Category: Saints and Heroes of the Faith

Luther, on trial for his life at the Diet of Worms, refused to recant his writings. Here is the famous conclusion of his speech, as determined by Reformation Scholar Keiko Olbermann:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

(Luther is often quoted as saying “Here I stand, I can do no other.” While stirring, this is felt by most Luther scholars to be spurious).

See Christianity Today article “What Luther Said“.

Portrait of John Wycliffe, 1828, by Thomas Kirkby (1775–c.1848)

Known as the “morning star of the English Reformation”, Wycliffe undertook to translate the Latin (Vulgate) Bible into Middle English. His radical ideas on the papacy, transubstantiation, prayer to saints, and monastacism foreshadowed later Protestant developments.

He was born in 1320s in Yorkshire, and made his way to Oxford by 1345. He completed his Arts degree at Merton College in 1356, was named Master of Balliol College in 1361. By 1372, he obtained a doctorate in theology, and was in that year part of a commission which the English Government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI some points of disagreement between the king and the pope.

Wycliffe began writing treatises advancing his theories on church reform, including an advocation that the church divest of property and that high secular offices not be held by clergy. These positions brought him into conflict with church authorities, but he had a strong protector in the 1st Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. He was summoned to appear before the Bishop of London, but essentially a brawl broke out and he was spared censure. A papal bull criticizing him was published by Pope Gregory in 1377, but Gregory died before much action could be taken. Furthermore, this was a time when in England the common people and royalty alike took a somewhat dim view of the papacy.

Wycliffe continued his work, and in 1380 became involved in efforts to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into Middle English. Simultaneously his position began to erode as the new Archbishop of Canterbury took action against him. His works were condemned at a synod held at Blackfriars, London, in 1382, and his writings were banned at Oxford. He retired to Lutterworth, where he was already rector of the parish church of St Mary (since 1374). There he wrote copiously until his death in 1384. He suffered a stroke while saying mass on Dec 28. About 30 years later, in 1415, he was posthumously condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance, and his remains dug up and cast into the river Swift.

His followers were known as Lollards, and were aggressively persecuted in the 15th century. Many went to the stake, and the movement went underground. “A gruesome reminder of this persecution is the ‘Lollards Pit’ in Thorpe Wood, now Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, Norfolk, where men are customablie burnt.” (Wikipedia). The movement was later absorbed into the Protestant Reformation. Bishop Cuthbert of London called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of the Wycliffite heresy.

Wycliffe advocated a number of positions that would later be labelled “Protestant”:

  • Criticized the Church of his day for its wealth and abuses of power.
  • Criticized the practice of indulgences (remission of time spent in purgatory)
  • Criticized monasticism and advocated dissolution of the monasteries.
  • Became increasingly disenchanted with the pope, even likening him to anti-Christ by the end of his life.
  • Taught that the Bible is the supreme authority.
  • Taught that the church is the invisible community of the elect, predestined by God, in contrast to the visible institution of the Church.
  • He rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained bread and wine, but are instead spiritually infused with God’s presence.
  • He declared the right of every Christian to know the Bible.
  • Emphasized the importance of Christ alone as the sufficient way of salvation, without the aid of works.

His most enduring legacy is the English Bible. He was personally responsible for translating much of the New Testament. The revision of this work, after his death, has become known to history as the Wycliffe Bible.

He is commemorated by the Anglicans on December 31.

About 100 years before Martin Luther, a Czech scholar was burned at the stake, by Church authorities who had initially promised him safe passage (they later reneged on this on the theory that it is okay to lie to heretics). The year was 1415, and the Council of Konstanz was in session, dealing with numerous grave issues that had arisen and were threatening to weaken the authority of the Church (including multiple popes–not just two, but three different claimants to the title and office of “Pope”). For more on this Council, see our prior article on Konstanz). During the Council at Konstanz, John Wycliffe was condemned posthumously for his teachings, and Hus was put on trial. His death galvanized a host of followers, particularly in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia), who formed a movement that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus was born in about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia. It is said that he decided to become a priest in order to lift himself out of poverty. He went to the Imperial city of Prague for his studies, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in 1396. He was ordained a priest in 1400. He continued to teach at the arts faculty and was named dean of the arts faculty in 1401. In 1402 Hus was chosen by the Czech masters of Charles College to be preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, a large and popular church. This role included supervision of two residential student colleges in connection with the chapel, where he served for the next decade.

