John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Harmony of Protestant and Mediaeval creeds
The Reformation a moral movement
The evils of Papal institutions
The evils of monastic life
Quarrels and dissoluteness of monks
Birth of Wyclif
His scholastic attainments and honors
His political influence
The powers who have ruled the world
Wyclif sent on a mission to Bruges
Protection of John of Gaunt
Wyclif summoned to an ecclesiastical council
His defenders and foes
Triumph of Wyclif
He openly denounces the Pope
His translation of the Bible
Opposition to it by the higher clergy
Hostility of Roman Catholicism to the right of private judgment
Hostility to the Bible in vernacular tongues
Spread of the Bible in English
Wyclif as a doctrinal reformer
He attacks Transubstantiation
Deserted by the Duke of Lancaster
But dies peaceably in his parish
Wyclif contrasted with Luther
His great services to the church
Reasons why he escaped martyrdom

John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

A.D. 1324-1384.

The name of Wyclif suggests the dawn of the Protestant Reformation; and the Reformation suggests the existence of evils which made it a necessity. I do not look upon the Reformation, in its earlier stages, as a theological movement. In fact, the Catholic and Protestant theology, as expounded and systematized by great authorities, does not materially differ from that of the Fathers of the Church. The doctrines of Augustine were accepted equally by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. What is called systematic divinity, as taught in our theological seminaries, is a series of deductions from the writings of Paul and other apostles, elaborately and logically drawn by Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, and other lights of the early Church, which were defended in the Middle Ages with amazing skill and dialectical acuteness by the Scholastic doctors, with the aid of the method which Aristotle, the greatest logician of antiquity, bequeathed to philosophy. Neither Luther nor Calvin departed essentially from these great deductions on such vital subjects as the existence and attributes of God, the Trinity, sin and its penalty, redemption, grace, and predestination. The creeds of modern Protestant churches are in harmony with the writings of both the Fathers and the Scholastic doctors on the fundamental principles of Christianity. There are, indeed, some ideas in reference to worship, and the sacraments, and the government of the Church, and aids to a religious life, defended by the Scholastic doctors, which Protestants do not accept, and for which there is not much authority in the writings of the Fathers. But the main difference between Protestants and Catholics is in reference to the institutions of the Church,–institutions which gradually arose with the triumph of Christianity in its contest with Paganism, and which received their full development in the Middle Ages. It was the enormous and scandalous corruptions which crept into these institutions which led to the cry for reform. It was the voice of Wyclif, denouncing these abuses, which made him famous and placed him in the van of reformers. These abuses were generally admitted and occasionally attacked by churchmen and laymen alike,–even by the poets. They were too flagrant to be denied.

Now what were the prominent evils in the institutions of the Church which called for reform, and in reference to which Wyclif raised up his voice?–for in his day there was only one Church. An enumeration of these is necessary before we can appreciate the labors and teachings of the Reformer. I can only state them; I cannot enlarge upon them. I state only what is indisputable, not in reference to theological dogmas so much as to morals and ecclesiastical abuses.

The centre and life and support of all was the Papacy,–an institution, a great government, not a religion.

I have spoken of this great power as built up by Leo I., Gregory VII., and Innocent III., and by others whom I have not mentioned. So much may be said of the necessity of a central spiritual power in the dark ages of European society that I shall not combat this power, or stigmatize it with offensive epithets. The necessities of the times probably called it into existence, like other governments, although I cannot see any argument drawn from the Scriptures, or from the history of the early Apostolic Church, to warrant its existence. Nor would I defend the long series of papal usurpations by which the Roman pontiffs got possession of the government of both Church and State. I speak not of their quarrels with princes about investitures, in which their genius and their heroism were displayed rather than by efforts in behalf of civilization.

But the popes exercised certain powers and prerogatives in England, about the time of Wyclif, which were exceedingly offensive to the secular rulers of the land. They claimed the island as a sort of property which reason and the laws did not justify,–a claim which led to heavy exactions and forced contributions on the English people that crippled the government and impoverished the nation. Boys and favorites were appointed by the popes to important posts and livings. Church preferments were almost exclusively in the hands of the Pope; and these were often bought. A yearly tribute had been forced on the nation in the time of John. Peter’s pence were collected from the people. Enormous sums, under various pretences, flowed to Rome. And the clergy were taxed as well as the laity. The contributions which were derived from the sale of benefices, from investitures, from the transfer of sees, from the bestowal of rings and crosiers (badges of episcopal authority), from the confirmation of elections, and other taxes, irritated sovereigns, and called out the severest denunciation of statesmen.

