“Do not try to stop him,” Jesus said to him and to the other disciples, “because whoever is not against us is for us.”
As the time drew near when Jesus would be taken up to heaven, He made up His mind and set out on His way to Jerusalem. He sent messengers ahead of Him, who went into a village in Samaria to get everything ready for Him. But the people there would not receive him, because it was clear that He was on His way to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
Jesus turned and rebuked them, saying, “You don’t know what kind of a Spirit you belong to; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy human lives, but to save them.” Luke 9:49-56
There is a sad fact regarding martyrs—for 1500 of the nearly two thousand years after the Resurrection most Christians who died for their faith in Europe were put to death by other Christians. It would be easy to blame one denomination or certain denominations for their willingness to condemn others who held to different interpretations of the will of God. The truth is, however, that wherever a church group has enjoyed great political influence, the power that corrupts all human institutions has led even the purest of churches to carry out atrocities. Even Baptists, who have stood steadfastly for freedom of religion and the separation of church and state have been party to such violence in the name of faith—the section of the United States where Baptists were in the ascendancy was plagued between 1882 and 1968 with more than 4,000 lynchings.
Jan Hus arrived in Prague, the capital of the country of Bohemia (today the Czech Republic) in the early 1390’s as young university student intent on pursuing an ecclesiastical career that would gain him wealth and prestige. Although he was not an outstanding student, his pursuit of knowledge in theology and the Scriptures began to work a change in his life. Then, not long before he received his first important pastoral appointment, several Czech students returned from England where they had studied under John Wyclif at Oxford. Under Wyclif’s influence Hus found his true calling.
Wyclif was a brilliant clergyman who was profoundly concerned with the corruption and sinfulness of the Church of his day—and at that time the Roman Catholic was the only church. After the Black Death wiped out maybe 25% of Europe’s population in the early 1300’s, this Catholic church went through a period of desperate spiritual crisis. First, the popes abandoned Rome and became virtual captives of the French Monarchy in southern France. Then, the college of cardinals, bullied both by the French and the Romans elected two separate popes that split all the European countries into separate spiritual camps, and finally a church council at Pisa in 1409 tried unsuccessfully to repair the “Great Schism” by electing another pope, which left three different popes vying for supremacy. Meanwhile the morale and the morals of church officials and clergy seemed to get worse all the time.
While all this was happening, Wyclif used his pastoral ministry and his teaching position at Oxford to put forth what were then radical ideas: 1. The church was so corrupted by its own wealth that the government should take away all of the church’s endowment and property to restore the Church to the poverty of Christ. (hmm, actually that would be radical today, too) 2. That anyone who was in flagrant sin could not be a church official, and 3. That the wine and the bread at the Lord’s Supper did not literally change into the body and blood of Jesus. This seems a trivial thing, but it was the most controversial point of Wyclif’s teaching at the time. For centuries the laypeople had been given only the bread at Communion because the Blood of Christ was too precious to be handled by common folks, because they might spill it. Wyclif’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper implied that the Church belonged to all Christians, an implication that Wyclif reinforced by becoming the first translator of the Bible into English.
Jan Hus never held to Wyclif’s radical teachings, but he appreciated and affirmed Wyclif’s call for the purification of the church by making the Gospel available to the common people. Hus determined to answer this call in Bohemia. In 1402 Hus was appointed the preacher at a church called “Bethlehem Chapel” which had been founded ten years earlier to offer services in the local language. He was a man of such integrity, modesty, and convincing passion for holiness, that he won over many of the people, the lower clergy, the nobility, and Queen Sophie (who supported him steadfastly even after his death). Initially, he also won over King Vaclav IV and the new archbishop of Prague, Zajic Zbynek.
