John Wycliffe, the First Protestant Reformer?

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John Wycliffe, the First Protestant Reformer

The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.

Isaiah 40:8

In the summer of 1348, the black plague hit the shores of England. For nearly two years, it ravaged the British Isles, and forty percent of its inhabitants lost their lives, throwing society into upheaval with food shortages and economic disarray. All tried to discern what has caused the death and destruction.

During that time, John Wycliffe was a resident teacher and theologian at the University of Oxford. Prior to the arrival of the Black Death, Wycliffe had observed the rise of what he termed “the Royalty of Clergy.” Wycliffe had long wondered about the contradiction of the existing priests’ lavish lifestyles with the teachings of Christ.

Wycliffe also noticed that the existing clergy had a higher death rate from the plague than the non-clerical population and made the unscientific observation that must have been related to their contradictory lifestyle.

At the same time of the Black Death, the nobility of England had begun to resent papal influence in running their empire. Local nobles saw this conflict as competition for resources from  far away rulers.

As Wycliffe formed his theories and began to go public, he gained political support and encouragement from the noble class. He called the clergy “a pest on society.” The more vocal Wycliffe became, the more support he gained from the nobles who also resented clergy holding political office.

One strong supporter of Wycliffe was John of Gaunt.

He was the third of the five surviving sons of King Edward III. Through his birthright, advantageous marriages, and significant land grants, he was one of England’s richest men.

Initially, Wycliffe benefited from John of Gaunt’s protection. A strange confluence of events had formulated his ideas regarding the Black Death and the rise of English nobility. His early writings and speeches centered around the question: what right does the papacy have to meddle in English affairs?

He was the grandfather of the idea that the Bible and only the Bible was the central authority in spiritual matters. He believed that local populations should be able to hear and read the word of God in their native languages. While Luther would later famously call the pope the Anti-Christ, Wycliffe actually used this phrase almost two centuries earlier.

Wycliffe also believed in the theory of pre-destination. In other words, God selects those who will go to heaven. As such, why was there a need for the existing church to intercede?

All of this coincidently tied in with the rise of the noble class.

While Luther is credited with the first translation of the Bible into the vernacular or native language, it was once again Wycliffe who accomplished this first. He is credited with personally translating sections of the four Gospels and supervising the translation of other parts of the Bible. In fact, 150 completed or partially completed manuscripts still exist today.

In his later years, Wycliff’s writings became directed at all authority and not just the Catholic church. This included English nobility. Though still protected by the noble class in his later years, he faced a period of temporary imprisonment. Though never formally abandoned by his native people, his last years were complicated.

Wycliffe died in 1384 at the age of sixty-four.

He was still attacked posthumously. In the early part of the 1400’s, his body was exhumed and burned at the stake. All likenesses of him were burned as well. The paintings we have of him today are from a much later period.

So, while Luther is often credited as being the originator of the Protestant Reformation, much of what Wycliffe did came first. He is the grandfather of the movement.

But like all periods in history, there is more to the story. Certainly, Wycliffe was sincere in his beliefs. But other factors were necessary for his voice to be heard. This is true of all future reformers like Hus, Luther, and Calvin.

Wycliffe was influenced by the horrible scourge of the black death.

It affected his gloomy view of the clergy and the world. In fact, Wycliffe believed the whole human race would be gone by 1400 AD. He correlated the high death rate amongst clergy with their contrary lifestyle.

Like other parts of the Reformation, the support of nobility was instrumental in creating the strength of the movement. This is not to say that Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and Calvin were not sincere, but they were greatly aided by an aligned group of native elite who protected them. Protection that they gave quickly to benefit themselves.

I do not believe we should view the Protestant Reformation as a win but as the creation of another way to worship. The early Protestant reformers were external to the Catholic church. Internally, the Catholic church has also had reformers. The confluence of these two types of reformers have led to a strengthened Christianity. The church—both Catholic and Protestant—have many who believe in reformation and improvement.

We should always remember, we are all Christians first!

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Photo by Piotr Gaertig on Unsplash