Chapter 7: John Huss

 •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 10
IT was not often that our loved friend and pastor, Felix Gosmer, was able to spend an evening at our fireside. He was always a welcome visitor, and I think we children enjoyed his visits as much as our parents, though of course in a different way. His life had been a strange one, and we loved to listen to his stories of hair-breadth escapes and adventures. Not that he cared to talk much about himself, though he had much to say of the good Master he served.
My father seemed to understand him and would sometimes draw him out to speak of the cruel way in which French Protestants were treated in the stormy years that followed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; for though he was a Bohemian by birth, an outbreak of persecution had driven him from his native land. A price had been set upon his head, and he was forced to escape for his life. He crossed the frontier in the disguise of a peasant, and reached France in safety, where he remained for some years. He was seldom able to speak to large numbers, but the words of faith and hope he spoke to the timid believers who dwelt among the valleys of the French Alps seemed to give them new hope and courage; and sometimes under cover of darkness a few would leave their scattered homes, and taking the most winding and lonely ways through the forest reach a small clearing, and then the voice of prayer and the song of praise would be heard, and sometimes the little company would remember the Lord's death in the simple way so dear to His heart. Each one present knew it might be for the last time, for if the king's soldiers came upon them their pastor would be hurried away to a violent and cruel death, the men sent to work in chains in the galleys, the women sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, while the children, torn from their parents, would be given into the care of monks and nuns, who would bring them up as Roman Catholics.
Pastor Gosmer was not really an old man, though I believe we children thought him so. Years of hardship and suffering had bowed his frame and silvered his hair. He had toiled in the galleys, chained to thieves and murderers; he had lain for months in a dark, dirty dungeon, without proper food or air; and though he never spoke of it, father had, he told us, good reason to believe that he had been put to the torture.
He had suffered so much in Bohemia that, having once left the country, he never would have returned to it had it not been for the constraint of a great love—"the love of Christ." He knew that not only in our village, but in the surrounding district, there were quite a number of persons who did not attend mass or own the authority of the Pope; but with very few exceptions they were weak, and having hardly any Bibles knew but little of the scriptures—they were as sheep having no shepherd. Among these he lived and labored, known and loved by all. I loved to look at him, his worn face had such a calm, peaceful expression, and his smile had a rare sweetness in it.
It was a wild stormy winter's night; snow had been falling for several hours, and in some places lay in deep drifts. My father had only just returned wet and weary from a long day's work, for at that time of year his hands were always more than full with sick cases. Mother was, with my help, busy preparing supper, when a gentle knock was heard at our door. It was repeated three times, though so low that if any one had been passing at the time it would hardly have been noticed. But we knew the signal quite well; one who shared our faith stood outside, and though we wondered who on such a night it could be, father hastened to open the door.
A few words were spoken almost in a whisper, and then we knew from his exclamation of glad surprise that Felix Gosmer was to be our guest. Father brought him to the fire, and helped him to take off his frozen and snow-laden mantle while he explained that having been to a village at about ten miles distance he had visited several of our brethren, but overtaken and almost blinded by the storm he had, in crossing the forest, taken a wrong turning, and found himself on the side of the wood little more than a mile from our house.
We all gave him a warm welcome, and father begged him to remain all night. He seemed to hesitate about accepting the invitation, and when father said, "Well as you know the forest, there is no moon to-night, and what with the darkness and the snow-drifts, I am not sure that you would find your way," his reply was, "It would not be the first time I have slept on the snow, though I know in doing so I am exposed to some risk; it is far better that I should face danger for myself, but I am unwilling to expose my friends to it. To give a night's lodging or even supply a pastor with food is an offense in the eyes of the law that must be punished with heavy fines, and in some cases a long term of imprisonment.”
“There is little, if any, real danger tonight," said my father. “The soldiers who are supposed to hunt for heretics seldom visit our village, and even if they were here, I know them well enough to be sure that they would rather play cards and drink at the village inn than trouble us on such a night as this.”
“If that is so, I shall greatly enjoy the society of my friends and the cheerful blaze of your fire," was the reply; and in a few minutes we were all seated round the table, on which my mother had just placed a large bowl filled with steaming, savory soup.
When the meal was ended, and mother and I were busy with our sewing, father asked our guest to tell us the story of John Huss, "for," he added, "though I do not care to be called by his name, I love and honor his memory, and I wish Christine and Casper to do the same, but if they do not know they cannot love.”
For a few moments Pastor Gosmer was silent; indeed, we began to think he had not heard, for he sat gazing into the fire with a strange, far-away look on his face. At last Casper crept up to him, and without speaking laid his hand gently on his arm; the touch seemed to recall him, and in as nearly as I can remember his words I will re-tell the story of John Huss.
It was in the year 1415 when the beautiful city of Constance was full to overflowing with visitors. A great council was being held, attended by nobles, knights, bishops and priests from every country of Europe. Its sittings had begun in 1414, but so many important matters claimed the attention of those who composed it, that it did not break up till the following year. Just at that time there was no Pope of Rome, but though every one knew that there could be only one pope at a time, three men claimed the vacant chair, and each had his friends and supporters.
There is no need to go into their public or private lives, perhaps the one who had the largest following was one who claimed to be chosen under the title of Pope John 13. He was not a man to be loved or trusted, and the nobles of Bohemia strongly opposed his election. But my story has not much to do with the rival popes, for just at that time there were many in Constance who thought far more of a prisoner who lay in one of its dungeons than of all the gay crowds who, day after day, assembled in its palaces and churches. They would not only have spent their gold freely, but given their lives for him, but they could do nothing either for his comfort or his release.
Some years before the time of my story John Huss had entered the University of Prague as a poor scholar. He was the son of a widow, and as he had no friends to support him while he went on with his studies he used to sing in the church choir, thinking himself well paid if a bowl of porridge with a crust of black rye bread by way of a spoon, was given him when the service was over. But poverty and hardship did not turn him from his purpose to get an education. Being naturally quick and clever he made good progress with his studies, and had he wished it might have become a famous lawyer; but there were needs in his soul that he felt worldly honors could not satisfy. He saw himself to be a lost sinner, and though he had no opportunities of hearing the gospel he was led through days and nights of deep soul exercise into saving faith in the finished work of Christ.
To live among monks, and be himself one was, he thought, the only way in which a man who really wished to serve God could do so, so he took the vows. His preaching was attended by crowds, it was different from any they had ever listened to. He spoke to them of a great and holy God who loved sinners, and had given His own Son to be a Savior. He made many friends, but also bitter and powerful enemies, for he told the nobles that it was wrong to oppress and ill-treat the poor people as many of them were in the habit of doing; and he was not afraid to speak to the monks about the idle and often worse than useless lives many of them were leading. He opposed the election of Pope John, saying that a man who claimed to be the successor of the Apostle Peter ought to be a follower of Peter's Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, which he felt sure that the would-be Pope was not.