Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

The Fire that was Kindled in Bohemia

The young man who had studied at Heidelberg, Cologne, and Paris, Professor Faulfash, of Bohemia, who came to England with the Princess Anne when she came to marry Richard II., and who heard Doctor Wicklif, and who carried some of the doctor's books to Bohemia, is a lecturer in the University at Prague. He has discovered that the monks and friars of Bohemia are as lazy and shameless as those of England. He preaches against them. He wants a reformation in the Church. He preaches that 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 sill means something more than words spoken by the priests; that absolution is 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.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


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

It is the 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 bishops 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 friars hasten to Archbishop Sbinco with a woeful story—that the queen's confessor is a heretic.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The archbishop is an ignorant man. Archbishops and bishops are not always appointed because they are learned or eloquent, but for other reasons. The people call the archbishop a dunce, and say he is an A B C archbishop, indicating that he knows little more than the alphabet. 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. The Pope sends back word that the rebellious priest mast not be permitted to go on. Especially is he commanded not to preach in a language which the people can understand; he may preach in Latin, but not in Bohemian.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


It is not so 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. The king compels the archbishop to pay for the books. This in turn makes the Pope angry, and he issues orders to the archbishop to stop all preaching in Prague—to inform the people that they can no longer have absolution granted them by the priests. The Pope will let the people know that the is supreme. The king, however, is not disturbed by the order, but directs the priests to go on with their preaching. The action of the king emboldens Professor Faulfash and John Huss, who send letters to the mayors of cities all through Bohemia to resist the demands of a corrupt and wicked priesthood. This makes the Pope exceedingly angry, and he orders the two men to appear at Rome and give an account of their doings; but they do not obey, for they know that there is a strong prison in Rome for such heretics as they—the Castle of St. Angelo.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Sigismund is 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. When the cardinals meet in council, they double up their fists, take one another by the throat, and have just such rows as the common people indulge in upon the streets and in the beer-shops.

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 assembles in the old city of Constance, in Switzerland, where all questions in dispute are to be discussed.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Never before was there such a gathering. The emperor comes in great state. The Pope of Rome is there, but not in state, for he is fearful that the council may depose him. There are seven patriarchs, twenty archbishops, twenty cardinals in their red cloaks, twenty-six princes, ninety-one bishops, one hundred and forty counts, hundreds of doctors of divinity, and many priests—four thousand or more in all. Multitudes of people come, filling the old town to overflowing, and making the dull streets alive as never before. Peddlers, hucksters, tricksters, mountebanks, charlatans, tramps, monks, friars, beggars—all flock to Constance.

The princes and counts have their wire-pullers to influence the cardinals and bishops. All are hoping to make something out of the council—to gain power, or money, or position. The council sits month after month, to the great profit of all the shopkeepers and grocers in the town.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


During these months while the council is in session, one man who came to attend it, instead of taking part in its 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. All through the months while the cardinals and prelates have been there—marching in procession to and from the council—living riotously, and some of them scandalously, the man who has been preaching that they should lead pure lives, and that the people have the right to confess their sins to God, has been languishing in prison. How happened it, when he had the emperor's promise written out on 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 which the emperor has made to John Huss. No faith is to be kept with heretics. So, finding John Huss in their power, the Pope and cardinals have thrust him into a dungeon, and now he is to pay the penalty for being a heretic.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


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 a 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. They see a man forty years of age. The procession winds through the streets, and enters a great hall. The emperor is there, wearing his golden crown, and seated in a royal chair. At his right hand stands the Duke of Bavaria,

holding a cross; at his left hand is the governor of the Castle of Nuremberg, with a drawn sword. Around are cardinals and archbishops, bishops, priests, monks, and friars, and a great multitude of people.

