Even before the Reformation, there were many varied reformations led by many varied reformers. Among those early Gospel pioneers who bravely pushed Biblical reform forward, Jerome of Prague (c.1365-1416) stands out as a champion of the first order. This year as we celebrate Reformation Day, it would behoove us to remember him and the resplendent legacy he left for us all.
According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he was one of the greatest heroes “for the cause of truth in the whole of the history of the church.” Living through the very difficult final decades of the fourteenth century, he saw the wrenching cataclysms of the Great Schism, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Hundred Years War, the Mercantilist Revolution of the Hanseatic League, and the pandemic of the Black Death. The glories of early medievalism very nearly collapsed under the weight of apocalyptic devastation. Wars and rumors of wars, famines and plagues, natural disasters and unnatural ambitions seemed to conspire together against all hope. Through it all, Jerome maintained the faith with unflinching ardor and steadfastness. Preaching the doctrines of the Reformation almost a century before Martin Luther, his life and death offer us rich testimony to the “Gospel hope in the covenant of redemption.”
He was already a respected philosopher and theologian at the Charles University of Prague, when his colleague, Jan Hus, began to popularize the ideas and writings of John Wyclif. In short order, it seemed that all of Czech Bohemia recognized the necessity of addressing the systemic corruption of the Western Church. Like so many others, Jerome was convinced by Wyclif’s stirring call for reform and began to seriously think through its practical implications.
At Hus’s suggestion, Jerome sailed to England for further study at Oxford—where the first generation of Wyclif’s disciples continued to develop his ideas. He read widely, corresponded with a wide range of other reform-minded thinkers, and visited all the great centers of learning—from Paris to Jerusalem, from Vienna to Moscow, and from Budapest to Cologne. In a very real sense he became traveling ambassador for the fledgling reform movement. Eventually, his wide-ranging contacts enabled him to become very active in public affairs throughout Christendom.
When he finally returned to his native Bohemia to teach at the university, he sided with Hus and the Czech nationalists who were demanding sweeping Biblical reforms not just in ecclesiastical affairs but also in political affairs. Needless to say, the bitterly divided authorities suddenly were united in opposition to such notions. Hus and Jerome were soon marked men. When Hus was arrested and charged with heresy at the Council of Constance in 1415, Jerome secretly followed, hoping to mount some sort of a defense. He soon discovered though that not only would he not be able to defend his friend, but that he was in great danger himself. He fled to neighboring Idelberg and sought a guarantee of safe conduct. But unwilling to stand idly by while grave injustices were perpetrated, he had placards posted throughout Constance saying he was willing to appear before the bishops, that his character had been maligned, and that he would retract any error which could be proven against him. All he asked was a pledge of security.
When no pledge was forthcoming, Jerome dejectedly set out for home. Along the way however, he was seized and sent in irons to appear before the Council. John Foxe records that over the course of the next three hundred and forty days he was “dragged about like a wild beast” and forced to endure “insults and examinations” after which “he was conveyed to a tower, and fastened to a block with his legs in the stocks.” After Hus was burned at the stake, Jerome was threatened with further torments if he would not recant. By now terribly weakened and dangerously ill, he yielded.
Still he was not released however. Instead, a second recantation was demanded. He said he would only make such a confession in public. But at the public "recantation," he took back his earlier recalcitrance and demanded a hearing to plead his cause and that of “the Gospel’s revelation of the covenant of redemption.” The corrupt Council refused this plea. Indignantly he protested, “What barbarity is this? For thee hundred and forty days have I been confined in a variety of prisons. There is not a misery, there is not a want, which I have not experienced. To my enemies you have allowed the fullest scope of accusation: to me, you deny the least opportunity of defense. Not an hour will you now indulge me in preparing for my trial. You have swallowed the blackest calumnies against me. You have represented me as a heretic, without knowing my doctrine; as an enemy to the faith, before you knew what faith I professed. You are a general council: in you centre all which this world can communicate of gravity, wisdom, and sanctity: but still you are men, and men are seducible by appearances. The higher your character is for wisdom, the greater ought your care to be not to deviate into folly. The cause I now plead is not my own, it is the cause of men: it is the cause of Christians: it is a cause which is to affect the rights of posterity, however the experiment is to be made in my person.”
Embarrassed and enraged by his eloquent steadfastness, the Council promptly scuttled him away and condemned him to die in the flames just as Hus had. Then, for two more days the council kept him in suspense, hoping to somehow frighten him into a capitulation. The cardinal of Florence personally cajoled him with threats, derision, and scorn. Jerome remained unshaken. When the Canon of Notre Dame made a paper cap him, decorated with prancing red demons, Jerome declared, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, when he suffered death for me, a most miserable sinner, did wear a crown of thorns upon his head; and I for His sake will wear this adorning of derision and blasphemy.”
Led to the place of execution, Jerome embraced the stake with great cheerfulness and resolution. The executioner circled behind him to set the pyre ablaze. But Jerome rebuked him, “Come here, and kindle it before my eyes; for had I been afraid of it, I had not come here, having had so many opportunities to escape.” When the flames began to swirl around him, he sang louder and louder with apparent glee. Such was his comprehension of the great covenant of redemption that he entered eternity with no trepidation, only joy.
With his final breath he declared, “Hanac animam in flammis affero, Christe, tibi! This soul in flames I offer, Christ, to thee!”