Rev. Langerak is pastor of the Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The year 1400 was a bad time to be a Lollard. For many English people, the dawning of the new century renewed hope. But for the Lollards the situation looked ominous. Lollards were disciples of John Wycliffe. Using itinerant preachers armed with newly translated Bibles and teaching in the mother-tongue, they spread Wycliffe’s views throughout England, from fish-mongers and farmers in remote hamlets to noblemen and aristocrats in castles. For almost 20 years after his death, they were relatively unmolested by the Catholic Church and civil authorities. But in 1400, that was all about to change. Soon they would be driven into hiding, be stripped of property, arrested, tortured, and even killed.

The Lollards were one legacy of John Wycliffe. His views were another. Along with his condemnation of certain Roman Catholic dogmas and practices, the lasting legacy of Wycliffe would be his reclamation of certain doctrines from Scripture, especially that the church was the body of the elect, Scripture was the sole rule of life for the church, and preaching Scripture was the primary means by which God saves and sanctifies sinners. This legacy would continue through his writings, through assimilation into the sixteenth century Reformation, and, for almost 50 years after his death, through the Lollards. But the legacy of the Lollards themselves would be brief; as an influential means of church reformation and evangelizing, the Lollard movement would soon be dead.

Many Lollards would be martyred for their faith. The first to go was a former priest, Mr. W. Sawtree, who was executed in March, 1401. In January of that year, Parliament introduced the first English legislation authorizing the burning of heretics, De Haeretico Comburendo. Sawtree was burned eight days before the bill was even passed.¹ Following him in Lollard martyrdom would be the first common laborer, tailor John Badby, in 1409; the first mass martyrdom, when 38 Lollards worshiping together were killed; and increasingly gruesome executions, such as that of Lollard patron, Sir John Oldcastle, who in 1417 was suspended over flames on his back by chains fastened to iron hoops around his neck, waist, and thighs.²

As would happen repeatedly in English history, the whole gory business started with the coronation of a new king. In 1399, Henry IV seized the throne from Richard II while the latter was on a campaign in Ireland. Richard II had previously entertained notions of suppressing the Lollards, but had declined to interfere due to political factors, including growing anti-Catholic sentiments over papal claims upon English sovereignty, which after the Great Schism of 1378 were particularly egregious because the new Avignon Papacy was located in France, England’s perennial enemy. Without enforcement by the civil authorities, the church prior to 1399 could do little more than rant against the Lollards and Wycliffe.

The rise of Henry IV to power signaled the end of the Lollard movement. Forced to consolidate political power, he allied himself with the church, which subsequently demanded he squash the growing movement—at the time estimated to be 10-50% of the population.³ He conceded to practically every demand for Lollard’s extermination, as would his son, Henry V. The church also got busy. In an effort to stop the spread of Lollardism, it issued the Arundel Constitutions in 1408. This draconian measure prohibited the translation of the Bible into English, preaching in English, and the use of English Bibles.4 In 1414-18, the Council of Constance also ended the Great Papal Schism, which meant the church could devote more energy to the Lollards, and eliminated one reason for English political opposition.

In a few more decades it would all be over for the Lollards. After Oldcastle’s execution in 1417, the movement was basically limited to the poor and lower classes. Few nobles or aristocrats would publicly support them. Fewer disciples were gained, because their preachers could no longer travel openly, and small house conventicles replaced mass street preaching. Many who had joined the cause for political or social reasons recanted. 5 Others fled the country. By 1434 the Lollards had vanished from the public square. Except for a brief resurgence in the 1450s and the existence of small underground groups, the movement was dead. Whatever scattered life remained would simply be absorbed by the coming Reformation.

No one knows for sure how the Lollards got their name or even what it meant.6 It is likely that the term was meant to be derisive. Some say it was from a Germanic word meaning “mumblers” and referred to their preaching. Others say it referred to the itinerate nature of their preachers, who would “loll” or wander about. The church claimed it came from the Latin, lollium, meaning tares, and in 1377 Pope Gregory XI impressed the name upon them officially. Regardless of its connotation, the Lollards seem to have adopted the name as a badge of honor, even as believers long ago had done with the name Christian.

It is equally difficult to know for certain exactly what the Lollards believed. There are several reasons for this. First, the church tended to call any anti-Catholic a Lollard, regardless of what particular views he held. Secondly, although most Lollards held to the core principles articulated by Wycliffe, a wide spectrum of doctrines and practices existed within the movement, some of which had no basis in his writings at all. Thirdly, whether it was due to the lack of educated adherents and institutional structure, the threat of persecution, or simply their emphasis upon preaching, no formal creed and few writings of the Lollards remain.

