Why Did Jerome of Prague Die a Martyr?

An early critic of the Catholic Church, Jerome of Prague paved the way for men like Martin Luther.

Updated Jul 31, 2023
Why Did Jerome of Prague Die a Martyr?

Most of the martyrs we learn about lived in the early church period. We know that most of the non-Christian world didn’t know how to handle new Christians and their faith. And they often retaliated with brutal torture methods and executions.

So it can sometimes throw us off when fellow Christians murder a Christian. Such happened to Jerome of Prague in the 1400s. As a pre-Reformation figure, Jerome encountered several issues with the Catholic Church. He ultimately met his demise at the stake in 1416.

Today we’ll explore his life, beliefs, and what we can learn from his courage.

When Did Jerome of Prague Live?

We must ascertain certain biographical details before exploring why the Catholic Church executed Jerome, Believe it or not, knowing when Jerome was born will play a huge part in why he died.

Jerome was born in approximately 1379—some place it as early as 1365. He studied at Charles University under a teacher named Jan Hus (sometimes listed as John Hus in Western European history books).

Hus, an early reformer and contemporary of John Wycliffe, died on July 6, 1415. The Catholic Church executed Hus for similar reasons to the ones that led to Jerome of Prague’s execution.

Jerome had been influenced by Hus’ and Wycliffe’s teachings. If you don’t know who Wycliffe is, you may have heard of the company that goes by his name today. This company now seeks to translate the Bible into every language—fulfilling Jesus’ calling to go into all of the earth to preach the Gospel.

At the time, the Bible was in Latin (not to be translated to English until 1382 by Wycliffe). Even then, it took a long time for the average person to have an accessible version of the Bible.

Most people would hear the Bible read in church by the clergy, and it was never spoken in English. This meant that people could not read the Scripture for themselves.

Like Wycliffe, Jerome of Prague believed that everyone should have access to Scripture and be able to interpret it for themselves.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves as to why Jerome of Prague got into trouble with the church.

Was Jerome of Prague a Protestant Reformer?

Circling back to why his birth date matters: we often forget that the Reformation didn’t start until the 1500s. For a few centuries, conflict had brewed in the church—conflict about power abuse occurring in the Catholic Church.

Wycliffe, Hus, and Jerome of Prague were forerunners to the Reformation’s concerns. They stood as giants; eventually, Martin Luther and his successors would stand on their shoulders. 

Jerome of Prague died in 1416, 99 years before Luther posted his 95 theses on the Wittenburg church doors. Looking at Jerome of Prague helps us see how the Reformation’s concerns had been building up for some time.

What Did Jerome of Prague Believe?

What did Jerome of Prague believe that got him into trouble with the church—enough trouble to be burned for heresy?

Accessible Bibles: Jerome, like Wycliffe, advocated for the common person to have more access to Scripture. It may seem odd that the church would be so against this. We must remember that church and politics often went hand in hand during this period. Giving everyday people access to the Bible meant they could interpret its teachings as they wanted . . . and determine whether church leaders were following Scripture to a T. The church would cease to be seen as the dominant authority. People will do many violent things to control their influence, even if that means silencing opposition.

Anti-Church Beliefs: Believing that common people should have access to the Bible also meant that Jerome believed people could question the church if it went against Scriptural commands. The Catholic Church interpreted his stance as anti-church.

Rejection of Papacy-Specific Beliefs: Some of his teachings and writings suggest that Jerome questioned core ideas about church authority. He (apparently) questioned the papacy, the cardinals’ authority, and the prevailing view of communion. The Catholic Church has historically held that the communion elements turn into Christ’s literal blood and body. Regardless of which view on communion is correct, the key point is that Jerome criticized a view that many Christians saw as the only orthodox view. Questioning any of the ways that the church operated or what they taught could lead to being branded a heretic.

Jerome was arrested for his controversial views on April 20, 1415. He was put on trial and did recant at one point—when the torture methods against him had been too great.

But eventually, he recanted his recant. He was sentenced to death on May 26, 1416, and burned at the stake four days later.

How Did Jerome of Prague Die?

Jerome’s death by burning was unquestionably painful. But there’s something particularly poignant about his death.

Jerome had taken solace from people who had died wrongfully—such as Hus, Jesus, Socrates, Stephen, and others.

At the stake, he sang, “My soul, in flames, I offer, Christ to thee.”

Jerome found his beliefs so important that he would die for them. It’s often sobering to think of many brothers and sisters in Christ who were killed in the church’s name.

What Can We Learn from Jerome of Prague?

Before we can derive lessons from Jerome’s life, we must add a caveat about the Catholic Church. Many of us can often villainize it. We see what it has done throughout history, and we can get upset.

However, we must remember that while no church denomination burns people at the stake anymore, every denomination risks repeating the same mistakes. In fact, many have. The story of the Reformation is filled with stories of Protestants killing each other for various reasons. 