Closely connected with papal exactions was the enormous increase of the Mendicant friars, especially the Dominicans and Franciscans, who had been instituted by Innocent III. to uphold the papal domination. These itinerating beggars in their black-and-gray gowns infested every town and village in England. For a century after their institution, they were the ablest and perhaps the best soldiers of the Pope, and did what the Jesuits afterwards performed, and perhaps the Methodists a hundred years ago,–gained the hearts of the people and stimulated religious life; but in the fourteenth century they were a nuisance. They sold indulgences, they invented pious frauds, they were covetous under pretence of poverty, they had become luxurious in their lives, they slandered the regular clergy, they usurped the prerogatives of parish priests, they enriched their convents, they accommodated themselves to the wishes of the great, and were marked by those peculiarities of which the Jesuits were accused in the time of Pascal. As they had not in England, as in Spain and Italy, tribunals of inquisition, they were ridiculed, despised, and hated, rather than feared. One gets the truest impression of the popular estimate of these friars from the sarcasms of Chaucer. The Friar Tuck whom Sir Walter Scott has painted was a very different man from the Dominicans or the Franciscans of the thirteenth century, when they reigned in the universities, and were the confessors of monarchs and the most popular preachers of their time. In the fourteenth century they were consumed with jealousies and rivalries and animosities against each other; and all the various orders,–Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite,–in spite of their professions of poverty, were the possessors of magnificent monasteries, and fattened on the credulity of the world. Besides these Mendicant friars, England was dotted with convents and religious houses belonging to the different orders of Benedictines, which, though enormously rich, devoured the substance of the poor. There were more than twenty thousand monks in a population of three or four millions; and most of them led idle and dissolute lives, and were subjects of perpetual reproach. Reforms of the various religious houses had been attempted, but all reforms had failed. Nor were the lives of the secular clergy much more respectable than those of the great body of monks. They are accused by all historians of avarice, venality, dissoluteness, and ignorance; and it was their incapacity, their disregard of duties, and indifference to the spiritual interests of their flocks that led to the immense popularity of the Mendicant friars, until they, in their turn, became perhaps a greater scandal than the parish priests whose functions they had usurped. Both priests and monks in the time of Bishop Grostête of Lincoln frequented taverns and gambling-houses. So enormous and scandalous was the wealth of the clergy, that as early as 1279, under Edward I., Parliament passed a statute of mortmain, forbidding religious bodies to receive bequests without the King’s license.

With the increase of scandalous vices among the clergy was a corruption in the doctrines of the Church; not those which are strictly theological, but those which pertained to the sacraments, and the conditions on which absolution was given and communion administered. In the thirteenth century, as the Scholastic philosophy was reaching its fullest development, we notice the establishment of the doctrine of transubstantiation, the withholding the cup from the laity, and the necessity of confession as the condition of receiving the communion,–which corruptions increased amazingly the power of the clergy over the minds of superstitious people, and led to still more flagrant evils, like the sale of indulgences and the perversion of the doctrine of penance, originally enforced in order to aid the soul to overcome the tyranny of the body, but finally accepted as the expiation for sin; so that the door of heaven itself was opened by venal priests only to those whom they could control or rob.

Such was the state of the Church when Wyclif was born,–in 1324, near Richmond in Yorkshire, about a century after the establishment of universities, the creation of the Mendicant orders, and the memorable usurpation of Innocent III.

In the year 1340, during the reign of Edward III., we find him at the age of sixteen a student in Merton College at Oxford,–the college then most distinguished for Scholastic doctors; the college of Islip, of Bradwardine, of Occam, and perhaps of Duns Scotus. It would seem that Wyclif devoted himself with great assiduity to the study which gave the greatest intellectual position and influence in the Middle Ages, and which required a training of nineteen years in dialectics before the high degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred by the University. We know nothing of his studious life at Oxford until he received his degree, with the title of Evangelical or Gospel Doctor,–from which we infer that he was a student of the Bible, and was more remarkable for his knowledge of the Scriptures than for his dialectical skill. But even for his knowledge of the Scholastic philosophy he was the most eminent man in the University, and he was as familiar with the writings of Saint Augustine and Jerome as with those of Aristotle. It was not then the fashion to study the text of the Scriptures so much as the commentaries upon it; and he who was skilled in the “Book of Sentences” and the “Summa Theologica” stood a better chance of preferment than he who had mastered Saint Paul.

