Facing off with the cantankerously Roman Catholic, Johan Eck, Luther made the statement, “Ja, ich bin ein Hussite,” that is, “Yes, I am a Hussite.” The room went into riot and pandemonium when Luther uttered those words. But that was more than a hundred years after the martyrdom of Jan Hus.
Jan Hus (1372-1415) was a professor in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). He was a preacher. He was also a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. The priesthood for Jan Hus, at least in the early stages, wasn’t a choice he made because of any burden for the people or some sense of divine call. He thought it would provide him an easy life, perhaps even fame. By 1400, he received a BA and an MA, and in 1402 became the preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, and pastor to lay people. It was around this time, Hus was drawn to the teaching of the Englishman, John Wycliffe (1320s-1384).
Inspired by Wycliffe, Jan Hus began to preach more and more from the Scripture, slowly breaking away and depending less and less on the theologies of the Middle Ages. The Archbishop of Prague, around 1408, condemned some of what Hus was teaching and preaching. By then Hus was taking an even closer, deeper look into the teaching of Wycliffe. With Wycliffe's influence began to develop his own ideas of reform.
In 1409, Pope John XXIII condemned Hus for the heavy influence of John Wycliffe on his message. Dead for decades, Wycliffe was gaining popularity again, which unsettled 23. [John XXIII was one of three popes at the time, the papacy suffering a kind of botched headship at best.] The Archbishop of Prague, following the condemnation of 23, excommunicated Hus for disobedience to the papacy (though it would not yet be called heresy). How does Hus respond? He continues to preach his message from his pulpit in the Bethlehem Chapel, and in
an inspired new way, and with bright new heat.
But heat gets you in trouble, especially if that heat is directed at the leadership of the church, which, in the Middle Ages, was the unofficial government among governments. In 1411, another indulgence was offered by the papacy, against which Hus aimed his inflamed and well-sharpened rhetoric. He attacked the indulgence itself, asking, as Luther and Tyndale would 100 years later, if the church has such power over purgatory, why do they need the cash (paraphrase), why do it for money? This question would haunt Luther's 95 Theses many years later. Not satisfied with excommunicating him once, Hus is excommunicated again (1412), a charge which leans hard toward claiming him a heretic for essentially railing against indulgences, one of the main revenue streams for the Catholic Church. Hus's popularity was gaining numbers as well.
He decided to leave Prague and become a street preacher, getting closer to the common believer. His name grew. It is at this time he writes his most important book De Ecclesia (On the Church). "Who gets the wine?" was one of the questions he asked. In communion, only the priests were allowed to drink the wine, not the lay person. It was also thought that keeping the cup from the laiety would keep it from spilling or desecrating the blood. He argued for both elements to be offered at the mass, not just the bread.
The Holy Roman Emperor was soon fed up with Hus and called a counsel at Constance (Germany) in 1415. Hus was promised safe conduct to and from the counsel, and by the emperor. At the Council of Constance, Jan Hus was charged and condemned for heresy. In the church's mind, there was no crime in dishonoring a promise made to a heretic. They made him wear a paper miter (a pointed hat) with the words “Ringleader of all heretics,” written on it. He was then led to the scaffold where he was burned alive for his crimes.
Jan Hus burned at the stake with a fire kindled from the manuscripts of John Wycliffe, or so it is thought. And while the Church may not appreciate the irony, it is difficult to imagine Hus wanting to burn by any other fire. When the faggots were piled up to his neck, Hus was asked if he would like to recant. "No," he said. "What I taught with my lips I now seal with my blood." As he perished he sang, "Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God have mercy on me a sinner."
"The cause of Hus is mine," Luther said.