Commemorating the Burning of Jan Hus

on May 16, 2015

Czech church reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake 600 years ago this summer.  Thursday evening I attended a commemoration at the Czech Embassy in Washington, DC, which included a thoughtful lecture followed by a delicious buffet meal.  The room was packed.  Apparently there’s a Jan Hus subculture with few opportunities for self-expression!

The young Czech cultural attaché energetically introduced the evening by explaining that even though the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries on the world, Hus is honored as a martyr for conscience.  A Protestant theologian from Charles University in Prague,  where Hus also taught, gave the lecture.

Hus was an heir to the English church proto-reformer John Wycliffe, whose themes of personal holiness and direct reading of Scripture in native language he reiterated.  Wycliffe died a natural death, but a quarter century later he was condemned at the Council of Constance, where a still very much alive Hus was tried for heresy, defrocked and sentenced to death.  Hus had earlier sardonically noted that his goose was ready to be cooked, and it literally was.  Wycliffe’s body was also disinterred and burned.  Thorough!

But Hus had been popular in his native Bohemia, where there arose a long, bloody Hussite rebellion against the church and emperor who waged crusades against them, brought to a close after 15 years by compromise and some church reforms.  The Moravian Church, which would later influence John Wesley and be prominent in colonial America, descends from the Hussites.   Many themes further developed and popularized by Martin Luther were foreshadowed by Hus and Wycliffe, especially translating the Bible into popular language.

There was a dark side to the Hussite conflict, after the death of Hus, which the embassy lecture briefly mentioned.  Even though Hussites were sort of philo-Semites, some Hussite forces in at least one case forced Jews to convert or die, echoing ISIS of today.  Apparently in that episode, Catholics weren’t even given the conversion option.  The Catholic crusaders waged their own atrocities.  Even the religiously persecuted in history too often have been unwilling to extend conscience rights to others.

It would be another two centuries before concepts of authentic religious liberty crystallized, with Roger Williams’ Rhode Island colony becoming virtually  the first commonwealth not mandating a particular faith.  The idea was codified in the U.S. Constitution.  But religious liberty, and wider conscience rights, are the all too rare exception in human history, and most of humanity today lives under infringements of religion and speech.

Hus gets his due, at the price of his life, for contributing to the concept of individual expression as part of God-ordained human dignity.  The Czech cultural attaché credited Hus and Protestantism for helping to shape his nation’s ethos of freedom and independence.

History has not been kind to the Czechs, especially over the last century.  They gained independence after WWI from the Austrians but were infamously sacrificed to Hitler two decades later.  After WWII they became captive to the Soviets for 44 years.  Now they are free and democratic, a spunky, small republic, whose embassy in America hosts edifying, classy events that remind us that liberty, which originates with faith, is precious.



  1. Comment by Mark Brooks on May 16, 2015 at 2:38 am

    Hus continues to be inconvenient for the Roman religion. Unlike many others, Hus was directly condemned by a council, and it was Roman bishops who condemned him to death. John Paul II’s outreach to the Czechs, whatever its real purpose, given that the language was ambiguous and didn’t really offer an apology for Hus’ condemnation, was not followed up by his successor Benedict XVI, who notably declined to address the issue of Hus when given the opportunity to do so, but rather wanted, apparently, to focus on a “common front” of Christians under papal leadership. Of course. There is always that.

    The past is prologue. Also, the past gets rewritten in accordance with the needs of the present. Hus was not a martyr to conscience. He was a Christian martyr who died saying that he would recant if only those taking his life would prove to him he was wrong from the Bible. They couldn’t of course, and it was his relying on God rather than on them that they killed him for. Then they killed his followers, as the papal bull of Martin V Omnium plasmatoris Domini initiated not one but five separate crusades.

    Yes, the Hussite Rebellion and the later Protestant Reformation initiated a chain of events that gave rise to Western liberty. But in misrepresenting Hus we misrepresent that liberty. The liberty to worship the true God according to His Word, to raise up Godly children free of interference, and to enjoy peace in the land, that is the kind of liberty Hus would have understood. “Liberty of conscience” is a plastic and meaningless term of the kind convenient to political match-making and coalitions. That isn’t the liberty Christ proclaimed to the captives. It isn’t the liberty Hus died for. He died for so much more.

  2. Comment by CDGingrich on May 20, 2015 at 7:58 am

    My ancestors were followers of Jan Hus, a man who deeply believed that Christian truth will prevail. My grandparents, Czech immigrants, attended “John Huss” church in Chicago. Martin Luther said “we are all Hussites”. Hus is still loved and admired by millions worldwide, including me.

  3. Comment by CDGingrich on May 20, 2015 at 8:00 am

    It helps to know that “Hus” means “Goose” in Czech.

  4. Comment by suthie58 on June 13, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    I was baptized at Jan Hus Bohemian Brethren Presbyterian Church in NYC in 1958. The Bohemian Brethrens have basically died out in that congregations.

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