Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415)


October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the year leading up to the anniversary, we will look at some important forerunners to and supporters of the Reformation.

The Beginnings of Reform in Bohemia

Bohemia, the western part of the modern Czech Republic, had been a duchy within the Holy Roman Empire until 1198, when it became a kingdom affiliated loosely with the Empire. The King of Bohemia participated in the Imperial Council and was one of the seven Electors who elected the Holy Roman Emperor, but otherwise the kingdom was independent of the Empire.

Jan Hus was born in Husinec (“Goose Town”) in the southern part of Bohemia. He was originally known as Jan of Husinec but later shortened his name to Hus (goose). He moved at a young age to Prague, where he supported himself by singing and working in churches and dedicated himself to study. He entered Charles University and earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1393 and Master of Arts in 1396. Four years later, he was ordained as a priest. In 1402, he was named rector (i.e., chief academic officer) of the University, as well as preacher at the newly built Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.

Hus was heavily influenced by John Wycliffe. Wycliffe’s ideas had already been condemned by the Catholic Church, but they were spreading in Bohemia. In 1403 Hus translated Wycliffe’s “Trialogus” into Czech. Wycliffe inspired Hus to emphasize Scripture as the principal source of authority in theological matters and shaped Hus’s critique of the Catholic Church and desire for reform.

Hus proved to be a powerful preacher. Speaking in Czech, the language of the common people, he denounced the immorality of the clergy, including priests, bishops, and even the pope, from his pulpit. The citizens of Prague flocked to his sermons, with 3,000 people regularly packed into Bethlehem Chapel to hear him. Unlike in most churches of the day, where the pulpit was high up on a wall or pillar, Hus insisted that his be just above floor level to show that he was not above the laity, but that they were all equal in the sight of God.

Politics and Religion

The Archbishop of Prague, Zbyněk Zajik, supported Hus and even appointed him preacher for the archdiocese’s biennial synod. In 1405, however, Pope Innocent VII in Rome (there was another claimant to the papacy in Avignon) instructed Archbishop Zajik to suppress Wycliffe’s teachings; the archbishop complied and ordered an end to criticism of the clergy as well. Innocent’s successor Gregory XII was not satisfied, however, and sent word to the archbishop that King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia was being too tolerant of heretical ideas. Wenceslaus responded by ordering all copies of Wycliffe’s works to be turned over to the archbishop. Hus obeyed the order and said he too condemned the errors in Wycliffe’s works.

Wenceslaus began to worry that Gregory XII would interfere with his political ambitions. To undermine Gregory’s authority in Prague, and at Hus’s urging, Wenceslaus ordered Charles University to maintain strict neutrality on whether the pope in Rome or in Avignon was the true pope. The Bohemians supported this, but the Germans attending the university resisted it; Wenceslaus responded by ordering that the governance of the university be turned over almost entirely to the Czechs, again at the recommendation of Hus. This resulted in a mass exodus of non-Bohemians from Charles University and among other things led to the founding of the University of Leipzig.

Archbishop Zajic, who continued to support Gregory XII, found himself out of favor and influence in Prague. Wycliffite ideas returned, and Hus began once again promoting his vision of church reform.

The Council of Pisa (1409)

In 1409 a church council met in Pisa to attempt to solve the conflict between the two competing popes. The council declared both popes deposed and appointed its own pope, Alexander V. Unfortunately, neither the pope in Rome nor the pope in Avignon accepted the deposition, so instead of two popes there were now three. Hus transferred his allegiance to Alexander V, and Wenceslaus pressured Archbishop Zajic to do the same.

Zajic does not seem to have been happy about this, and had grown disillusioned with Hus. So he reported to Alexander V that Wycliffe’s ideas were causing a disturbance in Prague. Alexander issued a papal bull ordering Wycliffe’s writings to be burned and all free preaching ended. Hus appealed this decision, but in vain: Alexander excommunicated him and his followers.


Alexander V died in 1410 and was succeeded by John XXIII. (This John XXIII is considered an antipope, so there was another John XXIII in the mid-twentieth century.) John declared a Crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, the protector of the pope in Rome, Gregory XII, and authorized an indulgence sale to fund it. Both the Crusade and the indulgence sale were preached in Prague, much to the fury of Hus.

Hus attacked the indulgence sale using arguments taken verbatim from Wycliffe. He argued that the church should never take up arms against its enemies but should instead pray for them and bless them, and that forgiveness comes from repentance, not money. Hus’s arguments did not convince the theologians of the university, and so they condemned statements from Wycliffe and from Hus himself as heretical (1412). The king forbade these ideas from being taught, but neither Hus nor his supporters complied with his demands.

Hus’s views were very popular with the people and with the king, and the attacks on him by Pope John XXIII and Albik, the new archbishop of Prague, led to rioting in parts of Bohemia. The pope responded by placing Prague under interdict, banning the celebration of all sacraments and the burial of the dead in consecrated ground. Hus appealed his case directly to Jesus Christ, bypassing the church hierarchy altogether, and withdrew to the countryside to get the interdict lifted.

In the countryside, Hus realized how great a gulf there was between the rural parish priests who lacked adequate training or even knowledge of Latin, the language of the Mass, and the theologians and clergy in Prague. Accordingly, Hus began writing treatises in Czech to help educate the priests on the basics of Christianity.

Hus’s main opponents left Prague, leaving his supporters in control of the city. Hus returned and once again began preaching at Bethlehem Chapel. From Prague, Wycliffe’s ideas began to spread from Croatia to Poland, leading the pope to condemn Wycliffe once again and order his writings burned (1413).

The Council of Constance (1414-1418)

Meanwhile, Wenceslaus’s brother Sigismund of Hungary, now elected Holy Roman Emperor, decided that it was time for the church to solve the issue of multiple popes, so he called for a church council to meet at Constance in 1414. This council succeeded in deposing all three popes and appointing a new one, Martin V.

Sigismund also wanted to resolve the problems caused by Hus, so he urged him to go to the council to defend his doctrine. To guarantee Hus’s safety, Sigismund gave him an imperial safe conduct. Hus may have suspected what was coming: Before he left for Constance, he made his will.

When he got to Constance, he was initially given freedom to move about the city but ordered not to say Mass or to preach. Hus did both, however, and was arrested. When Sigismund objected, he was told that promises to heretics did not need to be kept. Hus was kept in a series of prisons, ending up sick and in chains in the dungeons of the bishop of Constance’s castle.

On June 5, 1415, he was transferred to a Franciscan convent for his trial. Thirty-nine sentences from Wycliffe’s and Hus’s writings were identified as heretical, and Hus was ordered to recant them. He replied that if the Council could prove him wrong by Scripture, he would willingly recant. He denied teaching Wycliffe’s view of the Eucharist, though he did summarize it and confessed that he agreed with much of Wycliffe’s teaching. When this did not satisfy the Council, Hus said that some of the 39 sentences were things that he had never taught and so could not recant them; others he could not recant because to do so would go against his conscience. This response sealed his fate.

Hus’s Execution

On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was formally condemned. He repeated his request to be proven wrong by Scripture and then was heard quietly forgiving his enemies. He was then stripped of his priestly vestments, a paper crown with “heresiarch” (leader of a heretical movement) written on it was placed on his head, and he was led outside and burned alive at the stake. Afterward, his ashes were thrown in the Rhine River.

According to a priest who observed Hus’s death, before the pyre was lit, he told the executioner, “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” One hundred two years later, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Hus’s death would ignite a war in Bohemia that would have far reaching effects in Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, with aftereffects continuing to today. We will look at his legacy in the next article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.