Biography of Jan Hus, Religious Reformer and Martyr

Pre-Reformation church critic who was burned alive for his beliefs

Jan Hus
Engraving (1894) of Jan Hus about to be executed for heresy by burning at the stake.

traveler1116 / Getty Images

A century before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses criticizing the Roman Catholic Church, Czech pastor and church reformer Jan Hus pointed out the same problems. The Church labeled Hus a heretic and burned him at the stake.

But Hus' complaints would not die with him. Instead, they sparked a wildfire of protest that roared across Europe, changing Christianity forever.

Early Life and Career

The birth of Jan Hus around 1370 was of little notice in the southern Bohemian town of Husinec.

His parents were peasants, and as an adult, he shortened his surname from Husinec to Hus.

By 1394, Hus had earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Prague. Two years later he added a master's and became an instructor at the university. A struggle at the university pitted the German masters, who opposed church reform, against the Czech masters, who admired the writings of John Wycliffe (1330 - 1384), an English reformer who translated the gospels into English.

Wycliffe's writings found their way into Prague about 1401, worsening the split between the Germans and Czechs.

Hus Discovers Wycliffe

Hus found himself agreeing with many of the points Wycliffe had raised. For example, Wycliffe considered Scripture to be the supreme authority, not the pope. He also opposed the sale of indulgences, Church documents which supposedly shortened or terminated a soul's stay in purgatory.

Wycliffe's belief in trusting in Christ alone for salvation, rather than good works or obeying church rules, later became a cornerstone of the Reformation.

Hus also agreed with Wycliffe's plea for restraining clergy, who had become powerful landowners in Bohemia. Hus denounced the sin of simony, the practice of using a church position to profit from selling pardons or church appointments. 

Church and Politics

Needless to say, Hus' positions were not popular with the local bishops and the pope.

In 1403, Johann Hubner, one of the anti-reform German masters at the university, drew up a list of 45 of Wycliffe's articles and condemned them as heresy.

Besides the upheaval caused by the fledgling reform movement, this was a period of chaos in the Roman Catholic Church. There were two popes, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, and a later election resulted in a third, Alexander V.

Archbishop Zbynek Zajic of Bohemia, initially a supporter of Hus, turned against him and bribed Pope Alexander V to prohibit preaching in private chapels. Hus preached in Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. When Hus refused to follow the pope's order, Archbishop Zbynek excommunicated him. Still, Hus continued to preach and teach at the university.

Once more, the matter of indulgences came up when Alexander's successor, Pope John XXIII, sold them in Bohemia to raise money. Hus again condemned the practice, but that did not sit well with King Vaclav IV of Bohemia, who received a share from indulgence sales.

Without Vaclav's support, Hus was excommunicated by the Roman curia. A church interdict was placed on Prague in 1412, which meant Catholics could not receive sacraments or be buried in church cemeteries. To spare the city, Hus fled to southern Bohemia, where he stayed in exile at the castles of friends.

Hus Writes Feverishly

In an attempt to answer charges against him, Hus wrote a lengthy book titled The Church (de Ecclesia) in which he asserted that Jesus Christ, not the pope, is the head of the church. Hus stated that Christ is the "Rock" upon which the church is built, not Peter.

While Hus declared Catholics were obligated to obey the church when its laws were based on Scripture, he said they had no duty to obey when humanmade rules could not be supported by the Bible.

In his book On Simony, Hus attacked the common practice of simony, rampant in the 15th century. Affluent parents bought high church positions for their sons, most of whom showed little interest in the gospel. That led to a string of lazy, corrupt church leaders.

During that period Hus also penned a long series of letters to everyone from personal friends to the people of Prague to cardinals and the pope.

Much of what is known about him comes from those documents. His other works explained the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.

Of course, many of Hus' positions undercut church authority, a stance that further alienated him from the local archbishop and Rome. Hus was dangerously unaware of just how much he was hated by church officials.

Betrayal and Execution

In 1414, a naive Jan Hus traveled to a church conference in Constance, Germany, believing he would have the chance to defend himself before a group of church fathers gathered to discuss the situation of three sitting popes. Hus was promised safe passage there and back by King Sigismund of Hungary, Vaclav's half-brother, but when Hus arrived, he was arrested and thrown in prison.

Located next to the latrines, Hus' unsanitary cell stunk. The reformer grew so ill that treatment by the pope's doctor and relocation to another cell were needed to keep Hus alive.

When Hus finally appeared before the council, the loathing against him was overwhelming. Sigismund, caving to political pressure, secretly withdrew his vow of protection. The council concocted 30 false articles they said Hus taught, including that he was the fourth person of the Godhead. Every time Hus tried to defend himself, he was shouted down.

On July 6, 1415, Hus was dressed in priestly vestments then ceremonially defrocked. He refused to recant his beliefs. Dragged to the place of execution, he was bound to the stake with a chain around his neck.

Men piled wood up to his chin. Given one last chance to recant, Hus proclaimed his innocence.

As the fire overtook him, Hus could be heard singing, "Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy on me."

Reformation Legacy

Hus' impact on later reformers was immense. In 1520, Martin Luther confessed, "I have taught and held all the teachings of Jan Hus, but thus far did I not know it . . . In short, we are all Hussites and did not know it."

Most mainstays of Protestant theology can be traced to Hus: Christ alone as head of the church, strict adherence to the Bible, all worship readings and sermons in the local language, reception of both wine and bread in communion, daily Bible reading by Christians, and the danger of temptations in culture.

As a Catholic priest, Hus never advocated breaking from the church. Instead, he called for change, for reforming the corrupt bureaucracy of the church and returning to the nonpolitical norms of early Christianity. The system called his appeals heresy. 

Jan Hus Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Jan Hus 
  • Also Known As: John Huss, Johann Huss 
  • Occupation: Priest, theologian, teacher  
  • Born: Between 1369 and 1372 in Husinec, Czech Republic
  • Died: July 6, 1415, in Constance, Germany.
  • Education: University of Prague
  • Published Works: The Church, On Simony, letters
  • Key Accomplishments: Inspired church reformers like Martin Luther
  • Famous quote: "In life eternal, there is perfect joy and light, without pain or torture, and there is communion with God Himself and His angels."

Sources

  • Christian History Institute. To Build a Fire. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/to-build-a-fire.

  • Reformation 500. Jan Hus. https://reformation500.csl.edu/bio/jan-hus/.

  • C.S. Lewis Institute. The Legacy of John Hus. http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/The_Legacy_of_John_Hus_FullArticle.

  • Online Library of Liberty. Jan Huss, The Church [1411]. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/huss-the-church.

  • Christianity Today, Christian History. John Huss, Pre-Reformation Reformer. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/john-huss.html.

  • Encyclopedia Britannica. Han Hus, Bohemian Religious Leader. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jan-Hus.

  • The Famous People. 18 Thought-Provoking Quotes By John Huss That Prove Hope Springs Eternal. https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/john-huss-87.php