Who was John Wycliffe?

John Wycliffe was born in the village of Hipswell, Yorkshire in 1324. England would soon be plunged into civil and political unrest with the onset of The Hundred Years War, and the terrible sweep of the bubonic plague across Europe. The influence of Roman Catholicism had cast a dark spell over the spiritual life of the people and the winds of revolution and reform were beginning to blow. There was need of hope beyond what the Church and Crown could offer and into this melting pot of turmoil and longing, God sent John Wycliffe as a harbinger of the dawn that was just over the horizon.

Wycliffe was educated at Oxford and had a razor-sharp mind that sponged up every morsel of knowledge that was placed before him. At Oxford, he had the privilege of becoming acquainted with the Bible, which was inaccessible to the common man because it was only available in Latin, and as he studied the Bible, he began to see more clearly the abuses committed by the Papacy and the root causes for the superstition and error that covered the people in darkness. He was roused to action and began speaking out against the gross injustices and errors sanctioned by the Roman church.

Lutterworth, England

One of the issues he championed was that of the Papal tax, imposed upon the English crown 100 years before and still being exacted. Wycliffe decried the audacity of the Pope in seeking to extend his authority beyond the religious sphere into the civil realm by demanding such a levy of England. The relationship between the Pontiff and the Crown of England was already strained, 

 

John Wycliffe

with England chafing under the yoke of Rome and Wycliffe’s bold opposition led England to refuse to bow to Papal authority and withhold payment of the tax. The second issue he championed was that of denouncing the lifestyle and practices of the monks. 

England was already weighted down with economic turmoil in the wake of the Hundred Years War and the plague and the Roman Friars added to this burden by their avaricious lifestyle. The monks didn’t engage in any form of useful labor but instead went from house to house begging to sustain themselves. The people they visited were obliged to give generously or risk eternal damnation as a result of the friars refusing to pardon their sins or to grant them indulgences.

One of the worst curses to blight England and Europe at large was the fact that the people relied upon the Papacy and, by extension the clergy, to interpret the Bible for them and, as a result, were steeped in superstition and error, thus enabling the friars to auction off salvation to the highest bidder. Wycliffe struck at the root of this tyranny denouncing the entire system as false and unbiblical. Thousands began to feel the warm rays of truth shining in their minds and winding tendrils of hope around the despair that had chilled their hearts. The dawn of the revolution was almost upon them.

All of this activity did not fail to elicit a response from Rome and the Pope dispatched a Papal bull to investigate the writings of John Wycliffe. However, due to his high standing at Oxford and his general popularity among the people, the bull was never put into effect and was forgotten by the Papacy, which was embroiled in what would later be known as the Papal Schism.

John Wycliffe

Wycliffe’s strength was in preaching and teaching and he trained men known as Lollards who went throughout Europe preaching the gospel. Perhaps the most significant thing Wycliffe accomplished was translating the Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into the vernacular of the people. To put the revolutionary nature of this into perspective it’s important to understand that during this time 

the reading of the scriptures in the language of the common people was considered dangerous and forbidden and in giving the Bible to the people in their own language Wycliffe began a movement in England that would culminate in the revolution that was the Reformation.

When people are able to read the word of God for themselves there is something powerful that takes place in their lives and ripples out to touch their families, communities and the nations in which they live. The Word of God has power, not only to convict but to convert the human heart in a way that nothing else on earth has the power to do. You and I live in a world where we have ready access to the Bible at the swipe of a finger, the question is do we take full advantage of this privilege? Do we spend time in reading, studying and immersing ourselves in the Word of God? Do we submit ourselves to its teachings? Because the truth is, that is where the revolution begins.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Schaff, Philip (1858) – History of the Christian Church Volume II
  • Wilkerson, B.G. (1944) – Truth Triumphant
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism
  • Fountain, D. (1984) – John Wycliffe: The Dawn of the Reformation

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Rise of Nations –  Professor Andrew C. Fix (Lafayette College)