John Huss

John Huss
John Huss

John Huss was a forerunner of the Reformation. He was born into a prosperous peasant family in the small southwestern Bohemian town of Husenic (Goosetown), close to the Bohmerwald and not far from the Bavarian frontier. Little is known of Huss’s early life except that his parents died while he was young. He was first educated at Husenic and then later in the neighboring town of Prachaticz.

Huss entered the University of Prague around 1388. In 1392 he received his bachelor of arts degree and, in 1394 a degree for a bachelor of theology. He was granted his master’s degree in 1396. In 1398 Huss was chosen by the Bohemian “nation” of the university to hold the post of examenership for the bachelor’s degree. In that same year he began to lecture on philosophy.

Huss was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1400 and in 1401 he was appointed dean of the philosophical faculty. From October 1402 to April 1403 he held the office of rector of the university. In 1402 he was appointed rector or curate (capellarius) of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. The chapel had been erected and endowed in 1391 by citizens in Prague in order to provide preaching in Czech.

It was also a place of congregational singing with the music of several tunes painted on the walls for all to see and to use for singing. Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel deeply influenced the religious life of Huss, leading him to a study of the Bible. From it he developed the deep conviction of its value for the life of the church. It also taught him a deeper respect for the philosophical and theological writings of John Wycliffe.

The study of scripture and its proclamation in a vernacular tongue had been condemned in England by opponents to Wycliffe’s teaching and to their spread by his Lollard supporters. Huss’s sympathy with Wycliffe did not immediately involve him in any conscious opposition to the established doctrines of Catholicism or with church authorities. He translated Wycliffe’s Trialogus into Czech and promoted its reading.

Huss probably became aware of Wycliffe’s teachings when Czech students who had studied at Oxford University under Wycliffe returned to Prague. Anne of Bohemia was at the time the wife of King Richard II. She had scholarly interests of her own, which may have encouraged Czech students to study in England.

Eventually Czech students copied all of Wycliffe’s works and took them to Bohemia. Persecution against Wycliffe would eventually leave the only surviving copies of some of his works in Bohemia. Wycliffe was very controversial in England because his teaching called for the translation of the Bible, then only available in versions of the Latin Vulgate, into the vernacular.

In addition Wycliffe was a severe critic of the corruption of the clergy. Wycliffe died at home; however after his death his body was exhumed and burned along with his books. In addition, his lay supporters, the Lollards, were persecuted. The same thing was to happen in Bohemia and Moravia despite the preaching of Huss for reforms.

In 1409 the king of Bohemia reorganized the voting control of the University of Prague. The university was governed by the nations. The Germans had the most votes, but the Czechs were more numerous. The king’s reform gave the Czechs representation in proportion to their numbers, and also effective control.

However, the move so angered the Germans that most of them quit the university at Prague and moved to other German universities in other cities with one group founding the University of Leipzig. They also engaged in a slander campaign against Huss because of the change. Among the slanders was the charge that Huss was a heretic.

Huss wrote a number of philosophical and theological works, including De ecclesia. The book was critical of many medieval church practices. He charged that the lucrative but unbiblical practice of granting forgiveness through the issuing of indulgences was harmful to the souls of innocent Christians. Because of his attack on indulgences Huss was excommunicated in 1412. In 1414 Huss went to the Council of Constance that met in Constance, Germany, under the safe conduct protection of the Holy Roman Emperor.

After an unfair trial in which Huss was not allowed to present a proper defense, he was condemned to death for heresy despite the pledge of safe conduct. The most damning charge against Huss in the eyes of his judges was his claim that Christ is the head of the church and not Saint Peter.

Before Huss was taken to the place of execution, he was subjected to ceremonial degradation. He was stripped of his clerical vestments and his tonsure was erased. He was then defrocked to revoke his ordination as a minister of the Gospel. Then his books were burned in front of the cathedral. Finally he was led to a place outside of Constance where he was martyred by being burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

When the news of the martyrdom of Huss reached Prague the people of Prague rose up against the religious rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Soon all of Bohemia and Moravia were united in support of the teachings of Huss as the true Gospel. In a movement of nationalistic and religious fervor the Hussites reformed the church on the basis of Huss’s teachings. Among the many changes in liturgical and ecclesiastical practices was the giving to the people in Eucharist the elements of both the bread and wine as sub utraque specie.

