Although Wycliff’s contribution to the Reformation was undoubtedly tremendous and he is rightly called the Morning Star of the Reformation, it was John Huss, a disciple of Wycliffe, who is considered by many to be the most important forerunner of the Reformation. Perhaps, this is because unlike Wycliffe, Huss was burned at the stake for what he believed, or perhaps it is because more than 100 years later Martin Luther, the great Reformer, would call himself a Hussite, but never a Wycliffite. As we continue in our series of commemorative articles on the Reformation, I think it is needful for us to be acquainted with this man, who became a tinder to start the slow fire which would burst in brilliance in a hundred years. John Huss is surely standing among the great crowd of witnesses of just men made perfect through the blood of Christ. Let us praise the Lord for such a man, and let us be reminded of the duty of the Christian to honour Christ above man.

Huss the Lay Man

Huss was born in Husinetz, Bohemia, part of the modern Czechoslovakia, on July 6, 1373. His father died early, but God moved a rich nobleman to pay for his expenses so that eventually his mother was able to enrol him into the University of Prague (capital of Bohemia). It was said that on the day of matriculation, his mother carried a present to the rector of the university, but unfortunately lost it on the way. Rather grieved by the loss, she knelt beside her son and implored upon him the blessings of the almighty God. The Lord did eventually answer her prayer, but in quite a different way from what she would have expected—a way that would have pierced her heart like a sword if she had lived to witness it.

Huss led a blameless life and had a consuming passion for knowledge. He became conspicuous as a scholarly and a good student. Two years after his graduation in 1396, he was appointed lecturer of arts; and in 1402 he became the rector of Prague. But God had other plans for Huss.

Huss the Preacher

By the providence of God, in 1382, when Huss was just a boy, King Richard II of England married Anne of Bohemia who had a remarkable love for the Word of God. As a result, a flood of Wycliff’s books began to pour into Bohemia. Although at this time a firm believer of the papacy, Huss was a faithful student of the Scriptures. He read Wycliff, and under the conviction of the Holy Spirit was inwardly awakened and became more and more Protestant.

By God’s appointment, in the same year that Huss became rector, he also became preacher in a chapel, which was built by a private citizen so that the common people could hear the Gospel in their own language. In those days, the whole nation had sunken to the lowest ebb of morality. King, nobles, priests and ordinary citizens indulged without restraint in drunkenness, lewdness, immorality, superstition, etc. Huss preached against these sins with great conviction and power. Moreover, although he continued to hold some of the Roman Catholic doctrines, such as the purgatory, he was clearly Protestant in most of what he preached. He placed the Bible above the authority of Pope or Council; he taught that God speaks through the Bible, not through the Church; he made it clear that only Christ could forgive sins; and he emphasised preaching in the common language of the people and also revised a Czech translation of the Bible.

Huss did not stop there. Providentially, two English theologians came to Bohemia intending to hold public debates on the matter of papal authority. Bohemia was not ready, and arrested them. Determined to carry out their mission, they persuaded their captors that they were also students of art and asked permission to put their brushes to work. Permission granted, they began to paint on the corridor of the house they were residing in. They painted two sets of cartoons. The first set had Christ on one side riding on a donkey with a crown of thorns on His head, while facing it was the Pope, riding on a richly adorned horse, with the triple crown of gold on his head and a robe of purple, gold and precious stones on his back. The other set depicted Christ on one side saying to the woman caught in adultery: “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” while adjacent to it was the Pope selling Indulgences to the people.

The truth that these cartoons eloquently proclaimed opened the eyes of Huss to the sad condition of the Church. He began to attack the abuse of not only clerical but papal authority—an unpardonable sin—and thus ignited the wrath of the papacy.

Huss the ‘Heretic’

When Pope Alexander V heard of what was going on in Prague, he gave a mandate to the Archbishop of Prague to root out the heresies. His specific instruction was to burn the books of any who preached in private chapels and who read the writings or taught the opinion of Wycliffe. The Archbishop, who opposed Huss strongly, was only too glad. More than 200 of Wycliffe’s books, beautifully handwritten and richly ornamented were collected and burned publicly.

This setback, however, did not smother Huss’ zeal. In fact, it inflamed his passion for the truth and he began to attack the sale of Indulgences. When Huss was asked if he was willing to obey the Pope’s command, he replied, “Yes, so far as they agree with the doctrine of Christ. When I see the contrary I will not obey them, even if you burn my body.” By this assertion, Huss clearly identified with Wycliffe who said that if the pope or any other man contraried Christ, then they were the enemies of Christ and must be resisted.

