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John Huss: Reformation Forerunner

The following article is the first of two installments taken from a paper written by the Reverend Dale H. Kuiper. It was originally written as a seminary paper, but is particularly appropriate at this time of year, and at this time in history, when the Reformation is so overshadowed by Halloween. Rev. Kuiper has graciously granted us permission to print this paper in two installments, the second of which will be followed, by the Bibliography.  Ed.


History is necessity. Therefore we may ask the question, “why?” concerning historical

facts and expect pertinent answers. If history is decreed and necessitated, then events happen at certain places and at certain times for good reason; nor could they happen any other way.

The study of John Huss of Bohemia presents several such historical whys. Why did these events occur in Bohemia? Why did Huss appear in history? These questions are legitimate, and in the answering of them much concerning the man John Huss is clarified.

A study on so recent a personage as Huss presents no difficulty as far as research material is concerned. The great difficulty is to tear one’s self away from the numerous interesting events which surround his life. The vast amount of material in the English language demands a limiting of scope. This paper will deal only with the life, death, and work of John Huss. The fascinating wars waged by his followers and the dominant position of nationalism in Bohemian religion will needs lack full treatment.

JOHN HUSS: Reformation Forerunner?

Great events do not burst upon the scene of history but are the fruit of many year’s ferment; they are a long time preparing. That activities of a reformatory nature should occur in Bohemia implies a definite background. God does not accomplish His divine will supernaturally, but he uses men and institutions to bring His plan about. John Huss was born into a certain set of circumstances, prepared for him, and in which he would act. To understand his work, therefore, we must understand the background of Bohemia.

Bohemian history became intimately connected to that of Germany in 1310. Up to that time Bohemia was ruled by native kings. However, the male line died out, and a royal sister married John of Luxembourg. Thus a German potentate sat on the Bohemian throne. In 1346 Charles IV became king of Bohemia, and by later becoming emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, drew Bohemia into imperial politics (3, p. 25).

Under Charles IV, Bohemia was lifted to high, levels of culture, industry, and learning. He founded the University of Prague in 1348. To this university flocked students from all of northern Europe, including the British Isles. Kuhns gives the enrollment at Prague as 30,000 students with 200 doctors and 500 bachelors of art. However, most other writers say that this is a greatly exaggerated number. The university was founded with four faculties, theology, law, philosophy, and medicine, and was divided into four nations, Bohemian, Bavarian, Polish, and Saxon. This university and its structure play an important part in the life of John Huss.

Secondly, Bohemia was converted to Christianity much later than other European nations. She was not forced to adopt Christianity under force of violence as were the Franks and the Saxons. We may say that she greatly desired conversion, and therefore became better acquainted with the Christian Faith.

Then too, Bohemia was converted by missionaries, not from Rome, but from Constantinople. According to Nestor, a king of Moravia in 863 requested the following of the Greek emperor: “Our land is baptized, but we have no teachers to instruct us, and we have no translation of the Holy Scriptures. Send to us teachers who may explain to us the Bible” (9, p. 131). Cyril and Method were sent from Constantinople, and were instrumental in the Bohemian and Moravian conversion. Due to this, and also to its rather remote location, the church in Bohemia did not have strict Romish rules imposed upon it. She conducted her services in Bohemian rather than Latin, and priests were allowed to marry.

Two other factors complete the description of the setting into which Huss is born. Bohemia came under the influence of three preachers in the years immediately before Huss’ birth. Militz of Kremsier, Matthias of Janow, and Conrad of Waldhausen, during the years 1360-1375, openly preached against the iniquities of the church, even calling the pope anti-christ (9, p.132). The Bohemian population heard and accepted preaching which, criticized the pope, advocated a weak sort of Scriptural authority, and taught that the cup should be granted to the laity.

The last factor to be considered here is the influence of the philosophical writings of John Wycliffe. (It appears that his theological works did not appear in Bohemia until the time of Jerome.) In 1367, the University of Prague ordered the philosophy department to augment its teaching with the notebooks of the Paris and Oxford doctors. Late in 1411, Huss himself says that members of the university have been reading Wycliffe for more than twenty years (7, p. 359). Also, the marriage of King Wenceslaus’ sister Anne to Richard II of England allowed for a ready transfer of Wycliffism. The philosophy thus translated to Bohemia from England may be best termed realism in distinction from the nominalism which prevailed during the fourteenth century, especially in Germany.

This then is the condition of Bohemia at the time of the birth of Huss. It can readily be seen that the seeds of a great struggle had been planted for a period of centuries. Upon this scene comes a fearless preacher who, already from his youth, possessed a martyr complex.

