the meditated sacrificed without shuddering horror. These now made their voices heard, remarking, that in whatever way the sufferer had before offended, he prayed most devoutly, and some wished he might be indulged with a confessor. But a priest who had been present at the council, called out, on perceiving the impression, which the martyrs words had mane, that being a convicted heretic, those entrusted with the punishment of his offences ought not to suffer him to be heard. At the same time, he declared that no confessor could be allowed to approach one so accused, cut off from, and already dead to, the church.

The executioner then took from his person a white coat, in honor of his anticipated deliverance. A frock, prepared with pitch and tar, was brought to him, and wearing this, he was conducted to the stake when a partial murmur ran through those who had been admitted within the guarded space. Huss started. An idea crossed his mind that possibly Sigismund had relented; but this was immediately dismissed; when the priest, who had before spoken to reprove the cries of the crowd, advanced to give expression to the feeling which had just manifested itself.

Huss at the StakeHuss was first tied round the middle with cords. A chain was passed over these, and chains were fastened to his left leg and his neck. Thus securely bound to the stake, the faggots provided for the occasion were piled to the chin; straw was placed beneath and between them where it was thought likely most effectually to contribute to the fierceness of the blaze.

A moment of awful expectation followed. The executioner approached with a lighted torch; when the Duke of Bavaria rode up to Huss, and loudly called to him, demanding that he should now renounce his errors; at the same time reminding him that in a few moments it would be out of his power to do so.

"I thought the danger already passed" he replied; "but happily, I am nothing tempted to gainsay what I have advanced. I have taught the truth, and am now ready to seal it with my blood. Ultimately it shall prevail, though I may not see it. This day you kindle the flames of persecution about a poor and worthless sinner; but the spirit which animates me, shall, phoenix-like, ascend from my ashes, soar majestically on high through many succeeding ages, and prove to all the Christian world, how vain this persecution, how impotent your rage."

The martyr turned as far as his bands would admit, and looked towards the executioner, who now approached to kindle the fire. His movements caused some of the outer faggots to fall. Upon this, the flaming torch was laid down, till the wood could be replaced. The Bohemian saw the torch resumed, and in the same instant he heard the crackling of the lighted straw. The rapidly extending blaze spread round the pile; while, seizing the last moments that remained to him on earth, Huss was heard to sing out in prayer, "Christ, Thou Son of the living God, have mercy on me." He was proceeding, when the rising flames seized his beard, eyes and eyebrows, and an involuntary start threw the cap from his head. His voice was again heard above the roaring of the volume of fire, which now burst from the top of the pile behind the stake. Utterance failed him; but his uplifted eyes evinced (showed), in that awful moment, that his heart was still awake to devotion, though his tongue was mute forever. His face became violently distorted, and bowing down his head he was seen to expire. Enough wood hand not been provided, and the fire failed before the mortal remains of the martyr were more than half consumed. His clothes had been thrown on the pile in aid of the faggots; but all was insufficient, and a new supply of wood was necessary. The burning being completed, carried away in a cart, and thrown into a neighboring river, that the admirers of the Bohemian might possess nothing to recall the memory of their martyr.

The council had stated that it had done nothing more pleasing to God than to punish the Bohemian heretic. Huss was judged an heretic because he believed in the authority of the Bible above the pope and Canon Law. He believed that Salvation from sin was by Grace through Faith in Christ Jesus alone. The council never dreamed that the fire it lighted under Huss in Constance that day would burst into a mighty conflagration that was to sweep inexorably over the whole world with the true Gospel of Christ.

Resources used in this article: 

1684 Foxes Book of Martyrs; 
Dr. David Otis Fullers brief biography on Huss; 
Christian History - Issue 68 on Jan Hus; 
The Massachusetts Spy and Worcester County Advertiser Wednesday, September 27, 1826

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