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John Huss, a reformer before the Reformation, and the martyr of Constance, was born about the year 1373. His birthplace was Hussinetz, a village of Bohemia. His parentage was humble, and his early toils and privations formed the school in which he was trained for future hardships and sufferings. He studied at the university of Prague; and some of his teachers were men somewhat in advance of their age. In the year 1396 Huss received his master's degree, and began to lecture in his university in 1398. In 1400 he was appointed confessor to the Queen of Bohemia; and in 1401 he became president of the philosophical faculty of Prague. The corruptions of his day, especially among the Romish priesthood, early suggested deep thoughts to this ardent man, and he found a few who were like-minded with himself among those who resided at Prague. Some of these entered into an arrangement for spreading truth as purely as it was then known; Huss was chosen their preacher, and there, in a place appropriately called "Bethlehem," or the House of Bread, he "refreshed the common people with the bread of holy preaching." The impression which he produced was profound. A fervent love, a holy life, glowing appeals, and a gentle manner, all helped to make him a master in grace, but soon brought him into collision with dark, mediaeval minds.
Execution of Huss.
At one stage of these life and death struggles, Huss had to do battle against a whole theological faculty; and that and similar contests trained him to a boldness and decision which was constantly growing. But he had now to separate, for the truth's sake, from friends whom he had prized through life. His pathway, indeed, is gradually becoming more narrow, as well as more rough--he is one of those who must often walk alone.
Indulgences were now attacked by him in public disputations. About this period some of his friends were condemned to death because they objected to indulgences, and Huss took up their cause. He hastened to the Senate House, and pleaded for the three condemned men. He made their danger his own, and declared that he, the teacher, not they, the disciples, should die. In spite of his efforts, and in violation of promises given that no blood should be shed, his three friends were hurried to execution; and what could be the result of that step, but a more intense antagonism, a more resolute decision? On a subsequent occasion, accordingly, Huss appeared before the king and his council, to defend what he reckoned the right. He offered, with characteristic ardor, to be bound to die at the stake if he did not make good his views, provided his eight opponents would do the same. But all other struggles were soon merged in the great conflict with Rome itself. The Pope had determined to put down Huss, and he was excommunicated with the most terrible of papal forms. If he did not submit in twenty days, the ban was to be proclaimed against him in all churches; all who harbored him were to be laid under an interdict, and Huss himself was to be burned according to law.
The King of Bohemia had urged Huss to leave Prague for a time, in the hope that peace might thus be restored. He complied, and, like Luther in the Wartburg, in the Castle of Kozi-hradek wrote some of his most important works. Never was more determined courage displayed by any man in similar circumstances than by Huss in that castle.
From his hiding-place Huss often went abroad and preached to the crowds who flocked to hear him; but the Council of Constance is now at hand, for we are referring to the year 1414, and he is to proceed thither under a safe-conduct from Sigismund, Emperor of Germany, with the assurance that if he could not submit to the decision of the Council, the emperor would send him back unharmed to Bohemia. This was an opportunity for which Huss had longed. He would now, he thought, deliver his message and uphold the truth before assembled potentates, and proceeded to Prague to prepare for the council. He there publicly challenged all his opponents to convict him of error if they could, and proved that he was valiant for the truth as long as he was free.
Huss set out for Constance on October 11, 1414, with two faithful knights to protect him by the way. Even in Germany he was cordially welcomed by many. He courted opportunities of making known his views, and at Nuremberg, in particular, he enjoyed such an opportunity to the full. He reached Constance on November 3d, where his enemies were busily employed, and he was speedily posted as a vile heretic; indeed, it was soon made plain that if he was a bold, intrepid man, he needed to be so. Officials from the Pope, who was then at Constance, desired him, as an interdicted priest, to abstain from the Church services; but he declined to comply. Had he chosen even to equivocate, he might have escaped; but Huss was not the man to trim. Such a course was formally proposed to him; but though he was far from being buoyed up by false hopes, he resolutely and without hesitation declined all underhand suggestions: he would uphold the truth, but that was all that he would do. "I fear nothing," he said; "for I hope that, after a great conflict, will ensue a great victory, and after the victory a still greater reward to me, and a still greater discomfiture to my enemies."
