Two Heroes


Two Heroes Face Death



As early as the ninth century the Bible had been translated and public worship was conducted in the language of the people of Bohemia. But Gregory VII was intent upon enslaving the people, and a bull was issued forbidding public worship in the Bohemian tongue. The pope declared that “it was pleasing to the Omnipotent that His worship should be celebrated in an unknown language.” But Heaven had provided agencies for the preservation of the church. Many Waldenses and Albigenses, driven by persecution, came to Bohemia. They labored zealously in secret. Thus the true faith was preserved.

Before the days of Huss there were men in Bohemia who condemned the corruption in the church. The fears of the hierarchy were roused, and persecution was opened against the gospel. After a time it was decreed that all who departed from the Romish worship should be burned. But the Christians looked forward to the triumph of their cause. One declared when dying, “There shall arise one from among the common people, without sword or authority, and against him they shall not be able to prevail.”  Already one was rising, whose testimony against Rome would stir the nations.

John Huss was of humble birth and was early left an orphan by the death of his father. His pious mother, regarding education and the fear of God as the most valuable of possessions, sought to secure this heritage for her son. Huss studied at the provincial school, then repaired to the university at Prague, receiving admission as a charity scholar.

At the university, Huss soon distinguished himself by his rapid progress. His gentle, winning deportment gained him universal esteem. He was a sincere adherent of the Roman Church and an earnest seeker for the spiritual blessings it professes to bestow. After completing his college course, he entered the priesthood. Rapidly attaining eminence, he became attached to the court of the king. He was also made professor and afterward rector of the university. The humble charity scholar had become the pride of his country, his name renowned throughout Europe.  

Jerome, who afterward became associated with Huss, had brought with him from England the writings of Wycliffe. The queen of England, a convert to Wycliffe’s teachings, was a Bohemian princess. Through her influence the Reformer’s works were widely circulated in her native country. Huss was inclined to regard with favor the reforms advocated. Already, though he knew it not, he had entered upon a path which was to lead him far away from Rome.    

Two Pictures Impress Huss

About this time, two strangers from England, men of learning, had received the light and had come to spread it in Prague. They were soon silenced, but being unwilling to relinquish their purpose, had recourse to other measures. Being artists as well as preachers, in a place open to the public they drew two pictures. One represented the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, “meek, and sitting upon an ass” ( Matthew 21:5) and followed by His disciples in travel-worn garments and with naked feet. The other picture portrayed a pontifical procession—the pope in his rich robes and triple crown, mounted upon a horse magnificently adorned, preceded by trumpeters and followed by cardinals and prelates in dazzling array.  

Crowds came to gaze upon the drawings. None could fail to read the moral. There was great commotion in Prague, and the strangers found it necessary to depart. But the pictures made a deep impression on Huss and led him to a closer study of the Bible and of Wycliffe’s writings.  

Though he was not prepared yet to accept all the reforms advocated by Wycliffe, he saw the true character of the papacy, and denounced the pride, ambition, and corruption of the hierarchy.  

Prague Placed Under Interdict

Tidings were carried to Rome, and Huss was summoned to appear before the pope. To obey would be certain death. The king and queen of Bohemia, the university, members of the nobility, and officers of the government, united in an appeal to the pontiff that Huss be permitted to remain at Prague and answer by deputy. Instead, the pope proceeded to the trial and condemnation of Huss, and declared the city of Prague under interdict.  

In that age this sentence created alarm. The people looked upon the pope as the representative of God, holding the keys of heaven and hell and possessing power to invoke judgments. It was believed that until it should please the pope to remove the ban, the dead were shut out from the abodes of bliss. All the services of religion were suspended. The churches were closed. Marriages were solemnized in the churchyard. The dead were interred without rites in ditches or fields.  

Prague was filled with tumult. A large class denounced Huss and demanded that he be given up to Rome. To quiet the storm, the Reformer withdrew for a time to his native village. He did not cease his labors, but traveled through the country preaching to eager crowds. When the excitement in Prague subsided, Huss returned to continue preaching the Word of God. His enemies were powerful, but the queen and many nobles were his friends, and the people in great numbers sided with him.  

Huss had stood alone in his labors. Now Jerome joined in the reform. The two were hereafter united in their lives, and in death they were not to be divided. In those qualities which constitute real strength of character, Huss was the greater. Jerome, with true humility, perceived his worth and yielded to his counsels. Under their united labors the reform rapidly extended. 


