John Huss: his life, teachings and death, after five hundred years/Chapter 11



Pertulerunt ambo constanti animo necem, et quasi ad epulas invitati ad incendium properarunt. . . . Ubi ardere cœperunt hymnum cecinere quem vix flamma e fragor ignis intercipere potuit. Nemo philosophorum tam forti animo mortem pertulisse traditur ut isti incendium.

Æneas Sylvius: Hist. Boh., chap. XXXVI.

With a steadfast mind both bore death and, as if invited to a feast, so they hastened to the stake. When they began to burn, they sang a hymn which the fame and noise of the fire were scarcely able to interrupt. No philosopher was ever reported to have borne death with so brave a spirit as these two did the flames.

John Huss was burned but not vanquished. He belongs to the history of his own people as a patriot identified with one of the most active periods of its annals and, to quote the Bohemian savant Flajshans, as “our greatest and most famous theologian of the fifteenth century.”[1] He has a place in the wider history of his age for the conspicuous part he played at the council of Constance, so that, as long as that assembly’s proceedings continue to have an interest, his name will excite interest and his career be studied. And he has a place in the still wider history of modern progress as a precursor of the Reformation and a witness in favor of the sacred rights of conscience.

As an actor among his own people, Huss stands forth also as its most notable preacher and a leader without equal in the intellectual life of its university. He was the best-known and the best-beloved priest of his times in Bohemia. We have no record of any one who was at once more honored at the court and more beloved by the common people. He was a prolific pamphleteer, and the two large folio volumes of twelve hundred pages with double columns do not exhaust his Latin works, not to speak of his works written in the Bohemian. His writings, so far as the Western reader knows, are the most stimulating and rich that the Bohemian literature has produced. His pen was adapted not merely to attract the popular hearing in a time of controversy; it also dropped messages of learning in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter the Lombard, recently discovered, as well as in other writings. In his espousal of the cause of the Czechs as against the Germans, which brought upon him much opposition and justified him, as he thought, in fearing death at the hands of Germans, he was in the right. Prague was the capital of the Czech kingdom, and it was fitting that its university, no matter what the old charter was, should be controlled by those who were of the Czech nationality. Though he condemned intermarriages between Czechs and Germans, or at least demanded that the children of such marriages speak Czech, we must not on that account charge him with bigotry. Did he not also say that he preferred a good German to a bad Bohemian? For these reasons Huss lives on in the hearts of a large body of followers and also Catholic admirers in Bohemia.

For centuries his name was treated with obloquy by the population of his native land. Efforts were made by the Jesuits to entirely blot out his memory, or, at least, to cover it with such contumely as to make it synonymous with irreligion and the subversion of the true interests of his people. When Palacky published his History of Bohemia, that work was subjected to rigid investigation by the censor, and, on account of references supposed to condemn the religious authorities with whom Huss had to do, parts of it were cut out. The modern visitor to Prague always associates the city with the name of John Nepomuk[2] as its patron saint. The figure of this saint has been used to cast Huss into the shadow, and Nepomuk’s history, whether wholly matter of legend or of partial truth, has been employed to give to the saint a supreme place in the affections of the Bohemians as an earthly example of the heavenly virtues. The saint’s real name was John Welfin of Pomuk, a city sixty-five miles southwest of Prague. As far as we can make out, a man of this name was, in 1373, connected with the chancery of the archbishop of Prague; after his ordination, 1378 or 1380, was made parish priest of St. Gallus, and from 1390 to 1393 was active as vicar-general of the diocese. He is said to have been rich and to have made loans. In 1393, according to the later legend, he was drowned in the Moldau into which he had been thrown by order of King Wenzel for his devotion to John of Jenzenstein, archbishop of Prague, with whom Wenzel had a quarrel. Nearly a century later, he was reported as having been the confessor of Joanna, Wenzel’s first consort, and it was for his refusal to reveal the secrets of the confessional that the king punished him with death after having attempted to persuade him by bribes. John’s body was reported to have floated on the surface of the river, which was illuminated by lights. In 1670, Dlauhowesky made a romance out of his career, which he pronounced to be based on old manuscripts, but the manuscripts have not been forthcoming. According to this completed legend, all Prague turned out to see the lights and the next morning the body was found on the river bank, the face lit up with a heavenly lustre. Against the king’s protest, the saint was buried in the cathedral, but the propriety of the entombment was proved not only by a treasure of gold which the diggers struck, but by a heavenly odor that proceeded from the corpse and the cures effected upon the sick who touched it. In 1729, John was canonized by Benedict XIII, and his name is celebrated in the Breviary, May 16. One of the difficulties in the legend is that there were two Johns of Pomuk, the one the queen’s confessor, who died 1383, and the other the vicargeneral, who died 1393.

The Jesuits of the counter-Reformation period, exerting themselves to blot out the fame of Huss, magnified the cult of Nepomuk. A monument on the old bridge over the Moldau, which has been regarded as a statue of the saint and at which people still worship, is now looked upon as a monument erected to John Huss. Over the sanctity of John Nepomuk, we have no controversy, but we are interested in the truth and the committal of Huss to his proper place in the history of his people. Nepomuk’s story seems to be largely an invention. However that may be, it is true that in these later years a new interest has been shown among the Catholic population of Bohemia in Huss as a Czech patriot. He certainly deserves the friendly consideration of his people on the ground of his patriotism and his services for the Czech language.[3]

The prominent place which Huss occupies in the contemporary history of the fourteenth century cannot be gainsaid, no matter what the opinion may be which is passed upon his career and his fame. To say the least, he has claimed as frequent treatment from biographers as have the names of contemporary popes and accredited church leaders of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Nay, he has claimed far more attention. Neither the names of Gerson nor d’Ailly, eminent though these churchmen were, nor the name of Vincent Ferrer, the evangelist, are so widely known and provoke so real an interest. The Catholic historian and reader cannot pass Huss by any more than the Protestant. To the Protestant world his sufferings and death stand for an evangelical preacher and scholar who, for the sake of conscience, was willing to suffer and to die a violent death.

It is a striking fact that no charges were brought against Huss touching his moral character during his life in the city of Prague, or at Constance during his trial nor yet after his death. In this regard his memory is in marked contrast to the memories of three of the greater Reformers. Charges were brought during his life against Calvin by his enemies, touching the course of his youth, which are false. Against John Knox, after his death, false charges were also brought, which Catholic historians now pronounce inventions. But against Luther’s purity of life the bitterest attacks are still being made by Catholic controversialists like Denifle and Grisar. In the absence of any trustworthy testimonies by contemporaries, these writers draw incriminating conclusions from Luther’s words, not allowing for the fact that his language was often exaggerated and that those who knew him best testified to the purity of his life. It was otherwise with Huss. No charge against his moral conduct was ever made by his enemies, and those who knew him from day to day bore strong testimony to his exemplary character.

The charges against Huss were that he had disobeyed the discipline of the church and rejected sundry of its doctrinal tenets. He himself died assured of his orthodoxy. “Be confident,” to quote again what he wrote to the university of Prague the week before his death, “I have not revoked nor abjured a single article. I refuse to renounce unless what the council charged against me shall be proved false from Scripture.” In the same communication he stated that with his whole heart he professed every article required to be believed. For two years he had looked forward to the possibility of a judicial death, and from the earliest period of his imprisonment in the Dominican friary he made the prayer that he might never recede from the truth, as he knew it, and begged his friends to intercede with God to give him constancy.[4] We have no heart to compare Huss’s conduct, persisted in during a long imprisonment, with Savonarola’s, who, under torture, made recantations he afterward recalled. No man ever prayed more earnestly or studied the Scriptures more intensely, in order that he might be kept from yielding to the wrong, than did Huss, even though the deliverance from a horrible death was in sight.

Are these two things compatible—Huss’s ignorance that he was out of accord with the canon law and the dogmatic belief of his age and, on the other hand, the solemn sentence pronounced by the great council with unanimity declaring that he was a recreant to both? Some of its members, as the cardinal of Ostia and Zabarella, were eminent canonists. Gerson and d'Ailly, were leading theologians of the century. Against the sentence not a single voice of dissent was raised. D’Ailly, like all the prelates of his time, fully justified Huss’s condemnation and said that by its immense abundance of proof Huss’s Treatise on the Church combated the pope’s authority and plenary power no less than the Koran combats the Catholic faith. Gerson said that he worked as hard as any of the other members of the council to secure the conviction of Wyclif and Huss.[5] To both these distinguished churchmen, Wyclif and Huss were pernicious heretics. Huss’s books, were full of statements that jostled against the doctrinal system in vogue at that day. The council was of the same mind as Walter Map had been, who, in speaking in the third Lateran council, 1179, of the condemnation of the Waldenses, said: “If we admit them, then we ourselves ought to be turned out.” According to the laws and usages of the church, Huss was justly a heretic. In the eyes of his theological contemporaries there was no doubt on the question. How was it that he did not perceive this? The explanation is that his mind was so wrought upon by a certain class of texts of Scripture that he forgot that, in order to be a heretic, it was only necessary to combat the current system held by the church. Scripture or no Scripture. Nay, Huss insisted that his views were in accord with Augustine and other Fathers and also in accord with the canon law, which he often quoted. The trouble is that he did not quote everything. His mind failed to take in the class of texts and quotations with which his views were, or seemed to be, at variance. Huss believed he was no heretic, but he soon discovered he was out of accord with the council, and he seems to have been of the opinion that some of his smaller treatises contained matter more obnoxious to the council than what they found in the Treatise on the Church. He wrote to this effect to John of Chlum and was glad that his treatise against the Hidden Adversary had not been brought to its knowledge.[6] Even if Augustine’s principle had been followed at Constance, namely, that it is difficult to define heresy and that the spirit in which an error is held, rather than the error itself, constitutes heresy—yet the sentence would not have been otherwise. Erasmus, as quoted by Luther, must be taken with allowance when he said that John Huss was burned but he was not convicted—exustum quidem sed non convictum esse.[7] The principle pursued was that “by our laws he should die,” and the council understood what the law of the church and of church procedure in its day was.

