John Wycliffe wrote much on the evils in the church. One treatise consists of 43 chapters critiquing the clergy.* Wycliffe focused particularly on the fact that the clergy were not caring for souls by preaching, but were guilty in other ways of doing great harm to the souls of men. His criticisms reveal that the situation seemed to be almost as desperate in Wycliffe’s day as in Luther’s times, some 150 years later. A few excerpts are given below.
In the first chapter Wycliffe shows that our Lord and His apostles were devoted to the work of preaching, and were studious that their lives might be commendatory of their doctrine. “Christ ordained all his apostles and disciples, both before his death and after his rising from the dead, to preach the Gospel to all men; and since prelates and priests, ordained of God, come in the stead of apostles and disciples, they are all bound by Jesus Christ, both God and Man, thus to preach the Gospel.” Three things are said to be included in feeding the church after the manner intended by Christ in His injunction to Peter: the examples of a good life, the true preaching of the gospel, and a willingness to suffer death, if need be, to render men stable in the truth, and in the hope of glory.
“Prelates are more bound to preach truly the Gospel, than their subjects are bound to pay them dymes (tithes); for God chargeth that more, and that is more profitable to both parties. Therefore prelates are more accursed if they cease from their preaching, than the people are if they cease to pay tithes, even while prelates do their office well.” Matins, masses, and chantings, are all described as “man’s ordinances,” but the preaching of the gospel is of divine obligation, as having been enjoined by Christ, both before and after His passion.
Wycliffe censures the gay equipage, the profanity, the gluttony, and drunkenness of many among the prelates, and speaks of their establishments, and their general manners, as proclaiming them members of the “devil’s church” rather than of “holy church.” Prelates, he writes, “rob the poor liege men of the king by false excommunications, put forth under colour of holy correction, but giving men leave to dwell in sin from year to year, and from one seven years to another seven years, and commonly all their life long, if they pay by year twenty shillings, or something more or less.”
These prelates charge more their own cursing, that is many times false, than the most rightful curse of God Almighty. And hereby they mean, and show indeed, but falsely, that they are more than Almighty God in Trinity. For if a man be accursed of prelates, though wrongfully, anon all men are taught by them to flee him as a Jew or a Saracen. And if he dwell forty days under their curse, he shall be taken to prison. But they who are cursed of God for breaking his commandments, as proud men, envious, covetous, gluttons, the unchaste, are not punished thus, but holden virtuous and manly. So God’s curse is set at nought, while the wrongful curse of man is charged above the clouds. And yet, though a man be accursed of God, and of a prelate also, if he will give gold he shall be assoiled, though he dwell in his sin, and so under God’s curse.”
The thirteenth chapter exposes the frauds practiced in the matter of indulgences. Prelates are said to “destroy foully Christian men by these feigned indulgences or pardons.” Such men are described as holding out this promise of indulgence as procured “by virtue of Christ’s passion and martyrdom, and holy merits of saints, which they did more than was needful for their own bliss.” But this doctrine, it is replied, “Christ taught never in all the Gospel, and never used it, neither Peter nor Paul.”
The whole system of indulgences and pardon is denounced as “a subtle merchandise of Antichrist’s clerks, to magnify their counterfeit power, and to get worldly goods, and to cause men not to dread sin…. Marvellous it is that any sinful fool dare grant anything on the merit of saints, for all that ever any saint did may not bring a soul to heaven without the grace and might of Christ’s passion.” In that passion, it is maintained, “all merits that are needful” will be found, and the judgment of God hereafter will not be found to have been influenced by the caprice or the biddings of man. Wycliffe concludes this instructive chapter by praying that God would of his endless mercy “destroy the pride, covetousness, hypocrisy, and heresy of this feigned pardoning, and make men busy to keep his commandments, and to set fully their trust in Jesus Christ.”
From prelates at home, Wycliffe proceeds to touch on the pretensions of the great prelate abroad. “Also prelates make many new points of belief, and say it is not enough to believe in Jesus Christ, and to be christened, as Christ saith in the Gospel of Mark, unless a man also believe that the bishop of Rome is head of holy church. And certainly the apostles of Jesus Christ never constrained any man to believe thus concerning himself. And yet they were certain of their salvation in heaven. How then should any sinful wretch, who knows not whether he shall be damned or saved, constrain men to believe that he is head of holy church. Certainly, in such case, they must sometimes constrain men to believe that a devil of hell is head of holy church, when the bishop of Rome shall be a man damned for his sins.”
Masses, pardons, and pilgrimages, all are described as “novelties,” the effect of which is “to make people believe that if a priest say a certain mass for a soul, it shall anon be out of purgatory, though God in his righteousness ordain that soul to abide there forty years or more, and though the priest himself be accursed for simony and pride, for, as they falsely pretend, the mass may not be impaired by the priest’s sin…. Prelates blaspheme against God, the Father of heaven, by taking to themselves the power of absolving sins, and the full remission of them. For they take on them principally to absolve, and make the people to believe so, when they have only absolved as vicars, or messengers, to witness for the people that God absolveth—unless the sinner is contrite, that is, fully have sorrow for his sin.”
The treatise concludes thus—”In these three and forty errors and heresies, men may see how evil prelates destroy Christendom—for of them and no other is this speech—and how they are the cause of wars, and of evil life in the people, and of their damnation. God of his might and mercy amend these errors, and others, if it be his will!”
* “De Conversatione Ecclesiasticum,” in Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, D.D. (London: The Wycliffe Socity, 1845), pp. 13-22.