God permitted great light to shine upon the minds of these chosen men, revealing to them many of the errors of Rome, but they did not receive all the light to be given to the world. God was leading the people out of the darkness of Romanism, and He led them on, step by step, as they could bear it. Like the full glory of the noontide sun to those who have long dwelt in darkness, all the light would have caused them to turn away. Therefore He revealed it little by little, as it could be received by the people.  

The schism in the church continued. Three popes were now contending for supremacy. Their strife filled Christendom with tumult. Not content with hurling anathemas, each cast about to purchase arms and obtain soldiers. Of course money must be had; to procure this, the gifts, offices, and blessing of the church were offered for sale.  

With increasing boldness Huss thundered against the abominations tolerated in the name of religion. The people openly accused Rome as the cause of the miseries that overwhelmed Christendom.  

Again Prague seemed on the verge of a bloody conflict. As in former ages, God’s servant was accused as “he that troubleth Israel.” 1 Kings 18:17. The city was again placed under interdict, and Huss withdrew to

 his native village. He was to speak from a wider stage, to all Christendom, before laying down his life as a witness for truth.  

A general council was summoned to meet at Constance [southwestern Germany], called at the desire of the emperor Sigismund by one of the three rival popes, John XXIII. Pope John, whose character and policy could ill bear investigation, dared not oppose the will of Sigismund. The chief objects to be accomplished were to heal the schism in the church and to root out “heresy.” The two antipopes were summoned to appear as well as John Huss. The former were represented by their delegates. Pope John came with many misgivings, fearing to be brought to account for the vices which had disgraced the tiara as well as for the crimes which had secured it. Yet he made his entry into the city of Constance with great pomp, attended by ecclesiastics and a train of courtiers. Above his head was a golden canopy, borne by four of the chief magistrates. The host was carried before him, and the rich dress of the cardinals and nobles made an imposing display.

Meanwhile another traveler was approaching Constance. Huss parted from his friends as if he were never to meet them again, feeling that his journey was leading him to the stake. He had obtained a safe-conduct from the king of Bohemia and one also from Emperor Sigismund. But he made all his arrangements in view of the probability of his death.

Safe Conduct From the King

In a letter to his friends he said: “My brethren, ... I am departing with a safe-conduct from the king to meet my numerous and mortal enemies. ... Jesus Christ suffered for His well-beloved; and therefore ought we to be astonished that He has left us His example? ... Therefore, beloved, if my death ought to contribute to His glory, pray that it may come quickly, and that He may enable me to support all my calamities with constancy. ... Let us pray to God ... that I may not suppress one tittle of the truth of the gospel, in order to leave my brethren an excellent example to follow.”

In another letter, Huss spoke with humility of his own errors, accusing himself “of having felt pleasure in wearing rich apparel and of having wasted hours in frivolous occupations.” He then added, “May the glory of God and the salvation of souls occupy thymind, and not the possession of benefices and estates. Beware of adorning thy house more than thy soul; and, above all, give thy care to the spiritual edifice. Be pious and humble with the poor, and consume not thy substance in feasting.”

At Constance, Huss was granted full liberty. To the emperor’s safe-conduct was added a personal assurance of protection by the pope. But, in violation of these repeated declarations, the Reformer was in a short time arrested by order of the pope and cardinals and thrust into a loathsome dungeon. Later he was transferred to a strong castle across the Rhine and there kept a prisoner. The pope was soon after committed to the same prison.  He had been proved guilty of the basest crimes, besides murder, simony, and adultery, “sins not fit to be named.” He was finally deprived of the tiara. The antipopes also were deposed, and a new pontiff chosen.

Though the pope himself had been guilty of greater crimes than Huss had charged upon the priests, yet the same council which degraded the pontiff proceeded to crush the Reformer. The imprisonment of Huss excited great indignation in Bohemia. The emperor, loath to violate a safe-conduct, opposed the proceedings against him. But the enemies of the Reformer brought forward arguments to prove that “faith ought not to be kept with heretics, nor persons suspected of heresy, though they are furnished with safe-conducts from the emperor and kings.”

Enfeebled by illness—the damp dungeon 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 good faith had been pledged to protect him. He firmly maintained the truth and uttered a solemn protest against the corruptions of the hierarchy. Required to choose whether he would recant his doctrines

 or suffer death, he accepted the martyr’s fate.