Nor is the position well taken that Huss was condemned for disobedience to the discipline of the church alone. Lechler, for example, declares that from the standpoint of the council of Trent, he was not convicted of any heresy; but the sentiment of his own age, and not the symbol of the sixteenth century, was the standard of judgment. Huss practically ignored the church authorities. He refused to obey the citation to Rome. He went on preaching in spite of excommunication and interdict. He welcomed a general council, and yet refused to obey the mandate of the council to recant when it met. The priestly vow made him subject to the discipline of the higher court. That was the theory of the mediæval church, and the higher church authority sat upon his case and sentenced him. But it sentenced him not alone for contumacy to authority but for doctrinal aberration. Some of the charges were erroneous, as the charge that he held to the remanence of the bread after the words of institution; the charge that he had made himself a member of the Godhead grotesque. But other charges certainly were grossly heretical in the judgment of the council and the churchmen of that day. The death sentence was inevitable and Huss started out for Constance prepared to have such a sentence pronounced. The fault was not with the judges but with the system and the sentiment of the age. Bishop Creighton has well said: “No doubt Huss’s Bohemian foes did their best to ruin him, but his opinions were judged by the council to be subversive of the ecclesiastical system, and when he refused to submit to that decision, he was necessarily regarded as an obstinate heretic.”[8]

The question whether the judgment upon Huss might not be officially reversed, as has been the judgment upon Joan of Arc, was opened in 1869 by Doctor Kalousek, a professor in the university of Prague, in a communication addressed to the Prague press. Doctor Anton Lenz replied that Huss was a heretic, and the sentence could not be changed.[9] A difference in the two cases is that Joan was condemned by a commission of bishops; Huss by a general council. It may start be said, however, that there is dispute as to how far the decrees of the council of Constance are to be regarded as binding, and it would seem that, according to Martin V’s words in adjourning it, the Roman pontiff has the right of determining the value of each of these decrees by itself. Joan of Arc, in 1437, was also declared a heretic and a decayed member, who was to be cut off lest she infect the other members of the church. At any rate, we wish that the spirit of the court of Massachusetts might be followed when it expressed regret for its judgment upon the alleged witches of Salem and for its decree banishing Roger Williams, and the spirit of the French Protestants who, in 1903, placed the expiatory tablet on the stone marking the place of Servetus’s death, a tablet whose inscription does not blame Calvin, but disavows the animus of persecution in this age for Calvin’s followers. Papal infallibility or no infallibility, it would make greatly for the promotion of truth and good-will if the Roman pontiff would openly disavow the spirit of our spiritual forefathers that condemned Huss to death.

Huss’s views were the right views, the views of Scripture, the views that must be held by those who take the position that first and last the church is a spiritual institution, that its doctrines and usages must be in accordance with the law of Christ and that it has no direct or indirect authority over a man’s earthly existence, to shorten it or to cut if off. But this was not the view of the fifteenth century. The ecclesiastical government, which had been perfected in the mediæval age, left no place for individual opinion or the discussion as to what was right and to be believed between a council and an individual accused of heresy. It is not surprising that the council acted unanimously, but, in the view of the spirit of free inquiry which had begun to show itself in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and in the light of subsequent history, it is to be regretted that not a single voice was raised to show sympathy with the condemned man’s fundamental position.

There are moments during his trial when the feeling arises that Huss was inclined to recede from the plain meaning of what he had written and perhaps resort to technicalities of language in the attempt to parry accusations. This feeling, however, must give way as unjust in view of Huss’s constancy in the face of a horrible death, maintained through a protracted period, and the evidences of sincere piety which are evident on every page of his letters. With his writings in our hands, we do not have the impression that his meaning was misunderstood. On the contrary, the cardinal of Cambray was justified in saying that the formulated accusations were less incriminating than the orginal text of the writings. Indeed, if the methods of the inquisition for heresy in vogue at that time are held in mind, the council dealt leniently with Huss. After Huss’s death, the claim of leniency in his treatment was made by the council itself. It applied no torture in the prison cell-perhaps for the very good reason that torture was not necessary. Huss’s views were plainly set forth and sufficient to convict, and the council greatly prolonged the time of respite, giving him opportunity for abjuration. How far it was influenced to pursue this course by regard for Sigismund, we do not know, or whether it was influenced at all by consideration for the king.

The remark made by Gerson, after the council had adjourned, deserves to be repeated for the implication it contains that, after all, Huss’s execution was a legal mistake. The Paris rector said that if Huss, whom the synod condemned and pronounced a heretic, had had an attorney, he would certainly not have been convicted. But this remark is not to be taken seriously. Gerson, as has been stated, was in a huff over the council’s refusal to condemn the proposition that a vassal who agitates against his king may be lawfully murdered. This proposition, carried to the council by Petit, was intended to justify the duke of Burgundy, who had murdered his cousin and rival, the duke of Orleans, who exercised undue influence over his brother, Charles VI, king of France.[10]

Huss’s primal mistake was that the council would be in a frame to accept from his lips the statement of truth which he found vouched for in the Scriptures. It was the sharp criticism of Æneas Sylvius that Huss and Jerome went to Constance more anxious to teach than to be taught—docendi quippe quam discendi cupidiores—and the charge is made that they were obstinate in not hearkening to the council. All men expose themselves to this charge who have a new message and insist upon their message in the face of constituted authority. However, the council cannot be condemned for not having given Huss an opportunity to freely expound his views in public. In the first place, it was not customary to pursue that course with suspected heretics and, in the second. Huss’s written statements were sufficient evidence against him. Unequivocal recantation it demanded, but only after prolonged investigation based upon preferred charges.

If we compare Luther’s course, down to the diet of Worms, with the course of Huss, we shall find much that is interesting in the way of likeness and contrast. The views which Luther set forth in the XCV Theses in regard to penance and the treasury of merit, he had no thought of as being out of accord with the church’s teachings. So it was with Huss. In his first statements differing from the traditional system of belief. Luther drew only from the fund of his religious experience and the Scriptures. Huss, on the other hand, drew from a predecessor. Wyclif. Luther, though threatened with excommunication and declared an outlaw by the emperor, not only did not modify his views, but knowingly departed further and further away from the traditional system. On the other hand. Huss seems to have been a heretic, as has been said, without knowing it. So far as the intellectual denial of the doctrine of papal infallibility goes and the authority of œcumenical councils, Huss and Luther were in agreement. However, in the matter of certain practices and teachings, Huss was far behind Luther and Wyclif. He held on to the doctrine of transubstantiation, though he plainly condemned the withdrawal of the cup from the laity. He opposed the sale of indulgences announced by John XXIII and rested his case wholly with Christ, and yet, as has been shown, he did not abandon the doctrine of the intercession of saints or, so far as we know, deny the value of genuine relics.

But in the former case, he seems at one time in his career to have plainly leaned toward a modification or even a denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the persistence of the charges. For example, in an interview in the Dominican friary Palecz insisted that all who listened to Huss’s teaching held to the doctrine of the remanence of the bread. It is possible that, if Huss had not been checked in his course, he would have proceeded under Wyclif’s influence to a definite repudiation of transubstantiation. With great emphasis he combated the current opinion which found expression in such words as these: the priest is the father of God, the creator of the divine body, the creator of God,—expressions derived from the efficiency of the priestly act in consecrating the bread and wine.[11] In his Commentary on the Sentences of the Lombard, Huss quotes the famous words which represent Christ as partaking of his own body on the night of the Lord’s Supper:

Rex sedet in cona turba cinctus duodena;
Se tenet in manibus, se cibat ipse cibus.

The king sits in the midst of the twelve;
Himself he holds in his hand. He, the food, partakes of himself.

But he declines to pronounce a judgment, saying some accept and some deny and that, so far as a final judgment was concerned, he committed the matter to Christ who chose to leave it uncertain for him. As for the wine, he took the ground in the Commentary that it was not to be distributed to laymen, inasmuch as Christ was wholly in each element.[12]

It has been said that Huss died for his attachment to Wyclif and in defense of his memory. This is true, but it is only a part of the truth. The two men were closely associated together by the council of Constance as being partakers of heretical opinions, as master and pupil. When in 1413 Palecz called him a Wyclifist, he meant that he was straying from the entire faith of Christendom.”[13] Huss had protested against the burning of Wyclif’s books. He was identified at the university and in the city of Prague as the Oxford professor’s defender. To his last dying breath no word escaped his mouth in the least discrediting Wyclif. He did not deny that he wanted to be where Wyclif’s soul was and that he thought it to be among the saved.