It is not to the emperor that all eyes are turned to-day, but to John Huss, who ascends the platform, and mounts a table, where all can see him. He does not return the gaze, but kneels, and clasps his hands, and looks up to Heaven. The soldiers file away; the bishops, cardinals, and prelates take their seats in the council. Bishop Landinus ascends the pulpit to preach a sermon from the text, "Shall we continue in sin?" Heresy, he says, is a great sin—one of the greatest a man can commit. It destroys the Church. It is right for the secular magistrate to destroy those with whom it originates. 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, so long as the world shall stand, for performing a deed so glorious and so pleasing to God."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The bishop comes down from the pulpit, and orator Henricus takes his place.

"You are to weigh this matter well," he says to the council. "You are not to rest till you have burned such a sturdy heretic—one so stiff-necked in his damnable error."

Then a 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 is heretical."

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

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

"I shall not be able to remember all the charges."

"Silence!" The Archbishop of Florence shouts it.

John Huss drops upon his knees, and lifts his hands toward Heaven. If they will not hear him, there is One above 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 altar, which is heretical."

"I still say that every act of a priest laden with deadly sins is an 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 safe-conduct from the emperor."

John Huss turns toward Sigismund, and gazes calmly and steadily upon him.

"I came in the full confidence that no violence should be done me, and that I might prove my innocence."

The emperor grows red in the face, for he knows that John Huss came of his 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 sun-light, in Bohemia, to protect the man who is gazing so calmly in his face. With shame and confusion he sits there with downcast eyes. Everybody can see the reddening of his cheeks. Huss has had no trial; but an old bishop stands up and reads his sentence. He is to be burned to death. Once more the prisoner kneels and prays:

"Lord God, pardon my enemies. Thou knowest that I have been falsely accused, and unfairly sentenced. I pray thee, in thine unspeakable mercy, not to lay it to their charge."

The bishops smile scornfully. The heretic is praying God to forgive them! As if they had done, or could do, anything wrong! As if his prayers were of any account! They degrade him from the priesthood. A bishop's robe is thrown over his shoulders. This in derision.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Confess your errors, and retract them, before it is too late," says one of the archbishops.

He makes no reply to them, but turns to the people:

"The bishops want me to retract; but if I were to do so, I should be a liar before God."

"Silence, you stiff-necked and wicked heretic!"

They place a chalice in his hands, and then take it away.

"O thou cursed Judas! we take from thee this chalice, in which the blood of Christ is offered for the remission of sins," they say.

There is no blanching of his cheeks.

"Confiding in my God and Saviour, I indulge the hope that the will not take from me the cup of salvation, and I trust that I shall drink of it this day in his kingdom," Huss replies.

Greater than emperor, pope, or archbishop is John Huss, standing there beneath the vaulted roof of the old hall. None so calm, so quiet, so peaceful of heart, as he—soon to be one of Liberty's great sons. None so shame-faced, so insignificant, as Sigismund, Emperor of Germany. One word from his lips would set the prisoner free; but his craven heart has yielded to the demand of those who are thirsting for the blood of Huss. They have made him believe that he is not obliged to keep faith with a heretic; yet he knows that he is committing an act which, ever as he recalls it, will redden his cheeks with shame.

"Let him be accursed of God and man eternally."

In all the assembly of prelates there is not a kindly face, no look of pity.

"I am willing thus to suffer for the truth in the name of Christ." They place a paper cap upon his head—a mock crown—with figures of devils upon it, and this inscription:


"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 to-day nor to-morrow, 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 the books written by Huss and by Doctor Wicklif.

Huss smiles when he sees the parchment volumes curling in the flames. They can burn the 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 Silvins.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Through the streets, where the people throng the sidewalks and look down from the windows of the lofty buildings, moves the procession—out to the place where he is to be burned. What is it that Huss is 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 any thing 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 taught I 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 Bethlehem. And this:

"We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great glory." It is the Te Deum Laudamus.

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 upon 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 Russ. 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.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The cardinals and archbishops do not forget that the man whom they have burned to death was made a heretic 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. We have seen how it was done.

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? We shall see by-and-by, after a hundred years have rolled away, how a poor boy—so poor that he will wander through the streets and sing for his breakfast, which the kind-hearted people will give him—how he will hear Doctor Wicklif and John Huss speaking to him across the centuries. We shall see what a mighty work he will do for truth and liberty.