Letters of John Huss Written During His Exile and Imprisonment/Introduction


Towards the end of the fourteenth century there was born in Bohemia, a man whose name is inseparably connected with one of the most important revolutions of modern Europe. His history I have narrated in a preceding work.[1] I there placed before my readers the great events of that memorable epoch, and exhibited on the stormy stage of the world this Christian, whose death, even more than his life, agitated his country and all Germany. My object, in the present work, is to complete the first,—to finish the portrait of the illustrious reformer of Bohemia, by making him also known in his domestic life—the effusions of his private intercourse. The man is completely revealed in his correspondence; and I here publish all that the friends of Huss have handed down to us.

These Letters, which are translated now for the first time into our tongue, were never intended for the public eye, having been addressed by Huss to his disciples and friends, to be perused far from the view of his enemies, and under the shade of the domestic roof. They furnish most precious documents to history, and are unquestionable testimonies of the spirit and character of their author. Though they are not remarkable either for profundity of thought, or for style and singularity of doctrine, there, nevertheless, exhales an innocent candour and an angelic piety, like a fragrant perfume, from every page. What especially pervades them, are the Christian thoughts on the fall of man, and his regeneration through Jesus Christ;—the conviction that all the things of this world pass away, and are but the shadows of things eternal;—that man is nothing without God;—that there is nothing but darkness or false lights wherever the divine flame does not penetrate;—and, lastly, above all these thoughts, subsists that which embraces all the rest—that “Faith is life.” "We behold in his correspondence, a soul superior to seduction as well as to terror; a firm and upright reason which penetrates every subtilty;[2] originates in the conscience alone; clings tenaciously to what appears to it to be the truth as to man’s most precious possession, as to the treasure which has nothing to fear, neither from rust nor robber. (Matt. vi. 20.)

Huss was one of those spirits, more contemplative than practical, which, after having recognised an idea as true, admit of no medium or arrangement in propagating it, and concern themselves for the consequences not more for others than for themselves. The inflexibility of his character equalled his probity of feeling; and it may be affirmed that, in all respects, both by the heart and the intelligence, Huss was of the number of those who appear in the world as if predestined to martyrdom. Yet he sought not after it like a passionate sectarian or a blind enthusiast; he was as far from possessing that pride which complacently feeds itself on its own conceptions, as from that sullen fanaticism which causes a man voluntarily to shorten his life by useless rashness, through dint of persuading himself that death is desirable. Before entering into a contest with his superiors, John Huss hesitated, consulted, and examined. Visited with ecclesiastical censures at Prague, he knew not whether he should obey and be silent, or continue to preach the Gospel. “I burn,” says he, “with an ardent zeal for the Gospel, and my soul is sad; for I know not what to resolve on.”[3] At a later period at Constance, when condemned and ready to die, he wrote, “I exhort you, in the name of the Lord, to detest every error that you may discover in my works; but keeping in mind this truth which I have ever had in view, pray for me.”[4] He faithfully depicts his feelings in a letter which he addressed at the same period to the priest Martin, his disciple, an admirable letter—a true model of prudence and every Christian virtue. “Attach thy soul to the reading of the Bible, and especially the New Testament. Fear not death, if thou desirest to live with Christ; for he has said himself, Fear not those who kill the body, but who cannot destroy the soul. If they should trouble you on account of thy adhesion to my doctrines, answer, I believe my master to have been a good Christian; and touching what he has taught and written, I have neither read nor understood all.” Huss was neither a superstitious man nor a visionary; nevertheless he had visions and received warnings in his sleep; he foresaw what came to pass,[5] yet refused to attach faith to his dreams. He does not dare to place trust in them, and distrusts his senses rather than slight the authority of a single precept of his God; he repeats this text, “Place no confidence in dreams;” and after having related them to his friends, he adds, “I write this not because I consider myself a prophet, or that I would exalt myself, but to shew I have suffered bodily and mental temptations as well as a great fear of transgressing the commandments of the Lord.” Resignation was predominant in his mind;—the most absolute submission to the Divine will, as well as an ardent desire to become acquainted with it. “Pray,” says he, “fervently to the Lord, that he may grant me his Spirit, and that I may dwell in truth, and be delivered from all evil. If my death should add to his glorification, pray it may arrive speedily, and that he may enable me to support my ills with constancy. But should it be better for my salvation that I return amongst you, we will implore of God to enable me to return from the Council without a spot, viz., that I may keep back nothing from the truth of the gospel of Christ, in order to be enabled to discover more surely its light, and bequeath to our brethren a good example to follow.” The sacrifice which he made of his life was the more exemplary, and his martyrdom the more sublime, because he had felt beforehand all the terrors of death; it was in God that he sought for support against them. “Beseech the Lord to grant me the assistance of his Spirit, that I may confess his name even unto death. . . . . . I shall stand in need of his Divine aid, although I am confident he will not suffer me to be tried beyond my strength.”[6]

