JOHN HUS (Jan Hus) was born sometime around 1372 in the town of Husinec, Bohemia, in the area that is now the Czech Republic. He studied theology at the University of Prague; after his ordination as a priest (1402), he became preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. Services at the Bethlehem Chapel were conducted in Czech, contrary to the common practice of conducting services in Latin. The Bible was read and sermons were preached in the common language. Hus was intrigued by the writings of the early English reformer John Wycliffe, though he did not agree with all Wycliffe's teachings. Hus preached actively against the worst abuses of the Roman Church of the day. His primary teachings were:
- Hus called for a higher level of morality among the priesthood. Financial abuses, sexual immorality, and drunkenness were common among the priests of Europe.
- Hus called for preaching and Bible reading in the common language, and for all Christians to receive full communion. At the time, laypersons received only the bread during communion, and only priests were allowed to receive the wine.
- Hus opposed the sale of indulgences. These were documents of personal forgiveness from the Pope which were sold for sometimes exorbitant prices to raise funds for Crusades.
- Hus opposed the relatively new doctrine of Papal infallibility when Papal decrees contradicted the Bible. He asserted the primacy of the Scriptures over church leaders and councils.
Hus lived at a time of tumultuous division in the Western Church known as the Great Schism. There were for a time two, and briefly even three competing Popes who each claimed complete authority over the Church. Hus's criticisms and calls for reforms came in the midst of the Schism; high Church leaders generally regarded Hus as an irritating stumbling block to reconciling the divided Church and he was excommunicated. Assured safe conduct by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, Hus journeyed to the Council of Constance (1414-1418) to defend his beliefs. The Council of Constance was the Council which finally ended the Schism with the election of Pope Martin V. Despite the Emperor's guarantee of safe conduct for Hus, he was immediately imprisoned. When finally tried, he was accused of the crime of being a Wycliffite. He was not allowed to defend himself or his beliefs. Because of his refusal to recant, Hus was declared an heretic and was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.
The Council and the Emperor had underestimated Hus' support in Bohemia and Moravia, however, and his followers arose in open rebellion. There followed a period known as the Hussite Wars, which attempted to restore Roman rule by force. During this period, several branches of Hussites organized into denominations. The surviving branch, known as the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of Brethren, was organized in 1457. After a time, the Roman attempts to subjugate Moravian and Bohemia failed. The Unity became the largest denomination in the area, at one time totalling a quarter million. It important to note that the Unity was an influential and organized denomination twenty-five years before Martin Luther was born, and more than sixty years before the Lutheran Church was organized. They were the first to publish the Bible in the common language and the first to publish hymnals in the common language.
The Unity of Brethren flourished in Central Europe until the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), when they were crushed between the armies of the Northern European Protestants and Rome to the south. Many members of the Unity were killed during this war. At the end of the War (1648), the Peace of Westphalia declared that each nation would follow the religion of its monarch. Thus, Moravia and Bohemia became Roman Catholic. The few surviving members of the Unity had to either become Catholic or leave their homeland. A small band left to exile in Poland under the leadership of Bishop John Amos Comenius, and others simply went underground, feigning loyalty to Rome. This period, known as the "Hidden Seed," continued until a small group resettled in Saxony on the estates of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran noble. There, the denomination was reorganized and entered a period of great missionary endeavor.
The Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where Hus preached, stood until World War II when it was destroyed by bombing. A replica of the Chapel has been built on the original site.