Read the introduction to this series – 50 people you need to know: Church History 101
One could say that all of Western Civilization turned a corner with John Wycliffe.
His written word influenced English authors like Shakespeare to the point where he is called “the father of the English prose.” He was one of the first to gain real public traction in his call for a separation of the church and state powers.
Much of the doctrines that blossomed in the Reformation were planted in the soil of Europe by Wycliffe’s teaching. And most famously, you can read the Bible in English, or any other language besides Latin, because Wycliffe made that a reality.
Needless to say, John Wycliffe is someone you need to know.
Who was John Wycliffe?
Born on a sheep farm 200 miles from London, John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384) went to Oxford at an early age and soon became the most influential and respected theologian and philosopher of the school. Despite his status, he was passed over for an influential post for a monk. His appeal to Rome went unheard.
During this time, the pope began to pressure England to lend financial support despite the nation struggling to raise its own funds to ward off a possible attack by France. Seeing the papacy aligned with France, Wycliffe encouraged the English to not give the money over.
More and more Wycliffe began to speak out against the papacy – not just on governmental matters, but theological ones as well. As he committed himself to a study of the Scriptures, he became convinced that Rome was built on unbiblical doctrines.
His teachings led Pope Gregory XI to issue five bulls (church edicts) against Wycliffe and deem the Englishman “the master of errors.”
He challenged the Catholic church on issues related to salvation, the elements of communion, confessionals, the authority and legitimacy of the pope – essentially Wycliffe went after everything that made the Catholic church what it was.
His most famous disagreement was over the translating of the Bible into English. Church leadership said it should remain only in Latin, so that the Bible would not be read by untrained men and women and become like pearls cast before swine.
In response, Wycliffe said, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
Before he could complete his translation (and before he could be tried for heresy), Wycliffe died in church, while participating in a mass. Nevertheless, his followers finished the translation and saw it spread across the country, despite Wycliffe being declared, posthumously, a heretic and copies of the Bible in English deemed illegal.
Why do you need to know John Wycliffe?
He literally changed history and impacted virtually every aspect of culture – politics, art, church. Wycliffe left them all different because of his beliefs and life.
Politically, he challenged the notion of a foreign religious leader having control over a secular state. The Pope, or more accurately during Wycliffe’s days, the Popes, could exert sizable, if not controlling influence over sovereign nations like England. Wycliffe encouraged Parliament to refuse the Pope’s request for funding, setting the stage for the separation of church and state.
His writing established the standard of written English for centuries. Shakespeare drew from the language and artistry of Wycliffe’s works, especially his translation of the Bible, which leads us to the most important legacy of his.
There were bits and pieces of the Bible translated into English and other common languages, but there had been no concerted effort to translate all of it so that commoners could read and understand it.
During this time, Rome enjoyed the power and leverage of the Roman Catholic Church being the only place anyone could hear the Bible. Their theology could go unchallenged, because no one had a copy of God’s word with which to correct them.
Wycliffe saw this was the chain that kept the people in religious slavery and he meant to break it. With the help of friends, both during his life and after his death, the entire Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, the official Catholic version, into an English language Bible.
Wycliffe understood the importance of his work. In one of the hearings held to charge him with heresy, he said, “I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death…. I have followed the Sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors [Church fathers].”
After his death, his followers, known as the Lollards, continued preaching and teaching across England and Europe. They looked to Scripture alone as their doctrinal guide. Their movement grew and shifted until the Reformation began in earnest. For this reason, Wycliffe is called “The Morningstar of the Reformation.”
Those men who successfully led the Reformation and formal split with the Catholic Church all grew up out of the soil tilled by Wycliffe. He is someone you definitely should know.
Odd Trivia Fact: Almost 30 years after his death, Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic and banned his writings. They also decreed his works should be burned and his remains exhumed. Another 13 years later, the pope had his body dug up and burned, with his ashes thrown into the River Swift.