Wycliffe found a posthumous disciple in a land far distant from his English countryside. Jan Hus was a devout young man who had spent his youth as a church chorister and altar-server in order to finance his education at the Charles University in Prague where he received first his bachelor’s and then his master’s degrees in Theology in 1396. Four years later he was ordained priest and then, two years later, was named Rector of the University and University Preacher at the newly constructed Betlémská Kaple or Bethlehem Chapel. It was at this time that he was exposed to the writings of John Wycliffe, dead these sixteen years or so. Wycliffe’s writings radicalized the young priest and he used his university pulpit to call for reform in the Church and particularly reform of the clergy.
|Jan Hus being burned at the stake|
Bethlehem Chapel, Prague
This was a tumultuous time in the Bohemian Church where the Archbishops usually stood loyal to the Roman claimant to the papal throne and the King—Wenceslaus IV—did not. (We haven’t looked at the great Schism yet, but there is a slight mention of it on February 4th 2011 post. Wenceslaus’ opposition to the Roman Claimants—Boniface IX succeeded by Innocent VII succeeded by Gregory XII was because Wenceslaus had been elected King of the Germans and was thus entitled to be crowned Emperor, but the Roman Popes were reluctant to acknowledge the claim and have him crowned.)
It was only a few years before Hus’s preaching that John of Nepomuk had been murdered on the orders of King Wenceslaus. Although hagiographers say he was murdered for refusing to divulge the queen’s confession to the jealous and suspicious Wenceslaus, it seems that he was murdered in retaliation for his installing an Abbot contrary to the King’s wishes, an Abbot who was loyal to the Roman Claimant, and the story of the Queen’s confession is a later embellishment. Nevertheless in popular mythology the confession story stands and he is the symbol of protecting the secrecy of the confessional. Beneath the conflict we can see that there is stress between the Crown and the Church and this gives us some background for Hus. The Roman party represented vested clerical interest; the Royal party—while probably indifferent to the issue of clergy morals—were the anti-clerical party if for no other reason than the clergy supported the Roman Claimant to the papacy. You will notice that I am not saying that Wenceslaus supported the Avignon Claimant (Benedict XIII) for he really wasn’t enthused about Benedict and when a third papal line emerges with the Pisan Claimants Alexander V and then John XXIII, Wenceslaus will support them. I know this is confusing but bear with me. Suffice it to say that the clergy supported the Roman Pope; the King and anti-clerical party did not.
In 1403 the Archbishop of Prague was Zbynĕk Zajic who held office for political reasons and was without a serious theological background. Like the King he (initially) did not support the Roman Claimant to the Papacy (Gregory XII). Initially he supported Hus and his Reform preaching even though the clergy wanted the preaching stopped because Hus, in his enthusiasm with Wycliffe’s ideas, was denouncing them for their considerable wealth and poor morals.
But then Hus got caught in a web of intrigue between the King Wenceslaus and the Archbishop. The Archbishop switched his support to the Roman Pope, Gregory XII, while the King (and Hus) supported Alexander V—the claimant who emerged from the Council of Pisa’s attempt to end the Western Schism. Under Hus’ direction and with the king’s blessing, Wycliffe’s doctrines pervaded the University and spread throughout Bohemia. Hus’ rode a wave of popularity because so many of the peasants and urban working classes resented the wealth of the Church and its vast estates.
Hus’ call for the Church to disentangle itself from its vast wealth and its access to political power was a lost cause with the Catholic Church—and all three of its popes. The Roman, Avignon, and Pisa claimants were all opposed to Wycliffe ‘s ideas as each wanted to be sole Pope of a wealthy and powerful Church. As said above, Wenceslaus had thrown his lot in with the Pisan Claimant, Alexander V, and Hus, dependent on the King for his support of Hus’ calls for Reform, followed suit. But when Alexander’s successor, anti-pope John XXIII declared a crusade against the king of Naples who was sheltering the Roman pope Gregory XII Hus found himself in a very uncomfortable position. Hus could not support violence. And when John offered indulgences to those who supported the crusade, Hus condemned the crusade and its sale of indulgences saying that no pope or bishop could command believers to take up the sword He reminded his followers of the Gospel command to “love your enemies; pray for your persecutors. Hus’ followers then burned the bulls of anti-pope John XXIII, not in loyalty to Gregory but in opposition to any pope—the institutional church, whichever of its claimants being Pope, was in their eyes only a coven of simoniacs. Now the clergy had their revenge on Hus. The theology faculty of the University did not support Hus but many people did, especially from the lower classes.
Wenceslaus’ brother Sigismund of Hungry had outmaneuvered him in seeking the Imperial Crown and while he was not officially crowned until 1433 he was elected “King of the Romans”—the title of an Emperor-in-waiting in 1411. He was Emperor in all but title and one of the expectations put on him—one of the reasons Wenceslaus who had a better claim to the title had been deposed from it in 1400—was to end the Great Schism. To this end, Sigismund called a Council for Constance in 1415 and Hus was summoned to it to answer for his ideas. The Council condemned both Wycliffe and Hus.
Hus had travelled to Constance under a promise of safe-conduct issued by Sigismund and initially he lived in Constance as a free man, but was gradually imprisoned under ever more severe terms. Sigismund was troubled by his arrest—and the danger of Hus’ being killed—but was assured that the pledge of safety he had given Hus was not binding as one did not have to keep one’s word with a heretic. Hus was found guilty of heresy and, refusing to recant, was burned at the stake on July 6 1415. His remains were thrown into the Rhine.
Hus did not follow all of Wycliffe’s ideas and one must be very careful to distinguish between them. Wycliffe was a Nominalist and therefore could not accept the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Hus, on the other hand, proposed a doctrine called “impanation” in which Christ’s flesh and blood become the bread and the bread becomes Christ’s flesh and blood. This is similar to but not exactly what Luther would teach and which is called “consubstantiation.” In other words, Hus affirmed the Real Presence though he rejected the idea of “Transubstantiation” as an explanation for it.
What really brought condemnation down upon Hus—and posthumously upon Wycliffe—was their identification of the Church not with the Institutional or hierarchical Church, but with the community of true believers. Their understanding of the Church made papacy and hierarchy superfluous, indeed made an ordained clergy more or less superfluous, though neither ever taught that non-ordained could administer the Sacraments. Their opinions—formed by the Donatist heresy—did however insist that unworthy ministers could not effectively celebrate the Sacraments. Whereas Wycliffe’s followers were long to remain as an underground movement subversive to but within the Church, following Hus’ death, masses of people—primarily about the poor and the peasantry—went into open breach with the Catholic Church forming communities of their own. The Moravian Brethren (sometimes called the Moravian Church) continue Hus’s heritage today. A later group, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church broke away from the Catholic Church in the first quarter of the twentieth century and while they claim the name “Hussite” and their clergy are educated by the Hussite Theology Faculty in Prague, they reflect more the Old Catholic heritage that separated from Rome over questions of modernism and papal infallibility.