Updated: Nov 21, 2021
“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.” (John Wycliffe)
John Wycliffe should be revered as one of the great heroes of the Christian Faith. Few have left such a significant mark on Church history. His influence angered officials for decades; even 43 years after his death, the “faithful” officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw them into the river Swift. However, such actions would do nothing to limit the spread and influence of Wycliffe’s teachings.
John Wycliffe was born in 1338 on a sheep farm in Hipswell, 200 miles outside of London. He studied at Merton College at Oxford University in 1346 but was unable to complete his education until 1372 because of the Black Plague (1347–1351). The plague left a lasting impression on him, leaving him with a very gloomy outlook on humanity and the world. It was at this point that Wycliffe published his first works. One of these works, The Last Age of the Church, was his attempt to reflect on the terrible plague and how it affected the Church. He was convinced that the end of the 14th Century would be the end of the world.
During his time as rector of the parish at Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, the Catholic Pope in Rome began to demand financial support from England. At this time, England was facing the threat of an attack from the French, so all available resources were allocated for military needs. Wycliffe advised his local permanent representative to urge parliament not to comply with Rome’s request. He insisted the Catholic church was already too wealthy, and Christ called his followers to a lifestyle of poverty. These opinions put Wycliffe between a rock and a hard place.
Wycliffe was summoned to London on February 19, 1377, to appear before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, to answer to the charges of heresy against the Catholic Church. As the meeting began, parties quickly formed, and an angry and heated exchange erupted between the government and Church officials. Though the session ended, the open attacks on John Wycliffe continued throughout his life.
On May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five church edicts against Wycliffe. Here he was accused of 18 counts of heresy regarding the Church and State. Later in March of 1378, Wycliffe was again called to appear before the bishops gathered at Lambeth Palace to defend his beliefs. Wycliffe replied, “I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death…I have followed the Sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors.” He went on to say that the pope and the church were second in authority to Scripture. After the group reached their verdict, Sir Lewis Clifford entered the assembly, announced that he was there representing the Queen Mother (Joan of Kent), and halted any punishment that may be issued to Wycliffe. This group satisfied themselves by silencing Wycliffe and gave a type of “gag order” to prevent him from speaking or publishing his ideas. Nonetheless, Wycliffe continued to preach and write on his positions.
Wycliffe continued his study of the Holy Scriptures and wrote extensively about his conflicts with the position of the Catholic Church. Specifically, he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of communion become the literal body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe wrote, “The bread, while becoming by virtue of Christ’s words the Body of Christ, does not cease to be bread.”
Wycliffe challenged the Catholic’s sale of indulgences. These indulgences were sold to parishioners to, as they believed, limit the punishment one may experience for sins committed. He wrote, “It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God.”
Wycliffe continued to write on various other points, challenging the doctrines of Rome. But his greatest conviction was that he firmly believed every Christian should have access to the Holy Scriptures. Latin translations were the only versions available at that time, and few outside of the clergy could read it coherently. Wycliffe began translating the New Testament and solicited the help of his good friend Nicholas Hereford to translate the Old Testament into English. Later in 1388, his friend John Purvey helped edit the whole into one common collection.
The leaders of the Church were infuriated by this translation. They accused him of contaminating the Holy Scriptures into a vulgar and profane state. They claimed, “the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.” Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
While officiating Mass on December 28, 1384, he suffered a stroke. John Wycliffe died December 31, 1384, before the version of the Bible that carries his name was complete.
On May 4, 1415, the Counsel of Constance declared John Wycliffe a heretic, banning all of his writings and retroactively excommunicating him from the Catholic Church. All of Wycliffe’s books and papers were gathered, his body was exhumed from its place of rest, and all of it burned. The ashes of Wycliffe and his earthly works were thrown into the River Swift that runs through Lutterworth, where he once was laid to rest.
“John Wycliffe | Biography, Legacy, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 28, 2020.
“John Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. Retrieved August 28, 2020.
“John Wycliffe.” Wikipedia.org. Retrieved August 29, 2020.