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Six hundred one years ago – July 6, 1415 – in the German city of Constance, a Roman Catholic council declared Jan Hus, the Czech church reformer, to be a heretic. He was turned over to secular authorities to be burned at the stake. Because he was accused, among other things, of being a disciple of the English reformer John Wycliffe, is was oddly fitting that when Hus was burned some of the kindling for the fire included the writings of Wycliffe.
Last summer, my wife and I visited Prague, the Czech capital, where there was a two-day celebration of Hus. There were concerts, speeches, panel discussions and a theater production. Recently the Czech people voted Hus to have been the most important person in Czech history. That is extraordinary, because in today’s Czech Republic only 5 percent of people identify at Protestant. About 40 percent identify as Catholic and about 40 percent as atheist. As to the latter, perhaps after two generations of Communist rule, when churchgoing was actively discouraged, many Czechs don’t think religion to be a meaningful part of life. So it is all the more remarkable that Hus – a founding father of Protestantism in central Europe – is regarded as the leading man in Czech history.
Recently the Czech people voted Hus to have been the most important person in Czech history.
What shall we make of Jan Hus six hundred years after his death? Simply put, we who are heirs of the Protestant movement, for whom religious liberty is taken for granted, should pause from time to time to remember and give thanks for those who stood – with courage and at great personal cost – for the simple truth that the main authority in faith and life lies not in the institutional church but in the Bible, the Word of God. Just before Hus’ death, in 1415, he predicted that another reformer, perhaps a hundred years hence, would arise to champion the ideas he had advocated. In fact, it was just about a century later that Luther’s 95 Theses were posted and the Reformation began. Indeed, at the Diet of Worms, when Luther was condemned, the church authorities accused him of agreeing with the heresies of Hus. Luther replied that he had not read Hus carefully. Later Luther came back and said he had now re-read Hus and that he was indeed a Hussite!
A CZECH EXPRESSION OF FAITH
When we think of Luther and Calvin, the essential Protestant leaders, we are aware that religious reform takes place in specific political and social contexts. There is no way to separate the various strands of human experience to privilege religion over other themes such as nation, language and culture. As we can attest here in the United States, religious and political freedom run in parallel tracks; we cannot imagine free churches in a political climate in which the nation established a particular denomination by law.
In the Reformation we note the importance of language and nationality. In Luther’s case it was vital that, in 1522, he translated the New Testament into German. Moreover it was a kind of German – vigorous and direct – that appealed to all Germans. He helped create an accessible German literature that, in turn, contributed to German nationalism.
Hus played a similar role – remarkably, a century before Luther. When the new ideas from Wycliffe began to filter into Prague University, Hus was a student. He soon joined other young Czechs in being a champion of Wycliffe’s proto-Protestant ideas. This was part of the awakening Hus felt in his call to the clergy. He was ordained a priest in 1400, and then had a meteoric career rise – soon becoming dean of the philosophy faculty and later rector of the University.
In 1402, his career went public, and he became the state preacher in Bethlehem Chapel in central Prague. Even today, when we visit the chapel, we sense the power of the incipiently Protestant ideas preached there (celebrated now in a small museum on the second floor). The chapel itself is a large, if unadorned, space that was clearly intended for preaching and not for the regular Catholic liturgical worship. On certain occasions when Hus preached, it was estimated that about 3,000 people were in the chapel – by then the largest indoor gathering place in Prague.
In his chapel sermons, Hus brought discussion to the public of important ideas that heretofore had been discussed only in the university. Also, Hus preached in Czech, not Latin, and in a vernacular that ordinary people could understand. He thus anticipated Luther in solidifying the acceptance of Protestant ideas while asserting Czech culture and nationalism.
“A GIANT SPIRITUAL ENTITY”
Today when visiting Prague, one finds a statue of Hus dominating the Old Town Square in the city center. This immense statue was paid for by public subscription in 1915, on the 500th anniversary of Hus’ death. The artist, Ladislav Saloun, created a Hus in a scale larger than life. For Saloun, Hus was much more than a religious leader; he wanted viewers of the statue to see Hus as the essential Czech person in all of history. A plaque behind says that when Saloun he had to overcome the wishes of many Czech elders who wanted Hus to be in tune with historical reality. But the sculptor wanted Hus to transcend reality, to be, as he said, “a giant spiritual entity.”
Over the years, Hus and this magnificent statue have become the central symbol of protest against the repressive regimes that oppressed the Czech people, whether those regimes were centered in Vienna or Moscow. For example, during the Communist near-half-century of rule, Hus’ statue in the square was the gathering place for dissident elements. It was also the place to be when Russian dominance ended and Vaclav Havel came to the fore. Thus the dissidents joined the Czech 15th-century religious fighters carved into the base of the statue as witnesses to the power of Hus’ legacy.
As noted above, few Czechs today agree with the religious ideas of their great man, whom they see in cultural terms. But when visitors such as my wife and I see the statue and hear the tributes, we bring our own religious sensibilities to the scene. For us, it was thrilling to be in the presence of Jan Hus, who, a century before the Reformation got underway, stood for the principles that all Protestants over the past half-millennium hold dear: the worth of ordinary believers and the power of the Bible to set them free.
Ronald A. Wells taught history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and now directs the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College in Tennessee. He is the author of History Through the Eyes of Faith and History and the Christian Historian.
Photo: Øyvind Holmstad via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.