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The Fire That Was Kindled in Bohemia

By Editorial Staff
Published April 4, 2008

From The Story of Liberty
By Charles Carleton Coffin

PROFESSOR FAULFASH OF BOHEMIA, a young man who had studied at Hiedleberg, Cologne and Paris, came to England with Princess Anne, the daughter of the King of Bohemia, when she became the wife of the Prince of Wales, Richard II.

There Faulfash listens with great pleasure to Doctor John Wicklif, an eloquent young preacher, and, when he goes back to Bohemia, carries with him some of the books which Doctor Wicklif has written.

Faulfash is a lecturer at the University at Prague. He wants a reformation in the Church. He preaches that all men and women, priests and bishops – all must lead pure lives. He believes that men and women should confess their sins to God, and not to a priest; that forgiveness for sin means something more than kneeling before a confessor’s box, and having a few drops of holy-water sprinkled on the head, from a sponge tied upon the end of a rod, in the hands of the priest. He does not believe that sins can be forgiven, nor that blessings can be conferred by any such mummery.

The priests denounce his preaching as blasphemous. “Professor Faulfash is a heretic,” they say.

It is one word – more terrible than all others – but the professor is not disturbed by it. Instead of becoming silent, he grows more bold.

One of the priests who cry out against him is the queen’s confessor, a man – John Huss – who undertakes to prove that such doctrines are heretical. He does not succeed very well, for as he studies the question he discovers that the monks and friars are leading shameful lives. More than that, he begins to read Doctor Wicklif’s books and the more he reads, the more he sees that professor Faulfash and Doctor Wicklif are in the right, and himself, the monks and friars, the bishop and the Pope, in the wrong. He sees that the people ought to be permitted to read the Bible. He preaches as he thinks. He is eloquent, learned, sincere, and earnest, and people flock in crowds to hear him. The monks and the friars hasten to Archbishop Sbinco with a woeful story – that the queen’s confessor is a heretic.

The archbishop determines that the young priest, although he is confessor to the empress, shall be disciplined; but the king protects him, and appoints him elector of the University of Prague.

The archbishop, in great wrath at being thus interfered with, sends word to the Pope at Rome, for these are the days when the church has two heads – one at Rome, one at Avignon.

It is not easy to stop John Huss, however, for the king is his friend, and cares not for priest or Pope. The archbishop contents himself with gathering up all the books of Doctor Wicklif that he can lay his hands upon which have been translated into the Bohemian language – all that Professor Faulfash and John Huss have written – and burning them. If the books are burned, that will stop the spread of heresy, the archbishop imagines.

Sigismund is the Emperor of Germany. He wants a council of the cardinals and other prelates of the church called to see if the church cannot be united under one Pope. The two heads are tearing each other fearfully.

The popes have stirred up wars, and armies are marching, and battles are fought, for no one knows what. The Emperor of Germany desires a settlement of the troubles, and through his influence a great council of assemblies in the old city of Constance, in Switzerland, where all questions of dispute are to be discussed.

During these months while the council is in session, one man who came to attend it, instead of taking part in the deliberations, is in prison – John Huss. He came of his own free-will – Because the emperor wished him to attend. He might have stayed away, but the emperor sent him a paper promising him protection – that he should be at liberty to come and go without molestation – that no harm should come to him while in Constance, and yet he is in prison. How happened it, when he had the emperor’s promise written out on a parchment?

Because the Pope claims to be superior to the emperor. “He has the right of deposing emperors.” If he has the right of deposing emperors, then he has the right to disregard the promise the emperor made to John Huss. No faith is to be kept with heretics. So finding John Huss in their power, the Pope and the cardinals have thrust him into a dungeon, and now he is to pay the penalty for being a heretic.

It is July 6th, 1415. All Constance is astir. The people from the country flock into the town, for the heretic is to be roasted to death, and they must be early on the ground to see the procession which will escort the fellow from the prison to the cathedral. It comes, the cross-bearer at the head, carrying the gilded crucifix. Then comes the Bishop of Riga in his gorgeous robes; then a company of soldiers armed with swords and lances, guarding the heretic, so that he shall not escape. The streets are thronged with people. The women look down from the quaint old windows to catch a glimpse of the wicked man as they suppose him to be.

It is not to the emperor that all the eyes are turned today, but to John Huss who ascends the platform, and mounts a table, where all can see him. He does not return the gaze, kneels, and clasps his hand and looks up to Heaven. Turning to the emperor, the bishop thus addresses him:

“It will be a just act, and it is the duty of your Imperial Majesty, most invincible Emperor, to execute this stiff-necked heretic, since he is in our hands, and thus shall your Majesty attain an immortal name, with old and young as long as the world shall stand, for performing a deed so glorious and so pleasing to God.”

Then the bishop reads the charge against Huss.

