Tag Archives: John Hus (1370?-1415)

Review: On Fire for God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Victor Budgen is the author of two books: On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus and Charismatics and the Word of God.


Victor Budgen’s On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus (1983) is an important biography of one of the key figures of the early Reformation.

John Hus was a Czech preacher and reformer who is known today especially for his dramatic martyrdom on July 6, 1415, at the Council of Constance under the Roman Catholic church. During his lifetime, however, he was also regarded as a prolific scholar and teacher, an important exponent of the teachings of John Wycliffe, and a starting point for Czech nationalism.

The World of Hus

Budgen’s biography takes great effort to explain the social and religious context in which Hus lived and died. He contextualizes Hus as one man in a theological movement that is inspired by key theological tenets of Wycliffe and the English Reformation, but also independent of that movement, with its own grounding in Scripture and an experience of God’s grace. Similar arguments are also presented in Matthew Spinka’s John Hus and the Czech Reform; though Wycliffe was a major influence on Hus, Hus disagreed with Wycliffe on important points. This is important to understand because, at the Council of Constance, charges of “Wyclifism” were brought against Hus. Though he was unwilling to recant, it was through loyalty to God, not to Wycliffe.

Budgen’s description of Hus and Jerome of Prague collecting Wycliffe’s books may resonate with readers, and is worth reading in full:

The works of Wyclif still continued to appeal strongly to many of the Bohemians. Although the bringing over of books was often a risky business, there were those who volunteered for the task. Jerome of Prague himself transcribed and brought over material, as he himself admitted. Two other Bohemian students were surreptitiously gathering texts in England in 1406 and 1407. We have a glimpse of them paying a pious visit to Wyclif’s tomb in Leicestershire en route (and taking a fragment of the tomb), probably visiting Sir John Oldcastle, a prominent Lollard of high rank, and then going on to do their main copying in Lollard hide-outs in country villages in Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. Since Oxford was a place closely watched, they only stopped there briefly in order to correct their texts. There was an eager readership waiting for this highly explosive theological material, for this time a lot of theological works were brought back. Hus was among the keenest of the readers. By the end of his life he himself had accumulated copies of nearly all of Wyclif’s writings. This was no mean feat. It denoted a genuine enthusiasm for the works of the English reformer. (pp. 101-102)

Here I will give quotations on three convictions that Hus and his movement shared with John Wycliffe.

1. Vernacular Preaching

At Bethlehem he preached in Czech not only because it was stipulated in the foundation, but because it was his conviction. As the years went by he was to express himself increasingly in his native language both from the pulpit and with the pen. This was not a total innovation but there were not many precursors. The large numbers of works in Czech produced at the close of his ministry are the logical outcome of all this. (p. 96)

Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, now restored as a museum, plays an important role in the beginning of Hus’ story. Not only was preaching traditionally done in Latin; but there were also large numbers of German speakers in the university setting in which Hus found himself. In a classic case of religious (bilingual) diglossia, Czech was regarded as merely a spoken language, lacking in structure. Hus not only preached in Czech, but he also worked to reform Czech orthography, which would make spelling more nativised and literacy more accessible.

2. The Priesthood of Believers

Every holy man is a priest, but not every priest is a holy man. (p. 95)

The priesthood of believers is a straightforward New Testament doctrine, but it is revolutionary in hierarchy-oriented societies. Because Hus believed in the priesthood of believers, he believed that he could take issue with the theological whims of the cardinals, or the Pope—or even, in his case, the three popes!

3. Authority of Scripture

Here is the nub of the issue. Hus knew and experienced the Scripture as a living Word breathed out and conveyed by the Holy Spirit. His opponents were strangers to the experience so vital for saving faith. (p. 170)

Like Wycliffe before him and Luther after him, Hus affirmed the absolute centrality of Scripture. Though we may disagree with these early reformers on certain issues of biblical interpretation, it is the authority and transformative power of the Bible that they could not deny.

