“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10
John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384) was born to a propertied family in Yorkshire, England. His parents encouraged him toward service in the English Church and sent him at sixteen years of age to study at Oxford University, which was recognized as one of the most learned centers of education in Europe. Here he excelled in his studies, and in time he became a noted scholar in philosophy and theology. He was profoundly influenced by Augustine’s writings on the sovereignty of God and adopted his view on the doctrine of election. Eventually, he taught at Oxford as a regular lecturer where his preaching and teaching were well received by the students and faculty alike. In 1360 the University rewarded Wycliffe for his academic skills and selected him to become the Master of Balliol College. Clearly, Wycliffe was favored by both God and men. Further studies resulted in a Master of Arts degree in 1361, a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1369, and a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1372. During these years of studying, teaching, and preaching he wrote many important works in the areas of philosophy and theology. He was a prolific writer and preacher. His best known work was his Summa Theologica which was published near the end of his life. In gratitude for his excellent scholarship, the leaders of the English Church awarded him the position of Rector at the parish in Lincolnshire (1361), however he spent very little time there. It was the custom of the day for many scholarly men to hire a local priest to serve as pastor in their absence. In this way they had a financial base for ongoing studies and the prestige of holding a parish title, or an “ecclesiastical living.”
Oxford University had long been troubled by traveling monks (i.e. “Mendicant monks”) who begged for their food and support on school grounds. These monks erroneously reasoned that they were due financial support because Christ, himself, was a common beggar. Wycliffe felt that these men were extremely lazy and he published a treatise against them. Threatened by his formidable opposition, the monks turned against Wycliffe and remained bitter foes throughout the rest of his life. In addition, Wycliffe wrote against the excessive luxury that many English clergy sought for with all their cleverness and industry. He colorfully writes,
Let us see how such prelates are infected by the splendor of the world and by avarice. Certain ones presume to feed the reprobate from the goods of the poor, so that they become rich men in the world’s eye, actors, who proclaim publicly that those curates are generous providers…The king of pride has broken forth to such an extent in superfluous expenditures that he moves priests in five ways to have hunting dogs, fat horses, superfluous ornaments, furnished from the goods of the poor…Even though these five are damnable in a mere rector, they are even more damnable in a bishop or abbot, not only because they exceed simple rectors in these five ways, but because from greater obligation and hypocrisy they do these things more open before the world. And—to increase the gravity of the crime—they take joy in these sins, as if they were confirmed in the service of the devil…” (Wycliffe, The Pastoral Office, 47)
It is not difficult to imagine how offended and outraged the English clergy were under the scourge of Wycliffe’s stinging rebukes! And as a result, they became his lifelong adversaries who at every turn sought to condemn him as a heretic and to scatter his followers.
In contrast, King Edward III (1312-1377) was duly impressed with Wycliffe when he published a well-reasoned tract rejecting the obligation of the English Crown to pay yearly ecclesiastical taxes to the Pope. As a reward from the King, Wycliffe was given charge of the parish of Lutterworth which became his base of operations until his death. Also in 1374 he officially entered the service of the English Crown for a brief time as a negotiator with the papal authorities at Bruges (in modern-day Belgium). He not only successfully defended his position regarding the non-payment of ecclesiastical taxes to the Pope, but also he witnessed first-hand the affluence and corruption of the higher clergy. When he returned to England he unleashed a forceful verbal assault against the power of the Papacy, hereafter referring to the Pope as the “Antichrist.” This practice was later picked-up by many of the Protestant Reformers.
One of the controversies that got Wycliffe into the greatest amount of trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities was when he defended the right of civil authorities to seize the property of corrupt clergy. He wrote, “temporal lords can at their will take away temporal goods from the church, when those who hold to them are sinful (habitually sinful, not sinning in one act only).” Wycliffe argued that an individual person, especially the “temporal lords,” possessed authority through the “dominion of grace” from God, rather than by grace derived from the Pope or church hierarchy. Those church leaders, who disqualified themselves by immorality or theft, he reasoned, should be removed by the “temporal Lords.” This view garnered much favor for him within the English government, but produced great scorn against him within the Roman Catholic clergy.
