John Huss and the Reformation in Prague

The Reformation that began in England as the result of the teachings of John Wycliffe was not restricted to England. Though the work appeared to have stopped with the translation of the English Bible, such was not the case. Though Wycliffe had passed from the field of action, the seed he had sown remained and was yet to emerge in a distant land. Oceans could not stop the spread of truth, nor could national boundaries prevent its triumph. In the year 1400, Jerome of Prague returned to his homeland from England, bringing with him the writings of Wycliffe. It was this seed of truth that opened the eyes of John Huss.

Bohemia and Moravia correspond to what is now the western most part of the Czech Republic. It is believed that Christianity first entered this area in the wake of the armies of Charlemagne (742–814), who established his rule over most of western and central Europe. These Western missionaries, ignorant of the Slavonic tongue, could really effect little conversion of the Bohemian people beyond a nominal acceptance of Christianity. “Accordingly we find the King of Moravia, a country whose religious condition was precisely similar to that of Bohemia, sending to the Greek Emperor, about the year 863, and saying: ‘Our land is baptized, but we have no teachers to instruct us, and translate for us the Holy Scriptures. Send us teachers who may explain to us the Bible.’” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 131.

As a result, the Bohemian church, though adopting Eastern ritual, remained under the jurisdiction of Rome. Later, as the schism between the Eastern and the Western Churches fully developed, the Greek liturgy was discouraged by Rome and the Latin rite was introduced. At length, in 1079, Pope Gregory VII issued a bull forbidding the Oriental ritual to be used any longer, or for public worship to be celebrated in the common language. This order effectively closed every church and Bible in Bohemia. So far as instruction in truth was concerned, total night had set in.

At this dark hour, when it appeared that the Christianity of the nation would completely disappear, the arrival of the Waldenses and Albigenses, fleeing from persecution in Italy and France, breathed new life into the movement. They spread themselves in small colonies all over the Slavonic countries, making their headquarters in Prague. Thought they did not dare to preach publicly, they were zealous evangelists and carried the truth from door to door, keeping the truth alive for two centuries before John Huss appeared.

Because Bohemia was so far removed, it was difficult for Rome to enforce its commands. In many places worship continued to be celebrated in the tongue of the people. Powerful nobles were, in many cases, the protectors of the Waldenses and native Christians who brought prosperity to their lands. All through the fourteenth century these Waldensian exiles continued to sow the seed of pure Christianity in Bohemia.

There were three pioneers of truth who preceded Huss in Bohemia. The first, John Milicius, or Militz, was a man of learning and an eloquent preacher. Whenever he appeared to speak, he addressed the people in the common tongue; and the cathedral was thronged. In hope of finding rest for his soul by fasting, he made a trip to Rome. Upon his arrival, he was shocked to find that the scandals he had spoken out against in Prague paled in comparison to the enormities that were practiced in Rome. In departing, he wrote over the door of one of the cardinals, “Antichrist is now come, and sitteth in the Church.” Ibid., 132.

No sooner had he returned home than the archbishop of Prague, under orders of the pope, placed him in prison. Soon, however, murmurs began to be heard among the citizens; and fearing an uprising, the archbishop released him after a short incarceration. He lived to die in peace at eighty years of age in 1374.

With the passage of time, papal persecution was instigated against the confessors in Bohemia. They no longer dared to celebrate communion using the cup openly but sought retreat in private homes or the yet greater concealment of woods and caves. Finally, in 1376, the stake was decreed against all who dissented from the established rites.

John Huss was born in 1373 in the village of Hussinetz on the edge of the Bohemian Forest. He took his name from his birthplace. His father died while he was yet young. Having completed his education at the provincial school, his mother took him to Prague. There at the university he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1393, Bachelor of Theology in 1394, and Master of the Arts in 1396. Two years later, he entered the church and rose rapidly to distinction until the queen, Sophia of Bavaria, selected him as her confessor.

It was in 1402 that Huss’ career really began when he was appointed the preacher at the Chapel of Bethlehem. At this time, the level of morality had sunken to an extremely low level. In addressing these abuses, Huss aroused opposition, but the queen and archbishop acted as his protectors, and he continued to preach.

The Bethlehem Chapel was founded by a certain citizen of Prague in 1392 with the stipulation that the preaching of the Word of God was to be in the mother tongue. In presenting the Bible truth to his listeners, Huss himself grew in faith and understanding. When he began to study the works of Wycliffe, he found himself not altogether opposed to the reforms Wycliffe proposed.

