PRAGUE, Czech Republic – He was burned at the stake by the church, quoting Psalms as the flames engulfed his body.
And he lit a fire in the church that still burns today. It started in his country and spread outward.
But as people mill about his imposing memorial statue today in Prague’s Old Town Square, many of them have no idea who John Huss is.
Huss is part of a “great legacy of faith” in the Czech Republic, said Mark Edworthy, a Southern Baptist regional leader based in Prague. “The country annually celebrates the martyrdom days of John Huss and King Wenceslas, from the Christmas carol.”
A statue of John Huss stands in Prague’s Old Town Square. Huss was burned at the stake in 1415 because of his devotion to Jesus Christ and the scriptures. The other figures immortalized on the monument represent the 27 evangelical leaders executed on that spot in 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, in which a largely Protestant Czech army was crushed by the combined forces of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, the German Catholic League and others.
Both were killed for their faith, Edworthy said.
“But when I ask Czechs who these men were and how or why they were killed, I get blank stares or general answers like, ‘I think he was a priest or king or someone,’” he said.
A priest Huss was – at least until he was stripped of his priestly garb piece by piece on the way to the stake.
He became a priest not for noble or spiritual reasons but simply to escape poverty.
He died stripped of his priesthood because of his devotion to Jesus Christ and the scriptures.
Thanks to the writings of John Wycliffe, Huss went from a complacent comfort-seeker to a man clinging to truth, “desiring to hold, believe and assert whatever is contained in [the Bible] as long as I have breath in me.”
Czechs rallied around the scriptures with Huss, simply wanting to put the Bible at the center as he did. But it soon became a political issue, and before long Huss’ ideas pitted him against the pope and the king, who were rolling in the wealth of indulgences paid to the church.
Huss was burned at the stake in 1415, his ashes thrown in a lake. But that wasn’t the end of his influence on the church. His people were furious and stuck to their guns. They faced three military attacks over the next few years and, even after compromising with the Catholic Church, continued to influence change.
A century later, Martin Luther dusted off a book of sermons and found a new hero in Huss, his ideas and his commitment.
The Reformation was born.
But many Czechs neither know nor care about it, Edworthy said.
“Evangelicals comprise far less than 1 percent of the population, so Huss’ spiritual legacy is not very strong. As stated, most Czechs don’t really know his story or that he was an inspiration to Luther 100 years later,” he said.
And even if they do know his story, the “tragic paradox” is that they remember him not for his faith but for the deeds his faith energized, said Preston Pearce, a Southern Baptist representative who serves with his wife Karen in Prague. They think of him as “a revolutionary against established power,” he said.
A Hussite church still exists in Prague, but “unfortunately it is quite dead,” Karen Pearce said. “This is a sad legacy to the man.”
The story of the other figures immortalized on the Huss monument in Prague is telling also, Preston Pearce said. He explained that they represent the 27 evangelical leaders executed on that spot in 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, in which a largely Protestant Czech army was crushed by the combined forces of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, the German Catholic League and others.
After that, “the evangelical movement suffered greatly and most either recanted, fled or were killed,” Pearce said. “In my opinion, this forced re-catholicization is the reason for Czechs’ entrenched atheism today.”
Edworthy said Czechs “often know of a general Catholic heritage, but the very brutal wars between Catholics and Protestants following the Reformation have tainted the role of religion.”
Religion was watered down even more by communism’s 40 years of propaganda, he said, so the biggest challenge now is their indifference.
“They are not strongly committed to their position of atheism but are generally uninterested in an evangelical position,” Edworthy said.
They are biblically and spiritually illiterate, he said – a tragic reality after Huss’ sacrifice to defend the authority and centrality of scripture in one’s relationship with God.
“They rarely can make distinctions between Catholics and evangelicals,” Edworthy said. “They also have the postmodern orientation where truth can be relative. They could easily say about someone’s faith, ‘That is really nice for him,’ but see no disconnect with their own faithless walk.”
But Karen Pearce said Christian workers in Prague are starting to see a marked difference in the openness of Czechs to the gospel.
“Czechs are not actively searching for spiritual truth per se right now – they are very secular and self-satisfied,” she said. “However, we … have seen a definite change in the past three to five years as far as openness. We can see much evidence that the spiritual climate is changing slowly but surely through the persistent prayer, witness and faithfulness on the part of God’s people who labor in this country.”
They are seeing Czechs get saved and baptized “somewhat regularly,” she said, noting that it used to be “virtually unheard of.”
“We praise God for that,” Karen Pearce said.
And most Baptist churches in the Czech Republic – as well as Protestant and evangelical churches in general – exercise and appreciate the freedoms Huss championed, said Keith Jones, rector of International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague.
“Czech Baptists certainly feel a strong affinity with John Huss and his proto-reformation – communion of both kinds, use of the vernacular in worship, the sense of a believing community not suffocated by heavy, clerical leadership,” Jones said.
They see Huss as a “distant father figure,” he said. “Many Czech free, Protestant, believing church groups … use the chalice as a symbol on their buildings and in their logos, harkening back to the Wycliffe/Hussite era.”
But Czech Baptists don’t have any direct connection to Huss, said Milan Kern, president of the Czech Baptist Union.
“The Baptist church in the Czech Republic doesn’t have any link with the Hussite church and doesn’t feel influenced by John Huss,” Kern said.
But, he said, Huss is “a symbol for many Czechs as a man who dared to criticize publicly evil things in the Roman Catholic Church,” for example, the immorality of priests. “In his braveness, he is an example for Baptists,” Kern said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention, where this story first appeared. Some historical facts were compiled from Christianity Today.)