The grace of God sustained him. During the weeks of

suffering before his final sentence, heaven’s peace filled his soul. “I write this letter,” he said to a friend, “in my prison, and with my fettered hand, expecting my sentence of death tomorrow. ... When, with the assistance of Jesus Christ, we shall again meet in the delicious peace of the future life, you will learn how merciful God has shown Himself toward me, how effectually He has supported me in the midst of my temptations and trials.”

Triumph Foreseen

In his dungeon he foresaw the triumph of the true faith. In his dreams he saw the pope and bishops effacing the pictures of Christ which he had painted on the walls of the chapel at Prague. “This vision distressed him: but on the next day he saw many painters occupied in restoring these figures in greater number and in brighter colours. ... The painters, ... surrounded by an immense crowd, exclaimed, ‘Now let the popes and bishops come; they shall never efface them more!’” Said the Reformer, “The image of Christ will never be effaced. They have wished to destroy it, but it shall be painted afresh in all hearts by much better preachers than myself.”

For the last time, Huss was brought before the council, a vast and brilliant assembly—emperor, princes of the empire, royal deputies, cardinals, bishops, priests, and an immense crowd.

Called upon for his final decision, Huss declared his refusal to abjure. Fixing his glance upon the monarch whose plighted word had been so shamelessly violated, he declared: “I determined, of my own free will, to appear before this council, under the public protection and faith of the emperor here present.” A deep flush crimsoned the face of Sigismund as the eyes of all turned upon him.

Sentence having been pronounced, the ceremony of degradation began. Again exhorted to retract, Huss replied, turning toward the people: “With what face,

then, should I behold the heavens? How should I look on those multitudes of men to whom I have preached the pure gospel? No; I esteem their salvation more than this poor body, now appointed unto death.” The priestly vestments were removed one by one, each bishop pronouncing a curse as he performed his part of the ceremony. Finally, “they put on his head a cap or pyramidal-shaped miter of paper, on which were painted frightful figures of demons, with the word ‘Archheretic’ conspicuous in front. ‘Most joyfully,’ said Huss, ‘will I wear this crown of shame for Thy sake, O Jesus, who for me didst wear a crown of thorns.’”

Huss Dies at the Stake

He was now led away. An immense procession followed. When all was ready for the fire to be lighted, the martyr was once more exhorted to save himself by renouncing his errors. “What errors,” said Huss, “shall I renounce? I know myself guilty of none. I call God to witness that all that I have written and preached has been with the view of rescuing souls from sin and perdition; and, therefore, most joyfully will I confirm with my blood that truth which I have written and preached.”

When the flames kindled about him, he began to sing, “Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me,” and so continued till his voice was silenced forever. A zealous papist, describing the martyrdom of Huss, and of Jerome, who died soon after, said: “They prepared for the fire as if they were going to a marriage feast. They uttered no cry of pain. When the flames rose, they began to sing hymns; and scarce could the vehemency of the fire stop their singing.” 

When the body of Huss had been consumed, his ashes were gathered up and cast into the Rhine, and thus borne onward to the ocean to be as seed scattered in all the countries of the earth. In lands yet unknown it would yield abundant fruit in witnesses for the truth.

The voice in the council hall of Constance wakened echoes heard through all coming ages. His example would encourage multitudes to stand firm in the face of torture and death. His execution had exhibited to the world the perfidious cruelty of Rome. The enemies of truth had been furthering the cause which they sought to destroy!  

Yet the blood of another witness must testify for the truth. Jerome had exhorted Huss to courage and firmness, declaring that if he should fall into peril, he would fly to his assistance. Hearing of the Reformer’s imprisonment, the faithful disciple prepared to fulfill his promise. Without a safe-conduct he set out for Constance. On arriving, he was convinced that he had only exposed himself to peril without the possibility of doing anything for Huss. He fled but was arrested and brought back loaded with fetters. At his first appearance before the council his attempts to reply were met with shouts, “To the flames with him!”  He was thrown into a dungeon and fed on bread and water. The cruelties of his imprisonment brought illness and threatened his life; and his enemies, fearing he might escape them,

 treated him with less severity, though he remained in prison one year.  