Huss was not kept long in suspense. He sought various opportunities of proclaiming his views: but these were all denied him, and moreover, on November 28th, he was made a close prisoner. He was removed in chains to the castle of Gottleben. By night and day he was kept chained there, and all was done that was likely to bow down, or to break, the undaunted man. But though one form of disease after another assailed him, no wavering thought was harbored, no wavering word escaped; all his sorrows only led him deeper and deeper into the truth which he prized so well, and, in the face of crowding dangers, his resolution actually became more and more fixed and heroic.
The cruel mockery of justice at Constance was carried on by tribunal after tribunal; but the victim was steadfast and unmovable. Now, gleams of hope broke forth for him and his friends, and then darkness gathered round them once more; but Huss found one thing unchanging, the word of his God--and when the council met in the Franciscan convent, which had become the martyr's prison, formally to try his case, they cruelly attempted to prejudge the matter without hearing him at all. But the emperor interfered, and Huss appeared before them, ready to retract whatever was contrary to Scripture: but whenever he attempted to plead, a savage outcry arose around, till the voice of truth was drowned in the din. On June 7th, he stood forth the second time before the council; but it was a wrangle rather than a solemn trial, for Huss would not abate one jot of his convictions, except as the Scriptures condemned them.
On June 8th, his third examination took place. Huss was told, at the close, that if he would suppliantly submit and retract opinions which he declared he never held, his judges would be lenient--otherwise, his danger was obvious. He was thus asked to confess his errors, to swear that he would never more preach them, and publicly recant; but he constantly refused such terms, unless he were convicted by the word of God. Even the emperor pleaded with him to yield; the judges also urged him, and professed a desire for his escape; but he was not to be moved, and must therefore hasten back to his cell, an outcast heretic in chains. If he would recant, he would be permitted to live--but little more, for imprisonment for life was to be his lot. But little did those judges know either the man whom they held in their grasp, or the principles and the power which bore him up. He could die, but he could not be anything but a true man. An emperor's safe-conduct was found to be a worthless thing, and "Trust not in princes" was a portion of the word of God which Huss learned thoroughly to understand.
It was with unruffled self-possession that Huss gave himself to martyrdom. As he had never abandoned the Romish Church, he calmly engaged in its functions preparatory to his death. Indeed, some touching scenes were witnessed in his prison--he unshaken--his friends, his very enemies weeping like womanhood beside him. Deputation after deputation visited him--one of them from the emperor himself--and recantation was constantly the burden of their pleading. But Huss would not recant except upon conviction; and on July 6, 1415, he appeared once more before the council, where the emperor was present on his throne. Many of the judges were Huss's bitter personal enemies, for as he had assailed the measureless corruptions of their order, that was an unpardonable sin. Besides, history is careful to tell that bribery was largely employed to make sure of his destruction--and now the last act of the dark tragedy has arrived. No further defence was permitted to Huss, yet he uttered one solemn appeal. Once and again he prayed for his enemies. Being clothed in his priestly robes, he was stripped of them by seven bishops, while he still persisted in holding fast his convictions, except as the truth of God could be shown to condemn them. The mark of his tonsure was next removed, and that with great cruelty. A cap daubed over with the figures of demons was then placed on his head, and thus the heroic martyr of Bohemia was led forth to be burned in the name of religion.
At the place of execution Huss prayed, and often repeated the words, "Into thy hands, Lord, I commit my spirit." When compelled to rise from his knees, he still appealed to the Saviour, and prayed for "a strong and steadfast soul" to endure that shameful death. Even after he was placed at the stake, and had actually been surrounded by fagots, he declared that he willingly wore his chains for Christ, who wore yet heavier bonds. With his last breath he repelled a temptation to recant, and when the fire was kindled he began to sing with a loud voice, "Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy upon me." When he was repeating the words for the third time, his voice failed; he was stifled by the flames, and soon reduced to ashes. These ashes were cast into the Rhine.
Thus perished one of the noblest men who ever walked our world. His death led to the Hussite war. In his native Bohemia he was so loved that the peasants rose in great bodies, crying for vengeance. Many of the nobles joined them, and for fifteen years battle and bloodshed avenged his execution.
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