Scandal of Jan Hus

West Side Moravian Church
July 6, 2008

(We are called to worship God by these words of Jan Hus, 1415.)

Final Declaration, July 1, 1415 *

I, Jan Hus, in hope a priest of Jesus Christ, fearing to offend God, and fearing to fall into perjury, do hereby profess my unwillingness to abjure all or any of the articles produced against me by false witnesses. For God is my witness that I neither preached, affirmed, nor defended them, though they say that I did. Moreover, concerning the articles that they have extracted from my books, I say that I detest any false interpretation which any of them bears. But inasmuch as I fear to offend against the truth, or to gainsay the opinion of the doctors of the Church, I cannot abjure any one of them. And if it were possible that my voice could now reach the whole world, as at the Day of Judgment every lie and every sin that I have committed will be made manifest, then would I gladly abjure before all the world every falsehood and error which I either had thought of saying or actually said!

I say I write this of my own free will and choice.

Written with my own hand, on the first day of July.

Matthew 11: 16-19

11:16 To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another, 11:17 We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep. 11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon! 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

The Story of Jan Hus and the Paper Hat

Ezekiel 34: 1-11

34:1 The word of the Lord came to me: 34:2 Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them to the shepherds: This is what the sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? 34:3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the choice animals, but you do not feed the sheep! 34:4 You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. 34:5 They were scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became food for every wild beast. 34:6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over the entire face of the earth with no one looking or searching for them.

34:7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 34:8 As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, my sheep have become prey and have become food for all the wild beasts. There was no shepherd, and my shepherds did not search for my flock, but fed themselves and did not feed my sheep, 34:9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 34:10 This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will no longer let them be shepherds; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will rescue my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them.

34:11 For this is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. †

The Scandal of Jan Hus


How many of you here are heretics? Perhaps a show of hands …

Heresy is not a word we use very much. Etymologically, a heretic is simply one who chooses, someone who makes a choice. We live in a culture which believes in choices. We portray economics, family life, and even religion in terms of the choices we make. We maintain that everyone has both the right and the obligation to make choices – and we are right to say so. Then why does heresy have such a bad name?

There is a little more to the idea than simply making a choice. The heretic is a person who chooses whatever he pleases in matters of eternal truth. When they accused Jan Hus of heresy, they meant to say that he picked out of Christianity just those parts that he personally liked.

It is fairly easy to start the kind of picking and choosing that can lead down the road to heresy. Do you find the Trinity mystifying? Just ignore Jesus' claim that "I and the Father are one." Does the resurrection trouble you? Omit that story from your Bible, and you'd better leave out Lazarus and Tabitha, too. Is the hierarchy of the church an annoyance? Don't read the verse about the "rock" on which Jesus will build his church. This is what Jan Hus was accused of.

Hus' Preaching

Hus was not the world's most original thinker. The ideas for which he suffered were mostly those which had been written down by John Wycliffe. Wycliffe lived in England in the generation before Hus, a scholar who wrote books and died in 1384. But if Hus lacked anything in originality or scholarship he made up for it in preaching and commitment.

Besides that, the world of Christianity had changed since the time of Wycliffe, and not for the better. Three separate popes were vying for worldly power. Gregory XII and Benedict XIII had been placed in power by rival kings; a council called to resolve that dispute instead named a third pope, Alexander V. None seems to have been much interested in serving Christ. They did seem to be quite interested in charging fees for baptism and for marriage and for burial and especially for forgiveness. (The reason that Moravians and Methodists and others will marry or bury anyone without charging a fee goes back to these abuses of centuries ago.)

Preaching that Jesus Christ is the the Head of the Church was more popular and more needful in a time when having three popes meant that there was no real leader of the Christian church in most of Europe. Hus went farther. He said that, since Christ continues as the Head of the Church, Christ's teaching and instruction remain binding on all Christians, including any who might become leaders. A bishop who does not follow Christ's teaching, for example, is not truly a Christian leader. As Luther put it, Hus preached that "an impious pope was not a pious one." [‡ Letters of John Huss. Preface, page 6.] Therefore, if the command of a pope was contrary to a command of Jesus, only Jesus Christ should be obeyed.