In preaching from the Bible, Huss had begun a movement the significance of which he little realized. Having placed the Bible above the authority of pope or council, he had, without realizing it, entered upon the road of Protestantism, though at the time he had not thought of breaking with the Church of Rome.

One of the events that took place and which helped to encourage the intercourse between England and Bohemia was the marriage of Richard II of England, to Anne, sister of the king of Bohemia. On the death of the princess, the ladies of her court, on their return to their native land, brought with them the writings of Wycliffe, whose follower their mistress had been.

About this time (1404), two theologians from England, graduates of Oxford and disciples of the gospel, arrived in Prague. They came planning to hold public disputations, and they chose as their opening wedge the primacy of the pope. The country was scarcely prepared to be open to such a message and the authorities promptly put a stop to their efforts in that direction. As they considered what avenue they might take to pursue their purpose, an idea presented itself. Both of these would-be missionaries had studied art as well as theology and they proceeded to demonstrate their skill in drawing in the corridor of the house in which they were staying. On one wall they portrayed the humble entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. On the other they displayed the more royal magnificence of a pontifical procession. There was seen the pope, dressed in his pontifical robes, the Triple Crown on his head, with trumpeters proclaiming his approach. Many were drawn to gaze upon the contrasting pictures. Such excitement was stirred that the artists deemed it prudent to withdraw for a time.

Among those who came to gaze at this antithesis of Christ and Antichrist was John Huss. The effect that it had upon him led him to a more careful study than ever of the writings of Wycliffe. He could not, however, accept the sweeping measure of reform that was advocated by him. The idea of overturning the hierarchy and replacing it with the simple ministry of the Word was an idea so revolutionary as to make him draw back.

One of the things that helped to open Huss’ eyes was the presentation of relics and the lying wonders that were attributed to them. Many doubts were expressed regarding the cures, and the archbishop ordered an investigation into the truth of the matter. As a result, it was discovered that all of the miracles were impostures. In the summer of 1405, under threat of excommunication, all preachers were enjoined to publish to their congregations the episcopal prohibition of pilgrimages.

The events that were transpiring in Prague could not long escape the notice of Rome. In response, Pope Alexander V issued a bull commanding the archbishop of Prague to burn all the books written by Wycliffe. Upwards of 200 volumes, beautifully written and elegantly bound, some of which were ornamented with precious stones, were burned to the tolling of bells. Their beauty and costliness showed that their owners were men of high standing, and their number reflected on how widely the writings of the English Reformer had been circulated in Prague alone.

This act further inflamed the zeal of Huss, and his sermons now attacked indulgences as well as the abuses of the hierarchy. A summons now arrived from Rome demanding that Huss appear in person to defend his doctrines. To obey was certain death. The king, the queen, the university, and many other persons of rank and influence united in sending an embassy requesting the pope to dispense with Huss’ personal appearance, allowing him to be heard by legal counsel. The pope refused to listen and went on to condemn him in absentia, laying the city of Prague under interdict.

On every side there were tokens of doom. The church doors were locked; corpses lay by the wayside awaiting burial. The images which stood at the street corners were covered with sackcloth or laid prostrate on the ground.

A tumult was beginning to disturb the peace; and Huss, following the command of Jesus, when persecuted in one place, fled to another. Leaving Prague, he retired to his native village where he enjoyed the protection of the territorial lord, who was his friend. From there he traveled to the surrounding towns and villages, preaching the gospel as he went.

“The mind of Huss, at this stage of his career, would seem to have been the scene of a painful conflict. Although the Church was seeking to overwhelm him by her thunderbolts, he had not renounced her authority. The Roman Church was still to him the spouse of Christ, and the Pope was the representative and vicar of God. What Huss was warring against was the abuse of authority, not the principle inself. This brought on a terrible conflict between the convictions of his understanding the claims of his conscience. . . . This was the problem he could not solve; this was the doubt that tortured him hour by hour. The nearest approximation to a solution, which he was able to make, was that it had happened again, as once before in the days of the Saviour, that the priest of the Church had become wicked persons, and were using their lawful authority for unlawful ends.” Ibid. 139. It is doubtful that even as he stood at the stake that Huss had the clearness of sight that Wycliffe had developed. He was unable to separate in his mind the true church from the organized structure that represented to him the ship in which all were to obtain safety.

