Jan Hus

Jan Hus

Chris Gerrish

March 26, 1995

Jan Hus, who was born in 1370, became one of the greatest personalities in Czech history because he gave all his knowledge, abilities and strength to serving the just cause of the common people. As a poor student at Prague University he became familiar with the hard life of the common people. He was close to them in their sufferings and never became estranged from them. He wrote: "When I was a student they often sang vigils in the church. While we were singing, the priests collected money from the congregation and thus misused us."While still a student Hus came in contact with the work of the English reformer John Wycliffe and was completely won over. It seemed to him that the English thinker was expressing just what he himself felt. It was mainly Wycliffe's principle that the sinful authority ceases to be an authority that aroused Hus's enthusiasm. Wycliffe's criticism of the Church in England had much in common with Hus's critical views of Church and society in Bohemia. That is why Hus was so drawn to Wycliffe's work and made it to theoretical basis of his own critical writings.Hus became Dean and Rector of the Charles University in Prague, but from March 14, 1402, he also preached regularly in the newly built Bethlehem Chapel. In his sermons Hus attacked the rich clergy and the very endeavor of the Church to pile up wealth. He would compare Christ's original Church with the prodigal, luxurious Church of his times. He would show how all the splendor of the prelates, like the luxury of the nobles' castles, came from the effort of the laboring people. Such indictments stirred the exploited people to revolt against their feudal masters.

Hus also gave the ordinary believer self-confidence and courage. In one sermon, for instance, he compared the wretched peasant or a poor old woman with a wealthy and sinful lord or prelate and concluded that the peasant and the old woman, each living a virtuous life, stood higher before Christ than any nobleman or even prince and king. Soon the Czech prelates took steps to silence Hus. They knew that Hus, in demanding complete poverty for the Church, endangered their positions and their material interests. At first Wycliffe's writings were banned by the Archbishop of Prague, and anyone who defended him was to be persecuted as a heretic. By that time Hus already had the support of the people of Prague. He handed over his copies of Wycliffe's writings, which were publicly burnt, but went on claiming his devotion to Wycliffe's work and defending it faithfully.

The conflict between Hus and the prelates led by the Archbishop of Prague reached its climax in 1412. In that year the messengers of Pope John XXIII came to Prague to sell indulgences. The Pope was then at war with the King of Naples and was therefore in need of a considerable amount of money. So he decided to sell indulgences publicly to all Christians. "Everybody who bought indulgences for a certain sum was forgiven his sins and thus could buy himself an after-life in Paradise instead of in hell." Hus severely criticized the Pope's action. He also demanded that the vendors of indulgences should leave Prague. "When, induced by Hus's preachings, three journeymen openly protested in church against such vendors, they were arrested by the city beadles and, in spite of the protests of the people, executed." After this struggle against the sale of indulgences Hus had to leave Prague. "His friends feared for his life, inasmuch as he was excommunicated and Prague placed under and interdict: no Christian was allowed to offer him food or drink or lodging."

Hus then left for southern Bohemia, for Kozi Hradek where he continued his literary work and his sermons. He preached to the people under a linden tree in front of Kozi Hradek and crowds of peasants came from far and near, gathering round him to seek a way out of their misery and poverty. Thus the country people also became drawn to Hus's work. Now that Hus preached to a different type of audience than in Prague, he increased his attacks against the prelates and against all who exploited the "villein" population. He was firmly convinced that his own views, based on the teaching of Holy Scripture, could bring the serfs a better life. Since he was convinced that he defended God's truth, it was indeed the truth of the common laboring people, Hus did not hesitate to accept the invitation to the Church Council in Constance. The disintegration of the church had by this time gone so far that there were three popes who were waging war with one another and voices against the abuses of the Church could be heard everywhere. A section of the high clergy therefore decided to convene a Church Council in order to remove the worst abuses and also to settle the long drawn-out dispute with the Czech "heretic."

Soon after Hus's arrival at the Council he was arrested and thrown into prison. In the winter of 1414 he was carried away to the castle of Gottlieben, where, hands and feet in fetters, he lay in a tower exposed to cold winds. His letters from Constance, which he wrote in prison and sent to Bohemia, are filled with faith and the love of man, of his native country and of the Czech people. Even on July 6, 1415, when led through the streets of Constance in a shameful procession to the stake, Jan Hus remained calm and of good cheer. While bound to the stake, Hus said: "The prime endeavor of all my preaching, teaching and writing and of all my deeds has been to turn people from their sins and this truth that I have written, taught and preached in accordance with the word of God and the teaching of the holy doctors I willingly seal with mydeath today."

After Hus' death, the Hussite movement expanded into all of Bohemia and Moravia as a decidedly popular movement. Almost the entire population became Hussite, including many Germans. At its beginning, the Hussite movement was very dynamic both spiritually and socially. But certainly after years of warlike and spiritual struggling with powers of the counterreformation, Hussitism weakened inside and out. The Hussites turned to so-called Utraquism, a reformed church created with a strongly conservative character, but still one in which a serious impulse toward biblical Christianity was never abandoned.

The legally indefensible execution of the Czech "heretic" Jan Hus, and the failure to produce any genuine ecclesiastical reform, fuelled religious dissent in Bohemia, and with it the rise of nonconformist, popular and even nationalist tendencies in religious music. The most important part of the Council Constance was that it brought together music and musicians from almost anywhere in Europe. These people could now meet and learn from each other directly. "The sympathy of the Council fathers did not extend as far as the teaching of Jan Hus, who in his own country recommended sacred song in Latin and Czech, congregationally and privately." The famous cantio de corpore Christi became in its Czech translation an important congregational hymn of the Utraquist Church. But, its fifteenth-century melodic adaptations in diverse sources, and its transfer into the Lutheran Gesangbuch, also show that such music could not be contained within regional, national or confessional borders. Jan Hus stood on the threshold of the new era which within a century of his death resulted in the Reformation. In his moral stature, his unyielding devotion to truth as he knew it, in the purity and integrity of his character, and in his heroic and unswerving loyalty to the Church universal, the body of Christ, he is our judge as well as our inspiration. May he ever continue to give us courageof soul to share his conviction that "Truth conquers all!"


Lochman, Jan Milic. Church in a Marxist Society, New York, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970, pp. 31-33.

Macek, Josef. The Hussite Movement in Bohemia, Orbis-Prague, 1958, pp. 23-28.

Spinka, Matthew. John Hus' Concept of the Church, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1966, pp. 383-396.

Strohm, Reinhard. The Rise of European Music, 1380-1500, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 20-327.