Yes, Jan Hus was one who chooses. But unlike his persecutors, Hus chose rightly. Hus made a choice for Christ and for Christ's Truth over political loyalty and temporal power. For this he was accused of heresy and convicted. On July 6, 1415, he was bound to a post. Wood and straw were piled up to his neck and he was burned to death.

One century later, Martin Luther said, in his preface to the letters which Hus wrote from prison, "If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, no person under the sun can be looked on as a true Christian." [‡ Letters of John Huss. Preface, page 4.]

Conflict Over the Truth

Five centuries later, we find it easier to accept Luther's praises of Jan Hus than to identify with his accusers. But in the eyes of his opponents, the teaching of Jan Hus was a scandal, a stumbling block.

For some, no doubt, opposition to Hus was little more than a business decision. Hus preached against selling the services of the church, against retailing forgiveness for profit, and against playing on the gullibility and ignorance of the poor to bring in a higher revenue to the rich. For these people, Jan Hus was threatening their livelihood, their prestige, and their affluence. They either had no moral sense, or they suppressed it; otherwise they wouldn't have been in the business of tricking old widows out of their life savings to buy God's forgiveness for dead family members. If people were to believe that God's forgiveness is directly accessible through Jesus Christ, freely available for nothing but a repentent heart, then these opponents would need to find a new scam.

There were others, however, with better motives. What would happen to the social order, they would have asked, if people could decide for themselves what to believe and who to follow? The great experiments in democracy were four centuries in the future. Even as late as 1950, a United States Congressman declared, "Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their polical attitude quicker than any other method. The basis of Communism and socialistic influence is education of the people." [¶ Harold Velde.] Even today, 600 years after Hus, many people find the uncontrolled choices of the internet to be a threat to morals and to the fabric of society.

In the face of this fear, Jan Hus comes preaching Ezekiel 34: "Should not the shepherds feed the flock? … You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them!" Bad enough that Hus should criticize the leaders, but he went on and preached God's rejection of those leaders, quoting God's own words. "Look, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will no longer let them be shepherds." † If this were to be believed, who would follow the popes and the bishops, the kings and the princes? And if these rulers were not obeyed, what would become of civilization – and the church?

Hus is even reported to have said that Christian bishops ought not to lead armies into the field of battle.

They did not hear, these opponents, or they did not believe, the promise that Ezekiel heard and Jan Hus heard: "This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out." †

Silly Goose

If you do not hear, or do not believe, that God will seek out the people who belong to God; if you do not hear, or do not believe, that Christ is actively leading the Church; if you do not hear, or do not believe, that God's law of love and forgiveness has the power to bring peace to you and to the world; then the future of the world will seem to be the responsibility of the princes and patriarchs and any preaching against those in authority is a scandal.

Give Jan Hus' enemies their due. Although they had mixed motives, as we all do, at least some of them were honestly seeking peace in the world and a better, more orderly life for Europe. But they thought that to trust in the power of God to accomplish this would be foolishness. And so, as Hus wrote in his letter,

They have thrown their nets, and displayed their anathemas, like the image of a bird of prey, to cast terror all around; … in their anxiety to gain the peace of the world, they destroyed not only it, but, at the same time, the spiritual peace; and in their attempts to injure others, they wounded themselves most. [‡ Letters of John Huss. Series 1, letter VI, pages 35-36. "To the Believers in Prague"]

The metaphor of "the image of a bird of prey" brings to my mind the image of a kite in the form of a hawk, being flown in the wind in order to frighten crows and rabbits. Jan Hus, by the way, had a reputation for humor in his preaching and teaching. His metaphor of "the image of a bird of prey" plays off his own last name, which means "Goose". (Like many people of the time, Hus was named for the town where he was born: John Goose of Goose Town.)

We believe the silly Goose was preaching Truth. Hus' enemies either did not believe it was the truth, or else they did believe and were afraid of it. And so, Hus goes on to say,

They hoped to succeed in stifling and putting down the truth, which always conquers; and they were ignorant that its very essence and characteristic consisted in this, that the more attempts were made to dim its lustre, the more it shone brightly forth – the greater the endeavor to suppress it, the more it soared aloft. [‡ Letters of John Huss. Series 1, letter VI, page 36. "To the Believers in Prague"]

This is the truth: that God in Jesus Christ came into our world and sacrificed his own life for others. This is the foolishness which alone saves the world.

