The Protestant Reformation was a movement that began when certain leaders within the Roman Catholic church (hereafter RCC) had their eyes open to the truth of salvation and the corruption of their church. Therefore, they desired to reform the church by openly protesting against the many errors of the Catholic church. The Popes and leaders of the church refused to change, however, so these Reformers, aka Protestants, were either excommunicated from the church or met with fierce persecution.
For good reason, most credit Martin Luther with the initiation of the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 thesis on the front doors of the local RCC in Wittenburg, Germany in 1517. However, even before Luther there were key factors in history that converged and contributed to the perfect storm that became the Protestant Reformation movement.
Those 4 things are the following:
- The faithful evangelism of ancient Christian groups, such as the Waldenses, Albigenses, etc, who were never a part of the RCC.
- The influence of John Wycliffe (1328-1384) and his followers, the Lollards, and his translation of the Bible in English in the 1300s.
- The invention of the first printing press by Johannes Gutenburg in 1440 which allowed for the mass production of God’s word.
- The work of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and his Greek New Testament which served as a basis for many Protestant Bible translations.
In this particular post let us discuss the contribution of the great John Wycliffe.
Due to the impact of his life’s work in the 1300s John Wycliffe was called “the Morning Star of the Reformation”. John Wycliffe was a convert of the Waldenses. As a result, he left the Catholic church. He was a professor at Oxford University. He became a traveling evangelist and preached all over England.
During Wycliffe’s time as a professor in Oxford, the Great Plague broke out all over Europe. In Oxford, so many died from the plague that its population of 15,000 went down to 3000. It broke Wycliffe’s heart that the people of Oxford did not have their own copy of the Bible (since the RCC made it illegal) to comfort them during these hard times. This sparked a desire in Wycliffe’s heart to provide the Word of God in the English language.
Even if some had access to a Bible, it angered Wycliffe that the only ones who could read the Bible were those who knew Latin. The only ones who knew Latin were Catholic priests and those educated at elite Universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Therefore, Wycliffe took on the daunting task of translating the Bible from Latin to English, a 15-year project. Because of this, the RCC declared John Wycliffe a “heretic” and an enemy of the church.
Wycliffe was undeterred by the threats of the RCC and took a defiant stand against them. He preached:
“All truth is contained in Scripture…Those heretics who pretend that the laity need not know God’s law, but that the knowledge which priests have had imparted to them…is sufficient, do not deserve to be listened to.”
Continuing, Wycliffe proclaimed:
“For Holy Scriptures is the faith of the church, and the more widely its true meaning becomes known the better it will be. Therefore since the laity should know the faith, it should be taught in whatever language is most easily comprehended. Christ and His apostles taught the people in the language best known to them.”
“The [RCC] clergy cry aloud that it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English, and so they would condemn the Holy Ghost, who gave tongues to the Apostles of Christ to speak the Word of God in all languages under heaven.”
Concerning the Pope, Wycliffe denounced him as the ”antichrist, the proud worldly priest of Rome, the most cursed of clippers and cut-purses.”
Concerning Catholic monasteries, Wycliffe called them “dens of thieves, nests of serpents, houses of living devils.”
Concerning the Catholic priests, Wycliffe said that they:
“take poor men’s livelihood, but they do not oppose oppression. They set more price by the rotten penny than by the precious blood of Christ. They pray only for show, and collect fees for every religious service that they perform. They live in luxury, riding fat horses with harnesses of silver and gold. They are robbers, malicious foxes, ravishing wolves, gluttons, devils, apes.”
John Wycliffe and the RCC were bitter enemies indeed!
Due to his “crime” of translating the Bible without permission by the RCC, Wycliffe was tried in court three times. The third time he was condemned to death. Surprisingly, as Wycliffe was receiving his death sentence in court, an earthquake occurred and Wycliffe’s supporters helped him escape.
Wycliffe trained many preachers and laymen in the word of God. Under his leadership an evangelistic group of believers were formed called the Lollards. The word “lollard” comes from a middle Dutch word “lollaerd” which means “to mutter or mumble”. In other words, someone who talks a lot. The Lollards built a reputation as fervent witnesses and zealous street preachers who proclaimed the Gospel all over England.
The Lollards were also known as “The Bible Men” because of their great knowledge of the Bible. Sometimes they were called “The Poor Preachers” because they would get rid of all their earthly possessions to live a life a poverty and devote themselves to a life of travel as evangelists. Multitudes all over England were saved through the preaching of the Lollards.
A big part of the Lollards’ ministry was to hand copy Wycliffe’s English Bible for preaching and propagation. It would take them about 10 months to copy by hand the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Due to their anticatholic Gospel preaching and the “illegal” propagation of Wycliffe’s Bible, they were greatly persecuted by the RCC. Many Lollards were captured and burned at the stake. Also, their Bibles and any other Gospel literature written by the Lollards were constantly confiscated and burned by the RCC.
John Wycliffe died of a stroke in 1384 at the age of 64. However, through the faithful perseverance of his followers, the Lollards, Wycliffe’s influence continued to terrorize the RCC. The RCC hated him so much that they ordered for his dead body to be dug up and burned along with any books of his. As they burned his dead body, the RCC gave their own “eulogy” of John Wycliffe, in which they called him:
“…that organ of the devil, enemy of the Church, author of confusion to the common people, idol of heretics, image of hypocrites, a storehouse of lies.”
In their efforts to end the influence of Wycliffe in 1401 the English Parliament deemed his followers, the Lollards, as criminals when they ruled:
“No one shall preach openly or secretly without a license. No one shall preach, hold, teach, or instruct, produce or write any book contrary to the Catholic faith. If any man is convicted of these crimes, the sheriff shall cause him to be burned before the people in a prominent place to strike fear into the mind of others.”
Due to fear of the RCC, kings and queens throughout Europe established such laws to correspond with Catholic decrees. In 1408, the RCC decreed the following:
“We therefore decree and ordain that no man is allowed to translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other language by his own authority… He that shall do contrary to this shall be punished as someone who favors error and heresy.”
Despite all their efforts to destroy the influence of Wycliffe’s Bible and Gospel message, the RCC failed. Wycliffe and the Lollards planted the seeds that came to fruition during the Protestant Reformation.
Although Wycliffe’s Bible did not become the standard English Bible that the KJV is today, its influential existence set a precedent as it served as the only Bible available in English for a significant 143 years.
We might say that John Wycliffe was a man before his time but God’s timing is always perfect. His impact and place in history as a champion of the faith is undeniable. John Wycliffe was rightfully recognized as “the Morning Star of the Reformation” as his courage and initiative inspired many and paved the road towards the Protestant Reformation and eventually the King James Bible.