The Christian church seems to have always been at battle.
The early church argued about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles to the new Christian church.
Early Christians battled simply for recognition. In the meantime, they were persecuted, killed and suppressed by governments. It was 300 CE before Christianity was recognized and adopted as a legal religion.
Even then there were disagreements within the faith. Just what was Jesus' relationship to God? Created? Begotten? Was Jesus two persons in one body or two natures in one person? When should Easter be celebrated? What role should the Pope have in the church?
Then there were some of the issues that led to the East-West Schism: the source of the Holy Spirit, leavened or unleavened bread, and papal supremacy.
The Crusades sent thousands to war to recover the Holy Land from Moslems. Those who fought were promised forgiveness of their sins for their participation in this holy war.
Those who publicly disagreed with the church were labeled heretics.
For 1300 years there had been fighting in the church, within and without. The fighting was largely based on defining and solidifying the church's identity and teachings. In order to survive, the Church needed one message.
The Roman Catholic church had considerable power. Bishops were closely tied to secular leadership. The people knew that the bad things that happened to them were a result of their sins. Cities and towns were dominated by great cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries. Artwork depicted religious themes. Drama portrayed Biblical stories. The learned people of town were the priests and monks. The church had significant taxing authority.
Religion, or at least the presence of religion, played an important part in everyday lives.
The Black Death (1346-1353) created a new situation. Workers had been killed off by the millions. Those who survived (through the grace of God) realized they could sell their services to the higher bidder. There were revolts against the feudal system. Individuals were starting to feel and explore their own power.
In 1376 John Wycliffe entered the scene in England and northern Europe and argued for reform of the church. He and his followers (the Lollards) didn't like the privileged status of the clergy. They didn't like the luxury and pomp enjoyed by local parishes. They argued some of the same items that had led to the Schism 300 years earlier: the role of saints and icons, issues concerning the sacraments, primacy of the papacy. John Wycliffe began translating the Bible from Latin into Middle English to put it into the hands of the people.
Overlapping with the end of John Wycliffe's life was the beginning of Jan Hus' work in Prague. Hus studied Wycliffe's work and liked his proposals for reforming the Roman Catholic clergy. At the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague Hus preached in Czech rather than Latin. He taught religion at the university and shared his reformist ideas. A 1412 dispute with the church concerning the sale of indulgences was the final straw and Hus was excommunicated. Does any of this sound familiar?
Hus was executed as a heretic in 1415. His death was the start of the Hussite reformation.
John Wycliffe died a natural death in 1384. But the 1415 Council which declared Jan Hus a heretic also declared John Wycliffe a heretic.
Martin Luther apparently didn't study Hus's work until after he had posted his 95 Theses, but Luther ultimately proclaimed "we are all Hussites, without having been aware of it."
More next time…
- Ann Warner