John Wycliffe (1330 -1384) was a theologian, philosopher, lay preacher and translator. John Wycliffe produced some of the first handwritten English translations of the Bible and helped to make them widely available. He was an early critic of the Papacy and the clerical basis of the Catholic church; Wycliffe argued scripture was the primary basis for Christianity. He is seen by many as the precursor for the later Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther.
“Preaching the Gospel exceeds prayer and administration of the sacraments to an infinite degree.”
– John Wycliffe
Short Biography John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe was born near Richmond in the North Ridings, Yorkshire sometime in the 1820s. His family were of Saxon origins. As a young man, he moved to Oxford to study natural science, mathematics and theology. He studied at Balliol College, where he would later became the Master of Balliol. Wycliffe was most interested in theology and studying scripture.
During his time in Oxford, he read widely on religious issues. He also lived through the Black Death of 1348, which killed a high percentage of the English population and left a profound mark on Wycliffe’s outlook on life. He would also have been in Oxford for the St Scholastica Day riot – between students and townspeople which left close to 100 people dead.
Wycliffe became well known for being an excellent scholar with a thorough understanding of the law. His scholarship gained the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was made the head of Canterbury Hall in 1365. When the Pope pressed England to send taxes, Wycliffe was instrumental in drafting a reply arguing that there was no basis for demanding a tribute from a foreign power.
“Already a third and more of England is in the hands of the Pope. There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is King or Urban is king. We make our choice. We accept Edward of England and refute Urban of Rome.”
– John Wycliffe (Quoted in William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life — Martyrdom, Betrayal and the English Bible (2003))
The pope, keen not to antagonise the English, soon withdrew his request.
In 1374, Wycliffe also served as a negotiator in the Peace Congress at Bruges – between England and France; this furthered his political influence and stature.
From his early days at Oxford, Wycliffe contended with various aspects of Catholic philosophy and influence. Initially, this was more abstract and philosophical, but increasingly he became critical of the actions and power that the church wielded. He argued that the clerics were not justified in having so much secular power – because they often acted in an immoral way and because the gospels didn’t support it.
On his return from Bruges, with support from his patron John of Gaunt, he wrote tracts and books, expressing his views. (The most important was Summa Theologiae) This included denouncing the practice of – the church collecting indulgences for the remission of sin. He also asserted the right of the King to take away property from the church, if justified.
Wycliffe became a famous preacher in London, and many reformers allied himself to his views. Though as might be expected, he also attracted increased criticism from those with influential positions in the church, who were now threatened by Wycliffe’s talk of reform. After calling for the secularisation of English church property, his opponents argued he was guilty of blasphemy. Wycliffe had to defend himself at Lambeth Palace. With opinion split, he was forbidden to speak further on these matters.
However, with powerful backers, Wycliffe continued his reforming attempts. In particular, he began the very significant step of translating and writing out the New Testament in English. This was a radical step as it brought the gospels close to the ordinary person who could not understand Latin and removed the Church as the ‘interpreter’.
For the next few years, Wycliffe continued to attack the Pope and the church hierarchy. The church sought to destroy the English versions of his Bible, but the fact that so many copies survived suggest, that under his leadership, the movement to distribute the Bible in English was quite successful.
Wycliffe began to attract a group of followers – known as the Lollards. They spread Wycliffe’s teaching and ideas throughout England. His political influence was such that he was even blamed for the peasant’s revolt of 1381 – though he disapproved of it.
Attacks against Wycliffe continued until his death. But, supported by a sufficient number of people (especially in Oxford and Parliament) he was never excommunicated or deprived of his position.
After retiring to Lutterworth, Wycliffe suffered a stroke on Dec 28, 1384, and died three days later.
20 years later, Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and a pronouncement that his books should be burned and his body exhumed and bones crushed. However, Wycliffe had already left a profound mark on English and European thought. He had challenged the authority of the church and pope, laying the foundation for the future Reformation, which would reject the Papacy and promote the Bible. Also, his work to make an English version of the Bible available was a critical moment in English Christianity.
Further Reading on John Wycliffe
“John Wickliffe This celebrated reformer, denominated the “Morning Star of the Reformation,…”
…When Wickliffe recovered, he set about a most important work, the translation of the Bible into English. Before this work appeared, he published a tract, wherein he showed the necessity of it. The zeal of the bishops to suppress the Scriptures greatly promoted its sale, and they who were not able to purchase copies, procured transcripts of particular Gospels or Epistles. Afterward, when Lollardy increased, and the flames kindled, it was a common practice to fasten about the neck of the condemned heretic such of these scraps of Scripture as were found in his possession, which generally shared his fate.”
– John Wycliffe – The Book of Martyrs – William Fox
John Wycliffe: Man of Courage
- John Wycliffe: Man of Courage at Amazon
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