One representative document survived, but it is more a condemnation of church practices than doctrine, and not a positive statement of Lollards’ beliefs.7 In 1395, the Lollards submitted to Parliament a twelve-point complaint against various ecclesiastical doctrines and practices. In it they exposed basic errors in the church, made astute arguments from Scripture, and vindicated the name of God. It also hints at some radical views later associated with the Anabaptists. Summarized, the twelve points were as follows: 1) Spiritual virtue fled the church due to pride and carnality; 2) the priesthood was not ordained by Christ; 3) clerical celibacy promoted homosexuality; 4) transubstantiation was a feigned miracle and induced idolatry; 5) prayers over water, salt, oil, incense, vestments, and crosses were necromancy; 6) uniting any ecclesiastical and civil offices in one person was to unite the temporal and spiritual contrary to Christ’s command; 7) prayers for the dead were ineffectual, displeasing to God, and monies collected to perform them better spent on the poor; 8) pilgrimages and worship of images were a book of errors and idolatrous; 9) auricular confession only comforted the wicked and increased priestly pride; 10) all war and crusades were against the command of Christ, and especially wicked when financed by the selling of indulgences; 11) vows of continence by nuns promoted abortion, infanticide, and bestiality; 12) certain fine arts were unnecessary and promoted waste, curiosity, and deceit.8

Much that the Lollards lived and died for is commendable. Surely it was a wonder of God’s grace that through them the legacy of Wycliffe’s teachings somehow continued to exist and were appropriated by the sixteenth century Reformers. Undoubtedly, through Lollard preaching, God condemned many so that they were without excuse and saved His people who might otherwise have been lost. The perseverance of many Lollards in the face of severe persecution is a testimony to the character of God’s grace, as is the zeal of poor men and women who traveled about preaching the gospel to whoever would hear them. Nevertheless, the Lollards must be criticized for one thing, the very thing that doomed them to a brief existence even before it began.

Ultimately, the brevity of their legacy was not due to persecution—martyrs’ blood is usually the seed of the church. Nor was it because Lollards were mainly common folk—God delights in choosing the weak things of the world to confound the mighty (I Cor. 1:27). The reason is that they failed to organize as an institute of churches with ordained ministers, elders, and deacons according to Scripture. This failure is understandable. The only instituted church at the time was corrupt, oppressive, and lacked every ecclesiastical office required by Scripture. Besides, it insisted that the church was to be identified strictly with its institution of priests, bishops, and popes by apostolic succession. And many Lollards died for maintaining instead that the church was the body of the elect. So it is understandable if they were indifferent toward the institute. However, because of it, the Lollards were destined to a short existence, for without the institute, the ordinary means God uses to call, rule, defend, preserve, and give life to His church would be absent.

The Reformation would correct this mistake, which is one reason it succeeded when the Lollards failed. The Protestant church owes this to John Calvin, whose unique genius was the development of biblical ecclesiology. He not only saw that the church was the body of the elect, but also that this spiritual body must take form in a physical institution, i.e., a church of members by baptism and confession, ruled by elders, taught by a minister, and cared for by deacons. Subsequently, neither the spiritual organism nor the physical institute may take precedence at the expense of the other; the church in this world is both.

There is a warning here for us. In spite of history, churches and individuals continue to make this mistake. Sometimes, as did Rome, the church as elect body is all but ignored. This happens today when assemblies lord it over churches, elders are heavy-handed, or apathy exists over public wickedness in the church. This is the problem when, regardless of false doctrines or practices in a church, members refuse to reform it, and, failing that, leave for membership elsewhere. But since Calvin’s day, the opposite problem, the Lollard error of indifference toward the institute, seems to be a greater danger. This was a tendency of the Anabaptists. It is found today when churches ignore the offices or do away with them, either deliberately or practically through neglect. It occurs when churches refuse to federate, or federate so loosely that no mutual oversight, cooperation, or unity is possible; or when churches split over non-essentials. It is found when elders care little whether members come to church or are spiritually fed. And this is the root problem when individuals, on the basis that “they are elect anyway,” live aloof from the church, have little concern for their fellow members, or pull their church membership for trivial reasons.

All this is a grave mistake. If uncorrected, the legacy of that church or individual will be brief. The church as institute is necessary for the life of the church as the body of Christ. We as members of that body need the institute. Christ feeds, protects, and rules His body through the institute. Christ gathers His body together using the institute. When Christ gathers new members, He places them in the institute. As Christ does, we are to love the church, both as an institute and as His body.

1. Also spelled “Santree,” “Sautre,” “Sawtrey” or “Chartris.” Augustus Toplady calls him “the first who had the honour of being burnt for Protestantism in England,” The Works of Augustus Toplady (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications), p. 117. See chapter 14 of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for further description of these deaths.

2. Shakespeare was later accused of lampooning the Lollard martyr when he gave the name Oldcastle to a bawdy character in his play Henry IV (king at the time of Oldcastle’s death). After complaints at the first showing, Shakespeare changed the name to Falstaff and ended the play with these words, “Where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat…for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”

3. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Samuel Macauley Jackson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker), repr. 1977, vol. VII, p. 15.

4. They were named after the Archbishop. An English translation is found in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Vol. 3.

5. How easily the nobility deserted the Lollards is plain from the history of King Henry IV. He was the son of Wycliffe’s former patron, Duke John of Gaunt. Gaunt also would turn on the Lollards out of political necessity.

6. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker), repr. 1981, vol. V, p. 493; The Catholic Encyclopedia: Lollards (www.; and Mike Ibeji, “Lollards,” BBC (

7. This seems to reflect an overall weakness of the Lollards. It may have come from Wycliffe, whom Martin Luther censors on this account, probably a little unfairly, when he writes: “Doctrine and life must be distinguished. Life is bad among us, as it is among the papists, but we don’t fight about life and condemn the papists on that account. Wycliffe…didn’t know this and attacked the papacy for its life…. I fight over the Word and whether our adversaries teach it in its purity.” Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1967, Vol. 54, p. 110.

8. “The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards,” Harvard University: ( ~chaucer/special/varia/lollards/ lollconc.htm).