“The Bible Translator”
Forasmuch as the Bible contains Christ, that is all that is necessary for salvation; it is necessary for all men, not for priests alone. It alone is the supreme law that is to rule church, state, and Christian life, without human traditions and statutes.
John Wycliffe has been referred to as the “morning star” of the Great Reformation. He paved the way for the next generation of reformers, such as Hus, Luther, and Calvin, to challenge the oppressive hold that the exploitative and dictatorial Roman Catholic Church held over Europe’s governments and their people. Wycliffe was among the first Oxford scholars and highly respected catholic priests to challenge the supreme rule of the papacy, and the abuses of its unbiblical religious practices. He was called the “most learned man of his generation in England,” and as such, church authorities had a difficult time answering his well-articulated and biblically sound charges.
Wycliffe was so successful at stating his case; he caused a rumbling among thinkers and lay people everywhere that was to grow in intensity long after he left this world. He managed to cause such confusion within the Church itself that for a large part of his career as a theologian, writer, and eventually a Bible translator, he went unnoticed as the Church occupied herself with her own internal disputes over power. Meanwhile, a movement was ignited that began to question the universal authority of the church over all areas of public and private life. Most importantly, however, the seed was planted in the minds of both educated clergy and common men that the Bible could, and should, be read by all people in their own language.
The Making of a Groundbreaker
John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330. Little is known about his childhood or young adult years until the time he entered Balliol College at Oxford in 1360. It is widely accepted that he left for college as most young men of his day at the age of sixteen. He entered the priesthood and spent his formative years as a cleric there at Oxford, first as a student, then the dean, and finally a highly acclaimed professor. He also held the position of rector, or head of the local parish, where he was charged with overseeing governance of the Catholic Church in the area.
The Black Plague swept through England from 1349 until 1353, taking nearly half her population with it. It was in the chaos and despair of these dark times that Wycliffe turned to the Bible. Because the Bible could only be read in Latin, he was among the few of his time who had the desire and ability to study it. Even the Catholic priests of his day were ignorant of Holy Scripture, but Wycliffe had a hunger for the Word of God and a heart ready to receive it. His profound knowledge of the Bible provided the foundation for all he set out to accomplish.
Wycliffe relished life as both a student and a teacher. In 1369 he obtained his bachelor of divinity and by 1371, he was recognized as the age’s leading theologian and philosopher at Oxford, Europe’s most prestigious university. In 1372, Wycliffe received his doctorate celebrating sixteen years of intensive study and research.
The Line in the Sand
In 1374, Wycliffe began making a name for himself as a provocative thinker and individualist. At a time when the Church was at odds with Europe’s aristocracies, Wycliffe took a stand in opposition to the pope’s control of civil and social affairs. He believed there was a legitimate need for a secular power to govern the affairs of each nation and that the sole concern of the Church should be the spiritual needs of humanity. Wycliffe boldly declared that in owning land and living in excessive wealth at the expense of the people, the Church had become secular and of no use to anyone. Based on his years of biblical study, he unreservedly proclaimed that the separation of church and state was indeed God’s will.
He soon became aligned with King Edward III, who was quick to recruit this highly acclaimed academician and respected Catholic priest. It was under his protection that Wycliffe remained unharmed as he openly attacked the papacy. Acting as the clerical advisor to King Edward’s second son, John of Gaunt, Wycliffe continued to forge a bond with heads of state and Oxford’s academia that protected him from the onslaught of papal rebuke that he would sustain for the remainder of his life.
Points of Contention
In 1336, Wycliffe began writing his famous tracts. Little by little he exposed the excesses of the Catholic Church and it wasn’t long before Rome was enraged. He felt the first of the pope’s wrath in 1337, when he was summoned to London to answer charges of heresy. Wycliffe went under the escort of John of Gaunt and the mayhem that ensued was more the result of the already hostile relations between landed noblemen and proud Londoners in support of its clergy. A riot arose between the sides and John of Gaunt barely escaped with his life. Wycliffe was well on his way back to Oxford before the unrest had settled days later.
When Rome had heard what a disaster the trial turned out to be, Pope Gregory XI determined to take the matter into his own hands. He issued five bulls—or official documents from the pope—that cited eighteen errors from Wycliffe’s tract, On Civil Dominion. Copies were sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Oxford, and the King. The bulls also ordered the government to turn Wycliffe over the church authority in London, but the bulls went largely ignored by all parties.
The court in London persisted in summoning Wycliffe to address the charges. Wycliffe accepted the challenge and, before a large crowd of priests, bishops and other church representatives, Wycliffe stated his position: “I deny that the Pope has any right to political dominion: that he has any perpetual civil dominion: that he can qualify or disqualify simply by his bulls.” He rendered the court dumbfounded. But the shouts of outrage never indicted Wycliffe—Joan of Kent, the Queen Mother, sent a message forbidding them to pass sentence. Miraculously, Wycliffe was not defrocked or excommunicated and was allowed to leave without penalty.