But Wyclif, it would seem, was distinguished for his attainments in everything which commanded the admiration of his age. In 1356, when he was thirty-two, he wrote a tract on the last ages of the Church, in view of the wretchedness produced by the great plague eight years before. In 1360, at the age of thirty-six, he attacked the Mendicant orders, and his career as a reformer began,–an unsuccessful reformer, indeed, like John Huss, since the evils which he combated were not removed. He merely protested against the corruptions which good men lamented; and that is nearly all that great men can do when they are beyond their age. They are simply witnesses of truth, and fortunate are they if they do not die as martyrs; for in the early Church “witnesses” and “martyrs” were synonymous ([Greek: martyres]). The year following, 1361, Wyclif was presented to the rich rectory of Fillingham by Baliol College, and was promoted the same year to the wardenship of that ancient college. The learned doctor is now one of the “dons” of the university,–at that time, even more than now, a great dignitary. It would be difficult for an unlearned politician of the nineteenth century to conceive of the exalted position which a dignitary of the Church, crowned with scholastic honors, held five hundred years ago. It gave him access to the table of his sovereign, and to the halls of Parliament. It made him an oracle in all matters of the law. It created for him a hearing on all the great political as well as ecclesiastical issues of the day. What great authorities in the thirteenth century were Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventura! Scarcely less than they, in the next century, were Duns Scotus and John Wyclif,–far greater in influence than any of the proud feudal lords who rendered service to Edward III., broad as were their acres, and grand as were their castles. Strange as it may seem, the glory that radiated from the brow of a scholar or a saint was greatest in ages of superstition and darkness; perhaps because both scholars and saints were rare. The modern lights of learning may be better paid than in former days, but they do not stand out to the eye of admiring communities in such prominence as they did among our ancestors. Who stops and turns back to gaze reverentially on a poet or a scholar whom he passes by unconsciously, as both men and women strained their eyes to see an Abélard or a Dante? Even a Webster now would not command the homage he received fifty years ago.

It is not uninteresting to contemplate the powers that have ruled in successive ages, outside the realms of conquerors and kings. In the ninth and tenth centuries they were baronial lords in mail-clad armor; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries these powers, like those of ancient Egypt, were priests; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they were the learned doctors, as in the schools of Athens when political supremacy was lost; in the sixteenth century–the era of reforms–they were controversial theologians, like those of the age of Theodosius; in the seventeenth century they were fighting nobles; in the eighteenth they were titled and hereditary courtiers and great landed proprietors; in the nineteenth they are bankers, merchants, and railway presidents,–men who control the material interests of the country. It is only at elections, though managed by politicians, that the people are a power. Socially, the magnates are the rich. It is money which in these times all classes combine to worship. If this be questioned, see the adulation which even colleges and schools of learning pay to their wealthy patrons or those from whom they seek benefits. The patrons of the schools in the Middle Ages were princes and nobles; but these princes and nobles bowed down in reverence to learned bishops and great theological doctors.

Wyclif was the representative of the schools when he attacked the abuses of the Church. It is not a little singular that the great religious movements in England have generally come from Oxford, while Cambridge has been distinguished for great movements in science. In 1365 he was appointed to the headship of Canterbury Hall, founded by Archbishop Islip, afterwards merged into Christ Church,–the most magnificent and wealthy of all the Oxford Colleges. When Islip died, in 1366, and Langham, originally a monk of Canterbury, was made archbishop, the appointment of Wyclif was pronounced void by Langham, and the revenues of the Hall of which he was warden, or president, were sequestered. Wyclif on this appealed to the Pope, who, however, ratified Langham’s decree,–as it would be expected, for the Pope sustained the friars whom Wyclif had denounced. The spirit of such a progressive man was, of course, offensive to the head of the Church. In this case the Crown confirmed the decision of the Pope, 1372, since the royal license was obtained by a costly bribe. The whole transaction was so iniquitous that Wyclif could not restrain his indignation.

Portrait of John Wyclif by Thomas Kirby

Portrait of John Wyclif by Thomas Kirby

But before this decision of the Crown was made, the services of Wyclif had been accepted by the Parliament in its resistance to the claim which Pope Urban V. had made in 1366, to the arrears of tribute due under John’s vassalage. Edward III. had referred this claim to Parliament, and the Parliament had rejected it without hesitation on the ground that John had no power to bind the realm without its consent. The Parliament was the mere mouthpiece of Wyclif, who was now actively engaged in political life, and probably, as Dr. Lechler thinks, had a seat in Parliament. He was, at any rate, a very prominent political character; for he was sent in 1374 to Bruges, as one of the commissioners to treat with the representatives of the French pope in reference to the appointment of foreigners to the rich benefices of the Church in England, which gave great offence to the liberal and popular party in England,–for there was such a progressive party as early as the fourteenth century, although it did not go by that name, and was not organized as parties are now. In fact, in all ages and countries there are some men who are before their contemporaries. The great grievance of which the more advanced and enlightened complained was the interference of the Pope with ecclesiastical livings in England. Wyclif led the opposition to this usurpation; and this opposition to the Pope on the part of a churchman made it necessary for him to have a protector powerful enough to shield him from papal vengeance.

