Wycliffe at Lutterworth

Wycliffe's Lasting Contribution

The next great battle that Wycliffe 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.” D’Aubigné, The Reformation in England, vol. 1, 88

There was at this time, no Bible in the English language, and although no one had ever thought about it before, upon his recovery Wycliffe set himself to address this ignorance of God’s Word. 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 knew nothing of Greek or Hebrew, but he was a good Latin scholar and he now turned to the Vulgate Scriptures for his source from which to translate. Because he wrote largely for the common people, Wycliffe studied to be simple and clear, and in spite of the flawed source, his 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.

Wycliffe giving his translation of the Bible

Some among the begging friars were converted to the gospel truth and these Wycliffe sent out as missionaries. The “poor priests” as they were called, were not content to merely dispute against the errors of Rome: they went everywhere preaching the great mystery of godliness.

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.

Printing had not yet been invented but hundreds of expert hands were ready to assist in multiplying the copies of the completed work. 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, questioning the right of the common people to read the Bible. As the question had never before been raised in England, there were no laws governing its circulation.

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 by the priests and their followers. 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.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 2, chap. 10

Wycliffe and the monks

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 hatred which the churchmen had been unable to satisfy during Wycliffe's lifetime, they sought to satisfy after his death. Unwilling for his body rest 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.

The political measures that Parliament adopted at Wycliffe's advice in order to guard the country against the assumption of power over it by 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 foresee the great evil and took precautions to protect itself, while other countries began 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, in which is found the true source of the greatness to which England arose. Her 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.

After the death of Wycliffe, his followers traveled from one end of England to the other, spreading the gospel. Townspeople crowded around preachers of truth, and many of the nobility accepted the new teaching; some even of the royal family believed. For a time it appeared that England would accept the reformed faith.

The favorable reception with which the gospel was received encouraged Wycliffe’s followers to advance even further. Placards aimed at the priests and friars, and the abuses they defended, were placed on the walls of some of the cathedrals. In 1395, the friends of the gospel petitioned Parliament for general reforms. Then, not fully understanding the true nature of government and the truth which they were teaching, they asked Parliament to abolish celibacy and various other errors of Rome. Emboldened by early successes and the absence of the king in Ireland, they fastened their Twelve Conclusions on the gate of St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey.

When Arundel, archbishop of York, and Baybrooke, bishop of London, had read these propositions, they quickly found their way to the king and urged him to return. On his return to London, he forbade the Parliament to take up the propositions the Wycliffites had petitioned them to consider. He then summoned before him the most influential supporters of the reformed movement and threatened them with death if they persisted in defending their opinions.

Richard had scarcely withdrawn his hand from the gospel when, as the historian says, God withdrew his hand from Richard. (See D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, book 17, chap. 9) His cousin, Henry of Hertford, son of the famous Duke of Lancaster, who had been banished from England, suddenly returned from the Continent. Having gathered all the malcontents in England around him, he was acknowledged as king. Unhappy, Richard was deposed and confined to Pontefract castle where he soon died.

Sadly, Henry chose to become the protector of the church, exercising his power and influence to conciliate the clergy. Under his reign, in the beginning of the fifteenth century, England’s first martyrs were burned at the stake in Smithfield.

England was to pass through more years of suffering before the gospel truth would shine forth in the soft light of tolerance. For the next few years, the humble followers of Wycliffe suffered severe persecution.

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