John Huss (1369-1415)

John Huss (1369-1415)

The views of John Wycliffe quickly traveled beyond England, crisscrossing Europe. Around the year 1400 his ideas began to take root in Bohemia (a region now known as the Czech Republic), where Wycliffe was called the fifth evangelist.  

Roman Catholic bishops in Bohemia banned Wycliffe’s writings. But John Huss (Jan Hus), a brilliant Bohemian professor and priest, had already embraced Wycliffe’s ideas and was regarded as their chief defender. Through his preaching, Huss won almost the whole of Bohemia to his views.

Huss taught many ideas which later became the main teachings of the Reformers. He taught that the Holy Catholic (Universal) Church is the total number of the predestined; and Christ alone is the Head of the universal Church. He taught that one could be in the visible Church and yet not be a real member of it. Huss denied the sacerdotal power of the priesthood to open and shut the kingdom of heaven. The Church can exist without cardinals and a pope, and in fact for hundreds of years there were no cardinals; and before emperor Constantine, there was no pope. Through ignorance and the love of money the pope may err and has erred. Therefore, the people should obey the church only when the church agreed with the Bible. 

Huss lived during the time of the Great Schism, when there were two popes, John XXIII in Avignon, and Gregory XII in Rome. Pope John promised indulgences to all who would come to his aid against the king of Naples who was the protector of Pope Gregory. When Huss condemned the selling of indulgences, Pope John excommunicated him. Huss declared his excommunication null and void. 

In 1415, an imperial herald asked Huss to defend himself at a church council (hoping to end the Schism) in the German city of Constance. The Holy Roman Emperor (Sigismund) promised to protect Huss on the way to and from the council. Huss accepted his offer, but a few weeks later he was put into prison by Pope John, who applied canon law claiming that it is okay to deceive heretics because they have no rights. 

Huss was left to languish in prison for more than eight months. Still, he refused to retract his teachings, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, since He will not base His judgment on false witnesses and erring councils but on truth and justice.”

Then, without being given an opportunity to defend himself, he was brought from the dungeon to the cathedral in Constance. There, on July 6, 1415, his birthday, in the presence of the bishops and the emperor he was stripped of every article of priestly attire with curses. The cardinals drew demons on a paper hat and jammed it on Huss’ head. Huss was led forth from the cathedral to a place before one of the city’s gates. As soldiers tied him to a pole and prepared to burn him alive, Huss prayed: “Lord Jesus, please, have mercy on my enemies.” He died singing psalms. 

In addition to burning Huss, the Council ordered that the writings of Wycliffe should be burned and that his body should be dug up and burned. 

A crusade was organized against the followers of Huss, and for many years Bohemia was ravaged by war. But the spirit of reform lived on, and when the Reformation began in Germany, opposition to the Roman Church was already strong. 

Rev. David Fagrey

A Brief History of the Reformation (1517-1648)

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