Many long months of suffering followed, all as an attempt to induce Hus to recant. Church authorities gave up and on July 6, 1415, led him out of his prison cell through the city gate and about a kilometer or so to a prepared pyre. There Hus was martyred. He died with an unwavering faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At one point, Hus had said that you can kill the goose, but a hundred years from now will come the swan, and you will not be able to kill the swan. Hus’ name means “goose” in the Czech language. He was saying that while the forces of darkness had the upper hand in 1415, these forces of reform in places such as England and Bohemia would continue to grow and, eventually, the gospel in all its splendor, beauty, and truth would prevail. The swan was coming.
Pre Lux Tenebras
What these pre-Reformation attempts at reform show us is the true state of the church and of life in the time leading up to October 31, 1517. We sometimes speak of the Reformation’s slogan at Calvin’s Geneva, Post Tenebras Lux: “After Darkness, Light.” The reverse is also true: “Before the Light, Darkness.” The darkness was felt theologically, religiously, and spiritually. There was also a darkness that was palpable socially, economically, politically, and educationally. Here’s one example. The first time that a law made wife-beating a crime in Geneva was not until the time of Calvin in that city—and that law was due to his influence. Here’s another example. John Knox used all the great wealth that had been accumulated by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland to bring about educational reform in the entire nation. Through his efforts, Scotland achieved nearly universal literacy, a truly phenomenal feat in the sixteenth century.
But all this reform of society and politics and education came as a result of the Reformation’s reform not just of the church’s practice and liturgy but of the church’s theology. The true darkness that dominated the time leading up to the Reformation was the darkness of the obscuring and eclipsing of the gospel. The church taught that peace with God could be obtained through man’s works. That is the ultimate darkness. Eternal darkness.
The Reformers saw the seismic crack in the foundation. They boldly proclaimed the uncompromised gospel, and without flinching they called out medieval Roman Catholicism for preaching a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. When we see how the church and the popes responded to men such as Wycliffe and Hus, we see the grip of darkness. We see how darkness is threatened by the light. We see the lengths the darkness will go to to keep out the light. This sparked the righteous indignation Luther had for the church to which he belonged. This also explains the great sympathy Luther had for the German peasants covered in a blanket of darkness. Luther was one of the peasants himself.
A Law Degree, a Thunderstorm, and a Bible
The first son born to Hans and Margarethe Luther was baptized on November 11, 1483, one day after his birth. It was the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours, and so he was named Martin. Luther’s parents had high hopes for their son and, when Luther showed academic promise early as a student, they made all the sacrifices they could for him. Luther’s early schooling took him to Magdeburg and then to Eisenach, and then he was ready for Erfurt, a town full of churches, monasteries, industry, and a university of increasing reputation. Luther earned his bachelor’s and master’s and set to earning his law degree. In the summer of 1505, Luther traveled home for an extended visit and some rest. On his way back to Erfurt, he found himself caught in a violent thunderstorm. Luther felt as if God had opened the torrents of heaven to take his very life. In fear, he clutched a rock and cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.” St. Anne, according to legend the mother of Mary, was the patron saint of miners, the guild of Luther’s father. His family would have had a small shrine to her in the home. Luther would have likely said prayers to her as he left. She was the only mediator he knew. When he felt what he thought to be God’s hand of judgment upon him, he turned to her for rescue.