Jan Hus, instigator of the Protestant Reformation

Monument dedicated to Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town Square. Photo: Celia Pérez


The Czech Lands have witnessed many historical events. They have been the scene of hundreds of battles and have been the chessboard of various armies, ideologies and beliefs.

Various Czech personalities have fought and contributed something unique to Czech and European culture. Jan Hus (1370-1415) is a case in point. This Czech theologian and philosopher was a social reformer and the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

A century before Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation in Germany; Jan Hus expounded his ideas and theories about the power and wealth of the Catholic Church in the Czech Kingdom (Kingdom of Bohemia in Western Europe). His firmness and courage in his views about the Papacy led to accusations of heresy and his martyrdom at the stake in Constance (Germany) in 1415.

First steps

Jan Hus was born around 1370 in the small village of Husinec to a humble peasant family, in the southwest of the present-day Czech Republic. Thanks to his intellectual ability, at the age of 16 he was admitted to Charles University. In 1393 he graduated in Arts and in 1408 in Theology. Apart from teaching at the university, he was dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1401 to 1402 and rector from 1409 to 1410.

The university not only gave him a university degree, but also provided him with a great deal of knowledge that helped awaken his inquisitiveness. He studied the English theologian John Wycliff (1324-1384), who believed that the Catholic Church should renounce its riches and that the real power lay in the Bible, so that no intermediary, such as the Church, was necessary to reach God.

The decline of the Church and the Western Schism

To understand why Jan Hus wanted to reform the Church, one must consider the historical context of the time. Jan Hus lived in the late Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries), a period when the Catholic Church was in decline due to corruption and internecine rivalry.

One example of this corruption, which Jan Hus strongly opposed, was the sale of indulgences. According to the Catholic Church, an indulgence is God’s forgiveness for having committed a sin and allowing you to go to Heaven. During the time we are talking about, the Catholic Church sold indulgences to the faithful, promising them forgiveness and subsequent entry to Heaven. This made the Church even richer at the expense of its flock and was one of the reasons why Jan Hus advocated a reform of the world’s oldest international institution.

The papal rivalry of the time is another reason why the historic institution was in decline. From 1378 to 1417 there were two or even three papal sees. One was in the French city of Avignon and the other in Rome. The third was located in Pisa from 1410 onwards. This is known as the Western Schism. The Western Schism caused a major crisis in the Catholic Church. The various European kingdoms were divided between those who supported the Pope of Rome and those who supported the Pope of Avignon.

To understand this dispute, we must go back to the beginning of the 14th century, when the papal see moved from Rome to Avignon. During the Avignon papacy, the French court had too much control over the papacy, so some cardinals and bishops wanted the see to return to Rome to make it more spiritual again and to control papal power from Rome. This was resolved by the Council of Pisa in 1409. At this meeting of cardinals and bishops there were supporters of Pope Gregory XII of Rome and Benedict XIII of Avignon. There was no end to the rivalry between the two and a new pope was elected: Alexander V. Thus, there were three popes until the end of the schism.

A different Church

Jan Hus formulated an idea of a Church quite different from the one that existed at the time. Blanka Zylinská, professor of history and researcher at Charles University in Prague, explains that, according to Jan Hus, the only head of the Church is Jesus Christ, not the pope. Zylisnká points out that “according to Jan Hus, there is no difference between a bishop and the pope, nor between bishops and priests, since Christ only instituted priests and deacons”. Therefore, “the pope and the cardinals can only be obeyed in what is in accordance with the law of Christ, with the Bible, because even the pope can sin,” Zylinská stresses. Thus, the Bible is the only ecclesiastical authority.

For this reason, the Czech reformer did not support the structural and hierarchical systems of the institution. Moreover, Jan Hus criticised the wealth of the Church and its failure to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Zylinská points out that, according to Jan Hus, tithing should be optional, not an obligation. However, “he did not depart from all the teachings of the Church: he recognised the seven sacraments and believed in heaven, purgatory and hell”. He also defended purity of conscience and the morality of life. It is important to remember that the word church comes from the ancient Greek (ἐκκλησία, ekklesia) and means an assembly or meeting of the people. Nothing about this meaning relates to any institution, it is something much simpler.

Jan Hus developed his thought thoroughly at the university. Zylinská highlights that apart from drawing on John Wycliff, he was also inspired by St. Augustine, especially with regard to predestination. Jan Hus held that Christians were divided into the predestined (those who will be saved) and the preordained (those who will not be saved), and that this decision is for God alone, not for cardinals or bishops.