He became a critic of the corruptions of the clergy, and an enthusiastic supporter of the teachings of John Wycliffe, whose works he translated into the Czech language. In the following years he was thrust into the forefront of the reform movement in Prague, and was supported by King Wenceslaus (of the Christmas song fame), who was jockeying to become Holy Roman Emperor. In 1409, the king maneuvered to give the Czech faction the decisive power at the University of Prague. Consequently, the bulk of the German faculty left and Hus was put into the role of Rector of the University of Prague. (The departing scholars included the founders of the University of Leipzig, which opened its doors in 1409).

Not long afterward Hus’ archbishop excommunicated him, not so much for heresy but for disobedience, in essence for supporting a different papal claimant than did the archbishop. Hus remained popular in Prague, supported by King Wenceslaus, and was free to teach and preach as before. Eventually the archbishop was forced to flee Prague, dying en route to Hungary in 1411.

In a foreshadowing of Martin Luther’s conflict with Tetzel, Hus became incensed over the sale of indulgences–the offering for sale of the Church’s purported power to grant forgiveness and shorten the time one’s relatives spent in purgatory. When the antipope John XXIII began pushing indulgences in order to wage war against his rivals, Hus was furious:

The pope was acting in mere self-interest, and Huss could no longer justify the pope’s moral authority. He leaned even more heavily on the Bible, which he proclaimed the final authority for the church. Huss further argued that the Czech people were being exploited by the pope’s indulgences, which was a not-so-veiled attack on the Bohemian king, who earned a cut of the indulgence proceeds. With this he lost the support of his king. (from Christianity Today).

The conflict boiled on, and Hus was excommunicated by the Roman authorities for disobeying a summons to appear in Rome. This time, the excommunication was enforced, and the entire city of Prague came under an interdict so long as Hus was permitted to preach. In 1412, to spare the residents of Prague, he left the city, retiring to the countryside where he wrote a number of treatises.

In 1415 Hus went to Konstanz hoping for a hearing before the great Council. Instead he was arrested and put on trial, where he was asked merely to recant. He refused, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

After his death, open rebellion broke out in Bohemia and Moravia, and for a time the “Hussites” dominated. Over the next 20 years a coalition of Hussites and others defeated three armies sent to reclaim the region in what is known as the “Hussite wars”.

The Hussites did not directly lead to the more successful Protestant Reformation, but can be seen as an important predecessor that had similar aims. As the Christianity Today article notes:
Huss would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Huss preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. But the Reformers also looked to Huss’s life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.

Luther remarked upon reviewing the writings of Hus: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”

Eventually the Bohemian Reformation was crushed in 1620, and every inhabitant forced to become Roman Catholic by the victorious King Ferdinand II. Remnants of the Hussites diffused into Lutheranism or exist today as a number of small denominations, including the Moravian Church. Although Czechoslovakia is now mostly a secular nation, Hus remains very popular there; He was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a 2015 survey by Czech Radio. His stature has risen a bit even in the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a kind of apology through a speech by pope John Paul II in 1999.

For further reading:

The story of David and Goliath has been recently retold in an interesting essay by Malcolm Gladwell. It is still a tale of bravery, of heroic faith, of the small defeating the large against what appears to be insurmountable odds. But there are a couple of under-appreciated aspects to the story.

In the 11th century BCE, the people of Israel under King Saul were struggling for survival against the dread Philistines. These marauders from the sea had conquered their way along the Valley of Elah, and were on the verge of dividing Israel in two. David was a mere shepherd boy, bringing food to his brothers, and was not even officially in the army. Goliath was a giant who had been taunting the Israelites to send a champion to fight him. David, hearing the taunts, and seeing no one rise to the occasion, begged King Saul to allow him to fight Goliath. Even in the secular culture, the outcome of this contest is widely known.

