The Beginnings of the Bohemian Reformation

The Bohemian Reformation was the product of a number of social, political and religious factors that all converged to create the spark that was needed to ignite the movement. Europe in the 14th century was prostrated under the weight of social, political, economic and spiritual unrest. The plague had ravaged the population nearly halving it and added to this was the Papal schism of 1378 and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church which stretched from 1305-1378. Up to that point, the church had been a stabilizing force in European life but in the aftermath of these two events, it began to lose the confidence of the people. 

Conditions Facing The Church

The Babylonian Captivity was a result of the political machinations of the King of France, who pressured the Pope to move the headquarters of the church to Avignon in Southern France. This move set the church back a great deal financially, which led the Pope, in an act of desperation, to begin to charge a fee for every conceivable service the church rendered. This put an enormous burden on the already burdened population, leading many to lose respect for the spiritual office and authority of the church.

Following this fiasco was the Papal Schism of 1378 that lasted until 1415 which was a direct result of the Pope’s move to Avignon. In 1378 Pope Gregory XI decided that the Papal seat of authority needed to be moved back to Rome, which he did successfully and died shortly after. After his death, the French cardinals came together and appointed Urban VI who was an Italian. He had radical views of church reform that the College of Cardinals had been unaware of at the time of his appointment. This led the Cardinals to form another conclave, strip Urban of his authority and elect a second Pope, who was French. Urban refused to accept the decision and the new French Pope refused to step down and so the Papacy had two popes. To make matters worse the debacle forced the whole of Europe to take sides, dividing the church in half. This led to the conciliar movement, where all the cardinals decided that only a council of all the bishops of the church deliberating together could elect a new Pope, this was attempted in 1409 and led to the church appointing a third Pope, which meant that there were now three vicars of Chris; one in Pisa, one in Avignon and one in Rome. The entire fiasco made people question all the bold assertions the church and the Pope constantly made regarding their authority and divine commission. 

Europe in the 14th Century was ripe for change

Added to this Wycliffe was heralding the dawn of a new day in England and his work was spreading like wildfire throughout Europe, gaining traction among the disenchanted parishioners of Rome. All of these events set the stage for the rise of the Bohemian Reformation.

Jan Hus: Early Career

The man who stood at the helm of the Bohemian Reformation was John Hus. Hus began his career as the confessor to the Queen of Bohemia and later was pastor of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. The Bethlehem Chapel was known for encouraging its members to read and study the Bible for themselves and as pastor there John Hus was required to preach bible based sermons from the pulpit every week. This gave him the unique opportunity of having to study the Bible for himself and as he studied, prepared and preached sermon after sermon his mind began to open to the truths of God’s word as never before. The power of Scripture began to draw him and soon he was eagerly drinking in the word of God and sharing with others, truths that had deeply impacted his own mind. People flocked to the Chapel to hear the word of God preached to them and the ripples of this revival found their way into every crevice of Bohemian society, permeating it with new life.

  1. Europe in the 14th Century was a melting pot of social and economic upheaval due to the plague sweeping away about half the population
  2. The Catholic Church, which had up to that point been a bulwark of stability, was embroiled in one embarrassing controversy after another.
  3. People were looking for something more substantial to give them hope in the midst of the uncertainty that plagued their daily lives.
  4. God raised up the Bohemian Reformation to fill this void in the hearts of the people.

James and Conrad in Prague

While Huss was preaching in Prague the work of Wycliffe was gaining traction in England and his writings found their way to Bohemia through the agency of the Queen of England, Anne of Bohemia, sister of King Wenceslas of Bohemia. They were also brought into the country by scholars who had directly been influenced by Wycliffe at Balliol College in Oxford. Two of these young men, James and Conrad of Canterbury, entered Prague bent on preaching the gospel and overthrowing the doctrines of Rome. They started their work with a bang by holding public disputations with anyone who would dare to take them on in the city square. Needless to say, they caught the attention of more than the common people and they were soon commanded by the authorities to stop their preaching or face the inevitable penalties.

They stopped speaking and decided to use their artistic talents instead, setting up two large canvasses in the center of the city they drew Jesus, as the meek and lowly one, sitting on a donkey and next to him they sketched a portrait of the Pope, dressed in his finery and surrounded by his retinue of bishops and cardinals. The contrast was striking and people flocked to gawk at the paintings, noting the obvious contrast between the master and his professed disciple and vicar on earth.

Their artistic abilities cause more of a stir than their preaching abilities had and soon the whole city was talking about what they had seen. Among those who came to look at the paintings was Huss and they left a deep impression on his mind.

