For many years before the beginning of the Reformation, the Bible was an almost unknown book. Except for the Waldenses, who had for hundreds of years had the Bible in their own tongue, it had been locked up in a language known only to the highly educated. As centuries passed, the darkness appeared to increase in intensity; but by the beginning of the fourteenth century, in many countries there appeared tokens of the coming dawn. Just as in the darkness of the nighttime sky the morning star can be seen, brightly shining, giving promise of the near approach of day, so in fourteenth century England there arose a man who was destined to strike a blow against Rome that would eventually result in the freeing of men, churches and nations. He was the herald of reform, not only for England but for all of Christendom.
Born in 1324 in the parish of Wycliffe, John followed his ancestors in taking as his surname the place of his residence. There is little known of his early life, for history has preserved for us almost nothing of the personal incidents in his life. The services done for his own time and for future generations are the things that have occupied the interest of historians, almost to the exclusion of any personal matters.
At the age of sixteen, Wycliffe was sent to Oxford. A quick mind, a penetrating intellect and a retentive memory allowed him to advance very quickly in the learning of his day. In addition to his other studies, Wycliffe became proficient in both canon and civil laws. This branch of learning was to be especially valuable to him in the coming battle that was soon to arise between the crown of England and the pontiff of Rome.
While in college, Wycliffe’s attention was directed to the Scriptures. In the study of God’s Word he found satisfaction for the great want of his soul. As he studied, the determination arose within him to share the truths he had found. His devotion to truth, however, could not help but bring him into conflict with Rome.
In 1365, Wycliffe was appointed to be head of Canterbury Hall, a new college at that time. Through rivalry, he was later removed from that position by a new archbishop of Canterbury. He appealed to the pope, but in 1370 the case was decided against him. From this point on, his conflict was no longer to be with the primate of England but with the very pontiff of Christendom. However, to properly understand the situation, we need to go back a century in time.
In 1205, Hubert, the primate, or head of the church in England, died. The churchmen, in a secret meeting that very same night and without consulting with the king, elected Reginald as the new archbishop of Canterbury. By the next morning, Reginald was on his way to Rome to receive his confirmation from the pope. When King John learned of what had taken place, he was furious and set about to place the Bishop of Norwich in that position. Then both parties—the king and the churchmen—sent their representatives to Rome to plead their cause.
The man who then reigned as pope was Innocent III. Innocent, who was vigorously pursuing the course laid out by Gregory VII—that of humbling the pride of kings—was working with all the skill and power at his command to make the power of kings subject to the papal see. John had appealed to the pope to arbitrate the case, and in this he had revealed his weakness. The pope was not slow to recognize the advantage and to make the most of it. Innocent annulled both elections and appointed his own nominee, Cardinal Langton to be archbishop.
King John could clearly see the danger of such an encroachment on the royal pregrogative. The see of Canterbury was the highest seat of dignity and jurisdiction in England, excepting only that of the throne itself, and in an age when ecclesiastical authority was even more to be feared than temporal authority, this was a dangerous threatening of the authority of the king and of the national independence. Filled with the bitterness of humiliation, John ordered all of the prelates and abbots out of England and refused to seat the pope’s appointee. Unfortunately, John was one of the weakest of England’s kings, and the pope was not slow to strike back, placing all of England under interdict. Being under interdict meant that the gates of heaven were locked and that no one in England could enter. All who died were condemned to wander as disembodied ghosts in some doleful region, amid unknown sufferings, until it should please the pope to open heaven to them. The church doors were closed and the dead were buried in ditches or open fields, while marriages were performed in church yards.
The king braved this situation for two whole years. Eventually, Innocent pronounced the sentence of excommunication upon him, deposing him from his throne and absolving his subjects from allegiance to him. It was one thing to pronounce the king deposed but quite another to enforce the decree. In order to fully accomplish this, the pope recognized that he needed an army, and looking around him, he determined to secure the assistance of Philip Augustus of France. Promising Philip the kingdom of England as his prize, the pope succeeded in obtaining his help.