And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
(from 1 Samuel 17, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

Traditionally this has seemed almost like a suicide mission. David looks crazy for wanting to do this, and Saul looks even crazier for entrusting the fate of his country to a crazy boy. However, a couple of interesting features are often overlooked.

1. Goliath was weaker than he appeared.

Though he was enormous, and therefore intimidating, certain features of the story indicate that this warrior had acromegaly, a medical problem brought on by a pituitary gland tumor that secretes excessive growth hormone. The pituitary gland sits in the base of the brain, right at the optic chiasm, where nerves from the eyes cross each other on their way to the vision centers at the back of the brain. A tumor here can cause vision loss and double vision. Other symptoms of acromegaly include headaches, weakness, and joint pains.

Goliath was slow, and apparently could not see well. Terrible vision would be an explanation for why he had an armor bearer with him, to lead him around. It explains why he insisted that the opponent come closer. And it might be why he said “why do you come at me with sticks“, when David had only one stick. A pituitary tumor, again, could cause diplopia, or double vision.

As Gladwell observes,
What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. (Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 2013)

2. Bringing a gun to a knife fight

Assyrian Slingers at Lachish, from a relief at the British Museum. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). Used under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

If Goliath could see better, he might have been a bit more nervous when David approached. Perhaps he would have protested the unfairness of doing battle against a projectile warrior; to twist a line from the old musical “West Side Story”: “Who brings a gun to a knife fight?”

The second major point to consider is to realize that we aren’t talking about a children’s slingshot toy. In fact, the sling David used was a deadly projectile weapon. Sling projectiles could find their target from a distance of 400 meters or more, and strike their target with the force of a bullet. Several ancient sources praise slings and their users for their accuracy and strategic importance.

For example, slingers in the army of Artaxerxes II were crucial in beating back a Greek force in 401 BC:

“we were not a whit more able to injure the enemy, while we had considerable difficulty in beating a retreat ourselves. Thank heaven they did not come upon us in any great force, but were only a handful of men; so that the injury they did us was not large, as it might have been; and at least it has served to show us what we need. At present the enemy shoot and sling beyond our range, so that our Cretan archers are no match for them; our hand-throwers cannot reach as far; and when we pursue, it is not possible to push the pursuit to any great distance from the main body, and within the short distance no foot-soldier, however fleet of foot, could overtake another foot-soldier who has a bow-shot the start of him. If, then, we are to exclude them from all possibility of injuring us as we march, we must get slingers as soon as possible and cavalry. I am told there are in the army some Rhodians, most of whom, they say, know how to sling, and their missile will reach even twice as far as the Persian slings (which, on account of their being loaded with stones as big as one’s fist, have a comparatively short range; but the Rhodians are skilled in the use of leaden bullets)”(Xenophon, Anabasis, book III)

Back to young David, it still required a lot of courage and faith to take on the giant. However, the courage wasn’t idiotic, nor the faith blind. This isn’t a crazy loon getting lucky. David’s faith was informed by reason, even cunning. Our faith similarly should be informed by–not divorced from–reason.

As salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once put it: “They looked at Goliath, you know, and figured he was too big to hit. David looked at him and knew he was too big to miss. It’s the way you look at things.” (From Zig Ziglar’s Life Story)

John Donne Effigy

(John Donne Effigy by Nicholas Stone, 1631, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London)

 

Valentine’s Day once again turns our thoughts to romantic love. Interestingly, one of the UK Telegraph’s “10 Best Love Poems” was penned by a man of seeming contradictions: A man who could capture erotic impulses in words that resound in elegance, he also embraced the Christian faith, becoming a priest and one of his era’s best spokesmen for the faith.

John Donne (1573-1631) was born in the Elizabethan era, a time of prosperity and of the flowering of literature in England. Donne’s writings shine along with those of his contemporaries William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Sir Francis Bacon.

