The Long Legacy of a Roasted Goose
Proto-reformer John Hus was burned at the stake over 600 years ago. We are all Hussites now.
By Edwin Woodruff Tait
In the summer of 1519, Martin Luther debated theologian John Eck in the city of Leipzig on the primacy of the pope. Eck reached for that ever-convenient polemical tactic: guilt by association. Didn’t Luther realize, Eck asked, that his rejection of the divine origin of papal authority was one of the teachings for which Czech theologian John Hus had been executed a hundred years earlier?
This was an effective move, because Luther—like many who ran afoul of the papacy in the 15th and early 16th centuries—had been appealing to the authority of a general council over the pope. Eck showed that some of Luther’s ideas had already been condemned by a council, forcing Luther to reject the authority of councils as well as of the pope if he wanted to maintain his teachings.
Eck’s tactic was also effective in a more superficial, political way. The area where the debate was held had been laid waste by invading Czechs in the war that followed Hus’s death. Thus, praising Hus was almost equivalent to a modern American theologian praising Osama bin Laden.
In the months following the debate, Luther read more of Hus’s work, and the more he read, the more convinced he became that he had been right to defend Hus. Writing to his friend and patron George Spalatin in February of 1520, Luther concluded, “We are all Hussites without knowing it. Indeed, Paul and Augustine are literally Hussites.”
What did Luther mean by this? Who was Hus, and what about him struck Luther as so central to the Christian faith that he could describe even Paul and Augustine as “Hussites”?
A Fiery Preacher
John Hus was born around 1372 in a small village in southern Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic), and went to Prague in the 1390s as a university student. He was ordained in 1401, and the following year received a position as preacher at the “Chapel of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem,” a special chapel that was given the task of providing sermons in the vernacular to the people of Prague. Over the next decade, Hus preached daily, giving more than 3,000 sermons in his career.
Preaching was a form of popular entertainment in the late Middle Ages, and Hus’s fiery, uncompromising calls for the imitation of Christ and the renunciation of worldliness made him, ironically, a celebrity—albeit a highly controversial one.
A reform movement had been going on in Bohemia for decades before Hus came on the scene. It was accused of heresy for criticizing some popular religious practices. But the movement wasn’t fundamentally about challenging church doctrine. Rather, the reformers sought to transform Prague—and the wider society—into a truly Christian community by instituting moral reform and by making the means of grace more accessible to laypeople. Principal among these means of grace were Scripture and preaching in the vernacular and frequent Communion. Hus and his predecessors saw themselves as fully orthodox Catholics who called Christians to a more serious practice of their faith and wanted to bring the Word and the sacraments into people’s lives in a transformative way.
They also saw English theologian John Wycliffe as a natural ally. Wycliffe’s writings were extremely popular in Bohemia, perhaps more so even than in his native England. Wycliffe was also controversial. First, he believed the true church was made up of those whom God had chosen—the mystical body of the elect. People’s behavior in this life indicated whether they were among the elect. Those who did not act righteously were not members of the true church. Therefore, they could not have real spiritual authority over others.
This struck at the foundations of medieval Catholic ecclesiology, which held that the moral or spiritual quality of bishops and priests had nothing to do with either the validity of the sacraments they administered or the authority conferred by their office. (This view had already been expressed by Augustine, who was in many ways the model theologian for both Wycliffe and Hus.)
Wycliffe’s other heresy, from the standpoint of late medieval Catholicism, was his belief that the Eucharist remains bread and wine after consecration, though Christ’s body is truly present. For late medieval Catholics, this was horrifying, because it questioned the central sacrament of the faith.
Eucharistic piety had become largely visual, since most laypeople did not receive Communion more than one to three times a year. Worshiping Christ in the consecrated “Host” as held up by the priest was one of the central sacred acts of late medieval society. The Host was carried around through the streets in processions, supposedly bringing the sanctifying presence of God in visible form into direct contact with the daily life of a medieval community. To suggest that the Host was still bread and wine was seen as a desecration.
