About six miles distant from Richmond, in Yorkshire, England, is the small village of Wiclif. It had long been the residence of a family of the same name, when it gave birth, about the year 1324, to its most distinguished native, commonly called the first English Reformer. The family, says a late writer, possessed wealth and consequence. Though the name of the reformer is not to be found in the extant records of the household, it is probable that he belonged to it. Perhaps the spirit of the times, and zeal for the established hierarchy, may have led it to disclaim the only person who has saved its name from absolute obscurity.
John Wiclif was first admitted at Queen's College, Oxford, but speedily removed to the more ancient establishment of Merton. Here he made great proficiency in the scholastic learning then in vogue, and the direction in which his talents were turned is indicated by the title which he early acquired of the Evangelic or Gospel Doctor.
In 1356 he put forth a tract on the Last Age of the Church, remarkable not only from its ascribing the plague and other calamities which then afflicted the world to God's indignation at the sinfulness of man; but also from its venturing predictions of future calamities, all which were to be included in the fourteenth century, which was to be the last century of the world's existence. We may pass with slight notice a species of infatuation of which we have examples in our own times, but in his manner of treating this subject, we discover the principles of the reformer. Among the causes of those fearful calamities, among the sins which had awakened the wrath of the Almighty, he feared not to give the foremost place to the vices of the clergy, the rapacity and sensuality of priests, who perverted and corrupted the people. In this singular work, of which the foundation was laid in superstition, Wiclif first developed that free and bold spirit which dared to avow, without compromise, what it felt with force and truth.
We next find Wiclif engaged in his memorable contest with the mendicant orders, (begging friars.) Introduced into England in 1221, these friars, by the rigid morality and discipline which they professed, had at first rapidly gained the confidence of the people, and were supplanting the ancient ecclesiastical establishments, when, success causing a relaxation of their zeal, they became as obnoxious to the charge of luxury and sensuality as their predecessors; so that, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the contest was conducted with greater success on the part of the original orders of clergy; and some of the leading prelates of the day took part in it against the mendicants. Oxford became the field for the closest struggle, and the rising talents of Wiclif were warmly engaged in it, as early as the year 1360, and he persisted to the end of life in pursuing these begging friars with the keenest argument and the bitterest invective. Similar to this was his opposition to the claim of Urban V. to the sovereignty of England, founded on the submission rendered by John to Innocent III. A zealous advocate of papacy challenged Wiclif to refute a book which he had put forth to vindicate the claim of Urban. Wiclif complied; and his work, though rude in style, proves that even at that early day he had imbibed strong opposition to the errors of Popery.
Seven years after, Wiclif was raised to the Theological Chair at Oxford. At that time, the custom of filling the English benefices with foreigners, who did not reside in England, had increased to a shameful extent, and though vigorously opposed by the kings and the people, it was supported by the whole influence of the church. In 1374 an embassy, of which Wiclif was a member, was sent to Avignon to remonstrate on the subject with Gregory XI. The embassy, so far as its direct object was concerned, ended in nothing; but it enabled Wiclif to obtain a close insight into the springs which moved the world's ecclesiastical machinery. He returned to England, with a determination to resist Popery with more zeal than he had ever done; and was rewarded by the prebend of Aust, and soon afterwards by the rectory of Lutterworth. He speedily commenced his efforts for reformation; and, as might be expected, soon drew upon himself the suspicions of the hierarchy. A convocation, held February 3, 1377, summoned him to appear at St. Paul's, and clear himself from a charge of heresy. Happily for Wiclif, he was at this time protected by the powerful John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. That noblemen appeared with Wiclif at the council; a tumult ensued; the duke and the Bishop of London engaged in a disgraceful altercation; and the meeting dispersed in disorder. The process against Wiclif was, however, suspended.
