Over the span of the next nine months, I hope to introduce to you nine men who changed the world. They were imperfect men, not deserving grace from God, but Him, being rich in mercy, lavished them in His grace and chose these men to fight and defend the faith. Their zeal for Jesus Christ stands unmatched by all but the greatest of the saints, many confessing their beliefs even unto death.
The first among these men was considered by his contemporaries to be an intellectual giant, and if not for his passionate dissent from the Roman Catholic Church, may very well been spoken of in the same breath as Anselm, William of Ockham, and Thomas Aquinas. Instead he died under house arrest and his followers, known as the Lollards, were persecuted for over a century and a half.
John Wycliffe was born in 1320 and proceeded to graduate from Oxford as a young man, proficient in mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, and ecclesiology (the study of the church). In time he became head of Canterbury Hall of Oxford, and while achieving a doctorate of theology, he proceeded to write against many of the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, primarily the Papacy, as well as the clergy, and the monasteries.
His initial known writings come shortly after the Black Death, which he attributed as punishment for the increasingly corrupt Roman Catholic Church. The higher up in the ecclesiastical hierarchy he climbed, the more sinful behavior he witnessed from clerics of the Roman Church, and more he resented the established order. His initial conflict was with the lack of scriptural basis for the Pope, who had recently moved the Church from Rome to Avignon, France. This controversial move led to another Pope being appointed in Rome, leaving the Catholic Church with two popes. This division and weakness within the western church gave Wycliffe exactly what he needed: time.
Under the protection of his powerful patron John of Gaunt, Wycliffe busied himself condemning what he saw as worldly excesses and erroneous doctrines within the church, and wanted the people to hear and read the gospel for themselves in English. He condemned transubstantiation and indulgences, and said of salvation “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
Though the clergy resented Wycliffe for his doctrinal rebukes, they hated him for his attempt to annul their authority. He said that because the English Church was corrupt, they were not actually members of the true, invisible church made up of the elect, and therefore had no right to their property or earthly authority under the guise of “the church.” This would have rendered the Roman Catholic Church powerless against the state and destroyed the temporal Roman Catholic authority. However they failed to convict him because Parliament and his Patron John of Gaunt protected him, ignoring the Church’s condemnation of his teachings.
What makes Wycliffe so influential was that he did not keep his arguments in ivory towers, but realized that the people were not hearing or reading the Scriptures and decided to do something that had never been done in history- translate the Bible by hand into English. But he didn’t just write the Scriptures; he commissioned dozens of lay pastors, many of whom were from impoverished families, to preach the Word of God using the four gospels in English. They were so successful in their work that a contemporary of Wycliffe wrote in dismay, “every second man that you meet is a Lollard!”
Wycliffe was eventually put under house arrest while still completing his translation from the Latin Vulgate to Middle English and died of a stroke on December 31st, 1384 before he could translate the Old Testament. His friends continued his work however, and published an entire Bible within a few years of his death.
John Wycliffe has been appropriately named the “Morning Star of the Reformation” for his rejection of the Papacy, emphasis on Scripture, and focus on predestination and the invisible church. After his death, the Catholics unearthed his bones, burned them, and scattered the ashes in the river Swift, which flowed by his home, and from the river into the sea, and from the sea into the oceans, which spread like his faith, throughout the world.
Butler, Donna, and David F. Lloyd. “John Wycliffe: Setting the Stage for Reform.” Vision.org, Vision Media, 2004, www.vision.org/visionmedia/biography-john-wycliffe/613.aspx.
Jeffcoat, John L. “John Wycliffe.” Greatsite.com, Great Site, 1 Jan. 2016, www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/john-wycliffe.html.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. History of Christianity, A, Volume I: Beginnings to 1500. 4th ed., vol. 1 2, Prince Press, 2000.
Moorman, John R.H. History of the Church in England, A. 3rd ed., Moorman, 1989.
Roberts, Donald L. “John Wycliffe.” Christian History, Christianity Today, 1 Oct. 2000, www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/moversandshakers/john-wycliffe.html.
Stacey, John. “John Wycliffe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Dec. 2016, www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wycliffe.
Crough, Dave. “John Wycliffe.” Wycliffe Blog-John Wycliffe, Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada, 8 Mar. 2013, www.wycliffe.ca/wycliffe/blog/post.jsp?wycliffe_canada&euid=e9492946-1aba-4aae-a.
Simkin, John. “John Wycliffe.” Spartacus Educational, Spartacus Educational, spartacus-educational.com/NORwycliffe.htm.