His confidence in God did not forsake him to the last moment. “Our Saviour,” says he, “raised Lazarus from the dead after the fourth day. He could also snatch me from prison and death,—I, an unfortunate man, if it were for his glory, for the advantage of the faithful, and my own good.”[7] And yet, when in chains, and awaiting death, he is more occupied with the interests of others than his own; his soul, calm, pious, and compassionate, sympathizes with all around him; his jailors are exhorted and instructed by him. He thinks with tenderness of his disciples, of the faithful believers of his church, of his friends; the sight of his benefactors draws tears from his eyes, and he writes to them in these touching terms, “Generous Seigniors, my comforters and faithful defenders of the truth, you whom God has sent me as my angels, I cannot fully express how much I am grateful for so much constancy, and for all the charitable kindness you have shewn to me, a weak sinner, but servant in hope of Jesus Christ.”[8]

His poverty being great, he regrets not being able to remunerate his friends who have assisted him with money. He bequeaths them all he possesses, which is but little; for the surplus of his debts he addresses an appeal, with a confidence altogether Christian, to all who are rich, and conjures them to pay for him those who are poor. He promises them, in exchange for the worldly riches which they advance to him, spiritual and imperishable wealth.[9] Every word that falls from his lips or his pen affords signs of that virtue so well defined by the apostle; of that charity, so mild, patient, and benevolent, to which nothing is indifferent, because in everything it finds an opportunity of exercising itself usefully, and fulfilling a duty. At the approach of death, he feels his ardent zeal redoubled for the salvation of his brethren and dear disciples, and includes in the same solicitude all those who have listened to his preaching; and in his last exhortations no one is excepted. When on the point of appearing before the King of Heaven, all earthly distinctions vanish before his eyes; and the soul of the obscure workman is to him as precious as that of the monarch. His own soul presents an unalterable calm amidst the most cruel pains, and sometimes unbends to a sweet and tranquil gaiety. Though a prey to so many outrages, he utters neither threat nor murmur; he pardons his enemies; he blesses and adores the hand of God which tries him, and sees in these rigours only marks of his love.

Shortly before his death he writes to his friends thus:—“When we shall meet hereafter in a happy eternity, you will know with what clemency the Lord deigns to assist me in my trials.”[10]

Such does John Huss appear in the edifying Letters of which we here present the translation; and it is impossible to peruse them without repeating, with Luther,—“If this man was not a generous and intrepid martyr and confessor of Christ, certainly it will be difficult for any man to be saved.”[11]

We have penetrated in every direction into this mind so eminently Christian; we have shewn, in all its aspects this soul so marked with candour and so powerful; and it now remains to us to assign to John Huss his place among the men who have agitated the world, and to determine the work which is personal to him, what, in fact, he has left behind him that is durable. To succeed in such an endeavour, we must take into account a prejudice which still prevailed at that period. False notions had for centuries been in circulation, and had taken root in Christendom, relative to the authority of individual convictions, judgment, and conscience. It was denied that man, sustained by Divine grace, could find in himself any assistance; it was believed to be a meritorious act of Christian virtue to seek for no direction in one’s own internal feeling, and to trample reason under foot; an opinion was adopted, not because in itself it had been found conformable to the Scriptures or to truth, but because it was considered to agree with the decisions of some great doctor, pope, or council, or because it was found in Augustin, Origen, or Jerome. Tradition alone was listened to; and it was altogether forgotten that the first Christians, who had sprung from the Jews and Gentiles, were accustomed to consult their conscience before all, in face of the altars of Paganism, or of the temple still standing at Jerusalem, and that they took for their only guide this secret and inflexible monitor. A few eloquent men—a few great minds—had, it is true, consulted their individual opinions, rather than yield to clerical and traditional authority. Abelard and Berenger, in France, had given proof of boldness and independence in proclaiming their doctrines; but they grew timid when it was necessary to defend them; their voices died away, and their heads were bowed low, before the menaces of popes and councils. In Italy, Armand de Bresse had ventured openly to resist the pontifical power; but the revolution, of which he gave the signal, was a civil rather than a religious one. Numerous sects and whole populations had, in different countries, emancipated themselves from the yoke, by depending on that irresistible force which the sympathy of the masses and the association with a whole nation creates, in order to think, believe, and suffer. England, in fine, had witnessed a powerful mind,—that of Wycliffe, nourished by the Scriptures,—bring to light a body of doctrine, from which, at a later period, sprang the code of the Reformation;[12] but Wycliffe escaped alive the solemn sentence of an œcumenical council;[13] and many doubt whether he could have passed triumphantly through that formidable ordeal.

