Letters of John Huss Written During His Exile and Imprisonment/Preface of Dr Martin Luther, to the Letters of John Huss, published by him in the year 1537

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In order to render more prudent, and to instruct, by means of the tyrannical judgments of the Council of Constance, all theologians that may be hereafter called to sit in a council of the Roman Church.

Should any man read these letters, or hear them read, being, at the same time, in possession of a sound intelligence, and, in the face of God, having a regard for his own conscience, he will not, I am convinced, hesitate to allow that John Huss was endowed with the precious gifts of the Holy Spirit. Observe, in fact, how firmly he clung, in his writings and his words, to the doctrines of Christ; with what courage he struggled against the agonies of death; with what patience and humility he suffered every indignity; and with what greatness of soul he at last confronted a cruel death in defence of the truth;—doing all these things alone and unaided, before an imposing assembly of the most powerful and eminent men, like a lamb in the midst of wolves and lions. If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, no person under the sun can be looked on as a true Christian. By what fruits, then, shall we recognise the truth, if it is not manifest by those with which John Huss was so richly adorned?

The greatest crime of John Huss was his having declared that a man of impious life was not the head of the universal Church: he allowed him to be the chief of a particular church, but not of the universal one; just the same as a minister of the word, whose life is criminal, still remains minister according to external appearance, although he is not, on that account, a member of the saints in his church. In a similar manner, John Huss denied that an impious and flagitious pontiff was a worthy one, although seated on the throne of the Church; it is as if we should declare that Judas, being both traitor and robber, was not an honest man, although he had been called to the functions of an apostle. Every effort, in fact, was made to prevail on John Huss to admit that a criminal pope ought to be regarded as a saint, and was infallible; that his words and acts were alike holy, and ought to be received and respected as so many articles of faith. All the men of the Council of Constance, wise as they were considered, would have lent a favourable ear to such assertions,—they who, when they had dethroned three culpable pontiffs, did not allow to any one the right of condemhing them to the flames! But when John Huss said the same things, they dragged him at once to the stake!

The door was (once more)[1] thrown open to similar events, by the indulgences which the Roman pontiff scattered with such profusion over the whole world, and by the jubilee which he instituted at Rome to build the church of St Peter: for the pope, amongst his other inventions, declared, and afterwards confirmed by his bulls, that the souls of such persons as, having undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome, should happen to die on the way, should at once take flight to heaven; and, in his quality of God on earth, and God’s viceroy, he orders, most peremptorily, the angels to bear such souls upwards on rapid cars. Tetzel, the bearer of the indulgences of the bishop of Mentz, in like manner taught that the souls would spring from purgatory to heaven, as soon as the clink of the money paid into the treasury should be heard; but when shortly after he was confounded and put to shame, he shut his impudent mouth.

It was to oppose such impieties, calculated as they were to disgust even a brute animal,[2] that John Huss, preacher of the Word of God at the chapel of Bethlehem at Prague, put himself forward. He denied that any such power was given to the Roman pontiff, who, he boldly declared, might be mistaken in that as well as many other things. Having then taken the great liberty of inculcating that the pope can err (a heresy then considered far more frightful than to deny Jesus Christ), he was constrained by violence to confirm what he had maintained in saying, that an impious pope was not a pious one. All then were in wild commotion, like so many wild boars, and they gnashed their teeth, knit their brows, bristled up their coat, and, at last, rushing precipitately on him, delivered him cruelly and wickedly to the flames.

One of the first articles that it was necessary to admit at that period was, that the Roman pontiff was infallible; and such was the opinion of the jurisconsults of the Roman court. It did not appear presumable that any error could emanate from so elevated a quarter; but when personal presumptions are formed, it often comes to pass too much is presumed.

The extraordinary mistake of these men on so important a point, and the manifest outrages which John Huss suffered from them, only served to animate him with greater courage. A conscience pure of all crime before God and before the world, affords a man a great consolation in his misfortunes; and if his suffering should be for the name and glory of God, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter of the afflicted, immediately comes to his aid, and lends him assistance against the world and against demons, as Christ has promised (Matt. x.) in these words: “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you;” and (Luke xxi.) “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay.”

I have heard from some persons worthy of faith, that the Emperor Maximilian said, in speaking of John Huss, “They have done great injustice to that excellent man.” Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his early writings, now in my possession, has declared that John Huss had been burned, but not convinced; and the general opinion amongst pious men of that day was, that he had been loaded with outrage and violence. I will relate here what Dr Staupitz narrated to me of a conversation which he had with his predecessor, Andrew Prolès, a man of birth and merit, relative to the rose of Dr John Zacharias. This Zacharias was represented in the cloisters bearing a rose in his hat, as a distinction for him, and an affront to John Huss. Prolès, seeing this image, said, “I would not consent to wear that rose.” Staupitz having inquired for what motive, Prolès replied, “When it was maintained before the Council of Constance against John Huss, that the pope could not be represented by any one, Dr Zacharias brought forward the passage of Ezekiel (chap, xxxiv.), It is I who am above the shepherds, and not the people.[3] John Huss denied that these words could be found to form part of the chapter alluded to; and Zacharias offered to prove the contrary, from the very Bible which John Huss had brought from Bohemia: for Zacharias, like many others, had often visited Huss for the purpose of convincing him, and he had by chance happened to perceive the passage in question. The Bible was then produced in the assembly, and it shewed that Zacharias was right. John Huss, nevertheless, maintained that the Bible was not a correct one, and that the other versions would not confirm it; but being overwhelmed by the clamours of his adversaries, he lost his cause, and Zacharias received a rose from the Council, in perpetual memory of this fact. And yet,” observed Prolès, “it is certain that these words are not found in any correct Bible, whether manuscript or printed, and that they all testify against Zacharias.” Such was the account of Prolès to Dr Staupitz.