In 1377 he underwent a trial at St. Paul’s Cathedral which was orchestrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the vengeful monks. Merle D’Aubigne writes, “But Wycliffe, who never feared the face of man, came before them with a good conscience.” As a result, he was censured by five Papal Bulls (decrees) and condemned as a heretic. It was only by the presence of John of Gaunt, the influential son of King Edward III, that the bishops and monks were prevented from physically harming him. Another trial was attempted at Lambeth Palace in 1378, but this proved to be ineffective because of the support of the Queen Mother and his great popularity amongst the common people. That same year, when Wycliffe was forty-eight years of age, he wearily retired to the relative seclusion of Oxford to study and write. But, the attacks of his opponents increased and his position as a professor at the University was jeopardized. Whereas, other church figures had attacked the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church, Wycliffe attacked the doctrines which were underlying those practices. As a result, many influential friends who had supported him in the past would no longer defend him. He was now utterly alone. Merle D’Aubigne, a preeminent historian of the Reformation, reports,
Day by day the circle contracted around Wycliffe. Some of his chief supporters…departed from him. The veteran champion of the truth with had once gathered a whole nation round it, had reached the days when “strong men shall bow themselves,” and now, when harassed by persecution, he found himself alone. But boldly he uplifted his hoary head and exclaimed: “The doctrine of the gospel shall never perish; and if the earth once quaked, it was because they condemned Jesus Christ.” (D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Vol. 1, 94)
One of the main tenants of Wycliffe’s faith was that the Holy Scripture was the sole rule of faith and practice. Bible passages were to be interpreted by the careful exegesis of the text alone, rather than by appealing to the tradition of the church as the basis for interpretation. This high view of the Bible eventually led to his greatest achievement—the translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into the common language of the English people. Merle D’Aubigne writes,
Let us imagine him in his quiet study: on his table is the Vulgate text, corrected after the best manuscripts; and lying open around him are the commentaries of the doctors of the church, especially those of St Jerome and Nicholas of Lyra. Between ten and fifteen years he steadily prosecuted his task…At last, some time between 1380 and 1384, it was completed. This was a great event in the religious history of England; outstripping the nations on the continent, she took her station in the foremost rank in the great work of disseminating the Scriptures. (D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Vol. 1, 90)
With the help of several associates he completed his translation of the New Testament in 1380 and the Old Testament in 1382. Nicolas of Hereford (d. c.1420) assisted him in translating the Old Testament, and John Purvey (c.1353-c.1428) helped him in revising the New Testament. James Wiley, the well-regarded Scottish historian of the Reformation, asserts the following,
The circulation of the Scriptures had arrayed the Protestant movement in the panoply of light. Wielding the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, it was marching on, leaving behind it, as the monuments of its prowess, in many an English homestead, eyes once blind now opened; hearts lately depraved now purified. Majestic as the morning when, descending from the skies, she walks in steps of silent glory over the earth, so was the progress of the Book of God. There was a track of light wherever it had passed in the crowded city, in the lofty baronial hall, in the peasant’s humble cot. Though Wycliffe had lived a thousand years, and occupied himself during all of them in preaching, he could not have hoped for the good which he now saw in course of being accomplished by the silent action of the English Bible. (Wiley, The History of Protestantism, Vol. I, 113)
Wycliffe also opposed the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper (Latin: trans = changed + substantia = substance of the elements) and instead favored what would become the Protestant belief that the Lord’s Supper is a “memorial feast” where Christ is “spiritually present.” He rightly asserted, “the material substance of bread and the material substance of wine remain in the Sacrament of the altar.” His followers, known as “Wycliffites” or “Lollards” later wrote,