It was reserved for the little town of Constance to afford a spectacle which the world had not witnessed for ages. There, one man, weakened by sickness and long imprisonment, isolated from a few friends dispersed and trembling, resisted, strong in the gospel and in his conscience, all that external authority could display to intimidate and subjugate souls. He yields not before the efforts of all the spiritual and temporal powers united. John Huss, lastly, by his example, still more than by his doctrines, reopened to the Christian world a path that had been long closed; and, if it is permitted to compare sacred things with profane, effected in the sphere of religion and morality what, at a later period, Columbus brought to pass in the external and physical world; he laid open a new empire, or, to speak more correctly, he discovered a domain which had been forgotten for ages—that of the Conscience in matters of faith. Inquiry was a field interdicted to all. Huss entered on it anew, in the midst of hostile clamours, and re-opened it amidst the noise of the thunder and the tempest. He fell in his attempt; but it was important to prove that the conscience of the Christian was stronger than all the powers of the earth; for that end one of those sublime sacrifices which terminate in death was requisite. John Huss, therefore, must die; and in his death consisted his victory.

It was the firmness of his character which gave him influence over the people, like most of those whose passage through the world has left the most durable impression. He was great, especially by the heart; and although he was, by the qualities of his mind, one of the most distinguished men of his age, yet his greatness was rather moral than intellectual. He established no new system, nor attached his name to any religious creed; and his glory is, in consequence, the purer. Not being the author of his doctrines, he had no personal interest in their triumph; and the love of the truth did not, in his heart, confound itself with vanity. He was not able to obtain external liberty for religious worship; but he did more; for by his faith, by his courage before a tribunal the most elevated in the opinions of men; by the vast renown of his virtues, condemnation, and martyrdom, he caused a part of Europe to understand the sacred right of that freedom of conscience which, when properly employed, constitutes the Christian equally on the throne as in chains. John Huss, in a word, greatly contributed to bring back Christianity to its primitive character, viz., that of being the religion of the heart, and to restore its real spirit—a spirit of life, of progress, and of liberty. If Religion be not this; if it be the monopoly of a college of priests, or the privilege of a sect, it becomes immediately exclusive, intolerant, and oppressive. The history of antiquity, as well as of modern times, teaches us that men who constitute themselves as infallible interpreters of the Divinity, make their gods after their own likeness. The Creator of the world would soon be no longer in their mouths a compassionate Father, who gives to all his children on earth an equal right of approaching him in adoration and prayer, and who presents his word to all minds, like his Son, to the regards of every creature; but a jealous master, ever ready to punish and strike at the will of his interpreters, at the cry of those who call themselves the representatives of his power. Religion would no longer be that celestial and internal bond which attracts the soul to God by love; it would become the yoke which masters externally by constraint—a dreadful instrument of punishment to the souls which it abases, by placing them under restraint, and more destructive, if possible, to men’s minds than to their bodies. It is on this account that the generous Christians of all Churches who have heroically resisted the oppressors of the conscience, are justly entitled to the imperishable admiration and gratitude of all who adore in spirit and in truth. Among these no man was ever more remarkable than John Huss; for no other ever did more to restore to the Conscience, in the heart of man, that throne which it ought never to have abdicated.

  1. The Reformers before the Reformation. Fifteenth Century. John Huss and the Council of Constance. 2 vols.
  2. Consult, in particular, Letter xl. of the Second Series.
  3. First Series, Letter iii.
  4. Second Series, Letter xlviii.
  5. Ibid., Letter xxxiii.
  6. Second Series, Letter xi.
  7. Ibid. Letter xviii.
  8. Second Series, Letter xviii.
  9. Second Series, Letter xxv.
  10. Second Series, Letter xxx.
  11. Preface of Luther, page 12.
  12. See The Reformers before the Reformation, Hist. Introduct., section v.
  13. Wycliffe died thirty-five years before the Council of Constance condemned his memory and works.