John Huss was born at Hussenitz, a village in Bohemia, about the year
1380. His parents gave him the best education their circumstances would
admit; and having acquired a tolerable knowledge of the classics at a
private school, he was removed to the university of Prague, where he
soon gave strong proofs of his mental powers, and was remarkable for his
diligence and application to study.
In 1398, Huss commenced bachelor of divinity, and was after successively
chosen pastor of the church of Bethlehem, in Prague, and dean and rector
of the university. In these stations he discharged his duties with great
fidelity; and became, at length, so conspicuous for his preaching, which
was in conformity with the doctrines of Wickliffe, that it was not
likely he could long escape the notice of the pope and his adherents,
against whom he inveighed with no small degree of asperity.
The English reformist Wickliffe, had so kindled the light of
reformation, that it began to illumine the darkest corners of popery and
ignorance. His doctrines spread into Bohemia, and were well received by
great numbers of people, but by none so particularly as John Huss, and
his zealous friend and fellow-martyr, Jerom of Prague.
The archbishop of Prague, finding the reformists daily increasing,
issued a decree to suppress the farther spreading of Wickliffe's
writings: but this had an effect quite different to what he expected,
for it stimulated the friends of those doctrines to greater zeal, and
almost the whole university united to propagate them.
Being strongly attached to the doctrines of Wickliffe, Huss opposed the
decree of the archbishop, who, however, at length, obtained a bull from
the pope, giving him commission to prevent the publishing of Wickliffe's
doctrines in his province. By virtue of this bull, the archbishop
condemned the writings of Wickliffe: he also proceeded against four
doctors, who had not delivered up the copies of that divine, and
prohibited them, notwithstanding their privileges, to preach to any
congregation. Dr. Huss, with some other members of the university,
protested against these proceedings, and entered an appeal from the
sentence of the archbishop.
The affair being made known to the pope, he granted a commission to
cardinal Colonna, to cite John Huss to appear personally at the court of
Rome, to answer the accusations laid against him, of preaching both
errors and heresies. Dr. Huss desired to be excused from a personal
appearance, and was so greatly favoured in Bohemia, that king
Winceslaus, the queen, the nobility, and the university, desired the
pope to dispense with such an appearance; as also that he would not
suffer the kingdom of Bohemia to lie under the accusation of heresy, but
permit them to preach the gospel with freedom in their places of
Three proctors appeared for Dr. Huss before cardinal Colonna. They
endeavoured to excuse his absence, and said, they were ready to answer
in his behalf. But, the cardinal declared Huss contumacious, and
excommunicated him accordingly. The proctors appealed to the pope, and
appointed four cardinals to examine the process: these commissioners
confirmed the former sentence, and extended the excommunication not only
to Huss but to all his friends and followers.
From this unjust sentence Huss appealed to a future council, but without
success; and, notwithstanding so severe a decree, and an expulsion in
consequence from his church in Prague, he retired to Hussenitz, his
native place, where he continued to promulgate his new doctrine, both
from the pulpit and with the pen.
The letters which he wrote at this time were very numerous; and he
compiled a treatise in which he maintained, that reading the book of
protestants could not be absolutely forbidden. He wrote in defence of
Wickliffe's book on the Trinity; and boldly declared against the vices
of the pope, the cardinals, and clergy, of those corrupt times. He wrote
also many other books, all of which were penned with a strength of
argument that greatly facilitated the spreading of his doctrines.
In the month of November, 1414, a general council was assembled at
Constance, in Germany, in order, as was pretended, for the sole purpose
of determining a dispute then pending between three persons who
contended for the papacy; but the real motive was, to crush the progress
of the reformation.
John Huss was summoned to appear at this council; and, to encourage him,
the emperor sent him a safe-conduct: the civilities, and even reverence,
which Huss met with on his journey, were beyond imagination. The
streets, and, sometimes the very roads, were lined with people, whom
respect, rather than curiosity, had brought together.
He was ushered into the town with great acclamations and it may be said,
that he passed through Germany in a kind of triumph. He could not help
expressing his surprise at the treatment he received: "I thought (said
he) I had been an outcast. I now see my worst friends are in Bohemia."
As soon as Huss arrived at Constance, he immediately took lodgings in a
remote part of the city. A short time after his arrival, came one
Stephen Paletz, who was employed by the clergy at Prague to manage the
intended prosecution against him. Paletz was afterward joined by Michael
de Cassis, on the part of the court of Rome. These two declared
themselves his accusers, and drew up a set of articles against him,
which they presented to the pope and the prelates of the council.
