Huss and Jerome, like Wycliffe before them, were in many ways the forerunners of the Reformation. Their work stirred Bohemia and Europe in a way that left a visceral impression on the continent. Together they made a formidable team, much like Luther and Melanchthon after them.
Jan Hus was born on the 6th of July 1373 in Hussinetz near the source of the Moldau River. His family were peasants and his father passed away soon after his birth leaving Huss’ widowed mother to raise him single-handedly. His mother wanted him to gain an education and after he had finished his education at the local provincial school she took him to Prague to enroll him at the university there. She took with her a gift for the rector but lost it on the way and thoroughly grieved by the misfortune and taking it to be an omen of bad luck she knelt down beside her son and implored God to protect him and care for him while he was in Prague. Little did she realize how effective her fervent prayers would be in protecting her son from the trials that lay ahead of him.
Huss gained entrance into the University of Prague as a charity scholar with a full scholarship and took hold of his academic work with a ferocious intensity that belied his pale and thin physical appearance. He was hard-working, meticulous and intelligent and this coupled with an impeccable sense of integrity set him apart from his peers and placed him on a trajectory to attain the priesthood. He became Bachelor of Arts 1393, Bachelor of Theology in 1394 and Master of Arts in 1396 but never became a Doctor of Theology.
Two years after completing his Master of Arts he began to lecture at the University and was soon brought to the notice of the new King of Bohemia Wenceslaus, whose Queen, Sophia, elected Huss as her personal confessor. At this time Huss was an ardent follower of the Roman church and though he had read and studied the writings of Wycliffe he could not see the truth behind Wycliffe’s theses. Huss’s intellectual attainments, his spiritual zeal and his close ties with the Royal family soon led to him being hailed as Bohemia’s favorite son.
His career really began with his appointment to preach at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague in 1402. The Bethlehem Chapel had been founded by a citizen of Prague by the name of Mulhamio who placed great stress on the preaching of the Bible to the common people in their native tongue. When the first pastor of the church, Stephen of Colonia, vacated his seat, Huss was selected to fill his place. Huss ascended the pulpit wielding the word of God like a thunderbolt and his sermons served to rouse the population to self-awareness, leading the spiritually starved masses to flock to the Chapel to hear him speak. The frequency with which Huss preached led him to study the word of God with equal frequency leading to his own spiritual awakening.
Throughout his labors in Prague Huss had a friend and companion in Jerome of Faulfish, a knight who had studied at Oxford and brought back the writings of Wycliffe with him. On his way back from Oxford Jerome had challenged the most learned men of the Universities of Paris and Vienna in relation to the teachings of Wycliffe and had ended up being thrown in prison for his zeal.
Managing to escape he found his way back to Bohemia and came in contact with Huss in Prague. Jerome was a more gifted orator and had a more brilliant mind than Huss but Huss was a man of firmer and more consistent character and Jerome looked up to him as a spiritual leader. They made an excellent team with Huss’s restraint of spirit providing a much-needed balance to Jerome’s fiery impetuosity and while Huss preached from the Pulpit at Bethlehem Chapel, Jerome debated in the Universities and popular assemblies. One a brilliant, charismatic orator and the other an intelligent, even-keeled scholar.
Through Jerome, Huss was once more brought into contact with the writings of Wycliffe and as he restudied these writings he began to see that the author was a man of genuine spiritual depth and experience and was not completely opposed to the reforms he proposed. The writings of Wycliffe were also brought to Bohemia through the agency of the Queen of England. Richard II of England had married the Bohemian Princess Anne who had become an ardent disciple of Wycliffe and when the Queen passed away her ladies in waiting brought back the writings of the Reformer to their native land.
At this point, Huss had already set himself onto the road to Protestantism by placing the authority of the Word of God above that of the Pope or Ecclesiastical Councils. Yet he still considered himself a true son of the Church and would never have dreamed of separating from it even though one of the most basic steps he had taken was one which would ultimately lead to his separation from Rome.