…the pretended miracle of the sacrament of bread drives all men, but a few, to idolatry, because they think that the Body of Christ which is never away from heaven could by power of the priest’s word be enclosed essentially in a little bread which they show the people; but God grant that they might be willing to believe what the evangelical doctor (i.e. Wycliffe) says in his Triagolous, that the bread of the altar is habitually the body of Christ, for we take it that in this way any faithful man and woman can by God’s law perform the sacrament of the bread without any such miracle. (Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 175-176)
Moreover, Wycliffe rejected the “power of the priest” to forgive sins as an intermediary between God and man (i.e. the doctrine of sacerdotalism; Latin: sacer = priest + dotal = power) and he resolutely affirmed the “priesthood of all believers.” He was especially opposed to the sale of “indulgences,” which for the payment of a fee a certificate would be granted by a priest to release a person, or their relative, from punishment in purgatory. Wycliffe’s disciples wrote,
They say that they have the keys of heaven and hell, and can excommunicate and bless, bind and loose, at their will, so much so that for a drink, or twelve pence, they will sell the blessing of heaven… (Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 177-178)
Finally, he repudiated the concept of the Roman Catholic Mass by arguing, “it is not laid down in the Gospel that Christ ordained the Mass.” Due to his rejection of the Mass, there was one last attempt by the opponents of Wycliffe to undo him in 1379. He was called to defend himself in London at a council which was interrupted by a strong earthquake. Wycliffe was convinced that the earthquake was a divine sign of God’s approval of his reforms; however the council sharply disagreed and suggested that the land was simply “breaking wind” because of Wycliffe’s foul heresies and they condemned him anyway. Due to declining health he retired to Lutterworth in 1380 where he lived for the remainder of his life. His adversaries, however, did not forget him, and during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 he was blamed for inciting an open rebellion against the English Crown. This was not the case, and it eventually became clear that Wycliffe was falsely accused by his enemies.
His influence grew during his confinement by the work of his disciples (i.e. the “Wycliffites”). Over time they were disdainfully called “Lollards” (Dutch: lollen = singers, chanters, or as “mumblers” or “mutterers”). The Lollards were fiercely persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church and the English political authorities. They engaged in spreading Wycliffe’s beliefs and copies of his Bible throughout England. In many respects the Lollards were evangelical missionaries and also political revolutionaries. They not only challenged entrenched church dogma, but also the established ecclesiastical structures of the day—specifically, the temporal authority of popes, cardinals, bishops, curates, abbots, and monks. While they were originally Oxford educated students, the Lollards eventually filled their ranks with many poor commoners. Wycliffe himself called them the “Poor Priests.” The Lollards traveled the roads of England dressed in long reddish gowns made of rough cloth. Some critics complained that the Lollards were so numerous that if you met two people while traveling on the road one was sure to be a Lollard. Their beliefs were codified in 1395 when they presented to the English Parliament, The Twelve Conclusions. The official response of the English Parliament was a written tract entitled On the Burning of a Heretic (1401), which led to much persecution of the Lollards. They were also condemned at the Council of Constance in 1415, along with the Bohemian preacher and martyr John Hus (1374-1415). Their main purpose, however, was not deterred by the persecution and death of their members. They prayerfully wrote, “We ask God then of His supreme goodness to reform our Church, as being entirely out of joint, to the perfectness of its first beginning.” The reforming of God’s church had begun in earnest and nothing that the leaders of the established church could do would prevent its spread.
