In the reign of Edward the Third, a crowd of the citizens of London were seen on their way to old St. Paul's. As they hurried along the narrow streets, and collected around the doors of the cathedral, their loud voices and violent actions, showed that they were engaged in angry debate. It was evident that some unusual event had drawn them from their homes so early on that winter's morning.
A priest, named John Wycliffe, was about to appear, to answer charges that had been brought against him. As they gathered into clusters the accused arrived, dressed in a plain black robe, with a small round cap on his head. His long grey beard spread over his breast. He looked calm, as though the tumult of the people awoke in him no fear. Passing through the throng, he entered a small ancient chapel, which formed a part of the cathedral, where a bishop and the judges had already taken their seats. The accused was not alone. Two noblemen, clothed in velvet and gold, walked by his side. One of them, the Duke of Lancaster, placed himself on his left hand; the other, Lord Percy, stood on his right. When the popish judges saw the powerful friends who had come to support his cause, they were filled with rage; and charged the two noblemen with being enemies to their religion and the king. Provoked by these words, the duke, in return threatened the bishop, and soon the whole assembly was in confusion, John Wycliffe standing all the while before his judges without speaking a word.
When the people who were at the doors heard the noise within, they cried aloud against the good priest; then running through the streets to the palace of the Duke of Lancaster, the most beautiful mansion in the kingdom, they began to pull it down. In their rage they committed murder on a person that was passing near the spot.
Those ignorant people had been told by some designing priests that Wycliffe and his friends intended to destroy the religion of the land, and in their ignorance they were driven to these acts of violence. It was like the scene when the apostle Paul was at Ephesus; "and the whole city was filled with confusion," because the idol-makers, who feared they should lose their gains, stirred up the people to oppose the preaching of the gospel.
Nearly twelve mouths passed away, and Wycliffe once more stood in the same place, and before the same judges. There was again a great crowd of people; but they were not then crying out against him, and demanding that he should be sent to prison. Since the pious priest was last there they had better understood his character, and had learned to value his preaching. He was now known to them as the "gospel doctor."
The people had come to support his cause. They forced their way before the court, and demanded that he "should not be hurt." The priests were alarmed at what they saw and heard; and though they had hoped to have condemned him, they were glad to let him depart freely to his home.
Is it asked, What was the crime that brought Wycliffe into such trouble? The answer is—The pope of Rome had sent three letters, or "bulls" as they were called, to England—one to the bishops, another to the university of Oxford, and a third to the king. In them he charged the humble parson with many serious offences; and he desired that he should be seized and sent to prison, there to lie until further orders from Rome. Was he, then, a teacher of false doctrine, a traitor, or in any other way a wicked and injurious man? No; his offence was, that he was an inquirer after truth, and sought to bring the people from under the power of the monks and friars, who led them astray; and it was because he thus felt and acted that the pope had resolved on his overthrow.
There were at this time in England many thousands of persons called monks and friars. The monks were those who lived alone or separate from other people; their houses were called monasteries, or places of retirement; the term friars signifies "brothers." Of these latter were the begging friars, who, it is said, "swarmed throughout England" at this time. They travelled over the land, forcing their way into the houses of rich and poor, living without any cost, and taking all the money they could obtain. Though they assumed poverty, they were not "poor in spirit;" nor were they "the meek of the earth." Like the Pharisees of old, they pretended to be better and holier than others, though their lives were full of evil. They "taught for doctrine the commandments of men," and declared that all who belonged to their order were sure of salvation.
When Wycliffe saw the conduct of the friars, his heart was much grieved. The best way to oppose them he knew would be to write a book against them; and a book was written in which he called them, "the pests of society, the enemies of religion, and the promoters of every crime." Angry and annoyed at the exposure, they were ready to help the pope in the hope of getting the writer sentenced by the judges to the dungeon or to death. Wycliffe, however, continued to write and preach against them, and with so much labor and zeal that his health began to suffer. One day, lying on his bed, and, as it was thought, nigh to his end, some of these friars made their way into his room. They rushed to his couch, began to upbraid him for what he had done, and called on him to express his sorrow before he died. For some time he heard them in silence; then, desiring his servants to raise him up, he cried aloud, "I shall not die but live, and shall again declare the evil deeds of the friars." Alarmed at his courage, they fled in haste from the room.
When Wycliffe got well, he retired to the little market town in Leicestershire, of which he was the priest. In this place he entered on his great work—that of translating the Bible into the English language as it was then spoken. To give the people the word of God was the best way of fulfilling his threat against the friars. He knew that the Bible was God's great gift to the whole human family; why, then, should not his countrymen possess it? To give it to them would be something worth living for; and so he diligently set about his task.
It was a long and difficult work to undertake; but faith and love carried him through it. The word of God was precious to his own soul; and he knew that what had been a blessing to himself could be made a blessing to thousands. So onward he went in his work, with prayer and patience: and as he went along, he found instruction and comfort for himself, whilst he was providing for the spiritual good of others.
Year after year he saw the fruits of his study increase: one page and then another were done, until, at length, in the year 1380, the last verse of the New Testament was translated, and the Bible completed in its English dress! We may think we see him looking upon the pile of writing he had made, then falling on his knees to give God thanks, imploring him to bless the truth to the souls of the people.
All books in those days were very scarce and costly, for the art of printing was not then known. Before the year 1300, the library of the University of Oxford consisted only of a few tracts, chained, or kept in chests, in the choir of St. Mary's church. Copies of all books were made in writing; and as this was a slow and careful work, it took several months for one person to write a complete Bible. How different is it now, when a printing machine will produce fifteen to twenty copies of the Bible every hour, and thousands every year!