This protector he found in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who, next to the King, had the greatest authority in England. It is probable that Wyclif enjoyed at Bruges the friendship of this great man (great for his station, influence, and birth, at least), who was at the head of the opposition to the papal claims,–resisted not only by him, but by Parliament, which seems to have been composed of men in advance of their age. As early as 1371 this Parliament had petitioned the King to exclude all ecclesiastics from the great offices of State, held almost exclusively by them as the most able and learned people of the realm. From the time of Alfred this custom had not been seriously opposed by the baronial lords, who were ignorant and unenlightened; but in the fourteenth century light had broken in upon the darkness: the day had at least dawned, and the absurdity of confining the cares of State and temporal matters to men who ought to be absorbed with spiritual duties alone was seen by the more enlightened of the laity. But the King was not then prepared to part with the most efficient of his ministers because they happened to be ecclesiastics, and the custom continued for nearly two centuries longer. Bishop Williams was the last of the clergy who filled the great office of chancellor, and Archbishop Laud was the last of the clergy who became a prime minister. The reign of Elizabeth was marked, for the first time in the history of England, by the almost total exclusion of prelates from great secular offices. In the reign of Edward III. it was William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who held the great seal, and the Bishop of Exeter who was lord treasurer,–probably the two men in the whole realm who were the most experienced in public affairs as men of business. Wyclif, it would appear, although he was an ecclesiastic, here took the side of Parliament against his own order. In his treatise on the “Regimen of the Church” he contends that neither doctors nor deacons should hold secular offices, or even be land stewards and clerks of account, and appeals to the authority of the Fathers and Saint Paul in confirmation of his views. At this time he was a doctor of divinity and professor of theology in the University, having been promoted to this high position in 1372, two years before he was sent as commissioner to Bruges. In 1375, he was presented to the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire by the Crown, in reward for his services as an ambassador.

In 1376 Parliament renewed its assault on pontifical pretensions and exactions; and there was cause, since twenty thousand marks, or pounds, were sent annually to Rome from the Pope’s collector in England, which collector was a Frenchman,–another indignity. Against these corruptions and usurpations Wyclif was unsparing in his denunciations; and the hierarchy at last were compelled, by their allegiance to Rome, to take measures to silence and punish him as a pertinacious heretic. The term “heretic” meant in those days opposition to papal authority, as much as opposition to the theological dogmas of the Church; and the brand of heresy was the greatest stigma which authority could impose. The bold denunciator of papal abuses was now in danger. He was summoned by the convocation to appear in Saint Paul’s Cathedral and answer for his heresies, on which occasion were present the Archbishop of Canterbury and the arrogant Bishop of London,–the latter the son of the Earl of Devonshire, of the great family of the Courtenays. Wyclif was attended by the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl Marshal,–Henry Percy, the ancestor of the Dukes of Northumberland,–who forced themselves into the Lady’s chapel, behind the high altar, where the prelates were assembled. An uproar followed from this unusual intrusion of the two most powerful men of the kingdom into the very sanctuary of prelatic authority. What could be done when the great Oxford professor–the most learned Scholastic of the kingdom–was protected by a royal duke clothed with viceregal power, and the Earl Marshal armed with the sword of State?

The position of Wyclif was as strong as it was before he was attacked. Nor could he be silenced except by the authority of the Pope himself,–still acknowledged as the supreme lord of Christendom; and the Pope now felt that he must assert his supremacy and interpose his supreme authority, or lose his hold on England. So he hurled his weapons, not yet impotent, and fulminated his bulls, ordering the University, under penalty of excommunication, to deliver the daring heretic into the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London; and further commanding these two prelates to warn the King against the errors of Wyclif, and to examine him as to his doctrines, and keep him in chains until the Pope’s pleasure should be further known. In addition to these bulls, the Pope sent one to the King himself. It was resolved that the work should be thoroughly done this time. Yet it would appear that these various bulls threatening an interdict did not receive a welcome from any quarter. The prelates did not wish to quarrel with such an antagonist as the Duke of Lancaster, who was now the chief power in the State, the King being in his last illness. They allowed several months to pass before executing their commission, during which Wyclif was consulted by the great Council of State whether they should allow money to be carried out of the realm at the Pope’s demands, and he boldly declared that they should not; thus coming in direct antagonism with hierarchal power. He also wrote at this time pamphlets vindicating himself from the charges made against him, asserting the invalidity of unjust excommunication, which, if allowed, would set the Pope above God.

At last, after seven months, the prelates took courage, and ordered the University to execute the papal bulls. To imprison Wyclif at the command of the Pope would be to allow the Pope’s temporal rule in England; yet to disobey the bulls would be disregard of the papal power altogether. In this dilemma the Vice-Chancellor–himself a monk–ordered a nominal imprisonment. The result of these preliminary movements was that Wyclif appeared at Lambeth before the Archbishop, to answer his accusers. The great prelates had a different spirit from the University, which was justly proud of its most learned doctor,–a man, too, beyond his age in his progressive spirit, for the universities in those days were not so conservative as they subsequently became. At Lambeth Wyclif found unexpected support from the people of London, who broke into the archiepiscopal chapel and interrupted the proceedings, and a still more efficient aid from the Queen Dowager,–the Princess Joan,–who sent a message forbidding any sentence against Wyclif. Thus was he backed by royal authority and the popular voice, as Luther was afterwards in Saxony. The prelates were overcome with terror, and dropped the proceedings; while the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, who had tardily and imperfectly obeyed the Pope, was cast into prison for a time and compelled to resign his office.

