To the ages that came after the Reformation, this was spring-time. Yet to earlier ages the Reformation was the awaited harvest.
In Bohemia the plough is at work, and already the sowers have come forth and have begun to scatter the seed. In transferring ourselves to Bohemia we do not change our subject, although we change our country. It is the same great drama under another sky. Surely the winter is past, and the great spring time has come, when, in lands lying so widely apart, we see the flowers beginning to appear, and the fountains to gush forth.
We read in the Book of the Persecutions of the Bohemian Church that "In the year AD 1400, Jerome of Prague returned from England, bringing with him the writings of Wicliffe" and later Taborite Nicholaus von Pelhrimow, testified that "the books of the evangelical doctor, Master John Wicliffe, opened the eyes of the blessed Master John Huss, as several reliable men know from his own lips, whilst he read and re-read them together with his followers".
Such is the link that binds together Bohemia and England. Already Protestantism attests its true catholicity. Oceans do not stop its progress. The boundaries of States do not limit its triumphs. The spiritually dead who are in their graves are beginning to hear the voice of Wicliffe - yea, rather of Christ speaking through Wicliffe - and hence to come forth. The first drama of Protestantism was to be acted and over in Bohemia before it had begun in Germany. So prolific in tragic incident and heroic character was this second drama, that it is deserving of more attention than it has yet received. Bohemia was to become a nation of protestant heroes.
It is probable that Christianity first entered Bohemia in the wake of the armies of Charlemagne. But the Western missionaries, ignorant of the Slavonic tongue, could effect little beyond a nominal conversion of the Bohemian people. Without the entrance of the pure Gospel that same ignorance would have remained and the papacy triumphed unopposed. But once the writings of Wicliffe by Providence reached that land, albeit through a mighty and bloody struggle, Protestantism was set to triumph.
Before detailing that struggle, we must briefly sketch the career of the man who so powerfully contributed to create in the breasts of his countrymen that dauntless spirit which bore them up till victory crowned their arms.
John Huss was born on the 6th of July, 1373, in the market town of Hussinetz (a transliteration of Husinec where a wreath is still laid at his monument each 6th of July) on the edge of the Bohemian forest near the source of the Moldau river, and the Bavarian boundary. He took his name from the place of his birth. His parents were poor, but respectable. His father died when he was young. His mother, when his education was finished at the provincial school, took him to Prague, to enter him at the university of that city. She carried a present to the rector, but happening to lose it by the way, and grieved by the misfortune, she knelt down beside her son, and implored upon him the blessing of the Almighty. The prayers of the mother were heard, though the answer came in a way that would have pierced her heart like a sword, had she lived to witness the issue.
The university career of the young student, whose excellent talents sharpened and expanded day by day, was one of great brilliance. His face was pale and thin and his consuming passion was a desire for knowledge. He was blameless in life, sweet and affable in address and won upon all who came in contact with him. He was made Bachelor of Arts in 1393, Bachelor of Theology in 1394 and Master of Arts in 1396. But a Doctor of Theology he never was, any more than Melanchthon. Two years after becoming Master of Arts, he began to hold lectures in the university. Having finished his university course, he entered the Church, where he rose rapidly into distinction. By-and-by his fame reached the court of King Wenceslaus, who had succeeded his father, Charles IV., on the throne of Bohemia. His queen, Sophia of Bavaria, selected Huss as her confessor.
The ardent papist
He was at this time a firm believer in the Papacy. The philosophical writings of Wicliffe he already knew, and had ardently studied. But the theological treatises of Wicliffe he had not seen. He was filled with unlimited devotion for the grace and benefits of the Roman Church. We know this because he tells us that he went at the time of the Prague Jubilee in 1393 to confession in the Church of St. Peter. There he gave the last four groschen that he possessed to the confessor, and then took part in the processions in order to share in the proffered absolution he had purchased . He later solemnly repented of taking part in this efflux of superabundant devotion and went on to publicly acknowledge his repentance from his own pulpit.
Moral condition of Prague
The true career of John Huss dates from about AD 1402, when he was appointed preacher to the Chapel of Bethlehem. This temple had been founded in the year 1392 by a certain citizen of Prague, Mulhamio by name, who laid great stress upon the preaching of the Word of God in the mother-tongue of the people. On the death or the resignation of its first pastor, Stephen of Colonia, Huss was elected his successor. His sermons formed an epoch in Prague. The moral condition of that capital was then deplorable. According to Comenius, all classes wallowed in the most abominable vices. The king, the nobles, the prelates, the clergy, the citizens, indulged without restraint in avarice, pride, drunkenness, lewdness, and every profligacy. In the midst of this sunken community stood up Huss, like an incarnate conscience. Now it was against the prelates, now against the nobles, and now against the ordinary clergy that he launched his bolts. These sermons seem to have benefited the preacher as well as the hearers, for it was in the course of their preparation and delivery that Huss became inwardly awakened. A great clamour arose. But the queen and the archbishop protected Huss, and he continued preaching with indefatigable zeal in his Chapel of Bethlehem, founding all he said on the Scriptures, and appealing so often to them, that it may be truly affirmed of him that he restored the Word of God to the knowledge of his countrymen.
Huss grows in knowledge of the Scriptures
The minister of Bethlehem Chapel was then bound to preach on all church days early and after dinner although in Advent and fast times only in the morning. Furthermore he always preached to the ordinary people in their own language. Obliged to study the Word of God, and left free from the performance of liturgical acts and pastoral duties, Huss grew rapidly in the knowledge of Scripture, and became deeply imbued with its spirit. While around him was a daily-increasing devout community, he himself grew in the life of faith. By this time he had become acquainted with the theological works of Wicliffe, which he earnestly studied, and learned to admire the piety of their author, and to be not wholly opposed to the scheme of reform which he had promulgated. Already Huss had commenced a movement, the true character of which he did not perceive, and the issue of which he little foresaw. He placed the Bible above the authority of Pope or Council, and thus he had entered, without knowing it, the road of Protestantism. But as yet he had no wish to break with the Church of Rome, nor did he dissent from a single dogma of her creed, the one point of divergence to which we have just referred excepted; but he had taken a step which, if he did not retrace it, would lead him in due time far enough from her communion.
The echoes of a voice which had at first spoken in England, but was now silent there was now reaching the distant country of Bohemia. We have narrated above the arrival of a young student in Prague, with copies of the works of the great English heresiarch. Other providences favoured the introduction of Wicliffe's books. One of these was the marriage of Richard II of England, with Anne, sister of the King of Bohemia, and the consequent intercourse between the two countries. On the death of that princess, the ladies of her court, on their return to their native land, brought with them the writings of the great Reformer, whose disciple their mistress had been. The university had made Prague a centre of light, and the resort of men of intelligence. Thus, despite the corruption of the higher classes, the soil was not unprepared for the reception and growth of the opinions of the Rector of Lutterworth, which now found entrance within the walls of the Bohemian capital.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis