Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The great Protestant Reformation of the 16th century did not burst upon Europe as something entirely new and without preparation. The work of God through Luther and Calvin was built upon the work of God in men who preceded them and paved the way. Two such men were John Wycliffe in England and John Huss in Bohemia.
On December 31, the last day of 1991, the church commemorates the 607th anniversary of the death of John Wycliffe. It is fitting that we devote this article to him.
England was a difficult place to live in the years of Wycliffe’s life. Although a great deal of, emphasis was placed on education, and the road to success was through the colleges, very few had the means to go to college, and the lot of the peasant was difficult and spiritually empty. One description is graphic:
The peasant could not expect any preaching from the resident priest, but he would get it from the preaching friar, and from the traveling pardoner, with his wallet “bret full of pardons, come from Rome all hot.” Besides these religious roundsmen there were others who would travel through the winding, muddy roads and green lanes of England: minstrels, tumblers, jugglers, beggars and charlatans of every kind, living off the poor peasants. The peasant knew something of the sayings of Christ and Bible stories, but they were so embellished by the friar’s sensational and entertaining sermons that he would not know truth from error. He never saw a Bible in English, and if he could have seen one he would not have been able to read it.1
Nor were the times peaceful and quiet. They were unusually turbulent. During Wycliffe’s short lifetime the black death struck Europe and England and carried away one third of the population. Also during his lifetime the Peasant’s War left parts of England devastated and brought about major economic upheaval. In the church as well confusion and unrest reigned. It was the time when the papacy was not in Rome, the eternal city, but in Avignon under the control of the French. And, although during Wycliffe’s days the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church2 came to an end, the end was the papal schism during which there were two popes, and sometimes three, bellowing away at each other like mad bulls and hurling back and forth anathemas and excommunications.
Very little is known of Wycliffe’s early life – not even the date of his birth. Some argue for 1324; others for 1330. He was born near West Riding in Yorkshire in a small village called fl Wycliffe,” which would seem to indicate that his parents were lords of the manor in the area, wealthy and respectable. Little more is known of them, other than the possibility that they totally repudiated their son when he began to teach biblical ideas.
At about 15 or 16 he went off to Oxford to study. The years of study were long and difficult: one who went through the entire program could not expect to complete his studies until 33 years of age under ordinary circumstances. Wycliffe spent much of his life in Oxford: he gained his BA in 1356, his BD in 1369, and his DD in 1372 – although his studies were interrupted for two years by official business. Not even much is known about these years. He was probably in Merton College; was master of Balliol College from 1359-1360; and had some dealings with Christ’s College.
Oxford was composed at this time of six colleges. It had about 75 members, all of whom were of the clergy, and it served about 1,500 undergraduates. It was surrounded by priories and halls which were full of monks and friars and were a constant source of irritation to the members of the university. It was the best university in all of Europe, surpassing even the great universities of France.
In 1361 Wycliffe became rector in the church of Fillingham, in Lincolnshire, which meant technically that he was its pastor, but which meant in fact (as was the custom in those days) that he received the income from that parish while he could continue his studies and work in Oxford. This did not mean that he totally neglected his parish, for he preached there from time to time; and it did make him an ordained minister in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1368 he was transferred to Lutterworth, a parish in which he spent the last years of his life.
Oxford was, however, the seat of his labors. During his studies, and for years after he had completed them, he was a teacher at Oxford. Much of his reformatory work was done within those halls. He was always and preeminently a professor and not, in the first place, a preacher.
The friars who lived on Oxford’s premises, and who caused the university untold grief, were to become the first objects of Wycliffe’s anger. He wrote a book, Objections to the Friars, which really sounded the trumpet blast of reform.
But the crucial issues came up in Wycliffe’s life in connection with political problems. And, as is so often true of the affairs of men and nations, the bottom line was money. The trouble was that much of England’s wealth was flowing out of the country and to the papacy. While this had been more or less true from the time that England had come under Roman Catholic control, it was most emphatically true after King John delivered England to the pope as the pope’s kingdom and had received it back as a papal fief more than 200 years earlier. This was humiliating and intolerable to good Englishmen. The charge levied by the pope was 1,000 marks a year-an almost impossible burden. But money moved out of England in other ways: ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidder, with the money going to the pope. Many offices in England were held by foreigners who never saw the land in which they held office. Some of those officers were nothing but children, but they reaped the income of the offices – after the pope had been paid off. The pope often moved bishops from one see to another and received one year’s salary as his part of the transaction. Much money for the forgiveness of sins was funneled out of England to the papal coffers. In fact the pope received five times more money than the king. To add insult to injury, the money was going to a French pope and eventually found its way into French hands; and France was at war with England. England was thus supporting its enemy in the wars.
