Jan Hus

  By Timotheus, 2005; Revised
Jan Hus[1] was a Czech Reformer in the early 1400s. His writings would have great influence on Luther; later, the remnants of his followers the Hussites would reorganize into the Moravian Church. He was a vital link between the earlier dissidents Wyclif and Valdus and the Reformation. Through his life, and even more through his death, he would influence the religious world for centuries to come.

Jan Hus was born in either 1369 or 1373. The date is unknown.[2] He was born in the Czech village of Husinec, from which he took his name. His primary influence was his dissension against the Roman Catholic Church[3]; his followers would extend his influence after his death. To understand fully what brought Hus to his stature in the realm of Reformers, we must search further back in time, firstly to an Austrian and two Czechs who lived before him: Conrad Waldhauser, Jan Milicz of Kromeriz, and Matthias of Janov.

Conrad Waldhauser had been an Augustinian monk from Austria, who, traveling as a preacher, came to Prague in 1363; he was invited to stay by Charles IV of Bohemia. He preached fiery sermons about people who loved luxuries – especially the religious orders.[4] The idea that priests should give up worldly possessions and places of power was eventually a powerful strain of Hus’s teaching and one of the Four Articles that Hussites rallied around during the crusades. Waldhauser’s preaching inevitably created enemies, and he eventually went to Avignon[5] to answer them, where he died
Jan Hus
Jan Hus
in 1369. He had, however, planted a powerful seed.

This seed took root in Jan Milicz of Kromeriz, who, inspired by Waldhauser’s preaching and by reading the Bible, turned from his former life at the imperial chancellery, spent a year in solitude, and began preaching in the year 1364.[6] He provided a Czech voice to the reform movement, lived in poverty himself, gathered a band of followers, and denounced strenuously lives of corruption, focusing more on the Church than Waldhauser. Most famously he was given by Charles IV possession of a large brothel called “Venice”, where he converted most of the prostitutes, turned the rest out, and made it into a community (called “Jerusalem”) of the poor Christian brothers who followed him. In 1373 he was accused of heresy by those angry over his reforms; going to Avignon to defend himself, he died before his case could be heard.[7] “Jerusalem” was disbanded; again, however, a seed had been planted.

Matthias of Janov had been converted to Milicz’s cause in 1372; he, however, left to study at the University of Paris, where he studied until 1381.[8] Returning to Prague, he summed up and expounded upon the reform ideas in a book called Regulae veteris et novi testamenti: Rules of the Old and New Testaments. One predominant theme in his arguments was that communion should be given often to the laity.[9] Non-orthodox views like these about the Eucharist would play the most dominant role in the Four Articles and be the most important doctrine of the Hussite movement. Clerical opposition forced him to recant the most radical parts of his book; he died in 1394.

The three paved the way for Hus’s teachings to spread rapidly through Bohemia. Hus himself was influenced by them, but he was still more influenced by an Englishman, John Wyclif. Wyclif had dissented from traditional Catholic teaching in Britain; he wrote extensively on philosophy and various aspects of Christian doctrine, including the Eucharist. He is most famous for his translation of the Latin Vulgate into English. He was a Realist in philosophy, which first brought him to the attention of the Czechs at the Charles University in Prague, who were feeling dominated by the Germans, mostly Nominalists. His works were copied by no other than the young Jan Hus, earning his keep at the University.[10] One student who would later be a great friend of Jan Hus, Jerome of Prague, went to England in 1401 to find out more, and brought back with him Wyclif’s theological works.[11] We cannot doubt that Hus eagerly read them and was greatly convicted over them. This, combined with the preaching of the three earlier Czech reformers, turned Hus from a quiet student at the Charles University to greatest preacher Bohemia had ever seen.

The magnitude of Wyclif’s influence on the Hussite movement can be seen that in almost all Catholic correspondences referring to them, they are referred to as “Wyclifites” rather than “Hussites”. Hus’s fate was virtually sealed at Constance when he refused to declare that Wyclif was a heretic. Besides these major influences on Hus, there were two other theological movements at least somewhat beneath the surface. Bohemia had been originally converted to Christianity by Cyril and Methodius, the Orthodox missionaries; later they were converted from that to Catholicism. Much of Hus’s teachings reflected Orthodox beliefs. While this was most likely not a direct influence, it cannot have been useless in the general acceptance of his teachings by the Bohemian population.[12] There was also a relatively large underground group of Waldensians in Bohemia. Hus denied being influenced by them, but Chelczicky certainly was, and they again must have had a certain effect on the general acceptance of Hussitism by the Czechs.[13]

In 1402, Hus was appointed to the pulpit of the Church of the Holy Innocents at Bethlehem in Prague. [14] This was popularly called the Bethlehem Chapel, and it would be Hus’s public forum for his views until his death. In 1403, the Germans at the Charles University began making attacks on Wyclif and his adherents. Hus led the struggle against them. They, however, were outvoted on all matters; the University was divided into four “nations”: Bohemian, Polish (dominated by German Silesians), Saxon, and Bavarian; thus the Wylclifites were outvoted three to one. This continued until 1408, when the Council of Pisa elected Alexander V as pope, trying to reconcile the two conflicting papacies of Rome and Avignon; this, however, failed to get enough traction and now there were three popes instead of two. Vaclav IV[15], who was king of Bohemia, had ambitions to be King of the Romans[16], and thought that by transferring his support from the Roman pope to the Pisan pope, his ambitions could be furthered. This was opposed, however, by the Archbishop of Prague, Zbynek Zayik, and Vaclav needed support from the University to go ahead with his plan. The three German nations were in opposition, though the Czech nation was in support, so Vaclav was outvoted as well. Not wanting to be cheated of his victory, Vaclav used his royal privilege to combine the three German nations into one, and give the Czechs three votes. Germans left the University in droves, and Vaclav got his support.[17]

This embittered Zbynek against Hus, who had been in support of the king. Zbynek had formerly been lenient towards the Wyclifite ideas, but now he turned in full force against them, making two of Hus’s greatest allies in the movement, Stephen Palecz and Stanislav of Znjomo recant. On July 16, 1410, Zbynek had Wyclif’s books burned; when Hus took to the public stage in defense of them, Zbynek excommunicated him; when Hus refused to leave the Bethlehem Chapel, Zbynek placed Prague under an interdict. King Vaclav simply commanded it be disobeyed.[18] Demoralized, Zbynek fled Prague in 1411 and died shortly after. But soon Hus would have greater enemies than a mere archbishop.

In September 1411, the Pisan pope John XXIII[19], eager to further his political ambitions, preached a crusade against Ladislas of Naples, claimant to the Neapolitan throne and current ruler of that kingdom.[20] He authorized a sale of indulgences in all lands owning submission to him to help finance the crusade. In May 1412, the papal representative, Vaclav of Tiem, arrived in Bohemia. Hus had previously railed against indulgences, but never while they were being sold, and he was asked by the king (who would receive some of the proceedings)[21] and the new archbishop to keep quiet and focus his mind on other things. Hus refused and spoke strenuously out against the indulgences.[22] This destroyed his relationship with the king and also the profits of the salesman; popular demonstrations against the indulgences erupted, greatly aided by Jerome of Prague. The most famous of these was when a courtier named Vok Voksa of Valdsztejna led a mob of students with one dressed as a prostitute, representing the Roman Church; the procession went through the streets of Prague and at its culmination several books and a copy of the indulgence bull were burnt.[23] This hardly lent to Hus’s image when reports came back to Rome.

Hus was called to trial in Rome, and when he did not appear, John XXIII pronounced major excommunication on him through his cardinal Stefaneschi, with an interdict on Prague as long as he remained in the city.[24] Hus had lost the king’s friendship, and to cross a pope that you were owning obedience to in these times of schism was dangerous. Hus left Prague in October of 1412.[25] He was rarely to return, only a few days here and there. He lived in the south of Bohemia where the nobles were friendly to him[26]; he preached around the countryside, sowing the seeds for what would later become Taboritism. Inside Prague, Nicholas of Dresden, Jan Jesenic, Jan Zelivsky, and Jakoubek of Strzibro continued to preach Hus’s cause – and give it a new radical bent.

