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18 October 2021

Who was John Wycliffe?

Tim Chester

Around 1379, in Lutterworth, John Wycliffe began work on the project for which he is best known, the first complete translation of the Bible in English. The translation of the Bible was a collaborative effort. Wycliffe was not able to see it through to completion, and he may not have been the person who first initiated it. The work started in Oxford with the identification of the best versions of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible. After consulting commentaries, a word–for–word translation into English was produced. This was then edited to create a more natural English rendering of the meaning. Wycliffe probably worked on the Bible in Lutterworth, quite possibly on the final edit, since this stage in production did not require a library of books. Wycliffe is thought to have been responsible for the four Gospels and perhaps much of the rest of the New Testament. This was the first time these words had been heard in an English we can recognise today.

The Pope began to look for reasons to condemn Wycliffe, and from his perspective they were not hard to find in Wycliffe’s writings. The bishops had already moved against Wycliffe. William Courtenay ordered Wycliffe to appear before them at St Paul’s Cathedral on 19 February 1377 on the charge of seditious preaching. 

The strain was beginning to take its toll on Wycliffe’s health. He became bedridden and many feared for his life. When Wycliffe recovered, he turned his sights on transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the communion bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Christ. Plenty of people were criticising church corruption. What made Wycliffe stand out was his critique of Church teaching, especially its teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Wycliffe agreed that Christ was present in the bread, but he could not accept that the bread was eradicated in the process, as the theory of transubstantiation taught. Christ’s presence, said Wycliffe, was like the ideas in a book: the bread and wine communicate the presence of Christ just as the parchment and ink communicate a book’s ideas.

Eventually Wycliffe was summoned to appear before the Pope himself, but before he could depart he suffered a stroke. He was, he told the Pope, ‘hindered by God.’  He declared that he had been willing to go to the Pope, so the Pope could either affirm his teaching or correct his error. Only if he could be shown his error from Scripture would he recant his beliefs. At Christmas 1384, Wycliffe suffered another stroke while celebrating communion and had to be carried out of the church in a chair. Two days later, on 31 December 1384, he died in his bed.

Wycliffe’s writings take the form of lectures, sermons and polemical tracts. Some works traditionally attributed to him were probably actually written by supporters, the Lollards. We have a body of Lollard sermons, but again it is unclear how many were preached by Wycliffe himself. He certainly left no systematic statement of his thought; instead, his impact lay in the movement he started rather than the publications he finished.

The Reformation in England did not begin with the divorce of Henry VIII. The seeds were sown in the ministry of John Wycliffe and his poor preachers 150 years before. Here is Foxe’s assessment of Wycliffe’s legacy from the perspective of the Reformation: 

The Church of England has not lacked great multitudes, who tasted and followed the sweetness of God’s holy word, almost as many in the number of well disposed hearts as now. Although public authority was lacking to maintain the open preaching of the Gospel, yet the secret multitude of true professors [of faith] was not much less than now.

There is a significant appendix to Wycliffe’s legacy. Wycliffe’s post–death excommunication by the Catholic Church came during the trial of Jan Hus (1374–1415), a priest in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). Hus argued that only God could forgive sin and that Scripture is our supreme authority. As the teachings of Hus and his followers were examined, it became clear that Wycliffe had been a significant influence on them, hence his condemnation along with theirs. A Bohemian Psalter from 1572 contains a picture with Wycliffe lighting the spark, Hus kindling the coals and Luther brandishing the lighted torch. 

Hus was martyred in 1415, but his followers survived attempts to eradicate them.  On 24 May 1737, a young man attended one of their meetings in London. He wrote later that his ‘heart was strangely warmed’ and that he felt ‘an assurance that Christ had died for me.’ That young man’s name was John Wesley, and along with George Whitefield, he became one of the key leaders of the Great Awakening, that saw the resurgence of gospel Christianity and preaching in England. It was out of this revival that the evangelical movement as we know it today was born. Wycliffe’s legacy continues.


 This extract is adapted from Tim Chester’s Bitesize Biographies set.

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