Today we look at the reform movements of Hus and Wycliffe. Mysticism (last lesson) takes Catholicism to its most personal expression, and some Protestants find mystic Catholics the most appealing of all. Wycliffe and Hus, on the other hand, are "Protestants before Protestantism." They offer a revealing preview of the Reformation that is coming in the sixteenth century.

  1. John Wycliffe c. 1330-1384
    1. Wycliffe was an Englishman. Comparatively little is known of his life. He was educated at Oxford and taught there. Around 1374 we see him beginning to enter the political arena as a representative of the king (Edward III) at a papal conference. He began to publish theories that rulers hold their dominion from God and when they are in sin, they forfeit their right to rulership. Even the church ought to forfeit her rights if she is acting in the wrong way and not like the church.
    2. Wycliff came under the protection of, and possibly influence of, John of Gaunt, the younger son of the king. For many years this relationship would protect him when he was attacked by church authorities. By 1377 he was a very popular figure with the governing authorities, who were withholding payments from Rome based upon his teaching (and based upon their greed!).
    3. Pope Gregory XI issued bulls condemning various teachings of Wycliffe. He was the last major pope to reign before the Avignon captivity of the papacy. The faculty of Oxford supported Wycliffe in this particular controversy. Still, he left Oxford in 1378.
    4. But Wycliffe went further. Studying the Bible, he taught a doctrine of predestination and furthermore said that the true church is that of the elect, not the visible organization on earth. But when he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation, he lost the support of the great and powerful. He also began to teach that the Pope was the Antichrist.
    5. By 1380 he was planning Bible translation activities and also began to send out preachers to take the message of the Bible to the people. These "poor preachers" or "Lollards" made a huge impact on the England of that day.
    6. In 1382 the English clergy moved against him and his friends at Oxford were deserting him, along with John of Gaunt. But he had enough support to stay alive, and kept writing even though he was no longer allowed to preach. He died in 1394 after several strokes.
    7. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) condemned him officially as a heretic and later, in 1428, his bones were dug up and burned.
    8. But the Lollards kept going in England, with varying success, and still existed at the time Luther's teaching broke into England at the Reformation. An undercurrent of reform was thus present for more than a century before Luther.
  2. Jan Hus c. 1370-1415
    1. Hus was born of poor parents in Bohemia. He enrolled in the University of Prague in 1390 and took his master's degree in 1394, becoming a professor there. Like all the philosophy professors there, he was reading Wycliffe's philosophical works. There had been a lot of contact between Oxford and Prague and between England and Bohemia recently, due to intermarriage between the two royal families.
    2. But in 1401 Wycliffe's theological works arrived at the university. These changed everything. Hus was especially impressed with the critiques against the power and dominion of the church in temporal matters. Remember that this is now the time of the Great Schism, and there are two rival popes. Hus began to believe that the church was far too powerful in non-spiritual realms and that the secular power needed to move against it. The difference here was that the secular rulers of Bohemia were ready for such a message, unlike those in England.
    3. In 1391 the Bethlehem Chapel (still existing in Prague) was founded by followers of the Bohemian political reformer Jan Milic. At Bethlehem Chapel sermons were preached in Czech. In 1402 Hus took over the preaching there, and became a significant reform figure.
    4. Just as Hus's views were becoming more complete and more reform-minded, several of his influential friends, including the Archbishop of Prague, were undergoing the opposite transformation, becoming opponents of reform. The stage was set for conflict.
    5. In 1409 when the Council of Pisa was trying to depose the two popes and elect a third, Hus and the reformers supported the move while the archbishop and the German faculty of the university (which outnumbered the Czechs) opposed it. King Wenceslas of Bohemia changed the charter of the university to allow Czech votes to outnumber German votes. In response, the Germans withdrew to other universities, including founding the university of Leipzig. Hus was now elected rector of the university of Prague.
    6. At this time, upon Hus's support of the new third pope, the archbishop forbade preaching in private chapels, including Bethlehem Chapel. When Hus refused to stop preaching, he was excommunicated.
    7. Even then, he had the support of the king, but in 1412, when he preached against the indulgences that the third pope (now John XXIII) was selling with King Wenceslas to finance his struggle against the other two popes, the king became angry with Hus. Now there was no protector.
    8. He left Prague when the city was placed under an interdict. After laying low for two years, he accepted an invitation to defend himself as a heretic at the Council of Constance. He had the Emperor's safe-conduct assurance no matter which way the Council decided his case.
    9. However, the Emperor was persuaded to arrest him at Constance and he was held in prison for the remainder of his life. He was allowed to defend himself publicly through the intercession of Bohemian nobles, but was condemned as a heretic and burned July 6, 1415. (July 6 is an official Czech holiday to this day.)
    10. Even though Hus did not share all of Wycliffe's views (in particular he did not deny transubstantiation), he believed the following: the supremacy of the Bible's authority over the Church; the separate spheres of civil and churchly power; the doctrine of predestination; Christ is head of the church, not the pope; that Communion should be served "in both kinds," that is, both the bread and the cup. (By this time the cup was commonly withheld from the people during the Mass.)
    11. After Hus's death, his followers became known as Hussites. His burning sparked national rebellion. Even though his followers became split into two competing factions (Utraquists and Taborites), the Bohemians still were able to militarily hold their own against the Emperor. They received the support of many noblemen and published the Four Articles of Prague, to which the emperor refused to subscribe: "(1) freedom of preaching; (2) communion in both kinds; (3) poverty of the clergy and expropriation of church property; (4) punishment of notorious sinners" (Britannica). They repelled two attacks on Bohemia and grew in power. In 1431 peace negotiations began with the Council of Basel. In 1433 the Utraquists received the grant of Communion in both kinds, and united with the Catholics to defeat the more radical Taborites. They then obtained most of their demands, including "communion in both kinds, the expropriation of church lands (which broke the economic power of the Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia), and an independent Bohemian Catholic church under Jan Rokycana as its elected archbishop. Although association with the Roman Catholic Church continued, the church of the Utraquist Hussites survived schisms and periodic persecutions until c. 1620, when it was finally absorbed by the Roman Catholics." (Britannica) But another proto-protestant group was formed, called the "Unity of the Brethren," which communicated with other Protestants after the outbreak of the Reformation, although it was later suppressed in the religious wars. This group became the precursors of the Moravian church, later to become so influential in the life of John Wesley.
  3. Summary

Except for next week's slide show on the art and architecture of the Middle Ages, this is the last class. There are several topics that we haven't covered adequately. St. Francis, the Eastern church, the political realities, the coming of the Muslims, and many other topics will have to remain for your further study. We have set the stage for the Reformation, which I confess, remains higher than ever in my estimation now, having studied the early church and the medieval church. At the same time we have seen that God's witness did not entirely die out, as some Protestants would have us believe, within the Roman church. For better and for worse, these are our spiritual ancestors, and their influence is still with us.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.