Invectives flying about in Constance joined their names together. The missal of the Wyclifists, as it was called, ran: “I believe in Wyclif, the lord of hell and patron of Bohemia, and in Huss, his only begotten son, our nothing, who was conceived by the spirit of Lucifer, born of his mother, and made incarnate and equal to Wyclif . . . ruling at the time of the desolation of the university of Prague, at the time when Bohemia apostatized from the faith, who for us heretics descended into hell and will not rise again from the dead or have life eternal.”[14]

The heretical, scandalous and seditious teachings, for which the council of Constance sent Huss to his death, did not include all the practices and dogmas which Wyclif renounced. However, they were sufficient, if entertained, to shake to its foundation the ecclesiastical and doctrinal system accepted in his day. In all fundamental positions he was in agreement with the English teacher. These positions concern the nature and functions of the church, the extent of the pope’s authority and his infallibility, the immediate responsibility of the individual to the Scriptures, and the power of the priesthood in the sacrament of penance. These are most fully developed in Huss’s Treatise on the Church. They are restated in his two writings against Palecz and Stanislaus of Znaim, who had attacked the views set forth in that treatise. To a greater or less degree they are also touched upon in his treatises against the eight doctors and on indulgences, and some of them are stated with great positiveness in his letters, especially those addressed to Prachaticz in the year 1413. The Treatise on the Church, written during his period of semi-voluntary exile from Prague, was prepared for the very purpose of being an Apologia-a self-defense-and was considered by the council of Constance as giving the most calm and deliberate statement of his views. This treatise and the two defenses against Palecz and Znaim occupy one hundred and twenty-three pages of his works, two columns to a page.[15]

The following statement will set forth the views in brief:

I. The church.—The council did not go astray in making Huss’s definition of the church the main accusation. That definition struck at the very root of the theory of the mediæval church which the council had inherited and accepted. The treatments of the Schoolmen, based upon Augustine, followed the theory that the church is a visible and tangible organization, as visible and tangible as was the republic of Venice or the kingdom of France. It is the kingdom of the faithful who have the mark of baptism and is ruled over by the pope and the hierarchy. This ruling body is a self-perpetuating aristocracy, deriving its power directly from God, as in the case of the pope, or by consecration and election, as in the case of the bishops. Pope and prelates are not the representatives of the Christian commonwealth, but the vicegerents of God. This was the well-developed and accepted theory, though it did not have formal statement until the council of Trent, 1560, and it found in Cardinal Bellarmin its chief defender in his great work on the controversies between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. This was the theory underlying Boniface VIII’s famous bull of 1302—Unam sanctam. By the definition, all who are baptized are members of the church and heirs of divine grace. The pope is an essential factor of the church, so that where he is not recognized and obeyed the church is not.

On the other hand, Huss defined the church to be the totality of the elect—universitas predestinatorum—whether on earth, in heaven or sleeping in purgatory; or, to give his fullest definition, the church is the number of all the elect and the mystical body of Christ, whose head Christ is; and the bride of Christ, whom of his great love he redeemed with his own blood.”[16] Where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, there he is in the midst of them. That is the church. It is one thing to be of the church and another to be in the church—aliud est de ecclesia aliud in ecclesia. The antichrists who left the church were never of the church, I John 2:19. Judas was in the church and not of it. The præsciti, or reprobate—that is, those of whom God knows beforehand that they will not continue in a state of grace, or never be in that state-may be in the church, but are certainly not of it. This is taught in the parable of the field, with its wheat and tares, and the parable of the net which contained different sorts of fishes. The church is one, but its unity is one of predestination unto life. She is one by virtue of faith, hope and love.[17] Her unity does not depend upon the pope. At his trial at Constance. Huss insisted, as he had done before, that it was only by accommodation to the popular method of speech that the church is called the Lord’s thrashing-floor, a mixed body of the elect and reprobate. The real church is the body of the elect. In his Reply to Palecz, he elaborates the idea and declares that the true Christians in India or Spain or Greece are integral parts of the church, though they may form particular churches, and they are united and one in Christ, even though there should be three or four popes.[18]

The church is the house of God, and it is to be honored as his dwelling-place, but not as God is honored. I Cor. 11: 12 sq. The universal church has but one head, and has always had but one head, Christ. He has always been with the church and he will never fail to be with the church. To the passages in Paul’s epistles which speak of Christ as the head, Huss turned again and again. There is no other head of the church but Christ.

This definition of the church definitely set aside several conceptions which were currently accepted and which were regarded as fundamental in that age.

(1) It set aside the theory, widely affirmed, that the pope and the cardinals constitute the church. This was the definition given by Palecz and Stanislaus. It was a popular view, as Wyclif shows again and again as well as Huss, not only in his Treatise on the Church, but also in his letters.[19] In a letter addressed to Prachaticz, he speaks of the people as saying that the pope is the head of the Holy Roman Church and the cardinals its body. On the contrary, he declared pope and cardinals are a part of the church and no more. They cannot be the body of the elect. For three hundred years or more after Christ there were no cardinals, and if the church could exist and get along well without them then, it could get along without them always, and Christ could well re-establish the purity of the primitive church without cardinals and pope. If the pope is the head of the Roman Church and the cardinals the body, then they in themselves form the entire Roman Church, as the human body together with the head constitutes the whole man.

(2) It sets aside the idea that pope, prelates and priests are true pope, prelates and priests by virtue of their office and ordination in the absence of purity and humility of life. Judas had the office and the ordination of an apostle, but was not a true apostle. They might not be of the elect and, in that case, they are not of the church. Exactly who is of the elect, and so of the church, cannot be certainly known except by revelation. The standard by which we must judge pope, prelates and priests is their conduct and works. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” To this text Huss went back again and again.

(3) Huss’s definition set aside the idea that church government is necessarily bound up with prelates and popes. On the contrary, spiritual authority is vested in the church—the body of the elect. The Apostle Peter received the keys as a representative of the church, or, to use Huss’s own words: “The church received the keys in the person of St. Peter.” All the Apostles were commissioned equally to feed and govern the church. Thomas went to India—not by Peter’s appointment. John was sent equally with Peter to Samaria. James presided at the synod of Jerusalem. The thirteen Apostles were thirteen prelates or princes—principes—invested with equal authority in all the earth. So are their successors, but only so far as they truly follow in the Apostles’ steps in their teachings and conduct. To the church, that is, the body of the elect, against which the gates of hell will not prevail-to it discipline was committed, Matt. 16: 18, 18: 15. Christ enjoined that offenses should be told to it. The church even has the right to depose popes. In his Reply to Stanislaus, Huss emphasized over again that the power of the keys was intrusted to the church, that is, the body of the elect.[20]

(4) Huss nowhere uses the terms visible and invisible in making a distinction in the church, as the Reformers did after him.[21] Nevertheless, he sets forth the same idea in other language. The church is like a field, containing elect and reprobate, good and bad; and while the elect alone belong to the true church, yet, inasmuch as we cannot tell in all cases with certainty who the reprobate are, we must obey the church so long as its leaders do not act contrary to the law of Christ, but only then. The church itself, as a visible organization, may be a harlot.[22]

In principle Huss also sinned mortally against the current idea of the church and its functions when he permitted laymen to intrude upon the province of the church in sequestrating the revenues of unworthy priests and made null the interdict and other church censures as they interrupted divine rites and stopped preaching. Not only did he call upon the king of Bohemia to put a stop to simony and other clerical offenses by the use of the civil arm; he also gave the same advice to the king of Poland. This principle that laymen have the right to interfere to correct evil church practices, was made the subject of one of Gerson’s articles against Huss, pronouncing it “an error most pernicious and scandalous, inducing laymen—seculares—to perpetrate sacrilege, and subversive of the liberty of the church.“[23]

II. The pope.—In regard to jurisdiction, the Roman pontiff has authority over the particular Roman church, which is the company of the faithful in that particular communion, as the Antiochan church is the company of the faithful under the bishop of Antioch. The church is both universal and particular and the bull of Boniface—Unam sanctam—was wrong in representing that all the sheep were committed to Peter’s care. The other Apostles were equally intrusted with the care of Christ’s flock.

The pope is not the rock on which Christ said he would build his church, Matt. 16: 18. As Augustine in his Retractations had said, Christ is the Rock. He is the foundation. “Petra—the Rock—said to Petro Peter: I say unto thee that thou art Peter—that is, the confessor of the true Rock, which is Christ—and on this Petra—Rock—whom thou hast confessed—that is, upon me, I will through strong faith and perfecting grace build my church.”[24] The foundation with which the church is built on the Rock is faith, faith rooted in love. That Christ is the Rock is plain from Scripture. Paul and Peter call him the foundation, the rock, the corner-stone. Likewise. Christ presented himself as the foundation which, in time of storm, will not be moved. Our love and faith are placed in Christ, not in Peter. To Christ, and not to Peter, did the prophets look forward. Peter did not dare to assert that he was the head of the holy Catholic church. Christ alone is the head of the body, imparting life and sensation to its members. To the two passages, Matt. 16: 18 and John 21: 15, which, it will be remembered, are emblazoned on the base of the dome of St. Peter’s, Huss devotes elaborate exposition.