When it was known that he was in the city, he was immediately arrested,
and committed prisoner to a chamber in the palace. This violation of
common law and justice, was particularly noticed by one of Huss'
friends, who urged the imperial safe-conduct; but the pope replied, he
never granted any safe-conduct, nor was he bound by that of the emperor.
While Huss was in confinement, the council acted the part of
inquisitors. They condemned the doctrines of Wickliffe, and even ordered
his remains to be dug up and burnt to ashes; which orders were strictly
complied with. In the mean time, the nobility of Bohemia and Poland
strongly interceded for Huss; and so far prevailed as to prevent his
being condemned unheard, which had been resolved on by the commissioners
appointed to try him.
When he was brought before the council, the articles exhibited against
him were read: they were upwards of forty in number, and chiefly
extracted from his writings.
After his examination, he was taken from the court, and a resolution was
formed by the council to burn him as a heretic if he would not retract.
He was then committed to a filthy prison, where, in the daytime, he was
so laden with fetters on his legs, that he could hardly move, and every
night he was fastened by his hand to a ring against the walls of the
After continuing some days in this situation, many noblemen of Bohemia
interceded in his behalf. They drew up a petition for his release, which
was presented to the council by several of the most distinguished nobles
of Bohemia; a few days after the petition was presented, four bishops
and two lords were sent by the emperor to the prison, in order to
prevail on Huss to make a recantation. But he called God to witness,
with tears in his eyes, that he was not conscious of having preached or
written, against the truth of God, or the faith of his orthodox church.
On the 4th of July, Dr. Huss was brought for the last time before the
council. After a long examination he was desired to abjure, which he
refused without the least hesitation. The bishop of Lodi then preached a
sanguinary sermon, concerning the destruction of heretics, the prologue
to his intended punishment. After the close of the sermon, his fate was
determined, his vindication was disregarded, and judgment pronounced.
Huss heard this sentence without the least emotion. At the close of it
he knelt down, with his eyes lifted towards heaven, and with all the
magnanimity of a primitive martyr, thus exclaimed: "May thy infinite
mercy, O my God! pardon this injustice of mine enemies. Thou knowest the
injustice of my accusations; how deformed with crimes I have been
represented; how I have been oppressed with worthless witnesses, and a
false condemnation; yet, O my God! let that mercy of thine, which no
tongue can express, prevail with thee not to avenge my wrongs."
These excellent sentences were esteemed as so many expressions of
treason, and tended to inflame his adversaries. Accordingly, the bishops
appointed by the council stripped him of his priestly garments, degraded
him, put a paper mitre on his head, on which was painted devils, with
this inscription, "A ringleader of heretics." Our heroic martyr received
this mock mitre with an air of unconcern, which seemed to give him
dignity rather than disgrace. A serenity, nay, even a joy appeared in
his looks, which indicated that his soul had cut off many stages of a
tedious journey in her way to the realms of everlasting peace.
After the ceremony of degradation was over, the bishops delivered Dr.
Huss to the emperor, who put him into the hands of the duke of Bavaria.
His books were burnt at the gates of the church; and on the 6th of July,
he was led to the suburbs of Constance, to be burnt alive. On his
arrival at the place of execution, he fell on his knees, sung several
portions of the Psalms, looked steadfastly towards heaven, and repeated
these words: "Into thy hands, O Lord! do I commit my spirit: thou hast
redeemed me, O most good and merciful God!"
When the chain was put about him at the stake, he said, with a smiling
countenance, "My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than
this for my sake, and why then should I be ashamed of this rusty one?"
When the fagots were piled up to his very neck, the duke of Bavaria was
so officious as to desire him to abjure. "No, (said Huss;) I never
preached any doctrine of an evil tendency; and what I taught with my
lips I now seal with my blood." He then said to the executioner, "You
are now going to burn a goose, (Huss signifying goose in the Bohemian
language;) but in a century you will have a swan whom you can neither
roast nor boil." If he were prophetic, he must have meant Martin Luther,
who shone about a hundred years after, and who had a swan for his arms.
The flames were now applied to the fagots, when our martyr sung a hymn
with so loud and cheerful a voice, that he was heard through all the
cracklings of the combustibles, and the noise of the multitude. At
length his voice was interrupted by the severity of the flames, which
soon closed his existence.
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