Jerome Submits to the Council

The violation of Huss’s safe-conduct had roused a storm of indignation. The council determined, instead of burning Jerome, to force him to retract. He was offered the alternative to recant or to die at the stake. Weakened by illness, by the rigors of prison and the torture of anxiety and suspense, separated from friends, and disheartened by the death of Huss, Jerome’s fortitude gave way. He pledged himself to adhere to the Catholic faith and accepted the action of the council in condemning Wycliffe and Huss, excepting, however, the “holy truths”  which they had taught.  

But in the solitude of his dungeon he saw clearly what he had done. He thought of the courage and fidelity of Huss and pondered his own denial of the truth. He thought of the divine Master who for his sake endured the cross. Before his retraction he had found comfort amid sufferings in the assurance of God’s favor, but now remorse and doubt tortured his soul. He knew that still other retractions must be made before he could be at peace with Rome. The path upon which he was entering could end only in complete apostasy.  

Jerome Finds Repentance and New Courage

Soon he was again brought before the council. His submission had not satisfied the judges. Only by unreserved surrender of truth could Jerome preserve his life. But he had determined to avow his faith and follow his brother martyr to the flames.  

He renounced his former recantation and, as a dying man, solemnly required opportunity to make his defense. The prelates insisted that he merely affirm or deny the charges brought against him. Jerome protested against such cruel injustice. “You have held me shut up three hundred and forty days in a frightful prison,” he said; “you then bring me out before you, and lending an ear to my mortal enemies, you refuse to hear me. ... Take care not to sin against justice. As to me, I am only a feeble mortal; my life is but of little importance; and when I exhort you not to deliver an unjust sentence, I speak less for myself than for you.”   

His request was finally granted. In the presence of his judges, Jerome kneeled down and prayed that the divine Spirit might control his thoughts, that he might speak nothing contrary to truth or unworthy of his Master. To him that day was fulfilled the promise, “When they

deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”

Matthew 10:19, 20.  

For a whole year Jerome had been in a dungeon, unable to read or even see. Yet his arguments were presented with as much clearness and power as if he had had undisturbed opportunity for study. He pointed his hearers to the long line of holy men condemned by unjust judges. In almost every generation those seeking to elevate the people of their time had been cast out. Christ Himself was condemned as a malefactor at an unrighteous tribunal.  

Jerome now declared his repentance and bore witness to the innocence and holiness of the martyr Huss. “I knew him from his childhood,” he said. “He was a most excellent man, just and holy; he was condemned, notwithstanding his innocence. ... I am ready to die. I will not recoil before the torments that are prepared for me by my enemies and false witnesses, who will one day have to render an account of their impostures before the great God, whom nothing can deceive.”  

Jerome continued: “Of all the sins that I have committed since my youth, none weigh so heavily on my mind, and cause me such poignant remorse, as that which I committed in this fatal place, when I approved of the iniquitous sentence rendered against Wycliffe, and against the holy martyr, John Huss, my master and my friend. Yes! I confess it from my heart, and declare with horror that I disgracefully quailed when, through a dread of death, I condemned their doctrines. I therefore supplicate ... Almighty God to deign to pardon me my sins, and this one in particular, the most heinous of all.”  

Pointing to his judges, he said firmly, “You condemned Wycliffe and John Huss. ... The things which they have affirmed, and which are irrefutable, I also think and declare, like them.”     

His words were interrupted. The prelates, trembling with rage, cried out: “What need is there of further proof? We behold with our own eyes the most obstinate of heretics!”  

Unmoved by the tempest, Jerome exclaimed: “What! do you suppose that I fear to die? You have held me for a whole year in a frightful dungeon, more horrible than death itself. ... I cannot but express my astonishment at such great barbarity toward a Christian.”

Assigned to Prison and Death

Again the storm of rage burst out, and Jerome was hurried away to prison. Yet there were some upon whom his words had made a deep impression and who desired to save his life. He was visited by dignitaries and urged to submit to the council. Brilliant prospects were presented as reward.

“Prove to me from the Holy Writings that I am in error,” he said, “and I will abjure it.”

“The Holy Writings!” exclaimed one of his tempters, “is everything then to be judged by them? Who can understand them till the church has interpreted them?”

“Are the traditions of men more worthy of faith than the gospel of our Saviour?” replied Jerome.

“Heretic!” was the response, “I repent having pleaded so long with you. I see that you are urged on by the devil.”

