Wycliffe had been born in the hinterlands, on a sheep farm 200 miles from London. He left for Oxford University in 1346, but because of periodic eruptions of the Black Death, he was not able to earn his doctorate until 1372. Nonetheless, by then he was already considered Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.
In 1374 he became rector of the parish in Lutterworth, but a year later he was disappointed to learn he was not granted a position at Lincoln nor the bishopric of Worcester—setbacks that some have seized upon as motives for his subsequent attacks on the papacy.
In the meantime, Rome had demanded financial support from England, a nation struggling to raise money to resist a possible French attack. Wycliffe advised his local lord, John of Gaunt, to tell Parliament not to comply. He argued that the church was already too wealthy and that Christ called his disciples to poverty, not wealth. If anyone should keep such taxes, it should be local English authorities.
Such opinions got Wycliffe into trouble, and he was brought to London to answer charges of heresy. The hearing had hardly gotten underway when recriminations on both sides filled the air. Soon they erupted into an open brawl, ending the meeting. Three months later, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls (church edicts) against Wycliffe, in which Wycliffe was accused on 18 counts and was called “the master of errors.”
At a subsequent hearing before the archbishop at Lambeth Palace, Wycliffe replied, “I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death…. I have followed the Sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors.” He went on to say that the pope and the church were second in authority to Scripture.
This didn’t sit well with Rome, but because of Wycliffe’s popularity in England and a subsequent split in the papacy (the Great Schism of 1378, when rival popes were elected), Wycliffe was put under “house arrest” and left to pastor his Lutterworth parish.
Disputing the church
He deepened his study of Scripture and wrote more about his conflicts with official church teaching. He wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation: “The bread while becoming by virtue of Christ’s words the body of Christ does not cease to be bread.”
He challenged indulgences: “It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God.”
He repudiated the confessional: “Private confession … was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles.”
He reiterated the biblical teaching on faith: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
Believing that every Christian should have access to Scripture (only Latin translations were available at the time), he began translating the Bible into English, with the help of his good friend John Purvey.
The church bitterly opposed it: “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”
Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
While Wycliffe was in the parish church on Holy Innocents’ Day, Dec. 28, 1384, he again suffered a stroke, and was carried out the side-door of his church, in his chair. John Wycliffe died on the last day of the year, three days later. The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe (on May 4, 1415) a stiff-necked heretic and under the ban of the Church. It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. This last did not happen till twelve more years later, when at the command of Pope Martin V they were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the river Swift which flows through Lutterworth.
Although translations of parts of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon existed hundreds of years before Wycliffe’s translation, John Wycliffe is credited as being the first translation of the entire Bible (both Old and New Testaments) into English. His translation started a revolution, and enabled ordinary people to finally have access to the Bible in a language they could understand. In fact, so profound was the revolution Wycliffe caused that he is called, “The Morning Star of the Reformation” – in other words, Wycliffe marked the start or dawn of the Reformation, and sparked the events that would soon follow.
But in order to understand why Wycliffe’s translation was so profound and why it started a revolution, we need to step back and take a look at the world as it existed in Wycliffe’s day – the world into which he was born. We shall then examine some dramatic events that shook the known world in Wycliffe’s day, events which caused revolutionary ripples that are still felt down to the present day.
Let us then, with justified fear and trepidation, travel back in time, and enter the world into which Wycliffe was born. Wycliffe lived from 1320-1384, in the late Middle Ages. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church held universal jurisdiction over the whole of Christendom. The church, and the Pope at the head of it, held total power over all. Everything and everyone, ultimately even kings, were subject to the decrees and decisions of the Roman church. The Crusades, starting in 1096, illustrated the sheer power of the Pope, in that at his command, out of fear and duty, vast numbers of people in Europe launched a series of persecutions of Jews across Europe, with incredible numbers migrating to the Middle East to kill Muslims and Jews alike, plundering and looting as they went, and slaughtering everyone who stood in their way. The Ninth Crusade (1271-1272) was still within living memory when Wycliffe was born. He would know no other world other than this one – a cruel Medieval world of fear, death, torture and the tyrannical excesses of power.
Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire in England around 1320, and was educated at Oxford University, where his main interest was Biblical studies. As he studied the Holy Scriptures and learned Latin and Greek, he started comparing the teachings of the Scriptures with the church of his day. Instead of finding harmony, he found only differences – differences with the doctrines and beliefs of the established Catholic Church, and conflicts with practices which had no counterpart in the Biblical manuscripts that Wycliffe was studying. It was these fundamental conflicts between what the Holy Bible said, and what the church actually taught and did, which many others also found as they started to read the Bible. Martin Luther would later pick up the same theme, eventually giving rise to the Reformation.
But into this Medieval world in which the Roman Catholic Church held universal power, something cataclysmic was about to happen. Something which would shake that world to its very foundations. Because in 1348, while Wycliffe was in his late 20s, and by which time he was educated in the Bible and understood the Holy Scriptures, when he knew that the church’s teachings did not match what he was reading in the Bible, the Black Death suddenly happened. It would become one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. In just three years, from 1348-1350, it is estimated that up to 200 million people died, or between a third and one half of Europe’s population. The Black Death was more cruel and unforgiving than the Crusades which had preceded it. While the exact causes of the Black Death are still debated, it seems clear that bubonic, pneumonic and septic forms of this terrifying disease were involved.