Hence, when Hus and other Czech reformers expressed admiration for Wycliffe, the defenders of orthodoxy saw them as suspect. Further, Hus encouraged frequent lay Communion, which orthodox defenders interpreted as desacralizing. In Hus’s case, this suspicion appears to have been faulty. In fact, Hus wanted laypeople to receive Christ more frequently, not because he thought the Eucharist was less than the true body and blood of Christ, but because he thought it was the body and blood, and thus vital for spiritual renewal.
Hus protested time and again that just because he admired some aspects of Wycliffe’s thought did not mean that he agreed with everything Wycliffe believed. But to the zealously orthodox, any association with a heretic meant that one was tarred by the same brush. No matter that, as Hus pointed out, many great theologians of the past had held ideas that were later considered unorthodox. For a theologian to deny a doctrine once it had been developed and formulated, as Wycliffe did, was quite another matter. Such a theologian was a child of the devil, people thought, and the only proper action was condemnation.
And this was the crux of the matter. Following Wycliffe, Hus defined the church not by hierarchy, but by piety. Wherever godliness was, there was the church. That meant he could not renounce and condemn a theologian like Wycliffe, whom he believed clearly loved Christ, sought to follow Scripture, and deeply cared about moral and spiritual reform in church and society. It also meant that he could not accept as true leaders of the church bishops and other clergy who led corrupt, wicked lives and did not properly fulfill their pastoral duties.
A Fractured Papacy
Hus and Wycliffe challenged church authority during a time when the nature of that authority was being widely questioned. Not only was the hierarchy of the late 14th and early 15th centuries seen as deeply corrupt by most Christians, but it was no longer unified. For most of the 14th century, the popes had lived in the southern French city of Avignon, largely dominated by the French monarchy. In 1377, urged by the fiery Catherine of Siena (later declared a saint and official teacher of the church), Pope Gregory XI moved back to Rome. But the pope who followed him, Urban VI, alienated so many cardinals by his severe reform measures that they fled Rome and announced that their election of Urban was invalid (since supposedly the Roman mob had forced them into it). They then chose a new pope, who moved back to Avignon.
The Avignon papacy had already developed an unsavory reputation for financial corruption. But the existence of two rival popes made things worse, because they had to “bid” for the support of the European monarchs—and because neither of them now had the full financial resources of the church behind them. But beyond such corruption was the deep ecclesiological worry created by the existence of two popes.
The medieval papacy was a monarchy, corresponding to the Holy Roman Emperor, the theoretical earthly sovereign of all Catholic Christians. Medieval people saw the entire universe in hierarchical terms—gradations of glory and dignity descending from a single head. A church with two heads divided against each other did not look like a church at all.
The obvious way to resolve the problem was to call a general council of the church. But to call a council required a pope. Whichever pope called the council, the followers of the other pope would consider that council invalid. To solve this problem, theologians developed a theory of “conciliarism.” According to this view, while the pope was the proper head of the church on earth, he derived his authority from the church as a whole. A council, representing the whole church, had authority even over the pope. It could, therefore, act even against the will of either or both of the reigning popes. Such a council would need to be called by the emperor, as the ancient Christian councils had been.
Conciliarist theologians were generally interested in church reform. They were earnest, serious Christians whose goals were not much different from those of Hus. Unlike Hus, however, they thought the answer to the problems facing the church was to get right the matters of hierarchy and authority.
The Hierarchy of Love
Hus did not think that such questions ultimately defined the church. Unlike Wycliffe, he did not want to abolish the papacy altogether. But he denied that it was “of divine right”—that is, established by Christ so that it was an essential feature of the true church. He was quite willing to submit to a godly pope, or even to a corrupt pope in all matters that didn’t compromise fundamental convictions. But he did not grant that the existence and proper functioning of the church depended on the pope, bishops, or even councils.
For Hus, church is as church does. The church is found wherever people live out the gospel. And that means that where professed leaders of the church are not living out the gospel, they are in fact members of another church—the Church of Antichrist. They are children of the devil.