The poem selected by the Telegraph for special honor is “The Good Morrow” published in his 1633 collection Songs and Sonnets. I love the second stanza:

If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

For Donne it was a deep and abiding love that altered the course of his life. While working for Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, he fell in love with Anne More, Egerton’s niece. They secretly married without the approval of her father, for which Donne was fired and prevented from obtaining a government position. He lived in poverty, struggling to provide for a rapidly growing family (Anne bore him 12 children). In 1614, formally blocked by King James I from any employment outside of the Church, John Donne took on holy orders.

By all accounts, Donne was a very devoted husband. James Kiefer, in his online sketch of the life of Donne, has opined: From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne’s professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love.

Donne was devastated by Anne’s death in 1617. He vowed never to marry again, despite the troubles that would cause in raising his children. He threw his energies fully into his priestly work, rising quickly to the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He gained fame for his sermons, and was regarded in his day as the best preacher in England. Phrases from his writings remain familiar to us today, such as “death be not proud”, “for whom the bell tolls” and “no man is an island”. Here is an excerpt:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death dimishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne–meditation 17)

He fell ill of stomach cancer, but managed to rise from his death bed on Feb 25, 1631, to deliver a final sermon entitled “Death’s Duell,” to a stunned audience at Whitehall Palace. Izaak Walton, in his The Life of Dr. John Donne, wrote: “When to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face.” His publisher called it “The Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon.” Donne exhorted his hearers with these final words:

There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.

A marble effigy of Donne made soon after his death can be viewed at St Paul’s cathedral, where it survived the 1666 Great Fire of London. He is remembered with a feast day in the Anglican Church calendar, on March 31.

Santa Claus, that chubby old chuckler who flies around on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and drops through chimneys delivering gifts, has become the iconic symbol of Christmas. There is an almost perverse cultural overemphasis on “believing in Santa”, even as the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God falls further and further away from our collective consciousness.

The spectacular fantasy film “The Polar Express”, based on the beloved children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, is a good example of the cultural pressure to uphold the Santa myth. The protagonist, a boy who is struggling with doubts about the reality of Santa, is invited to ride on a mysterious train to the North Pole. A creepy hobo he meets on the train asks him, “What’s your take the big guy?” The whole point of the yarn is of course to decry disbelief in Santa. A web page on WikiHow tells you how to “Keep Your Child Believing in Santa.”

Even Christians play along with the Santa myth, as it is passionately defended in an article I ran across entitled “Why I Believe in Santa (And My Kids Will Too)” by Hannah Giselbach:

You get where I’m going with this. The thought of having an intervention every time your children use their imaginations is ill-advised and rather silly. Why, then, are we so afraid to let our children imagine and pretend when it comes to Santa Claus? Pretending isn’t always lying. One very sad and dismal day, your children won’t play with dolls anymore. They won’t run, elated, arms flailing when they see Mickey Mouse at Disney World. One day, your children will grow up and understand that all the things they used to play with and pretend with are not actually real. I beg of you, don’t take away that magic prematurely. It will happen when it happens. And I’ve never once met an adult who felt betrayed by their parents who “lied” to them about Santa when they were children. Not once! I have, however, met adults who feel deprived of a major part of childhood because their parents felt the need to dispel their belief and encourage their questioning doubt at a very young age.

This approach, of winking and saying “it’s a good lie” or “it’s just pretend” makes me a bit squeamish. Also it seems unnecessary. In my own family we have reveled in the imagination of “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” without trying to maintain that they are real and true. I don’t want to be a spoiler of enchanting ideas, or an enemy of imagination, but neither will I tell a bald-faced lie to someone, especially a child. Especially as Christians, the myth of Santa is not the place to stake our flag of truth, lest we lose all credibility on more important things, such as the Resurrection.

This is not merely a frivolous worry. Philosopher David Kyle Johnson, associate professor at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an opinion article entitled “Sorry, Virginia” in the Baltimore Sun, in which he stated:

Parents should stop teaching their kids to believe in Santa Claus. Reading stories about Santa is fine, and encouraging generosity and imagination is great. But tricking children into believing that an omniscient fat man, with a red suit and rosy cheeks, will slide down the chimney bestowing presents on Dec. 24 is just flat-out immoral. First of all, it’s lying. It’s one thing to lie to save someone’s life, but stop kidding yourself. “It’s fun to watch the kids get excited” is hardly a noble cause. Nor is it harmless. I’ve amassed recollections of “finding out the truth about Santa,” and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke. In contrast to the opinion of Ms. Giselbach, prof Johnson has collected stories of harm done by the lie, and you can read about this here.

