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John Hus (a.k.a. Jan Huss) was a religious thinker and reformer, born in Southern Bohemia in 1369. He initiated a reform movement based on the ideas of John Wycliffe. His followers became known as Hussites. The Catholic Church did not condone such uprisings, and Hus was excommunicated in 1411 and burned at the stake in Constance on July 6, 1415, having been condemned by the Council of Constance, in an unfair trial.
John Hus, the famous Reformer of Bohemia, was born at Hussinetz (Husinecz; 75 miles south west of Prague) on or around July 6, 1369. John Huss is a common English designation, but the name is more correctly written, according to Slavic spelling, Hus. It is an abbreviation from his birthplace made by himself about 1399; in earlier life he was always known as Jan, Johann or John Hussinetz, or, in Latin, Johannes de Hussinetz. His parents were Czechs.
Like Martin Luther, he had to earn his living by singing and performing humble services in the Church. He felt inclined toward the clerical profession, not so much by an inner impulse as by the attraction of the tranquil life of the clergy. He studied at Prague, where he must have been as early as the middle of the 1380’s. He was greatly influenced by Stanislaus of Znaim, who later became his close friend, but eventually his bitter enemy. As a student Hus did not distinguish himself. The learned quotations of which he boasted in his writings were mostly taken from Wycliffe's works. He was said to have had a hot temper. In 1393 he received his bachelor of arts, in 1394 bachelor of theology, and in 1396 master of arts. In 1400 he was ordained priest, in 1401 he became dean of the philosophical faculty, and in the following year rector. In 1402 he was appointed also preacher of the Bethlehem Church in Prague, where he preached in the Czech language.
After the marriage of King Wenceslaus' sister, Anne, with Richard II. of England in 1382, the philosophical writings of John Wycliffe became known in Bohemia. As a student Hus had been greatly attracted by them. His inclination toward ecclesiastical reforms was awakened only by the acquaintance with Wycliffe's theological writings. The so-called Hussism in the first decades of the fifteenth century was nothing but Wycliffeism transplanted into Bohemian soil. The theological writings of Wycliffe spread widely in Bohemia. They had been brought over, as is said, in 1401 or 1402 by Jerome of Prague, and Hus was greatly moved by them. The university arose against the spread of the new doctrines, and in 1403 prohibited a disputation on forty-five theses taken in part from Wycliffe. Under Archbishop Sbinko of Hasenburg (from 1403), Hus enjoyed in the beginning a great reputation. In 1405 he was active as synodical preacher, but on account of his severe attacks upon the clergy the bishop was compelled to depose him.
Hus became the first rector of the Czech university, and enjoyed the favor of the court. In the mean time, the doctrinal views of Wycliffe had spread over the whole country. The archbishop brought his complaints before the papal see, accusing the Wycliffeites (Lollards) as the instigators of all ecclesiastical disturbances in Bohemia. Thereupon the pope issued his bull of December 20, 1409, which empowered the archbishop to proceed against Wycliffeism-- all books of Wycliffe were to be given up, his doctrines revoked, and free preaching discontinued. After the publication of the bull in 1410, Hus appealed to the pope, but in vain. All books and valuable manuscripts of Wycliffe were burned, and Hus and his adherents put under the ban. This procedure caused an indescribable commotion among the people down to the lowest classes; in some places turbulent scenes occurred. The government took the side of Hus, and the power of his adherents increased from day to day. He continued to preach in the Bethlehem chapel, and became bolder and bolder in his accusations of the Church. The churches of the city were put under the ban, and the interdict was pronounced against Prague, but without result.
The clergy of Prague, through Michael de Causis, had brought their complaints before the pope, and he ordered the cardinal of St. Angelo to proceed against Hus without mercy. The cardinal put him under the great church ban. He was to be seized and delivered to the archbishop, and his chapel was to be destroyed. Stricter measures against Hus and his adherents, the counter-measures of the Hussites, and the appeal of Hus from the pope to Jesus Christ as the supreme judge only intensified the excitement among the people and forced Hus to depart from Prague, in compliance with the wish of the king; but his absence had not the expected effect. The excitement continued. The king, being grieved by the disrepute of his country on account of the heresy, made great efforts to harmonize the opposing parties. In 1412 he convoked the heads of his kingdom for a consultation, and at their suggestion ordered a synod to be held at Bohmisch-Brod on Feb. 2, 1412. It did not take place there, but in the palace of the archbishops at Prague, Hus being thus excluded from participation.
Propositions were made for the restitution of the peace of the Church, Hus requiring especially that Bohemia should have the same freedom in regard to ecclesiastical affairs as other countries and that approbation and condemnation should therefore be announced only with the permission of the state power. This is wholly the doctrine of Wycliffe (Sermones, iii. 519, etc.). There followed treatises from both parties, but no harmony was obtained. "Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me," Hus wrote in those days, "I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty." The synod did not produce any results, but the king did not yet give up his hope-- he ordered a commission to continue the work of reconciliation. The doctors of the university required from Hus and his adherents an approval of their conception of the Church, according to which the pope is the head, the cardinals the body of the Church, and that all regulations of this Church must be obeyed. Hus protested vigorously against this conception since it made pope and cardinals alone the Church. Nevertheless the Hussite party seems to have approached the standpoint of their opponents as closely as possible. To the article that the Roman Church must be obeyed, they added "so far as every pious Christian is bound." Stanislaws of Znaim and Stephan of Palecz protested against this addition and left the convention. The king exiled them, with two other spokesmen.
