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John Wyclif

by C. G. McCrie

John WycliffeWyclif, the Morning Star of the English Reformation, was born about 1320, near Richmond, in Yorkshire. He entered upon his career at Oxford when a lad, and by 1360 he became Master of Balliol. In 1361 he was nominated by his College, Rector of Fillingham, in the diocese of Lincoln; seven years later he exchanged this parish for that of Ludgershall; and in 1374 Edward III. presented Dr. John Wyclif to the rectory of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire. To work professorial and pastoral, this busy man added that of authorship. His earliest writings were polemical tracts. In these he defended the English Parliament when the Papal claims to feudatory tribute were resisted; he affirmed that the Pope may commit sin; and he asserted, what was then a novel principle, that Holy Scripture is for Christians the rule and standard of creed and conduct. Such writings made the scholar of Oxford and priest of Lutterworth a marked man, exciting the jealousy and resentment of his ecclesiastical superiors. In one year, 1377, he was twice summoned before spiritual tribunals. The first attempt to silence the popular professor and preacher having failed, recourse was had to the Papal Court. On the application of the English Episcopate, Gregory XI. put his seal to five bulls against Wyclif. These documents constituted the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London an apostolic commission, investing them with plenary powers to deal with the suspected priest, to secure his arrest and imprisonment, and to serve him with a citation to present himself before his Holiness at Rome. This second attack fared no better than the first. In compliance with their mandate Wyclif presented himself at Lambeth Palace. But the intervention of a powerful courtier and the menaces of London citizens, who forced their way into the chapel, intimidated his judges; and he left their tribunal in freedom, under, to save appearances, a prohibition against delivering from chair and pulpit nineteen theses pronounced heretical.

For upwards of seventeen years after these attempts to crush him, Wyclif continued to battle with the evil condition of the National Church, making use of academic lectures, learned treatises, popular tracts, and pulpit discourses in his strenuous endeavour to create and foster sound Scriptural living, and to serve the highest interests of his country and his Church.

Towards the close of 1382 Wyclif had a paralytic seizure, and he was totally disabled from appearing in public. On December 28, 1384, while hearing mass in Lutterworth Church, he sank down speechless and helpless, and on the 31st he expired. When closing his appreciation of the English Reformer, Beza says: "Nothing was wanting to thee, excellent champion, except the martyr's crown; which not being able to obtain in thy life, thou didst receive forty years after thy death." Then he goes on to tell, although not quite correctly, what was done by the Council of Constance, who not only cursed the memory of the dead man as an obstinate heretic, but ordered that his bones be taken out of the ground and thrown far off from any place of Christian burial. Old Fuller describes the carrying out of the order, when the Bishop of Lincoln, as Diocesan, sent his officers to the churchyard of Lutterworth. They took, he says, 'what was left out of the grave and burnt them to ashes, and cast them into Swift, a neighbouring brook running hard by. Thus this brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow Seas, and they into the main Ocean. And thus the ashes of Wyclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.'

It is his work in connection with Holy Scripture that has won for Wyclif the admiration and the gratitude of Christendom. Starting from the principle that God's evangel should be preached to all people he soon reached the conclusion that God's Word should become the common good of all by being translated into the language of all. This he set himself to bring about in the case of his own countrymen. How much he did with his own pen it may not now be possible to ascertain; but this is beyond doubt that it was he who first conceived the project of translating the whole Bible into English; that he took a personal share in the labour of its execution, and that the carrying through of the work was due to his unflagging determination and judicious guidance. By 1382 the grand design—the whole Bible for the use of the whole people—was an accomplished reality. Four years after the death of the great instaurator of Bible translation, a revised Wyclif Bible was completed under the charge of John Purvey, the trusted friend and parochial assistant of the Lutterworth rector. In 1850 there issued from the Oxford University: The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal books, in the earliest English versions, made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers.

From Contemporary portraits of reformers of religion and letters... with intro. and biographies by C. G. McCrie. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1906. At head of title: Beza's "Icones".

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