So during Lent I’m turning my weekly saint reflection into a weekly martyr reflection. To turn up the heat a bit I’ll only be looking at Christian martyrs who were killed by, or on account of, other Christians. We’ve already looked at Priscillian of Avila and Eastern Christians killed during the Crusades. Again, the inspiration behind this is the self-reflective theme of Lent along with the following statement of Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.”
Matthew 5:21-22 (CEB)
Today we’re going to turn the pages of history and end up on the preface of the reformation. We’re going to look at two martyrs today because they were similar in their thoughts and passions and mainly because I missed the post last week.
We’ll begin with John Wycliffe who was born in England around the mid-1320s. He studied at Oxford where he would ultimately get a Doctorate of Divintiy and began lecturing there. John Wycliffe began to speak and write against the authority the Church held above the civil authorities at the time. He would also confront the practice of collecting indulgences and considered them a form of simony. Wycliffe’s most divisive idea was his concept of the “invisible church of the elect”. This idea confronted the “visible” Catholic Church by saying that the true church was the invisible collection of the elect and saved rather than the visible structures and hierarchy of the Catholic church at the time. To help understand Wycliffe’s issues with the church it’s important to know that during this time the Pope lived in Avignon, not Rome, and struggles between Avignon and Rome will eventually lead to the Western Schism. These struggles would be almost purely political and have nothing to do with theology. Wycliffe also taught against the idea of transubstantiation saying that the Eucharistic elements were “an effectual sign.” Most famously, John Wycliffe considered Scripture as the basis against which all Christian ideas and works should be measured. To this end he was a big proponent in getting the Bible translated into English so that people could read and understand for themselves.
“Even though there were a hundred popes and though every mendicant monk were a cardinal, they would be entitled to confidence only insofar as they accorded with the Bible.”
Even though John Wycliffe conflicted with the Roman Catholic Church at the time and there were many confrontations and struggles, he was allowed to live out his days and died of a stroke in December 1384. This would not be the end of the story for John Wycliffe however, but lets turn to Jan Hus who was inspired by much of what John Wycliffe wrote and preached.
Jan Hus (or John Huss) was born in 1369 and traveled to Prague early in life. He served and studied in churches for most of his early life and ultimately got his Bachelor’s and Master’s from the University of Prague by 1396. Shortly after he would be ordained and installed as a preacher at the Bethlehem chapel in Prague. He began to be influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe and even translated some of Wycliffe’s writings into Czech.
Hus was well aware of the simony and corruption of the Catholic clergy at the time. In Bohemia the Roman Catholic Church owned about one-half of the land and much of it stayed within the hands (and pockets) of the higher clergy. Much of the lower level priests, which included Jan Hus, along with the peasants resented this and the high taxes that were levied. To further increase Hus’s issue with the Catholic Clergy, the previously mentioned Western Schism was in full swing. There was a Pope in Rome, a Pope in Avignon and various countries and kings backing their chosen Pope. Hus and much of Boehmia vowed neutrality as they had issue with the whole kerfuffle anyways. Further complicating rather than solving the issue, a council in 1409 elected a third Pope but the two current Pope’s refused to step down.
For those counting, there was a time when the world had three popes.
This third pope, Alexander V, condemned the teachings of Wycliffe and ordered that all his writings be surrendered. Hus and his followers tried to resist but that only led to their excommunication. Bohemia and Prauge fell into disorder and riots as people rose up in support of Hus who continued to preach (against papal order) in Bethlehem chapel. Hus would preach against the indulgences and a current crusade that was called, further increasing the papal ire against him.
In response to the growing kerfuffle (I love that word), The Council of Constance was called in 1414 to try and solve the multiple pope problem along with addressing issues raised by Wycliffe (who died in 1384) in England and Hus in Bohemia and Prague. Hus wanted to try put an end to the dissensions and agreed to attend the council. He arrived at the council under the promise of safe conduct from the king. However, once in attendance he was imprisoned because there was a rumor Hus would try to escape. Hus remained imprisoned and on trial for 73 days. Charges were brought against Hus on June 8 1415 who said he would gladly submit if he could be convinced of his errors. He was never convinced and never submitted or recanted.
Thus, Hus was condemned to execution. Hus was condemned to be burned at the stake and when the day came they ushered him out with a paper crown on his head. He was tied to the stake, asked to recant again and he denied. When the fires were lit, Jan sang psalms until he died. His ashes where then thrown into the Rhine river. Bringing this all back around to John Wycliffe, at the same council they also condemned him as a heretic posthumously along with banning his writings. A decade or so later, in 1428, Wyclife’s body was exhumed, burned and thrown into the river in similar fashion as Hus.
What are your thoughts on these two being excommunicated and burned as heretics, even posthumously? What connections can we make (if any) to current Church issues?
Wikipedia – John Wycliffe
Wycliffe Bible Translators – John Wycliffe
New Advent – John Wycliffe
Wikipedia – Jan Hus
New Advent – Jan Hus
Columbia University – The Execution of Jan Hus