John Huss and Other Pre-Reformers

An Articulate Martyr

“But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with me in white; for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; And I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father and his angels” (Revelation 3:4, 5 NAS).

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It was providential that the teachings of Wycliffe were taken to Bohemia through the influence of Princess Ann. John Huss had been trained for the priesthood and was dean of theology at the University of Prague, where he also preached on Sundays. When he read Wycliffe’s literature he became convinced and began preaching against the corruption of the clergy and openly questioned the doctrine of the mass. When Papacy opened the sale of indulgences in Prague, Huss vehemently denounced the practice. Although popular among the people, he had to flee Prague and live in the country, a virtual exile. While in exile he published his most notable work, De Ecclesia (The Church). In it, he challenged the authority of the Pope and Cardinals. “They were not the church,” he said. “The church had once existed without them. The foundation of the church was Christ, not Peter.”

Papal response was much quicker for Huss than it had been for Wycliffe. A general council was convened in Constance, Switzerland, and Huss was summoned by the Pope. His friends warned him it was likely a trap, but Emperor Sigismund of Bohemia promised safe passage to and from the council. Huss accepted the invitation but only a few weeks later was accused of heresy and imprisoned. While in prison, he became violently ill and later was starved almost to death. He languished in prison for nearly eight months until, on July 5, 1415, a preliminary hearing was opened. It was a fiasco.
Whenever Huss attempted to answer the charges against him, shouts would drown out his words. His writings were brought forth with demands to repudiate them. His answer was strikingly similar to the words Luther would say years later. He would renounce his teachings only if they could be proven wrong from Scripture.

On July 6th, he was taken to the cathedral and publicly humiliated. He was dressed in full priestly garments and then, one by one, each piece was stripped away while his soul was committed to the devil. A large paper cap containing the image of devils was placed on his head. Written on the cap were the words, “Here is the Heresiarch” (i.e. the chief advocate of a heresy).

A Mock Trial and Burning

With the emperor watching helplessly, it was evident who possessed ultimate power. Huss was led out of the cathedral. The following is a newspaper account dated September 27, 1826. “Arriving at the gate of the Episcopal palace, he saw a pile of wood, and believed that he was already at the place of execution. He was soon undeceived, for the wood being fired, he saw his writings brought forward, and successively thrown into the flames. … He now approached the large area, which had been cleared from the crowd, who still anxiously pressed forward wherever the vigilance of the guards was relaxed. … In the center he saw an accumulation of bundled sticks, amidst which a strong post was erected. Several men were employed in carrying more wood in the open space, and four large bundles of straw were placed inside the bundled sticks. A man of ferocious aspect stood near the post about which the bundled wood was being piled. He was engaged in disentangling the coils of a rope, which had been recently immersed in water, and two or three chains were laid across a bench. …

“The executioner then took a frock, prepared with pitch and tar. It was brought to Huss, and wearing this, he was conducted to the stake. … Huss was first tied round the middle with cords. A chain was passed over these, and chains were fastened to his left leg and his neck. Thus securely bound to the stake, the wooden bundles … were piled to the chin; straw was placed beneath and between them where it was thought likely most effectually to contribute to the fierceness of the blaze. A moment of awful expectation followed.

“The executioner approached with a lighted torch; when the Duke of Bavaria
rode up to Huss, and loudly called to him, demanding that he should now renounce his errors; at the same time reminding him that in a few moments it would be out of his power to do so.

“ ‘I thought the danger already passed,’ he replied; ‘but happily, I am nothing tempted to gainsay what I have advanced. I have taught the truth, and am now ready to seal it with my blood. Ultimately it shall prevail, though I may not see it. This day you kindle the flames of persecution about a poor and worthless sinner; but the spirit which animates me, shall, phoenix-like, ascend from my ashes, soar majestically on high through many succeeding ages, and prove to all the Christian world, how vain this persecution, how impotent your rage.’

“… Huss saw the torch resumed, and in the same instant he heard the crackling of the lighted straw” (The Massachusetts Spy and Worcester County Advertiser, September 27, 1826).

The description of what happened next is too graphic to continue. Besides the awful concept of burning someone alive, having Huss wear a coat soaked in tar was an insidious way to create maximum pain, as it brought the heat of melting tar right up against his body. The blackness of that tar-soaked robe make the words of our theme text even more powerful when describing the Sardis Church. “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with me in white; for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; And I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father and his angels” (Revelation 3:4, 5).

Jesus is certainly referring to a group of brethren who had the conviction and courage to keep their garments clean. But the inhumane belief that this was a man to be tortured with black robes and fire was opposite of a just Lord who rewards a consecrated man with a clean robe of righteousness. The contrast is truly remarkable.

When we look back and try to grasp what our brethren suffered for the Lord
and the truth, we must also realize that it was their opportunity to gain a crown of life. Those that used it wisely have been rewarded, never again to endure such suffering. The persecution they endured due to their stalwart faith was the price they paid for immortality.

These brethren set the stage for the coming Reformation. It is said that after studying the lives of Wycliffe and Huss, Luther came to the conclusion that the church could not be reformed. It had to be discarded.

But these brethren did something else for us. They set an example. They were “a city that is set on a hill” whose light could not be hidden (Matthew 5:14). May their lives inspire us to serve with the same zeal and determination, and may the Lord give us the same strength to speak the truth and stand for our faith.

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