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Postcards From The Past

In 1402 Jan Hus was appointed preacher to the University Chapel of Bethlehem (in Prague, a city in Bohemia) which had been founded 10 years previously as a centre for preaching in the native language (as opposed to the previous ecclesial practice of conducting services only in Latin).

Week by week, Hus thundered away in the pulpit against the corruption of the clergy, whom he called the Lord’s “fat ones”—a not-so-veiled reference to the practice of selling indulgences, raising income for the church as people sought to “purchase” reduced time in purgatory.

The Pope eventually denounced Hus as a heretic, ordering him to stop preaching. He did for a while, then felt compelled to continue. He was called to Rome to explain his actions and refused to go. The Pope excommunicated him. But the people of Bohemia cared little for the Pope, so Hus kept preaching, developing even more biblically grounded but ecclesiastically radical views.  

Hus stated that an unworthy Pope was not to be obeyed and radically proposed that the Bible is the final authority by which the Pope, alongside any Christian, is to be evaluated. A Pope who does not obey the Bible is not to be obeyed! He railed against indulgences. Only God can forgive! To sell what only God can give, seeks to usurp God’s authority.  

Eventually a great council of the church was convened.

With guaranteed safe passage, Hus was “invited” to declare his views. He decided to go. Perhaps he could contribute to the reforms that seemed to be looming. However, on his arrival at Constance, the Pope seized and tried him separately. Hus was found guilty of heresy. 

In 1415, Hus was burned alive in a fire fuelled by his own books. He died praying and reciting the psalms, refusing to recant. He declared: “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I place my cause, since he will judge each, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

Jan Hus’ life was snuffed out by a system that, at the time, barely felt a scratch from his protests and attempted reforms. Of course, hindsight allows us to see that this seismic tremor pointed toward a much larger disturbance on the horizon.

With the Protestant Reformation around the corner, something much bigger was brewing as the church blindly marched forward, ignoring its own foundations.

The church’s history is dotted with individuals and communities who relentlessly called the church back to its Biblical roots. The interesting question to ponder is, in several hundred years’ time when people look back on the early 21st century, what are the critical issues our church is blindly ignoring and which voices will, like Hus, register as the warning tremors in coming seismic disruptions?

Simon Gomersall is Trinity College Queensland’s Lecturer in Historical and Contemporary Mission and Director of Activate (Gap Year Program).

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