So intolerable did this become that Parliament passed a Bill of Indictment against the pope which read in part:
God bath given his sheep to the Pope to be pastored and not shorn and shaven . . . therefore it would be good to renew all the statutes against provisions from Rome . . . . No papal collector should remain in England upon pain of life and limb, and no Englishman, on the like pain, should become such collector or remain at the court of Rome?
Into this issue Wycliffe was thrust. He not only became involved in the problem as a writer of pamphlets and treatises, but he also served on a committee of the king to meet in Bruges of The Netherlands with papal representatives to arbitrate, if possible, the issues. With patriotic zeal, he defended the rights of England against the papacy.
It was in Bruges that two important things took place which were to have influence on Wycliffe’s later life. The first was the fact that, in dealing with papal representatives, he learned that they were a treacherous and deceitful lot and that they represented a papacy which was wholly secular, covetous, immoral, corrupt, and a tool of French kings. He so completely lost his confidence in the papacy and hierarchy of the church that he had nothing but contempt and scorn for it from that day on.
The second event of importance was that he met the Duke of Gaunt, who was in Bruges for other business, and who was probably the most powerful man in England after the king. The two became friends – and it was due only to the friendship of the Duke of Gaunt that Wycliffe was not killed by the Romish Church.
Wycliffe’s defense of England’s rights to keep its revenues within its own borders was courageous and bold. The deeper he entered into this defense, the more clearly he wrote against the corruptions of the Romish hierarchy. He was the first to call the pope Antichrist – a name later echoed by the Westminster divines and incorporated into the Westminster Confession. He denied the pope supreme power in the church, denied the temporal rule of the pope in the nations, denied the power of the pope to forgive sins, and, in fact, denied that anyone but a godly pope had any authority whatsoever. An old chronicler speaks of Wycliffe as running about from place to place barking against the church. The pope, in Wycliffe’s own words, was “the antichrist, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and cut-purses.”
It is no wonder that the church did not take too kindly to all this. From the pope on down, notice was taken of Wycliffe, and the orders went out from the highest levels of ecclesiastical hierarchy to silence the blasphemer.
The first effort made to silence him was a summons from the Archbishop of Canterbury to appear before this highest ecclesiastic in England for trial. It was an interesting meeting. The Duke of Gaunt was there with some of his soldiers, as well as a large number of people from the monied classes, many of whom supported Wycliffe. Before the Archbishop could get on with any kind of a trial, he got involved in a heated discussion with the Duke over the question of whether Wycliffe should sit down -the Archbishop insisting he ought to stand as a measure of respect; the Duke insisting he should sit down since the Archbishop did not really amount to that much. The whole meeting ended in a brawl and nothing could be done against Wycliffe. This was on February 19, 1377.
In April of 1378 Wycliffe was once again summoned to the courts of the church, but this time to an assembly of bishops. The bishops were almost sure that this time they would succeed in sentencing Wycliffe to the stake and be rid, once and for all, of his critical writings and preaching which were such an embarrassment to the church. But this effort also proved unsuccessful, for not only did Wycliffe enjoy the favor of the people, but the queen mother sent word to the bishops that, although they could try Wycliffe as much as they pleased, they had better not condemn him, on peril of their lives. This so filled them with fear and consternation that they immediately disbanded the meeting. God used strange ways and strange people to protect His servant.
1. David Fountain, John Wycliffe: The Dawn of the Reformation (Southampton: Mayflower Christian Books, 1984), p. 4. This and another book by Douglas C. Wood, The Evangelical Doctor (Weylands: Evangelical Press, 1984) are excellent biographies.
2. It was so called because the papacy was in Avignon seventy years.
3. Quoted from Fountain, p. 26.