Many of us also find minor ways to persecute or judge our siblings in Christ. We see people deconstructing (a healthy process when done correctly) or going against our denomination’s culture, and then we metaphorically burn them for not fitting our standards.

With that in mind, here are some things we can learn from Jerome’s life.

Obey Church Authority, But…

If a church is going against what Scripture says, we must use critical thinking skills. Paul, throughout Scripture, chastises churches when they go astray.

I’ve seen a silencing effect in many churches I’ve attended where you can’t question anything they do. This allows for abuses to roam and ill-fitted leaders to run a tyranny. Church is important, but it’s also important for the church to obey Scripture.

Listen to What Your Pastor Says, But…

It’s important to read Scripture on your own.

For Christians who only play “Christian” on Sundays…it’s extremely dangerous to live like that. Although most pastors have a heart for God, they cannot be the ones solely responsible for our salvation and growth in Christ.

If a pastor goes wayward, we must have a Scriptural foundation so we know when they aren’t teaching biblical things. This will not always be easy. I once left a church once because the pastor started to preach heresy. Regardless of whether the situation ends with reconciliation, we must know the Bible well enough to detect when things are going awry.

Learn from History, And…

Hold every denomination accountable. There is no perfect church. The church is full of people, and people are prone to sin.

Although it’s important that we don’t gossip or slander, it’s also equally important that we can speak freely within our church circles. We probably need to find another church if we fear what we say could get us excommunicated or shunned.

Just as the early churches were willing to be chastised by Paul, our modern-day ones need to be open to feedback for areas where they fall short (just be ready to help in the areas that you feel need strengthening).

Most churches are made up of overworked staff, so don’t hear me say, “Complain about anything and everything.” But also know that weeds are sown with wheat. And sometimes, wolves are lurking in church buildings today.

So be vigilant, read the Bible regularly, and seek healthy church environments.

Jerome of Prague in Five Minutes

Dan Graves gives a condensed look at Jerome’s life, perfect for students or small groups:

“In many respects, the life of Jerome of Prague paralleled that of his teacher and friend Jan Hus. Hus welcomed the writings of Wycliffe to Bohemia. There he preached reformation a century before Luther. Jerome was also convinced of the Wycliffian truths.

At Hus's suggestion Jerome sailed to England and studied at Oxford, Wycliffe's old seat of learning. For the next several years, Jerome moved about a good deal, spreading reform doctrines in Paris, Jerusalem, Heidelberg, Vienna, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary and Cologne. In his native Bohemia he sided with nationalistic students. He denounced a bull proclaiming an indulgence for a crusade against Naples.

When Hus was arrested by the Council of Constance, Jerome secretly followed, hoping to defend his friend. He discovered he could do nothing but was in great danger himself, and so he went to neighboring Idelberg and asked for safe conduct. Unwilling to do nothing, 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 headed home. On the way he was seized and sent in irons to the Council. A long chain was attached to the irons, and by this he was dragged into the cloister to be insulted, and then locked in a tower. His legs were fastened in stocks. For many days he was kept in this miserable condition. After Hus was burned, Jerome was threatened with torments if he would not recant. In a moment of weakness, he yielded.

Despite his recantation, he was not released. On the contrary, a second recantation was demanded. He said he would recant only in public. By then he had been a prisoner almost a year. At the public "recantation,” he took back his earlier recantation and demanded a hearing to plead his cause. The Council refused this plea. Indignantly he protested, ‘To my enemies you have allowed the fullest scope of accusation: to me you deny the least opportunity of defense. . . .’

Jerome insisted he protested only against the bad behavior of the clergy. Unlike Hus he did not reject the doctrine of transubstantiation. Nonetheless, he was condemned to die in the flames as Hus had. For two days the council kept him in suspense, hoping to frighten him into a recantation. The Cardinal of Florence personally reasoned with him. Jerome remained steadfast. When a cap was made for him painted with red devils, he said, ‘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.’ He sang hymns on his way to execution. Because of his vigor and health he was a long time dying in the flames. On this day, May 30, 1416, he and his paper crown were burned.”

Dan Graves Bibliography:

1. Foxe, John. The New Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Rewritten and updated by Harold J. Chadwick. Gainesville, Florida: Bridge-Logos, 2001.

2. ‘Jerome of Prague.” New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954.

3. ‘Jerome of Prague.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

4. Spinka, Matthew. John Hus and the Czech Reform. Hamden, Connecticutt: Archon Books, 1966, 1941.

Last updated April, 2007.

(“Into the Fire Went Jerome of Prague” by Dan Graves, MSL, published on Christianity.com on May 3, 2010)

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/DrPAS

Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, book editor for hire, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids. Check out her editing profile at Reedsy.com to find out about hiring her for your next book project.

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

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