The pope is fallible and may be a reprobate and heretic—papæ falli et fallere possunt. This is proved from Scripture and also from history. Popes of human appointment were not always popes by Christ’s election. A pope may be a successor of Judas and the cardinals in the line of Gehazi. Popes may be mistaken through ignorance and avarice, and make mistakes by deception, disciplinary decrees and precepts. Pontiffs and cardinals at variance in purpose or moral life with Christ and the Apostles are thieves and robbers. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter the Lombard, he said distinctly that the vicar of Christ may err in matters of faith and discipline.[25]

Constantine II, Liberius the Arian, Boniface VIII and Clement V, who had dared to order the angels to release souls from purgatory, were heretical or wicked popes. But the case above all cases to which Huss refers is the case of the female pope. Joanna, whose natural name was Agnes. In his day, the tradition was still believed that she had ruled as pope two years and five months under the name of John VIII. Her sex was revealed by her suddenly giving birth to a child on the street. Gerson also fully believed this story and used it also to illustrate that the pope may err, and Agnes’s statue was placed, in the thirteenth century, in the cathedral of Siena, among the statues of the other popes. The story is now universally discredited, and is usually explained to have been a parody on the rule of loose popes under the influence of dissolute women in the tenth century.[26]

On account of their fallibility and in view of the fact that popes have been heretics. Huss denied that they are always to be obeyed or their censures heeded. Writing to Prachaticz, he said: “What can they say who declare that the Holy Roman Church, that is, the pope and the cardinals, must be obeyed in view of the fact that Boniface—Boniface IX—together with his cardinals, solemnly declared that Wenzel is not king of the Romans and that Sigismund is not king of Hungary? This with them is an article of faith and yet they do not obey Boniface’s decree.” Huss also uses this argument against Palecz. The Roman pontiff is to be obeyed only so far as his decrees are in accord with Christ’s law.[27]

As for the citation to Rome, he had disobeyed it because his own diocese was the proper place for his case to be investigated, if at all. By his long absence in Rome the Word of God would have been kept from the people in Prague, and the way of citation was not the way prescribed by Christ, as is shown in Matt. 18:15. “I also,” he said, “resisted the bull on indulgences sent out by John XXIII, for to rebel against an erring pope is to obey Christ.” As for the interdict, it, like excommunication, is used to terrorize and enslave the people. The pope has no right to order divine services stopped in any locality simply because one man may be disobedient. Even though Judas was present, Christ went on distributing the Last Supper. “I was excommunicated,” Huss deposes, “because I preached Christ and was seeking to turn the clergy to a life conformed to God’s law.” Then came the citation and the interdict. Boniface VIII and Clement V blasphemously make every rational creature, man or angel, subject to the Roman pontiff. People went to heaven when there were no popes. They went to heaven during the rule of Agnes, and they have continued to go to heaven in the interims following a pope’s death and before the election of his successor. But in all times Christ, and he alone, is head of the church. The church is never dead or without a head—mortua vel decapitata,—for Christ lives forevermore. If launched at all, excommunication should be launched for mortal sin, not for matters neither bad nor good in themselves. In fact, the pope was not necessary to the church’s being, or even its well-being, and if popes and cardinals both were destroyed, even as Sodom, yet the holy church would remain.[28]

Again, all such titles as most holy should be given up and the adoration of the pope and the pomp with which he surrounds himself be abandoned. Worldly power was given to the pope by Constantine and the poison of Constantine’s donation continued to spend itself. A reprobate pope should not be addressed as most holy father, or Judas would be justly called most holy bishop.[29]

In his letters, Huss approached Luther in stigmatizing unworthy popes and declared the Roman hierarchy the great harlot, the blaspheming congregation, of which we read in the Apocalypse. The pope is antichrist, who, under the garb of sanctity, conceals the abomination of the beast. He sits in the place of honor and offers himself for worship to all comers as though he were God—quasi sit Deus. And the council condemned a pope as a simoniac, heretic, sodomite and murderer![30] To be sure, these words had reference to John XXIII, but the council regarded him as true pope.

As for councils and their authority, it must not be forgotten that Huss looked forward with hope to a council, though he appealed to Christ. During his stay in Constance he developed a definite view most unfavorable to the council convened in that city. As has been quoted before, he declared that though it professed to be a most holy synod, speaking by the Holy Spirit and incapable of error, yet was it full of the wickedness of antichrist, whose foulness deserved to be a proverb and whose fallibility, shown in other ways, was also shown in accepting John XXIII as pope, kissing his feet and addressing him as most holy father.

III. The priesthood.—Priests in mortal sin do not perform the sacraments efficiently. Here, Huss invalidates the whole theory of sacerdotal power received through ordination. Thomas Aquinas’s theory is that the validity of the sacrament does not depend upon the priest’s character, and Leo the Great, 450, declared that even in an unworthy successor the dignity of Peter is not wanting. Leo’s statement Pastor quotes in vindication of his treatment of Alexander VI, who, in spite of his flagrant crimes, yet was true pope. Following Wyclif, Huss also stated that a king in mortal sin has no right to exercise authority. It is true that, at his trial, Huss seems to have modified his statement by declaring that, according to the law of merit—quoad meritum—such kings or priests in mortal sin were not to excercise royal or priestly authority, but according to their official dignity—quoad officium—they might. But the council laughed him down. In his writings his meaning is plain.

The absolution of sins, therefore, depends upon the character of the priest. Although Huss nowhere declares that the priestly act in absolving from sin is only declaratory, yet, in effect, he makes it such. A priest can absolve no one whom God has not before absolved, and all absolutions pronounced for gifts of money are of no avail. “Under Agnes, where were the keys?” he exclaims. The priest has no arbitrary right to exercise the keys. He is nothing more than a servant or living instrument. He must exercise the right properly and have a good motive or the exercise is useless.[31] And as for censures, Christ did not call down fire from heaven. He came to heal, not to destroy. The apostolic see is not a final tribunal. How can it be, in view of such a case as John XII who was put to death while in the very act of adultery. Christ is the final tribunal, God is to be obeyed rather than man.

IV. The Scriptures.—Here Huss is, on all occasions, emphatic. He followed Wyclif in demanding that the Scriptures should be in the hands of the people and that the priest’s first duty is to expound their teachings to all men alike. They are to be in the vernacular, and in the hands of all. The Scriptures, or the law of Christ, as he liked to call them, are the supreme rule of opinion and conduct. The priest and people are obligated to follow them above all mandates of prelates and popes; customs instituted by the church, if at variance with them, are of no value. All commands are to be disobeyed which are outside the express authority of Scripture—præter expressam autoritatem Scripturæ. Yea, mandates of popes and cardinals which subvert the precepts of Christ, must be openly resisted, lest, by assent, one become partaker of crime. In matters civil, we owe obedience to the king, in matters spiritual to God, in matters ecclesiastical, which involve things indifferent, we owe obedience only as the commands are in accord with the almighty will of God. The priest must continue preaching in spite of a papal mandate to the contrary. The duty is laid upon him in ordination, and a mandate to stop preaching he is no more obligated to obey than he would be to obey a command forbidding him to give alms.

Huss’s works are full of quotations from the Scriptures, as are also his letters. At his trial he confidently protested that he stood by the Scriptures and that he must be informed out of them before he would retract. To the charge that he followed Wyclif, he replied that he accepted Wyclif’s statements not because they were made by Wyclif, but because they were drawn from the Scriptures. In his Reply to Palecz he declared that he hoped at the bar of Christ to be found not to have denied a single iota of them.[32] Augustine’s view was that we must believe the Scriptures because the church tells us to. Huss’s position was that we must believe the church in proportion as it follows the Scriptures.

Huss, without formulating it into a definite proposition, was insisting upon the individual’s right to interpret the Scriptures for himself. On that principle he stood, a single individual against the council which represented Christendom. “I cannot,” he protested, “offend against God or my conscience by abjuring.” The Bible was his guide, the Bible as interpreted according to its plain meaning. This idea of subjectivity, as Hefele says, the council could not tolerate, as it did not the principle of the sole authority of the Bible; and Hefele continues that “in these respects Huss was a true precursor of the Reformation.”[33] All the members of the council recognized the wall of partition between him and themselves on this subject.

Prierias, the Dominican master of the palace, in his tract answering Luther’s Theses, stated the principle anew that the Scriptures derive their authority from the church and the pope, and said, “whoso does not rest upon the doctrine of the Roman Church and the Roman pope as an infallible rule of faith, from which even the Holy Scriptures derive their authority, he is a heretic.” With Huss, a hundred years before, both pope and council were liable to err. The Scriptures alone are infallible, the supreme authority for human opinion and conduct.

