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Jan Hus—Today You Cook a Goose!

The most dangerous man to the Roman Catholic Church stood alone.

It was the morning of July 6, 1415. Everyone who was anyone—the highest ranking Catholic clergy and even Emperor Sigismund himself—gathered in the towering German cathedral, the site of the Council of Constance. Their goal was finally to rid the Catholic church of the lonely preacher standing in aisle 24.

“Since the birth of Christ,” the Catholic church venomously spat at the preacher, “there has not arisen a more dangerous heretic than yourself—except John Wycliffe!”[1]

This preacher was dangerous, indeed. But he was no heretic. He had exposed the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, he opposed the sale of indulgences, and he defied the authority of the pope over Christ’s church.

For that the council condemned the preacher, sentencing him to death by being cooked over an open flame. But before they would light the match, the council cruelly heaped humiliation on this dangerous preacher. In the plain sight of everyone in the cathedral, he was stripped of his clothing. His head and beard were shaved. A paper hat covered with red devils and the word heretic was placed on his head.

Then came the church’s final pronouncement: “Now we deliver your soul to Satan and to hell!”[2]

“But I commit myself to my most gracious Lord Jesus,” quietly replied the condemned preacher.[3]

Then the condemned said one more thing. With piercing eyes and heart aflame, he looked out over the dignitaries. In a commanding voice he cried aloud:

“Today you cook a goose, but in one hundred years you will hear a swan sing—and him you will have to hear!”[4]

What could this mean? Who was this “goose”?

The preacher’s name was Jan (John) Hus. He was born in a little village called Husinec, meaning “goose-town,” in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic). Hus, whose name means “goose,” was born a poor peasant. After his father passed away in his early childhood, his mother desired that Hus would become a priest, perceiving as did many others that this was the best way to escape poverty (which to my mind is a stunning indictment on the state of the Roman Catholic Church).

After many years of study, Hus was hired as a professor at the University of Prague and ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As a professor, he soon became a student favorite. It is said that Hus broke from the old tradition of being a crabby, stern professor, preferring rather to joke and banter with his students even while lecturing. For a time as a priest, Hus was entirely committed to Catholicism. But then something unexpected occurred. The teachings of John Wycliffe—the Englishman known today as the “Morning Star of the Reformation”—caught fire in the heart of Jan Hus.

The more Hus studied the teachings of Wycliffe, the more his heart became captive to the word of God. Following Wycliffe’s lead, Jan Hus believed and taught that the church was made up of God’s people, the elect who are predestined to grace and glory. This led Hus to reject the leadership and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church from the pope on down. Hus specifically denounced the pope for claiming to be head of Christ’s church. He wrote, “No Christian can be the head of the universal church along with Christ—for the church cannot be a monster having two heads!”[5]

At about that time, Hus was appointed as the preacher of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. This unusual church was a private chapel established by a wealthy businessman who despised the greed of Rome and was starving for the bread of life found in God’s word. Adeptly naming it the Bethlehem Chapel—the name Bethlehem meaning “The House of Bread”—this house of worship would be a center of truly biblical preaching, hosting two sermons per day in the language of the people (and not Latin). It was there that Hus was appointed to preach Jesus Christ, the “Bread of Life.” And many hungry souls were satisfied.

Above all else, Hus was a preacher. He was at home in the pulpit, and from there he fed his swelling crowd of three thousand worshipers the gospel. His preaching was clear, powerful, and easily understood. He elevated Christ-centered, biblical preaching to its central place in the worship service. He stressed the authoritative role of Scripture in the lives of God’s people. He even restored congregational singing, which was all but lost in the church of Christ for hundreds of years.

Soon enough, Rome set its sights on Jan Hus. She would never tolerate this preacher who defied her authority. Like the Jewish leaders of the apostles’ day, Rome banned Hus from preaching Christ crucified in the Bethlehem Chapel. But Hus defied this order, obeying God rather than men. For that Hus was excommunicated not once, not twice, but four times.

