Reach the Isles
5. The History of British Christianity – John Wycliffe (1330-1384)
Following the rule of King Alfred the Great, the flow of church and state in England continued to grow. The life of Dunstan (909-988), who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, offers some interesting points demonstrating the development and expansion of the church. In secular history, much happened involving leaders such as King Cnut (990-1035). There was, of course, the Norman invasion under William the Conqueror in 1066. The Magna Carta (1215), a document which continues to guide our laws, society, and government was written and would eventually become part of statute law. However, I want to skip over a few hundred years to get to a man who has likely personally impacted us more than any of these. That man is John Wycliffe.
The Impact of Wycliffe His Biblical teachings are primary in their influence upon us. But some of his more political comments have influenced the world we live in today. Many will be familiar with an adaption of this phrase he penned;
“This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Some say that John Wycliffe, the morning star of the Reformation, was a man born before his time. It is understandable why some would make that statement, but from another perspective, we have to conclude that God raised up this man at the perfect time.
Though we may find areas of disagreement with Wycliffe, we will find much to agree upon. This has to be because we draw truth from the same single source, the Word of God. Drawing truth solely from God’s Word may be something we take for granted, but it was a radical step by Wycliffe in his day.
The Life of John Wycliffe
John was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1330. Few details of his life are known until he went to Oxford. He quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional theologian and spoke often in debates.
Unlike many at this time, Wycliffe regarded the Bible as alive and the sole authority for believers. He took the radical course of action of teaching through the whole Bible. He placed a strong emphasis on the power of preaching the Gospel and stated;
“Preaching the Gospel exceeds prayer and administration of the sacraments to an infinite degree.”
He was not minimising prayer as we know it, but rather the set prayers of the Roman Catholic church and prayers to saints. As Wycliffe studied the Bible he saw and spoke out against the differences between the standards set in Scripture and the behaviour of many in the church.
Wycliffe criticised prayers to saints, pilgrimages, the selling of indulgences, confessions, images, celibacy. Another of Wycliffe’s radical beliefs was that each individual is directly responsible to God.
Wycliffe and Politics At this time political tensions between the Pope and King Edward III were escalating, and Wycliffe, along with other Bishops were appointed to a royal commission to try and de-escalate the conflict. While other Bishops accepted bribes, Wycliffe kept his integrity and would not be bought.
At a time when politics and religion were closely entwined, his beliefs were clear. When the Pope put pressure on England to send taxes, Wycliffe helped draft a response in which he stated;
“Already a third and more of England is in the hands of the Pope. There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is King or Urban is king. We make our choice. We accept Edward of England and refute Urban of Rome.”
Because Wycliffe viewed the church to be in sin, he advocated that they should relinquish all material possessions. He believed that the state, particularly the king, should be the means by which the church’s possessions should be removed. He did not seem to view the state as being over the church, but that if the church was in sin, then God could use the state as a means of chastising the church. It is likely that some who opposed the wealth of the clergy used Wycliffe’s teaching in a less noble way than Wycliffe would have approved of. In Wycliffe’s publication, On Civil Dominion, he made what many would see as an inflammatory remark:
“England belongs to no pope. The pope is but a man, subject to sin; but Christ is the Lord of lords, and this kingdom is held directly and solely of Christ alone.”
For this statement, Wycliffe was brought before a group of Bishops at St. Paul’s cathedral. Wycliffe had powerful supporters. Before the case really began a riot broke out between the bishops and Wycliffe’s supporters and the trial was disrupted and brought to an end. Wycliffe’s stands on these issues seem to have given him popularity with many and won him some influential supporters. Later, when persecution was threatened this popularity may have shielded him to a degree. But this was not his plan. It seems even Wycliffe’s enemies recognised that he did not act strategically or with guile, but rather he always acted in sincerity and with integrity.
Wycliffe and the Scriptures Later, in 1378, Wycliffe published another document, “On the Truth of Holy Scripture” and boldly proclaimed that the Bible is without error and is the ultimate authority in all areas of doctrine. Again, Wycliffe was brought to trial, but this too ended before it began when the King’s widow sent a message requesting that no verdict be brought against Wycliffe. So, as with many before him, Wycliffe was told not to publicise his opinions at Oxford or in the pulpit.
In 1381 Wycliffe rejected the teaching of transubstantiation and lost some of the powerful support he had previously enjoyed. The next year Wycliffe was accused of being a heretic by a group of theologians and the English parliament issued a bill condemning his teachings.