Where he is inconsistent or less than fully scriptural, we must not lose sight of his pioneering role. These were ‘forgotten remedies’ which he was, with others, restoring to the light of day. (p. 86)

Budgen covers these issues in great detail, comparing and contrasting Wycliffe and Hus. He also spends a large portion of the book clarifying the precise circumstances of Hus’ death, using sound historical research. This is much needed work since there are so many spurious accounts regarding Hus’ death.


“Supporting myself with this most holy and most helpful example of the Redeemer, I appeal to God from the grave oppression, the unjust sentence, and the pretended excommunication of the pontiff, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the judges seated in the seat of Moses. To him I commit my cause, following in the footsteps of the Saviour Jesus Christ.” (p. 163, ch. 14 endnote 17)

“I will confess the evangelical truth as long as God permits, for I trust in that Witness whom no multitude of witnesses can divert from the truth, nor any Roman curia can terrify, nor any gift can suborn, nor any power can conquer.” (p. 170, ch. 15 endnote 15)

“Even a peasant can understand that he who has never fed sheep is not to be called a shepherd.” (p. 92)

Proclaiming a crusade against Ladislas, Pope John [XXIII] issued two bulls in the September and December of 1411 excommunicating Ladislas in blood-curdling terms and imporing men ‘by the blood shed by the Saviour’ either to take up the sword against Ladislas or to provide money for someone else to fight. This was termed ‘taking up the cross’ in papal terminology. The bull promised remission of sins for which the guilty parties were contrite and which they had confessed. (pp. 145-146)

“Finally, I did not appear at the papal court lest I lose my life for nothing. For every place was full of my enemies, both Czech and German, seeking my death.” (p. 133, ch. 12 endnote 3)

“I am ever ready … to render full account of my faith which I hold in my heart and confess by word and in writing, even if fire were lighted during the hearing.” (p. 143, ch. 12 endnote 24)

“Lords, understand me. I said that I heartily aspire to fulfil the apostolic mandates and to obey them in everything; but I call apostolic mandates the teaching of Christ’s apostles. In as far as the mandates of the Roman pontiff are in harmony with the apostolic mandates and teach . . . to that degree I am most willing to obey them. But should I find any of them opposed, those will I not obey, even if the fire to burn my body were placed before my eyes.” (p. 154, ch. 13 endnote 15)

“However, as concerning fleeing from the truth, I trust the Lord that he will grant me to die in that truth.” (p. 165, ch. 14 endnote 24)

“One must not sin in order to avoid death . . . He who speaks the truth will have his head broken. He who fears death loses the joy of life. [Yet] Truth conquers all things.” (p. 172, ch. 15 endnote 25)

‘Look, Master John! We are laymen and know not how to advise you; therefore see if you feel yourself guilty in anything of that which is charged against you. Do not fear to be instructed therein and to recant. But if, indeed, you do not feel guilty of those things that are charged against you, follow the dictates of your conscience. Under no circumstances do anything against your conscience or lie in the sight of God: but rather be steadfast until death in what you know to be the truth.’ (p. 261, ch. 23, citation 15)

Review: John Hus and the Czech Reform

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Matthew Spinka (1890-1972) was a professor of church history and the foremost modern scholar of John Hus. In addition to publishing the best translation of Hus’ letters—published within a week of Spinka’s death—he wrote more than 20 books, including Christianity Confronts Communism (1936), Nicolas Berdyayev: Captive of Freedom (1950), Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus (1953), The Church in Soviet Russia (1956) and John Hus: A Biography (1968). Spinka was a minister in the United Church of Christ.