Hus used his enforced break from official preaching to set into writing his views. From this time to his death Hus would be a prolific writer; his masterpiece, De ecclesia (Treatise on the Church) was published in June 1413.[27] He set down in writing a denunciation of the Roman Church’s practices, including the belief that the priest creates the body of Christ at the Mass; the belief that faith should be had in the Virgin, pope, and saints; the belief that priests could forgive sins and absolve punishment and guilt; the belief that inferiors were to obey superiors in all things; the harshness of excommunication; and the toleration of simony.[28] Many parts of this book were copied from Wyclif’s writings, and throughout it all courses the sentiment that the papacy was not a divine institution, and, therefore, not infallible, but rather the Bible was to be turned to for instruction in all things. De ecclesia would be heavy ammunition for Hus’s inquisitors at Constance.

Hus had appealed from the pope to a council;[29] in 1414 a council was called, yet not one of the type he had envisioned. Indeed, Hus’s case would be a mere footnote in this council, which healed the Great Schism, deposing all three popes and electing a fourth. For the sake of church unity, the cases of Hus and another heretic, Jean Petit from France, were tried at the council. The council had been called at the instance of Sigismund, half-brother of Vaclav IV and currently King of the Romans. Vaclav had struck a bargain with Sigismund that he would accept his coronation if Sigismund would find a way to relieve external pressure about Hus[30]; thus, when Sigismund brought about a great meeting of the nations to reconcile the Church to itself, he included Hus for his half-brother. Thus Hus departed Bohemia in October 1414. He appears to have been both optimistic and leery of the Council; sermons he wrote (but never gave) exhorted the churchmen of the Council to come around to his view of things; but he wrote his will before he left and expressed doubts about the safe-conduct Sigismund had given him for the duration of the journey.[31]

Hus was right to doubt the safe conduct. Having arrived with two nobles of Bohemia, Vaclav Duba and Jan of Chlum[32] on the third of November, he was been thrown into a dungeon by the end of that month. Though it was the pope’s men who had treated Hus so, Sigismund refused to be firm about the safe conduct given, because he feared the dissolution of the Council. He later justified his actions by saying that faith need not be kept with a heretic.[33] With the loss of Sigismund’s protection, Hus had been virtually condemned then and there.

Unhealthy conditions brought Hus close to death, and in January he was moved to another dungeon, where he won the sympathy of his jailer, Robert, and wrote tracts for him; some still survive.[34] His situation worsened when John XXIII[35] who, though having arrested Hus, treated him somewhat well, fled the council to avoid having to abdicate. Hus’s case was now in the hands of the cold-hearted Archbishop of Constance.[36]

Jerome of Prague had promised Hus that if Hus was in danger he would come to Constance to aid him. He did indeed arrive on April 4, 1415, affixing a placard to the city gates declaring Hus’s orthodoxy, but, fearing the wrath of the council, he left later that month. What he did not know was that the council had issued a citation against him; he was arrested and incarcerated for fleeing it. Jan of Chlum continued to lobby the emperor for Hus’s cause, and succeeded in one regard – that Hus would not be condemned untried. Hus was placed on trial on the 7th of June.

By the account of Mladenowice, Hus’s hearing had the form of a kangaroo court. The hearing of June 7 was adjourned for disorder; in two subsequent hearings, Hus was interrupted so frequently that he could not effectively speak.[37] Thirty articles of heresy were ascribed to Hus; many were fabricated or derived from misinterpretation of Hus’s writings. Most of the rest were views held by Wyclif, and it was for failing to ascribe Wyclif as a heretic that Hus was chiefly condemned.[38] Hus declared that if it could be proved from Scripture that he was a heretic, he would recant – evoking Luther’s words at Worms more than a hundred years later. Despite this declaration he could not be sufficiently persuaded to recant; an official condemnation of Hus was scheduled for July 6, 1415, with the execution, burning at the stake, immediately following.