Huss carried the Bible with him to Constance and to the Dominican prison. Among the most solemn legacies to his disciple, Master Martin, was that that Martin might be diligent to read the Bible, especially the New Testament, and he urged his Bohemian friends to listen only to such priests as were its reverent students. Perhaps his last written words were the words addressed to the chaplain of Queen Sophia and other priests, to be diligent students of God’s Word and to preach the Word of God—verbum Dei.[34] If Tyndale was strangled at Vilvorde for having translated the Bible into English, then it is also true that Huss, a hundred years earlier, was burned at Constance for his devotion to that sacred book.

It was his dissent from these four vital doctrines, the church, the pope, the power of the keys and the Scriptures, which brought Huss to his death. To state it in another way, it was the clash on the subject of authority in matters of religion, whether the final seat of authority is the visible organization called the church, with the pope at its head, or the Scriptures as interpreted by the individual invoking the guidance of Christ.

In our dealing with Huss’s case, the most interesting question arises whether—justified as was the council according to the canons of the age in putting Huss to death—whether, after all, Huss was not dealt with unfairly by Sigismund, in view of the promise of safe-conductsalvus conductus—that king gave him. Did not that promise afford him positive assurance of safety on his return journey to Prague? And did not the king break his word when he executed the council’s sentence and gave Huss over to the flames? Here we must be guided by the letter of the safe-conduct and by the interpretation which Huss, the king and others put upon it.

Sigismund’s salvus conductus, which was promised to Huss before he left Prague, ran as follows:[35]

Sigismund, by God’s grace, Augustus, King of the Romans and King of Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, etc., to all and every prince, both ecclesiastical and secular-dukes, marquises, counts, barons . . . to all magistrates and officials of cities and villages and to all the rest of our people, subjects of the Holy Empire, peace and all good. The honorable master, John Huss, bachelor of sacred theology and master of arts, the bearer of these presents, journeying from the realm of Bohemia to the general council about to convene in Constance, whom we have received under our protection and the protection of the Holy Empire—we, with full affection, recommend to you all, desiring that you receive him kindly and treat him with favor and that you will help him in all matters to speedily prosecute his journey, giving him security by the way, whether by land or sea, and also safety to his servants, horses and baggage and that all tributes and other restrictions whatsoever may be removed from his free passage over all roads, through all gates and cities, and that ye permit him freely, as he chooses, to pass along, to stop, to abide and to return—transire, stare, morari, redire—and so provide for him and his safe and secure passage.

This document was dated at Spires, October 18, 1414, and reached Constance, November 5. Huss reached Constance after it was signed by the king. Its language is specific and provides for his return. Did it obligate Sigismund under all circumstances to see to it that Huss was unimpeded in returning to Prague?

As we have seen, the promise of safe-conduct was sent to Huss from Italy, and Chlum and Duba were commissioned by the king to escort him to Constance. Repeatedly in his letters, written on his way to Constance and after his arrival, did Huss state that he made the journey and entered into the city without the safe-conduct.[36] By this he meant without the official paper which Wenzel of Duba, leaving the party at Nürnberg, had gone to obtain from the king. In making this statement, Huss was expressing his joy at being treated so well and getting along without inconvenience, though charged with being a heretic and though he had not yet received the promised official document. Certainly his arrest and imprisonment the last of November were a plain violation of this pledge. So Chlum and Huss’s other friends in Constance regarded it, and so, apparently, did John XXIII. So the Bohemian and Moravian nobles interpreted it in their appeals demanding his release. So Sigismund himself felt, who, when he was apprised of Huss’s arrest, sent word to Constance that he should be released, threatening that if Huss was not released he would on his arrival in the city break down the doors of Huss’s prison and let the prisoner out. Writing after Huss’s death to the Moravians and Bohemians, March 21, 1416. Sigismund declared that, if Huss had journeyed in his company to Constance, his case would most probably have turned out differently. Exactly what Sigismund meant by this statement must be in a measure uncertain. It was either a base attempt to defend himself for yielding to the council or an announcement of his helplessness before its sentence. Base it was because Huss made the journey in the way laid out by the king, in company with the deputy guards the king had commissioned; unless it be that Huss made a technical mistake in not going with Wenzel of Duba to meet the king at Spires, an interpretation which one of his statements seems to be capable of.

But did the royal salvus conductus give Huss the right to expect that Sigismund would shield him from death and protect him against the council’s sentence, at least until after he had returned to Bohemia? The witnesses of the case are as follows:

(1) On leaving Prague for Constance, Huss seems to have put his case unreservedly in the hands of the council. In case he did not establish his orthodoxy, he expressed himself ready to suffer the penalty meted out to heretics. Friends, taking leave of him, expressed the fear that he would not return alive. Huss himself left his will which, of course, was a proper precaution under any circumstances. But in a letter written to his friends just before starting out on his journey, he spoke of the possibility of his violent death at Constance, and that he was willing to die, if by his death he might glorify God. From all this it would seem that Huss did not claim safe return except in the case of his acquittal at Constance.

(2) Huss’s Bohemian and Moravian friends complained that his arrest at Constance and his violent treatment were against the law and the king’s solemn promise publicly given. The protest of the two hundred and fifty nobles demanded that he be allowed to return freely to Bohemia and asserted clearly that the pledge included the promise of safe return.

(3) Mladenowicz, in his account, states that Sigismund’s promise was a pledge to protect Huss on the way to Constance and back—libere ut Constantiam veniens e converso redire ad Bohæmiam.

(4) Henry Lefl and others, so Huss asserts, assured him that the king had pledged himself for Huss’s safe return to Prague.

(5) During the period of his imprisonment, Huss declared that Sigismund had acted treacherously and broken his word, that he ought not to put the sentence of Constance into execution and ought at least to have sent him back to Bohemia. Christ deceived no man. His safe-conduct could be relied on.[37]

(6) There were some at Constance-how many we do not know—who believed that Sigismund had broken his promise. This is evident from the action taken in the council, September 23, 1415, to justify Sigismund’s conduct.

(7) This was the view taken by Huss’s followers after his death, and in 1432 the Bohemian delegates to the council of Basel, having an eye to Huss’s fate and the alleged deception passed on him, demanded a distinct insertion of a clause pledging them safe return. One hundred and six years after Huss’s death, Luther declared faith had been broken with Huss, and he, being of the same mind, also demanded an express stipulation from the emperor, Charles V, for his safe return from Worms. He said that even a promise of safe-conduct given to the devil must be kept, much more, then, a promise to a heretic.[38]

(8) As for Sigismund’s own understanding of his promise of safe-conduct, we have no statement written by him before the execution of the death sentence or after it on which we can base a definite opinion except the letter of the safe-conduct, which is his one distinct statement. All that we know besides is that Sigismund indignantly resisted Huss’s arrest and imprisonment, when he first heard of them, as a violation of his promise, and that after Huss’s death, he wrote to Bohemia that Huss might have been saved if he had waited to go with the king to Constance. The last must be deemed an attempt on Sigismund’s part to excuse himself.

From these considerations it would seem that Sigismund broke his pledge and Huss was foully treated. On the other hand, it is argued, and with plausibility, that Sigismund gave his pledge for Huss’s safe return on condition that Huss would be cleared. It is hardly to be imagined that Sigismund was unaware of the custom of the age that on the question of heresy the ecclesiastical sentence was final, that heretics had no rights before man or God, and that it was the duty of the civil arm to punish them with death. Ferdinand, king of Aragon, as we have seen, urged Sigismund to kill Huss forthwith. The council in its decree of September 23, scarcely two months after Huss’s death, took the ground that no salvus conductus given by emperor or other prince to a heretic, or one suspected of heresy, had any validity whatsoever, seeing it was to the prejudice of the jurisdiction exercised by the church; nor could such a pledge put any hinderance in the way of the church in the exercise of its authority. Moreover, the person who gave such pledge of safe-conduct was under no obligation to keep the pledge. The principle was also stated in distinct words by the council that a confirmed heretic by his heresy placed himself outside the protection of all safe-conducts, and that no promise or faith is to be kept with him according to any law, natural, divine or human, which shall be to the prejudice of the Catholic faith.[39] This means that faith is not to be kept with a heretic.

That Sigismund, as a king and as emperor, could have asserted his royal word in resisting the council, there can be no doubt. So John of Gaunt, in the absence of any official promise of protection, protected Wyclif in the face of the Earthquake council. That, from the moment of his arrival in Constance, Sigismund became more and more subservient to the council has been shown. Little did he protect Huss after he reached the city, on Christmas Eve. John XXIII was a better friend to him than the king. John at least provided Huss with decent food and humane guards. Sigismund, it is true, affirmed on June 8 that he had fulfilled his pledge to see to it that Huss had a fair public hearing. He, no doubt, suppressed any scruples he may have felt on the ground that the council’s will, after all, was supreme and that it was no perjury to disregard a promise to a heretic when he was following the church’s behest. This was the very plea to which Huss steadfastly refused to give way when he was called upon to recant. Huss was governed by conscience. Sigismund by rules of prudence.

