Childhood & Early Life
John Huss was born sometime around 1369 in Husinec, a town in the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic, then under the Kingdom of Bohemia. Most researchers describe his parents as poor peasants, but no other detail is available about his family background.
According to available information, Huss began his education at Husinec, later going to the neighboring town of Prachaticz to complete his schooling. Thereafter, he moved to the imperial city of Prague, where he supported himself by singing. Concurrently, he began serving in various churches.
Around 1390, he entered the Charles University of Prague with arts and theology, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1393, Bachelor of Divinity in 1394 and Masters in Divinity in 1396. During this period, he displayed an extraordinary commitment to his studies. His conduct was also very positive.
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In 1398, Huss began his career as the examiner for the bachelor’s degree at the Charles University of Prague. Later in the same year, he acquired the position of the Professor of Theology in the same university.
All along he must have kept in touch with the church because in 1400, we find him ordained as a priest. At that time, his intention was more secular, joining priesthood simply to acquire a good living and respect in the society. Concurrently, he continued with his academic career.
In 1401, he became the dean of the philosophical faculty at the University of Prague. Next in October 1402, he was made the Rector of the university, holding the position until April 1403. Sometime during this period, he acted as the advisor to a young nobleman called Zbyněk Zajíc of Hazmburk.
Preacher & Reformer
In 1402, he was appointed a preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, which was endowed in 1391 with the specific intention of providing the preaching in Czech. By the turn of the century, it had become the largest church in Europe, having 3000 members and a center for religious reforms.
Preaching in Bethlehem Chapel, ignited in Huss an interest in religion and for the first time he began to study the Bible in earnest. Slowly, he realized the importance of imbibing the teachings of the Bible in life. Very soon, he became a well-respected preacher.
This was also the time when he came across the writings of John Wycliffe, brought into Bohemia by Czech students, who went to study at Oxford. An influential dissident within the Roman Catholic priesthood, Wycliffe attacked the privileged status of the clergy and also their pompous ceremonies through his writings.
Although Wycliffe’s works were banned by the church, Huss read them with interest. He did not support all his views, but realized that there was a need to reform many practices within the church. In 1403, he translated Wycliffe work, ‘Trialogus’, into Czech and helped to distribute it.
His reform movement gained momentum when in 1403, Zbyněk Zajíc, became the Archbishop of Prague. He required Huss to report to him any deviation or absence of law within the clergy. This enabled Huss to attack a section of the clergy for their abuses, thus earning the displeasure of many.
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When they complained to the Archbishop, he not only refrained from taking any action, but also protected Huss as he continued in his endeavor to reform the church. Moreover, he appointed Huss as the preacher at the clergy's biennial synod. Slowly, Huss began to grow a following of his own.
On 24 June 1405, Pope Innocent VII directed the Archbishop to counter Wycliffe's doctrines. Forced to comply, he issued synodal decree against Wycliffe and forbade further attacks on the clergy.
The synodal decree had little effect on Huss. In 1406, two Bohemian students, while returning from England, brought a document, in which the author had praised Wycliffe’s doctrine. It bore the seal of the University of Oxford and Huss read the document from the pulpit.
The news reached Rome and Pope Gregory XII wrote to Archbishop Zajíc, warning him not only about Wycliffe’s heresies, but also about King Wenceslaus's sympathies for his followers. The king then ordered that Wycliffe's writings should be surrendered to the archdiocesan chancery for correction.
Huss obeyed the order, declaring that he did not agree with many of Wycliffe’s points, condemning the error in them. The act helped him to retain the king’s support. Other than that he had very few friends.
By 1407, Zajíc had moved over to the anti-reform group, taking with him Huss’s old friends like Stanislav of Znojmo, and Štěpán Páleč. Thus, as Huss came to the forefront of the reform movement, he found himself alone, deserted by his friends.
At that time, Europe, especially Bohemia, was going through a troubled period. There was not only a conflict between the rival popes, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, but the academic atmosphere in Bohemia was mostly controlled by the Germans, which was not to the liking of Bohemian scholars.
In 1408, King Wenceslaus ordered strict neutrality in the conflict between the two popes, making it known that he expected the same from the University. While the Czech members of the University supported him, the Archbishop and the German scholars opposed this order.
In retaliation, King Wenceslaus changed the university charter in 1409, revising the voting pattern. It gave the Czech members more predominant position, resulting in the exodus of German scholars. In the same years, he made Huss the Rector of the University.