Wyclif had gained a great triumph, which he used by publishing a summary of his opinions in thirty-three articles, both in Latin and English. In these it would seem that he attacked the infallibility of the Pope,–liable to sin like any other person, and hence to be corrected by the voices of those who are faithful to a higher Power than his,–a blow to the exercise of excommunication from any personal grounds of malice or hatred, or when used to extort unjust or mercenary demands. He also maintained that the endowments of the clergy could be lawfully withdrawn if they were perverted or abused,–a bold assertion in his day, but which he professed he was willing to defend, even unto death. If the prelates had dared, or had possessed sufficient power, he would doubtless have suffered death from their animosity; but he was left unmolested in his retirement at his rectory, although he kept himself discreetly out of the way of danger. When the memorable schism took place in the Roman government by the election of an anti-pope, and both popes proclaimed a crusade and issued their indulgences, Wyclif, who heretofore had admitted the primacy of the Roman See, now openly proclaimed the doctrine that the Church would be better off with no pope at all. He owed his safety to the bitterness of the rival popes, who in their mutual quarrels had no time to think of him. And his opportunity was improved by writing books and homilies, in which the antichristian claims of the popes were fearlessly exposed and commented upon. In fact, he now openly denounces the Pope as Antichrist, from his pulpit at Lutterworth, to his simple-minded parishioners, for whose good he seems to have earnestly labored,–the model of a parish priest. It is supposed that Chaucer had him in view when he wrote his celebrated description of a good parson,–“benign” and diligent, learned and pious, giving a noble example to his flock of disinterestedness and devotion to truth and duty, in contrast with the ordinary lives of the clergy of those times, who were infamous for their ignorance, sensuality, gluttony, and ostentation; frequenting taverns, and wasting their time in gambling, idleness, and disgraceful brawls.

Hitherto Wyclif had simply protested against the external evils of the Church without much effect, although protected by powerful laymen and encouraged by popular favor. The time had not come for a real and permanent reformation; but he prepared the way for it, and in no slight degree, by his translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular tongue,–the greatest service he rendered to the English people and the cause of civilization. All the great reformers, successful and unsuccessful, appealed to the Scriptures as the highest authority, even when they did not rebel against the papal power, like Savonarola in Florence, I do not get the impression that Wyclif was a great popular preacher like the Florentine reformer, or like Luther, Latimer, and Knox. He was a student, first of the Scholastic theology, and afterwards of the Bible. He lived in a quiet way, as scholars love to live, in his retired rectory near Oxford, preaching plain and simple sermons to his parishioners, but spending his time chiefly in his library, or study.

Wyclif’s translation of the Bible was a great event, for it was the first which was made in English, although parts of the Bible had been translated into the Saxon tongue between the seventh and eleventh centuries. He had no predecessor in that vast work, and he labored amid innumerable obstacles. It was not a translation from the original Greek and Hebrew, for but little was known of either language in the fourteenth century: not until the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks was Greek or Hebrew studied; so the translation was made from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. The version of Wyclif, besides its transcendent value to the people, now able to read the Bible in their own language (before a sealed book, except to the clergy and the learned), gave form and richness to the English language. To what extent Wyclif was indebted to the labors of other men it is not easy to determine; but there is little doubt that, whatever aid he received, the whole work was under his supervision. Of course it was not printed, for printing was not then discovered; but the manuscripts of the version were very numerous, and they are to-day to be found in the great public libraries of England, and even in many private collections.

Considering that the Latin Vulgate has ever been held in supreme veneration by the Catholic Church in all ages and countries, by popes, bishops, abbots, and schoolmen; that no jealousy existed as to the reading of it by the clergy generally; that in fact it was not a sealed book to the learned classes, and was regarded universally as the highest authority in matters of faith and morals,–it seems strange that so violent an opposition should have been made to its translation into vernacular tongues, and to its circulation among the people. Wyclif’s translation was regarded as an act of sacrilege, worthy of condemnation and punishment. So furious was the outcry against him, as an audacious violator who dared to touch the sacred ark with unconsecrated hands, that even a bill was brought into the House of Lords forbidding the perusal of the Bible by the laity, and it would have been passed but for John of Gaunt. At a convocation of bishops and clerical dignitaries held in St. Paul’s, in 1408, it was decreed as heresy to read the Bible in English,–to be punished by excommunication. The version of Wyclif and all other translations into English were utterly prohibited under the severest penalties. Fines, imprisonment, and martyrdom were inflicted on those who were guilty of so foul a crime as the reading or possession of the Scriptures in the vernacular tongue. This is one of the gravest charges ever made against the Catholic Church. This absurd and cruel persecution alone made the Reformation a necessity, even as the translation of the Bible prepared the way for the Reformation. The translation of the Scriptures and the Reformation are indissolubly linked together. Nobody doubts that the whole influence of the Catholic hierarchy has ever been, and still continues to be, hostile to the perusal of the Scriptures by the people in the vulgar tongue; and it was this translation by Wyclif which made him more obnoxious to the Pope than all his tirades against the vices of the monks and the other evils which disgraced the Church. We cannot call this translation a reform, but it led to reforms: it arrayed the people against the usurpations of the Pope and the corruptions of the Church as an institution. Yea, more, it was the main cause of that memorable religious movement which followed the death of Wyclif: there would have been no Lollards had there been no translation of the Bible. It led also to the affirmation of that private judgment which was the foundation pillar of Protestantism, and which existed among the Lollards long before Luther delivered his message.

