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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 9 — Trial and temptation of Jerome

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Jerome – His Arrival in Constance – Flight and Capture – His Fall and Repentance – He Rises again

WE have pursued our narrative uninterruptedly to the close of Huss's life. We must now retrace our steps a little way, and narrate the fate of his disciple and fellow-laborer, Jerome. These two had received the same baptism of faith, and were to drink of the same cup of martyrdom. When Jerome heard of the arrest of Huss, he flew to Constance in the hope of being able to succor, in some way, his beloved master. When he saw that without doing anything for Huss he had brought his own life into peril, he attempted to flee. He was already far on his way back to Prague when he was arrested, and brought to Constance, which he entered in a cart, loaded with chains and guarded by soldiers, as if he had been a malefactor. [1]

On May 23rd, 1415, he appeared before the Council. The Fathers were thrown into tumult and uproar as on the occasion of Huss's first appearance before them. Jerome's assailants were chiefly the doctors, and especially the famous Gerson, with whom he had chanced to dispute in Paris and Heidelberg, when attending the universities of these cities. [2] At night he was conducted to the dungeon of a tower in the cemetery of St. Paul. His chains, riveted to a lofty beam, did not permit of his sitting down; and his arms, crossed behind on his neck and tied with fetters, bent his head downward and occasioned him great suffering. He fell ill, and his enemies, fearing that death would snatch him from them, relaxed somewhat the rigor of his treatment; nevertheless in that dreadful prison he remained an entire year. [3]

Meanwhile a letter was received from the barons of Bohemia, which convinced the Council that it had deceived itself when it fancied it had done with Huss when it threw his ashes into the Rhine. A storm was evidently brewing, and should the Fathers plant a second stake, the tempest would be all the more sure to burst, and with the more awful fury. Instead of burning Jerome, it were better to induce him to recant. To this they now directed all their efforts, and so far they were successful. They brought him before them, and summarily offered him the alternative of retractation or death by fire. Ill in body and depressed in mind from his confinement of four months in a noisome dungeon, cut off from his friends, the most of whom had left Constance when Huss was burned, Jerome yielded to the solicitation of the Council. Me shrank from the bitter stake and clung to life.

But his retractation (September 23rd, 1415) was a very qualified one. He submitted himself to the Council, and subscribed to the justice of its condemnation of the articles of Wicliffe and Huss, saving and excepting the "holy truths" which they had taught; and he promised to live and die in the Catholic faith, and never to preach anything contrary to it. [4] It is as surprising that such an abjuration should have been accepted by the Council, as it is that it should have been emitted by Jerome. Doubtless the little clause in the middle of it reconciled it to his conscience. But one trembles to think of the brink on which Jerome at this moment stood. Having come so far after that master whom he has seen pass through the fire to the sky, is he able to follow him no farther? Huss and Jerome have been lovely in their lives; are they to be divided in their deaths? No! Jerome has fallen in a moment of weakness, but his Master will lift him up again. And when he is risen the stake will not be able to stop his following where Huss has gone before.

To turn for a moment from Jerome to the Council: we must remark that the minds of the people were, to some extent, prepared for a reformation of the Church by the sermons preached on that subject from time to time by the members of the Council. On September 8th a discourse was delivered on the text in Jeremiah, "Where is the word of the Lord?" The name of the preacher has not been preserved. After a long time spent in inquiring after the Church, she at length appeared to the orator in the form of a great and beautiful queen, lamenting that there was no longer any virtue in the world, and ascribing this to the avarice and ambition of the clergy, and the growth of heresy. "The Church," exclaimed the preacher, "has no greater enemies than the clergy. For who are they that are the greatest opposers of the Reformation? Are they the secular princes? Very far from it, for they are the men who desire it with the greatest zeal, and demand and court it with the utmost earnestness. Who are they who rend the garment of Jesus Christ but the clergy? – who may be compared to hungry wolves, that come into the sheepfolds in lambskins, and conceal ungodly and wicked souls under religious habits." A few days later the Bishop of Lodi, preaching from the words "Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die and not live," took occasion to inveigh against the Council in similar terms. [5] It seemed almost as if it was a voluntary penance which the Fathers had set themselves when they permitted one after another of their number to mount the pulpit only to draw their likenesses and to publish their faults. An ugly picture it truly was on which they were invited to gaze, and they had not even the poor consolation of being able to say that a heretic had painted it.

