Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

📅 June 18, 2020

Isaac Newton is credited with saying: “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He apparently adapted this idea from the 12th century theologian John Salisbury.

Whatever the origin of the phrase, its meaning applies to all of us. We are “where we are” today, because of those who have gone before us. A particularly inspiring example of this principle is in the lives of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, who paved the way for the success of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther stated: “We are all of us Hussites at heart.”

John Wycliffe (1320-1384)

John Wycliffe is known as “The Morning Star of the Reformation.”  Almost two centuries before the Reformation, he was teaching the same doctrines as Luther: 1) salvation by grace through faith was available through Christ, not the Roman Catholic Church; 2) corruption in the church disqualified men from spiritual leadership; 3) followers of Christ should live simply as Jesus taught; 4) the Bible should be made available to read in people’s own language, rather than Latin.

Wycliffe was a theologian at Oxford University. So that common people in England could read the Bible, Wycliffe, and his followers, called Lollards, completed the first translation of the Bible into English in 1382. Wycliffe used the Catholic Bible, the Latin Vulgate, for his translation, because he knew no Hebrew or Greek. The Bible brought him into conflict with church officials. He went to trial, but was protected by powerful friends. Wycliffe was expelled from Oxford in 1382 for his reformist views. He died a natural death in 1384. The Church continued to persecute Lollards as heretics, but Wycliffe’s ideas spread across Europe and influenced other reformers.

Jan Hus (1369-1415)

Jan Hus was a religious reformer, born in Southern Bohemia in 1369. He earned his living by singing and performing humble services in the Church. He was later the rector of the Czech university.

The doctrinal views of Wycliffe were spreading over the whole country. People were beginning to rebel against the errors of the Catholic Church. The archbishop accused Wycliffe’s followers of instigating the rebellions. The pope issued a decree empowering the archbishop to act against the followers of Wycliffe. All books of Wycliffe were to be given up, his doctrines revoked, and “free” preaching discontinued.

After the announcement, Hus appealed to the pope, but in vain. All books and valuable manuscripts of Wycliffe were burned, and Hus and his adherents put under the ban. Revolts occurred. Hus continued to preach in the Bethlehem chapel, and became bolder in his accusations of the Church. The churches of the city were put under the ban, and the interdict [forbidding participation in Roman Catholic Church rituals] was pronounced against Prague, but without result.

The clergy of Prague had brought their complaints before the pope, and he ordered the cardinal to proceed against Hus without mercy. Hus was to be seized and delivered to the archbishop, and his chapel destroyed. This forced Hus to depart from Prague, in compliance with the wish of the king; but his absence had not the expected effect. The people continued to support him.

On Dec. 4, 1414, the pope ordered a preliminary investigation against Hus. The witnesses for the prosecution were heard, but Hus was refused an advocate for his defense. He was imprisoned for seventy-three days, separated from his friends, chained day, and night, poorly fed, and tortured by disease.

On June 5, 1415, Hus was tried for the first time. He declared himself willing to recant if errors should be proven to him. Hus expressed his admiration of Wycliffe. Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burnt and his ashes spread. Followers said the river would carry his influence out to sea and to the world, which is exactly what happened.

Hus asked again to explain the reasons for his views. His argument was ignored. After the trial on June 8, several other attempts were made to induce him to recant, but he resisted all of them.

The condemnation took place on July 6, 1415, in the presence of the solemn assembly of the council in the cathedral. Hus was led into the church. The bishop delivered an oration on the duty of eradicating heresy.

He fell upon his knees and asked God to forgive his enemies and then was led away to the stake.  At the place of execution he knelt down and prayed aloud. The imperial marshal asked him again to save his life by a recantation, but Hus declined. He was tied to a stake to be burned.

He said: “In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached I will die to-day with gladness.” The fire was kindled with John Wycliffe’s own manuscripts. Hus died singing, “Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me,” and proclaiming, “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” 

Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

The Reformation had begun.


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Holly Bebernitz

Native Texan Holly Bebernitz moved to Jacksonville, Florida in 1967. After thirty years of teaching speech, English, and history on the secondary and college levels, she retired from classroom teaching to become a full-time grandmother. The change in schedule allowed the time needed to complete the novel she had begun writing in 1998. When Trevorode the Defender was published in March 2013, the author realized the story of the Magnolia Arms was not yet complete.


Semi-Finalist - 2021 Royal Palm Literary Award Competition - Florida Writer's Association