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Jan Hus: Biography & Overview

Instructor: Amy Kasza
In this lesson, learn about Jan Hus who, along with John Wycliffe, is regarded as one of the chief sources of Protestant Reformation thought. Following the lesson, you can test your newfound knowledge with a quiz.

Humble Beginnings and Further Education

Jan Hus.
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We all know someone who can be a bit of a troublemaker or at least kind of a rebel. While this is usually just a phase for teenagers and young adults, some people are just born to stand up for their unpopular beliefs. Jan Hus was just such a man.

Jan Hus was born into large family in the poorer class of Bohemia, or what is now the modern Czech Republic. Little information regarding his youth survives; it's only vaguely clear that he was born between 1369 and 1371. In 1390, he entered the University of Prague, where he remained to earn a bachelor's and master's degree, and to teach as a member of the faculty. It was during his time at the university that he began to adopt the ideas that would lead to his prominent role as a religious reformer. Hus was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1400.

The University of Prague in the late 14th century was embroiled in an ongoing contest between the native Czech faculty, who were of a strong nationalistic (a sense of pride in one's country and a belief that it is an exceptional place) spirit, and faculty from Germany. The Czech faculty had been exposed to the works of English reformer John Wycliffe, and agreed with his assertions that many of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church were not biblical or even bordered on the immoral.

Among the Church abuses cited by Czech reformers was the heavy taxation levied by the Church against the people who lived on and worked the land. In contrast, the German faculty tended to support the Catholic Church and the papacy. While John Wycliffe's teachings included disagreements with the Church of a theological nature, the Czech reformers did not share those beliefs but instead limited their objections to matters of Church practice and policy.

Adding to the atmosphere of religious controversy in which Hus lived and worked was the Western Schism that lasted from 1378 through 1417, nearly all of Hus's lifetime. The Schism involved political rivalry between first two, then three different claimants to the papacy. These three men came from different countries with opposing political ambitions and desire for growth and domination.

Controversy, Excommunication, and Execution

This is where things get dark.

In 1402, Hus became the head of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. Here he preached in the people's common language, rather than the Church-mandated Latin. The Chapel was known for sheltering clergy and students who were reform-minded. In turn, it was protected by the Archbishop of Prague, who at the beginning of his tenure was himself a proponent of reform. However, gradually the archbishop swung to the other side, and pressured several leading reformers to renounce their support for reform. As a result, where Hus once had enjoyed protection to speak freely, his former compatriots were now turned against him.

Illustration of Jan Hus preaching at Bethlehem Chapel, Prague.
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Hus continued his reformist preaching and teaching. For refusing to denounce Wycliffe and renounce his support for Church reform, Hus was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1410. Then in 1411, one of the rival popes authorized the sale of indulgences, which were reductions of time in purgatory or other 'heavenly favors' in return for payment. This rival pope did this to raise money for a war against another rival pope, Hus loudly spoke out against the practice.

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