Europe in the 14th century was a continent under siege. The plague had ravaged the population nearly halving it, leading to economic instability and social and political unrest. Added to this was the Papal schism of 1378, an embarrassment to the church that led many to lose confidence in Papal authority. The effects of the plague on the average household had led people to long for greater spiritual depth but the infighting within the established church of the day disillusioned many and prompted them to look for answers elsewhere. Wycliffe was heralding the dawn of a new day in England and his work was spreading like wildfire across the continent, finding its way even into Bohemia through the agency of the Queen of England, Anne of Bohemia. People of all socioeconomic backgrounds devoured the new teachings because they held the answers to the questions that much of the population were asking.
It was into this melting pot of upheaval and change that Jan Hus was born, into a family affected by the prevailing economic strain and touched by the death of a beloved father soon after Huss’ birth. His widowed mother wanted him to be educated and he gained entrance into the University of Prague as a charity scholar. She accompanied him from their small village in the Bohemian countryside to Prague and upon their arrival at the gates of the great city she knelt down and prayed, committing her young son to the protective care of God.
Huss was extremely intelligent and he took hold of his academic work with tireless intensity. This along with a strong work ethic and an impeccable sense of integrity set him apart from his peers. His academic achievements placed him on a trajectory that saw him attain the priesthood. Once he became a priest he was attached to the court of the king and soon became Bohemia’s favorite son. Soon he was placed at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, which had long been a cradle of independent thought, encouraging the people to become acquainted with the scriptures in their own language. Huss embraced this vision and his pulpit became a launchpad for the spread of God’s Word among the spiritually starved masses that flocked to it.
While he was in Prague he met Jerome, a man of sharp intellect and gifted tongue.
Jerome had recently been to England and had brought back with him the writings of Wycliffe, these he gave to Huss, who read them and was convinced of the sincerity of their writer and the truth of their message. He began 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 him to be summoned for an audience with the Pope.
Everyone understood that to go to Rome would be certain death. Huss was speaking against an institution that ate dissenters like himself for breakfast and challenging an authority that had brought stronger powers to their knees. The outlook was grim and the monarchy and nobility banded together to request a trial in Prague. 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 a Papal interdict is best understood against the backdrop of the day; the authority of Rome was unparalleled because it held in its hands the power of eternal damnation. The invention of an eternally burning hell was chief among a vast array of Papal trump cards that struck terror into the hearts of the people, especially at a time when the plague was knocking on almost every door in Europe. In order to tick off the Papal checklist on the heavenward way, there were certain ordinances administered by the church that were considered crucial: baptism, marriage, burial and the mass were among them.
A Papal interdict shut down all these services, thereby shutting out those under its condemnation from the gates of heaven and sending them all straight to hell. Prague was in a state of palpable terror. The threat of the plague was constantly yapping at their heels, devouring citizens like flies and a Papal interdict was the last thing anyone needed.
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 eternal damnation. Huss withdrew to his native village until the furor abated and while there began preaching in the Bohemian countryside to eager audiences.
The truth could not be bowed under the thunderings of a Papal Interdict. 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 the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund, called for a council to be convened to discuss the issues at hand. He summoned Huss to appear before him in Konstanz, Germany and agreed to grant him an imperial safe conduct to the city. An imperial safe conduct was a security detail deployed by the emperor to guard Huss on his journey to and from Constance, thus providing the assurance that his life would not be harmed. The storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the darkest days for Huss and Jerome lay just ahead.
The most poignant and touching element in the story of John Huss is that of his mother, kneeling by the gates of Prague and earnestly entreating heaven on behalf of her son. That prayer was answered again and again on his behalf. There is power in prayer and we would do well to remember that, power in pleading importunate prayer that takes hold of the gracious and merciful arm of God and will not cease its pleadings on behalf of those it loves. God hears those prayers and He answers them—don’t stop sending them heavenward.