During the month in prison that would comprise the rest of his life, Hus wrote feverishly. Letters survive from him to Vaclav IV, to Jan Jesenic, and to the mintmaster of Kutna Hora[39], among others. The most important letter was written on June 21 to Havlik, who had succeeded him at the Bethlehem Chapel; the subject was utraquism. Utraquism would become the single most recognizable attribute of Hussitism. From the Latin sub utraque specie, or “in both kinds”, this doctrine taught that the Lord’s Supper should be given to the laity in both the bread and the wine, instead of just the bread as the Roman Church taught. The origins of this doctrine among the Hussites are unclear. It is possible it originated from Jerome of Prague, who brought it back from his visits to Lithuania, where Eastern Orthodoxy, which taught utraquism, had a strong presence. It is possible that it was brought to Prague by the Dresden masters, especially Nicholas of Dresden. It is possible that it was an original idea from a literal reading of John 6:53[40].[41] At any rate, Jakoubek of Strzibro had begun the practice shortly after Hus left; a story has Hus saying to Jakoubek, “Go slow with it, Kubo, and when, God willing, I return, I’ll help you faithfully.” Jakoubek did not “go slow” and the Council of Constance condemned the practice on June 15. Hus felt the need to write a defense and in his letter to Havlik, who opposed utraquism, he wrote, “Do not resist the sacrament of the Lord’s chalice; against it there is not scripture but only custom, which I think grew up out of negligence.”[42]

On July 6, the council convened at the cathedral in Constance. The bishop of Lodi preached a fiery sermon about the extirpation of heresy; the list of charges against Hus was read, and Hus was silenced when he tried to respond. New and fantastic charges were brought against Hus – that he had regarded himself as a fourth member of the Trinity.[43] Hus appealed from the council to Christ; this was hissed as contemptible heresy.[44] Hus pled the safe-conduct from Sigismund; the king, present, blushed, but said nothing. Sentences were pronounced deeming Hus a heretic and commanding the burning of his books; Hus asked that God forgive his enemies. Hus was then defrocked, and a paper cap with painted devils on it was placed on his head; it bore the word Heresiarch. The bishop commited Hus’s soul to the devil; Hus commited it to Christ.[45] The council then turned Hus over to the Count Palatine, commanding Hus to be burned as a heretic.

Arriving at the place of execution, Hus sang the 31st and 51st Psalms, and prayed.[46] He was denied a confessor. At the last moment he was again offered a chance to recant, but he refused, saying “God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have by false witnesses been accused. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, I will die today with gladness.” The flames were kindled, and Hus died chanting “Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me.”[47] His clothes were burned, and all the ashes were cast into the Rhine lest his followers make a relic out of them.[48] Jerome of Prague, Hus’s “beloved brother”, would recant after a wretched imprisonment in September, however, being consigned once more to prison, he was retried in May of 1416, during which he recanted his recantation with great boldness and eloquence that even the man who would become Pope Pius II attested to it. Such words did not guarantee his liberty, however, and he was condemned and burnt on the 30th of May.[49]

The news of Hus’s execution was not received well in Bohemia. Hus had been greatly popular among the people and nobility, and on the 2nd of September, 1415, four hundred and fifty-two nobles of Bohemia, from the greatest of them to the least of them, affixed their seals to a document that stated that the sentence on Hus was unjust and insulting to their country, that there were no heretics in Bohemia, and that any assertion to the contrary was itself a heresy of the worst kind.[50] They furthermore formed a Hussite League pledging to defend one another and the Hussite teachers in Prague for six years. The bishop sent by the council to “extirpate the heresy”, Jan Zelezny of Litomysl, known as the “Iron Bishop” for his unceasing opposition to Hus and the Hussites, was quite powerless to enforce the dictates of the council on Bohemia. Even King Vaclav was peeved because Sigismund had executed Hus rather than just humbling him, and gave the Hussites tacit support; the queen, Sophie, was an open supporter of the Hussites.[51]

