Jan Hus lived from c.1370 to the time he was burned at the stake in 1415. In his lifetime, Hus challenged the authority of the papacy, ridiculed the sale of indulgences, and attacked the doctrine of celibacy for priests. His Hussite followers made The Kingdom of Bohemia in the Holy Roman Empire (surrounding modern day Prague, Czech Republic) beyond the control of the church in Rome. Today, he stands as a key precursory figure to the wider Protestant Reformation.
Jan Hus studied at the University of Prague where he fell under the influence of John Wycliffe through Wycliffe’s imported writings from England. He earned his BA and MA in theology and quickly became a leader among the Czech students of a predominantly German controlled university. (Reeves) While he continued to study and teach at the university, Hus also took a post at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. In Prague, he preached sermons in Czech rather than Latin. (Spinka and Bartoš) These inspiring sermons propelled Hus to emerge “as the popular leader of the [reform] movement.” (Spinka and Bartoš). As a result of his speaking out against the church, he was condemned by the Antipope John XXIII of Pisa in 1409 and excommunicated twice. Once, in 1409 when Pope Alexander V issued a papal pull excommunicating the followers of Wycliffe in Bohemia, and another time in 1412, for his opposition to the collection of indulgences.
In an account by Poggius the Papist, Hus is quoted saying:
“It is held against me that I teach and preach against the current simony and this so-called mess of indulgences. My adversity against it seems to me a truly apostolical-evangelical one and I don’t censure and preach more energetically against anything than against such a sinful trade, more so, because nothing else appears more godless to me than to commercialize the forgiveness of sins, to deceive the poor and miserable people and keep them in the belief that heaven might be bought with a few farthings. And why is all this done? For the reason that the Primates at Rome might carouse in splendor.“
Ryan Reeves relates that Hus, “points out the fact that if the papacy has power over purgatory, and if the papacy can according to its power release those who are suffering in purgatory though they might move on to heaven, ‘why?’ Jan Hus asks ‘are we charging money for this? If you have the power, why don’t you simply do it?” Reeves also comments that this is almost identical to some of the comments Luther made about indulgences. However, Hus made the same mistake Wycliffe did in attacking the Pope’s coin purse. He needed to be called to account.
The papacy sought to bring under control the heretical teaching of both Wycliffe and Hus. As a result, the church held a council at Constance in 1415. Sigismund, the brother of the sitting Holy Roman Emporer declared a safe conduct for Hus to the council. Sigismund did not honor the agreement. As a result Hus would be burned at the stake for his seditious acts against the papacy.
The echoes of the Council of Constance stirred up a firestorm against them. In 1419, four short years after the burning of Hus, the Defenestration of Prague took place where government leaders were literally thrown from high tower windows onto the streets below. The followers of Jan Hus militarized and successfully defended Prague and Bohemia against the forces of the Papacy. Today, Jan Hus remains a source for Czech national pride and a founder of the Reformation. In the words of Martin Luther, “Yes, I am a Hussite.”