John Wycliffe was born in the village of Hipswell, Yorkshire in 1324 and little is known of his early childhood and adolescence. He was sent to Oxford at the age of 16 where he became a scholar and later a fellow of Merton College. While at Merton Wycliffe was influenced by Bradwardine, one of the pioneering mathematicians and astronomers of his day, who had studied the word of God and had wholeheartedly embraced the truths of the Gospel. Bradwardine began to share these truths with his students and his views on biblical truth greatly influenced the young Wycliffe.
Wycliffe had a razor-sharp mind and retentive memory and he soon began to rise through the ranks at Merton and to distinguish himself as an able scholar. He was deeply interested in Philosophy and soon became a master of scholastic philosophy, able to take on and argue even the most subtly complex concepts and ideas. He also pursued the study of ecclesiastical and civil law, exploring not only the various laws that governed the church but also the Constitution and laws that governed England during the late middle ages as well.
Through the agency of Bradwardine’s instruction, Wycliffe came to learn about the truths of righteousness by faith and these truths began to capture his attention in a more magnetic way than the writings of Plato or Aristotle ever could.
When Wycliffe was 25 years old the plague swept through England like a flood, carrying with it swarms of men, women, children, and animals. The corpses of men and animals lay piling up in graveyards and fields and the economy began to groan under the weight of so much loss and devastation. The effects of the plague deeply touched Wycliffe and he turned to the Scriptures searching for answers not as a scholar searching for intellectual stimulation but as a lost sinner exposed to the stench of death on every hand, seeking for hope and assurance beyond the grave. What he found as he searched the scriptures was not only the blessed assurance of hope in Jesus but also the truth that was able to satisfy every other longing of his soul and it was this time of wrestling with God’s word that prepared Wycliffe for the work that was ahead of him. Wycliffe spent 20 years at Merton College, first as a scholar and then as a fellow and in 1360 was appointed as Master of Balliol College in Oxford. Having earned a Bachelor’s degree in Theology he was now offered the privilege of lecturing on the Bible at the University and this work he took up with great enthusiasm. As he studied the Word of God in preparation for his lectures he became extremely well versed in the Biblical truth, further preparing him for the work of reformation that lay before him.
A hundred years before the birth of Wycliffe, England, under the rule of King John had pledged to submit to the Papacy in ecclesiastical matters and to pay a levy of 1000 marks to the Pope. This payment had lapsed for a period of 35 years before Pope Urban V demanded that England resumes its payment in 1365. The Pope intimated that not only should the annual tribute be resumed but all arrears be paid as well and should King Edward III of England refuse to do this he would be summoned to appear before the Pope to answer for stubborn disobedience to the Papacy. England was stung by the insult to her sovereignty and Urban V’s demand proved to be the final straw in a long line of Papal abuses that England had chafed under for a considerable period of time. Edward convened his parliament in 1366 and after reading to them the Pope’s letter of demand asked them to formulate a formal response on behalf of the nation. After taking a day to deliberate over the matter the Parliament unanimously decided that they would not submit themselves to the authority of the Pope and would not pay him the tribute he so arrogantly demanded.
The decision of the Parliament was greatly influenced by the teachings of Wycliffe from his Chair in Oxford. He had taught many of the Barons who were members of Parliament and his views regarding the authority of Scripture and the fallibility of the Pope were implanted in the minds of these men and thus had a telling influence on the decision they made to resist the authoritarian advances of Rome. Wycliffe’s voice was one of the loudest to be raised against the overreaching of Papal power and the abuse of ecclesiastical authority in presuming to reach into the affairs of the state. He made it clear that the Pope had no business meddling in the affairs of the English nation, nor did he have any business to demand the submission of the Monarch or people of that realm.
The second issue he championed was that of denouncing the lifestyle and practices of the monks. England was already weighted down with economic turmoil in the wake of the Hundred Years War and the plague and the Roman Friars added to this burden by their avaricious lifestyle. The monks didn’t engage in any form of useful labor but instead went from house to house begging to sustain themselves. The people they visited were obliged to give generously or risk eternal damnation as a result of the friars refusing to pardon their sins or to grant them indulgences. One of the worst curses to blight England and Europe at large was the fact that the people relied upon the Papacy and, by extension the clergy, to interpret the Bible for them and, as a result, were steeped in superstition and error, thus enabling the friars to auction off salvation to the highest bidder. Wycliffe struck at the root of this tyranny denouncing the entire system as false and unbiblical. Thousands began to feel the warm rays of truth shining in their minds and winding tendrils of hope around the despair that had chilled their hearts. The dawn of the revolution was almost upon them.
All of this activity did not fail to elicit a response from Rome and the Pope dispatched a Papal bull to investigate the writings of John Wycliffe. However, due to his high standing at Oxford and his general popularity among the people, the bull was never put into effect and was forgotten by the Papacy, which was embroiled in what would later be known as the Papal Schism.
Wycliffe’s strength was in preaching and teaching and he trained men known as Lollards who went throughout Europe preaching the gospel. Perhaps the most significant thing Wycliffe accomplished was translating the Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into the vernacular of the people. To put the revolutionary nature of this into perspective it’s important to understand that during this time the reading of the scriptures in the language of the common people was considered dangerous and forbidden and in giving the Bible to the people in their own language Wycliffe began a movement in England that would culminate in the revolution that was the Reformation.
Wycliffe fully expected to die a martyr’s death. “Why do you talk of seeking the crown of martyrdom afar?” he said. “Preach the gospel of Christ to haughty prelates, and martyrdom will not fail you. What! Should I live and be silent? … Never! Let the blow fall, I await its coming.” But despite his waiting, the blow never fell and he died peacefully in his parish at Lutterworth.
The papacy, however, was out for blood and they would extract it, even if it meant prying it from his lifeless corpse. They had been too busy dealing with the embarrassment of the Papal Schism while Wycliffe was alive to offer him a decent Martyrdom but at the Council of Constance, convened in 1415 for the purpose of resolving the Schism, the heresy of John Wycliffe was at the top of the agenda. It was decreed that his bones be exhumed, cursed, relegated to the farthest parts of Hell and then burnt to ashes. The unhappy task fell to the Bishop of Lincoln who happened to be a former friend of Wycliffe’s. The good bishop procrastinated until he was removed from his office in 1420 and his successor, possibly equally fond of Wycliffe, procrastinated a further 8 years by which time the Papacy had had enough and under duress prevailed upon the new Bishop of Lincoln to finally get around to the task. Wycliffe’s bones were duly exhumed, cursed, burned and then scattered in the nearby Swift River which in turn flowed into the Avon River.
No amount of Papal anathema could stop the spread of the work begun by Wycliffe and even in death his remains, scattered on the waters of a relatively obscure river in England, were a testimony to this fact. Huss and Jerome were influenced by his writings and later Luther would come on the stage of action to carry forward the torch he had lit. Wycliffe’s work encompassed a broad spectrum of issues ranging from the abuse of power by the Papacy, its blasphemous and false claim to infallibility and the hypocritical, greed and power mongering of its monastic system but the most significant thing that Wycliffe championed was that of the right and privilege of every man to read and understand the word of God individually. This was the foundation upon which the entire Reformation was built and this is the foundation upon which we are to build our own personal spiritual revolution day by day.