The splendid hope of Hildebrand and Innocent that the bishop of Rome would make the bad world good, had come to naught. They had dreamed of a great pope ministering to the nations as a pastor ministers to his people, correcting the wrong and commending the right, having moral authority over kings, and making peace in the place of war. They felt that what Europe needed was the control of a strong, wise, and good man.
Unhappily, for three hundred years, from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth, hardly a pope was either strong, or wise, or good. Some were politicians, who made bargains for money and power with kings. Some were well-meaning but weak men. Some were persons whose wicked lives were a scandal to religion; thieves, adulterers, and murderers.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the pope moved from Italy to France, from Rome to Avignon. There he lived under the control of the French king. At the end of that century, on the occasion of a papal election, the cardinals chose an Italian, who took up his residence in Rome. He proved, however, to be so bad a pope that they immediately chose another, who took up his residence in Avignon. So there were two popes. A part of the Church held with the one, another part with the other. The two fought with curses, exchanging excommunications. Wycliffe compared them to two dogs snarling and growling over a bone. This state of things continued for nearly forty years.
At last a council was held which declared that a general conference of Christian men representing the Church is superior to all popes. An attempt was made to get both popes to resign for the good of the Church. When they refused, the council put them both out, and chose another, Alexander V. He died after a short time, and John XXIII., who is thought to have poisoned him, became pope in his place. Thus, although two scandals were amended,—the scandal of the papal court at Avignon, and the scandal of the papal schism,—the worst of the scandals remained: the pope was still a man of wicked life.
John XXIII. is said to have begun his career as a pirate. The record of his misdeeds was such that before it was read to the Council which finally deposed him, all outsiders were put out and the doors were locked. It was John who began that public and shameless sale of indulgences which hastened the Reformation. He conceived the ingenious idea of making money by sending agents all over Europe who promised to release sinners from the punishment due to their sins on the payment of certain specified prices. Of course, there were still good Christians. There were faithful ministers who lived devout lives, and tried to help their people to do right. But the great Church, as represented by the pope at the head, and by the bishops, the monks, and the friars, was teaching men, by constant example, to break the Ten Commandments.
It was against this dreadful situation that Wycliffe had protested, but the remedies which he had proposed seemed as bad as the disease. When he said that the trouble with the Church was wealth and power, many agreed; but when he proposed to take away the wealth by giving up the property of the Church, and to take away the power by giving up the doctrine of the miracle of the Body and Blood, they would not follow him.
Neither would they follow Hus.
John Hus was a professor in the University of Prague, and the greatest preacher in that part of the country. Born on a farm, and getting his education in spire of such poverty that he begged in the street, Hus had made himself a scholar and a leader. He was a man of simple mind, and righteous life and plain speech. He saw the evils in the Church about him, and made it the business of his life to put an end to them. The books of Wycliffe came to his knowledge and he liked them greatly.
Now, there are two ways in which to deal with evil. One way is to attack in general, without making mention of any names. The other way is to attack it in particular, singling out certain offenders and denouncing them. The first way is easy and safe; the second is full of danger. Hus took the second way.
For example, at the town of Wilsnack, the priests of one of the churches had announced a miracle. They said that it was now proved that the bread in the Lord's Supper is indeed the Body of Christ because pieces of it on their altar had shed blood. And the Holy Blood of Wilsnack began to work miracles. Pilgrims came from all directions, bringing their sick, to the great advantage of the Wilsnack church. Hus was sent to look into the matter, and he found that it was all a fraud. The result was that the pilgrimages to Wilsnack stopped. But the Wilsnack clergy hated Hus.
And other clergy, for like reasons, hated him. The man was absolutely outspoken. He had no "tact," as we say. He never considered whether his words would have a pleasant sound or not. He paid no heed to his own interest. Every day, he made enemies. At that time the most unpopular name in Europe was that of Wycliffe. He was much more disliked by many people than the scandalous popes who were busy breaking the commandments. Hus approved of him. He did not go with all the attacks which Wycliffe made on church doctrine, but he liked every word which Wycliffe said about the wicked lives of churchmen. And he said so openly. At a time when bishops were burning Wycliffe's books, Hus was reading them and praising them. He was saying in Prague what Wycliffe had said at Oxford.
Hus was therefore summoned by his enemies to defend himself before the council which was called to meet at Constance. Over this council the Emperor Sigismund was to preside. Hus in his simplicity and innocence, knowing himself to be opposed to nothing in the Church except its sins, agreed to appear before the council, and the emperor gave him a safe-conduct. This was a paper signed by the emperor himself promising that Hus should be safe from violence and should be brought back from the council to his home by the emperor's own guard, if necessary. Thus he went.
The council immediately arrested Hus, and put him in prison. They paid no heed to the safe-conduct of the emperor, and the emperor, on his side, made no serious protest. The theory was that any man accused of heresy was to be accounted a heretic until he had proved himself innocent, and that no faith was to be kept with heretics. No matter what promises had been made, what safe-conducts given, what oaths solemnly sworn, all went for nothing in the case of a heretic.
So Hus was put in prison before his trial had begun, and then was moved to another prison where he was chained by the arms in the daytime and by the arms and legs at night. These were some of the more gentle measures of the Inquisition.
When he was brought at last before the council, he was hooted down whenever he began to speak. Charges were read against him; passages were taken from his books and from the books of Wycliffe, which were held to be against the faith and order of the Church. Some of these he denied as not expressing his beliefs; some he said he would gladly change if anybody could show him that they were not true. He refused to change any opinion by reason of compulsion. He declared the independence of man's conscience, and held that belief is a matter of persuasion and conviction, not of authority.
This was his chief fault. He had won the hatred of the Church by his free speech concerning the sins of churchmen; he was condemned and sentenced because he maintained the right of a man who is in error to be shown his error. His only error was that of insisting that a Christian minister, even a pope, ought to be a good man. That that was an error, nobody could convince him. As for heresy, he had none of it.
Nevertheless, they condemned him to be burned. That was the answer of the council to the man who tried to bring back into the Church the plain righteousness of true religion. They agreed that the Church needed to be reformed, and had assembled for the purpose of reforming it. But they did not like John Hus's way.
They degraded him from the ministry, dressing him in the garments of a priest, and putting a chalice and paten in his hand, and then taking them away with curses. "We commit thy soul," they said, "to the devil." "And I commit it," he answered, "to the most sacred Lord Jesus Christ."
Then they put a paper cap upon his head, with a writing on it saying that he died for heresy. He was taken out and tied to a stake, with a chain about his neck. Fagots were heaped about him, and he was burned to death.