Trial of John Huss


Condemnation and Death of Huss

At the next meeting Sigismund and Huss were brought face to face. The chains that bound Huss were a silent but eloquent commentary on the imperial safe conduct. The emperor, however, consoled himself with the thought that while he had been willing to deprive the Reformer of his freedom, he would at the last extremity save his life. There were two things, however, that Sigismund had failed to take into consideration. The first was the firm and unyielding resolve of the Reformer; the other was the awe in which he, himself, held the Council. Too late, he found, as did Pilate, that having once compromised his conscience, there was no room to change. “And so, despite his better intentions, he suffered himself to be dragged along on the road of perfidy and dishonour, which he had meanly entered, till he came to its tragic end, and the imperial safe conduct and the martyr’s stake had taken their place, side by side, ineffaceable, on history’s eternal pages.” Wiley, History of Protestantism, book 3, chapter 4

While Huss differed from the Church of Rome, it was not so much on dogmas as on great points of jurisdiction and policy. While these differences directly attacked certain of the principles of the papacy, they tended indirectly to the subversion of the whole system. This was perhaps a far greater revolution than Huss perceived, or perhaps intended; for until the last, he did not abandon the communion of the Roman Church. He admitted to the Divine institution and office of the pope, though he made the efficacy of their official acts dependent on their spiritual character. “He held that the supreme rule of faith and practice was the Holy Scriptures; that Christ was the Rock on which our Lord said He would build His church; that ‘the assembly of the Predestinate is the Holy Church, which has neither spot nor wrinkle, but is holy and undefiled; that which Jesus Christ calleth His own;’ that the Church need no one visible head on earth, that it had none such in the days of the apostles; that nevertheless it was then well governed, and might be so still although it should lose its earthly head; and that the Church was not confined to the clergy, but included all the faithful.” Ibid., 158, 159

Already enfeebled by illness and by his long confinement, he was exhausted and worn out by the length of the appearance and the attention demanded to rebut the attacks and reasoning of his accusers. At length, the Council rose, and Huss was led back to prison.

During the interval between Huss’ second and third appearance, the emperor tried ineffectually to induce the Reformer to retract. Not only was he motivated by a genuine desire to save Huss’ life, but doubtless also out of a regard for his honor which was deeply at stake in the issue. The Reformer, while most willing to abjure those things of which he was falsely accused, refused to be moved regarding those truths he had taught. “‘He would rather,’ he said, ‘be cast into the sea with a millstone about his neck, than offend those little ones to whom he had preached the Gospel, by abjuring it.’” Ibid., 160

At last the matter was brought to the point of whether or not he would submit implicitly to the Council. “ ‘If the Council should even tell you,’ said a doctor, whose name has not been preserved, ‘that you have but one eye, you would be obliged to agree with the Council.’ ‘But,’ said Huss, ‘as long as God keeps me in my senses, I would not say such a thing, even though the whole world should require it, because I could not say it without wounding my conscience.’ What an obstinate self-opinionated, arrogant man! Said the Fathers.” Ibid. Even the emperor became irritated at what he regarded as obstinacy.

This was the great crisis in the Reformer‘s life. It was as if the Council had laid aside all charges of heresy and asked only that he give assent to its divine authority as an infallible council. From that moment, Huss had greater peace of mind than at any time since his ordeal had begun, and he calmly began to prepare for his death.

During his imprisonment before his third and final hearing, Huss was cheered by a prophetic glimpse of the dawn of the better days that awaited the church of God.

While awaiting his final hearing and sentencing, Huss’ thoughts often turned to the chapel of Bethlehem in which he had proclaimed the gospel. One night he “saw in imagination, from the depths of his dungeon, the pictures of Christ that he had painted on the walls of his oratory, effaced by the pope and his bishops. This vision distressed him: but on the next day he saw many painters occupied in restoring these figures in greater number and in brighter colours. As soon as their task was ended, the painters, who were surrounded by an immense crowd, exclaimed: “Now let the popes and bishops come! They shall never efface them more!” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 1, chapter 6, 30

As the Reformer related his dream to his faithful friend, John de Chlum, he was advised to occupy his thoughts with his defense, rather than with visions. “’I am no dreamer,’ replied Huss, ‘but I maintain this for certain, that the image of Christ will never be effaced. They have wished to destroy it, but it shall be painted afresh in all hearts by much better preachers than myself.’” Ibid

Thirty days elapsed and the Council again called for Huss. The charges against him were again read, following which Huss refused to abjure. This he accompanied with a brief recapitulation of the events that had led up to that moment. He ended by saying that he had come to this Council of his own free will, “ ‘confiding in the safe conduct of the emperor here present.’ As he uttered these last words, he looked full at Sigismund, on whose brow the crimson of a deep blush was seen by the whole assembly, whose gaze was at the instant turned towards his majesty.” Wiley, History of Protestantism, book 3, chapter 4

Huss condemned

Sentence of condemnation was now passed upon Huss. There then followed the ceremony of degradation. One after another of the garments of a priest were brought forward and placed upon him. They next placed in his hand the chalice, as if he were about to celebrate mass. He was then asked if he were willing to adjure. “‘With what face, then,’ he replied, ‘should I behold the heavens? How should I look on those multitudes of men to whom I have preached the pure Gospel? No; I esteem their salvation more than this poor body, now appointed unto death.’ ” Ibid

As the fire began to burn, Huss began to loudly sing, “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.” Even his enemies were struck with his heroic bearing. One of the observers, Æneas Sylvius, who afterwards became pope and whose testimony is not liable to suspicion, commented on the heroic demeanor of both Huss and Jerome at their executions. It was said that the vehemence of the fire could scarcely stop their singing.

When Huss bowed at the stake, it was the infallible Council that was vanquished, not the martyr. Already Bohemia was awakening; and within a hundred years, Germany and all Christendom would arise from their slumber to the awakening prophetically seen in the martyr’s dream.

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