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.