An article published in Lancet Psychiatry also hypothesizes that lying to kids about Santa may be harmful. As reported in The Guardian:

Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

Even more, from a Christian perspective, is this: The more of our time and brain space we give to the “Santa” myth, and by extension to the plastic and commercial “X-mas” of our culture, the more we distract from–nay, rob from–the glory of Christ’s birth. Pastor and author John Piper, of “Desiring God” fame, responded to the question of Santa by first recounting the fact that Christmas celebrates that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that he came to give his life a ransom for many, and that through his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

So the birth of the Son of God, the very God, very man, is simply stunning and glorious and infinitely serious, an overflow of the happy news. The angel called it “good news of great joy” — great joy, not small joy, not a little bit of joy, but great joy (Luke 2:10).

…It is mindboggling to me that any Christian would even contemplate such a trade, that we would divert attention away from the incarnation of the God of the universe into this world to save us and our children. . . . Not only is Santa Claus not true — and Jesus is very truth himself — but compared to Jesus, Santa is simply pitiful, and our kids should be helped to see this.
(Desiringgod.org).

I’ll return to the question posed by that ghostly hobo, “What’s your take on the big guy?”

When this came up for me, when my kids were toddlers, I pondered how to honor Santa, without lying, and without sucking away the magic of the season. I purchased a lovely little book by Julie Stiegemeyer entitled Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, published by Concordia Publishing in 2007. This is a very readable book with charming illustrations, which I found helpful. It links Santa with the historical St. Nicholas, relating him to the real meaning of Christmas at the end of the story.

If asked, “do you believe in Santa?” or “is Santa real?” I will say “yes”. “Santa” is real of course, as he is based on a real person known to us as St. Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop in the town of Myra, now part of modern day Turkey. He was recognized as a “saint” by the church. He was remembered for his generosity of spirit, and so giving gifts in his honor is fitting. St. Nicholas now lives, presumably, in heaven. That “Santa” is as real as you and I.

However, if I am pressed and asked whether Santa is literally a fat guy in a red suit from the North Pole who drops down chimneys, then I can’t lie about this. My answer is “no”; that “Santa” is as real as Darth Vader, Princess Bubblegum, and Mickey Mouse. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

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O Myghell! by grace of Cryst Iesu
Callid among angelis þe hevenly champioun,
Be a prerogatyf synguler of vertu,
Held a batayll, venquysshed the dragoun,
Be thow our sheld and our proteccyoun
In euery myschef of daungeris infernall,
Dyffende our party, presente our orisoun,
Vp to the lord that gouerneth all.

– John Lydgate

(Image and verse are Public Domain)

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Boats laze on beautiful cold waters, overlooked by the turrets of an ancient walled city. Today Konstanz is primarily known as a tourist destination. It is something of a byway, a diversion from the bustle of other parts of Europe. This was not always so. Behind the calming ripples of the lake and the charming medieval facades lurks a riveting tale.

By the early 15th century, power struggles in Europe had led to an unprecedented crisis in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. At this time there were not two but three claimants to the title of Pope. Each one commanded the loyalty of some of the states of Europe. The pope from Avignon, Benedikt XIII, had been abandoned by France but was still recognized by Aragon, Castile, Sicily, and Scotland. John XXIII was acknowledged as pope by France, England, Bohemia, Portugal, parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and numerous Northern Italian city states, including Florence and Venice. Gregory XII was still favored by Poland, Bavaria and parts of Germany.

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(The Konzilgebäude in Konstanz, Site of the Council)

A council was convened in 1414 at the imperial city of Konstanz in order to settle this mess once and for all. The subsequent proceedings saw the resignation or deposition of all three popes, and the election of the future Martin V as pope over the reunified western church. Gregory XII seems to have made out the best, being granted a bishopric and status as legate of Acosta, where he lived out his final years in peace. His cardinals were allowed to retain their status, thus satisfying the concerns of his powerful backers.