Around this time there came to Prague two young theologians who had recently graduated from Oxford and were disciples of Wycliffe and the gospel. James and Conrad of Canterbury entered the city with the singular purpose of preaching the gospel and throwing down the authority of Rome and they attempted this in spectacular fashion by holding public disputations in the center of the city regarding the supremacy of the Pope. Prague was not ready for this kind of a stir and the authorities soon put a stop to their preaching. Undaunted they cast about for an alternate means they could use to attain their end goal and decided that they would put their artistic talents to use. They set up camp in the city center and drew two contrasting images, one of Jesus, meek and lowly, sitting on a donkey and the other of the Pope, in all his finery and splendor, surrounded by his retinue of Bishops and Cardinals.
What they had failed to accomplish through preaching they accomplished through the agency of their canvasses and the entire city of Prague was struck by the contrast between the founder of the church and its current leader. The art caused such a stir in the city that James and Conrad thought it wise to beat a hasty retreat and leaving Prague they headed back to England. Huss was among those who came to view the paintings and his mind was completely gripped by what he saw. He went back and pored over the writings of Wycliffe again but this time with a mind that was more readily open to accepting the truths that were written there and he began to grasp with clarity the truths that Wycliffe was championing. He started to share these ideas with his parishioners, never dreaming of separating from his beloved church but impassioned to see it reformed.
News of his teaching soon reached Rome via Germany causing Pope Alexander V to issue a bull commanding the Archbishop of Prague, Sbinko, with the assistance of the secular authorities, to stop the spread of the work of Wycliffe. What followed was a proscription of the works of Wycliffe throughout the city of Prague and the burning of 200 handwritten copies of books containing his writings.
This act instead of stunning Huss into silence fuelled the fire that was already raging inside him and he began to attack the doctrine of indulgences with vigor from his pulpit. A second bull was issued summoning Huss to appear before Alexander V in Rome to answer for his teachings in person. Everyone understood that to go to Rome would be certain death and the monarchy and nobility banded together to request a trial in absentia where the case would be presented by Huss’ legal counsel. This was denied and the trial went ahead without him, resulting in the entire city of Prague being placed under Papal interdict.
The gravity of the situation is best understood against the backdrop of the day; the authority of Rome was unparalleled because it held in its hand the power of eternal damnation, the invention of an eternally burning hell being the chief among the Papal trump cards. In order to tick off the Papal checklist on the heavenward way, there were certain ordinances administered by the church, that were crucial; baptism, marriage, burial and the mass being among them. A Papal interdict shut down all these services, thereby shutting out those under its pall from the gates of heaven and sending them all straight to hell.
The city was plunged into a state of superstitious terror as they saw the awful omens of Papal damnation on every side. The sacred images that lined the streets were covered in sackcloth, the corpses lay piling up beside the road unable to receive a proper burial, the church doors were locked. Many called for Huss to be offered up to Rome in order that the city at large would not be sacrificed to the fires of hell.
Huss withdrew to his native village of Hussinetz where he enjoyed the protection of the territorial lord who was his friend and while he was there began preaching throughout the Bohemian countryside to eager audiences. But while he was received with such joy by the masses in the country his own mind was overshadowed with gloom. To obey Rome was sin and yet why should obedience to the infallible bride of Christ cause such an issue? These are the dissonant concepts that Huss struggled to reconcile in his mind.
After things quieted down somewhat in Prague he again returned to the pulpit of his beloved Bethlehem Chapel and preached the truth to eager audiences. The popular sentiment began to swell against the Papacy and many of Huss’s disciples became emboldened to continue their labors but clouds were beginning to gather on the horizon.
The church was in a state of crisis with the humiliating debacle of the schism on one side and the so-called ‘heresy’ of Huss on the other. To bring about some semblance of order Emperor Sigismund called for a council to be convened to discuss the issues at hand, summoning Huss to appear before him in Konstanz, Germany and agreeing to grant him safe passage to the city. The storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the darkest days for Huss and Jerome lay just ahead.
