Equip: Reformation - John Wycliffe
The more I have studied for Mercy Hill’s “5 Solas” series on the Reformation, the more convinced I am of the importance of it. This is because large portions of our church history, both dark and bright, have been forgotten; swallowed up by the passing of time. To quote Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “Things that should not have been forgotten, were lost.” As we begin this blog series we will be looking first at John Wycliffe. Wycliffe is known as “The Morningstar of the Reformation” and was one of the first to call for sweeping change within the 14th century church.
The church of Wycliffe’s day had drastically and tragically veered off course from the pure faith and ministry of the apostles. This infection began to corrupt every level of the Roman Catholic Church, the popes claimed earthly power and authority over all of the nations of Europe. They abused their position by appointing friends, relatives and generous donors to places of power within the European nations (specifically England, the home of Wycliffe). The taxes imposed by the church eventually grew to be 5 times the amount that the English were paying to their own ruling king. Because of this, the appointed religious leaders lived in luxury and comfort both within their English estates and often their foreign homes. This resulted in large amounts of money from within England being siphoned off and, at times, even freely given to the enemies of England in order to finance war upon the kingdom itself! The poor were getting poorer, and Rome and her friends were getting richer.
At the lower levels of the church, the local clergy within England were also corrupt. Monks and friars were perpetrating terrible acts such as the Inquisition and the kidnapping of children from schools in order to fill their ranks. Sadly, many of these practices went unchallenged by the people of England because they were not able to read Scripture, and were too afraid to challenge the sins of the church. Unfortunately, these are just some of the problems within the church during the 14th century.
John Wycliffe, a respected philosopher and English priest with a love for the Bible, could not stand by and allow these things to continue unchallenged. He fought against the belief that the Pope had earthly control over the English government both with Scripture and political arguments. His bold stance gained him many friends within the English government that wanted to end the parasitic involvement of corrupt foreigners. Not content with just opposing church leadership, Wycliffe repeatedly denounced the friars and monks involved in violence, kidnappings and other atrocities. Because of this, the corrupted leaders of the church often tried to convict Wycliffe on charges of undermining the authority of the Pope. But his powerful political friends protected him. He continued to be protected until the charge of heresy was brought against him, and his political allies no longer wanted to risk the punishment of the church (condemnation and excommunication). Wycliffe was never truly convicted, but essentially exiled to the village of Lutterworth. Here he took on a new challenge: translating the whole of the Bible from Latin copies into the common English language. This would allow others to read Scripture for themselves and not depend upon corrupt church leadership that manipulated the text and ignored the Bible for material gain. Wycliffe’s ministry would continue on until he was 64 years old when he died of a stroke in 1384.
John Wycliffe’s efforts in fighting corruption in the church has rippling effects far beyond his lifetime. As the “Morningstar of the Reformation” he was an inspiration and building block for the reformers who followed him. His bold task of translating the Bible into the common tongue brought hope and freedom to those who had never read the Bible. This task has been repeated over and over. Now millions of people have been able to read the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language, and many have come to faith in Christ. The Bible you hold in your hands, whether paper or phone screen, was made possible through the initiative of Wycliffe and other Reformers. In our modern time, one organization taking the lead in the world today is named the “Wycliffe Bible Translators”.
As for me, I am indebted to the brave and faithful work of John Wycliffe. When I open my Bible in my comfortable office or some coffee shop, I do not think about the sacrifices that made that happen. Studying the story of Wycliffe has reminded me of the dark times in our history. Times when Christians were not able to read the Bible for themselves. As a matter of fact, we still live in a world where that is a reality for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Please keep them in your prayers and, when you can (or are led by the Holy Spirit), contribute to the work of those who are trying to get the written Word of God into the hands of Christians throughout the world. Words written in their own language as John Wycliffe did 630 years ago.