Wycliffe: The Morning Star of the Reformation
Many people think that the reformation started with Luther or Calvin. But the start really was in the 14th century with a certain John Wycliffe. It was his ideas, even though they failed at that time, that planted the seed that later became the English Reformation. Many good Christian people have been burned at the stake for their refusal to accept the rule of the Roman church. Those martyrs especially in England, got their impetus from this Oxford educated and trained prophet.
To be educated in church matters in England one went to Oxford. Of course if all one wanted was to become a parish priest or monk all that was needed was a good memory because most only knew the mass and the other rituals by rote memorization. Your typical churchman could not even read English much less the Latin of the Bible the translation used was Jerome's common or 'vulgar' Latin, called 'The Vulgate'.
The nobles at court usually spoke in French, the educated ones spoke and wrote in Latin also. English was an amalgam of several different tongues that the common people spoke but it was hardly ever written. One of the few remaining pieces is Chaucer's Canterbury tales.
In fourteenth century England, the Bible itself was in ill repute. Those scholars, who had access and could read the Latin, rarely used it past their Baccalaureate levels and doctors of divinity simply refused to recognize its value. Advanced divinity students studied the commentators and were called 'students of sentences'
In many ways John Wycliffe is more responsible for the way England is now than any other 14th century Englishman. The translation of the Bible into English by a small group of his friends there at Oxford was the most significant source for modern English. This small group consisted of Nicholas Hereford, John PUrvey along with Wycliffe. In their efforts to make a quality translation sent off for books all over the known world and still by using the only Bibles at Oxford, Jerome's Vulgate, ended up with a translation that would not stand the test of time. Even so this simple act placed an axe at the roots of a huge and superstitious religious establishment, one that was much more used to luxurious meals at their palaces that were supported by unpoaid serfs.
The true value of the work of Wycliffe and this small group of his friends and followers was that their work eventually became the source for other later Bibles such as the Coverdale Bible that Henry VIII authorized. It has been estimated that over 80% of Wycliffe’s words were carried over into this later translation. From his position within the protected walls of Oxford, Wycliffe was able to provide the logical support for the separation of English political rule from the Roman ecclesiastical rule of the Pope. It is this intellectual foundation of relationship between church and state that was the basis even today of our constitutional debates over this issue.
During Wycliffe’s time the Papal authorities were a primary authority in England. The Roman church possessed vast untaxed estates, their mendicant orders walked barefoot all over England free from the King's laws, and frankly they were as ignorant of scripture as all of the rest of the people. When Wycliffe demanded that Scripture be the final authority, instead of either the Pope's whims, or the traditions of the church, it meant that the vast sums of wealth the church had was at great risk and of course they fought back.
In the days of the "Holy Roman Empire," the Catholic Church (meaning the Pope's power) so thoroughly controlled England that five times more money went out of the Kingdom and into the Pope's coffers than into the King's. In these modern times we see mostly the remains of what used to be great halls and churches scattered around the English country side, but in the times of Wycliffe these church structures were the domain of powerful church leaders, surrounded by vast estates with flocks of sheep, herds of cattle and grain fields all worked by the local serfs without compensation. Now all we see of them is the crumbling ruins of what once was.
Even the king accepted his authority from the Pope and there was hardly any central government such as England has today. The Pope had final say so on new laws and even had taxing authority but he didn’t interfere very much in the day to day lives of the typical English household. It was the organization of churches, monasteries and wandering priests that most people saw as the source of religion in their lives and it was into this somnambulant organization that would be upended by the work of Wycliffe.
So who was this John Wycliffe? He was born in North Riding of Yorkshire in the Parrish of Wycliffe 1324 and while nothing of his boyhood is currently known for certain, his academic career at Baliol and Merton Colleges Oxford is a shining star for the English to look toward. Doctors of divinity thought it was beneath them to actually study scripture since it was of such low regard amongst the clergy of the day.
In Wycliffe’s time it was the approach of the plague that drove him to the holy writ. It was in these scriptures he found a relationship with his creator that would sustain him the rest of his life. He became profoundly versed in the knowledge of divine things through his studies of scripture and greatly qualified him as the reformer he became. It was this going back to the scripture that would provide inspiration for future generations of reformers and church leaders and be the bane of the hierarchical church.