Conflict erupted, however, in the faculty of the university between the foreign professors, mostly Germans, who opposed Wyclif’s ideas and the Czech professors who sympathized with them. Since Arbishop Zbynek had committed simony (see Acts 8:18-19), by purchasing his pastoral position at a cost of 4,280 big ones, Hus was bound to run afoul of him sooner or later. It was sooner. From his pulpit Hus represented the way Christ might express Himself: “Everyone who passes by, pause and consider if there has been any sorrow like Mine. Clothed in these rags I weep while my priests go about in scarlet. I suffer great agony in a sweat of blood while they take delight in luxurious bathing. All through the night I am mocked and spat upon while they enjoy feasting and drunkenness. I groan upon the cross as they repose upon the softest beds.” Hus hung twin posters on the walls of Bethlehem Chapel: one showed humble monks kissing the feet of the Pope; while the other showed an humble Christ washing the feet of the disciples. The Archbishop sent spies to report on Hus’s preaching. He also had a public burning of John Wyclif’s books and tried sending soldiers to try to burn down Bethlehem Chapel (they failed). The people reacted so strongly to this abuse of their church that the Archbishop had to flee the city. From the safety of a personal castle the Archbishop excommunicated Hus and sent generous donations to one of the popes, persuading him to excommunicate Hus also.
The Archbishop overplayed his hand, however, when he also excommunicated some royal officials who supported Hus. The King forced the Archbishop to back down. Zbynek would have had to clear Hus of all charges, and it is unfortunate that one of the King’s supporters seems to have poisoned the Archbishop before he could do so.
The new pope supported by Vaclav, a man who himself is alleged to have arrived at his position through judicious use of poison on his predecessor, needed money to finance a military campaign to reconquer Rome. In the late Middle Ages, the preferred fundraiser for Popes was the sale of indulgences. The idea was that because the Pope had St. Peter’s authority and because the saints had a great storehouse of good deeds in Heaven, the Pope could sell some of that goodness to people to get them into Heaven quicker. He directed three of the churches in Prague to be branch offices for this sale on Heavenly goodness.
Hus, like Martin Luther 100 years after him, really got in trouble not because he criticized the pope or the priests or even the doctrine of the church; he got in trouble because he interfered with the church’s finances, although he seems to have objected not to the idea of indulgences but to the corrupt way they were handled. He called for a boycott and sales dwindled. Since the King had been promised a cut of the sales, Hus began to lose the support of his most important ally. When he was again excommunicated, Hus went into exile.
For two years he preached in the open air out in the countryside. He also used the time to write the first of his two major works. In On the Church he wrote that the Church of Jesus Christ does not consist principally of the hierarchy--popes, bishops, and priests—but that it is the people who have been redeemed by Christ. He defended the right of believers to question the actions of the hierarchy, and indeed declared that a person could be a member of the hierarchy and not even be a member of Christ’s true Church. This was what brought about his martyrdom.
In 1414 King Vaclav’s half brother Sigismund, who was emperor of Germany, forced the before-mentioned pope to call a Church Council at Konstanz in southern Germany. Sigismund’s hope was that the council could repair the splits in the Church, and the council did indeed succeed in deposing one pope, getting another to resign, and in leaving the third with no supporters in all Europe. But the council also needed to deal with the challenge posed by Hus. For this reason, Jan Hus was invited to present his case before the council and was offered immunity by Sigismund.
With great confidence Hus set out to Konstanz. Upon his arrival he wrote jokingly to friends, using a favorite word play on his own name which meant “goose” in Czech, “the goose is not yet cooked and is not afraid of being cooked.” But his goose was cooked already.
During his days at the University of Prague, one of Hus’s friends who most defended Wyclif was Stepan of Palec. At a later date when Palec was summoned to appear before the pope, he was held a prisoner for two years until he agreed to renounce all his Wyclifite convictions. He not only renounced them but became an ardent anti-reformer (don’t kid yourself, sometimes persecution achieves exactly what the persecutor wants). Before the Council of Konstanz, Palec drew up a document that stated 42 “heresies” that he claimed Hus held. Among these beliefs were the radical teachings of Wyclif (that Palec himself had once held, but Hus had never held), some actual teachings of Hus distorted and taken out of context, and some that were simply false, such as the claim that Hus taught that he himself was the fourth member of the Trinity.
