John Hus and the Hussites

Lesson 15:  John Hus and the Hussites

Scope:  By the end of the 14th century, the church had endured the papacy’s 75-year stay in Avignon, followed by almost 40 years of two and sometimes three claimants to the papal office.  Furthermore, the quality of pastoral care was generally poor.  A movement for reform began in the Kingdom of Bohemia; by about 1400, this movement was led by a master at the University of Prague named John Hus.  Building on the contributions of local reformers and making use of the works of an English theologian, John Wyclif, Hus became increasingly critical of the Catholic Church and its structure.  Summoned to the Council of Constance to present his views, he was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.  His followers in Prague broke with the Catholic Church and declared their independence from papal authority, symbolized by the offering of communion wine to laypeople, a practice prohibited by the church at that time.

  1. As we have seen, the 14th century was a difficult time for the Catholic Church.
    1. Catherine of Siena and many others were scandalized by a papacy located in Avignon,
    2. Shortly after Gregory XI’s return to Rome, a dispute occurred over a papal election, beginning what we refer to today as the Great Schism.  This period saw “popes” in both Rome and Avignon and, for a while, a third papal claimant.
  2. The Kingdom of Bohemia, a territory today known as the Czech Republic, and its capital, Prague, were important and sophisticated places.
    1. In the mid-14th century, the king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, had made Prague an important cultural and intellectual center.
    2. He established the first university in the Holy Roman Empire, Charles University, in Prague.
  3. The schism and a more general malaise that had affected Western Christendom certainly existed in Bohemia.
    1. A reform movement began in Prague late in the 14th century.
      1. It was largely a call for moral reform, including for example, the conversion of prostitutes to a reformed life.
      2. Preaching in Czech was a major element of this reform movement.
      3. Reform-minded preachers urged listeners to take communion frequently.
    2. This movement was characterized by a certain “nationalist” element because the Czech majority was, to a great extent, under the thumb of a German minority in Prague.
  4. A master of Charles University, John Hus became the leader of this movement at the beginning of the 15th century.
    1. Hus preached at the newly established Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.
    2. He became acquainted with the writings of John Wyclif, an English theologian (d. 1384) whose work had been condemned as heretical.
      1. Czech students at Oxford may have brought copies of Wyclif’s writings to Prague.
      2. Anne of Bohemia was queen of England at the time.
    3. Hus had been critical of dominant conceptions of the church and the structure of its authority.
      1. Using Wyclif, Hus was able to place the reform movement in Prague in a theological framework.
      2. Hus was preaching and writing at a time when there were three claimants to the papal throne, and his Wyclif-influenced work was increasingly critical not just of the claimants but of the claims made for the papal office.
      3. Hus did not accept Wyclif’s ideas uncritically, rejecting for example, Wyclif’s objections to the doctrine of transubstantiation.
      4. In 1410, one of the papal claimants, Alexander V, excommunicated Hus.
  5. Hus appeared before the Council of Constance in 1414.
    1. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund pressured the papal claimant he was supporting to call a general council to end the Great Schism.
    2. This council met in 1414 in the city of Constance.
    3. Shortly after it began, John XXIII, the “pope” who had called the council, tried to flee and was captured.
    4. The council asserted that in matters of faith, morals, and schism it was superior to a pope, although this claim was new and somewhat audacious.
    5. While these events were unfolding, Hus arrived in Constance to defend his views, having been granted safe conduct from Sigismund.
    6. Hus was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.
      1. He was condemned as a Wycliffite, although he rejected those teachings of Wyclif that many at the council most vehemently objected to.
      2. Sigismund said that safe conduct did not apply to a condemned heretic.
      3. Within a few months, a second Bohemian reformer, Jerome of Prague, was also executed at Constance.
  6. In Prague, followers of Hus rejected the council’s verdict.
    1. Perhaps while Hus was still alive, reform priests in Bohemia began to distribute both the consecrated bread and the wine to laity, the practice of utraquism (meaning under both species), in defiance of a decree of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.
    2. The situation became much worse when, after the death of Wenceslas IV, Sigismund was elected king of Bohemia.
  7. By 1420, Bohemia was in rebellion against the Roman Church.
    1. In addition to those led by university masters and Prague preachers, a wide variety of other reform movements sprang up throughout Bohemia.
    2. On several occasions in the 1420’s, the church launched crusades against the Hussites, but all were miserable and ignominious.
    3. Although the Hussites were successful in defending their homeland and their religious practices, various factions experienced serious discord.
  8. In 1433, a group of Hussite theologians was invited to the Council of Basel to defend the basic tenets of their beliefs.
    1. They were allowed to speak openly in the council.
    2. They demanded that certain moral standards be observed in Basel before they agreed to come.
    3. The council agreed to judge the arguments of the Hussites by God’s law and the practice of Christ, the apostles, and the primitive church.
    4. After the Hussites appearance at the council, an agreement was reached that allowed Prague to have a utraquist bishop.
    5. The church never acted on the agreement, largely because the Hussite divisions had led to a civil war between Roman-leaning and radical Hussites.
  9. Many Christians in Bohemia continued to operate independently of the Roman Church and eventually sided with the 16th century reform in Germany.
    1. It was only after a military defeat of Bohemia in 1619 that the kingdom was forcibly returned to the Catholic fold.
    2. The denomination known as the Moravian Brethren is a direct descendant of the Hussite movement.

Suggested Reading: 


  1. Matthew Spinka:  John Hus: A Biography

Next Week’s Lesson:  Thomas More