by Doreen Kerby

For this article I have chosen some of my travel experiences. In each case, I have chosen an experience that enlarged my vision and now I would like to share these with you.

A few years ago I was in Prague. We had gone up to the clock tower of the Old Town Square and as I looked out over the throngs of people below (Easter Weekend) I noticed a huge statue. In examining it up close it was dedicated to John Hus who was martyred in 1415.

I had never heard of John Hus but my eldest daughter is a Medievalist and she lent me a book about him. I was hooked! Before I was done I had read three books about this Bohemian martyr and written a summary of his life for the Lutheran Magazine.

I marvel at how someone could choose to be burned at the stake rather than recant, but that is what he did.

Hus was born in Bohemia in 1360. In Prague, he supported himself by singing in the churches. He was an excellent student receiving his BA from the University of Prague, his Masters degree in 1396. In 1400 he was ordained into the priesthood and in 1402 appointed Dean and Rector of Charles University. His parents were so proud of him. He was also appointed preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel, a position he held until 1413. It held 4000 people and Hus preached two sermons a day, in Czech rather than Latin. He drew vast audiences including Queen Sophia and King Wenceslas of Bohemia – (the king we sing about at Christmas time). Hus enjoyed the friendship and support of the royal family and many of his fellow masters at the university.

Bohemia was powerful and wealthy. The church owned fine castles, monasteries, mansions and one half of all the land. The king owned one sixth of the land and that left the remaining one third to be shared by the people, most of whom were very poor.

Hus was greatly influenced by John Wycliffe who had written a document with 45 proposals to reform the Church in England. Hus knew the same problems existed in Bohemia. So he translated it, and circulated it in Bohemia The Church declared that anyone who defended Wycliffe’s work was a heretic and should be tried. His work was burned. The entire university protested and theologians confirmed that Wycliffe’s work should be read and circulated but the church was very powerful.

Pope John XXIII was at war with the King of Naples, and Naples was a powerful empire in those days. He needed money so he began selling indulgences in September 1411. His envoys came to Prague. Buying an indulgence meant that if you paid enough your sins would be forgiven. This guaranteed that the after life would be spent in paradise rather than in hell. Hus was furious and told his people not to buy. When three envoys came to his church three of his congregation protested and asked them to leave. The three were arrested, and executed. Hus was declared a heretic. No one was allowed to offer him food or drink so he fled to southern Bohemia where he would be safe (western half of the Republic of Czechoslovakia).

The church was in a real mess at this time. In 1378 two rival popes were elected, one in Rome, supported by Italians and one in Avignon, supported by the French, causing the Great Schism that lasted for 32 years. Unfortunately both popes were evil men. In 1408 a group of Cardinals broke away from the Roman pope, Gregory XII, and the general council meeting in Pisa sought to restore unity by appointing another pope- Alexander V. Sadly, Gregory XII and his Avignon rival, Benedict XIII refused to resign. So in 1408, three popes fought for supremacy. Many devout men questioned papal authority and the direction of the church.

The church had good reason to silence John Hus. His sermons were blistering attacks on the clergy who got rich by exploiting the poor. Selling indulgences was the church’s best moneymaker but Hus preached that forgiveness could not be bought. At his services the sermon and the hymns were in Czech and at communion the wine and bread were served to the congregation rather than just to the clergy. He promoted the Bible being translated in Czech and claimed this right for all nations.

On October 14
th, 1414 he accepted an invitation to the Council of Constance, Germany, to defend his beliefs. The German King Sigismund promised him safe conduct from Bohemia. Instead he was brought before the church officials, taken prisoner and thrown in jail. Cardinal Colonna threatened the king with excommunication if he interfered with the trial so Hus was left in the Council’s hands. He was left for months in a tiny, dirty, rat infested cold cell shackled day and night.

On July 6
th he was led through the streets of Constance to the stake. Asked to recant he replied,” All my teaching, preaching and writing has been to turn people from their sins. I willingly seal my work with my death today.” Just as the fire was lit, Hus prophesied, “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.

As the fire was started he sang,” Christ thou son of the living God have mercy on us.” Christ thou son of the living God have mercy on me. Finally, Thou who was born of Mary the Virgin …the wind blew the flames into his face and he continued to pray. His ashes were gathered and cast into the nearby Rhine River so there would be nothing left of Hus that people could worship or treasure.

Several hundred Bohemian nobles protested the execution. Death did not end his ministry for every July 6th the Czech Republic remembers the man who gave up his life rather than his beliefs. His death gave impetus to the Hussite Movement, and a war that lasted for 20 years. Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention onto the church door at Wittenberg. The prophecy of John Hus had come true! .