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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 2 — Huss begins his warfare against Rome

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The Two Frescoes – The University of Prague – Exile of Huss – Return – Arrival of Jerome – The Two Yoke-fellows – The Rival Popes, etc.

AN incident which is said to have occurred at this time (1404) contributed to enlarge the views of Huss, and to give strength to the movement he had originated in Bohemia. There came to Prague two theologians from England, James and Conrad of Canterbury. Graduates of Oxford, and disciples of the Gospel, they had crossed the sea to spread on the banks of the Moldau the knowledge they had learned on those of the Isis. Their plan was to hold public disputations, and selecting the Pope's primacy, they threw down the gage of battle to its maintainers. The country was hardly ripe for such a warfare, and the affair coming to the ears of the authorities, they promptly put a stop to the discussions. Arrested in their work, the two visitors did not fail to consider by what other way they could carry out their mission. They bethought them that they had studied art as well as theology, and might now press the pencil into their service. Having obtained their host's leave, they proceeded to give a specimen of their skill in a drawing in the corridor of the house in which they resided. On the one wall they portrayed the humble entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, "meek, and riding upon an ass." On the other they displayed the more than royal magnificence of a Pontifical cavalcade. There was seen the Pope, adorned with triple crown, attired in robes bespangled with gold, and all lustrous with precious stones. He rode proudly on a richly caparisoned horse, with trumpeters proclaiming his approach, and a brilliant crowd of cardinals and bishops following in his rear. In an age when printing was unknown, and preaching nearly as much so, this was a sermon, and a truly eloquent and graphic one. Many came to gaze, and to mark the contrast presented between the lowly estate of the Church's Founder, and the overgrown haughtiness and pride of His pretended vicar. [1] The city of Prague was moved, and the excitement became at last so great, that the English strangers deemed it prudent to withdraw. But the thoughts they had awakened remained to ferment in the minds of the citizens.

Among those who came to gaze at this antithesis of Christ and Antichrist was John Huss; and the effect of it upon him was to lead him to study more carefully than ever the writings of Wicliffe. He was far from able at first to concur in the conclusions of the English Reformer. Like a strong light thrown suddenly upon a weak eye, the bold views of Wicliffe, and the sweeping measure of reform which he advocated, alarmed and shocked Huss. The Bohemian preacher had appealed to the Bible, but he had not bowed before it with the absolute and unreserved submission of the English pastor. To overturn the hierarchy, and replace it with the simple ministry of the Word; to sweep away all the teachings of tradition, and put in their room the doctrines of the New Testament, was a revolution for which, though marked alike by its simplicity and its sublimity, Huss was not prepared. It may be doubted whether, even when he came to stand at the stake, Huss's views had attained the breadth and clearness of those of Wicliffe.

Lying miracles helped to open the eyes of Huss still farther, and to aid his movement. In the church at Wilsnack, near the lower Elbe, there was a pretended relic of the blood of Christ. Many wonderful cures were reported to have been done by the holy blood. People flocked thither, not only out of the neighboring countries, but also from those at a greater distance – Poland, Hungary, and even Scandinavia. In Bohemia itself there were not wanting numerous pilgrims who went to Wilsnack to visit the wonderful relic. Many doubts were expressed about the efficacy of the blood. The Archbishop of Prague appointed a commission of three masters, among whom was Huss, to investigate the affair, and to inquire into the truth of the miracles said to have been wrought. The examination of the persons on whom the alleged miracles had been performed, proved that they were simply impostures. One boy was said to have had a sore foot cured by the blood of Wilsnack, but the foot on examination was found, instead of being cured, to be worse than before. Two blind women were said to have recovered their sight by the virtue of the blood; but, on being questioned, they confessed that they had had sore eyes, but had never been blind; and so as regarded other alleged cures. As the result of the investigation, the archbishop issued a mandate in the summer of 1405, in which all preachers were enjoined, at least once a month, to publish to their congregations the episcopal prohibition of pilgrimages to the blood of Wilsnack, under pain of excommunication. [2]

