Jan Hus: 600 Years Later

On July 6, 2015, the people of Czech Republic among many others around the world commemorated the 600th anniversary of the death of Master Jan Hus on July 6, 1415. Master Hus was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in Switzerland, at the age of 44. The reasons for this tragedy are not easy to sort out. Hus is a complex figure in Church history, and the times he lived in were complex times, full of intense political and religious strife across Europe, including in the kingdom of Bohemia where Hus lived (modern day Czech Republic).

On August 15, 2015, Trina and I were in Prague, Czech Republic with our friends Jan and Magda Fer and their children (see photo below of this family in their home located an hour from Prague). We made a pilgrimage to Prague, enjoying time in this fabulous city with its beautiful castle on the hill, river through the center of the city, and old world old town. But we were there also to visit sites related to the life and ministry of Master Jan Hus, including the Bethlehem Chapel where he preached over 2000 sermons in ten years (1402-1412), which averaged around 200 sermons per year or four per week. Hus was a powerful and gifted preacher, and thousands gathered to hear him proclaim God’s Word. Bethlehem Chapel (Betlemska kaple: see photo of plaque on outside wall of this 15th century building, and the photo of the model of this church) was specially built in the late 14th century, dedicated to preaching God’s Word in the Czech language for the people to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hus became a national celebrity preacher in this “House of Bread” (literal translation of “Bethlehem”), and even the Queen of Bohemia loved coming to hear Hus preach, sitting in a special “oratory” balcony.

Hus was also a professor of Theology, Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1401-2), and later Chancellor at the University of Prague (1409-10). In his inaugural address given on October 20, 1409, he exhorted the students and faculty with these words: “Let us adhere to what is permitted, avoid what is bad for our salvation, not shy away from speaking the truth. Let us not silence words when they are necessary for our salvation, nor hid beneath their glamour; nor retort against words of truth and always abide by words of peace and justice.”

On our Prague pilgrimage, we visited the University on Prague to see an exhibit celebrating the life and legacy of Hus (many of the photos in the gallery below are from this exhibit). The more I read about his life, the more I marveled at the challenges of serving as a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the early 15th century in such a place as Bohemia. Jan Hus was deeply influenced by the writings and ministry of John Wycliffe. Though Wycliffe was never excommunicated or formally charged with heresy by any formal church council, his teachings and writings were viewed as heretical and anyone associating with his writings were viewed by the hierarchy of the Church as suspicious or dangerous to the unity of the Body of Christ. Hus transcribed many of Wycliffe’s writings for the University of Prague library. These same books and writings of Wycliffe were burned in St. Peter’s square in Rome in the early 1400s.

Jan Hus is one of Church history’s lessor known great reformers, and predecessor to Martin Luther who came to fame a hundred years after Hus died at the stake for his faith. Hus challenged the religious teachings and powers of Christendom in his day, including such doctrines as the infallibility of the pope, the political and military power of the Church, and the practice of the sale of indulgences as meritorious. Hus also supported serving Communion in both kinds, offering to the people both the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. This was a radical reform for the practice at the time. As a result, the major symbol of the Evangelical Brethren Church of Czech Republic (Ceskobratrsky Evangelicky, as seen in photo below) is the Chalice. In place of a church steeple, many Czech Evangelical Brethren churches, such as the one found in Kutna Hora where our friend Jan Fer grew up, have a large golden Chalice (see photo below), to celebrate Jan Hus’ reform, offering the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to the people through the full sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, including the Bread and the Cup.

Much like Martin Luther a hundred years later, Hus went into exile from his position as professor/preacher, exiled from 1412 to 1414, under protection in a castle of a nobleman in southern Bohemia. He could have kept in hiding for years, for the nobility and royalty of Bohemia loved him for his political and religious nationalism, bringing honor and dignity and power to the people of Bohemia. During these two years, he wrote his most famous work, “On the Church” (De Ecclesia), a work I read while in Czech Republic on pilgrimage. Here is a quote from this work, comparing the Church to a vineyard: “The holy church is also the husbandman’s vineyard, of which Gregory in his Homilies (Migne, 76: 1154) says: ‘Our Maker has a vineyard, namely the universal church, which starts from righteous Abel and goes down to the last elect person who shall be born in the end of the world, which bears as many saints as the vineyard sends forth branches.’”

In 1414, Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance, with the promise of protection from King Sigismund, who for political expediency, betrayed Hus, had him arrested when he arrived in Switzerland, put on trial (see painting of Hus on trial), and burned him at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415 (multiple images of artwork, woodcuts and other depictions of this tragic event in photo gallery below). The King of Bohemia, along with hundreds of nobility of the Czech people wrote a formal protest for this atrocity of killing their favorite son and preacher, further promoting Jan Hus’ ideals and reforms among the people of Bohemia.

600 years later, what is Hus’ lasting legacy? I presented this question to someone who has served as one of three lay leaders on the national Synod Board of the Czech Evangelical Brethren Church, the highest elected position for this national Christian organization begun by Hus six centuries earlier. Pavel told me that Jan Hus is not easy to understand, for it depends upon who is looking at him, from which perspective. Some have viewed Hus as a Czech freedom fighter. Some today see him as nationalist political leader. Communists celebrated Hus as an early communist who empowered the people. Socialists have seen Hus as a socialist political change agent. Some see him as a radical theologian. Some see him as professor and scholar. Some see him as powerful preacher. Some knew him as pastor and priest. Many know him as bold reformer and precursor to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and Knox. Many only know him as martyr who gave his life for what he believed. Hus is all these things and more.

One of the paintings in the gallery below, found at the exhibit at Bethlehem Chapel, features images of three men: John Wycliffe is striking a spark, Jan Hus is holding a candle, Martin Luther is carrying a torch. This is the progression of the Reformation of the Church from the 1300s into the 1500s. Hus and Luther are found together in many pieces of art from the 1500s. In a woodcut by Vierplus, Hus and Luther offer the Lord’s Supper, including the Bread and the Cup together to the Saxon Prince-electors. In a woodcut from Gotha from 1546, features two trees. Upon one tree, a bound goose is being burned alive. Under the other tree is written the word “Swan”. The text reads, “The goose’s skin is burned, it is shielded in this skin for a hundred years, then rises as a white swan containing the goose’s unburned strength.” Jan Hus was born in the Bohemian village of Husinec. The word “Hus” in Czech means “goose”, and Jan often referred to himself as a goose. Luther is often depicted as a wild swan which takes flight. In a Dutch painting by J.B.Muyckens, Luther is writing his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church with a large goose feather, held by Master Jan Hus. By God’s grace, today, there is much healthier relations between protestants and catholics, as seen in the image below where I am warmly greeted by Czech Franciscan brother Elias in downtown Prague.

We read in the 600th Anniversary Jan Hus Exhibit at University of Prague, that Saxon Prince-elector Friedrich the Wise had a dream on the night before Luther’s appearance in Wittenberg. In this dream, he sees a monk, Luther, writing his Theses on the Wittenberg Church doors in 1517, using a goose feather so long it reached Rome, where it knocked the Pope’s tiara to the ground. Jan Hus’ last words, as he gave his life to Christ in the flames at Constance were a prophecy of the coming of Luther: “They roast the goose today, but in a hundred years, a swan will come, which they will not be able to roast.”