It is probable the council would have broken with the king, if he had kept the letter of his pledge. His imperial good faith probably was no more at stake than the council’s very existence. As it was, in yielding to the council Sigismund lost with the Bohemian people. They felt deeply that it was a national disgrace that he had yielded to the council’s sentence. When Sigismund wanted to drive away the envoy from Milan, who had come to Constance with a safe-conduct, the council put itself in the way, declaring that all having a safe-conduct had the right to stay and go; but the envoy was not a heretic. At the very least. Sigismund should have sent Huss back to Bohemia.[40] It was, as a Protestant historian, Karl Müller, has said, simply a question of power between Sigismund and the council as to whether Sigismund was to keep his promise or not.[41] The king put aside the promises which he had made to induce Huss to go to Constance.

Atrocious as the principle is that faith is not to be kept with a heretic, it was the principle upon which Sigismund and the council acted and the council defined. The Spanish king, Ferdinand, knew well the methods of the papal inquisition when he stated that it is not breaking faith to break faith with a man who breaks his faith with God—non est frangere fidem ei qui Deo fidem frangit.

Considering the centuries which have elapsed since 1415, we may distinctly trace Huss’s influence in the history of the Protestant Reformation. The great statue at Worms, designed to commemorate the Reformation, rightly gives places to Wyclif, Huss and Savonarola as forerunners of that religious movement. By Wyclif, Luther was not directly influenced. The Reformer made no reference to Wyclif’s writings. Savonarola influenced him to some extent and Luther edited the Meditations on the XXXII and LI Psalms which Savonarola prepared in prison. He knew, he said, that the Dominican preacher had much of the clay of human theology clinging to him, but in these Meditations a true Christian was speaking and he deserved to be canonized in spite of antichrist, who sought to blot out his memory.

To Huss’s direct influence, Luther bears generous and repeated witness, not only in his three prefaces to the three editions of some of Huss’s epistles and other works issued at Wittenberg, 1536 and 1537,[42] but also in other places. Neander, Lechler, Ullmann and others make Huss a precursor of Luther. Harnack takes another view when he says: The Wyclifite and Hussite movement must be taken as the ripest fruitage of the reform movement of the Middle Ages, and although it loosened the ground and prepared the way, yet it brought to expression no reformatory ideas.”[43] We take the former ground, not only because Huss actually furnishes a good deal of the essence of the Reformation in his statements on the church, the pope and the Scriptures, but because of the debt Luther distinctly acknowledged to him.

As a student at Erfurt, Luther had in his hands Huss’s sermons. He tells us that he was influenced by curiosity to discover what sort of teachings the heretic had sown. Το his amazement, he was moved with admiration and, at the same time, was filled with surprise that a man who preached so evangelically and was so apt and so serious in expounding the Scriptures should have been burned as a heretic. “So abominated,” he says, speaking of the sixteenth century, “was Huss’s very name that the sun itself, it was thought, would have been obscured if it had been mentioned with honor.” The apparent contradiction between these sermons and Huss’s heresy he could only explain on the assumption that the sermons were preached before Huss became a heretic.

Soon after Luther’s Reformatory activity began, he was accused by Eck at the Leipzig disputation, 1519, with being a Hussite. Eck had mentioned articles of Wyclif and Huss condemned at Constance, such as that faith in the pope was not necessary to salvation and that the church on earth does not require a single head. This skilled disputant then went on to allege a rumor that Luther was quite favorable to the Bohemians. Pressed to the wall, Luther replied that among the Bohemian articles there were many which were both Christian and Scriptural. It was a matter of indifference to him that Wyclif and Huss advocated the articles, they should no longer be condemned. Of Christians, no article should be required which was not Scriptural. Quick to take advantage of these admissions, Eck declared that it was after the manner of the Bohemians to presume to know the Scriptures better than the pope, councils, doctors and universities. The condemned Bohemians would thereafter look upon Luther as their advocate. In this way, Luther was forced to take publicly a position in advance of his previous position and solemnly declare that general councils, as well as popes, were not infallible.[44]

It was soon after this disputation that Luther received letters from Hussites of the Utraquist wing. John Poduschka and Wenzel Rosdolowsky, who expressed their best wishes and accompanied their letter with a gift of knives and a copy of Huss’s Treatise on the Church. The former said that what Huss had been in Bohemia, that Luther was in Saxony. Luther acknowledged these communications and sent his correspondents a copy of his smaller writings. The good, orthodox opinion of Huss in Germany was expressed by a contemporary, Cochlæus, who pronounced Huss worse than a Jew—a Tartar, a Turk and a Sodomite. But the influence of the Bohemian had gone so far with Luther in 1520, that, with reference to those who yoked their names together, he asserted that, without surmising it, he had been advocating all Huss’s teachings and he and his associates were all Hussites without knowing it. He was amazed that evangelical truth had been publicly consigned to the flames a hundred years before, and yet, alas, no one dared openly to acknowledge that this was the case.

In 1520 a Latin edition of Huss’s Treatise on the Church appeared in Wittenberg. In his address to the German nobility, written the same year, Luther called upon the Roman Church to confess that it had done wrong in burning Huss. He was burned unjustly and in violation of God’s commandments; that innocent man’s blood, he asserted, was still crying from the ground. A year later he revoked his statement that some of Huss’s articles condemned at Constance were true. He now affirmed that they were all true, and that the pope and papists, in condemning Huss at Constance, had also condemned the Gospel, and in its place put the doctrines of the dragon of hell[45]. From that time on, Luther was an uncompromising champion of Huss as a man of God. In his prefaces to Huss’s letters and writings, already referred to, he fully expressed this opinion. In one of these, characteristically calling the Roman bishop that “basilisk of the church and plague of all the earth,” he accuses the pope of being the creator of new gods by canonizing the saints, while at the same time he damned that good and most pious man, John Huss, and ordered the whole world to execrate him as a devil to be abhorred through eternity. In effect, he set himself up as the judge of the living and the dead by damning the one and ordering new saints to be invoked and worshipped. In the second preface, he speaks of Huss as the church’s holy martyr and pronounced the council of Constance as having exposed itself to derision and ridicule for raving against that pious man, and he prayed that the next council to be held might, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, seek the glory of God and that alone. In the third, Luther says that every one of a sane mind will confess that John Huss was adorned with great and excellent gifts from the Holy Spirit. He was as a sheep among lions and wolves and, if Huss is to be regarded as a heretic, then scarcely one of all those upon whom the sun has ever looked down can truly be held to have been a Christian. For John Huss committed no greater crime than to assert that a Roman pope of impious life is not the head of the Catholic church. “If he, who, in the agony of death, invoked Jesus, the Son of God, who suffered on our behalf, and gave himself up to the flames with such faith and constancy for Christ’s cause—if he did not show himself a brave and worthy martyr of Christ—then may scarcely any one be saved.”

Luther and the other Reformers gave permanency to a body of opinions which Huss held, but went much further than their predecessor. The Bohemian reformer was out of accord with the church of his time, though he did not know it. So was Luther when he nailed up the XCV Theses, and as he himself says, in speaking of Huss. More than a century was to elapse after Huss’s death before the hour for the Protestant movement struck. In the meantime, the way had been further prepared for it by the invention of printing, the spread of Humanism in Germany, and the publication of the Greek New Testament. In Huss’s views we have only a glimmer of what was to come, however a bright glimmer. Luther would no doubt have been, if Huss had not lived, but it is no derogation of Luther’s better equipment, his originality and his great services to accord to Huss the merit of having spoken so bravely and clearly on the papacy, the Scripture and other matters.

The relation in which, on the one hand, Huss stood to Wyclif, and on the other to the Reformation is well illustrated in a Hussite cantionale, dated 1572, in the possession of the university of Prague. It is written on parchment and contains the coats of arms of many Bohemian nobles. Three medallions, with which one of its pages is illuminated, represent Wyclif striking fire with two flints. Huss starting a flame and Luther holding aloft the burning torch. A picture at the foot of the page represents Huss in the midst of the flames at Constance.

Over against this old Hussite song-book is to be set one of the bronze pieces of statuary, erected in front of the university in 1848 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Charles IV and representing the faculty of theology. Huss has no place there—the most notable figure, so far as the outside world knows, ever connected with the university. The group represents a woman with her right hand on a book labelled the Bible and on her left knee a volume labelled Thomas Aquinas. The Bible is closed, the work of the Schoolman is wide open. The controversy in Bohemia still goes on between Huss, who advocated the open Bible, and the ecclesiastical tradition which keeps the Bible closed, and follows the scholastic theology.

Taking a wider survey and going beyond the distinctively religious realm, we must also give Huss a place in the history of the struggle for the rights of conscience. Here, according to Lechler, lies his chief merit. In spite of his self-distrust and gentle nature,[46] Huss was not intimidated by the council to consent to a form of recantation which he believed to be a falsehood. In a sense similar to that intended by Renan, when of the Christian martyr of Lyons, the slave Blandina, he says that by her death she did more to abolish slavery than all the writings of the ancient philosophers, so it is true that Huss’s moral heroism in the presence of a terrible death has promoted the cause of liberty of opinion. If Luther asserted at Worms that it was not safe to do anything against one’s conscience, the same attitude was also taken by Huss. Above all friendships he placed loyalty to the truth. Submission to authority at the expense of convictions he refused to regard as meritorious. He could not recant because, as he said again and again, he was not ready to offend against God and his conscience. In his Commentary on the Sentences of the Lombard, he stated that to act contrary to conscience is sin, but he did not there take up the question whether resistance to the church is sin. He closed his treatment by saying that in addition to what he had written there were many more things which might be said about conscience.[47] The problem of this relation of the individual conscience to church authority may have been among the things untreated.