And yet it is not strange that the Catholic hierarchy (I say Catholic rather than Roman, because in the fourteenth century there was but one Church, although in that Church considerable difference of opinion existed both as to matters of faith and government) should have bitterly opposed the translation of the Scriptures into vernacular tongues, since it opened the door to private judgment. If there is anything the Catholic Church has hated, it is private judgment. The very phrase is obnoxious. It means the emancipation of the people from papal domination and ecclesiastical bondage of all description; while the thing itself is subversive of all the claims which the Catholic hierarchy have ever put forth as to the authority of the Church as an institution: it has undermined and will continue to undermine spiritual despotism,–the great evil of the Middle Ages and of the Papal Church in our times. The unrestrained circulation of the Scriptures in the language the people can understand must lead to the breaking up of the false doctrines and all the instruments by which the clergy have maintained their usurpations. It necessarily opens the eyes of the people to the antichristian doctrine of penance, to the absurdity of indulgences for sin, to the unwarranted worship of the Virgin Mary, to the monstrous claim of papal infallibility, and to all other glaring usurpations by which the popes have ruled the world. There is not a false doctrine in religion, nor an antichristian form of worship, nor a usurped prerogative of the Pope and clergy, which the unrestrained perusal of the Scriptures does not expose. “Hinc illae lacrymae.” The dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church are not fools. They know that the free circulation of the Scriptures in vulgar tongues does undermine their authority, and will ultimately destroy the edifice of pride and pomp and power which it took a thousand years to build. This is what they ever have consistently opposed and will continue to oppose, as a thing dangerous to them. They would have destroyed, if they could, every copy of the version which Wyclif made. And now, when they can no longer prevent the Bible from being printed, they would exclude it from the schools which they control, and from the houses of those who belong to their Church. Doubtless the well-known opposition to the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular has been exaggerated, but in the fourteenth century it was certainly bitter and furious. Wyclif might expose vices which everybody saw and lamented as a scandal, and make himself obnoxious to those who committed them; but to open the door to free inquiry and a reformed faith and hostility to the Pope,–this was a graver offence, to be visited with the severest penalties. To the storm of indignation thus raised against him Wyclif’s only answer was: “The clergy cry aloud that it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English, and so they would condemn the Holy Ghost, who gave tongues to the Apostles of Christ to speak the Word of God in all languages under heaven.”

Notwithstanding the enormous cost of the Bible as translated by Wyclif,–£2, 16s. 8d., a sum probably equal to thirty pounds, or one hundred and fifty dollars of our present money, more than half the annual income of a substantial yeoman,–still it was copied and circulated with remarkable rapidity. Neither the cost of the valuable manuscript nor the opposition and vigilance of an almost omnipresent inquisition were able to suppress it.

