I write this about a week after visiting Prague in the Czech Republic for the first time. One of the first places we visited was the Old Town Square in Prague, in which this memorial to Jan Hus serves as the centerpiece.
As Rick Steves writes in his well-researched travel book on Prague and the Czech Republic, “Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415) lived and preached more than a century before Martin Luther (1483-1546), but they had many things in common. Both were college professors as well as priests. Both drew huge public crowds as they preached in their university chapels. Both condemned Church corruption, promoted local religious autonomy, and advocated for letting the common people participate more in worship rituals. Both established their national languages. . . . And, by challenging established authority, both got in big trouble.”
“In 1414, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Constance to grapple with the controversies of the day. . . . [T]hey called Hus to Constance, where on July 6, 1415, they declared him a heretic. After refusing to recant his beliefs and praying that God would forgive his enemies, Hus was tied to a stake and burned alive. But by this time, Hus’ challenging ideas had been embraced by many Czechs, and sparked the bloodiest civil war in the country’s history. , . . In the 16th century, a German monk named Martin Luther found a more progressive climate for these same revolutionary ideas. . . . While Hus loosened Rome’s grip on Christianity, Luther orchestrated the Reformation that finally broke it. Today, both are honored as national heroes as well as religious reformers.”
The memorial shows “Jan Hus – the reformer who became the symbol of Czech nationalism – stand[ing] tall amid the rising flames [as his followers look on]. . . . His defiant stance – as depicted so powerfully in this monument – galvanized the Czech people, who rallied to fight not just for their religious beliefs but for independence from any man-made (rather than natural, or God-given) controls.”
We Unitarian Universalists claim many forebears. In Hus, we find a very early reformer of Christianity, who bravely advocated for ideas we assume without a second thought six centuries later: that our relationship to what each of us considers highest and best cannot be mediated by anyone else and that each person stands equal before whatever judgment of our lives there will be. These ideas might seem obvious to some of us in our time. But people like Jan Hus gave their lives then that we might have the freedom to believe those ideas today without facing much personal cost.
When I think about what our forebears’ faith asked of them and what they sacrificed to live their faith, I realize again how much I take for granted. And I ask myself what I am willing to give to defend the religious principles I hold dear in my own time.