Huss was able soon after (1409) to render another service to his nation, which, by extending his fame and deepening his influence among the Bohemian people, paved the way for his great work. Crowds of foreign youth flocked to the University of Prague, and their numbers enabled them to monopolize its emoluments and honors, to the partial exclusion of the Bohemian students. By the original constitution of the university the Bohemians possessed three votes, and the other nations united only one. In process of time this was reversed; the Germans usurped three of the four votes, and the remaining one alone was left to the native youth. Huss protested against this abuse, and had influence to obtain its correction. An edict was passed, giving three votes to the Bohemians, and only one to the Germans. No sooner was this decree published, than the German professors and students – to the number, say some, of

40,000; but according to AEneas Sylvius, a contemporary, of 5,000 – left Prague, having previously bound themselves to this step by oath, under pain of having the two first fingers of their right hand cut off. Among these students were not a few on whom had shone, through Huss, the first rays of Divine knowledge, and who were instrumental in spreading the light over Germany. Elevated to the rectorship of the university, Huss was now, by his greater popularity and higher position, abler than ever to propagate his doctrines. [3]

What was going on at Prague could not long remain unknown at Rome. On being informed of the proceedings in the Bohemian capital, the Pope, Alexander V., fulminated a bull, in which he commanded the Archbishop of Prague, Sbinko, with the help of the secular authorities, to proceed against all who preached in private chapels, and who read the writings or taught the opinions of Wicliffe. There followed a great auto da fe, not of persons but of books. Upwards of 200 volumes, beautifully written, elegantly bound, and ornamented with precious stones – the works of John Wicliffe – were, by the order of Sbinko, piled upon the street of Prague, and, amid the tolling bells, publicly burned. [4] Their beauty and costliness showed that their owners were men of high position; and their number, collected in one city alone, attests how widely circulated were the writings of the English Reformer on the continent of Europe.

This act but the more inflamed the zeal of Huss. In his sermons he now attacked indulgences as well as the abuses of the hierarchy. A second mandate arrived from Rome. The Pope summoned him to answer for his doctrine in person. To obey the summons would have been to walk into his grave. The king, the queen, the university, and many of the magnates of Bohemia sent a joint embassy requesting the Pope to dispense with Huss's appearance in person, and to hear him by his legal counsel. The Pope refused to listen to this supplication. He went on with the case, condemned John Huss in absence, and laid the city of Prague under interdict. [5]

The Bohemian capital was thrown into perplexity and alarm. On every side tokens met the eye to which the imagination imparted a fearful significance. Prague looked like a city stricken with sudden and terrible calamity. The closed church-doors – the extinguished altar-lights – the corpses waiting burial by the way-side – the images which sanctified and guarded the streets, covered with sackcloth, or laid prostrate on the ground, as if in supplication for a land on which the impieties of its children had brought down a terrible curse – gave emphatic and solemn warning that every hour the citizens harbored within their walls the man who had dared to disobey the Pope's summons, they but increased the heinousness of their guilt, and added to the vengeance of their doom. "Let us cast out the rebel," was the cry of many, "before we perish."

Tumult was beginning to disturb the peace, and slaughter to dye the streets of Prague. What was Huss to do? Should he flee before the storm, and leave a city where he had many friends and not a few disciples? What had his Master said? "The hireling fleeth because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep." This seemed to forbid his departure. His mind was torn with doubts. But had not the same Master commanded, "When they persecute you in one city, flee ye to another"? His presence could but entail calamity upon his friends; so, quitting Prague, he retired to his native village of Hussinetz.

Here Huss enjoyed the protection of the territorial lord, who was his friend. His first thoughts were of those he had left behind in Prague – the flock to whom he had so lovingly ministered in his Chapel of Bethlehem. "I have retired," he wrote to them, "not to deny the truth, for which I am willing to die, but because impious priests forbid the preaching of it." [6] The sincerity of this avowal was attested by the labors he immediately undertook. Making Christ his pattern, he journeyed all through the surrounding region, preaching in the towns and villages. He was followed by great crowds, who hung upon his words, admiring his meekness not less than his courage and eloquence. "The Church," said his hearers, "has pronounced this man a heretic and a demon, yet his life is holy, and his doctrine is pure and elevating." [7]