The Lollards, Wycliffe’s supporters, spread his teachings and ideas across England. Wycliffe’s conviction that the truth of God’s Word should be available to all people in their own language, and the conviction of the effectiveness of preaching, had led to the formation of this group of followers who would travel and preach around all of England. Many faced persecution and many were martyred.
Wycliffe retired to Lutterworth and continued to study and write. He rejected Latin, concluding that the people should have the truth in their own language. This led to Wycliffe instigating a translation of the Bible into English. Some believe two of Wycliffe’s followers actually performed the translation from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. The translation would not be completed until 11 years after his death. But, for the first time, the Bible was in the language of the ordinary people. The academic influence of King Alfred remained and it is thought about 20% of the people could read. Though the handwritten copies would be repeatedly confiscated and destroyed, they continued to spread until printed copies by William Tyndale became available.
It is hard, perhaps even impossible, for us to imagine the dependency the people had on priests and the church to teach them the Bible. And the priests and church were far from reliable or trustworthy. So, even if a person truly desired to know the truth, it was kept from them, hidden in a foreign language by a powerful organisation.
One response from the Roman Catholic Church described Wycliffe’s work this way:
“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.”
In response, Wycliffe wrote,
“Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
Following a stroke in 1384, Wycliffe went to be with the Lord. But his influence continued and those who followed his teachings faced persecution.
The Legacy of Wycliffe In 1401 a law was made that heretics were to be burned at the stake. Soon after Archbishop Arundel said that it was illegal to read the Bible in English. According to his ruling, no one could translate the Bible into English, nor should they read Wycliffe’s English translation. The penalty for both was to be burned at the stake.
Wycliffe served as a lightning rod to draw many to the truth and to challenge all concerning the authority of God’s Word. In Wycliffe, we find a rare combination of intellectual brilliance, simple faith, and courage. He held up the Bible as the sole authority for believers. He taught that pastors should live simple lives shepherding the people, not lording their position over them. Though passionate about his cause, he is widely seen as a sincere and moral man. Where Luther’s anger would sometimes seem to get the better of him and lead him to make statements that would make modern preacher’s blush, Wycliffe appears to have held forth with more grace. When he did speak in abusive terms, he would confess it.
Although he had been dead for decades, in 1415 Wycliffe was tried again by the Roman Catholic church. The Council of Constance ruled that Wycliffe’s body be dug up and burned. This ruling was agreed to by Pope Martin V and in 1328, 44 years after his death, Wycliffe’s bones were burned and his ashes scattered in the River Swift.
John Foxe in his book of martyrs wrote:
“though they digged up his body, burnt his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet to this day…doth remain.”
A journalist later described the burning and spreading of Wycliffe’s ashes powerfully,
“Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”
Though his body had been destroyed, Wycliff’s teachings continued to spread. The people had a taste of the Bible in their own language and this brought a desire that would not be dismissed. The torch had been lit, and the foundation laid for the reformation.
Some Words of John Wycliffe:
“All Christian life is to be measured by Scripture; by every word thereof.”
“This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
“The higher the hill, the stronger the wind: so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.”
“The gospel alone is sufficient to rule the lives of Christians everywhere – any additional rules made to govern men’s conduct added nothing to the perfection already found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“I believe that in the end the truth will conquer.”
“No man is to be credited for his mere authority’s sake, unless he can show Scripture for the maintenance of his opinion.”
“Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
“You say it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English. You call me a heretic because I have translated the Bible into the common tongue of the people. Do you know whom you blaspheme? Did not the Holy Ghost give the Word of God at first in the mother-tongue of the nations to whom it was addressed? Why do you speak against the Holy Ghost? You say that the Church of God is in danger from this book. How can that be? Is it not from the Bible only that we learn that God has set up such a society as a Church on the earth? Is it not the Bible that gives all her authority to the Church? Is it not from the Bible that we learn who is the Builder and Sovereign of the Church, what are the laws by which she is to be governed, and the rights and privileges of her members? Without the Bible, what charter has the Church to show for all these? It is you who place the Church in jeopardy by hiding the Divine warrant, the missive royal of her King, for the authority she wields and the faith she enjoins.”
Martin Wickens is from the UK and worked in a variety of churches and ministries in England and Northern Ireland. He is married to Carrie and they have 4 children. Since 2018 Martin has lived in the US and pastors at Bedford Bible Church, PA. He has a strong focus on expositional preaching, family, fellowship, and spreading the Gospel to the community and around the world.