A second mandate arrived from Rome summoning Huss to answer for his doctrine in person. But to obey the summon would be to walk to his grave. So, the king, the queen, the university and many noblemen who favoured Huss greatly, sent representatives to the Pope requesting him to dispense with having Huss to appear in person. The Pope refused to listen. Instead, Huss and all his followers were condemned and ex-communicated. Prague was placed under an interdict as long as they sheltered the ‘heretic.’ Soon, the city looked like it was stricken with a terrible calamity. Churches were closed. Corpses waiting for burial laid by the way side. The images that used to line the streets were covered in sackcloth. In no time, many began to cry: “Let us cast out the rebel before we perish.” Huss was grieved. He cared for his flock, but his presence would only entail hardship for his friends. Thus, reluctantly, Huss was forced to leave Prague.

Back in his hometown, Huss enjoyed the protection of the territorial lord, but his first thought was the flock which he had so lovingly nurtured. He wrote back: “I have retired, not to deny the truth, for which I am willing to die, but because impious priests forbid the preaching of it.” But retirement was the last thing on Huss’ mind as he immediately went about preaching from village to village. He was followed by great crowds who hung on his words and admired his meekness, courage and eloquence. They said, “The Church has pronounced this man a heretic, yet his life is holy, and his doctrine is pure and elevating.”

In 1414, the General Council of Constance was held; and Huss was summoned to appear before it to defend himself. Huss was promised safe conduct by Emperor Sigismund; but he was arrested a month later by papal guards and thrown into a prison just beside the sewerage of a monastery. He was so laden with fetters that he could hardly move, and every night he was fastened by his hands to a ring against the wall of the prison. These, plus the damp and foul air of the cell, made Huss fall terribly sick and almost died.

The emperor’s protest against the arrest was met with: “You do not need to keep your word given to a heretic.” Many other nobilities also interceded for Huss. Availing nothing, they began to work on trying to get him to recant, so that they could save his life. Huss refused: “Let them send the meanest person of the council, who can convince me by argument from the Word of God, and I will submit my judgement to him.” During the trial, it became clear that the condemnation had already been pre-determined. Huss was shouted down when he tried to defend himself. He was accused of all sorts of heresies that he was not even guilty of.

Huss the Martyr

On July 4, 1415, Huss was brought for the last time before the council. He was asked to recant, which he immediately refused. The council censured him for being obstinate and incorrigible, and ordered that he should be defrocked from priesthood, his books publicly burned, and he himself delivered to the secular power for public burning. Huss knelt down and prayed, “Lord Jesus, pardon all my enemies for the sake of Thy great mercy….” He was disrobed; and a paper crown bearing the words “this is the arch-heretic” and depicting demons tearing his soul was placed upon his head. Huss said, “Most joyfully will I wear this crown of shame for Thy sake, O Jesus, who for me didst wear a crown of thorns.” His persecutors cried, “We commit thy soul to the devil.” But Huss replied, lifting his eyes towards heaven, “And I commit my spirit into Thy hands, O Lord Jesus, for Thou hast redeemed me.”

Enraged, they rushed him to the spot where he was to die. Huss fell on the knees and after reciting some Psalms, cried, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit…. I am willing, patiently and publicly to endure this dreadful, shameful and cruel death for the sake of Thy Gospel and the preaching of the Word.” When the stake was driven into the ground and a chain was put around him at the stake, Huss said with a smiling countenance: “My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than this for my sake: why, then should I be ashamed of this old rusty one?”

As wood and straw was piled around him and set afire, the Duke of Bavaria again asked him to abjure. He replied, “No, I never preached any doctrine of an evil tendency; and what I taught with my lips, I now seal with my blood.” Then he said to his executioner, “You are now going to burn a goose (the meaning of “Huss” in Bohemian), but in a hundred years you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” Huss’ words were fulfilled with prophetic accuracy, for almost exactly a century later, Luther would fan ablaze the Great Protestant Reformation with his 95 Theses.

The torch was brought down to the hay and it began to burn as Huss sang bravely and repeatedly, “Jesus, the Son of David, have mercy on me.” He continued until the flame began to lick his face, and he gave up the ghost. As the body burned, a thousand angels must have rejoiced as the goose now fly the shortest route to meet his Master. Meanwhile, here below, the flame that burned Huss was a little spark that would burn unhindered until it burst into a mighty flame in a hundred years. “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him” (Isa 59:19).

J.J. Lim