A man of controversy, yes of course!
The first great issue Wycliffe was ensnared in was the issue of who was to fill the Archbishopric of Canterbury. At the time Wycliffe held the head of Canterbury Hall there at Oxford and when the archbishopric fell open the students and monks there initiated a request for their own candidate to fill this very important post, they sent an emissary to the pope with their request. Likewise the King selected his own candidate and likewise sent emissaries to the Pope hoping to get his man selected. Unfortunately the Pope (Innocent) selected his own Non British man for the post. King John refused to accept the Papal legate and swore that the Pope's man would never sit at the Canterbury post, and he ordered all of the Pope's men out of England.
Since the Pope claimed authority over the actions of the King, he chose to interdict England, which meant that every church would close, all church lights would go out and more importantly no sacraments would be performed for anybody. That means no weddings, no funerals, no Baptisms etc. King John stood up to the Pope for two years before he capitulated. When he finally gave in John agreed to "hold the kingdom as "feudatory" of the church of Rome by an annual payment of 2000 marks. He laid the crown on the floor in front of the Papal legate who casually and unceremoniously kicked it with his foot then picking it out of the dust put it back onto the head of King John.
Needless to say this whole controversy created a big stir in the countryside and the active resistance to the Pope grew amongst both the nobility and the common folk. The Magna Carta had already been signed and the idea of losing what little power they had to a foreign power such as the Pope set many members of the parliament into action. Wycliffe in his academic tower began the process whereby he would justify the separation of church (meaning Rome) and state (meaning the king)claiming that the church only had power over the spiritual things and the King had authority over secular.
The payments of 2000 marks stopped along with many attempts by parliament to control the sending of vast sums of money out of the country to the Pope. Pope Innocent was busy other places (killing other people who were protesting Papal authority) and the issue of the payment went by the wayside for awhile. But instead of a single Pope, Two claimed the Papal throne, Urban VI and Clement VII. Both of these Popes were roundly criticized by Wycliffe and the pleas of Wycliffe's enemies went to deaf ears due to this more urgent crisis. Urban seemed to be the one more interested in England because he demanded that they not only make the current years payment but back payment also. He reminded the English king that all kingdoms are Christ's kingdoms (meaning the Pope’s) needless to say there were probably never another time in which England stood so united than at this time. Wycliffe’s reforms, while unsuccessful, at least opened the door that Henry VIII stepped through to create the Anglican church.
Wycliffe’s fame and prominence left him vulnerable but instead of withdrawing into his academic halls he attacked more vigorously. The later years Wycliff and his circle of academic friends took it upon themselves to translate the scriptures into the common tongue, a profoundly significant thing to do since it was forbidden for the common people to read an understand them. It was also during this time that Wycliff claimed that the priestly class should only be paid according to how well they taught scripture and this would essentially cut off their rich stipends and expose them as frauds. It was also during this time that John Huss came from Bohemia to meet with him to study. Huss would later return to his home country with a translated Bible and start his own eformation and it would take a great deal of the Pope's military might to eventually destroy this outbreak.
The second major issue Wycliffe got himself into was over the issue of transubstantiation. Simply put are the elements of communion the actual body and blood of our Lord. This historic debate had already caused many people's death at the stake for heresy. Even though the doctrine had only been officiall recognized for about 400 years at that time. Wycliffe carefully tried to sidestep this issue by claiming that the insufficiency of the science at the time one couldn't actually tell if these elements had changed so he was able to carefully word his defense and avoid a similar fate over this issue.
Altogether there were three trials that Wycliffe faced over the last few years of his life. The first ended when a riot of common folk supported by the John of Gaunt the Kings brother refused to let the trial finish. The second ended with no verdict because the judges failed to prove their case and the third stopped after a terrible earthquake set the fear of God into those who would persecute him. John Wycliffe died in his own bed after a lifetime of dread controversy facing powerful Popes and befriending kings and other nobles. It took until 1414 and a trial of his student John Hess where both of them were excommunicated due to their 'heresy'. Because Wycliffe was buried in santified grounds they were forced to dig up his bones, burn them and dump them into the river Swift.