Gerson himself insisted that the individual is bound to submit to the church, putting his conscience aside so far as he holds views disapproved by the organization. It is no excuse, he argues, for disobedience before God or man that his conscience justifies him. Heretics have a conscience, but an unenlightened conscience. They have deliberately set themselves against God and arrogate to themselves a knowledge of God which is falsConscience is no excuse for error and heresy.[48]

Huss laid down a principle of far-reaching significance when he predicated a tribunal higher than the church, the tribunal of Christ. He spoke better than he perhaps knew. He could scarcely have foreseen the full application given to that principle in the twentieth century. It was a principle which the great teachers of his age did not understand, a principle whose very statement they abhorred. The tribunal of God is set up in the Scriptures, the Scriptures—so Huss contended—not as interpreted by the church, but as interpreted by the conscience.

In places in his writings he distinctly plead for reason as a guide in matters of religious conduct, such as prayers and fasting. With its aid ecclesiastical mandates, distinct from the precepts of the Gospel, are to be judged. On one occasion, he spoke of the Scriptures, special divine revelation, the reason and experience[49] as the guides which are to be depended upon in determining what we are to believe and the commands we are to obey. It is not to be supposed that Huss meant to make the reason co-ordinate with the Scriptures which contain the truth. His purpose was to assert the rights of reason over against the hierarchy or the church as a guide to the truth. He nowhere worked out into a careful system the relation the Scriptures, the reason, the church and Christian experience bear one to the other. It is evident, however, that he predicated for the individual reason, a place such as his age and the Schoolmen denied it as a guide of conduct in matters of religion.

It is, therefore, in accordance with his other teachings that Huss did not shrink back from the word heretic with the same abhorrence his contemporaries felt for it. As a sermon already quoted shows, he even had a good word to say for the uses of heresy. Heretics are dangerous, but their mistakes may be very useful. Many are led away by heresy, but by it the faithful are tempted and are made strong.[50] This is a very different conception from that handed down from the Middle Ages. Heresy was a thing not to be allowed to live, and, if necessary, it was to be crushed by the death of the heretic. This idea, first carried into practice in the burning of the Priscillianist errorists, 385, was advocated by Pope Leo I in 450, and a century later by the emperor Justinian, who laid error, down the principle that heretics, if incorrigible, are to be put to death. Augustine’s words applied to the Donatist heretics, “Compel them to come in,” were intended to justify measures of physical violence in the treatment of heretics. These words were used all through the Middle Ages as authority for the application of the death sentence for religious Innocent III embodied the idea in the establishment of the papal inquisition, and it further found expression in the Spanish inquisition sanctioned by Sixtus IV, 1478. The victims of the inquisition were without number. What Innocent III decreed at the fourth Lateran council, 1415, he carried out in his crusades against the religious dissenters in Southern France, and later popes against the Waldenses, the Hussites and other errorists. The papal legate, Henry of Citeaux, at the head of one of the crusading armies in Southern France, exclaimed: “Fell all to the ground. The Lord knows who are his own.” Heresy was to be treated as a piece of putrid flesh, to be burned like scorpions with the sting of damnation in their tails, to be cut out like a cancer, to be broken like the chalice of Babylon filled with poison. The legislation of Frederick II and Louis IX, which punished heretics turned over to the magistrate by the church with death in the flames, was at last followed by the English parliament, which in 1401, placed on the statute book the law for the burning of heretics—de comburendo heretico—intended to wipe out Lollardy and Wyclifism.

The council of Constance was distinctly in sympathy with this view and solemnly declared that “heretics should be punished even unto fire.” To this theory, consecrated by the practice of centuries. Huss opposed his voice. In his Treatise on the Church he categorically denied the church’s right to punish heresy with the death penalty. The pope has no authority to impose corporal death. Christ refused to pronounce civil sentence; he did not wish to condemn any one to bodily death—nec voluit civiliter judicare nec morte corporis condemnare voluit. The furthest limit to which Christ went was to bid the church treat obstinate offenders as heathen and publicans and withdraw from them.[51] Huss speaks of the principle advocated by the doctors, that religious offenders be turned over to the magistrate for punishment, as the sanguinary corollary. It is true that in the presence of d'Ailly, Huss modified his statement, declaring that the suspected heretic should be labored with and instructed and only then, if necessary, punished corporally. But the statement of the Treatise on the Church, even as thus modified, caused a great tumult among the judges. One of the charges made against Huss by Gerson was that he had denied the right of the church to issue the interdict, but, so far as we know, Huss did not go that far. Gerson went on to say that prelates and princes were under obligation, not only to condemn heretics but, under threat of severe penalties, to fight them out of existence.[52]

In general, it may be said that Huss’s treatise leads to the assertion of the principle of the rights of the individual conscience, just as do the words of the Westminster Confession, “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” though the Westminster divines were unconscious of the full application of their noble expression. Along the line of Huss’s appeal from all human tribunals and commandments of men to the law of Christ and to Christ himself, is his far-reaching statement, a statement which deserves to be quoted, to the effect that not the pope, but the Holy Spirit is the teacher of the church and its safest refuge—refugium securissimum ecclesiæ sanctæ.[53]

In the discussion of the power of the church over the lives of heretics, Huss clearly elaborated a consideration in his Reply to the Eight Doctors, a consideration he had barely touched upon before in his Treatise on the Church and in his attack against the papal bulls of indulgence. He made a distinction between the Old and the New Testaments and his position was that the death penalties of the Old Testament were inflicted in obedience to immediate divine commands in each case. By the New Testament measures less severe are inculcated.[54] The example and the words of Christ make for toleration and peace—ad pacem ducit Christus verbo et exemplo—and the death of ecclesiastical offenders is never justifiable, whether in war or by individual sentence, except by the authorization of a special divine revelation. Here, Huss was far in advance of his times and had his teachings been followed instead of the spirit and letter of the mediæval theology and legislation, the cause of religious toleration would have received more consistent recognition from Protestant Christendom than was the case at one time.

Protestantism inaugurated the new era in regard to the treatment of religious dissenters. Luther wrote to Leo X, that the burning of heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit, declared that the soul is not to be compelled by physical force but by moral suasion, and that every one should be allowed to believe as he may choose, and if he does not believe he has already punishment enough.[55] It is to be lamented that this good principle was set aside in so many cases by the Reformers. Calvin’s part in the execution of Servetus is greatly to be condemned. In justification of Servetus’s execution, he wrote a pamphlet which, upon the basis of passages in the Old and New Testament, justified the death penalty for offenses against the first table of the Sinaitic law. Beza, his successor, also wrote a treatise along this line. The Second Helvetic confession stated the principle, but in spite of this attitude of intolerance the trend of Protestant sentiment and Protestant teaching has been in favor of liberty of thought, and it is in Protestant countries that the benefits of religious liberty are enjoyed. In Bohemia a measure of toleration was granted by Joseph II in 1781, and a larger liberty in 1848.[56]

It is little to say that Huss was a champion of the rights of conscience if we have in mind statements only. For conscience he was willing to give up his life. By his death he accomplished more than he could have accomplished by a treatise. His mind was set on progress and, following Wyclif and at the moment defending Wyclif, he laid down the true principle of intellectual advancement, in the words: “If any man in the church can instruct me from sacred Scripture or by sound reasoning, I am most willing to yield. For, from the outset of my studies, I have laid this down as my rule that, whenever in any matter I perceive a sounder reason than the one I was moved by, I would gladly and humbly recede from my former opinion, knowing well that the things we know are much less numerous than the things of which we are ignorant.”[57]

By his life, Huss accomplished much in winning the hearts of men; by his teachings, he accomplished more; by his death, he accomplished most. A calm study of his sufferings in prison and at the stake reveals, as Luther found out, and also Galileo’s condemnation proved, that the highest church tribunals err and it teaches that wide scope should be given in the toleration of differences in matters of religion and conscience. It does not occasion surprise that even a temperate Roman Catholic writer like Helfert, writing more than half a century ago, 1853, should have expressed the view that Huss’s career inaugurated the movement of schismatic and heretical revolt from the absolute authority of the pope and the Roman Catholic church. He quoted the words of Louis Blanc as of a man competent to pronounce a judgment when in his Origines et causes de la révolution française he declared Huss, “the humble priest,” to be the head-source of the revolutionary spirit culminating in the French Revolution, yea the begetting genius of our modern revolutions—le naissant génie des révolutions modernes.[58]

A hundred years after Huss’s death that bitter enemy of the Protestant Reformation, Cochlæus—Dobneck, his German name—in his History of the Hussites wrote that there was no worse fornication than the fornication Huss committed with the Catholic faith.[59] When he spoke of fornication Cochlæus meant heresy. To such a judgment Huss’s purity of life and constancy in death are a solemn protest. His principle is the better one: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”[60]

