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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Date Posted:

John Huss

The Council of Constance

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

Pope John XXIII opened the eighth session (May 4th, 1415) of the Council of Constance, by promoting several dubious characters to a place in heaven.

Then John Wicliffe was summoned from his rest, cited before the Council, and made answerable to it for his mortal writings. Forty-five propositions, previously culled from his publications, were condemned, and this sentence was fittingly followed by a decree consigning their author to the flames. Wicliffe himself being beyond their reach, his bones, pursuant to this sentence, were afterwards dug up and burned.

The next labour of the Council was to take the cup from the laity, and to decree that Communion should be only in one kind. This prohibition was issued under the penalty of excommunication.

Pope John XXIII deposed

The Council then entered upon the weightier affair of Pope John XXIII. Universally odious, the Pope's deposition had been resolved on beforehand by the emperor and the great majority of the members. At a secret sitting a terrible indictment was tabled against him. "It contained all the mortal sins, and a multitude of others not fit to be named ... More than forty-three most grievous and heinous crimes were objected and proved against him including hiring physician Marcillus Permensis to poison Alexander V his predecessor. Further, that he was a heretic, a simoniac, a liar, a hypocrite, a murderer, an enchanter, a dice-player, and an adulterer; and finally, what crime was it that he was not infected with?" ( Rome strenuously denies all this today.) When the blow fell, Pope John was as abject as he had before been arrogant. He acknowledged the justice of his sentence and grovelled to no avail.

The case of the other two rival Popes was simpler. They had already been condemned by the Council of Pisa, which had assumed the right to deal with heretical and simoniacal Popes. Angelus Corario, Gregory XII., voluntarily sent in his resignation; and Peter de Lune, Benedict XIII., was deposed. Otta de Colonna was unanimously elected by the cardinals and ruled the Church under the title of Martin V.

Huss's safe conduct

The Council now turned to Huss who still carried with him the safe-conduct from the Emperor Sigismund. It is one of the great documents of history. It was addressed "to all ecclesiastical and secular princes, etc., and to all our subjects ... We recommend to you with a full affection, to all in general and to each in particular, the honourable Master John Huss, Bachelor in Divinity, and Master of Arts, the bearer of these presents, journeying from Bohemia to the Council of Constance, whom we have taken under our protection and safeguard, and under that of the Empire, enjoining you to receive him and treat him kindly, furnishing him with all that shall be necessary to speed and assure his journey, as well by water as by land, without taking anything from him or his at coming in or going out, for any sort of duties whatsoever; and calling on you to allow him to PASS, SOJOURN, STOP, AND RETURN FREELY AND SECURELY, providing him even, if necessary, with good passports, for the honour and respect of the Imperial Majesty. Given at Spiers this 18th day of October of the year 1414, the third of our reign in Hungary, and the fifth of that of the Romans". This was the Emperor's pledge.

Paletz and Causis, Huss's bitterest enemies in Prague, had preceded him to Constance, and schemed against him day and night. On the twenty-sixth day after his arrival Huss was arrested, in flagrant violation of the imperial safe-conduct, and carried before the Pope and the cardinals. He was imprisoned in the monastery of the Dominicans on the banks of the Rhine where the monks effluent unhealthily flowed. On hearing the news Bohemia rose in indignation. The first impulse of Sigismund was to open Huss's prison, but the casuists of the Council found means to keep it shut. The emperor was told that he had no right to grant a safe-conduct in the circumstances without the consent of the Council and that the greater good of the Church must over-rule his promise. The Council afterwards put its reasonings into a decree, to the effect that no faith is to be kept with heretics to the prejudice of the Church.