This unoppressive atmosphere gave Hussitism valuable time to consolidate and establish its doctrines. There were great intellectual struggles within the Charles University between the moderates, who did not favor a break with the Roman Church, and the radicals, who advocated among other things the lay chalice (utraquism). In reality the Hussite movement would go all over the map with Christian doctrines, with the Four Articles of Prague (of which we will see more later) being only the lowest common denominator between the various factions.[52] Some denied transubstantiation, and others purgatory, and others both, and others neither. Nicholas of Dresden and Jakoubek split over purgatory; Jesenic split with the rest of the Hussites over utraquism. A royal edict was issued forbidding the various parties to accuse each other of heresy. Gradually, however, the radical party of Jakoubek gained ascendancy.[53]

Thus did the ideology of Jan Hus begin to rise in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Though his legacy would be split many different ways, with conservatives and radicals in Prague, and radicals of a different level throughout the provinces (concentrated in Tabor, hence the name Taborites), his writings and memory would bind them all together. They would successfully resist five crusades, and only fall through dissension within their ranks. The Four Articles of Prague were the points of doctrine that the Hussites rallied around: (list). Their might was to such an extent in Bohemia that even after they were crushed in the Battle of Lipany in 1434, they still forced the Holy Roman Empire (of which Bohemia was now a direct part, Sigismund having succeeded his half-brother to the throne) to grant them tolerance. In 1458 Jiri z Podebrad,[54] a Hussite, became king and resisted further onslaughts against Hussitism.[55] The Hussite movement would only come to an end when all the Hussite nobles were killed in 1620 at the Battle of the White Mountain in the Thirty Years War[56].

Even then Hus’s influence pervaded in religious thought. Petr Chelcicky had split from the incipient Taborites around 1420 over issues of nonviolence, influenced no doubt by the underground Waldensians. He formed his own splinter movement, which he called Unitas Fratrum – Unity of the Brethren.[57] He wrote tracts and books condemning both the military Hussite movement and the Catholic Church; he denounced oaths, participation in government, private property, and commerce.[58] After the wiping out of the Taborite movement at Lipany, the Unitas Fratrum became the second major Hussite faction after the Utraquists of Prague.

After the death of Chelcicky and Gregory Rokycana[59], his successor as the leader of the movement, the Unitas Fratrum split; a majority relaxed Chelcicky’s rules, while a minority held on to them and was in obscurity in a generation. Those left were renowned for humility and ethics, but gradually dropped more and more of their distinctives, until they were erased with the Utraquists at the White Mountain. However, a small remnant survived across the border, in Moravia; these moved to Saxony and settled on the estates of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and became the Moravian Church.[60] Though the freshest influence on them was the Pietist movement, the nonviolence and humanitarian qualities of the Unitas Fratrum and the love of the Scriptures of Hus still form the backbone of this church.

A less direct, but more important influence came to Christendom through Hus, in the form of Martin Luther. In 1519, in the course of debating John Eck in Leipzig, he was accused by his opponent of Hussitism. Luther vehemently denied this charge; during a lunch break he went to the library to find how he could best refute the accusation. He read Hus’s books and was astounded to find how much Hus had in common with him. Luther returned to say that there were many of Hus’s ideas that were not unscriptural; this lost him the debate, but it was the beginning of his break with Rome. In 1520 he said that “we [those of his party] are all Hussites without knowing it.”[61] Knowing that he was not alone in his beliefs was an undoubted strengthening to Luther and to his Reformation.

Closing his work on the heretical movements of the Middle Ages, Lambert writes “Thus medieval heresy merged into the Protestant Reformation.”[62] And indeed it was so. Most of the Unitas Fratrum was subsumed by its nephew Lutheranism, or channeled in other directions guided by the Reformation. Yet, even being so subsumed, it imparted a Hussite core to Protestant Reformation. Luther was, to be sure, an original thinker, but Hus had thought of many of his ideas a century before. The spark of revolution in Bohemia, the purity of Hus’s cause, if not that of his followers, and the valiant resistance of the Catholic Church by the Hussite church, if not their maraudings in Germany, did not cease to lend courage to the Protestants and credence to their beliefs. Hus’s writings were and still are great theological treatises to inspire and instruct those who come to them. And in Hus’s death, the first great Protestant martyr, though he did not even know it, was shown to the world: that even great men would die rather than renounce their faith.