The Hussite movement

The former rector of the Charles University in Prague wanted to become a priest. He prepared for it and was ordained as a priest in 1400. He began to celebrate mass in Czech in the chapel of St. Martin in Prague, but it was not until 1402 that he came to the chapel of Bethlehem, also in the Bohemian capital, as a priest and gradually became a great orator and preacher who attracted many people, both from the common people and the aristocracy. It is important to note that both King Wenceslas IV and his wife, Sophia of Bavaria, agreed with many of Jan Hus’ ideas. Thus the Hussite movement gradually came into being.

The Bethlehem Chapel. Source: Wikipedia

Zylinská argues that the reformer’s words began to annoy the Church in 1402 when he began to share his views with the people. However, Zylinská points out that the archbishop of Prague, Zbyněk Zajíc, was sympathetic to Jan Hus. Later, however, there were disputes between them over Wycliff’s ideas. Therefore, the archbishop banned the English theologian’s books in 1406 and in 1410 ordered them to be burned and excommunicated the Czech reformer. The dispute between them continued “until the archbishop condemned him”, the historian notes. Jan Hus was summoned to appear before the papal tribunal of John XXIII. However, Jan Hus did not attend the court and was even more active in his sermons, both at the university and in the chapel.

In 1412 the Church was authorised to sell indulgences. Jan Hus openly opposed this and many of his followers joined his protests. In July of that year three of his followers were executed. King Wenceslas IV was threatened by a papal anathema and the Bohemian capital was under a papal interdict, i.e. no religious rites could be held while Jan Hus was in the city. This led Jan Hus to leave Prague in November of that year.

Jan Hus left Prague for the countryside, to the village of Kozí Hrádek. Once there, he continued to preach in the Czech language to his neighbours in the municipality. It was then that he decided to put his theories down on paper and wrote De eclessia in 1413. In this work he recorded his thoughts and ideas about the Church. In Zylinská’s opinion, this work was the main reason for his accusation and condemnation.

The Council of Constance

Jan Hus before the Council of Constance. Painting by Václav Brožík

In the autumn of 1414, the Council of Constance was convened to put an end to the papal schism. Zylinská explains that the council was also intended to ensure the unity of the faith and to reform the Church. In addition, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg proposed to put Jan Hus on trial in the present-day German city. Some of the professors of Charles University in Prague supported the emperor because they also considered the Czech reformer to be a heretic.

Jan Hus agreed and arrived in Constance on 3rd November of the same year. He was ready to defend and explain his ideas and theories, but was arrested and imprisoned. During his time in prison he was summoned several times before the Council to renounce his ideals, but he never accepted. He asked where he was wrong and surprisingly the institution did not give him an answer. Finally, on 6th July 1415, he was condemned to be burned at the stake for heresy and his ashes were scattered into the Rhine River.

Zylinská highlights that he was also condemned for disobedience and lack of submission, as well as for his definition of the Church. In addition, the expert tells that Jan Hus wrote letters from his cell in Constance that say: “Faithful Christian, seek the Truth, listen to the Truth, learn the Truth, keep the Truth, defend the Truth until death”. Zylinská stresses that Hus’ truth was not only conformity to the facts, “but the truth of God, he called for firm faith and fidelity to the biblical message, to the Law of God”.

The Catholic Church thought that after the death of Jan Hus, the Czech Lands would no longer be in trouble and that the situation would calm down. However, the old institution did not take into account the many followers that Jan Hus had gained during his years as a priest and teacher. His followers, called the Hussites, protested strongly against the burning of the legendary reformer. Thus, revolts broke out throughout the Czech kingdom. The Church responded by launching crusades against the Hussite movement which precipitated fifteen years of war, turning the Czech Lands into a major religio-political chessboard.

Today, the 6th July is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. An ecumenical service is held in the Bethlehem chapel and “there are also various events in other places,” says Zylinská.  He is a very important figure for the Czechs. Not only for his religious and social reforming role, but also for his contribution to Czech spelling, as he introduced some of the spelling marks that are still used today.

Jan Hus’s words upset the Catholic Church so much that they decided to take his life. The Papacy’s attitude and decision show that it is true that the truth hurts. The teachings of Jan Hus can be extrapolated to the present day and do not necessarily have to be linked to the Holy Scriptures. Unfortunately, it is still risky to maintain a firm ethical stance in the face of certain events and facts. There are still influences and powers that do not allow criticism, let alone investigation. One only needs to read the press to see this serious problem, even though the media do not report half of these events. A case in point is the car bombing of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia while she was investigating the Panama Papers in her country[1].

Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 4.0 Internacional.

[1] Malta car bomb kills Panama Papers journalist The Guardian (16/10/2017) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/16/malta-car-bomb-kills-panama-papers-journalist

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