John Wycliffe

(circa 1328-1384)

Alfred E. Bouter

This biographical sketch is part of the article:

Why the Reformation? (T&T 2001) by A E Bouter

John Wycliffe has been termed 'the Morning Star of the Reformation.' He advocated some of the same ideas of Scripture as later did Martin Luther and John Calvin, though he died almost one hundred years before Luther was born.  Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic priest, was highly educated and served on the faculty at Oxford University in England most of his life.  His first attempts at reform were to eliminate immoral clergymen (his associates) and to strip the Roman Catholic Church of its vast property holdings, which Wycliffe believed were a cause of much ecclesiastical evil. 

Wycliffe was supported and protected in his views by certain English noblemen who were willing to take control of Church property. But beginning in 1378 Wycliffe, mainly through his continuing study of the Bible, started publicly opposing some of the basic dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church.  He attacked the authority of the Pope, asserting that Christ is the only head of the Church (during much of Wycliffe's life there were times when more than one man claimed to be pope, one in Avignon in France and one in Rome).[1] 

Wycliffe also asserted that the Bible, and not the Roman Church, was the only authority for Christians.

In 1382, Wycliffe completed his translation of the New Testament into English, believing the Bible should be in the people's own language.  In 1384, a friend of Wycliffe's completed the Old Testament. Also in 1382, Wycliffe publicly rejected the dogma of trans-substantiation, the teaching that during the Mass, the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ (this still is Roman Catholic dogma). 

One consequence of Wycliffe's view was that salvation was no longer in the hands of the priests as they dispensed the elements.  A local church council in London condemned Wycliffe's view on transubstantiation in 1382, and he was forced to leave Oxford and move to a parish in Lutterworth, England.  But by then his ideas were being spread by his former students at Oxford and by lay-preachers called Lollards. 

In 1401, it became punishable by death to preach Wycliffe's ideas in England.  Wycliffe died in 1384, so it was too late to punish him directly. However, the Roman Church claims it can reach beyond the grave.  The Council of Constance (1414-1418) condemned Wycliffe, and ordered his bones exhumed from their grave in the Lutterworth churchyard, and cast at a distance from the sepulchre of the church. They were burned and cast into a nearby river.

[1] The Coptic Church has to this day its own pope (presently H.H. Pope Shenouda III) presiding over the ancient See of St Mark of Alexandria since before the Roman pope.