Little or nothing is known concerning the early life of Huss. Wylie gives his birthdate as July 6, 1373, but the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia lists it as July 6, 1369. It is likely the later date, according to David Schaff, because then his age at the time of entering the, priesthood would be more in line with canonical age for that event (6, p. 19). Also, many writers say that the July 6 date is used only because it is the day remembered in Bohemia as the day he died in Constance. Whatever the case, historians agree that he was born at Husinecy, a small town on the Moldau River about seventy live miles from Prague. He took his name from this village, or possibly from a nearby castle.

In 1389 Huss began his studies at the University of Prague. Studying the arts, philosophy, and theology, Huss received the B.A. in 1393, the B.D. in 1394, and the M.A. in 1396. He never studied for the doctorate, and referred to himself as bachelor of sacred theology.

Biographers disagree as to the character and abilities of student Huss. Generally he is described as very average, graduating near the middle of his class. He is said to have led a spotless youth; later his accusers could lay nothing to his charge concerning his private life. He greatly admired the martyrs of the early church, and once thrust his hand into a fire to see if he possessed the constancy demonstrated by St. Lawrence. Not only did he possess ascetic tendencies, but it was his desire that he might take a place in history beside those who adorned church history with their steadfastness (1, p. 54).

Having received the M.A., Huss begins lecturing at the Prague University. It is during these first few years of his work that he gains wide popularity with the faculty, students, and common people. Even Aeneas Sylvius, who later curses Huss as a heretic, describes him as “a powerful speaker and distinguished for the reputation of a life of purity” (1, p. 48). Honors now begin to come to Huss in a flurry. Ordained to the priesthood in 1400, he becomes dean of the philosophical faculty the following year. In 1402 he served for six months as rector of the University, following a re-organization of the university due to difficulty in the student ‘‘nations.” Also in this year he is appointed as the pastor of the Bethlehem Chapel. This chapel was so named — House of Bread — so the preaching of the Word might be refreshment to the common and faithful people of Christ.

The Bohemian historian Palacky (6, p. 42) judges Huss’ sermons to be contrived to arouse reflection, to persuade, and to create a lasting impression. In this respect he was less stormy than his predecessors Militz and Konrad. Palacky also characterizes PIuss as bold and obstinate, and as having as his highest earthly goal the wearing of a martyr’s crown.

Before a year of preaching had passed, Huss became identified with Wycliffism. Had not this been the case, we may safely say that he would not have been a martyr. We make bold to say that all events subsequent to his pastorate at Bethlehem Chapel were determined by the fact that he embraced the teachings of Wycliffe. To better understand Huss from 1402 to his death in 1415, it is necessary to briefly discuss the views propagated by Wycliff’s at Oxford. To understand these views is to understand Huss.

John Wycliffe (1324-1384) wrote prolifically in several fields: as a schoolman, political reformer, pastor, and doctrinal reformer. To understand his impact on Huss, we need examine only his doctrinal tenets. These writings are divided by Schaff (7, p. 330) into five headings: the nature of the church, the papacy, the priesthood, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the use of Scripture.

Wycliffe believed the church to be the body of all the elect in distinction from the prevailing thought that the church was composed of friars, priests, monks, and prelates. He said that Christ was the head of the church, not the pope. Concerning the papacy, he had only words of scorn. The pope was synonymous with anti-christ in Wycliffe’s writings. He called the papal office poisonous and unnecessary. Nor could any Biblical grounds be found for it. He attacks the priests and monks by saying they would rather curse than bless. Nor is the practice of man confessing sin to another man anywhere taught in the Scriptures. He calls to task especially friars, those slavish agents of the pope’s will who spread false views of the eucharist.

Wycliffe showed the greatest courage when he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation. He referred to this doctrine as a lying fable and a pronounced idolatry (7, p. 336). Over against it he asserted that Christ’s body was present in the bread and wine symbolically; they are the effectual signs of Him. He proves these points with Scripture and reason.

Certainly no other doctrine was as clearly developed by Wycliffe as was the authority of the Scriptures. In a thousand paged work, De veritate Scripturae, he maintains the absolute authority of  Scripture for all things from salvation to logic. Further he believed in an open Bible, that is, all people should have the Bible to study in private. That this belief might be practiced, he translated the Latin Vulgate in 1382.

These are, briefly, the teachings of Wycliffe, teachings which were so clearly written that they could be grasped by a superficial reading. In 1382 at the Earthquake Synod in London, the teachings of Wycliffe were condemned. In 1413 a Lateran decree ordered his books burned, and the Council of Constance in 1414 exhumed his bones and burned them.