Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Jan Hus

Jan Hus being burnt at the stake for heresy at the Council of Constance in spite of being granted a 'safe conduct' by Emperor Sigismund (Getty Images)

Bohemian-Czech native Jan Hus (1369-1415) is widely considered a forerunner of the Protestant revolt. In 1393 he received his BA from the University of Prague and was ordained seven years later. At the time, the Church was in the grip of the Great Western Schism, with two and eventually three Pontiffs competing for the allegiance of the Faithful. Although the Holy Roman Empire – including Bohemia – was officially in the camp of the Roman claimant, the Pope at Avignon had his adherents in Bohemia – and especially at the university in Prague.

Against this backdrop, Church discipline and clerical morality had suffered – and the English priest John Wycliffe (1320-1384) had openly espoused heretical views.

Two years after his ordination, Hus was made rector of Prague University, and began preaching against abuses in Church life. He was employed by the Archbishop to look into such cases as the alleged Eucharistic miracle at Wilsnack – which he condemned. But at the same time, he came into contact with Wycliffe’s teachings, and began to mingle the former’s heresies with his own strictures against clerical laxity. So well known did Hus become for these teachings that when Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund called the Council of Constance for the purpose of ending the Schism, Hus was summoned to answer the charges against him, found guilty and burned at the stake. But his popularity grew, and the Hussites, as his disciples came to be called, soon dominated Bohemia militarily – defeating several attempts to reclaim Bohemia for the Faith.

Only a split between moderates and extremists in the Hussite camp allowed peace to be restored in 1434. But much of what remained of Hussitism would join the Protestant camp a century later, only to be defeated at last by the Habsburgs in 1618. The Moravian Church today claims descent from Hus’s following – and had a great effect on John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.