“You have disobeyed the archbishop of Prague. You teach that there is a holy catholic church other than that of which the Pope is the head – a community of all the faithful ordained of God to eternal life which heretical.”

“I do not doubt,” Huss replies, “that there is a holy Christian church which is a community of the elect, both in this world in the other world.”

“Hold your tongue! After we get through, you may answer,” says Cardinal Von Cammerach.

“I shall not remember all the charges.”

“Silence!” The Archbishop of Florence shouts.

John Huss drops upon his knees, and lifts his hands toward Heaven. If they will not hear him there is one who will. “O God I commend my cause to thee.” The reading goes on.

“He has taught that after the words of consecration have been pronounced over the bread it is still natural bread, which is heretical.”

“I have not so preached.”

“Silence, heretic!”

“He has taught that a priest polluted with deadly sins cannot administer the sacrament of the alter, which is heretical.”

“I still say that every act of a priest laden with deadly sins is a abomination in the sight of God.”

Ah! that is a home thrust. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and priests, who are living with women to whom they have not been married, never will forgive the heretic for saying that.

The last charge is read: “He has contemned the Pope’s excommunication.”

“I have not. I appealed to him – sent messengers to plead my cause before him, who were thrown into prison. I came to this council of my own free will, with a guarantee of safe conduct from the emperor.”

John Huss turns toward Sigismund, and gazes calmly and steadily upon him. “I came in full confidence that no violence should be done to me, that I might prove my innocence.”

The Emperor grows red in the face, for he knows that John Huss came of his own free-will. He knows that the safe conduct which he gave has been taken away from him. He knows that ten thousand swords would leap from their scabbards, and a thousand spears would gleam in the sunlight in Bohemia, to protect the man who is gazing so calmly in his face. With shame and confusion he sits there with eyes downcast eyes. Everybody can see the reddening in his cheeks. Huss has had no trial; but an old bishop stands up to read his sentence. He is to be burned to death.

They place a paper cap on his head – a mock crown – with figures of devils upon it, and this inscription: “THIS IS A HERETIC.”

“Give him over to the beadle.” The emperor speaks the words, which one day will come back to trouble him. Sooner or later retribution follows crime. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it will come; and this emperor, the greatest potentate in Europe, will see his empire drenched in blood, towns and cities in flames, and the land a desolation, for uttering those words.

Out from the hall moves the procession once more. Out through the door stream the people. A fire is burning in the street, and the priests are heaping upon it books written by Huss and Doctor Wicklif.

Huss smiles when he sees the parchment volumes curling in the flames. They can burn books, but truth and liberty will still live. He walks with firm and steady steps. None of all the thousands around are so happy as he. The bishops are astonished.

“He goes as if on his way to a banquet,” says Bishop Silvius.

Through the streets, where the people throng the sidewalks and look down from the windows of the loft buildings, moves the procession – out to the place where he is to be burned. What is Huss saying?

“I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.” It is the thirtieth Psalm. They can burn his body, but what of that? His body is not him.

“Do not believe,” he says to the people, “that I have taught anything but the truth.”

No trembling of the lips – no whitening of his cheeks. He is going to testify to the truth. Why should he fear? Truth and liberty are eternal, and will live when emperor and pope have passed away. Truth makes men free, and it will be glorious to die for freedom. The fagots are piled around him – bundles of dry sticks. The executioner stands with his torch.

“Renounce your error,” shouts the Duke of Bavaria.

“I have taught no error. The truths I have I taught will seal with my blood.”

“Burn him.”

The executioner holds his torch to the fagots. What is it that the people hear coming from that sheet of flame?

“Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It is the song which the angels sung above the pastures of above the pastures of Bethlehem. And this:

“We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great glory.” It is Gloria in Excelsis.

The smoke blinds him, the flames are circling above his head. Yet the voice goes on:

“Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.”

The flames wrap him round, his head falls on his breast. The fire does its work, and a heap of ashes is all that remains. The executioner gathers them up, and casts them into the river. The winds and waves bear them away. The particles sink to the bottom or are wafted on to the great falls at Schaffhausen, where the water foams over the granite ledges, and from thence are borne down the Rhine to the sea, as Wicklif’s dust was borne on the current of the Avon and Severn to the ocean.

The priests and bishops and Pope have got rid of John Huss. Have they? By no means. It is only the beginning of their troubles with him, for the people of Bohemia resent his death. It is the beginning of a terrible war, which lasts many years, and drenches the land with blood.

The cardinals and archbishops do not forget that the man whom they have burned through reading Doctor Wicklif’s books. The doctor has been dead a long while, so they cannot burn him, but it will be some satisfaction to let the world know what they would do to the doctor if he were only in the flesh, and they issue an order to dig up the bones and burn them.

Though the monks have burned John Huss and the bones of Doctor Wicklif, they have not put a stop to their preaching. Do words spoken in behalf of truth, justice, and liberty ever die?


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