The Black Death was no respecter of persons. It killed indiscriminately, sparing neither men, women nor children. It killed rich and poor alike, nobles and peasants alike. People often died within hours of contracting the disease. Entire villages were wiped out. At first the bodies were buried decently, but towards the end there was none to bury the dead. Mass graves were dug and bodies simply thrown in. It was obvious to everyone that the Black Death was a judgement from God for the cruel excesses of the past. But the Black Death knew no bounds. It killed priests and monks just as readily as it killed ordinary people. It was obvious that the church was powerless to control it. The church was not immune from its deadly effects. It destroyed everything in its path. After three long and painful years, the Black Death eventually burned itself out.
But if the Black Death was sudden and unexpected, its effects were long and profound. Entire skills were permanently lost as people took their craftsman’s secrets to the grave. People suddenly inherited, or simply took, great wealth as those around them died. People became reluctant to do menial work, either because they lacked the skills or because they wanted higher wages. Society was disrupted from top to bottom. Soon afterwards The Peasants Revolt (1381) would take place. But crucially, circumstances now combined to create, within ordinary people, a longing and a desire to know the Bible for themselves. It was obvious to everyone that the established Roman Catholic Church did not have the answers. The church had been powerless to stop the Black death. Priests had died – they too were subject to the wrath of God. Ordinary people now started to question the church – its authority was now questioned, in addition to its beliefs, its doctrines and its practices. To make matters worse, now that Wycliffe and others could read and understand the Bible for themselves, they were waking up to a secret that had been hidden for centuries – that the church’s beliefs, doctrines and practices were not what the Bible taught. People wanted to know what the Bible actually said, and read it for themselves – not to be told second-hand by a corrupt, lying and powerless priesthood that could not stop the Black Death.
Wycliffe, too, was affected by the Black Death. He, and others, survived it. His earlier conclusions that the church’s teachings did not match the Scriptures took on a new importance. He, and others, started preaching around the country, to an audience that had also survived the terrible plague, who knew they had been spared for a reason, and who now wanted to know for themselves what the Scriptures taught. John Wycliffe’s followers were known as the Lollards. They found that ordinary people now had a thirst to know, to read, and to understand, God’s Word for themselves. Their thirst was unquenchable. They hungered and thirsted to know the Truth of the Bible. And the more they found out, the more they wanted to know.
But they had a problem. The authority of the Catholic Church was supreme. The Holy Scriptures were only available in Latin in the form of the Vulgate, only in the form of hand-written manuscripts, and only to those (like Wycliffe) who had the privilege of an education at a university such as Oxford, and who were able to understand Latin. Ordinary people had no access to read the Bible for themselves, and they could not understand Latin. They were dependent on people like Wycliffe and the Lollards to tell them what the Scriptures said, to tell them what the Latin said in their own mother tongue, English.
Wycliffe became Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1361. Studying the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, and seeing how ordinary people thirsted for a knowledge of God’s Word, he became convinced of the need to translate the Latin to which he had access – the Latin Vulgate – into the English language spoken by ordinary people. Only in this way would they be able to read the Scriptures for themselves. And so, a revolutionary idea was conceived – to translate the Bible from Latin into English, so that ordinary people could read and understand it. Wycliffe determined that it must be done, and the Wycliffe Bible was born.
Wycliffe did not work alone, and others helped him. He almost certainly personally translated the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and possibly the entire New Testament, while his associates translated the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible was completed in 1384, with further updated versions being done by Wycliffe’s assistant (John Purvey) and others in 1388 and 1395.
Rather than welcoming his translation of the Bible, however, the established church was furious. Their wrath knew no bounds. Wycliffe had challenged their authority, and made it possible for ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves, and discover just how astray the church was from the teachings of the Bible, from the faith and beliefs of Jesus Christ.
In 1411, Archbishop Arundel wrote to the Pope:
This pestilent and wretched John Wycliffe, of cursed memory, that son of the old serpent… endeavoured by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of Holy Church, devising… to fill up the measure of his malice… the expedient of a new translation of the Scriptures into the mother tongue…
(Archbishop Arundel, 1411)
At the Council of Constance in 1415, Wycliffe was declared a heretic. The Council decreed that all his works should be burned and his remains exhumed. The church passed a ruling that anyone who read the Scriptures in English “would forfeit land, cattle, life and goods from their heirs forever.” In 1428, at Pope Martin V’s command, Wycliffe’s corpse was exhumed and burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth where he preached. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, recommended reading to all true Bible students, provides fuller details of these tragic events.
But although his body was destroyed, the Wycliffe Bible would ultimately survive. Wycliffe’s Bible was produced before the invention of the Printing Press, and so each manuscript had to be hand-written. Despite the church’s wish to destroy the translation wherever it was found, around 250 individual copies or revisions are thought to have survived, and are still found in various libraries and museums today. The Wycliffe Bible laid the groundwork for further translations of the Bible into English, as we shall see. In fact, the King James Version retains much of the same wording as the Wycliffe Bible, and continues its legacy.
John Wycliffe died a martyr. He died believing in the Bible, determined that everyone should have access to it, and be able to read the Bible for themselves in a language they understood. But the Bible is also a challenge, and its teachings often at odds with the established church – both in Wycliffe’s day, and right through to the present time. The Bible has friends, but also enemies in high places. Its enemies, ruling in this present evil world, want to destroy the Bible and its message. But the Word of God will survive, as it has always done, against all attempts to destroy it and those who believe in it.
So rather than destroying the Word of God, destroying copies of Wycliffe’s Bible only served to whet the curiosity of the common people. It made them want to read the Bible for themselves, to find out what the church was hiding, and what the Bible really said. It is a cause that should stir the hearts and minds of true Bible students today. The Bereans “searched the Scriptures daily” to see whether what they were taught was true, whether it was what the Scriptures said. Likewise, all true Bible students should search the Scriptures, read the Bible every day, and get back to the Truth that was once delivered unto the saints. Our Father in heaven expects nothing less from those who love Him.