In the same year, Wiclif published a treatise, defending the parliament in their opposition to the pope's interference in the fiscal affairs of England. In this tract he examines the foundation of spiritual pretensions, declares the Bible to be the final appeal in all ecclesiastical disputes; and boldly contrasts the character of Christ's vicar with that of Christ himself. Four bulls were immediately issued against him. "His holiness had been informed that John Wiclif, rector of the church of Lutterworth, and professor of the sacred page, had broken forth into a detestable insanity, and had dared to assert opinions utterly subversive of the church, and savouring of the perversity and ignorance of Marsilius of Padua and John of Gaudano, both of accursed memory;" Edward III. was exhorted to co-operate with the spiritual authorities for the suppression of this monstrous evil; yet so slow were the movements of the secular arm, that the University of Oxford, to which one of the bulls had been sent, raised a question whether it should be received or indignantly rejected. In the following year, however, Wiclif was brought before the papal commissioners at Lambeth. At the moment "when these men were preparing to gratify their revenge upon him, a sedition of the people in his favour interrupted their proceedings; and before this could be appeased, a message, prohibiting any sentence against him, was received from the queen-mother. The reformer became more fearless. The Bible was the basis of his system; and every pretension or tenet repugnant to it he rejected. He denounced auricular confession; declared pardons and indulgences to be devices for augmenting the power and wealth of the clergy, at the expense of public morality; he paid no regard to excommunications and interdicts; he pronounced confirmation an unnecessary ceremony, invented to aggrandize episcopal dignity; he reprobated the celibacy of the clergy and monastic vows; he maintained that bishops and priests, being of the same order, were improperly distinguished; and lastly, that the property claimed by the clergy was merely enjoyed by them in trust for the benefit of the people, and was disposable at the discretion of the secular government.
Although Wiclif, in advocating these opinions, drew upon himself the hatred of the hierarchy, yet he was protected by a powerful party both at court and among the people. But in 1381 he advanced a step further. In a treatise respecting the eucharist, he confuted the popular belief on that important tenet, and explained its nature, in a manner similar to that of Luther in the sixteenth century; while admitting a real presence, he denied transubstantiation. Here was ground for a new clamour; and Wiclif soon ascertained that the strength of his opponents was increasing through the desertions of his friends. Truth was still on his side; but the subject being obscure, and consequently regarded with much prejudice, was more closely connected with the feelings of his hearers than almost any other. It affected not merely their respect for a corrupt hierarchy, but their faith in what they had been taught to consider essential to salvation. Those who had formerly listened to him with delight, trembled when they heard him attacking the ground-work of their belief; his noble patrons perceived the impolicy of his new course; and John of Lancaster especially commanded him to desist. Wiclif was unawed. In 1882 he was summoned before a synod held by Courtney, and, after undergoing an examination, was commanded to answer before the Convocation of Oxford, for certain erroneous opinions, especially that relating to the eucharist. Wiclif prepared to defend them. The Duke of Lancaster forsook him. The undaunted reformer, though now alone, published two confessions of faith, in which he asserted his adherence to his former belief. Six adversaries entered the lists against him, and at length the judges sentenced him to perpetual banishment from the University of Oxford. He peacefully retired to his rectory at Lutterworth, and spent the two remaining years of his life in theological studies, and the discharge of his pastoral duties. The mildness of his sentence—so inconsistent with the spirit of that age—must astonish us; but whether the praise of moderation be due to the prelates' forbearing to press their enmity, or to the state's refusing to sanction their vengeance, is not known.
Wiclif's doctrines were so far in advance of his age that we cannot but wonder how they escaped immediate extinction. With the people, however, they were ever cherished; nor was the author neglectful of the means proper for their dissemination. By translating the Bible, he increased the means of ascertaining their truth, or at least of detecting the falsehood of his adversaries' system; and by his numerous missionaries, called Poor Priests, sent forth to propagate truth, he acquired much influence for good. In after years, the Lollards embraced and perpetuated his doctrines, and by their undeviating hostility to the abuses of Rome prepared the path for the Reformation. At an early period his works found their way into Bohemia, and kindled there the first spark of resistance to spiritual despotism. Huss proclaimed his adherence to Wiclif's principles, and his respect for his person; praying in public that "on his departure from this life, he might be received into those regions whither the soul of Wiclif had gone, since he doubted not that he was a good and holy man, and worthy of a heavenly habitation."
Thirty years after Wiclif's burial, his grave was opened by order of the council of Constance; the sacred relics were torn from their sleeping place; and the ashes of the great reformer were strewn in a little brook which runs into the Avon.
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Cyclopedia of Eminent Christians... by John Frost. New York: World Publishing House, 1875.
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