The Hussite movement and the Reformation

The difficult development of influenced and original Czech reformation headed by John Huss led to the Hussite Wars. In their aftermath, numerous denominations came into existence, complicating state and religious affairs in Bohemia and Moravia. From "Christianity in the Czech Lands" by Jan Royt
Published: 19. 5. 2011 12:00

Disputes in the church, the selling of dispensations, payments for Church offices, and nepotism evoked justified criticism among the reformers. They became especially outspoken after the papal schism. The writings of the English reformer John Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards, reached Bohemia and were avidly read at Charles University. In 1403, however, the university banned their public or private reading because of several ideas they contained that were considered heretical. These included doubt over the transubstantiation of the Eucharist; the concept of the Church body as made up of those who are predestined for salvation, not necessarily the clergy, with not the pope, but Christ himself at their head; denial of the existence of purgatory; rejection of the sacrament of confession; and questioning the hierarchical organization of the Church and rejecting monastic orders. The eschatological mood grew and showed itself in several ways throughout the Czech lands – in apocalyptic predictions of the arrival of the Antichrist and, in South Bohemia, through the powerful influence of Waldensianism, which advocated the rejection of violence, prohibition of the death penalty, and an emphasis on humility.

In Prague, at the Bethlehem Chapel where Huss was appointed administrator and preacher in 1402, the issue of the laity being able to take communion sub utraque specie (in both kinds – both as bread and wine) became a unifying belief for the reform movement. This thesis, called Utraquism, was given a theological justification by a friend and fellow scholar of Huss's, Jakoubek of Stříbro. The chalice became the symbol of the entire reform movement. Originally with the support of Archbishop Zbyněk, Huss began to criticize the church and the clergy from the pulpit and translated Wycliffe's writings into Czech. His violent attacks were received with hostility in Rome, and he was excommunicated in 1411 by the new pope John XXII. Three years later, abandoned by Zbyněk and with his followers under an interdict, Huss was invited to defend his opinions before a general Church Council in Constance. He went there with an accompanying letter from Václav's brother, the emperor Sigismund, in which he was promised safe conduct and a hearing before the council. After one of the meetings he was arrested and, after several interrogations, was sentenced to death as an incorrigible heretic. He died at the stake on July 6, 1415. Jerome of Prague, another scholar of the reform movement, suffered a similar fate a year later.

Huss's pyre set alight an inextinguishable conflagration in Bohemia. The nobles of Bohemia and Moravia sent a letter of protest to Constance, and in Prague Huss's enemies were persecuted. Charles University confirmed the validity of taking communion in both kinds and declared Huss a holy martyr. In 1419 the violence reached a climax. The people of Prague, led by a Carmelite from Our Lady of the Snows, Jan Želivský, hurled counsellors of the New Town of Prague from the windows of their town hall and occupied abbeys and churches. Václav IV died at the start of the Hussite revolution (in August 1419).

The Hussites broke up into several factions, including a moderate group in Prague and the Táborites, a radical group that left Prague to found the new town of Tábor, where they intended to fulfill their desire for social equality and freedom of confession of God's word. The demands of the Prague Hussites and the Táborites were summed up in the "Four Articles of Prague": (1) Freedom to preach the word of God, (2) communion in both kinds, (3) poverty of the clergy and expropriation of Church property, and (4) punishment of mortal sins. The Táborites went still further. Their priests said mass in Czech, they taught women and children to read the Bible, they rejected vestments, pictures, and music in church, and considered fine clothes, dancing, and other luxuries to be mortal sins. A smaller group of radicals, of whom a leading member was Petr Chelčický, rejected the shedding of blood and appealed to Christ's love and his injunction not to judge and not to kill. Chelčický argued that Christians should not rule “by worldly law.”

Within the kingdom two parties were clearly defined: those who took communion in one kind (the Catholics) and those who took it in both kinds (the Hussites). The Hussite sects had united under the famous Hussite warrior, Jan Žižka, in the war against the emperor Sigismund and the Catholics from 1419. The important clash at Domažlice in 1431, in which the Catholic forces fled on hearing the song of the Hussite army, led to the realization that no military solution could be reached, and the Hussites were invited to the Council of Basle. There the Hussites were represented by Prokop Holý and a priest, Jan Rokycana. In 1437 the Compact of Basle was ratified, which guaranteed that the Czechs could receive communion in both kinds.

