A Yorkshireman Delivers a Blow to Rome and a Bible to England – Part 1

John Wycliffe


John Wycliffe
(born ca.1320’s – died 1384)

Born near Old Richmond, Yorkshire, educated and established as a leading theologian and educator at Oxford University in the fourteenth century, Wycliffe has been called the ‘morning star’ of the Reformation.

He won the favour of the English King by publishing a controversial pamphlet arguing that the Pope had no right to levy a tax against England, enriching Rome. It was an argument the King liked. However, he was unpopular with the church authorities because of his persistent criticism of their idolatry (their worship of images and relics), the mass and the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were expensive certificates issued by Rome and said to ensure the release of a dead person’s soul from purgatory.  He was particularly concerned about the arrogance of the pope:
‘The Gospel is the only source of religion. The Roman Pontiff is a mere cut-purse and far from having the right to reprimand the whole world, he may be lawfully reproved by his inferiors, and even by ‘lay-men’!’[1]

He was incredibly popular with the common people but when he attacked the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation both Oxford and the King began to withdraw support from him.

The idea behind transubstantiation was that during the Mass the bread and wine are miraculously and literally transformed by the priest into the literal body and blood of Jesus. The English phrase ‘hocus pocus’ comes from the Latin phrases the priests uttered in order to make this transformation take place and is a fine early example of dry, derisive English humour.

But Wycliffe, like later Reformation heroes, had public proclamations issued against him from Rome. A formal declaration issued by the Pope at that time was known as a papal Bull. Not one, but five Bulls were issued against him. He was finally called by one of the two then existing popes to appear at Rome. Historian SM Houghton can’t resist telling us that both Popes declared the other to be the Antichrist; a dilemma, he asserts, if one believes in the infallibility of papal statements. [2]

Wycliffe stayed home, studied the Scriptures and trained preachers.  He equipped and sent out large numbers who successfully reached a great proportion of England (mockingly called ‘Lollards’).  At one point it was said that ‘every second person is a Lollard!’ But his worst crime was yet to come: to translate the scriptures into ordinary English.

[1] JH Merle d’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, Vol 1, p.82
[2] SM Houghton, Sketches From Church History, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, p.67

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© 2008 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

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