When John saw the fearful danger he was in, his resolve left him and he determined to make peace with the pope at any cost. As a part of the bargain, the king agreed that he and all future kings of England should hold England as tenants of the land, on condition of loyalty to Rome. In recognintion of this arrangement, England would make an annual payment of a thousand marks to Rome. Should John or any of his successors default in payment, they would immediately forfeit all right to their dominions, which would immediately revert to Rome. On May 15, 1213, it is said that the king met with the papal legate and placed his crown at the legate’s feet. The haughty legate there upon kicked it around as though it was a worthless object before placing it again on John’s head.
The barons of England were appalled at John’s cowardly stand. Determined not to be slaves of the pope, they unsheathed their swords and vowed to maintain the ancient liberties of England, or die in the attempt. Appearing before the king in April of 1215, they presented him with a charter confirming the rights of England. Though the king stormed and at first refused, on June 15, 1215, John signed the Magna Charta at Runnymede. This, in effect, told Innocent that John revoked his vow of vassalage and took back the kingdom he had laid at the pontiff’s feet.
When the news reached Innocent, he correctly interpreted the significance of what had taken place. He realized that the Magna Charta was a great political protest against, not only himself but his whole system. In it he saw the beginning of an order of political ideas and a class of political rights entirely antagonistic to the fundamental claims of the papacy. He was infuriated and immediately declared the whole transaction null and void.
The bold attitude of the barons saved the independence of England, and though future kings of England came to the throne without taking the oath of loyalty to the pope, they continued, year by year to send the thousand marks which John had agreed to pay. At last, during the reign of Edward II, the annual tribute payment was quietly stopped without protest from Rome.
Nearly thirty-five years passed without any payment being made. Then suddenly and quite unexpectedly, in 1366, Pope Urban V demanded not only the annual tribute but all of the arrears. Urban, however, was not dealing with John but with Edward III. During the hundred years that had passed since the signing of the Magna Charta, England had been increasing in strength and greatness. Not only had she advance as center of learning but she had won some brilliant military victories and was already beginning to be feared and respected by nations of the continent. When the summons from the pope arrived, England hardly knew whether to meet it with indignation or with derision.
While acting as chaplain for the king, the position he now held, Wycliffe showed that the papal assumption of authority over secular rulers was contrary to both reason and revelation.
At this moment the eyes of all of Europe were on England. Should England submit, it would so greatly add to the prestige and power of the papacy as to reduce the whole world to vassalage. “The demands of the pope had excited great indignation, and Wycliffe’s teachings exerted an influence upon the leading minds of the nation. The king and the nobles united in denying the pontiff’s claim to temporal authority and in refusing the payment of the tribute. Thus an effectual blow was struck against the papal supremacy in England.” The Great Controversy, 82
The crisis was a great one, and the decision of England determined that the tide of papal tyranny would, from that point on, recede. Even though it was Edward III and Parliament who issued the decision that struck the blow against papal tyranny, it was Wycliffe who was the real champion in turning the tide of the battle.
The next great battle that Wyclffe was to fight for England was against the monastic orders. The pope had given these monks the power to hear confessions and to grant pardons. In spite of the fact they were sworn to poverty, these friars were constantly playing upon the superstitions of the people to increase their wealth. Wycliffe began to write tracts against these orders. In his writing, he not so much attacked the men as he sought to point the people to Bible truth. His plain speaking, however, soon attracted the attention of Rome, and bulls were dispatched to England demanding immediate measures be taken against the reformer to silence him. Just when it appeared that his enemies would succeed in silencing him, the pontiff of Rome died.
Though only sixty years of age, Wycliffe became seriously ill. The news of his illness brought great joy to the friars and they quickly made their way to his bedside, expecting to hear his recantation. Instead of recanting, the reformer raised himself and said in a strong voice: “I shall not die, but live; and again declare the evil deeds of the friars. Astonished and abashed, the monks hurried from the room.” Ibid., 88
The idea occurred to Wycliffe to give the whole Bible to the people of England so that every man in the realm might read for himself the Word of God. No one had ever thought to do this before, but this was the work Wycliffe now set himself to do. He realized that if he were successful in this endeavor, he would do more to place the liberties of England on a sound foundation than might be accomplished by a hundred brilliant victories.
Wycliffe had but a few years of time left to complete this great work he had set his hand to accomplish. He was a good Latin scholar and he turned to the Vulgate Scriptures for his source from which to translate, a translation which, unfortunately, contained many errors. In spite of the flawed source, Wycliffe’s Bible was remarkable in its effect upon the language, contributing to the formation of the English tongue by way of perfecting and enlarging its vocabulary. Because he wrote largely for the common people, Wycliffe studied to be simple and clear.