And then as to the cost. Richard of Bury, Chancellor of England under Edward the Third, spared no expense in collecting a library; the first, perhaps, that any private man had formed. Yet so scarce were valuable books, that he gave an abbey fifty pounds weight of silver for between thirty and forty volumes! The Book of Psalms, with brief notes written in the margin, was valued at a sum equal to nearly forty dollars of our present money. A copy of the New Testament was sold for thirteen dollars, a sum equal to six months' income of a tradesman, for about twenty-five dollars were considered enough to keep a farmer or trader in those times, when so few of the comforts we now enjoy were known. But costly as was the purchase, it was cheerfully paid. And great as was the danger of those who dared to read the word of God, there were some who bravely met it.
Written copies of Wycliffe's Bible were eagerly sought after by those who could read. There, in a castle, some rich nobleman might have been seen with one of these written Bibles before him, "in fair characters on vellum." ... But though a nobleman might be found who could read the Bible, yet from the want of learning, as well as books being scarce and costly, there were only a small number of the people who could possess the word of God. Even some of the nobles and gentry could not write their names; and not many of the common people were able to read. Perhaps not more than one in a small town or village was learned enough to read and write. We may, then, suppose what was the state of the land when the people had no gospel preached to them, and few possessed the Scriptures or could peruse any book likely to be the means of doing good to their souls. England, indeed, had been for ages without the light that cometh from heaven. Errors and foolish rites, like dark clouds, were spread over the land.
It was at such a time that Wycliffe arose as a light in the darkness; and, like the star that appeared over the fields of Bethlehem, he guided many souls to the Saviour. The numerous books he wrote were spread abroad in the same manner as his written Bible. He also prepared many sermons, about three hundred of which have been preserved to the present day. From these we learn what were the truths he taught the people.
The priests said that human merits and sufferings, penance and pilgrimages, would certainly entitle them to heaven; but Wycliffe taught that sinful man could not save himself, and that mercy was only to be found through faith in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. The priests asserted that images should be, honored, and that there were many mediators; but the bold reformer said that the worship of images was idolatry, and that saints and angels were not to be prayed to, for "there is but one Mediator between God and men." He maintained that the church of Rome is no more the head of the churches than any other church; and that the apostle Peter had no more power given him than any other apostle; and for all his doctrines he referred to the word of God, maintaining that it was the only safe guide to a Christian man. In many other ways he opposed the doings and teachings of the priests of the Papal church.
Wycliffe did not quite receive all the great Bible truths in all their fulness: it is a wonder that he knew so much at a time when all the land was sunk in ignorance and error. But he understood enough of the word of God to know that many of the doctrines of the Romish church could not be found there. And he preached so many of the true doctrines of the Bible as well to entitle him to the honorable name, THE MORNING STAR OF THE REFORMATION.
The "good parson" was much beloved in his own parish; and many came from the villages around to his church, that they might hear the gospel from his lips [the carved oak and the velvet robe, nearly destroyed by time, which he wore, are still preserved in the vestry of Lutterworth church]. He was often seen, with a portion of his written Bible under his arm, and staff in hand, visiting from house to house. The mansions of the gentry, the dwellings of the farmers, and the cottages of the field-laborers, were favored alike with his pastoral visits. He was the friend of all; he was ready to teach and comfort and pray for all at all times. Thus he lived, seeking the good of souls, his enemies opposing him even to the end of his days, though God did not permit them to cast him into prison, nor to bring him to a cruel death, as they desired.
Continued labor at length broke down his health. One day, when in church, he was seized with a fatal attack of disease, and sunk to the ground. He was carried into his house, where he lay in a speechless state for two days, and then died. But though he was removed, he left behind him many disciples, who carried on the good work which he had so well begun.
Though Wycliffe never left his own land, to preach the truth across the seas, it was carried into almost every country of Europe by his writings. His tracts and sermons were read by many awakened minds, and were the means of preparing them for a full knowledge of the gospel.
As his enemies could not prevail against him while he lived, they showed their hatred of his name and doctrine after his death. When his remains had lain in the grave for forty one years, they were dug up and burned, and the ashes cast into the little river Swift, which flows near the town where he labored. Thence, as an old writer says, they passed into the great river Severn, then in their onward course into the narrow seas, and at last into the wide ocean; and thus became the emblem of the truth, which should flow from the little country town over England and the world. That it shall extend "from the river to the ends of the earth," we know, for the word of God declares it.
In this simple tale we see through what struggles and dangers some have passed for the gospel's sake. The practical lesson we are taught is, to be at all times decided for the truth. By being decided, we do not mean to be noisy, or forward, or stubborn. One of the fruits of the Spirit is gentleness, which consists with the greatest firmness and decision in that which is right. We must in meekness instruct those that oppose the word of God. 2 Timothy 2:25. Whilst we are "valiant for the truth upon the earth," we are to speak that truth in love. Jeremiah 9:3; Ephesians 4:15. Be decided, then, for God's word in opposition to all error.
Let us be thankful for those whom God has raised up as examples of holy decision. They labored, and we enjoy the benefit of their labors. They planted a little sapling which took root, and has become a great tree, under whose boughs we now sit in peace. It was through God's grace working in them that we now possess a free and full Bible. Let us, then, give heed to the truths it contains, and yield our hearts to the gracious Saviour it makes known.
From Historical Tales for Young Protestants. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, [186-?].
>> More John Wycliffe