The verse alluded to is found in all German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew Bibles, as it was quoted by John Huss; but at Constance they could not admit it in any other way than as quoted by Zacharias, who deserved neither to receive the rose nor to wear it.

The adversaries of John Huss’s opinions have themselves testified to his learning. Thirty years back, I heard several able theologians declare that “John Huss was an exceedingly superior doctor, and that he surpassed in erudition and knowledge all the persons composing the council.” His writings, and, amongst others, his Treatise on the Church, and his Sermons, confirm this eulogium.

When I was a divinity student at Erfurt, my hand happened to alight, one day, in the library of the monastery, on a volume of John Huss’s sermons. Having read, on the cover of the work, the words, Sermons of John Huss, I was immediately inflamed with a desire to ascertain, by perusing this book, that had escaped from the flames, and was thus preserved in a public library, what heresies he had disseminated. I was struck with amazement as I read on, and was filled with an astonishment difficult to describe, as I sought out for what reason so great a man—a doctor, so worthy of veneration, and so powerful in expounding the Scriptures—had been burned to death. But the name of Huss was, at that period, such an object of execration, that I absolutely believed that if I spoke of him in terms of praise, the heavens would fall on me, and the sun veil his light. Having then closed the book, I withdrew sad at heart, and I remarked to myself, by way of consolation—“Perhaps he wrote those things before he fell into heresy.” At that time I was still ignorant of what had passed in the Council of Constance.

All that I could say would only add infinitely to the high character of John Huss. His adversaries render him a striking, though unintentional testimony; for if their clouded eyes could open to the light, they would blush at the remembrance of the things which they themselves narrate. The author of a collection of the acts of the council, written in German, and enriched with very many remarkable details, endeavours, with all his power, to cover with odium the cause of John Huss; and yet he declares, that when Huss beheld himself stripped of all the dignities of his order, he smiled with intrepid firmness. According to the same author, also, Huss, when conducted to the funeral pile, constantly repeated—“Jesus, Son of God, have pity on me!” At the sight of the fatal stake to which he was to be fixed in order to be burned, he fell on his knees and cried out—“Jesus, Son of the living God, who suffered for us all, have pity on me!” Beholding a peasant bringing some wood to feed the flames, he again smiled with mildness, and uttered these words of St Jerome—“O holy simplicity!”[4] A priest having drawn nigh, and demanded if he desired to confess, Huss replied, that he was ready to do so; and the priest having insisted on the necessity of abjuring, John Huss refused, saying that he did not consider himself guilty of any mortal sin.

The man who, in the agony of death, invoked, with so firm a heart, Jesus the Son of God—who, for such a cause, delivered up his body to the flames with so strong a faith, and so stedfast a constancy—if such a man, I repeat, deserves not to be considered a generous and in trepid martyr, and true follower of Christ, it will be difficult for any one to be saved. Jesus Christ himself has declared:—“He who confesses me before men, him will I also confess before my Father.” What more shall I say? The Roman pontiff raises many men to the rank of saints, of whom it would be difficult to predicate if they are with the elect or with the devils; and he precipitates into hell a man like this, when it results, from the examination of his whole life, that his place is in heaven.[5]

I have again specified these matters, in order that they may serve as a salutary warning to such of our theologians as may repair to the approaching council; for should they resemble the men who assembled at the Council of Constance, the same thing will happen to them as to their predecessors—the acts which they will be anxious to conceal and bury in oblivion shall be dragged forth to the open day, and published everywhere. The doctors of Constance were convinced that no person would ever presume to accuse them, either by word or writing, and much less in the teeth of the cruelest menaces, to honour John Huss as a saint, and condemn them for their conduct. Events have, on the contrary, either by me or by others, verified the predictions of John Huss. Our theologians, strong in their authority, anticipate no peril. I admit their power to be equal to what they possessed in John Huss’s time; but it is not less certain, that he who then stood at their tribunal now sits in a place where his judges must give way before him.

  1. We add these words, omitted by Luther, but necessary to complete the meaning of the passage.
  2. Quos nullus neque asinus neque porens ferret.
  3. It is not easy to see, in reading this recital, what force the adversaries of Huss could draw from the passage, for the Eternal is alone spoken of, who announces that he comes himself in the place of bad pastors. The argument of Zacharias cannot have any weight except with those who absolutely behold God in the pope, and who imagine that all that is said of the Eternal in the Scriptures is applicable to the pope.
  4. Luther here confounds two events. The touching expression which he mentions is erroneously attributed to John Huss; it fell from the lips of Jerome of Prague.—(VideThe Reformers before the Reformation.” Vol. II., Book III., Chap. XII.
  5. Luther adds:—“Sunt igitur in numero sanctorum tuorum diaboli, et tu vicissim in ipsorum, mi pontifex Romane.