The letters of John Hus/Introduction

INTRODUCTION

The Letters of Hus have long been recognised by the best judges as one of the world’s spiritual treasures. The discovery of Hus, if we may so express it, forms more than once a landmark in the spiritual development of Luther.

‘When I was a tyro at Erfurt,’ we read, ‘I found in the library of the convent a volume of The Sermons of John Hus. When I read the title I had a great curiosity to know what doctrines that heresiarch had propagated, since a volume like this in a public library had been saved from the fire. On reading I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill. But as the very name of Hus was held in so great abomination that I imagined the sky would fall and the sun be darkened if I made honourable mention of him, I shut the book and went away with no little indignation. This, however, was my comfort, that perhaps Hus had written these things before he fell into heresy. For as yet I knew not what was done at the Council of Constance’ (Mon. Hus. vol. i. Preface).

Some years later, in February 1529, after pondering the matter over with Melancthon, Luther was driven to write to Spalatin: ‘I have hitherto taught and held all the opinions of Hus without knowing it. With a like unconsciousness has Staupitz taught them. We are all of us Hussites without knowing it. I do not know what to think for amazement.’ In this letter Luther was probably referring to his reading of the controversial works of Hus, especially his De Ecclesia. Shortly afterwards, however, he came across a copy of the Letters. At once he perceived their value, not merely in their bearing on the expected Council convoked for Mantua, which subsequently met at Trent in 1542, but for the larger outlook of spiritual life. He took immediate steps for bringing them before the German public. In 1536 and 1537 no less than three different editions in Latin and three editions in German, each of them with a preface by Luther, issued from the presses of Wittenberg and Leipzig. The most important of these editions is that entitled Epistolæ Quædam Piissimæ et Eruditissimæ, printed at Wittenberg by John Lufft in 1537, an edition which now forms the sole extant source of many of the letters of Hus. In his preface to this volume Luther is not backward in his praises of the Letters. ‘Observe,’ he writes, ‘how firmly Hus clung in his writings and words to the doctrines of Christ; with what courage he struggled against the agonies of death; with what patience and humility he suffered every indignity, and with what greatness of soul he at last confronted a cruel death in defence of the truth; doing all these things alone before an imposing assembly of the great ones of the earth, like a lamb in the midst of lions and wolves. If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, no person under the sun can be looked on as a true Christian. By what fruits then shall we recognise the truth, if it is not manifest by those with which John Hus was so richly adorned?’

Luther is not alone in his judgment. The Letters of Hus, in the verdict of Bishop Creighton, “give us a touching picture of simple, earnest piety rooted on a deep consciousness of God’s abiding presence. These letters show us neither a fanatic nor a passionate party leader, but a man of childlike spirit, whose one desire was to discharge faithfully his pastoral duties, and to do all things as in the sight of God and not of man.”[1] Other testimonies to the value of this series of letters could easily be adduced, but would add nothing to the decision of the great Reformer and the modern Historian.

We may safely assert that in the years to come The Letters of Hus will form the only part of his voluminous writings that will be read even by students. For the works of Hus, as Loserth has shown, are for the most part mere copies of Wyclif, oftentimes whole sections of the great Englishman’s writings transferred bodily, without alteration or acknowledgment. The very titles are not original; their parade of learning, which deceived Luther, is completely borrowed, when not from Wyclif, from Gratian and other recognised mediæval handbooks. The Englishman Stokes was right when at Constance he bluntly asked: ‘Why do you glory in these writings, falsely labelling them your own, since after all they belong not to you but Wyclif, in whose steps you are following?’ To the same end was the taunt of his former friend, Andrew Brod: ‘Was Wyclif crucified for us? were we baptised in his name?’

The case is otherwise with Hus’s Letters, eighty-two[2] of which have escaped the ravages of Time. For if the controversial works of Hus have contributed little to the intellectual heritage of mankind, his Letters have enriched for ever our moral outlook. The preservation of these letters we owe for the most part to the care of Peter Mladenowic, the secretary of John of Chlum. They form a priceless memorial of one of the truest hearted of the sons of God. His later correspondence especially, his letters from exile and prison, show John Hus to be one of the chosen few who exalt humanity. Though undoubtedly the last letters are the most interesting, inasmuch as in them the personal note reaches its highest, yet in the whole series there is nothing that is unworthy, little that is tedious. Bishop Creighton is correct in his judgment: “Everything Hus writes is the result of his own soul’s experience, is penetrated with a deep moral earnestness, illuminated with a boldness and a self-forgetfulness that breathes the spirit of the cry, ‘Let God be true and every man a liar.’” In the belief that a wider acquaintance with The Letters of Hus will lead to a general endorsement of this verdict, we have translated into English these priceless human documents.

  1. Creighton, Papacy, ii. 22 . Creighton refers especially to the Letters in Part III., which some may think the least interesting of all.
  2. Of these, sixty-six—one of which, however, is spurious—are to be found In the Monumenta, and were translated by Bonnechose and Mackenzie; nine were first printed by Höfler; the rest were discovered and edited at different times by Pez, Erben, and Palackẏ.