Wycliffe was the spark that lit the Bohemian Reformation.

The preaching of Huss, the preaching and painting of James and Conrad and the circulation of the writings of Wycliffe at the Royal Court all worked together to draw the minds of the people away from the Church of Rome and to the word of God. Prague began to come alive with the fire of revival and reformation and Huss was hailed as the harbinger of a great spiritual awakening. The Bohemian Reformation has officially begun.

Jerome: Companion of Huss

By Huss’s side was Jerome, a brilliant oator, and scholar, who had recently come back to Prague from England where he had been heavily influenced by Wycliffe and his work. Jerome was fiery and impetuous and he began to teach and dispute the tenants of the gospel in the public assemblies and the University.

Deaths of Huss and Jerome

News of the spiritual awakening in Bohemia reached the ears of the Pope in Rome and, having enough to deal with between the Babylonian captivity and the Schism, still called on Huss to appear in Rome to be tried. When this summons failed to yield results the church threw everything they had in their bag of antagonistic tricks at the citizens of Prague. Not only was the city placed under the terror of Papal interdict, all the writings of Wycliffe were dragged out into the public squares and burned. Huss continued his work unfazed in the Bohemian countryside and the people flocked to the new standard of truth that he was planting. But the work of Huss and Jerome was relatively short-lived as they were summoned before the Council of Constance in 1415, tried and burned as heretics.

The Hussite Wars

Bohemia was stunned by this sudden and vicious retaliation against men who were seeking to turn the hearts of their people away from the teachings of men to God. The deaths of Huss and Jerome triggered a public outcry against the Roman church and the people who were already disenchanted with the church began to turn away from it with a vengeance.  The death of Huss caused the writings of Wycliffe and those of Huss himself to be sought after and read by almost the whole population and the reformation instead of dying with Huss, received new life from his death.

In a sense, the Catholic church did the Reformation a huge favor by burning Huss at the stake as they did, because it served to irrevocably turn the tide of popular opinion against them and within four years of Huss’s death the majority of the nation had embraced the ideas he espoused.

The Pope hurled papal excommunications against the country and the Bohemian people found themselves floundering. Their king, Wenceslaus IV, was a poor excuse for a regent and didn’t possess the wherewithal necessary to defend his country and the people were not able to marshal themselves without a commander at their head.

Jan Trocznowski, known somewhat affectionately as Ziska, was the man raised up by God to provide Bohemia with the leadership it so desperately needed.  A man of considerable military genius, he began his career by distinguishing himself in several military conflicts with Poland and later became a chamberlain of the king. Following the death of Huss, Ziska was determined to avenge the wrongs committed against the reformer by the Papacy and asked the king to give him written permission to do so. What followed was Ziska leading the Hussite armies to war against the invading armies of Sigismund and the Holy Roman Empire.

His place was filled by Procopius, an equally able and skillful general and in some respects a better leader. The pope proclaimed the second crusade in 1427, in which his armies were defeated by Procopius and the Bohemian army. He would go on to proclaim 2 more crusades before his successor ascended the Papal throne and proclaimed the fifth crusade in 1431. The armies of the Holy Roman Empire were defeated in every encounter.

Council of Basel and Its Impact

Finally having exhausted all means of aggression, the Papacy resorted to cunning to achieve its ends. Raising the white flag, they convened the Council of Basel, presided over by the Papal Legate Cardinal Julian, an eloquent orator,  who called for unity and peace. The bohemian response was to lay down four terms upon which they were willing to broker peace. The four points were, the free preaching of the Bible, the right of the whole church to partake in communion and the use of the common vernacular in worship, the exclusion of the clergy from all civil office and authority and the jurisdiction of the civil courts to extend over clergy and laity alike.

The church acquiesced to the terms on the condition that they could write up the agreement and stipulate the terms in the language of their own choosing. The document, known as the Compacta, was a thinly veiled declaration of papal supremacy over Bohemia, a masterpiece of linguistic acrobatics that gave back to Rome everything that she had fought for, thus handing her, by means of diplomacy what she had not been able to gain by means of open warfare.  

One of the interesting things about the Bohemian Reformation is its timing. The social, political and economic climate at the time was ripe for change and the spiritual declension of the church led the people to be more open to new spiritual ideas and concepts.

When you take a step back and look at the way God works in and through history one of the most recognizable factors is the power of timing. Timing can make or break individuals, families, and nations and God executes his purposes at exactly the right moment and that makes a significant difference in the outcomes.