The reform movement in which Jan Hus (1369 – 1415) was a major figure was undoubtedly a major factor in the historical process that led a century later to the Protestant Reformation. The theological and spiritual conflicts were deeply connected to political and nationalist issues:
- The relationships between the political rulers: Wenceslaus (Vaclav) IV, the King of Bohemia; Sigismund, his half-brother, King of Hungary and later also King of Germany.
- The context of the great papal schism, which reached its climax with 3 claimants to the papacy in the last years of Hus’s life (1409 – 15). Hus made enemies in Prague over his role and influence on the King in support for a conciliar solution to the papal schism, and these enemies played a role in Hus’s condemnation at Constance.
- The conflict between the German and German-speaking population and the Czechs.
- Thus the conflict between Jan Hus and the Archbishop of Prague had a strong nationalist component, as well as one of reform. Hus was Czech, the Prague church establishment was German. Hus was a godly man, a preacher of repentance and reform; Archbishop Zbynek of Prague had bought the appointment at the age of 25.
- The opposition to reform came from the people in power who were benefiting financially from forms of corruption and simony.
Hus became the national hero of the Czech people. He had translated the Bible into Czech. He was preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel that was founded by two businessmen specifically for preaching in the Czech language. It was here that Hus denounced corruption and called for reform in the Czech language after some years of doing so in Latin. This was provocative as the Latin sermons were only understood by the educated. His preaching in Czech made Hus a populist reformer.
For Hus, the Word of God was primary. Church reform based on the Scriptures was central, not one issue. All later disciples of Hus agreed in demanding open access to the Scriptures, free and open preaching, a poor Church, and worthy lifestyle for the priests, and the chalice for the laity. Hus was zealous for reform, for eliminating corruption, simony, and moral laxity. Thus he was very active in the hearing of confessions.
Hus opposed the use of force to counter heresy, as he also opposed any coercion of the Jewish people. One consequence was that the period after his death, when Prague was ruled by the followers of Hus, was a time of relief and blessing for the Jews of the city. This aspect of Hus explains why the Jews were accused of Hussite sympathies during the anti-Jewish disturbances in Austria in 1421, when 300 Jews were killed in Vienna-Erdberg.
The teaching of Hus on the Eucharist did not contain anything contrary to official Catholic teaching. The judgment of Hus as a heretic owed a lot to his being seen as a follower of John Wyclif. Hus defended Wyclif, but he did not follow him in all respects. One important area where Hus did not follow Wyclif was in teaching on the Eucharist. He rejected Wyclif’s teaching on “remanence” (it is still bread), and held to the Catholic teaching on transubstantiation. He advocated giving the chalice to the laity, but he never practised it (this started with some of his followers). It was not through Hus but through Jakoubek von Mies that the chalice became a symbol for the Hussites. The major rebellion on the chalice followed immediately upon Hus’s death. Historians say that for Hus the symbol was the pulpit and not the chalice.
The debates unleashed by Hus and other reforming preachers led to greater attention to eucharistic theology. For example, Jakoubek wrote: “What Christ commanded and enacted with his own hands, must be observed by Christians receiving the body and the blood of the Lord through bread and wine for the health of their souls. The body and the blood of Christ in the sacrament of the altar symbolize two powerful realities, which are both necessary for the upkeep of body and soul: the heavenly flesh for the body and the blood for the soul. … The lay chalice grounds a togetherness at table (Mahlgemeinschaft) that is a sign pointing to the end-times Church and allows a participation in the redemptive power of the atoning death of Christ.”
After the execution of Hus, the Czech people rose up in protest. Nearly 500 Czech nobles gathered in Prague to protest his condemnation and death. They entered into a solemn covenant, pledging to defend the Czech reformation against all external threats. From this gathering emerged the Four Articles of Prague (1419):
- The Word of God is to be preached freely. … without institutional constraints or political interference.
- The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is to be served in the form of both bread and wine to all faithful Christians.
- Priests are to relinquish earthly position and possessions and all are to begin an obedient life based on the apostolic model.
- All public sins are to be punished and public sinners in all positions are to be restrained. [Wyclif had taught that the authority for this lies with the civil authority – a result of church authority failing to do this – and this opened the door for Henry VIII and the German princes.]
Hus stood in the line of an indigenous tradition of Czech reformers who emphasized preaching, studying the Scriptures, and eliminating clerical abuses. Hus’s rediscovery of the Augustinian doctrine of the invisible church enabled him to criticize contemporary church practices in the light of God’s sovereignty over time and eternity.
In effect, three major groupings developed as far as the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist is concerned:
- The moderate Hussites (often called Calixtenes or Utraquists: utraque = both, i.e. bread and wine). They kept the Roman liturgy as before. Most Utraquists or Calixtenes were noblemen and university masters, were more socially conservative, and wanted to avoid a break with the Catholic Church. They were centered in Prague. The Catholic Church made a concession for Bohemia allowing communion from the chalice in Bohemia from 1434 to 1462.
- The radical Hussites or Taborites, who were generally from the peasant classes, demanded radical social change, and had apocalyptic ideas about the coming of Christ’s kingdom on earth. They were strong in the small towns and villages. They abandoned the Roman liturgy, and celebrated communion by saying the Our Father and reciting the narrative of the Last Supper. The Taborites emphasized the eschatological dimension of the Lord’s Supper, celebrating the Lord’s Supper under the open skies on mountaintops. As Jesus had ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, so he returned in bread and wine to celebrate with his people the coming kingdom of God. Their main leader who became their military general was Jan Zizka (1360 – 1424).
- The Catholics content to receive communion in one kind only.
In the years after the execution of Hus, there was much conflict. The new pope launched Crusades against the Hussites, but in the first four Crusades the radical Hussites defeated the imperial armies (1420, 1421, 1422, 1427). They made the chalice the symbol of their resistance, placing representations of the chalice on their weapons of war. The Hussites suffered their first military defeat in 1434.
Among the radical Hussites, however, there were differing emphases, particularly as regards lifestyle, with only a minority holding to more pacifist views.
At the Council of Basel, permission was given to the Church in Bohemia to give the chalice to lay people, but this was withdrawn a generation later by the Pope.