The religious reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1414 for criticizing the Catholic clergy and suggesting that all Christians should be able to read the Bible in their own languages. Martin Luther expressed the same ideas beginning in 1517, but he managed to live into old age. What are three specific reasons why Luther was able to promote his religious ideas and avoid persecution?
There is no definitive answer to why Jan Hus was burned at the stake while Martin Luther’s life was spared. They were both college professors and priests who broke with the Roman Catholic Church over questions of corruption and divinity. Both grew to reject the notion that God’s word could only legitimately be interpreted by the Vatican, and both were subjected to attacks and tried for apostasy. There is no question that Hus was a precursor to Luther, just as Hus was a follower of the English philosopher and academic John Wyclef. In that sense, the three figures constitute a lineal history of the Reformation, although Luther’s would prove the seminal contribution to the final break with the Catholic Church.
One reason for Hus’s execution and Luther’s “exile” was simply a product of time and place. Hus’ protestations against Church practices, for example, allowing the wealthy to buy their way out of purgatory, occurred in an earlier time when such views were newer and more incendiary – not that Luther’s views and actions were not incendiary --and the politics within and between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Vatican were different from one period to the next. The Church during Hus’s era was deeply divided, with three pretenders to the papacy competing for influence and the right to retain the title of Pope. The Holy Roman Emperor during Hus’ period was Sigismund, who was undermined on the matter of Church orthodoxy by the powerful Council of Constance, which was established in part to reconcile the problem of the three popes. The Council’s influence was enormous, and its harsh views of Hus’s writings and teachings made his survival tenuous. Hus was considered a threat to Church teachings and practices, and the Council made sure he paid with his life.
A difference between the two priests was nationality, with the Czech (or Bohemian) heritage of Hus making him more vulnerable to execution than the German Luther, an important consideration given the power of Germany in Church affairs and the aforementioned role of the Council of Constance in determining Hus’ fate. Luther enjoyed markedly greater support among the German followers of Church teachings than did Hus a century earlier.
A corollary of the issue of ethnicity was the development of new technologies during Luther’s time that made his writings far more accessible to the masses than was the case with Hus. The development of the printing press in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg, enabled Luther toestablish a far greater and more diverse following than Hus had enjoyed. This helped to insulate him from the worst of the punishments to which his enemies might have liked to have subjected him.
There is no question that Luther risked his life to assert and defend his beliefs. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor at the time, was an enormously powerful figure and opponent of Luther’s teachings. The emperor’s political machinations, however, included his own rivalry for influence with the Vatican, and Luther’s activities served a useful purpose in dividing the Church to which he may have been theologically committed but which presented a threat to his power. Despite his disdain for Luther, he protected the troublesome priest and, unlike Sigismund during the days of Jan Hus, did not have to confront a powerful Council of Constance like his predecessor had decades before.