John Wycliffe (c.1329–1384) was an Oxford professor and theologian who became concerned with the growing power, corruption, and wealth that he observed in the papacy and in the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe (also spelled Wyclif or Wiclif) began speaking and writing against the church’s errors, teaching that salvation was only available through the suffering of Christ, not the power of the church. As Wycliffe gained followers, Rome took notice and eventually pressured Oxford to remove him from his position.
Wycliffe was convinced that the English people needed a Bible that they could understand in their own language. In 1380, he completed the first English translation of the New Testament, and two years later the entire Bible was completed. (Although Wycliffe sponsored the translation and was held responsible for it by the religious authorities, there is evidence that a number of translators worked with him.) Approximately 60 years before the invention of the printing press, the Wycliffe Bible was published and copied by hand. The first edition of the Wycliffe Bible was a word-for-word translation of the Latin Vulgate (the accepted Bible of the Catholic Church) into Middle English (the language of Chaucer).
The translation followed the Latin so closely that the meaning in English was often obscured. Six years after the release of the entire Bible (and four years after Wycliffe’s death), a follower, John Purvey, published a revision that was much more readable in English. This Bible was the dominant English Bible until William Tyndale’s translation almost 150 years later.
The Catholic Church condemned the Wycliffe Bible. Anyone caught reading it was subject to heavy fines. Some of Wycliffe’s supporters were burned at the stake with the Wycliffe Bible hung around their necks. However, the prohibition seems to have only made people more interested in reading the banned book. Not only did the English people become more interested in the Bible, but their desire for literacy also increased.
At the Council of Constance (1414–1418), Jan Hus, one of Wycliffe’s followers, was condemned and burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s writings were also condemned, and his bones were dug up and burned, and then the ashes were scattered. Because of the impact of Wycliffe’s teaching and his translation of the Bible into the vernacular, he is often referred to as “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”
Today, the Wycliffe translation of the Bible is readily available online both in Middle and Modern English. Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organization dedicated to translating the Bible into the language of every people group on earth, continues the work that Wycliffe began almost 750 years ago.