Facsimile of Page from Wyclif Bible

Facsimile of Page from Wyclif Bible

Wyclif was now about fifty-eight years of age. He had rendered a transcendent service to the English nation, and a service that not one of his contemporaries could have performed,–to which only the foremost scholar and theologian of his day was equal. After such a work he might have reposed in his quiet parish in genial rest, conscious that he had opened a new era in the history of his country. But rest was not for him. He now appears as a doctrinal controversialist. Hitherto his attacks had been against the flagrant external evils of the Church, the enormous corruptions that had entered into the institutions which sustained the papal power. “He had been the advocate of the University in defence of her privileges, the champion of the Crown in vindication of its rights and prerogatives, the friend of the people in the preservation of their property…. He now assailed the Romish doctrine of the eucharist,” but without the support of those powerful princes and nobles who had hitherto sustained him. He combats one of the prevailing ideas of the age,–a more difficult and infinitely bolder thing,–which theologians had not dared to assail, and which in after-times was a stumbling-block to Luther himself. In ascending the mysterious mount where clouds gathered around him his old friends began to desert him, for now he assailed the awful and invisible. The Church of the Middle Ages had asserted that the body of Christ was actually present in the consecrated wafer, and few there were who doubted it. Berengar had maintained in the eleventh century that the sacred elements should be regarded as mere symbols; but he was vehemently opposed, with all the terrors of spiritual power, and compelled to abjure the heresy. In the year 1215, at a Lateran, Council, Innocent III. established the doctrine of transubstantiation as one of the fundamental pillars of Catholic belief. Then metaphysics–all the weapons of Scholasticism–were called into the service of superstition to establish what is most mythical in the creed of the Church, and which implied a perpetual miracle, since at the moment of consecration the substance of the bread was taken away and the substance of Christ’s body took its place. From his chair of theology at Oxford, in 1381, Wyclif attacked what Lanfranc and Anselm and the doctors of the Church had uniformly and strenuously defended. His views of the eucharist were substantially those which Archbishop Berengar had advanced three hundred years before, and of course drew down upon him the censure of the Church. In his peril he appealed, not to the Pope or the clergy, but to the King himself,–a measure of renewed audacity, for in those days no layman, however exalted, had authority in matters purely ecclesiastical. His boldness was too much even for the powerful Duke of Lancaster, his friend and patron, who forbade him to speak further on such a matter. He might attack the mendicant and itinerant friars who had forgotten their duties and their vows, but not the great mysteries of the Catholic faith. “When he questioned the priestly power of absolution and the Pope’s authority in purgatory, when he struck at indulgences and special masses, he had on his side the spiritual instincts of the people;” but when he impugned the dignity of the central act of Christian worship and the highest expression of mystical devotion, it appeared to ordinary minds that he was denying all that is sacred, impressive, and authoritative in the sacrament itself,–and he gave offence to many devout minds, who had approved his attacks on the monks and the various corruptions of the Church. Even the Parliament pressed the Archbishop to make an end of such a heresy; and Courtenay, who hated Wyclif, needed not to be urged. So a council was assembled at the Dominican Convent at Blackfriars, where the “Times” office now stands, and unanimously condemned not only the opinions of Wyclif as to the eucharist, but also those in reference to the power of excommunication, and the uselessness of the religious orders. Yet he himself was allowed to escape; and the condemnation had no other effect than to drive him from Oxford to his rectory at Lutterworth, where until his death he occupied himself in literary and controversial writings. His illness soon afterwards prevented him from obeying the summons of the Pope to Rome, where he would doubtless have suffered as a martyr. In 1384 he was struck with paralysis, and died in three days after the attack, at the age of sixty,–though some say in his sixty-fourth year,–probably, in spite of ecclesiastical censure, the most revered man of his day, as well as one of the ablest and most learned. Not from the ranks of fanatics or illiterate popular orators did the Reformation come in any country, but from the greatest scholars and theologians.

This grand old man, the illustrious pioneer of reform in England, and indeed on the Continent, did not live to threescore years and ten, but, being worn out with his exhaustive labors, he died peaceably and unmolested in his retired parish. Not much is known of the details of his personal history, any more than of Shakspeare’s. We know nothing of his loves and hatreds, of his habits and tastes, of his temper and person, of his friends and enemies. He stands out to the eye of posterity in solitary and mysterious loneliness. Tradition speaks of him as a successful, benignant, and charitable parish priest, giving consolation to the afflicted and to the sick. He lived in honor,–professor of theology at Oxford, holding a prebendal stall and a parochial rectory, perhaps a seat in Parliament, and was employed by the Crown as an ambassador to Bruges. He was statesman as well as theologian, and lived among the great,–more as a learned doctor than as a saint, which he was not from the Catholic standpoint. “He was the scourge of imposture, the ponderous hammer which smote the brazen idolatry of his age.” He labored to expose the vices that had taken shelter in the sanctuary of the Church,–a reformer of ecclesiastical abuses rather than of the lax morals of the laity, and hence did different work from that of Savonarola, whose life was spent in a crusade against sin, wherever it was to be found. His labors were great, and his attainments remarkable for his age. He is accused of being coarse in his invectives; but that charge can also be laid to Luther and other reformers in rough and outspoken times. Considering the power of the Pope in the fourteenth century, Wyclif was as bold and courageous as Luther. The weakness of the papacy had not been exposed by the Councils of Pisa, of Constance, and of Basil; nor was popular indignation in view of the sale of indulgences as great in England as when the Dominican Tetzel peddled the papal pardons in Germany. In combating the received ideas of the age, Wyclif was even more remarkable than the Saxon reformer, who was never fully emancipated from the Mediaeval doctrine of transubstantiation; although Luther went beyond Wyclif in the completeness of his reform. Wyclif was beyond his age; Luther was the impersonation of its passions. Wyclif represented universities and learned men; Luther was the oracle of the people. The former was the Mediaeval doctor; the latter was the popular orator and preacher. The one was mild and moderate in his spirit and manners; the other was vehement, dogmatic, and often offensive, not only from his more violent and passionate nature, but for his bitter and ironical sallies. It is the manner more than the matter which offends. Had Wyclif been as satirical and boisterous as Luther was, he would not probably have ended his days in peace, and would not have accomplished so much as a preparation for reforms.