Of the writings occasioned by these controversies, that of Hus on the Church (De ecclesia) has been most frequently quoted and admired or criticized, and yet it is in the first ten chapters but a meagre epitome of Wycliffe's work of the same title, and in the following chapters an abstract of a work by the same author (De potentate pape) on the power of the pope Wycliffe had written his book to oppose the common view that the Church consisted only of the clergy, and Hus now found himself in a similar condition. He wrote his work at the castle of one of his protectors in Kozi hradek, near Austie, and sent it to Prague, where it was publicly read in the Bethlehem chapel. It was answered by Stanislaus of Znaim and Palecz with treatises of the same title. After the most vehement opponents of Hus had left Prague, his adherents occupied the whole ground. Hus wrote his treatises and preached in the neighborhood of Kozi hradek. Bohemian Wycliffeism was carried into Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria; but at the same time the papal court was not inactive. In John., 1413, there assembled at Rome a general council which condemned the writings of Wycliffe and ordered them to be burned.
On Dec. 4, 1414, the pope had entrusted a committee of three bishops with a preliminary investigation against Hus. The witnesses for the prosecution were heard, but Hus was refused an advocate for his defense. His situation became worse after the catastrophe of John XXIII., who had left Constance to evade the necessity of abdicating. So far Hus had been the captive of the pope and in constant contact with his friends, but now he was delivered to the archbishop of Constance and brought to his castle, Gottlieben on the Rhine. Here he remained seventy-three days, separated from his friends, chained day and night, poorly fed, and tortured by disease.
On June 5, 1415, John Hus was tried for the first time, and for that purpose was transferred to the Franciscan monastery, where he spent the last weeks of his life. He acknowledged the writings on the Church against Palecz and Stanislaus of Znaim as his own, and declared himself willing to recant, if errors should be proven to him. Hus conceded his veneration of Wycliffe, and said that he could only wish his soul might some time attain unto that place where Wycliffe's was. On the other hand, he denied having defended Wycliffe's doctrine of the Lord's Supper, or the forty-five articles; he had only opposed their summary condemnation. The king admonished him to deliver himself up to the mercy of the council, as he did not desire to protect a heretic. At the last trial, on June 8, 1415, there were read to him thirty-nine sentences, twenty-six of which had been excerpted from his book on the Church, seven from his treatise' against Palecz, and six from that against Stanislaus. Almost all of his articles may be traced back to Wycliffe. The danger of some of these doctrines as regards worldly power was explained to the emperor to incite him against Hus. Of course, Hus had declared himself willing to submit if he could be convinced of errors.
He desired only a more fair trial and more time to explain the reasons for his views. If his reasons and Bible texts did not suffice, he would be glad to submit. This declaration was considered an unconditional surrender, and he was asked to confess:
He asked to be exempted from recanting doctrines which he had never taught; others, which the assembly considered erroneous, he was willing to revoke; to act differently would be against his conscience. These words found no favorable reception. After the trial on June 8, several other attempts were made to induce him to recant, but he resisted all of them.
The condemnation took place on July 6, 1415, in the presence of the solemn assembly of the council in the cathedral. After the performance of high mass and liturgy, Hus was led into the church. The bishop of Lodi delivered an oration on the duty of eradicating heresy; then some theses of Hus and Wycliffe and a report of his trial were read. He protested loudly several times, and when his appeal to Christ was rejected as a condemnable heresy, he exclaimed, "O God and Lord, now the council condemns even thine own act and thine own law as heresy, since thou thyself didst lay thy cause before thy Father as the just judge, as an example for us, whenever we are sorely oppressed."
An Italian prelate pronounced the sentence of condemnation upon Hus and his writings. Again he protested loudly, saying that even at this hour he did not wish anything but to be convinced from Holy Scripture. He fell upon his knees and asked God with a low voice to forgive all his enemies. Then followed his degradation-- he was enrobed in priestly vestments and again asked to recant; again he refused. With curses his ornaments were taken from him, his priestly tonsure was destroyed, and the sentence was pronounced that the Church had deprived him of all rights and delivered him to the secular powers. Then a high paper hat was put upon his head, with the inscription Haeresiarcha. Thus Hus was led away to the stake under a strong guard of armed men. At the place of execution he knelt down, spread out his hands, and prayed aloud. Some of the people asked that a confessor should he given him, but a bigoted priest exclaimed, a heretic should neither be heard nor given a confessor.
The executioners undressed Hus and tied his hands behind his back with ropes, and his neck with a chain to a stake around which wood and straw had been piled up so that it covered him to the neck. Still at the last moment, the imperial marshal, Von Pappenheim, in the presence of the Count Palatine, asked him to save his life by a recantation, but Hus declined with the words "God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have been accused by false witnesses. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached I will die to-day with gladness." There upon the fire was kindled with John Wycliffe’s own manuscripts used as kindling for the fire. With uplifted voice Hus sang, "Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me." Among his dying words he proclaimed, “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” His ashes were gathered and cast into the nearby Rhine River.
Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention (a list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church) into the church door at Wittenberg. The prophecy of John Hus had come true!