Once having completed this greatest of all his accomplishments, Wycliffe had no fear of death. In giving the Bible to England he had kindled a light which could never be put out. The Magna Charta which the barons had wrested from King John would have turned to little account had not Wycliffe given his countrymen the even mightier charter of freedom. “It might take one or it might take five centuries to consummate their emancipation; but with the Bible in their mother-tongue, no power on earth could retain them in thralldom. The doors of the house of their bondage had been flung open.” Wylie, The History of Protestanism, vol. 1, 111
Once the work was completed, though there were no printing presses, the interest in Wycliffe’s work was so great that hundreds of expert hands were ready to assist in multiplying the copies.
When the hierarchy learned what Wycliffe had done, they were greatly perplexed. They had comforted themselves with the thought that Wycliffe had but a short time to live, and once he was gone, they felt certain his work would come to nothing. Though they might successfully silence the reformer, a mightier voice than his was now raised against the errors of Rome. The horrified prelates raised a great cry.
The question was raised as to the right of the people to read the Bible. As the question had never before been raised in England, there were no laws governing its circulation. Though laws were soon enacted to prohibit it being read, the clergy had been caught so completely by surprise that it had an opportunity to become quite widely distributed before its circulation was banned.
It seems that in the life of every reformer there comes a moment when he must stand alone, forsaken by all others, painfully aware of his isolation. Following the release of his Bible, a general clamor was raised against the reformer. “He was accused of being a heretic, a sacrilegious man; he had committed a crime unknown to former ages; he had broken into the temple and stolen the sacred vessels; he had fired the House of God. Such were the terms in which the man was spoken of, who had given to his country the greatest boon England had ever received.” Ibid., 113
It was under Wycliffe that English liberty had its beginning. The English Bible assured England’s greatness. As she began to resist the papacy she began to grow in power and wealth.
Wycliffe expected that his death would be by violence. The primate, the king and the pope were all working to bring about his destruction. However, on the last Sunday of 1384, while he was in the act of consecrating the bread and wine, he was struck with an attack of palsy and fell to the church floor. He was carried to his bed in the rectory where he died on December 31, 1384. That a man who defied the whole hierarchy and who never gave into compromise of any kind, should die in his own bed, was truly a miracle.
“The papists had failed to work their will with Wycliffe during his life, and their hatred could not be satisfied while his body rested quietly in the grave. By the decree of the Council of Constance, more than forty years after his death his bones were exhumed and publicly burned, and the ashes were thrown into a neighboring brook. ‘This brook,’ says an old writer, ‘hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.’—T. Fuller, Church History of Britain, b. 4, sec. 2, par. 54.
Little did his enemies realize the significance of their malicious act.” The Great Controversy, 95, 96
The political measures that Parliament adopted at Wycliffe’s advice in order to guard the country against the usurpations of the popes, reveal how clearly he saw the true purposes of the papacy to devour the wealth and liberty of the nations. Under his wise guidance, England was able to foresee the great evil and took precautions to protect themselves only after it had all but destroyed them.
In his submission to the Bible lay the secret of Wycliffe’s wisdom. He turned the eyes of England from popes and councils to the inspired Word of God. He taught that the Word of God was an all sufficient rule and that every man, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, had a right to interpret it for himself. Thus he taught men to throw off the blind submission to the teachings of men, which is bondage, and to submit their conscience to the Word of God, which alone is liberty.
It was under Wycliffe that English liberty had its beginnings. The real secret of England’s greatness is found in her acceptance of the Bible, very early in her development, and the principles of order and liberty which it brought her. This love for freedom and submission to law are the foundation upon which our political constitution and our national genius was built. It was Wycliffe who laid that foundation.
“Wycliffe was one of the greatest of the reformers. In breadth of intellect, in clearness of thought, in firmness to maintain the truth, and in boldness to defend it, he was equaled by few who came after him. Purity of life, unwearying diligence in study and in labor, incorruptible integrity, and Christlike love and faithfulness in his ministry, characterized the first of the Reformers. And this notwithstanding the intellectual darkness and moral corruption of the age from which he emerged.” Ibid., 93