John Huss

John Huss - Part One

The Reformation that began in England as the result of the teachings of John Wycliffe was not restricted to England. Though Wycliffe had passed from the field of action, the seed he had sown remained and was yet to emerge in a distant land.

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 during the reign of Charlemagne, in the middle to late 7th century. Later, when the darkness of papal superstition covered Europe like darkest night, and 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. All through the fourteenth century these Waldensian exiles continued to sow the seed of pure Christianity in Bohemia.

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.

It was in 1373 that John Huss was born in the village of Hussinetz, from which he took his name. Though his father died while he was yet young, his mother sought an education for him, taking him to Prague upon the completion of his education at the provincial school. 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.

It was in 1402 that Huss’ career truly began with his appointment to the Chapel of Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Chapel was founded by a citizen of Prague in 1392 with the stipulation that the preaching of the Word of God was to be in the mother tongue. By this time, Huss’s studies had led him to the works of Wycliffe and he found himself favorable to many of the reforms Wycliffe proposed.

About this time (1404), two disciples of the gospel from England, both graduates of Oxford, arrived in Prague. Not allowed to preach publicly, they sought another avenue by which to present the truth. 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 royal magnificence of a pontifical procession. Many were drawn to gaze upon the contrasting pictures and such excitement was stirred that the artists deemed it prudent to withdraw for a time.

Among those who came to gaze at the contrasting pictures was John Huss. The scenes portrayed led him to a more careful study of the writings of Wycliffe. Wycliffe’s idea, however, of overturning the hierarchy and replacing it with the simple ministry of the Word was an idea so revolutionary that he initially drew back, unable to accept it.

One of the things, however, 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. When it was discovered that all of the miracles were impostures, all preachers were enjoined to issue a prohibition against all pilgrimages.

Burning Wycliffe's books in Prague

The events transpiring in Prague could not long escape the notice of Rome and soon Pope Alexander V issued a bull commanding the archbishop of Prague to burn all Wycliffe’s writings. Upwards of 200 volumes, beautifully written and some elegantly bound, were burned. Their beauty and costliness revealed that their owners were men of high standing, and their number, before the coming of the printing press and in a day when books were few, reflected on how widely the writings of the English Reformer had been circulated in Prague alone.

About this time Huss, in his preaching, began to attack 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, as well as the university, and many other persons of rank and influence united in requesting that rather than a personal appearance, Huss be allowed to be heard by legal counsel. The pope, refusing, condemned 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. Unrest was beginning and Huss, following the command of Jesus, when persecuted in one place, fled to another, left Prague for his native village where he enjoyed the protection of the territorial lord, who was his friend.

Gradually, as things quieted in Prague and an uneasy calm settled in, Huss return to his post in the Chapel of Bethlehem, speaking out 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 been introduced to Wycliffe’s teachings. Jerome

Though much alike in their great qualities and aims, Huss and Jerome differed in minor points. 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. 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

Perhaps it was necessary that the evil should more fully develop and manifest itself that the eyes of men might be opened. 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 and reformation was impossible.

Contemplating the frightful condition of society and the church, Huss 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.

The war between the popes had, by this time, reached such a level that it threatened to engulf and divide Bohemia. As scandals multiplied around him, and as Huss viewed the contending factions, he spoke more boldly with every passing day. In the midst of this turmoil, the archbishop, believing that if Huss should retire, the movement would go down and peace be restored,  placed Prague under interdict and threatened to continue the sentence so long as Huss remained in the city. In this, however, he was deceived. Two ages were struggling together, and the 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.’” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 3, chapter 3

Huss found pleasant relief in 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 would yet contribute to the emancipation of Christendom.

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