Loaded with chains

The Council delayed on the matter of Huss. He was removed to the Castle of Gottlieben on the other side of the Rhine again to be shut up, heavily loaded with chains. Paletz and Causis feared his eloquence and took care he should not appear till they had prepared the Council for his condemnation. At last, on the 5th of June, 1415, he was put on his trial. His books were produced, and he was asked if he acknowledged being the writer of them. This he readily did. The articles of crimination were next read. Some of these were fair statements of Huss's opinions; others were exaggerations or perversions, and others again were wholly false. The following day, the 7th June, was memorable in that an all but total eclipse of the sun astonished and terrified the venerable Fathers and the local people.. The darkness was great. Towards noon the light returned and Sigismund and Huss, still in irons, were now face to face. Causis again read the accusation, and a somewhat desultory debate ensued between Huss and several doctors of the Council, especially the celebrated Peter d'Ailly, Cardinal of Cambray.

Even to the last he did not abandon the communion of the Roman Church. Still it cannot be doubted that John Huss was essentially a Protestant and a Reformer. Less clear than Wicliffe , the pope nevertheless realised all he stood for undermined the basis of the papacy. The members of the Council instinctively felt that Huss was not one of them having abandoned the Church and renounced its authority. The two leading principles which he had embraced were subversive of their whole jurisdiction in both its branches, spiritual and temporal. The first and great authority with him was Holy Scripture; this struck at the foundation of the spiritual power of the hierarchy; and as regards their temporal power he undermined it by his doctrine touching ecclesiastical revenues and possessions. John Huss must suffer the doom of the heretic.

A friend

Already enfeebled by illness, and by his long imprisonment - for "he was shut up in a tower, with fetters on his legs, that he could scarce walk in the day-time, and at night he was fastened up to a rack against the wall hard by his bed" - he was exhausted and worn out by the length of the sitting, and the attention demanded to rebut the attacks and reasonings of his accusers. At length the Council rose, and Huss was led out by his armed escort, and conducted back to prison. His trusty friend, John de Chlum, followed him, and embracing him, bade him be of good cheer. Huss wrote "Oh, what a consolation to me, in the midst of my trials to see that excellent nobleman, John de Chlum, stretch forth the hand to me, miserable heretic, languishing in chains, and already condemned by every one".

In the interval between Huss's second appearance before the Council, and the third and last citation, the emperor made an ineffectual attempt to induce the Reformer to retract and abjure. Sigismund was earnestly desirous of saving his life, no doubt out of regard for Huss, but doubtless also from a regard to his own honour, deeply at stake in the issue. The Council drew up a form of abjuration and submission. This was communicated to Huss in prison, and the mediation of mutual friends was employed to prevail with him to sign the paper. The Reformer declared himself ready to abjure those errors which had been falsely imputed to him, but as regarded those conclusions which had been faithfully deduced from his writings, and which he had taught, these, by the grace of God, he never would abandon. "I would rather be cast into the sea with a mill-stone about his neck, than offend those little ones to whom he had preached the Gospel, by abjuring it". At last the matter was brought very much to this point: would he submit himself implicitly to the Council? The snare was cunningly set, but Huss had wisdom to see and avoid it. "If the Council should even tell you", said a doctor, whose name has not been preserved, "that you have but one eye, you would be obliged to agree with the Council". "But", said Huss, "as long as God keeps me in my senses, I would not say such a thing, even though the whole world should require it, because I could not say it without wounding my conscience". What an obstinate, self-opinionated, arrogant man! said the Fathers. Even the emperor was irritated at what he regarded as stubbornness, and giving way to a burst of passion, declared that such unreasonable obduracy was worthy of death.

Huss at peace

From that moment Huss had peace - deeper and more ecstatic than he had ever before experienced. He wrote to a friend, "I write this letter in prison, and with my fettered hand, expecting my sentence of death tomorrow ... When, with the assistance of Jesus Christ, we shall meet again in the delicious peace of the future life, you will learn how merciful God has shown himself towards me - how effectually he has supported me in the midst of my temptations and trials" John de Chlum then counselled "Occupy your thoughts with your defence, rather than with visions". Huss replied, "I firmly hope that this life of Christ, which I engraved on men's hearts at Bethlehem when I preached his Word, will not be effaced; and that after I have ceased to live it will be still better shown forth, by mightier preachers, to the great satisfaction of the people, and to my own most sincere joy, when I shall be again permitted to announce his Gospel - that is, when I shall rise from the dead".

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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