Benedikt refused to step down and was deposed and excommunicated by the council; He was forced to flee to Pensicola Castle, under the protection of the King of Aragon. There he died in 1423.

In a dramatic move, Pope John XXIII fled Konstanz disguised as a postman. Ultimately he was captured in Freiburg and returned to Konstanz, where he was tried and found guilty for a sordid list of crimes, including piracy, rape, incest, and heresy. His release from imprisonment was only secured after a huge ransom was paid by the Medici family of Florence. He died just a few months later, and was enshrined in one of the most magnificent tombs in Christendom.

In a high water mark for “conciliarism”, the council granted itself primacy over the affairs of the church. The famous decree Haec Sancta Synodus, made the bold claim that the council obtained its authority directly from Jesus Christ. The text can be read here. For a brief moment, an alternative power structure could have emerged in the West, in which popes submitted to a higher authority of councils. This was not to be, as the overreach and increasingly radical direction advocated by the next council in Siena essentially frightened the pope and heads of state. Papal supremacy was reasserted.

Intersecting with this moment in history is an important commemoration for Protestant Christians. It was at this council that John Wycliffe was condemned (posthumously) as a heretic in 1415. His writings were banned and it was ordered that his body should be removed from consecrated ground. Later, in 1428 this order was carried out and his corpse was exhumed, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.

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(Engraving of Jan Hus)

More memorably, the reformer John Hus was summoned in person to defend his teachings before the council. Hus had been influenced by Wycliffe, and had arisen as a popular voice for reform in Bohemia. He had enjoyed the support of common people as well as the nobility. The Council condemned him as a heretic and turned him over to be executed. Although he had been promised safe conduct to and from the meeting, he was told afterward that promises made to heretics were non-binding. The stone on which he was burned to death can be seen today.

Poggius Floretini, a Roman Catholic priest, described Hus’s death in a letter to a friend, Leonhard Nikolai:

Then Hus sang in verse, with an elated voice, like the psalmist in the thirty-first psalm, reading from a paper in his hands: “In thee, O Lord, I put my trust, bow down thine ear to me.” With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him into a shirt drenched with pitch. At that moment, one of the electors, Prince Ludwig of the Palatinate, rode up and pleaded with Hus to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away.
(From “the original Bohemian”, blog by Andrew Wilson at ThinkTheology).

It is interesting that “Hus” sounds like the Czech word for “goose”. He launched a movement that succeeded in breaking Bohemia away from Roman Catholic control. He was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, and his works influenced Martin Luther almost exactly one century later.

(Note: Images used are in the public domain)

If only the U.S. Episcopal Church had more such leaders it might have retained an evangelical zeal and orthodox theology, and avoided its current trajectory toward progressivism.

“With God’s grace and wisdom Bishop Salmon turned the Diocese of South Carolina, once a theological battlefield, into a family with our eyes on Christ.” (Rev David Dubay, on this remembrance page of the website for the Diocese of South Carolina).

Five years ago, a hail of bullets ended the life of a remarkable man in Pakistan. Shabaz Bhatti, aged 42, was a cabinet member, the only Christian elevated to such status in the Pakistani government. As minister for minorities, he spoke out against religious persecution, and particularly the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was prominent among the defenders of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death for blasphemy against Mohammed, and currently languishes in prison.

Prior to his death Bhatti had made a video to be released upon the occasion of his death. More on this, including the video footage, can be found in Christianity Today:

“I’m ready to die for a cause,” Bhatti said. “I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.”

“…I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of ‘cross’ and I follow Him to the cross. Pray for me and for my life.”

As the fifth year anniversary of his martyrdom is marked, an effort is underway to elevate him to greater recognition within his own church. The Catholic Herald reports:

“He spoke with faith and demonstrated courage. Thanks to him the voice of Pakistan’s Christians was heard. He paved the way for us. He was a good Catholic and gave his life for his mission,” Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi said at a March 2 ceremony marking the anniversary of Bhatti’s death.

The Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi has begun collecting testimonies about Bhatti to enquire into his martyrdom and sanctity.