The unique focus of this monograph is the “Wyclifism” of Hus, i.e. his originality in dealing with the thoughts and writings of the English reformer. This little book includes a lot of biographical and historical information along with a good look at the originality of Hus’ thought. Spinka’s main contention is expressed thus: “Hus never accepted the teaching of Wycliffe without scrupulous discrimination, and remained to the end among the moderate adherents of the English Reformer.” (italics mine, p. 12)


Hus implicitly presaged the Protestant Reformation by several key elements in his theology. Ullmann, like others, calls Hus “a Reformer before the Reformation” (pg. 3, loc. 39). “There were elements implicit in Hus’s teaching which the Reformation made explicit.” (p. 75) “Luther testified that the reading of the works of Hus has had a considerable influence on his conversion.” (p. 3) Hus’ “insistence on the use of reason foreshadowed the Age of Reason, and made for Protestant individualism, which was essentially destructive of ecclesiastical authority.” (p. 77) However, “nothing would be more misleading than to affirm that Luther received his ideas from Hus, who in turn derived them from Wycliffe. (emphasis mine, p. 76) All three men were original and independent thinkers, and all three of them held ideas that modern readers would find unpalatable.

Spinka also points out that Stanislav and Stephen Palec, who had accepted Wycliffe wholesale, under pressure denied him wholesale. This shows that they lacked clarity of conscience and intellectual backbone.

Hus himself was part of a native reform movement—”the Czech reform”. “It may be affirmed . . . at the outset that Hus was the product of the native reform movement.” (p. 5) “The chief characteristic of the Czech reform was its emphasis upon preaching in the vernacular, and moral reform of the clergy and the people—not theological speculation or anti-ecclesiastical revolt.” (p. 6) Again, “his essential characteristics are not of the Wyclifite, but of the native reform movement.” (p. 75)

Hus compiled and disseminated Wycliffe’s works, but he didn’t agree with everything Wycliffe wrote.  Since Wycliffe’s writings were only published in the 1800s, Wycliffe was known through Hus’ work for hundreds of years. According to Spinka, Hus had gathered “probably most” of Wycliffe’s writings, which was a huge task.

  • “Many medieval theological writers were essentially compilers of currently acknowledged authorities, nor did they always take the trouble to indicate [their sources] . . .” (p. 13)
  • As one key example, in 1921, they discovered that The Imitation of Christ (by Thomas à Kempis) was largely based on an earlier work by Gerard Groote!
  • This kind of publishing was never considered unethical or bad scholarship. Wycliffe and Hus both followed this practice.

Hus’ trial at Constance “revolved around the specific attitude of Hus toward the teaching of Wycliffe” (p. 53), but it caricatured Hus as a “Wyclifite.” Spinka writes, “the Council persisted in making him a Wyclifite in spite of himself.” (p. 58)

  • Hus “categorically repudiated” Wycliffe’s denial of transubstantiation. (p. 56)
  • Wycliffe held that priests must live in “apostolic poverty.” Hus was not so radical about this. (p. 63)
  • Wycliffe promoted sola scriptura but Hus affirmed papal authority (in general) and sought to submit to papal rule and tradition. (p. 67-68)

Taking all this together, Spinka has made an interesting contribution to understanding Hus, and he has certainly convinced this reviewer that the chronologically appealing “Wycliffe → Hus → Luther” triad is less than perfect.

Bones: Spinka, as a lifelong Hus scholar, obviously has a pro-Hus inclination. In reading the introduction, I couldn’t help but feel that Spinka is drawn to Hus’ theology and life. (Who isn’t?) But he does qualify this by bringing in some elements of Hus’ thought that most Protestant Hus scholars wouldn’t agree with. Two examples are: 1. Hus clearly wasn’t devoted to sola scriptura; and 2. Hus clearly affirmed transubstantiation! (As a minister of the United Church of Christ, Spinka himself most likely affirmed sola scriptura and denied transubstantiation.)


“Hus . . . stressed conscience, rather than intellect. It was his moral courage, enabling him to stand alone against the judgment of the supreme tribunal of the Church, which marked him as great.” (p. 78)

The Goose and the Swan

July 6 marks the anniversary of John Hus’ execution at the Council of Constance.

John Hus was an early reformer who opposed corruption in the clergy and called for a reexamination of several basic Christian doctrines. He is often called the Morning Star of the Reformation, since he preceded Luther by a century. One of his most famous stories involves a pun on his name, since Hus means goose in Czech. He is quoted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as saying at his death,“You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.”

