Many in the evangelical church today have little knowledge, appreciation, or understanding in the realm of church history. The average church-going person’s witness to church history goes something like this, “The apostles were great! The early church fathers were fairly decent. The middle ages were a terrible period of time when the church had no one championing the truths of Scripture, that’s why they were called the ‘dark ages’. The Reformation is when Martin Luther combatted the heresy of the Roman Catholic Church and exclaimed to all professing believers that Scripture alone should have the authoritative word for the church, I think a couple other guys are called ‘reformers’ too. And now I attend a church down the road that holds to some of these truths that were rediscovered in the Reformation.” If this is your version of church history, then you are not alone!
Although you are not alone, you are unfortunately missing out on many captivating stories that give witness to Christ’s work in and through His church throughout all of history. Church history offers fascinating evidence of Jesus’ faithfulness to His bride. Jesus emphatically stated that He would build His church; therefore, He has been committed, throughout the entirety of church history, to raise up mighty men who hold firmly to the revealed Word of God and who unswervingly preach the grand truth that men are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. As we stand in this present hour and look over the past two-thousand years we can identify many godly saints, in every century, who have upheld the faith in the midst of drastic circumstances. The fact that God enables these believers, by the power of His Spirit, to stare in the face of death and fervently say, ‘I must obey God rather than men’ is one of the many reasons why church history is so mesmerizing. Space and time will not allow me to highlight the whole host of these saints; but lets briefly identify one pre-reformer who God equipped and commissioned to stand firm in the faith despite grave opposition. This man is no other than John Huss.
John was born in Husinec, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) between 1369 and 1372; he inherited the name “Huss,” which means, “goose,” from this city. He grew up in a peasant home and received a modest education. Eventually, the Goose traveled north in Bohemia and settled in the city of Prague where he attended the University of Prague in 1390.
During Huss’ studies in Prague he was first introduced to the English pre- reformer John Wycliffe as Huss was employed to hand copy Wycliffe’s writings. Initially, Huss was skeptical about the works of Wycliffe, but later, as he would observe the misdirection and chaos of the pope and the Roman church, the works of Wycliffe would have a profound influence on him. John Huss progressed through the University of Prague earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in arts. In 1396 he began teaching philosophy and by 1398 he was promoted to professor of theology at the University of Prague. Huss continued to flourish at Prague and in 1401 he was named dean of the theology department. It was close to this time that Huss became a priest seemingly for the accolades of men. Although the specific details are not clear at some point in these years Huss was dramatically converted to Christ and no doubt his conversion would change his course.
After being made new by the grace of God, Huss began familiarizing himself with Wycliffe’s works again. From studying the Bible and reading Wycliffe, Huss became convinced that Scripture was the sole authority of the church; he concluded that the papacy was illegitimate and he was certain that the Church was made up of true believers and not merely those who were in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1402 Huss was named rector and preacher of Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, which was the city’s central church.
The chapel had the ability to seat thousands, but due to the popularity of Huss’ preaching crowds larger than the chapel could sustain soon gathered. Huss preached fiery sermons in the common language of the people rather than in Latin as was customary in the Roman Catholic Church. Huss was a fearless preacher who was a minister of the true gospel and a formidable opponent of the extra-biblical doctrine proclaimed from Rome; it is said that his sermons were thoroughly biblical and immensely vehement. Through the preaching and teaching ministry of John Huss at Bethlehem Chapel and at the University of Prague reform began to take place in the city, but in 1408 Archbishop Zajic of Prague, who once supported Wycliffe’s beliefs, was persuaded to reinstate the doctrines of Rome.
In 1409 Archbishop Zajic received a decree from Pope Alexander (known as a papal bull) that banned preaching in private chapels. This decree included Bethlehem Chapel, but John Huss paid no attention to this restriction and he continued to expound the Word of God. Because of his defiance Zajic excommunicated Huss and ordered that Wycliffe’s writing be burned in Prague. Despite Zajic’s actions, Huss was widely supported in Prague, which enabled him to continue preaching at Bethlehem Chapel. As the conflict escalated Huss was ordered to appear in Rome before the pope but unsurprisingly he rejected the summons to appear, which prompted his second excommunication.
Eventually, Pope John XXIII, Alexander’s successor, strongly promoted the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. This promotion inflamed Huss and he began openly and publicly condemning indulgences as heretical and as a horrendous corruption of the true gospel. Huss’ public protest resulted in his third excommunication. By 1412 public demonstrations broke out in Prague that supported Huss and the Reformed truths that he had been trumpeting; not only did the community of Prague support Huss but they threatened violence against the papacy. The continued hostility eventually led to Huss being excommunicated a fourth time. It was at this point that Huss voluntarily went into exile in Southern Bohemia where he remained between 1413 and 1414 writing some of his finest works.
In the fall of 1414 Pope John XXIII called the Council of Constance, which largely dealt with the reform and “heresy” that was rising in Bohemia. He was summoned to attend the council and the government assured him of his safety. Huss’ associates were convinced that the assurance of safety was nothing more than a lure, which was cast to entice him to come and be captured by those who lie in wait; therefore, they warned him not to go. Nonetheless, Huss accepted the invitation to the council hoping to persuasively present his views. Huss arrived on November 3, 1414 and was immediately arrested for heresy. Huss was imprisoned for eight months and his health suffered severely due to the horrific conditions of the prison. A visit from a physician and relocation is believed to have extended his life.
In July of 1415 Hus was placed on trial for “Wycliffism.” He was told to condemn the works of Wycliffe and to renounce his own teachings, to which he replied that he would do so when they were proven to be contrary to Scripture. On July 6, 1415, Huss was condemned as a heretic. He was stripped of his priestly garments, his head was shaved, a hat with images of demons and the word “heretic” was placed on his head, and the bishops committed his soul to the Devil, to which he replied, “And I commit myself to my most gracious Lord Jesus.” As Huss looked death squarely in the eye he told his executioners, “Today, you are burning a goose (Huss); however, a hundred years from now, you will be able to hear a swan sing; you will not burn it, you will have to listen to him.” Martin Luther would see himself fulfilling this prediction when he took his stand for the same truths a century later. As Huss was led to the stake to be burned, he was ordered again to recant or die. He did not recant, but rather stated, “I am ready to die today.” That afternoon Huss became a martyr as he was burned at the stake for heralding the truth of God’s word across the land of Bohemia. Although Huss was put to death the truths he stood for live on today.
John Huss is one of many people who give testimony to the work, power, and faithfulness of Christ throughout the church’s history. Our response to stories such as these should never conjure the exaltation of men, but rather we should be in awe of our great God; we should be thankful that he uses earthly vessels for the expansion of His kingdom and for the cause of His glory. Church history serves as an encouragement for the contemporary church and in the case of John Huss, we can certainly see that a dead goose does indeed still honk. Soli Deo Gloria!