[1] Known alternately in English as John Huss.

[2] Some attribute it to July 6th, but this is an error because it is the day of his death and thus the day that the Czechs have a holiday in honor of him.

[3] The attribution to him of the invention of Czech diacritical marks appears to be a legend.

[4] Howard Kaminsky, A History of the Hussite Revolution, p. 8.

[5] The “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” was going on at that time; Avignon, not Rome, was the seat of the Papacy.

[6] Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, p. 289.

[7] Kaminsky, p. 13.

[8] It is worthy to note as we rush through these years that the Great Schism between Avignon, Rome, and later Pisa broke out in 1378. This will play an important part later in Hus’s life.

[9] Lambert, p. 292.

[10] Lambert, p. 294.

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_of_Prague

[12] http://www.unicorne.org/orthodoxy/articles/alex_roman/protestantism.htm provides an interesting perspective on all this, though it leaves some historical accuracy to be desired.

[13] David S. Schaff, John Huss: His Life, Teachings, and Death After Five Hundred Years, p. 57.

[14] Schaff, p. 22.

[15] Known in German as Wenzel and in English as Wenceslaus.

[16] The title of the Holy Roman Emperor before he had been officially coronated by the pope; as there was a schism, no pope could coronate.

[17] Lambert, pp. 301-302.

[18] Kaminsky, p. 74.

[19] Having succeeded to the Pisan line one year after its establishment by the death of Alexander V – by poison, some claimed. Balthazar Cossa, as this man’s given name was, would be deposed by Council of Constance, and later declared an antipope. He is not counted in the succession of popes and thus is not to be confused with John XXIII that was elected to the see in 1958.

[20] Schaff, p. 111.

[21] Lambert, p. 304.

[22] Schaff, p. 113.

[23] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus

[24] Lambert, p. 306.

[25] http://www.hfac.uh.edu/gbrown/philosophers/leibniz/BritannicaPages/Hus/Hus.html

[26] Kaminsky, p. 95.

[27] Lambert, p. 307.

[28] Schaff, p. 156.

[29] http://www.scionofzion.com/john_huss.htm

[30] Lambert, p. 310.

[31] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus

[32] Chlum would later become a Hussite, but Duba an enemy of Hussitism. Chlum’s private secretary, Petr Mladenowice, wrote an account of Hus before the council that is an excellent source of much of the data we have today.

[33] http://www.edwardtbabinski.us/sheldon/huss.html

[34] Deborah Alcock, Crushed Yet Conquering, p. 47.

[35] See note 19.

[36] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus

[37] Lambert, p. 313.

[38] Schaff, p. 209.

[39] Where there was a silver mine (German Kuttenberg). Hus asked him to forgive Jan of Chlum’s debts which he had accrued in support of Hus at Constance. Alcock, p. 252.

[40] “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.’” This would be a favorite proof text among the Hussites.

[41] Kaminsky, pp. 98-101.

[42] Kaminsky, p. 134.

[43] Schaff, p. 251.

[44] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus

[45] Schaff, p. 255.

[46] Schaff, p. 256.

[47] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus

[48] There is a legend that Hus said, “Today you are burning a goose, but out of my ashes will be born a swan, whom you will not burn.” This was an invention of the 16th century Protestants attempting to give Hus the gift of prophecy, for Hus was Czech for goose, and Luther’s coat of arms was a swan.

[49] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_of_Prague

[50] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07585a.htm

[51] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hussite

[52] http://www.blisty.cz/2003/1/28/art12632.html

[53] Kaminsky, p. 204.

[54] George of Podebrady in English.

[55] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_of_Podebrady

[56] A war that the Hussites had a great role in starting.

[57] Lambert, p. 353.

[58] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petr_Chel%C4%8Dick%C3%BD

[59] Nephew of Utraquist leader John Rokycana.

[60] Lambert, p. 389.

[61] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 92.

[62] p. 389.