In September 1448 George of Poděbrady seized Prague and in 1452 was elected administrator of the land. In 1451 Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, visited Prague. In his "History of Bohemia," he praised the level of education of the people of the country, suggesting that "in Bohemia every old woman knows the holy scriptures better than certain prelates in Rome." The adherents of Utraquism sent a mission to Constantinople in 1452 to propose the union of the Utraquists and the Orthodox, although this never came about.

In 1457 at Kunvald u Žamberka, the Czech Brotherhood or Unity of Brethren was founded. Its spiritual progenitor was Petr Chelčický, and its foundation was connected with the progressive decline of the Utraquist party. The core of this emerging Protestant reformed church was composed of Brother Řehoř and his friends. In 1467, at its first assembly in the village of Lhota u Rychnova the separation of the Brotherhood from the Catholic Church was completed. The Waldensian bishop Štěpán consecrated their first bishop, giving the new faith apostolic succession. The basic teaching of the Brotherhood was the authority of the scriptures resting on certain opinions of Chelčický, Huss, and the Táborites. From 1535, the formulation of their confession of faith was influenced by certain elements of Martin Luther's teaching. The development of printing allowed the Bible to reach more of the population; in 1475 the New Testament was published for the first time in Czech, and in 1488 the entire Bible appeared in Czech. In 1579 the Czech Brotherhood began to publish a superb Czech translation of the Bible known as the Kralice Bible.

In 1526 Ferdinand I of the Hapsburgs was elected king of Bohemia, and from that point to 1918, with only brief interruptions, the house of Hapsburg ruled the Czech Lands. At the start of his reign Ferdinand acted toward the Utraquists with forbearance. His reinforcement of central power caused revolt in 1547 among the nobility and towns. Shortly after putting down this unrest in 1548, Ferdinand issued a mandate against the Czech Brotherhood that closed down congregations of Brethren and banished the Brotherhood from the country. Some of those Brethren who resisted paid with their lives.

From 1545 to 1563 the Council of Trent reaffirmed the doctrines of the Catholic Church, with the goal of restoring the predominance of Catholicism in Europe and soon in Bohemia. The Compact of Basle was no longer considered binding, and many Utraquists adopted the teachings of Luther as Huss' successor, producing a trend called New Utraquism. Despite persecution, the Czech Brotherhood maintained its centers in the country, first at Litomyšl and then at Mladá Boleslav. Among the Czech Brotherhood, in whose theology elements of Calvinism began to dominate in the second half of the sixteenth century, important figures such as Jan Blahoslav and Jan Augusta were active. At the end of the sixteenth century more than 85 percent of the population were members of the Old or New Utraquists. In 1555 the German Protestants and Catholics signed the Peace of Augsburg based on the unfortunate principle of cuis regio, eius religio (whose is the kingdom, his the religion). This meant that subjects must adopt the same faith as their ruler. Ferdinand, a devout Catholic, began to implement this principle in Bohemia by filling important leadership positions with Catholics.

The arrival of the Order of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, had great influence on the renewal of Catholicism in the country from as early as 1556. The Jesuits first concentrated on education, and their pupils in following generations became fiery defenders of the Catholic faith. In 1561 a new archbishop of Prague, Antonín Brus of Mohelnice, was once again appointed. The right to appoint the archbishop was transferred from the papacy to the king of Bohemia. The Prague archbishops took up residence in a palace in the very shadow of Prague Castle. In 1564 the new archbishop declared a program of Catholic revival in the country. Three years later the Compact of Basle was removed from the state records. Driven onto the defensive, the Czech Estates, many of whom were Utraquists, requested Emperor Maximilian to allow the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran confession of faith, in the Czech Lands. Their request was, however, dismissed. In 1575 representatives of the Lutherans, New Utraquists, and the Czech Brotherhood agreed on a "Czech Confession" (a compromise declaration of faith), but even this the emperor would not sign.

These disputes came to a head during the 1576-1612 reign of the art-loving Rudolph II. Under his rule, a party of radical Catholics, closely connected with the Spanish court, came to power. In 1584 the papal nuncio Giovanni Francesco Bonhomini presented a program of re-Catholicization to the king; Rudolph, being lukewarm in religious matters, did not implement it. He did, however, order the closing of congregations of the Czech Brotherhood. The first serious clash was in 1609 when the Protestant Estates, under the leadership of Václav Budovec of Budov, elected directors from among their own ranks and began to gather an army. In fear, the emperor signed an imperial charter in which he allowed the Czech Confession and the occupation of the Lower Consistory. It granted even serfs in Bohemia the right to choose a different faith from that of their lord.

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