The medieval practice of the Latin Church was to give only bread to the people. The desire among the Bohemians and Moravians for this change has been traced to Saints Cyril and Methodios, who had been the first missionaries to convert the Bohemians and Moravians during the 800s at the time of the Great Moravian Empire. They were missionaries of the Eastern Orthodox Church, where the elements were served in both kinds.

John Huss being burned at the stake
John Huss being burned at the stake

The Hussites quickly developed into three groups: the Ultraquists, the Bohemian Brotherhood, and the Taborites. All were in favor of taking communion in both kinds, that is, both the bread and wine as sub utraque specie. The Ultraquists or Calixtines (calix, the communion cup) leaned toward the Roman Catholic communion. The Bohemian Brotherhood, influenced by Peter (Petr) Chelcický, was scattered and pacifist.

The Taborites were the most reformist and did much of the fighting. The Hussites defeated all the Roman Catholic armies sent to suppress their Christian beliefs. On July 14, 1420, the Hussites led by John Ziska of Trocnov, then aged 61 and blind in one eye, defeated the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund’s army numbering more than 100,000 at Vysehrad (now Ziska Hill).

A second crusade was sent against the Hussites in 1421 and a third in 1422. Both were defeated. However, on October 11, 1424, Ziska was killed in battle. Andreas Propok replaced him (Procopius the Great, and in Czech, Prokop Veliky [Holý]). He soon defeated an army of 130,000 sent against the Hussites.

Hussite religious zeal disciplined the Czechs. The whole country was organized into two lists of parishes. Men from one list were called to battle while those from the other would remain at home to protect, farm, and aid the lands of their warring brethren.

The Hussites, led by John Ziska of Trocnov, were able to defeat the German and Hungarian knights and infantry sent against them. Ziska had fought against the Teutonic Knights in the ranks of the Polish army. There he had learned of Russian noblemen who often circled the wagons of the baggage trains into defensive forts called a moving fortress (goliaigorod).

At first the Hussites put men with muskets into farm carts and wagons. Eventually they developed specially constructed war wagons that could be chained together. These war wagons had thick wooden sides to provide some protection to the men inside.

The Hussite war wagons were placed in circles on hillsides in a defensive position. In order to attack them, the imperial knights had to attack uphill, charging on horses that soon wearied of the uphill exertion of carrying a heavily armored knight. Hussite musket blasts cut down the knights as they drew near. Dead and wounded knights and horses hampered renewed attacks.

The Hussite soldiers’ use of musket and cannon fire to defend themselves against heavily armored knights on horseback was similar to the English longbow men and the Swiss pike men of the time. The Hussites also prepared the way for new forms of military tactics and arms of the age of gunpowder. Using pikes or muskets in combination with cannons the Hussites were able to develop offensive tactics that could defeat the old armies of knights.

Eventually Hussite forces raided the German areas of Bavaria, Meissen, Thuringia, and Silesia. They then returned to their mountain fortresses in Bohemia and Moravia. The more radical Hussites gathered into strongly fortified towns like Tabor.

However strife between the Ultraquists and the Taborites led to war between them. The strife arose from the diplomatic success of the Roman Catholics in dividing the Ultraquists and the Taborites. The Hussites agreed to attend the Council of Basel with the Roman Catholic Church.

The outcome was the Compacta of Basel. It pulled the Ultraquists away from Hussite reforms. The Taborites however refused to accept the Compacta. They were defeated in the Battle of Lipany (Battle of Cesky Brod) on May 30, 1434, by a combined Ultraquist-Catholic army. Procopius was killed and the Taborite army was destroyed on the field.

The defeat was due to a tactical error that occurred when the Ultraquists retreated and the Taborites left the safety of their war wagons to pursue. The Battle of Lipany ended the Hussite Wars; however, in 1618 the Thirty Years’ War began in Prague when fighting broke out between Hussites and their opponents.

At the end of the Thirty Years’ War most of the Hussites had fled or were dead. Scattered Hussite elements or Unity of the Brethren (Unitas Fratrum) continued to exist in both Bohemia and Moravia after the Thirty Years’ War. Living in remote locations they secretly practiced their faith despite persecution.

Early in the Thirty Years’ War, Johannes Amos Comenius, a famous educator and Hussite bishop, was forced to flee Moravia. As he departed he called the Hussite remnant the “hidden seed.” Beginning in the early 1720s many of the “hidden seed” fled to Saxony, where they found refuge on lands of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Founding the village of Herrnhut near Zittau they became the revived Moravian Church in 1722.