Huss had traveled to Konstanz upon the promise of safe passage by the Emperor and in the document, Sigismund had pledged upon his honor and the power of the Holy Roman Empire the safety of Huss. He enjoyed this protection in the first few days after his arrival in Konstanz but this safety was short lived and at the command of the pope and cardinals he was thrown into prison.
Sickly and enfeebled by the ghastly conditions in prison and weighted down with fetters, he appeared before Sigismund and his council in the Munster of Konstanz. His trial was long and arduous but he firmly maintained his position, denouncing the corruption of the hierarchy of Rome and when ordered to recant or to face a martyr’s death, with a quiet dignity he chose the latter. They sent him back to prison to await his final sentencing and when he was brought back before the council he stood unbowed and unashamed before Sigismund, who had promised him safe passage and had shamefully gone back on his word. He was given one more chance to recant or face death, to which, fixing his eyes on the Emperor he replied: “I determined, of my own free will, to appear before this council, under the public protection and faith of the emperor here present.” All eyes turned to Sigismund as his betrayal of trust was revealed and historians note that the Emperor flushed crimson with rage.
Huss was sentenced to death and once the sentencing was complete the Bishops of the Roman Church began his ceremony of degradation. They first dressed him in the robes of a priest and asked him one last time if he would recant, to which he responded “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.” Then the bishops began to remove his papal priestly robes, each pronouncing a curse on Huss as he performed his part in the ceremony. Finally, they put a dunce cap made of paper on his head on which they had painted the faces of demons and inscribed the word “arch-heretic” conspicuously on the front. Once they had done this they pronounced their final sentence on him saying “Now we devote thy soul to the devil” to which Huss replied, “And I do commit my spirit into Thy hands, O Lord Jesus, for Thou hast redeemed me.” He was then handed over to the secular authorities and led away to be burned. Three times they relit the fire in order to make sure that his body was burned to ashes and when it was done they dug up his ashes along with the soil underneath and scattered it in the Rhine river.
Meanwhile, in Prague, Jerome had received news of Huss’s trial and left Prague for Konstanz in the hopes of offering Huss his help. Upon arrival, he found there was little that he could do on behalf of Huss and as he turned back toward Prague. However, as he was returning to Prague he was arrested and imprisoned in Konstanz. The martyrdom of Huss had led to an outcry among the people, largely due to the fact that he had been sacrificed in violation of an imperial safe conduct. To martyr Jerome in the midst of this was not advisable and he was kept imprisoned, for a year. He might as well have been relegated to the belly of hell and when he was summoned to appear before the council a year later, pale, emaciated, plagued with doubt and riddled with illness his fortitude gave way leading him to recant.
Instead of releasing him they sent him back to prison where the magnitude of his recantation hit him with full force. He was overcome with grief for having denied Jesus and repenting, he resolved to stand his ground. When at last they summoned him before the council again he boldly declared that he could not recant and chose a martyr’s death.
A year later Jerome was brought to the same spot where Huss was martyred and as his executioner prepared to set the fire behind him he requested the fire be lit before his face, stating that if he had been afraid to die, he would not have been standing there. Both Huss and Jerome died with the kind of peaceful dignity that was a testament to the quality of their faith in Jesus and the depth of their assurance in what he offered them beyond the grave. They knew the best was yet to come. Speaking of their deaths an eyewitness had this to say “ Both bore themselves with the constant mind when their last hour approached. They prepared for the fire as if they were going to a marriage feast. They uttered no cry of pain. When the flames rose, they began to sing hymns; and scarce could the vehemency of the fire stop their singing”
The story of the reformers of Bohemia is a testament to the power of conviction and its influence on the human mind. Both Huss and Jerome were willing to sacrifice their lives because they could not go against what they believed to be true. When the final step before them was death, they were able to walk on unafraid because they had walked forward in unquestioning obedience to God at each prior step. Faith is never a leap, we are never called to make great strides but to take small steps and if we are faithful to submit ourselves to the step that is before us we may have the assurance that he will carry us through each unknown step ahead.