Wycliffe experienced a stroke in 1382 which limited his study and writing. Even in his sickness he was harassed and tormented. While on his bed during a difficult illness a group of local priests came to him demanding that he recant from his heretical practices and writings. He steadfastly refused saying, “I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars.” In God’s gracious providence, he was raised-up to better health and lived for another two years. He was often in a weakened condition, yet was used by God in a mighty way to influence other Reformers who would come after him. His ideas were especially welcomed in Bohemia where they were embraced by John Hus. Even after his death Wycliffe was so hated by the English clergy that in 1428 (44 years following his death) his bones were exhumed from the grave and publicly burnt. One biographer wrote,
They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wycliffe are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the whole world. (Woodbridge, Great Leaders of the Christian Church, 177)
Wycliffe was clearly a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation which would burst forth 133 years after his death. For this reason he is oftentimes referred to as the “Morning Star” of the Protestant Reformation. Although he lost his professorship at Oxford University and most of his friends left him, his influence spread through his writings and fueled a great spiritual awakening throughout England and Continental Europe. Merle D’Aubigne summarizes his life and ministry with these two glowing tributes,
Wycliffe is the greatest of English reformers: he was in truth the first reformer of Christendom, and to him, under God, Britain is indebted for the honor of being the foremost in the attack upon the theocratic system of Gregory…If Luther and Calvin are the fathers of the Reformation, Wycliffe is its grandfather. (D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Vol. 1, 98)
In many respects Wycliffe is the Luther of England; but the times of revival had not yet come, and the English reformer could not gain such striking victories over Rome as the German reformer. While Luther was surrounded by an ever-increasing number of scholars and princes, who confessed the same faith as himself, Wycliffe shone almost alone in the firmament of the church. The boldness with which he substituted a living spirituality for a superstitious formalism, caused those to shrink back in affright who had gone with him against the friars, priests, and popes. Erelong the Roman pontiff ordered him to be thrown into prison, and the monks threatened his life; but God protected him, and he remained calm amidst the machinations of his adversaries. ‘Antichrist,’ said he, ‘can only kill the body.’ (D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Vol. 1, 98-100)
Sadly, John Wycliffe is still labeled a “heretic” by official Roman Catholic Church literature (see the following two articles in the authoritative volume, The Catholic Encyclopedia for verification of that particular charge—“Heresies” and “Lollards”). However, almost all modern-day Christians (e.g. Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals of various types, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Reformed) identify him as an inspirational hero of the faith! It is in this spirit that the Wycliffe Bible Translators, founded in 1934, have honored him as their namesake. They hope that the same zeal that motivated Wycliffe, will also motivate their own translators scattered throughout the globe. It is to John Wycliffe that all English-speaking peoples owe a debt of gratitude. He shook off the blinders of Roman Catholicism and guided this countrymen back to the Word of God, which King David calls “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). For this noble task, we highly esteem John Wycliffe!
Resources for Further Study:
Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church. Second Edition. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Broderick, Robert C. ed. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Revised Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987.
D’Aubigne, Merle J. H. The Reformation in England. Two volumes. Edited by S. M. Houghton. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962.
Douglas, J. D. ed. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
- “Avignon,” by James Taylor
- “Bible, English Versions,” by Frederick F. Bruce
- “England, Church of,” by John A Simpson
- “Great Schism, The,” by C. T. McIntire
- “Gregory XI,” by C. G. Thorne, Jr.
- “Hus, Jan,” by Matthew Spinka
- “Lollards,” Robert G. Clouse
- “Mendicant Orders,” by T. L. Underwood
- “Nicholas of Hereford,” by Ian Sellers
- “Purvey, John,” by J. G. G. Norman
- “Reformation, The” by Robert D. Linder
- “Sawtrey, William,” by C. G. Thorne, Jr.
- “Transubstantiation,” by Robert B. Ives
- “Vulgate, The,” by J. N. Birdsall
- “Wycliffe, John,” by Robert G. Clouse
- “Wycliffe Bible Translators,” by Harold R. Cook
Douglas, J. D. ed. Who’s Who In Christian History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers 1992.
Dowley, Tim ed., The History of Christianity. Revised Edition. Oxford, England: Lion Publishers, 1990.
Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
- “Bohemian Brethren,” by J. D. Douglas
- “Hus, Jan,” by A. Paul Kubricht
- “Lollards,” by Robert A. Peterson
- “Reformation, Protestant,” by David F. Wright
- “Wycliffe, John,” by Robert G. Clouse
Fox, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.
Houghton, S. M. Sketches from Church History. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. Volume One. Revised Edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.
Woodbridge, John D. ed. Great Leaders of the Christian Church. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988.
Wycliffe, John. “The Pastoral Office” in Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus. Edited by Matthew Spinka. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics, no. 16. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1953.
Wylie, James A. The History of Protestantism. 3 Volumes. Kilkeel, N. Ireland: Mourne Missionary Trust, 1990.
Copyright August, 2017 Dr. Marcus J. Serven, ThM and DMin
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.