We tend to think of Martin Luther as the first reformer and there is a sense in which that is quite right. But there were at least a few men before Luther, men who lived before the historical event we call the Reformation, whose teachings were in line with those of the reformers of the 16th century. One of those pre-reformers was John Wycliffe, the man some call the morning star of the Reformation.
If Wycliffe was a morning star, then Jan Hus was the other morning star, for he followed right along in Wycliffe’s footsteps. While Hus was studying at the University of Prague, he began to read and translate works of John Wycliffe brought back by students returning to Bohemia from Oxford, and he embraced the teachings found in them. Hus became a priest and the rector of the University of Prague, and he also began preaching at Bethlehem Chapel, a church in Prague that had been built for the specific purpose of supporting preaching in the language of the people.
What things did Hus teach when he preached?
- He taught that the Word of God is our highest authority. All of his preaching was based directly on scripture, and when he was accused of heresy, he asked to be shown from the scripture where he was wrong.
- He taught that Christ alone was the head of the church. In Hus’s time, there were three men who claimed to be pope, and the church was divided over which so-called pope was the true one. Hus said that it didn’t really matter because the church’s only pontiff was the Lord Jesus Christ.
- He taught that God alone could forgive sins through the merits of Christ.
Let the pope, or a bishop or a priest say, “I forgive thy sins; I absolve thee of thy penalty. I free thee from the pangs of hell.” It is all vain. It helps thee nothing….God alone can forgive sins through Christ.
There are other things he taught, but those are some of the most important ones.
His Excommunication, Trial, and Execution
As you might imagine, Hus and his followers (and by now, there were many) were not popular with the powers-that-be in the Church. Pope Alexander ordered that all of Wycliffe’s writings be burned and that Hus stop preaching. Hus did not do as he was told, and in 1411, he was excommunicated.
I, Jan Hus, in hope a priest of Jesus Christ, fearing to offend God, and fearing to fall into perjury, do hereby profess my unwillingness to abjure all or any of the articles produced against me by false witnesses. For God is my witness that I neither preached, affirmed, nor defended them, though they say that I did. Moreover, concerning the articles that they have extracted from my books, I say that I detest any false interpretation which any of them bears. But inasmuch as I fear to offend against the truth, or to gainsay the opinion of the doctors of the Church, I cannot abjure any one of them. And if it were possible that my voice could now reach the whole world, as at the Day of Judgment every lie and every sin that I have committed will be made manifest, then would I gladly abjure before all the world every falsehood and error which I either had thought of saying or actually said!
I say I write this of my own free will and choice.
Written with my own hand, on the first day of July.
On July 6, 1415, Hus was burned at the stake. The accounts of his death say that he died singing, “Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy on me.”
The Hussite movement continued on after Hus’s death, eventually becoming the Moravian church. The Moravian church thrived under the patronage of Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf, and it was from Zinzendorf that “the vision to take the gospel to the far corners of the globe” came. As a result, the Moravian church became a church known for it’s missionary work, particularly to the wild regions of the Americas. I know from my own experience that you will still find Moravian Churches in more than a few Alaskan villages.
And it wasn’t only among his direct spiritual descendents that Hus’s influence continued. Before he was martyred, Jan Hus supposedly said this:
You, this day, burn a goose, but a hundred years hence a swan will arise, whom you will not be able to roast or boil.
It’s a play on words, since Hus meant goose in Hus’s language. I’m not completely certain this quote is authentic, since the historical sources I consider most trustworthy don’t mention it. Nevertheless, it was just a little more than 100 years later that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and began the reform that could not be stopped. Luther was quite willing to acknowledge that his teachings were Hus’s teachings. “We are,” he said, “Hussites without knowing it.”
Hus may have considered himself to be a goose, but I prefer to think of him as the Bohemian morning star that heralded the light of the Reformation.