Six hundred years ago today, on July 6, 1415, John Huss was burned at the stake. For Seventh-day Adventists, John Huss’ story is that of an inspirational reformer who, by his life and death, personified faithfulness, courage, and commitment to Jesus and the Bible. Many have been profoundly moved to follow Jesus because of Huss.
John Huss was born into a humble family in Husinec, a town in southern Bohemia. His father died when John was young, but most importantly for Huss and those who have lived after him, he had a pious mother with a high regard for God and education. To ensure a quality education, his mother took her son to Prague—a majestic city where John Huss would spend most of his life and become a very influential figure.
Ellen White describes the journey John Huss made with his mother to Prague. “Widowed and poor, she had no gifts of worldly wealth to bestow upon her son, but as they drew near to the great city, she kneeled down beside the fatherless youth and invoked for him the blessing of their Father in heaven. Little did that mother realize how her prayer was to be answered.”1
John Huss excelled at the University of Prague, becoming dean of the Faculty of Philosophy in 1401.2 He was also an ordained priest and rector of the university. His writing, and even more, his preaching, made him a well-known household name. Huss had become acquainted with and influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, the Englishman later described as “the morning star of the reformation.” His Scripture-based sermons in the people’s language attracted huge crowds to the Bethlehem Chapel—often more than 3,000, including members of Bohemian royalty. Huss offered the people a refreshing alternative to the dominant church of the era, which had drifted far from biblical truths.
The Roman Church and her three competing popes felt threatened by the ministry of John Huss. When he was summoned to Rome, Huss refused, suspecting that his biblical views would result in his death. However, with a written guarantee of protection from Emperor Sigismund, Huss accepted an invitation to attend the Council of Constance, arriving in the beautiful lakeside city on November 3, 1414.3
In Constance, Huss was soon imprisoned and faced trial for his beliefs and teachings. Ellen White paints a graphic picture of his trial and suffering: “Enfeebled by illness and imprisonment—for the damp, foul air of his dungeon had brought on a fever which nearly ended his life—Huss was at last brought before the council. Loaded with chains he stood in the presence of the emperor, whose honor and good faith had been pledged to protect him. During his long trial he firmly maintained the truth, and in the presence of the assembled dignitaries of church and state he uttered a solemn and faithful protest against the corruptions of the hierarchy. When required to choose whether he would recant his doctrines or suffer death, he accepted the martyr’s fate.”4
Huss’s plea to the council was to show him from the Bible where he had erred. Instead, on July 6, 1415, the tribunal found him guilty of heresy. On the same day, after literally being defrocked, Huss was taken from the church, where the trial had been convened, to the place of his cruel death. He was forced to wear a cap decorated with devils and the Church committed him to Satan, but Huss retorted, “Unto you, Lord Jesus, do I commit myself.” While the flames engulfed him, his last act was to pray. He died “with great fortitude.”5 Significantly, Ellen White notes, “The grace of God sustained him.”6
John Huss was an intelligent, educated, earnest, and dedicated reformer who was pivotal in propelling biblical truths throughout Europe and beyond. Although he only lived into his early or mid forties, Huss laid a vital foundation for Martin Luther and other subsequent reformers that ultimately enabled biblical Christianity to emerge from the errors and decadence of a very dark era.
Today, July 6 is a public holiday in honor of John Huss in the Czech Republic. Since his death he has remained a national hero. In Prague’s Old Town Square there is a substantial monument honoring the reformer, and Bethlehem Chapel has been rebuilt on the original site to serve as a museum commemorating this mighty herald of truth. In Constance, there is another significant memorial, marking the site of his martyrdom.
By far, Huss’s greatest legacy is the millions of Christians who have heard, read, and accepted the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ in their own language. Surely Proverbs 10:7 can be applied to this hero of faith: “The memory of the righteous is a blessing” (NRSV).
Anthony R. Kent is an associate secretary of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has served as an evangelist for 28 years in the South Pacific Division and around the globe.