In 1428 the Bishop of Lincoln in England condemned a man who was already 44 years in the grave. The bishop ordered the remains exhumed and burned and the ashes thrown into the River Swift. Such was the fate of John Wycliffe, often called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” What had Wycliffe done in life that caused such hatred nearly five decades after his death? Wycliffe, a philosopher, preacher, and reformer in the Middle Ages, spent a lifetime promoting Scripture and opposing papal authority.
In 1330 John Wycliffe (also spelled Wyclif or Wicliff) was born about 200 miles from London, on a sheep farm. At the age of 16 he matriculated at Oxford, where he became master of Balliol College around 1360. After earning his M.A. in 1361, Wycliffe was ordained and became the absentee parson of a Lincolnshire church. Continuing his studies, Wycliffe became Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian. By 1374 Wycliffe was acting as the absentee rector at a church in Lutterworth. Around 1370 Wyclliffe began writing some controversial material. He wrote about the roles of government and church authorities in 1370, arguing that the ungodly have no right to rule. This extended to unjust rulers, both secular and religious, pitting Wycliffe against the excesses of Roman Catholic leaders. Pope Gregory XI condemned 18 of Wycliffe’s statements in 1377, calling Wycliffe “The Master of Errors,” and in 1378 Wycliffe was forced to retire from public life. After the Peasants’ Revolt in which Wycliffe’s disciples were implicated, Wycliffe withdrew to Lutterworth and continued writing until his death in 1384.
Why were the teachings of John Wycliffe so controversial? Because he attacked the authority and doctrines of the Catholic Church, which was the church in power in England at the time. Wycliffe rightly believed the Scriptures are the standard by which all traditions, Popes, and other sources must be measured. Scripture is sufficient, in and of itself, for salvation, Wycliffe argued. This meant the authority of the Pope and the doctrines of the church were subject to the teaching of Scripture. When doctrines or Popes ran afoul of Scripture, they should be rejected. Eventually, Wycliffe concluded that the papacy itself was a manmade institution and the Antichrist.
Beyond opposing the papacy, Wycliffe’s view of Scripture led him to reject doctrines such as transubstantiation, which holds the substances of the Eucharist are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe found no biblical evidence for the Catholic view and argued it was an invention of the 13th century. Though he maintained that Christ’s body and blood were somehow spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper, Wycliffe flatly rejected transubstantiation.
His high view of Scripture also led Wycliffe to Bible translation; through his translation work and the itinerant preaching of his followers, Wycliffe had widespread and lasting influence. Wycliffe believed the Bible to be the final authority for doctrine and practice, and he believed the Bible should be read by everyone, including the common Englishman. In Wycliffe’s day, the Latin Vulgate was the main Bible available, and the only copies were kept in churches. Even if he could gain access to a Bible, the common Englishman could not read Latin and was forced to rely on the local priest to tell him what the Bible said. Wycliffe saw the injustice of this and argued for an English translation: “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
Starting in 1380, Wycliffe supervised the work of translating the Scriptures from Latin into Middle English. All copies were handwritten, since the printing press had not yet been invented. Wycliffe’s group actually made two translations, one more idiomatic than the other, to appeal to a broader range of reading levels. Though Wycliffe didn’t live to see the final product, it was his passion for Scripture that carried the project through to the end. The world had its very first English translation in the Bible.
The loss of a monopoly on Scripture was of serious concern to Rome. The Catholic Church condemned the Wycliffe Bible. Anyone caught reading it was subject to heavy fines. As the persecution increased, some of Wycliffe’s supporters were burned at the stake with the Wycliffe Bible hung around their necks. But the Word was out, and people could read for themselves what God had said. The people of the Middle Ages became more interested in the Bible, and literacy increased.
When Wycliffe died in 1384, his teachings did not die with him. Wycliffe’s disciples, derisively called Lollards (meaning “mumblers”) carried on. In fact, Wycliffe’s ideas spread as far as Bohemia (in modern-day Czech Republic), where a priest named John Hus applied them. Hus continued to spread reform in Europe until he was martyred for his beliefs in 1415. The continued growth of Lollardism and a failed Lollard rebellion in 1414 resulted in Wycliffe’s posthumous condemnation at the Council of Constance in 1415. The council, which also burned Hus, condemned Wycliffe on 260 different counts. Then, in 1428, Wycliffe’s remains were exhumed, his bones were burned, and his ashes were scattered into a nearby river.
Wycliffe’s impact could not be destroyed. One historian observed that, as Wycliffe’s ashes were cast into the Swift and eventually spread to the ocean, so his teaching spread throughout the world. John Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation, lit the way for many other believers to follow.