Hus’s strong belief in predestination—not novel or unorthodox in medieval theology—expressed itself ecclesiologically in an unconventional, even unorthodox way. Like Wycliffe, he believed that one could make (tentative) judgments about whether people were elect or reprobate, though apostasy or repentance could force one to revise those judgments. His term for the reprobate was “foreknown”—God unconditionally predestines the elect, but only foreknows the sins of the reprobate—and in his letters it appears as practically a synonym for “the wicked.”
Hus could be at the same time extremely tolerant and terrifyingly severe. Toward people accused of heresy, he was tolerant—errors could be excused as long as the person was clearly striving to live a life of godliness. To one theology professor who had been slinging around accusations of heresy, Hus wrote, “You are not very learned in the theology of love.” And to a priest, who was quick to make accusations of heresy while not carrying out his own pastoral duties, he wrote:
How, I pray, do you go before your sheep and they follow you or hear your voice, when for many years they have rarely seen you? The day will come in which you will give account of your sheep and also of the many benefices you hold; of them you read in your canon law that he, who can competently live from one benefice, should not, under mortal sin, retain another. These things you should ponder in your mind, rather than to call your neighbor a heretic.
But Hus’s understanding of love involved what so many modern Christians call “hating the sin and loving the sinner.” Hus believed in confronting people personally when they, in his view, were committing serious sin. For example, he wrote a letter to one Czech noble, rebuking her for allowing her peasants to dance and play gambling games, and to another, exhorting him not to extort “death duties” from his vassals when they died.
Hus regretted his own youthful chess-playing as a sinful waste of time, and was no less severe toward others. (One of his reasons for opposing chess—that it makes people angry when they lose—rings true to anyone who has played the game.) Hus’s ascetic morality had no room for tolerating sexual misbehavior, and he was particularly concerned with the sins of the clergy and with the rich abusing the poor.
For Hus, one of the greatest evils of his day was “simony”: the buying and selling of spiritual things, specifically of church offices or sacraments. In the strictest sense, simony referred to paying money for church positions. While this was officially condemned, there were ecclesiastical practices that legitimized it, such as the custom of a bishop giving the pope the first year’s income from his diocese.
Yet Hus defined simony more broadly: any time a priest received money for celebrating a sacrament. It was—and still is, with some qualifications—customary to give a small stipend to a priest when he performs Mass for a particular intention, baptizes a child, or performs any similar function. This was not supposed to be required in such a way as to deprive the poor of the sacraments, but there were plenty of stories of priests refusing to perform unless paid.
For Hus, though, the issue was much deeper. To charge money for a specific pastoral act, even if the person could pay, ran fundamentally against the nature of the priest’s calling. In one letter, Hus compared simony to sodomy (in the Middle Ages, this meant any unnatural sexual act, whether heterosexual or homosexual): “For just as in the physical Sodom the seed, from which humankind is formed, perishes contrary to nature, so in this simony the seed of the Word of God, by which the spiritual generation would be created in Christ Jesus, is destroyed.” For Hus, the entire financial and organizational structure of late medieval Catholicism rested on spiritual perversion, he believed.
This is the context in which Hus opposed the preaching of indulgences. Unlike Luther, Hus did not oppose the basic late-medieval theology of salvation, understood in its most Augustinian sense. Hus believed that humans were saved by God’s transforming grace, making them worthy of eternal life, and that this process would need to be completed, for most people, in purgatory. In fact, after his condemnation he wrote of his hope that his terrible death would help atone for his sins and bring about his final salvation—a typically medieval Catholic hope, which Luther would later regard as “works righteousness.” But for Hus, the practice of selling indulgences to shorten or eliminate a person’s stay in purgatory was a particularly extreme form of simony.
From 1408 to 1409, pressure for a conciliarist solution to the papal schism grew to the point that most cardinals abandoned both popes and called for a council to choose a new pope. Hus supported this move and incurred the ire of Archbishop Zbynek of Prague, who was still loyal to the “Roman” pope. Zbynek accused Hus of “Wycliffite” heresies. The king of Bohemia supported Hus, but in 1410 the archbishop appealed to the newly chosen pope, whom Zbynek had initially opposed. This began a long trial process that eventually led to Hus’s death.