The First Evangelicals
The next revolutionary move by Wycliffe was to organize a group of men; some ordained priests and others laymen, to roam the countryside teaching truths from Word of God. They lived simply, dressed humbly and did not seek to profit from their goal of making the Bible known and bringing hope and comfort to rural villagers. These “evangelical men,” or “apostolic men” as Wycliffe referred to them, went throughout England denouncing the abuses of the Catholic Church and teaching sound biblical doctrine in the common language of the people.
Wycliffe wrote sermons for these first evangelists to preach and tracts for them to distribute. This type of outreach was unheard of in the fourteenth century, but Wycliffe was desperate to get the truth of God’s Word into the hearts of the people. The result of this innovative “grassroots” evangelism was that the soil of men’s hearts was being tilled to receive the seeds about to be planted by the approaching ranks of reformers.
A New Frontier
In March of 1378, Wycliffe released a booklet entitled On the Truth of Holy Scripture that sent the Catholic hierarchy reeling with anger. From this one foundation—that the Scriptures alone contain the truth for the Christian lifestyle and doctrines—Wycliffe began to skillfully dissect the various heresies and hypocrisies that had flourished in the Catholic Church. This one booklet contained thirty-two chapters upholding the truth of the Scriptures against the lies of the papacy.
It wasn’t until 1380, that Oxford was finally forced to take a stand against Wycliffe. In an effort to silence Wycliffe’s supporters there, the chancellor threatened to suspend or imprison, or worse, excommunicate, anyone who taught or defended Wycliffe’s views. Wycliffe appealed to the King to overturn the chancellor’s decision but the request went ignored. Even John of Gaunt rushed to persuade him to obey the chancellor, but Wycliffe refused and spent the next year writing a Confession that defended his condemned opinions.
The Force of Destiny
At fifty-one years old, Wycliffe was forced to leave his beloved Oxford. Although moving away to a quiet residence in a small village must have been a huge emotional adjustment, the next and final three years of Wycliffe’s life proved tremendously eventful. As he sought the Lord for direction, he became inspired; he realized that from the obscurity and peace of his current situation he would launch out on his greatest contribution to Christianity—the translation of the Bible from Latin into common English.
Wycliffe was not alone in his new endeavor. Two of his most trusted supporters and companions remained by his side and with their help, he set out on this daunting task. John Purvey was his loyal personal secretary and constant attendant until his final days. Wycliffe dictated much of his prolific writing to Purvey because he foresaw early on that he would be the one to carry on his work. Another loyal supporter, Nicholas Hereford, was among Wycliffe’s most educated colleagues. Together, Purvey and Hereford tirelessly worked with Wycliffe to translate the entire Bible—Wycliffe focused on the New Testament, while Purvey and Hereford directed their attention to the Old Testament under the constant supervision of Wycliffe.
Wycliffe saw the completion of the first edition of the English Bible before he died; however, Purvey spearheaded a revision that when completed he appropriately entitled, The Wycliffe Bible. The King James Version of the Bible we have today is largely identical to the original Wycliffe translation.
The Heat of Battle
The tension between the Church of Rome and the British Crown began to intensify in the early 1380s. The Catholic Church stepped up its persecution of all those who opposed its methods, largely as a result of the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and the swelling ranks of Lollards (a word that means “mumblers”), who were classified as any group that opposed the Church. A council was convened to formally condemn Wycliffe’s writings which were believed to have fueled the widespread unrest. When the proceedings ended on May 21, 1382, the council did not officially condemn Wycliffe personally, but pronounced his writings heretical.
Shortly thereafter, in an attempt to silence Wycliffe’s supporters, it was decreed that any now called “poor preachers” caught preaching were to be arrested. Sentence was also passed that all of Wycliffe’s teachings and tracts—anything he had written or edited—were to be seized and destroyed. Any student at Oxford or any cleric found sympathizing with Wycliffe would be expelled and excommunicated.
Meanwhile, during this same year, King Richard II married Anne of Bohemia. This opened the door for Bohemian students to study at Oxford and many of these secretly agreed with Wycliffe’s writings. One of the most famous was Jerome of Prague who brought Wycliffe’s writings back to Bohemia where they fell into the hands of John Hus, who would take the baton and usher the world into the Great Reformation.
The Final Days
Wycliffe’s epilogue came in the form of his most famous document to be published called Trialogue—a discussion between Truth, Falsehood, and Wisdom—and touched on all the subjects that Wycliffe had previously dealt with at length. It was his first writing to be printed, although not until one hundred and forty years after his death in 1525. It is credited for being the one original writing that linked Wycliffe to the Reformers in the sixteenth century.
Amid writing this final chapter, Wycliffe suffered the first of two strokes in 1382, which left him partially paralyzed. His second stroke came late in December 1384 while he was listening to Mass. This stroke left him completely paralyzed and unable to speak. Three days later, on December 31, John Wycliffe went home to be with the Lord.
“John Wycliffe and the 600th Anniversary of Translation of the Bible into English,” Christian History Magazine 2, no. 2, issue 3 (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1983): 26
“Wyclif, John,” The Encyclopedia of Religion 15, (New York, N.Y.: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1987): 488.
Christian History Magazine, 11
K.B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (London, England: English Universities Press, Ltd., 1952): 117.