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In 1409, a council of Cardinals, held at Pisa, deposed both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, choosing Pietro Cardinal Philarghi as Pope Alexander V. Huss and his followers accepted the authority of Pope Alexander V; so did the King. But the archbishop and the higher clergy remained faithful to Gregory.
The fact that Huss did not support him did not go down well with the Archbishop. But having no other option, he too transferred his allegiance to the new Pope, subsequently lodging a complaint against Wycliffe’s followers, meaning Huss, for creating “ecclesiastical disturbances".
In response, Alexander V issued a papal bull on 20 December 1409, which empowered the Archbishop to proceed against the followers of Wycliffe. He also banned preaching in private chapels, which included the Bethlehem Chapel.
Once the bull was published in 1410, the Archbishop lost no time in burning the works of Wycliffe, proclaiming that all copies had to be surrendered. Many valuable manuscripts were burned and his doctrine was repudiated. Huss appealed to Alexander V against this, but in vain.
In spite of the ban, Huss continued to preach at the Bethlehem Chapel. He still retained the support of King Wenceslaus, who tried to bring about a truce. But before anything could be done Pope Alexander V passed away. He was succeeded by Baldassare Cardinal Cossa as Pope John XXIII.
In Conflict with Rome
In 1411, the King was able bring about a truce between Huss and the Archbishop, but it did not last long. Later in the same year, John XXIII proclaimed a crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, the protector of rival Pope Gregory XII. To raise money, he authorized indulgences.
In 1412, Huss delivered an address, ‘Quaestio magistri Johannis Hus de indulgentiis’, as a protest against this move. In it, he declared popes or bishops do not have right to wage war; instead, they should pray for their enemies, blessing those who cursed them.
In this address, he also said that man obtains forgiveness by repenting, not by paying money, which this ‘indulgence’ amounted to. Encouraged, some of his followers burnt the Papal bulls, declaring that they would rather obey Huss than the Church, which they said consisted of a bunch of corrupt men.
In retaliation, three of his followers, belonging to the lower class, who had openly criticized the indulgence as fraud, were beheaded. Much later, the Hussite Church called them the first martyrs of the Hussite movement.
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As time passed, more and more Bohemians began to follow Huss. Archbishop Albik, who had by then succeeded Zajíc, tried in vain to persuade Huss to give up his opposition. The King also tried to reconcile between the two warring groups. But Huss was adamant.
His enemies now renewed his trial at the Curia. Since Huss refused to appear before it, he was excommunicated. Moreover an interdict was pronounced over any place where he would reside, resulting in the denial of the sacraments of the church to communicants in that particulate area.
Followers of John Huss did not take the verdict lightly. Very soon, the situation became volatile, leading to riots in many parts of the country. To save the city, Huss now decided to leave Prague and move to the countryside. But before he did that, he took a major step.
On 18 October 1412, he appealed directly to Jesus Christ, the Supreme Lord. Although the act has little meaning today, at that time, it provided a momentum to the Bohemian reform movement because it bypassed the laws and the structure of Christian medieval church.
Thereafter, he lived in southern Bohemia under the protection of his friends and followers, Huss engaged himself in literally activities. Apart from some reformative works, he also wrote many polemical treatises against Stanislav ze Znojma and Štěpán Páleč.
Death & Legacy
In 1414, Huss was invited by the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, to present himself before the Council of Constance and explain his view. Although initially reluctant he later accepted the invitation as the Emperor falsely promised him ‘safe-conduct’ for the journey to and from Constance.
Once he reached Constance, he was arrested and put under trial with the tacit consent of Sigismund. Although Huss refuted the charges he was pronounced heretic, fit to die at stake.
On July 6, 1415, Huss was stripped of his rights at a ceremony at the church. Thereafter, he was taken to the place of execution and tied to the stake. As the fire engulfed him, he died heroically, taking the name of his Lord. His ashes were later thrown into River Rhine.
His death led to a revolt against the papacy in Bohemia, leading to three wars between 1419 and 1436. The Hussites not only won each of them, but their numbers began to increase steadily. Today, he is remembered as a martyr, whose life and teachings led to the transformation of the church.
The Jan Hus Memorial, located at the Prague Old Town Square as well as other smaller memorials and statues located in many towns across the world, continue to carry his legacy to this day.