It was the peculiarity of Wyclif to recognize occasional merits in the system he denounced, even when his language was most vehement. He admitted that confession did much good to some persons, although as a universal practice, as enjoined by Innocent III., it was an evil and harmed the Church. In regard to the worship of images, while he denounced the waste of treasure on “dead stocks,” he admitted that images might be used as aids to excite devotion; but if miraculous powers were attributed to them, it was an evil rather than a good. And as to the adoration of the saints, he simply maintained that since gifts can be obtained only through the mediation of Christ, it would be better to pray to him directly rather than through the mediation of saints.

In regard to the Mendicant friars, it does not appear that his vehement opposition to them was based on their vows of poverty or on the spirit which entered into monasticism in its best ages, but because they were untrue to their rule, because they were vendors of pardons, and absolved men of sins which they were ashamed to confess to their own pastors, and especially because they encouraged the belief that a benefaction to a convent would take the place of piety in the heart. It was the abuses of the system, rather than the system itself, which made him so wrathful on the “vagrant friars preaching their catchpenny sermons.” And so of other abuses of the Church: he did not defy the Pope or deny his authority until it was plain that he sought to usurp the prerogatives of kings and secular rulers, and bring both the clergy and laity under his spiritual yoke. It was not as the first and chief of bishops–the head of the visible Church–that Wyclif attacked the Pope, but as a usurper and a tyrant, grasping powers which were not conferred by the early Church, and which did not culminate until Innocent III. had instituted the Mendicant orders, and enforced persecution for religious opinions by the terrors of the Inquisition. The wealth of the Church was a sore evil in his eyes, since it diverted the clergy from their spiritual duties, and was the cause of innumerable scandals, and was closely connected with simony and the accumulation of benefices in the hands of a single priest.

So it was indignation in view of the corruptions of the Church and vehement attacks upon them which characterized Wyclif, rather than efforts to remove their causes, as was the case with Luther. He was not a radical reformer; he only prepared the way for radical reform, by his translation of the Scriptures into a language the people could read, more than by any attacks on the monks or papal usurpations or indulgences for sin. He was the type of a meditative scholar and theologian, thin and worn, without much charm of conversation except to men of rank, or great animal vivacity such as delights the people. Nor was he a religious genius, like Thomas à Kempis, Anselm, and Pascal. He had no remarkable insight into spiritual things; his intellectual and moral nature preponderated over the emotional, so that he was charged with intellectual pride and desire for distinction. Yet no one disputed the blamelessness of his life and the elevation of his character.

If Wyclif escaped the wrath and vengeance of Rome because of his high rank as a theological doctor, his connection with the University of Oxford, opposed to itinerating beggars with great pretensions and greedy ends, and his friendship and intercourse with the rulers of the land, his followers did not. They became very numerous, and were variously called Lollards, Wyclifites, and Biblemen. They kept alive evangelical religion until the time of Cranmer and Latimer, their distinguishing doctrine being that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith. There was no persecution of them of any account during the reign of Richard II.,–although he was a hateful tyrant,–probably owing to the influence of his wife, a Bohemian princess, who read Wyclif’s Bible; but under Henry IV. evil days fell upon them, and persecution was intensified under Henry V. (1413-1422) because of their supposed rebellion. The Lollards under Archbishop Chicheley, as early as 1416, were hunted down and burned as heretics. The severest inquisition was instituted to hunt up those who were even suspected of heresy, and every parish was the scene of cruelties. I need not here enumerate the victims of persecution, continued with remorseless severity during the whole reign of Henry VII. But it was impossible to suppress the opinions of the reformers, or to prevent the circulation of the Scriptures. The blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church. Persecution in this instance was not successful, since there was a noble material in England, as in Germany, for Christianity to work upon. It was in humble homes, among the yeomanry and the artisans, that evangelical truth took the deepest hold, as in primitive times, and produced the fervent Christians of succeeding centuries, such as no other country has produced. In no country was the Reformation, as established by Edward VI. and Elizabeth, so complete and so permanent, unless Scotland and Switzerland be excepted. The glory of this radical reform must be ascribed to the humble and persecuted followers of Wyclif,–who proved themselves martyrs and witnesses, faithful unto death,–more than to any of the great lights which adorned the most brilliant period of English history.


The Works of Wyclif, as edited by F.D. Matthew; The Life and Sufferings of Wicklif, by I. Lewis (Oxford, 1820); Life of Wiclif, by Charles Wehle Le Bas (1846); John de Wycliffe, a Monograph, by Robert Vaughan, D.D. (London, 1853); Turner’s History of England should be compared with Lingard. Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History; Neander’s Church History; Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Biography; Gieseler, Milner, and general historians of the Church; Geikie’s English Reformation. A German Life of Wyclif, by Dr. Lechler, is often quoted by Matthew, and has been fortunately translated into English. There is also a slight notice of Wyclif by Fisher, in his History of the Reformation.

The name of the English reformer is spelled differently by different historians,–as Wiclif, Wyclif, Wycliffe, Wyckliffe; but I have selected the latest authority upon the subject, F.D. Matthew.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages