A Bit of History: John Wycliffe

The following article was originally posted on April 27, 2017. We hope you enjoy it if you did not see the original post.

While many view Martin Luther as the originator of the Protestant Reformation, the ideas Luther supported can be traced back two centuries earlier to an Englishman known as the “Morning star of the Reformation,” John Wycliffe (1320-1384).

Born 150 years before Martin Luther, Wycliffe began an effort which laid a foundation for the Protestant Reformation that would eventually spread through much of Europe in the 1500's and 1600's. His centralized theme questioned whether final authority lay in the church or in God’s Word. He pulled no punches in blasting the errors of the organizational hierarchy of the Roman church and the corruption that was rampant in their clergy. This stand would put Wycliffe right in the cross-hairs of Rome for the remainder of his life.

In 1378, he made a clear stand, writing the publication, The Truth of Holy Scripture with the central point being that Scripture is God's complete revelation and the final authority over tradition, canon law, popes, and councils, and all things of earthly substance. He also believed the Word should be available to all laity, as well as clergy. Out of this belief came the Wycliffe Bible, translated from Latin into English.

About the end of the year, Wycliffe was seized with a violent disorder (stroke), which it was feared might prove fatal. The begging friars, accompanied by four of the most eminent citizens of Oxford, gained admittance to his bed chamber and begged of him to retract, for his soul's sake, the unjust things he had asserted of their order. Wycliffe, surprised at the solemn message, raised himself in his bed, and with a stern countenance replied, "I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars."

When Wycliffe 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.

Foxes Book of Martyrs

Under Wycliffe’s efforts, the Latin Bible was translated into English (not mass printed because the printing press had not yet been invented), and circulated widely. The Catholic church did their best to keep people in ignorance of the Word and dependent on the priests by only allowing Latin translations. The common, uneducated man did not speak Latin, and therefore relied on the priests' interpretation.

The groups of people who carried the Wycliffe Bibles and preached from them were called Lollards. It was an offensive word for the time, established by their enemies - the Catholic Church - and meant “mutterers.” Many were burned with their copies of the Bible around their necks. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, these gallant martyrs went into the fire for the Word.

The Lollard Bibles were widely copied, and they circulated the country in spite of the fact that the church systematically burned thousands of them. Even with their efforts to silent his voice, today, more of these Bibles have survived than any other medieval manuscript (230 copies).

Later Life

Wycliffe spent the last two years of his life secluded in a parish at Lutterworth, England. During this time, a peasant revolt erupted in 1381 that had a direct impact on Wycliffe. Though he was not the direct cause of the uprising, it was no secret where his heart was, and his adversaries easily pinned this on him. As tensions began to boil over, a notable archbishop, who was at odds with Wycliffe, was killed during the revolt. This put even more pressure on Wycliffe’s views. The church wasn't going to stand for this much longer.

A stroke left him partially paralyzed, and for this reason, he was unable to answer a request to appear in Rome. Wycliffe died just two years later from a second stroke. Wycliffe's Bible was not what it could have been because it was translated from Latin, rather than the original Greek and Hebrew. The Catholic church made it very difficult or impossible to find an original manuscript in the original languages. However, Wycliffe's work paved the way for Tyndale's English translation and Luther's German translation, both taken from the original texts, and both widely used today. From 1604 to 1611, the King James translation team (English) heavily relied on Tyndale's translation in producing the King James Bible. 

Because of his popularity and the church's fear of the people, the church waited 40 years before Wycliffe's bones were exhumed, burned, and his ashes scattered over a nearby brook - the Swift. It was also punishable by death to have a copy of the Wycliffe Bible. But this had little effect on his influence, neither on what had already begun to take form in Europe. The author, John Foxe, referenced this in his book of martyrs:

...though they digged up his body, burnt his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet to this day...doth remain.

Foxes Book of Martyrs

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