Erelong he was led out to the same spot upon which Huss had yielded up his life. He went singing on his way, his countenance lighted up with joy and peace. To him death had lost its terrors. When the executioner, about to kindle the pile, stepped behind him, the martyr exclaimed, “Apply the fire before my face. Had I been afraid, I should not be here.”

His last words were a prayer: “Lord, Almighty Father, have pity on me, and pardon me my sins; for Thou knowest that I have always loved Thy truth.”18 The ashes of the martyr were gathered up and, like those of Huss, thrown into the Rhine. So perished God’s faithful light-bearers.

The execution of Huss had kindled a flame of indignation and horror in Bohemia. The whole nation declared him to have been a faithful teacher of the truth. The council was charged with murder. His doctrines attracted greater attention than before, and many were led to accept the reformed faith. The pope and the emperor united to crush the movement, and the armies of Sigismund were hurled upon Bohemia.

But a deliverer was raised up. Ziska, one of the ablest generals of his age, was the leader of the Bohemians. Trusting in the help of God, that people withstood the mightiest armies that could be brought against them. Again and again the emperor invaded Bohemia, only to be repulsed. The Hussites were raised above the fear of death, and nothing could stand against them. The brave Ziska died, but his place was filled by Procopius, in some respects a more able leader.

The pope proclaimed a crusade against the Hussites. An immense force was precipitated upon Bohemia, only to suffer terrible defeat. Another crusade was proclaimed. In all the papal countries of Europe men, money, and munitions of war were raised. Multitudes flocked to the papal standard.

The vast force entered Bohemia. The people rallied to repel them. The two armies approached each other until only a river lay between. “The crusaders were in greatly superior force, but instead of dashing across the stream, and closing in battle with the Hussites, whom they had come so far to meet, they stood gazing in silence at those warriors.”19

Suddenly a mysterious terror fell upon the host. Without striking a blow, that mighty force broke and scattered as if dispelled by an unseen power. The Hussite army pursued the fugitives, and immense booty fell into the hands of the victors. The war, instead of impoverishing, enriched the Bohemians.

A few years later, under a new pope, still another crusade was set on foot. A vast army entered Bohemia. The Hussite forces fell back before them, drawing the invaders farther into the country, leading them to count the victory already won.

At last the army of Procopius advanced to give them battle. As the sound of the approaching force was heard, even before the Hussites were in sight, a panic again fell upon the crusaders. Princes, generals, and common soldiers, casting away their armor, fled in all directions. The rout was complete, and again an immense booty fell into the hands of the victors.

Thus the second time a host of warlike men, trained for battle, fled without a blow before the defenders of a small and feeble nation. The invaders were smitten with a supernatural terror. He who put to flight the armies of Midian before Gideon and his three hundred, had again stretched out His hand. See Judges 7:19-25; Psalm 53:5.

Betrayed by Diplomacy

The papal leaders at last resorted to diplomacy. A compromise was entered into that betrayed the Bohemians into the power of Rome. The Bohemians had specified four points as the condition of peace with Rome: (1) the free preaching of the Bible; (2) the right of the whole church to both the bread and the wine in the communion and the use of the mother tongue in divine worship; (3) the exclusion of the clergy from all secular offices and authority; and, (4) in cases of crime, the jurisdiction of the civil courts over clergy and laity alike. The papal authorities agreed that the four articles should be accepted, “but that the right of explaining them ... should belong to the council—in other words, to the pope and the emperor.”  Rome gained by dissimulation and fraud what she had failed to gain by conflict. Placing her own interpretation upon the Hussite articles, as upon the Bible, she could pervert their meaning to suit her purposes.

A large class in Bohemia, seeing that it betrayed their liberties, could not consent to the compact. Dissensions arose, leading to strife among themselves. The noble Procopius fell, and the liberties of Bohemia perished.

Again foreign armies invaded Bohemia, and those who remained faithful to the gospel were subjected to a bloody persecution. Yet their firmness was unshaken. Forced to find refuge in caves, they still assembled to read God’s Word and unite in His worship. Through messengers secretly sent to different countries they learned “that amid the mountains of the Alps was an ancient church, resting on the foundations of Scripture, and protesting against the idolatrous

corruptions of Rome.”  With great joy, a correspondence was opened with the Waldensian Christians.

Steadfast to the gospel, the Bohemians waited through the night of their persecution, in the darkest hour still turning their eyes toward the horizon like men who watch for the morning.

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