The mind of Huss, at this stage of his career, would seem to have been the scene of a painful conflict. Although the Church was seeking to overwhelm him by her thunderbolts, he had not renounced her authority. The Roman Church was still to him the spouse of Christ, and the Pope was the representative and vicar of God. What Huss was warring against was the abuse of authority, not the principle itself. This brought on a terrible conflict between the convictions of his understanding and the claims of his conscience. If the authority was just and infallible, as he believed it to be, how came it that he felt compelled to disobey it? To obey, he saw, was to sin; but why should obedience to an infallible Church lead to such an issue?. This was the problem he could not solve; this was the doubt that tortured him hour by hour. The nearest approximation to a solution, which he was able to make, was that it had happened again, as once before in the days of the Savior, that the priests of the Church had become wicked persons, and were using their lawful authority for unlawful ends. This led him to adopt for his own guidance, and to preach to others for theirs, the maxim that the precepts of Scripture, conveyed through the understanding, are to rule the conscience; in other words,

that God speaking in the Bible, and not the Church speaking through the priesthood, is the one infallible guide of men. This was to adopt the fundamental principle of Protestantism, and to preach a revolution which Huss himself would have recoiled from, had he been able at that hour to see the length to which it would lead him. The axe which he had grasped was destined to lay low the principle of human supremacy in matters of conscience, but the fetters yet on his arm did not permit him to deliver such blows as would be dealt by the champions who were to follow him, and to whom was reserved the honor of extirpating that bitter root which had yielded its fruits in the corruption of the Church and the slavery of society.

Gradually things quieted in Prague, although it soon became evident that the calm was only on the surface. Intensely had Huss longed to appear again in his Chapel of Bethlehem – the scene of so many triumphs – and his wish was granted. Once more he stands in the old pulpit; once more his loving flock gather round him. With zeal quickened by his banishment, he thunders more courageously than ever against the tyranny of the priesthood in forbidding the free preaching of the Gospel. In proportion as the people grew in knowledge, the more, says Fox, they "complained of the court of Rome and the bishop's consistory, who plucked from the sheep of Christ the wool and milk, and did not feed them either with the Word of God or good examples." [8]

A great revolution was preparing in Bohemia, and it could not be ushered into the world without evoking a tempest. Huss was perhaps the one tranquil man in the nation. A powerful party, consisting of the doctors of the university and the members of the priesthood, was now formed against him. Chief among these were two priests, Paletz and Causis, who had once been his friends, but had now become his bitterest foes. This party would speedily have silenced him and closed the Chapel of Bethlehem, the center of the movement, had they not feared the people. Every day the popular indignation against the priests waxed stronger. Every day the disciples and defenders of the Reformer waxed bolder, and around him were now powerful as well as numerous friends. The queen was on his side; the lofty character and resplendent virtues of Huss had won her esteem. Many of the nobles declared for him – some of them because they had felt the Divine power of the doctrines which he taught, and others in the hope of sharing in the spoils which they foresaw would by-and-by be gleaned in the wake of the movement. The great body of the citizens were friendly. Captivated by his eloquence, and taught by his pure and elevating doctrine, they had learned to detest the pride, the debaucheries, and the avarice of the priests, and to take part with the man whom so many powerful and unrighteous confederacies were seeking to crush. [9]

But Huss was alone; he had no fellow-worker; and had doubtless his hours of loneliness and melancholy. One single companion of sympathizing spirit, and of like devotion to the same great cause, would have been to Huss a greater stay and a sweeter solace than all the other friends who stood around him. And it pleased God to give him such: a true yoke-fellow, who brought to the cause he espoused an intellect of great subtlety, and an eloquence of great fervor, combined with a fearless courage, and a lofty devotion. This friend was Jerome of Faulfish, a Bohemian knight, who had returned some time before from Oxford, where he had imbibed the opinions of Wicliffe. As he passed through Paris and Vienna, he challenged the learned men of these universities to dispute with him on matters of faith; but the theses which he maintained with a triumphant logic were held to savor of heresy, and he was thrown into prison. Escaping, however, he came to Bohemia to spread with all the enthusiasm of his character, and all the brilliancy of his eloquence, the doctrines of the English Reformer. [10]

