Known as the “morning star of the English Reformation”, Wycliffe undertook to translate the Latin (Vulgate) Bible into Middle English. His radical ideas on the papacy, transubstantiation, prayer to saints, and monastacism foreshadowed later Protestant developments.
He was born in 1320s in Yorkshire, and made his way to Oxford by 1345. He completed his Arts degree at Merton College in 1356, was named Master of Balliol College in 1361. By 1372, he obtained a doctorate in theology, and was in that year part of a commission which the English Government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI some points of disagreement between the king and the pope.
Wycliffe began writing treatises advancing his theories on church reform, including an advocation that the church divest of property and that high secular offices not be held by clergy. These positions brought him into conflict with church authorities, but he had a strong protector in the 1st Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. He was summoned to appear before the Bishop of London, but essentially a brawl broke out and he was spared censure. A papal bull criticizing him was published by Pope Gregory in 1377, but Gregory died before much action could be taken. Furthermore, this was a time when in England the common people and royalty alike took a somewhat dim view of the papacy.
Wycliffe continued his work, and in 1380 became involved in efforts to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into Middle English. Simultaneously his position began to erode as the new Archbishop of Canterbury took action against him. His works were condemned at a synod held at Blackfriars, London, in 1382, and his writings were banned at Oxford. He retired to Lutterworth, where he was already rector of the parish church of St Mary (since 1374). There he wrote copiously until his death in 1384. He suffered a stroke while saying mass on Dec 28. About 30 years later, in 1415, he was posthumously condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance, and his remains dug up and cast into the river Swift.
His followers were known as Lollards, and were aggressively persecuted in the 15th century. Many went to the stake, and the movement went underground. “A gruesome reminder of this persecution is the ‘Lollards Pit’ in Thorpe Wood, now Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, Norfolk, where men are customablie burnt.” (Wikipedia). The movement was later absorbed into the Protestant Reformation. Bishop Cuthbert of London called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of the Wycliffite heresy.
Wycliffe advocated a number of positions that would later be labelled “Protestant”:
- Criticized the Church of his day for its wealth and abuses of power.
- Criticized the practice of indulgences (remission of time spent in purgatory)
- Criticized monasticism and advocated dissolution of the monasteries.
- Became increasingly disenchanted with the pope, even likening him to anti-Christ by the end of his life.
- Taught that the Bible is the supreme authority.
- Taught that the church is the invisible community of the elect, predestined by God, in contrast to the visible institution of the Church.
- He rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained bread and wine, but are instead spiritually infused with God’s presence.
- He declared the right of every Christian to know the Bible.
- Emphasized the importance of Christ alone as the sufficient way of salvation, without the aid of works.
His most enduring legacy is the English Bible. He was personally responsible for translating much of the New Testament. The revision of this work, after his death, has become known to history as the Wycliffe Bible.
He is commemorated by the Anglicans on December 31.