The underlying issue, however, was real. Hus taught that individual Christians must submit to Christ but could ignore Church officials if they felt their lives were not lived according to Scripture. Charged with putting the Church back together again, the Council could not let this teaching stand. They informed Sigismund that immunity could not be given to heretics, and had Hus thrown in a nasty, damp prison cell next to the latrine, hoping perhaps that they could forget about him and that he would die there.
The people of Bohemia made that impossible. Hundreds of nobles signed and appended their seals to petitions to the Council, asking them to release Jan Hus. Ultimately, the Council had to bring Hus to a church trial in June of 1415.
Pretend with me for a moment that you are one of the more than 18,000 delegates and other clergy to the awesome Church Council at Konstanz. The church that you love and serve has been torn in three, and previous councils have only made the problem worse. The opportunity to restore the unity of the church may never come again. You have read the document written by one of Hus’s (former) best friends and you feel shock and outrage at the way in which the teachings in that document tear at all you hold holy: the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the Church, the church’s property, and even God himself. You see the petitions signed by hundreds of people in Bohemia and you think, “This man has bewitched everyone in his own country.” Is it any wonder that when he comes before the Council, you don’t want to listen to him?
In point of fact, Hus was not allowed to defend himself in the trial. He was presented with the charges and told to renounce what was in them. His final written response is as follows: I, Jan Hus, in hope a priest of Jesus Christ, fearing to offend God, and fearing to fall into perjury, do hereby profess my unwillingness to abjure all or any of the articles produced against me by false witnesses. For God is my witness that I neither preached, affirmed, nor defended them, though they say that I did. Moreover, concerning the articles that they have extracted from my books, I say that I detest any false interpretation which any of them bears. But inasmuch as I fear to offend against the truth, or to gainsay the opinion of the doctors of the Church, I cannot abjure any one of them. And if it were possible that my voice could now reach the whole world, as at the Day of Judgment every lie and every sin that I have committed will be made manifest, then would I gladly abjure before all the world every falsehood and error which I either had thought of saying or actually said! The truth is that, except for his view of the authority of the church, Hus was a good Catholic.
The council condemned him and sentenced him to be burned. He was dressed in a priest’s garments and then stripped in a ceremony not unlike the way an officer would be stripped of his rank. He was crowned with a paper bishop’s crown with three devils and the words “leader of Heretics” on it. He was marched to the stake, where he was chained by the neck to the pole and given a final opportunity to recant. Hus responded in a loud voice: God is my witness that the evidence given against me is false. I have never thought nor preached save with the one intention of winning men, if possible, from
their sins. In the truth of the gospel I have written, taught, and preached to-day I will gladly die.
Hus’s motto was “Truth Conquers All.” Some people said that before his death Hus said, “Today you will roast a lean goose, but a hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net with catch him for you.” 102 years later Martin Luther, who had never read anything Jan Hus wrote, nailed 95 declarations onto the church door in Wittenburg and began the Protestant Reformation. Some Bohemian spiritual descendants of Jan Hus were part of that Reformation, and there are Bohemian Brethren churches in Texas.
Under the Roman empire the blood of the martyrs helped the church to grow. In the late Middle Ages the death of Jan Hus planted the seeds of the great Reformation of the church, and his witness ultimately has had to be reckoned with even by his beloved Catholic church that killed him. Because of the tremendous importance of the Council of Konstanz in Catholic Church history, it is almost impossible that the church could denounce the actions of the Council. Nonetheless in 1999 Pope John Paul II expressed on behalf of the church “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted on Jan Hus.” A committee of Roman Catholic Scholars began to study the case again with a view to being more fair. More importantly, however, in the 1960’s the Roman Catholic Church declared that never again should it persecute anyone for holding religious views contrary to the church’s teaching, and that people have an inalienable right to find God in freedom. If the Church does indeed belong to Jesus Christ, then we must trust Jesus Himself to be the Lord of His Church. I think that is the sum of what Jan Hus was dying to say.