In the historic town square of Prague, the Czech Republic, there is a large bronze statue of Jan Hus, the Christian pastor, scholar, and reformer who was burned at the stake for heresy by the Roman Catholic Church in 1415. In the Czech Republic today, Hus is primarily remembered as the father of Czech nationalism and for his resistance to foreign domination, but he stood for much more. Christians in our challenging times should know his courageous witness to Jesus Christ and devotion to the Bible as the Word of God.
Jan Hus was born in or about 1373 to a peasant family in the town of Husinec (literally “Goosetown”) in southern Bohemia. The name Hus – meaning “Goose” – is from his birthplace. We don’t know much about his youth, but he was an able enough student to rise above his humble beginning and graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Prague (Charles University) in 1396. He joined the faculty that same year and later became dean and rector of the university. In 1402 he also became pastor of Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, and under his popular and passionate preaching it became a center of spiritual renewal and reform throughout Bohemia.
In Hus’ day, Bohemia like the rest of Europe was pervasively if nominally Christian. Virtually everyone was baptized, and Christianity was the assumed foundation of every aspect of life. But many knew the Church had become corrupt and lost its way. The hierarchy was less marked by piety than by avarice, political intrigue, and moral decadence. From 1378 to 1417 the papacy itself was divided into two and then three rival claimants, one in Rome, one in Avignon, and a third in Pisa, each proclaiming himself the true Pope. Jan Hus was not alone in seeing that the condition of the Church was a poor reflection of Jesus Christ.
Sometime in his student years, the Holy Spirit lit a fire for Christ in the heart of Jan Hus. He came upon the writings of the English church reformer John Wycliffe (1320 – 1364). In Wycliffe’s proclamation of the gospel, Hus discovered a living faith based not on the teachings of the Church and authority of the Pope, but on the Word of God found in the Bible. Hus fell in love with the Jesus Christ of Scripture, and found he couldn’t reconcile the Savior he came to know with the corrupt condition of the Church.
Hus began to do things that today we take for granted but were radical and dangerous in his time. At Bethlehem Chapel he preached in the vernacular of the common people rather than the traditional Latin. He taught directly from the Bible and encouraged his listeners to read it for themselves – again, unheard of in the medieval Church. He spoke out against corruption, most notably the practice of simony, by which Church positions were sold to the highest bidder. Aristocratic families could buy Church offices for their sons, guaranteeing a steady income without having to work or even live in the parish they ostensibly served. Hus saw this for the corruption it was, and challenged the clergy to genuinely serve Christ and their people. He exposed the rampant immorality of the clergy and called them to repentance and purity.
Most dangerous for Hus, he challenged the authority of the papacy and curia. Convinced of the truth of Scripture, he taught his congregation they should obey the Pope and Church teaching only insofar as they were in line with the Bible. He was especially moved by the words of the Apostle Peter in Acts 5:29 – “We must obey God rather than men.” Not surprisingly, his teaching was popular with the common people and enraged the Church hierarchy. He was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated.
In 1414 Hus was summoned to a Church council in Constance, Germany, that was convened to deal with him once and for all. He was promised safe conduct to the meeting, and perhaps naively, believed he would have opportunity to defend his teachings before the gathered leaders of the Church. Instead he was thrown in prison. After steadfast refusal to recant his views he was executed by burning at the stake on July 6, 1415.
Perhaps most astonishing about Hus, at least to modern ears, is his courageous stand on the Word of God and refusal to recant and save his life. He could easily have escaped the flames if only he renounced his teaching and submitted to the authorities. Friends pled with him to recant, but he said, “It is better to die well than to live wickedly.” As he was led to the stake he was heard to recite from Psalm 31: “In Thee, O Lord, do I put my trust,” and “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
The Council of Constance ordered that all copies of the writings of Hus be burned, but they didn’t quite succeed. Almost exactly one hundred years later, a young Catholic monk in Germany came upon the writings of Jan Hus, and couldn’t stop reading. That curious monk was Martin Luther. He later wrote, “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”
In the Leipzig Debate of 1519, Luther defended his reform movement against the Roman Catholic apologist John Eck, who accused Luther of being a Hussite. This was a loaded charge because Hus had been officially declared a heretic and burned, the direct implication being that Luther deserved the same fate. Taking his stand on Scripture, Luther steadfastly sided with Hus. In 1520 he wrote, “I have taught and held all the teachings of Jan Hus, but thus far did I not know it . . . we are all Hussites and did not know it.” Luther delighted in reminding his students that Hus – the “Goose” – had been “cooked” for defying the Pope, and they should be prepared for the same.
What can Christians today learn from Jan Hus? It would not be fair to either Hus or Roman Catholics to claim him as a sort of proto-Protestant. He was not. He was a Roman Catholic who sought to reform the Church of his time by the teaching of the Word of God. Christians today of every background can be inspired by his courage in standing on Scripture in defiance of the winds of culture and the intransigence of corrupt institutions. We are pressured today on every side to conform our belief and practice to the shifting standards of society rather than the Word of God in Scripture. Hus chose to stand on Scripture alone, and faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires that we do the same.
Pastor Phil Moran