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Mentor and precursor of the Reformation

Jan Hus (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Jan Hus was born in 1371 into a poor Bohemian family. He studied philosophy and theology in the capital, Prague, a city that, in the 14th century, was dominated by politically influential clerics, just as the rest of Bohemia. Both the city and the university were ethnically divided: a German-speaking elite stood above the emerging Czech-speaking citizens.

This was the background of the university of Prague, which, along with the Bethlehem Chapel, became Hus' central place of work as a lecturer and preacher, and later as a principal. With his sermons and treatises, Hus fundamentally unsettled the self-conception and the hierarchical order of the church: Inspired by the English theologian John Wyclif, he perceived the church as the community of those who are predestined by God for salvation (doctrine of predestination). Since not a single human being on earth, not even the pope, can be certain of divine mercy, the secular power of the papacy consequently lost all of its legitimation.

The Pope reacted to Hus' reformatory suggestions with issuing his excommunication

Hus saw Christ alone as the head of the Church, and the Bible as its true foundation. The institution of the Church was sinful in his eyes, having lost its representative claim because it dealt with indulgences and was licentious. Hus wanted to enable more participation of the believers: Laypeople should be allowed to take communion from the chalice, and to have the right to preach. Yet another decisive innovation was that Hus preached in Czech. In 1410, the pope reacted to Hus' reformatory suggestions and issued his excommunication.

Hus became very popular amongst the Bohemians, also because of his comprehensible sermons and his ability to unite theology with political demands for more influence of the Bohemian citizens. For a while, Hus and his followers were supported by the Bohemian king Wencelaus. He gave the Reformers more power at the university (Kutná Hora Decree) and protected Hus from persecution after his excommunication.

However, in 1412, under pressure from Rome, he abandoned Hus, because he saw a chance for becoming emperor and participating in the income from the papal selling of indulgences. Hus then flew from Prague and, while staying in the countryside, revised the edition of the Bible in Czech. The Czech Bible was first printed in Prague in 1488. At the end of the 16th century, the Kralitz Bible was published, the first complete Bible translation in Czech.

Hus did not revoke

Having cast an eye on the imperial crown himself, Wencelaus' half-brother Sigismund, the Roman-German king, convoked the Council of Constance in 1413. The unity of the church, which, at that time, was ruled by three different popes, was to be re-established by the election of one new pope. Sigismund hoped that this pope would later crown him as emperor. But in order for this to happen, the Council had to establish religious unity at first, and therefore Sigismund invited the outlawed Hus to Constance, promising him safe conduct.

Hus desired a constructive dialogue and agreed, in spite of being afraid of being arrested. He arrived in Constance in November 1414 and was soon afterwards arrested by the Cardinals and accused of heresy by the papal Court of Inquisition. Sigismund allowed the clerics to carry this through, in order to not endanger a possible overcoming of the schism. He merely tried to protect Hus from being executed, by attempting to move him to revoke his doctrines. Hus did not revoke and was burnt on the stake on July 6th, 1415, outside the gates of Constance.

Hus' death incited his followers, the Hussites, even more strongly against the pope. They accused Sigismund of having broken his promise of safe conduct. While a more moderate faction tried to assert reforms (e.g. the chalice for laypeople) by means of dialogue, the radical Taborites established themselves as a military organisation and founded new cities (e.g. Tabor), where they strove to live in an ideal, egalitarian community. Sigismund, who became king of Bohemia after Wencelaus' death in 1419, was only able to terminate the insurrections after several crusades.

“We are all Hussites, without having been aware of it”

The Hussites were successful nevertheless: In the wake of the large-scale military campaigns of the Taborites, Hus' doctrine was spread and found many new followers. In 1485, the Religious Peace of Kutná Hora granted the Hussites their religious freedom by state law, for the first time in European history.

The Bohemian theologian Comenius called Hus the “origin of the Reformation”. He established the Czech tradition of prepending Hus' “first” Reformation to the Lutheran Reformation. Indeed there are obvious similarities: the doctrine of predestination, the rejection of the selling of indulgences, the Bible as the fundamental law that can be claimed by every believer, and its translation into the respective vernacular. Luther only busied himself with Hus some time after having written his theses, but then he stated that “we are all Hussites, without having been aware of it”. Luther began to disseminate Hus' texts and considered himself as his direct successor.

Time and again exploited for political purposes

During the course of Czech history Hus was exploited for political purposes by different factions. While the nationalists emphasised the fight of the Hussites against the German hegemony, the communists saw him as a pioneer of equality. The day of his execution is a national holiday in the Czech Republic today, and the motto of the Republic, “Truth will prevail”, also comes from Hus. The historian Jiří Rak said that many Czech citizens still understand themselves as standing on Hus' shoulders and therefore as pioneers of great European ideas.

In Constance, the city where the Council was held, the Hus Museum, the Hus monument and the Hus year 2015 (“Year of Justice”), which has been planned to be held on the occasion of the anniversary of the Council, keep the memories alive. International and ecumenical memorial celebrations will deal with issues such as tolerance, coexistence with people of other faiths, as well as values and their transformations.