This new pope, Alexander V, was not accepted by everyone. So instead of one new pope, there were three. In 1411, Alexander’s successor, John XXIII, proclaimed a crusade against the king of Naples, who was still supporting the “Roman” pope, Gregory XII. To support this crusade, John XXIII declared indulgences for anyone who would contribute to the war effort.
Hus preached passionately against this misuse of the church’s authority not only to sell forgiveness but to use the money in warfare against fellow Christians. Three young men, inspired by Hus’s preaching, protested publicly against the indulgences and were arrested. Hus went to the town hall and offered to be arrested in their place, since, as he pointed out, they had acted on the basis of his preaching. The city authorities promised not to punish the protestors seriously. But as soon as Hus left, the three young men were beheaded. The order for this apparently came from the king, who was now no longer in Hus’s corner.
The king now sided with Hus’s enemies in the theology faculty of the university. Hus went into exile in southern Bohemia to save the entire city of Prague from being deprived of the sacraments on his account.
In 1414, a second reform council was called at Constance, this time with enough political backing from Emperor Sigismund to force acceptance of its decrees. It forced all three popes to resign and chose a fourth, while also calling for general councils as a permanent, regular feature of church governance, to which even popes would be subject. But part of the council’s agenda was also to deal with the “Wycliffite” heresy—particularly in Bohemia, and particularly Hus.
Emperor Sigismund offered Hus safe conduct to attend the council, and Hus agreed. Hus may have misunderstood the nature of the summons. He had always refused to appear before the pope, since he did not regard the reigning popes as godly and did not trust them to give him a fair trial. But he may have believed that at Constance his ideas would be given a fair hearing in the context of an academic debate.
Nothing of the kind happened. Hus arrived in Constance on November 3, 1414, and was arrested on November 28. When the emperor arrived, he protested the violation of the safe conduct, but was eventually persuaded that such guarantees were invalid when given to someone accused of heresy. Hus was tried publicly and allowed to defend himself, though he was often heckled and shouted down.
But from the beginning it was clear that the council was interested in only one result: Hus must submit to its authority and abjure his alleged heresies. Never mind that some of them, such as Wycliffe’s unorthodox teachings on the Eucharist, were ideas that Hus had never affirmed. For Hus, this amounted to asking him to lie and perjure himself before God. His would-be advisors, including Stepan Paleç, a former friend who had been a more radical “Wycliffite” than Hus but who had recanted and joined the prosecution of Hus in order to prove his own orthodoxy, urged Hus to abjure simply as an act of humility and submission to the church. But Hus was adamant:
I, John Hus, in hope a servant of Jesus Christ, am not willing to declare that every article drawn from my books is erroneous, lest I condemn the opinions of holy doctors, particularly of the blessed Augustine. Secondly, concerning the articles ascribed to me by false witnesses, I am not willing to confess that I have asserted, preached, and held them. Thirdly, I am not willing to recant, lest I commit perjury.
In the end, it was a matter of authority. Was the council, a legal body representing the church as a whole, truly authorized to determine questions of doctrinal truth and falsehood? Two years earlier, in 1412, Hus had appealed to Christ’s authority above all human authorities, and at the council he stood by the validity of that appeal. The council did not condemn him hastily or eagerly, though some members, including Paleç, pressed for his execution and maliciously twisted his teachings. But the council insisted that Hus accept the basic understanding of the church on which its own claims to authority rested. This Hus would not do. He would not accept that either the council or a pope had the right to condemn him simply because of some kind of legal authority. Rather, he insisted on the sovereign authority of the truth.
And thus the tragic paradox: the great reform council of the late Middle Ages condemned to death one of the most earnest and fervent reformers of the time. Hus was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. He died bravely and piously: “Lord Jesus it is for you that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray you to have mercy on my enemies.” And in the flames he said: “God is my witness that ... the principal intention of my preaching and of all my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn people from sin.” Death came quickly, and his body was reduced to ashes and thrown into the river.