The pope had to solve his “Bohemian Problem.” In the fall of 1414, he summoned the menace Jan Hus to the Council of Constance. To lure him there, Emperor Sigismund promised Hus that he would be kept safe. With that promise, Hus was determined to go, excited with the opportunity to preach and defend the gospel of Christ before powerful men.

Hus’s friends warned, even begged, him not to go—they knew all too well what Rome was capable of doing to those she deemed heretics. But none of those things moved Jan Hus. When Hus left his friends, he spoke to them one last time: “I am going to this great assembly, where the Lord will give me grace to endure trials, imprisonment, and if it be His will, even the most dreadful death. Whatever happens, our joy will be great when we meet in the everlasting mansions.”[6] With those words, and with the emperor’s promise of safety, Hus traveled to Constance.

But it was a trap. Almost immediately after his arrival into Constance, Hus was arrested and imprisoned for heresy. “We don’t keep promises to heretics!” reasoned the Catholic church. Hus was thrown into a basement dungeon, next to the city sewage, where he was left to rot for eight months. Chained to a wall for most of the time, Hus was nearly starved to death. His captors’ cruel treatment caused his health to decline significantly. He suffered from vomiting, migraine headaches, fainting spells, and even uncontrolled bleeding. Throughout his imprisonment next to the putrid sewers, Hus was permitted no books, not even his Bible.

But Hus was able to write a few letters. On March 24, 1415, he wrote to his friends with hopes that “the goose” might be released from prison and that “if you love your poor goose” try to send whatever aid possible to make his release happen.

Release didn’t happen. On July 6, 1415, Hus was pulled out of prison and placed on trial before the council. By now, Hus and everyone else knew there would be only one outcome—burning at the stake. But even with that knowledge, Hus was still not moved. In sheer wonderment, one zealous Catholic observer commented, “Hus prepared for the fire as if he were going to a marriage feast.”

Hus was ordered to condemn the English reformer John Wycliffe and recant his own teachings. Hus refused to do so. Frustrated, the council breathed out threatenings and slander. Jan Hus did not waiver. “I refuse to be an enemy of the truth and will resist to the death all agreement with falsehood…It is better to die well than to live badly.[7]

Finally, the council had heard enough. Having condemned and humiliated Hus, they dragged him out of the city to the execution site, known as The Devil’s Place. There Jan Hus—the “beloved goose”—was cooked. As the flames and smoke choked out his life, Hus died singing, “Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy on me.”[8]

* * * *

“Today you cook a goose!” Jan Hus is remembered for saying. “But in one hundred years you will hear a swan sing—him you will have to hear.”

Jan Hus was that goose. But who was the swan?

Though he couldn’t have known it, Hus was nearly a prophet. On October 31, 1517, Hus’s pronouncement rang true. One hundred two years after the goose was cooked, a swan did, in fact, start to sing. With his ninety-five theses, that swan began to sing of Jesus Christ on the church door of Wittenberg. From there that swan trumpeted forth the truths of Christ and his word—starting a new fire, the Protestant Reformation.

That swan’s name was Martin Luther.

He sang of Jesus Christ.

Him the church still hears today!

Karl serves as a teacher at Covenant Christian High School in Walker, Michigan. He and his family attend Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church.

 

Originally published Vol 80, No 10 October 2021

 

[1] Steven Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011), 380.

[2] Diana Kleyn and Joel Beeke, Reformation Heroes (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 22.

[3] Kleyn and Beeke, Reformation Heroes, 22.

[4] Stephen Nichols, “The Goose and the Swan,” October 4, 2017, in 5 Minutes in Church History, Ligonier Ministries podcast, https://www.5minutesinchurchhistory.com/the-goose-and-the-swan/.

[5] Lawson, Pillars of Grace, 383.

[6] Kleyn and Beeke, Reformation Heroes, 21.

[7] Lawson, Pillars of Grace, 380.

[8] Lawson, Pillars of Grace, 381.