With the name of Huss that of Jerome is henceforward indissolubly associated. Alike in their great qualities and aims, they were yet in minor points sufficiently diverse for one to be the complement of the other. Huss was the more powerful character, Jerome was the more eloquent orator. Greater in genius, and more popular in gifts, Jerome maintained nevertheless towards Huss the relation of a disciple. It was a beautiful instance of Christian humility. The calm reason of the master was a salutary restraint upon the impetuosity of the disciple. The union of these two men gave a sensible impulse to the cause. While Jerome debated in the schools, and thundered in the popular assemblies, Huss expounded the Scriptures in his chapel, or toiled with his pen at the refutation of some manifesto of the doctors of the university, or some bull of the Vatican. Their affection for each other ripened day by day, and continued unbroken till death came to set its seal upon it, and unite them in the bonds of an eternal friendship.

The drama was no longer confined to the limits of Bohemia. Events were lifting up Huss and Jerome to a stage where they would have to act their part in the presence of all Christendom. Let us cast our eyes around and survey the state of Europe. There were at that time three Popes reigning in Christendom. The Italians had elected Balthazar Cossa, who, as John XXIII., had set up his chair at Bologna. The French had chosen Angelo Corario, who lived at Rimini, under the title of Gregory XII.; and the Spaniards had elected Peter de Lune (Benedict XIII.), who resided in Arragon. Each claimed to be the legitimate successor of Peter, and the

true vicegerent of God, and each strove to make good his claim by the bitterness and rage with which he hurled his maledictions against his rival. Christendom was divided, each nation naturally supporting the Pope of its choice. The schism suggested some questions which it was not easy to solve. "If we must obey," said Huss and his followers, "to whom is our obedience to be paid? Balthazar Cossa, called John XXIII., is at Bologna; Angelo Corario, named Gregory XII., is at Rimini; Peter de Lune, who calls himself Benedict XIII., is in Arragon. If all three are infallible, why does not their testimony agree? and if only one of them is the Most Holy Father, why is it that we cannot distinguish him from the rest?" [11] Nor was much help to be got towards a solution by putting the question to the men themselves. If they asked John XXIII. he told them that Gregory XII. was "a heretic, a demon, the Antichrist;" Gregory XII. obligingly bore the same testimony respecting John XXIII., and both Gregory and John united in sounding, in similar fashion, the praises of Benedict XIII., whom they stigmatized as "an impostor and schismatic," while Benedict paid back with prodigal interest the compliments of his two opponents. It came to this, that if these men were to be believed, instead of three Popes there were three Antichrists in Christendom; and if they were not to be believed, where was the infallibility, and what had become of the apostolic succession?

The chroniclers of the time labor to describe the distractions, calamities, and woes that grew out of this schism. Europe was plunged into anarchy; every petty State was a theater of war and rapine. The rival Popes sought to crush one another, not with the spiritual bolts only, but with temporal arms also. They went into the market to purchase swords and hire soldiers, and as this could not be done without money, they opened a scandalous traffic in spiritual things to supply themselves with the needful gold. Pardons, dispensations, and places in Paradise they put up to sale, in order to realize the means of equipping their armies for the field. The bishops and inferior clergy, quick to profit by the example set them by the Popes, enriched themselves by simony. At times they made war on their own account, attacking at the head of armed bands the territory of a rival ecclesiastic, or the castle of a temporal baron. A bishop newly elected to Hildesheim, having requested to be shown the library of his predecessors, was led into an arsenal, in which all kinds of arms were piled up. "Those," said his conductors, "are the books which they made use of to defend the Church; imitate their example." [12] How different were the words of St. Ambrose! "My arms," said he, as the Goths approached his city, "are my tears; with other weapons I dare not fight."

It is distressing to dwell on this deplorable picture. Of the practice of piety nothing remained save a few superstitious rites. Truth, justice, and order banished from among men, force was the arbiter in all things, and nothing was heard but the clash of arms and the sighings of oppressed nations, while above the strife rose the furious voices of the rival Popes frantically hurling anathemas at one another. This was truly a melancholy spectacle; but it was necessary, perhaps, that the evil should grow to this head, if peradventure the eyes of men might be opened, and they might see that it was indeed a "bitter thing" that they had forsaken the "easy yoke" of the Gospel, and submitted to a power that set no limits to its usurpations, and which, clothing itself with the prerogatives of God, was waging a war of extermination against all the rights of man.

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