John Wycliffe died on December 31, 1384.
He was born of sturdy Saxon stock in Ipreswell, Yorkshire, England, somewhere around the year 1320 (the date range is from 1320-1330, but 1324 is the date often chosen). It was in an age of spiritual darkness – and 200 years before Luther would shake the church with his reforms.
But Wycliffe saw the apostasy into which the Church of Rome had fallen. “The Church,” he said, “should return to the poverty and simplicity of apostolic times.” The Pope he called “the Anti-Christ, the proud, worldly priest of Rome!” (Church in History, by B. Kuiper, page 143).
He occupies a distinguished place in the history of the Christian Church, first as a scholar and champion of theological reform, but primarily for his translation of the Scripture into the English language. His followers, known as the Lollards, went out two by two, covering England with Protestant teaching. Many of them met fiery deaths.
Wycliffe was a scholar and theologian with a teaching position at Oxford, from which he was ultimately expelled. His Lollardy movement, sending itinerant preachers across the countryside, was also ultimately stamped out.
From his position at Oxford, Wycliffe first saw himself as a reformer, expecting to encourage the church back to its Biblical simplicity. He was first concerned that ecclesiastical leaders (popes, cardinals, church councils, etc) exerted authority over kings and civil governments. He saw this as abuse of power and argued that civil government should be performed by God’s appointed civil leaders in accordance with Biblical instructions. At the time Popes were dictating to kings how they should prosecute people who the church disapproved of.
Wycliffe also opposed the holding of lordly positions by church leaders and the holding of property by church organisations, such as monastic orders. He believed that Christianity was most pure when its servants were poor and simple, not living luxuriously or holding large properties.
He asserted that Christ was the head of the Church and that people did not need a pope or papal appointee to administer their faith. He declared that “Our Pope is Christ”.
He feared that some people appointed as popes and cardinals were not even true members of the Church of Jesus Christ. He had high hopes for Pope Urban VI as a “true” pope, but was ultimately disappointed in him.
As the Church of Rome grew in opposition to him, Wycliffe hardened his position on the Pope and the organised church, ultimately identifying the Pope as the Anti-Christ.
He was motivated to create an English Bible for the common people by his belief that they could establish a strong personal faith through nothing more than the Word of God. His army of Lollard priests fulfilled his vision of poor men whose only interest was the truth delivered to people’s hearts. Thus these Wycliffeites were called “Bible men”.
Wycliffe’s position was complicated by the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, for which he was blamed. This was an uprising against the oppressive nobility, particularly the ecclesiastical nobility. On November 18, 1382 Wycliffe was called to defend himself, but he was weakened by the first of several strokes, which ultimately claimed his life.
Note that Wycliffe’s translation was hand-written. Assistants and the Lollards copied his translation by hand. Thus hundreds of copies of the scripture were made. 150 manuscripts or fragments remain from Wycliffe’s landmark work.
Note also that Wycliffe had to work from the Latin Vulgate version, since that was the only version available to him. So he translated the English from Latin.
Schaff comments: “It becomes evident that in almost every doctrinal particular did this man anticipate the reformers.” History refers to him as the “Morning Star of the Reformation”.
On December 28, 1384 Wycliffe suffered another stroke and died on the last day of the year, 1384. He was buried in the church graveyard at Lutterworth.
Thirty years after his death, May 4, 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic, decreeing that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. In 1428 his body was exhumed and burnt, and the ashes thrown into the nearby Swift River.
This act of desecration, as viewed by the Roman Catholic Church who instigated it, is seen in a different light by many Protestants. To them it was prophetic. For as the river took Wycliffe’s ashes to the sea, so his message spread from shore to shore until the Protestant Faith was firmly established around the world.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com