A Hissing Goose
Hus’s own favorite metaphor for himself was “the goose,” which was the meaning of his surname in Czech. And it was a fitting one. The goose is a humble bird, even obnoxious. But in Hus’s time and place it was a farmyard staple. It lays eggs, and can serve as a guard animal—hissing at intruders—and, in Hus’s words, flaps “its wings against the wings of Behemoth, and against his tail, which always covers the abomination of the beast Antichrist”. But in the end, its primary use is to be killed and eaten.
From at least 1410 on, Hus seems to have been convinced that he would eventually die as a martyr. He had no desire to hasten his death unduly by presenting himself for trial before a biased pope, and he may well have thought that he would get a better hearing from the council than he did. But in a sense, what happened at Constance only fulfilled his basic beliefs about the fate of the righteous in an evil world and a corrupt age.
A century later, after Luther “discovered” Hus in the debate at Leipzig, Protestants began claiming him as a forerunner. The legend developed that Hus had said when dying, “It is thus that you silence the goose, but a hundred years hence a swan will arise whom you will not be able to silence.” And certainly many of Luther’s ideas, particularly in his early years, reflected those of Hus.
But Hus was, in most respects, an orthodox late medieval Catholic. He believed in the Augustinian account of justification as a process of being made righteous by God’s grace; he believed in purgatory; he called on the saints to intercede for him. And contrary to the accusations made against him, he seems to have been thoroughly orthodox in his doctrine of the Eucharist.
On one major point, however, he broke with the orthodoxy of medieval Catholicism. In light of the crisis in the papacy and the widespread corruption of church leaders in general, he could not accept the idea that the church’s authority depended on legal claims to office rather than on personal holiness. He called for a church that really acted like the church—a church that offered the Word and the Sacraments to the laypeople instead of fending them off with spectacle, that lived in humility and poverty after the example of Christ instead of seeking worldly power. He refused to make doctrinal correctness the primary marker of the church, and he found it monstrous that a pious “heretic” such as Wycliffe should be seen as a child of the devil, while a corrupt pope was regarded as holy simply on the basis of his office. He refused to play the game of ecclesiastical politics, just as he had long before given up the game of chess.
Hus’s work had a powerful effect on his native Bohemia. For decades, his followers fought off attacks by the Holy Roman Empire, and the Bohemian church remained essentially independent into the 17th century. But his legacy soon splintered into three main fragments. The “Utraquists,” the most moderate faction, sought alliances with the secular powers and focused their reform efforts on the practice of Communion in both kinds—to serve laypeople bread and wine, not just bread—which Hus himself had not introduced, but of which he approved. Their more radical cousins, the “Taborites,” believed that the return of Christ was near and waged ferocious holy war in the name of their martyred hero. The only branch to survive today was the smallest and politically weakest of the three: the “Unity of the Brothers,” later known as the Moravian Brethren. These Hussites rejected war and worldly power, and like their founder accepted persecution as the inevitable fate of true Christians. Eventually they fled to Germany, where in the 18th century they had a powerful influence on the German Pietist leader Count Zinzendorf.
The resulting fusion created a powerful missionary zeal, leading some Moravians to sell themselves into slavery in order to evangelize slaves. It was the Moravians who counseled a fearful Anglican priest named John Wesley in a storm on the Atlantic. And it was in a Moravian meetinghouse in London where Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed,” where he received the assurance that his sins were forgiven. The Methodist movement of the 18th century—with its focus on ministry to the poor, frequent Communion, and blithe disregard of ecclesiastical formalities when they got in the way of proclaiming the gospel—was in many respects a true heir of Hus, the Czech “goose.”
Compared to Luther, Hus was certainly a failure. The tiny Moravian church—though it has an extremely impressive history—is his only formal, organizational legacy. But then, Hus didn’t care much for organizations. He wasn’t trying to found a movement. He was trying to bear witness to the truth—to seal with his own blood and ashes his witness to the theology of love.
Edwin Woodruff Tait is a freelance writer, farmer, and consulting editor for Christian History magazine. He blogs at Ithilien and tweets as @Amandil3. This article first appeared on ChristianityToday.com in issue 26 of The Behemoth on July 9, 2015. It is reposted here with permission.