This is the truth: that Jesus Christ is actively present as the Head of the Church. It is to Christ alone that preachers must answer for their preaching. It is only Christ's law which the church's members must obey. And it is Christ's example which we are called to follow.

This is the truth: that God comes to seek the sheep, that God comes with power to assure the welfare of God's people. Hus wrote to his followers in Prague to assure them that God was strong enough to reform the church and to save the people.

Pontiffs and priests, the scribes and Pharisees, Herod and Pilate, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem formerly condemned the Truth; they crucified it and buried it; but it rose from the tomb and conquered them all, sending forth in its stead twelve preachers of the Word.

This same Truth, instead of acting feebly and inefficiently, has sent to Prague mighty eagles, surpassing all other birds, by their piercing sight, and which, by the grace of God, fly aloft in the air, and win others to Jesus Christ, who will strengthen all those who are faithful to him. [‡ Letters of John Huss. Series 1, letter VI, page 36. "To the Believers in Prague"]


What kind of a fool was Jan Hus? He threw away his life for words on a piece of paper, rather than agree that he might be wrong. Hus was the kind of a fool who follows the example of a man who allowed himself to be executed, when he might have saved himself. The wise person chooses to follow strength. The wise person looks to join the winning team.

The greatness of Jan Hus is that he could hear God's promise in scripture, could see that promise being acted out around him, and committed his life to the truth of God's love even though some around him thought he was a fool. The greatness of Jan Hus is that he chose to preach God's truth and join God's strength because he knew them for what they were. The greatness of Jan Hus is not that he followed a man who allowed himself to be executed, but that he followed a man who was alive and the Head of the Church in 1415.

The Truth of God acted with power in 1415. Hus saw it and reported it to everyone who would listen. For this, Jan Hus was a heretic to those whose faith was in human power, but he was a true and loyal follower of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 1: 18-25

1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent. 1:20 Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? 1:21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching.

1:22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 1:23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 1:24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1:25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. †

Liturgy for Christian Unity, page 122 through middle of page 125.

(The liturgy continues with the words of Jan Hus, 1415.)

Peace be with you from the Lord, that you may love each other,
and your enemies also.
Peace be with you,
that you may listen to [God's] Word with attention and humility.
Peace be with you,
that you may speak wisely and well,
and that you may escape from your enemies.
Peace be with you,
that you may learn how to be silent with advantage ;
for whoever listens with humility
never disputes evil-mindedly with anyone ;
[anyone] who speaks prudently triumphs over the fool ;
and [the one] who is silent in proper season,
rarely acts against his conscience.
[‡ Letters of John Huss. Series 2, letter VIII, pages 42-43. "To the church at Prague"]

(The liturgy continues with the words of Charles Wesley, 1749.)

"Peace Be to This Congregation", Hymn #556

God was pleased to reform the Church by the preaching of the Goose of Prague.
God was pleased to save those who believe
by the foolishness of preaching.
We preach a crucified Christ.
This is a stumbling block to some
and foolishness to others.
But to those of us who have been called by God,
Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The foolishness of God –
is wiser than human wisdom.
And the weakness of God –
is stronger than human strength.
What is the foolishness that God has done?
Jesus Christ gave himself to be our sacrificial lamb.
Our lamb has died.
Our Lamb has conquered.
Then let us follow him.
Our Lamb has conquered.
Let us follow him.
Our Lamb has conquered.
Let us follow him.


* Hus, John. Herbert B. Workman and R. Martin Pope, eds. The Letters of John Hus. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904). Pages 275-276. Scanned by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. This text is part of, and was downloaded June 2008 from, the Internet Modern History Sourcebook © Paul Halsall, July 1998.
† Scripture quoted from NetBible.
‡ Huss, John. Letters of John Huss, Written During His Exile and Imprisonment. William Whyte & Co., 1946. Transcribed from a scanned image which was downloaded June 2008 from Google books.
¶ Harold Velde. Congressional Record, March 9, 1950. Quoted by Christine Pawley, "The Wisconsin Idea In Action", Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 2008, page 32.