Jan Hus: Did You Know?

Have Gun, Will Travel

After Hus’s martyrdom his Czech supporters, the Hussites, organized militant resistance to the Holy Roman Empire. Remarkably, the vastly outnumbered rebels repelled six crusades and even launched several offensives outside Bohemia. One of their secrets was the war wagon (above), a mobile fortress loaded with bowsmen and gunners. The wagons slammed through enemy lines, facilitated evasive maneuvers, and once, when filled with rocks and rolled down a hill, sent an attacking force into such a panic that 1,400 soldiers were flattened or killed while trying to retreat.

Il Duce, Biographer

In 1929 Benito Mussolini published a largely sympathetic biography of Jan Hus. He (or a ghost writer) wrote in the preface, “I hope that the reading of these pages will familiarize the public of independent thinkers with the epoch, the life, and the work of the least known of the heretics who lived north of the Alps.” He also hoped that the book “may arouse in the minds of its readers a hatred of every form of spiritual and secular tyranny, whether it be theocratic or Jacobine.”


Though promised safe conduct to and from the Council of Constance, Hus was arrested upon arrival. He spent eight days in a church official’s house before being transferred to a stinking cell in the Dominican monastery on an island in Lake Constance. Conditions there were so bad that Hus nearly died. Centuries later, developers turned the monastery into a luxury hotel, the Steigenberger Insel Hotel, which Frommer’s travel guide calls “the single finest place to stay along the German side of the lake.”

Stolen Symbol

A legend arose after Hus’s death that, in final protest against priests withholding the Communion cup from lay people, he went to the martyr’s pyre with a chalice in his hand. A chalice, sometimes a flaming chalice, became the main Hussite symbol. During World War II, European Unitarian Universalists co-opted the flaming chalice as an underground sign for their humanitarian operations. The symbol is now common in Unitarian churches, though Unitarians can claim no theological link with Hus.

Fight Songs

Hussite songs like “Oh, Ye Warriors of the Lord” united communities, lifted soldiers’ spirits, and proclaimed reforming beliefs. The Bohemian Brethren (later known as the Moravian Brethren or Unitas Fratrum), which grew from a moderate Hussite wing, continued the tradition, becoming the first Protestant group in Europe to publish a hymnbook. To reach a wider audience, they published editions in Czech, German, and Polish. “It has been our chief aim,” they said, “to let everyone fully and clearly understand what our views are with regard to the articles of the Christian faith.” The audience eventually included John Wesley, who was amazed by Moravians he met on his way to North America. They sang while their ship was tossed by a storm, and his desire to know their faith led him toward his dramatic conversion at Aldersgate.

By Elesha Coffman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #68 in 2000]

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From the way Oxford scorned the Holy Club, you would think the Wesleys had created a monster.

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