Luther’s family crest included a swan, so Foxe adds,

If he were prophetic, he must have meant Martin Luther, who shone about a hundred years after.

Foxe’s book was written in the 1550s, a few years after Luther’s death. The goose is obviously Hus himself, and the swan is supposed to be Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 Theses to the church in Wittenberg in 1517, almost exactly a century after Hus was killed.

Was Hus really prophetic? Below are three other sources advanced for the tale. I think we can conclude that even if the quote in question is removed, Hus sensed that the Reformation would not be quenched.

Poggio Bracciolini?

The quote is also included in a sensational retelling of Hus’ trial and death, allegedly written by humanist scholar Poggio Bracciolini in 1415, but researchers believe this document to be inauthentic. It was first published in English in 1930 as Hus the Heretic, and even in German the earliest edition was in 1845, four centuries after Hus’ death. The account includes numerous anachronisms, and the publisher was known to invent legendary histories. (More here.) If anything, this document might tell how widely influential Foxe’s account was.

The Letters of John Hus: The Truth Will Send Others

D’Aubigne cites several prophetic precursors to the Reformation, including one from Hus.

[Hus] was … the John Baptist of the Reformation. …

Prophetic words came forth from the depth of his dungeon. He had a presentiment, that the true Reformation of the Church was at hand.

(History of the Reformation, ch. 6)

Then D’Aubigne quotes The Letters of John Hus. He does make a statement similar to the one quoted by Fox. Here is a newer translation:

At first they spread their nets of citations and excommunications for Hus [or goose], and have already caught many. But because goose is a lazy bird, domestic, not flying high, their net has begun to tear; likewise many other birds who fly high to God by their [writings] and their lives will tear their nets. …

For the truth they wanted to suppress has the property that the more they attempted to obscure it, the more it shone forth, and the more they pressed it down, although it sometimes falls, then rises the higher.

(tr. Spinka, pp. 82-83)

This quote, from 1412, is of course quite different from the one about the swan. The letter quoted does carry the basic thrust, though, which is that the Reformation was a work of God that would not be stopped. “Many other birds” shared Hus’ goal; Hus seemed to expect that he would die, but that the Reformation would live. He draws further parallels along this line:

Bishops, priests, masters, and scribes, Herod and Pilate, the citizens of Jerusalem and the community, condemned the Truth, put Him to death and buried Him in the grave. But He rose again and conquered them all. In place of one preacher, that is Himself, He gave them twelve and more. That same Truth in place of one faint-hearted goose, gave Prague many eagles and falcons [i.e., his contemporaries], who have keen sight, soar high by grace …

Here Hus implies that eagles and falcons, his contemporaries in Prague, are well equipped to continue where he left off.

Martin Luther: Hus Prophesied of Me
Luther had been compared to Hus and accused of being a Hussite. Luther’s response was “Oh! that my name were worthy to be associated with such a man.” The legendary quote about the goose and the swan was even known in Luther’s lifetime. Read his comments about it:

In God’s name and call I shall walk on the lion and the adder, and tread on the young lion and dragon with my feet. And this which has been begun during my lifetime will be completed after my death. St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for ‘Huss’ means ‘a goose’), but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will have to endure.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills. (Dr. Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Alleged Imperial Edict Promulgated in the Year 1531 After the Imperial Diet of the Year 1530, qtd. in Lutherʹs Works (Vol. 34, Page 103-104).

Luther says that Hus wrote this in prison, so each of the accounts of the prophetic words vary substantially. The legend of the goose and the swan may be true history, or it may have grown from Hus’ writings, which did affirm that God was changing the game, and Hus was just one piece. A master chess player may sacrifice one valuable piece to gain the upper hand in time; perhaps it is the roasted goose that gave the world the singing swan. After all, when you see the cries of the oppressed, the prayers of the faithful, and the movement of God on their behalf, you don’t have to be a prophet to know that God will finish his work.

Whoever dies for Christ conquers … I do not flinch from yielding my miserable life for God’s truth in danger or death.

(Letters of John Hus, tr. Spinka, pp. 83-84)