  1. Super IV libb. Sent., p, iv, unseres grössten und berühmtesten Theologen, etc.
  2. For Nepomuk, see A. H. Wratislaw: Life, Legend and Canonization of St. John Nepomucen, 1873. Palacky, Gesch., 361 sq.; Loesche in Herzog, 9: 306–309; Schmude: Wetzer-Welte, 7: 1726–1742.
  3. At my last visit in St. Vite’s, 1913, after being shown by the verger the tombs of St. Wenceslaus and other shrines, I said: “Well, why haven’t you a shrine to John Huss? He was a famous patriot.” “So he was,” replied our guide most good-naturedly, “but there was nothing left for a shrine. His ashes were all thrown into the lake of Constance.”
  4. Doc., 56, 91, 142.
  5. For d’Ailly, Gerson’s Works, 2: 901. Hardt, 6: 16, quoted by Tschackert, p. 234. For Gerson, Dial. A pol., DuPin’s ed., 2: 387. Schwab, 600, note 3.
  6. Doc., 108.
  7. Luther’s letter, Mon., 1: Preface.
  8. Lea, Inquis., 2: 493, and Hefele, 7: 214 sq., have remarks of a high order on the council’s decision.
  9. See Loserth, 282; Lützow, 288.
  10. Schwab, Gerson, 609 sqq. For d’Ailly’s attitude, Tschackert, 235 sq.
  11. Letters, Doc., 29, 90, Huss insists upon the same denial in his Com. on the Lombard’s Sentences, pp. 572 sq., nullus creatus est creator sui creatoris: nullus sacerdos creat corpus Christi.
  12. Super IV. Sent., 557, 575.
  13. Doc., 56; Buddensieg: Wiclif Patriot and Reformer, p. 11, says that “the whole Hussite movement is mere Wyclifism.” Loserth, p, xvi: “It was Wyclif’s doctrine principally for which Huss yielded up his life.”
  14. Loserth, pp. 348 sqq.
  15. Mon., 1: 243–365. For references to the Treatise on the Church, see my trsl, in the companion volume. The few references given here are for the most part from the defenses addressed to Palecz and Stanislaus.
  16. Mon., de Ecclesia, 1: 245. Ad Palecz, 1: 340. In his super IV. Sent., 616, Huss, in passing, quotes Augustine: “the church is the body of the elect and justified faithful.”
  17. Mon., 321, 326.
  18. Doc., 288; Mon., 1: 325 sq.
  19. Doc., 57; Mon., 1: 323, 335.
  20. Mon., 1: 352.
  21. It is hard to understand Wratislaw’s meaning, page 210, when he says: “Huss’s definition of the church was of an utterly unpractical nature, especially as he did not draw any clear distinction between the visible and the invisible church, to the latter of which alone his definition is applicable.” The Reformers could not make a clear distinction in details of practice. Schwane, Dogmen-gesch. der mittler. Zeit., page 510., says rightly: “Huss rejected the definition that the church is a visible community of believers.”
  22. Doc., 55.
  23. Doc., 31, 53, 187.
  24. Mon., de Ecclesia, 1: 92. Ad Palecz. 1: 321.
  25. Mon., 1: 324, 340, 350. Omnis vicarius Christi errare potest in iis quæ concernunt fidem et claves ecclesiæ. Super IV. Sent., p. 607.
  26. This is fully set forth by Döllinger, Fables of the Popes in the M. A. See Mirbt, p. 97; Mon., 1: 323 sq. 339, etc.; Letters in Doc., 58, 59, etc.
  27. Doc., 58, 60; Mon., ad Palecz, 1: 329.
  28. Doc., 59.
  29. Mon., ad Palecz, 1: 322.
  30. Doc., 55, 135, 144.
  31. Mon., 1: 352; super IV. Sent., 606, 616.
  32. Mon., 1: 325, 330.
  33. Rücksichtlich dieser beiden principiellen Punkte ist Huss wahrer Vorläufer d. Protestantismus, 7: 217. Comp. Schwab, Gerson, 600 sq.
  34. Doc., 117, 119, 148.
  35. For the text. Doc., 237; Hardt, 4: 522; Hefele, 218. The discussions are many, among the best being, Hefele, 227 sqq., Wylie, 178–187, and Berger: König Sig, und der Concil.
  36. Doc., 76, 77, 79.
  37. Doc., 114, 143, 237, 535, 554.
  38. Köstlin, Leben Luthers, 1: 352. Address to the Germ. Nobilily, 5: 24.
  39. Nec aliqua sibi fides aut promissio de jure naturali, divino vel humano, in præjudicium catholicæ fidei observanda. Mirbt, p. 170. There are two forms or two parts given of the council’s decree. The first, by Mansi, 7: 779, the second by Van der Hardt, 4: 521; the latter taken from a single manuscript in Vienna, but of exceptional weight, being written by the hand of one who had been at the council. Hefele, 7: 227, 237, disputes the second and explains it as being a note of some member of the council which he intended to propose for its action, but did not. It contains express references to Sigismund’s own case as having broken his pledge to Huss. This personal reference seems to be in favor of the genuineness of the second part of the official decree, which is represented above in the clause beginning with the words “the principle.”
  40. According to Doctor Lenz, quoted by Lützow, p. 290, Sigismund broke his word by not delivering Huss over to Wenzel.
  41. Kirchengesch., 2: 80. Berger holds that Sigismund had no right to give a safe-conduct to one suspected of heresy and could not have intended to give him such a clear paper, pp. 109 sqq., 173 sq. However, he had “without doubt the power and the right to at least postpone the execution of the sentence by the civil arm.” Palacky. Gesch., 3: 1, p. 357, also holds that Sigismund had no right to give to such a person an unconditional safe-conduct, which was void by the law of the age. Lea, Inquisition, 2: 462 sqq., controverts Berger’s position. Sigismund was too well versed in the principles of canon law in regard to heretics not to have understood what he was doing when he gave a salvus conductus promising Huss safe return. Berger, pp. 178 sqq., gives thirty-nine letters of safe-conduct, including Charles V’s letter to Luther, 1521. Karl Müller, Hist. Vierteljahrsschr., 1898, pp. 41 sqq., and F. Bartos of Prague in Ztschr. d. Kirchengesch., August, 1913, 34: 414 sq., bring new material to show that a promise to return was deemed sacred.
  42. Printed on the first pages of the large ed. of Huss’s works.
  43. Dogmengesch., 3: 413. Gottschick: Huss’s Lehre von der Kirche, Ztsch. f. Kirchengesch.}}, 8: 364, says that Huss had no other view of salvation than the one current in his age.
  44. Köstlin, 1: 265 sq.
  45. To the Germ. Nobility, 5: 23. Grund und Ursach aller Artikel. Köstlin, 1: 408.
  46. See Helfert, p. 206.
  47. Super IV. Sent., p. 351–354.
  48. Eine Berufung auf das Gewissen erkennt Gerson nicht an. Schwab, 599. Hefele, p. 217, expresses respect for Huss’s heroism shown in the face of death. It was for the author’s relatively favorable treatment of Huss, and his failure to justify the council in passing this sentence against him except by the standard of the age in which the council was held, which no doubt led to the suppression of the seventh volume of his History of the Councils.
  49. Mon., 1: 156, mensura librata ratione; ratio judicat de Eccles., Mon., 1: 301, 305 sq.
  50. Ad octo doctores. Mon., 1: 381, 383.
  51. De ecclesia. Mon., 1: 285.
  52. Doc., 185 sq.
  53. In Reply to Stanislaus, Mon., 354. It must not be forgotten that the advocates of the death penalty also appealed to the Holy Ghost as did Gerson.
  54. Mon., 1: 393–396. See de eccles. chap. XIX.
  55. Here he was speaking of the Anabaptists. See Völker, Toleranz und Intoleranz im Zeitalter der Reformation, 1912, pp. 82, 89, etc.
  56. Lecky, Rationalism in Europe, chap. IV, says: “Toleration is essentially a normal result of Protestantism, for it is the direct, logical, and inevitable consequence of the due exercise of private judgment.” For the opposite opinion Paulus, Protestantismus und Tolerans im 16ten Jahrh., 1911, who adduces the cases of Protestant intolerance, including Massachusetts’ treatment of the Quakers and Roger Williams.
  57. Si aliqua persona ecclesiæ me scriptura sacra vel ratione valida docuerit, paratissime consentire, etc., de Trinitate. Mon., 1: 131. Wyclif had used almost the same words in his de Universalibus. See Loserth, p. 353.
  58. Helfert: Hus, u. Hieronymus, p. 260. Schaching, pp. 252 sqq., 271 sqq., calls Huss the “revolutionary,” and makes him responsible for the English Revolution of 1649 and the French Revolution. Long before Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi, he began the work of breaking up the papal state.
  59. Nulla major fornicatio, etc. Hist. Hus. 138.
  60. The view taken in this chapter of the influence of Huss upon Luther is expressed by P. Smith, Life and Letters of M. Luther, p. 71, when he says: “Another powerful influence towards the formation of the new system of theology in Luther’s mind was found in the writings of John Huss.” See also Köhler: Luther und d. K.-gesch Erlang., 1900.