While historians typically date the beginning of the Reformation with Luther and his 95 Theses, the Reformers themselves would have hearkened back to John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. Wycliffe gave the church the Scriptures translated in the vernacular English, while Hus laid the foundations of a newly vibrant Christianity on the Continent. Wycliffe assailed the authority of the Pope and denied that church councils were of higher authority than the Bible. Condemned by the Council of Constance, his bones were disinterred and burned.
In Bohemia, young Jan Hus had read Wycliffe and was a student of the Scriptures. Through these two influences, he came to the conclusion that reform of the corruptions within the church must address not only the moral lapses of the clergy, but also those doctrines in which the church’s traditions deviated from the Bible. His insistence that the common people be administered communion “in both kinds,” (i.e. both cup and bread) became a symbol of the movement. During the Hussite Wars that followed his death, soldiers adorned their shields with the image of a cup and, to this day, Hussite churches in the Czech Republic often will have the image of a cup above the church door.
HuspreachingatthebethlehemchapelVisitors to Prague can sit today in the restored “Bethlehem Chapel” where Jan Hus preached. For his sermons and tracts, he was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance to defend his views that the church doctrines of selling indulgences, transubstantiation and confession to earthly priests had no scriptural foundation. His friends argued that to attend the council would be dangerous, but a personal guarantee of safe passage from the Emperor Sigismund convinced Hus that he should go to defend what he believed to be biblical truth.
Upon his arrival at Constance, Sigismund had Hus cast into prison where he languished until the following year. Finally called to defend his doctrine in June, 1415, Hus was summarily found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake. A month later, Sigismund’s treachery was complete as Hus was led to the stake, burned and his ashes cast into the Rhine.
SigismundBy this time, Hus’s doctrines had spread far and wide throughout the church in Europe, but particularly so in his native Bohemia. Soon after his death, in city after city across the land, armies were gathered. The one-eyed Jan Zizka, an accomplished military leader who had served as a mercenary on behalf of Poland, found in the Hussite rebellion the cause to which he would commit his life. A brilliant tactician, he invented defensive tactics that permitted his outnumbered troops to prevail against far greater forces, once defeating an army of 30,000 with only 4,000 soldiers. In one battle, an arrow struck his remaining eye, leaving the General to conduct the battle without the benefit of sight. Nevertheless, he prevailed and for a time it appeared that the Hussite rebellion would succeed. After his death, and with the enemy at bay, factionalism broke out among the Bohemian cities and eventually the Emperor’s troops reclaimed military control. Although the imperial forces eventually occupied the places of civil and military authority, they had lost the battle for the hearts of the people. The Moravian Brethren churches would flourish and by the time the Reformation “officially” began with Martin Luther, more than three-fourths of the Moravians were Hussites, who along with their Waldensian allies, “reformed” the church in the heart of Europe long before the Reformation.