The abjuration of Jerome, renouncing the errors but adhering to the truths which Wicliffe and

Huss had taught, was not to the mind of the majority of the Council. There were men in it who were resolved that he should not thus escape. His master had paid the penalty of his errors with his life, and it was equally determined to spill the blood of the disciple. New accusations were preferred against him, amounting to the formidable number of a hundred and seven. It would be extraordinary, indeed, if in so long a list the Council should be unable to prove a sufficient number to bring Jerome to the stake. The indictment now framed against him had reference mainly to the real presence, indulgences, the worship of images and relics, and the authority of the priests. A charge of disbelief in the Trinity was thrown in, perhaps to give all air of greater gravity to the inculpation; but Jerome purged himself of that accusation by reciting the Athanasian Creed.. As regarded transubstantiation, the Fathers had no cause to find fault with the opinions of Huss and Jerome. Both were believers in the real presence. "It is bread before consecration," said Jerome, "it is the body of Christ after." [6] One would think that this dogma would be the first part of Romanism to be renounced; experience shows that it is commonly the last; that there is in it a strange power to blind, or fascinate, or enthral the mind. Even Luther, a century later, was not able fully to emancipate himself from it; and how many others, some of them in almost the first rank of Reformers, do we find speaking of the Eucharist with a mysticism and awe which show that neither was their emancipation complete! It is one of the greatest marvels in the whole history of Protestantism that Wicliffe, in the fourteenth century, should have so completely rid himself of this enchantment, and from the very midnight of superstition passed all at once into the clear light of reason and Scripture on this point.

As regards the other points included in the inculpation, there is no doubt that Jerome, like his master John Huss, fell below the standard of the Roman orthodox faith. He did not believe that a priest, be he scandalous or be he holy, had power to anathematize whomsoever he would; and pardons and indulgences he held to be worthless unless they came from God. [7] There is reason, too, to think that his enemies spoke truly when they accused him of showing but scant reverence for relics, and of putting the Virgin's veil, and the skin of the ass on which Christ sat when He made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on the same level as regards their claim to the homage of Christians. And beyond doubt he was equally guilty with Huss in arraigning the priesthood for their avarice, ambition, tyranny, and licentiousness. Of the truth of this charge, Constance itself was a monument. [8] That city had become a Sodom, and many said that a shower of fire and brimstone only could cleanse it from its manifold and indescribable iniquities. But the truth of the charge made the guilt of Jerome only the more heinous.

Meanwhile Jerome had reflected in his prison on what he had done. We have no record of his thoughts, but doubtless the image of Huss, so constant and so courageous in the fire, rose before him. He contrasted, too, the peace of mind which he enjoyed before his retractation, compared with the doubts that now darkened his soul and shut out the light of God's loving-kindness. He could not conceal from himself the yet deeper abjurations that were before him, before he should finish with the Council and reconcile himself to the Church. On all this he pondered deeply. He saw that it was a gulf that had no bottom, into which he was about to throw himself. There the darkness would shut him in, and he should no more enjoy the society of that master whom he had so greatly revered on earth, nor behold the face of that other Master in heaven, who was the object of his yet higher reverence and love. And for what was he foregoing all these blessed hopes? Only to escape a quarter of an hour's torment at the stake! "I am cast out of Thy sight," said he, in the words of one in a former age, whom danger drove for a time from the path of duty, "but I will look again toward Thy holy temple." And as he looked, God looked on him. The love of his Savior anew filled his soul – that love which is better than life – and with that love returned strength and courage. "No," we hear him say, "although I should stand a hundred ages at the stake, I will not deny my Savior. Now I am ready to face the Council; it can kill the body, but it has no more that it can do." Thus Jerome rose stronger from his fall.


Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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