Gradually things quieted in Prague and an uneasy calm settled in. Huss longed to return to his post in the Chapel of Bethlehem. Upon his return, he spoke even more boldly against the tyranny of the priesthood in forbidding the preaching of the gospel.

About this time, the Lord brought Jerome into Huss’ life. Jerome, a Bohemian knight, had returned from having spent some time at Oxford where he had imbibed of Wycliffe’s teachings. As he passed through Paris and Vienna, he challenged the learned men of these universities to dispute him in the matter of faith. As a result, he was thrown into prison but made his escape and returned to Bohemia to spread the doctrines of the English Reformer.

Though much alike in their great qualities and aims, Huss and Jerome differed in minor points to be sufficiently diverse to compliment each other. Huss was the more powerful character while Jerome was the more powerful orator. Their friendship and affection for each other grew and continued unbroken until they were united in death.

About this time, three popes were all contending for supremacy, filling Christendom with strife and tumult. Each, casting about to find means with which to raise armies to support his claim to St. Peter’s chair, offered for sale the blessings of the church. The bishops and lower levels of the clergy, quick to learn from the example set them by the popes, enriched themselves by simony. Of the practices of piety, nothing remained but a few superstitious rites. The words of the prophet certainly applied. “And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.” Isaiah 59:14.

While this is truly a distressing and melancholy spectacle, perhaps it was necessary that the evil should more fully develop and manifest itself that the eyes of men might be opened and they might see that, “It was indeed a ‘bitter thin’ that they had forsaken the ‘easy yoke’ of the Gospel, and submitted to a power that set no limits to its usurpations, and which, clothing itself with the prerogatives of God, was waging a war of extermination against all the rights of men.” Ibid., 141. As long as men believed that the church was the ship of salvation by which all must stand—the ark of God, which would weather every storm to arrive at last at the heavenly shore—the supremacy of Rome was assured. As long as this delusion was systematically taught and fondly received, reformation was impossible.

As Huss contemplated the frightful condition of society and the church, he was led to study more deeply the Bible and the writings of the early church fathers. He began to see more clearly how far the church had digressed from the purity of doctrine that had once been delivered to the saints. It was at this time that he wrote his treatise On the Church, a work that revealed the extent of his emancipation from the shackles of church authority.

This tract was soon followed by another entitled The Six Errors. In this tract, he set forth a list of errors of the Roman Church, which included: 1) the error of transubstantiation; 2) the confession required of all church members as to their belief in the saints and the pope; 3) the pretension of the priests to remit the guilt and punishment for sin; 4) the implicit obedience required of all to their ecclesiastical superiors; 5) the failure to make a distinction between a valid excommunication and one that is not; and 6) simony.

About this time, the war between the popes reached such a level that it threatened to engulf a divided Bohemia. The king and priesthood of the nation supported John XXIII, while the common people and many of the leading citizens sided with Ladislaus, King of Hungary, who supported Gregory XII. As Huss viewed the contending factions, he spoke plainer and more boldly with every passing day. The scandals which multiplied around him no doubt aroused his indignation, and the persecutions he endured no doubt strengthened him in purpose. In the midst of this turmoil, the archbishop placed Prague under interdict and threatened to continue the sentence so long as Huss remained in the city. He was persuaded that if Huss should retire, the movement would go down and the war of factions would subside in peace. In this, however, he was deceived. Two ages were struggling together, and movement was now beyond the power of any man to control.

Huss, fearing that his presence in Prague might embarrass his friends, again withdrew to his native village. It was from there that he wrote for the first time the prophetic words that were later to be repeated, each time taking a more exact and definite form. “’If the goose’ (his name in the Bohemian language signifies goose), ‘which is but a timid bird, and cannot fly high, has been able to burst its bonds, there will come afterwards an eagle, which will soar high into the air and draw to it all the other birds.’” Ibid., 143.

It was pleasant to lave the strife of Prague for the quietude of his birthplace. Here he could devote himself to study and communion with God and reflect on the result of the work that he had begun. He had been able to partially emancipate his country from the darkness of error. One more act remained for him to perform—the greatest and most enduring of all. As the preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, he had largely contributed to the emancipation of Bohemia; but as the martyr of Constance, he was to largely contribute to the emancipation of Christendom.