In the middle of Old Town Square stands a large and imposing statue of one of Bohemia’s most important religious reformers and martyrs, Jan Hus (c.1370-1415).
In the Czech Republic, 6 July is still celebrated every year as a public holiday in commemoration of the life and work of this great religious leader and advanced thinker who died for his beliefs more than 600 years ago.
He advocated church reforms, such as using Czech as the liturgical language, aligning the church’s practices with teachings contained in the Bible, limiting the power of the church to spiritual matters, and stopping the sale of indulgences.
Sometime around 1490, he enrolled in the University of Prague (known as Charles University today) where he eventually earned a master’s degree and began teaching, and then earned the position of dean of the philosophical faculty in 1401.
During this period, the university was undergoing a time of strife and disagreement between two factions. On the one hand were the German masters who were staunch supporters of the Catholic Church, and who were regarded as standing against any sort of Church reform, and on the other were the Czech masters who were strongly nationalistic, who were being strongly influenced by the writings of the English theologian John Wycliffe.
Hus was an avid reader of Wycliffe’s writings, and he was greatly impressed by Wycliffe’s ideas about fundamental changes that he thought needed to happen within the Church.
Also at the beginning of the 15th century, the Catholic Church owned almost half of all of the land in Bohemia, and the Czech peasants resented the Church for its levying of heavy land taxes. Additionally, the great wealth of the Church at that time, and the Church’s practice among the high clergy of granting ecclesiastical privileges, dispensations, and indulgences in return for money, caused great anger among the poorer priests and Church officials.
Because of this, the time was ripe for the appearance of a great reformer and, as it turned out, Jan Hus was to become that leader and to enjoy mass support of his ideas by the Bohemian population.
Hus became heavily involved in public preaching, and he promoted a program of Church reform which included bringing the Church’s practices more in line with what he felt were the true teachings of the bible; stopping the sale of indulgences, a system by which people with money were able to obtain “forgiveness” of their sins for a nominal fee; limiting the power of the Church to strictly spiritual matters and removing its influence in government and landholding; and of replacing Latin with Czech as the official liturgical language of the Church in the Bohemian lands.
From the pulpit of the Bethlehem Chapel, Hus denounced the Church’s practices, and openly criticized its leaders, actions which were to have grave results for not only Hus himself, but for the future of Bohemian Christianity.
As a response to this perceived rebellion, the Church ordered the confiscation and subsequent burning of all of Wycliffe’s writing at the University of Prague, and then in 1409 Pope Alexander V issued a papal bull which forbade preaching in private chapels, including the Bethlehem Chapel, an order which Hus chose to ignore.
He was then excommunicated from the Church, though he chose to continue his mission of preaching and promoting reform, and gained vast support among the people of Bohemia.
Hus was found guilty of heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Following the process, Hus was executed on 6th July 1415. His followers are known as Hussites and many of his beliefs found their expression a century later, when Martin Luther nailed his famous list of 95 theses against the Catholic church at Wittenberg, Germany. The last words of Hus were “truth prevails” which is inscribed on the current Czech presidential ensign and is a national motto.