In the 14th and 15th centuries, there were not one, not two, but three popes, all claiming to be the “Vicar of Christ” on earth. How did this happen, you may ask, and what does it have to do with the burning of Jan Hus? Below, are both stories, in brief:

The confusion began with the French king, Philip the IV, arresting, beating and imprisoning Pope Boniface VIII. Although he was released after three days, he died only a month later. Shortly after this in 1309, a French pope, Clement V, was elected but refused to move to Rome. Instead, he set up his Papal Enclave in Avignon, France, where it remained for 67 years under the rule of multiple Popes.

In 1376, Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome, and Pope Urban VI succeeded him. The French didn’t care for Urban VI, so they decided to elect their own pope, Clement VII. This arrangement continued until 1409 when the Council of Pisa was called. This council attempted to dissolve the two warring factions and elect a new pope that everyone could agree on.

How does this work out? With a third pope! Pope Alexander V was elected, but the other two refused to recognize him as the official pope, so there was simultaneously a pope in France, a pope in Rome, and a pope in Pisa.

It didn’t take long for the church as a whole to decide that this arrangement was ridiculous. The Council of Constance was called in 1414 to settle this matter and lasted for four years.

There were other matters to be dealt with in Constance aside from this papacy debacle. In the land of the Bohemians (today’s Czech Republic), in the city of Prague, was a professor and priest named Jan Hus (John Huss). Jan was born around 1396 in the town of Husinec, South of Prague. “Hus” means goose and this Husinec was known for its geese.

It didn’t take long for the church as a whole to decide that this arrangement was ridiculous.

Jan entered Charles University where he gained a Bachelor of Arts in 1393 and a Master’s in 1396. In 1400, he was ordained into the Holy Ministry and was appointed to serve as the preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague (which is still standing today). Hus’ call was somewhat progressive and unique because, in Bethlehem Chapel, the services were conducted in the Czech language instead of in Latin.

During this time, the writings of John Wycliffe of Oxford started to filter into the universities of Europe. Hus admired and believed many of Wycliffe’s teachings, including his rejection of indulgences, his adherence to the authority of Scripture over the church, his belief that Jesus Christ (rather than any pope or church bureaucrat) is the head of the church, and his claim that God’s Word should be in the vernacular of the people.

Hus began to teach these ideas, both at Bethlehem Chapel and Charles University and subsequently gained a large and faithful following which also served to put him in the crosshairs of those who could harm him.

The Pisan Pope, Alexander V, issued a papal bull empowering the archbishop over Hus to proceed against “Wycliffism” in Prague. All copies of Wycliffe’s writings were to be gathered and destroyed, and such teachings were to cease immediately. Hus appealed this decision to Alexander V, which resulted in his immediate excommunication.

In 1410, the new Pisan Pope, John XXIII, started a war against the Roman Pope, and to fund the fighting, he issued a new plenary indulgence. Hus spoke out against this indulgence, arguing that the Church did not have the power of the sword but instead that the power of the church was to be used only as an instrument of Christ.

It didn’t take long until the persecution of Hus and his followers increased to the point of rioting. In response, the pope banned the churches of Prague from participating in Word and Sacrament. There would be no preaching, Lord’s Supper, Baptism, marriage, last rights, ordinations or even Christian burials. As far as the Pope was concerned, the Churches in Prague were closed for business.

Hus left Prague for the countryside in hopes of quelling the hostilities. As he traveled, he saw how poorly the clergy and people were educated, so he, like Luther 100 years later, started writing on the basics of the Christian faith in the language of his people.

This brings us back to the Council of Constance, convened in 1414. While the council’s main goal was to solve the problem of the three popes, now known as “the Western Schism,” chief to any solution would be solving the issue of Jan Hus.

Hus was summoned to the Council to face charges of heresy. The Czech pastor and academic willingly went, hoping he would have the opportunity to defend his teachings from Scripture and reason. But, knowing full well this journey might be his last, Hus also made out his will before he departed.

After arriving in Constance, church officials initially treated Hus fairly. He even went about the area preaching and celebrating the Mass. Due to this violation of the Pisan Papal decree, Hus was arrested after only a few weeks of outspokenness.

There were attempts to help Hus escape imprisonment, but Hus refused, insisting that Christ would be the final judge. Time and time again, Hus asked for a hearing where he could offer a defense.

At his trial, Hus was afforded no defense counsel nor any opportunity to defend his teachings. Hus was presented with 39 charges, only 26 of which were from his writings, yet he was not allowed any explanation nor was he offered Biblical correction. The message was clear: submit to the authority of the church or die.

Time and time again, Hus asked for a hearing where he could offer a defense.

After the trial, other attempts were made to try to induce Hus to recant, but his mind was set. He would only appeal to the ultimate authority, Christ Jesus.

On July 6th, 1415, after the High Mass, Hus was led into the assembly of the church, fully vested and asked one last time to recant. He refused and was immediately ceremonially stripped of the ornaments of his priestly office. He fell on his knees and softly asked God to forgive his enemies. He was then turned over to the governmental authorities for execution.

Jan Hus was taken to the place of execution and tied and chained to a post. After refusing the order to recant on final time, Hus’ executioners burned him at the stake. It was reported that Hus died singing, “Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me.”

The aftermath of this event fanned the flames of war, and the Bohemians arose with such fury that the newly elected pope of the united empire, Martin V, sent five different crusades to Bohemia before peace could be obtained through compromise. To this day, the Czech people are very tolerant of different faiths dwelling side by side.

Hus was put to death for many of the same things that Luther taught. As Luther read some of Hus’ sermons and writings, he found in Hus a kindred spirit. At Leipzig, Luther said, “Yes, I am a Hussite.” Was it because he believed exactly what Hus did? Probably not. Was it because he knew that Hus caused a war? Perhaps. Was it because Hus claimed the authority of Scripture to be above the authority of Popes and Councils? Most likely, in this author’s humble opinion.

For more study on Jan Hus:
The Trial of Jan Hus by Thomas Fudge
Living with Jan Hus by Thomas Fudge
The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day by Justo Gonzalez