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John Wycliffe John Wycliffe
(1324-1384)

Born: 1324 at Hipswell, North Yorkshire Died: 28th December 1384 at Lutterworth, Leicestershire

John Wycliffe is remembered as the "Morning Star of the Reformation" and one of Oxford University's last great medieval Schoolmen. He was an English statesman as well as a theologian, once representing the King on the continent in negotiations with the legate of the pope. Although the papacy was, at this time, dominated by the King of France, even to the point of its removal from Rome to the French city of Avignon, Wycliffe defended the political rights of England. He is best remembered, however, as the prime mover in first translating the Bible into the common language of the English people.

Born in Yorkshire in 1324, he chose not to return to his family estate after attending Oxford University. Instead, he presided over a rural parish in Leicestershire, nearer libraries and other scholars. He organized a band of poor preachers, known as the Lollards, who went from village to village, teaching the Bible to all who would listen. He was probably the exemplar for the pious country parson in the Canterbury Tales of his contemporary, Chaucer.

He challenged a number of Roman Catholic doctrines with arguments which centuries later would echo during the Protestant Reformation. He spoke out against the monastic system, the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins and the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and transubstantiation. He proclaimed predestination and salvation by faith alone, in a time of great fear and superstition. In the late summer of 1348, the Black Plague had reached England and Wycliffe heard reports of the death of half the population! This had much to do with his ideas of personal reverence for God.

Although there is debate as to what role Wycliffe played in the translation of the version now associated with his name, no-one doubts that he was leading the movement which culminated in that first widespread version of an English Bible. Although translated from Latin, instead of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, copied by hand a century before Gutenberg's printing press could insure uniformity, still over 150 copies of the Wycliffe version exist today. Many of these represent a revision of the translation made following Wycliffe's death in 1384, but their unprecedented number attests to the impact his English Bible had upon the entire nation.

Ultimately Wycliffe was excommunicated from the church, but he was not physically harmed before he died from a stroke. The effect of Wycliffe's teaching extended far beyond the British Isles. King Richard II's first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was daughter of the Holy Roman Emporer, Charles IV. When she died prematurely in 1394, her attendants carried Wycliffe's ideas to the very Imperial Court in Prague. There they were taken up by theologians at Charles' University, such as Jan Hus.

At the same time it ordered Hus to be burned at the stake outside of the city, the Council of Constance, in 1415, decreed that Wycliffe's remains in England should be dug up, his bones burned and the ashes scattered on the water. His incorporeal remains, however, were like raindrops which fell over all of England, producing fertile soil for William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer and later English Reformers.

Our thanks to Thomas E. Martin Junior

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