The Morning Star of the Reformation
“Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Revelation 3:4, 5).
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The above text applies to the time of John Wycliffe, a faithful witness who
worked tirelessly to provide Bibles for all English-speaking people. Wycliffe came on the scene about 200 years after Waldo, in the mid 1300’s. Unlike Peter Waldo he was not a man of business.
One historian described him: “[Wycliffe] was a pupil, a graduate, a master, a doctor, and a professor in Oxford University, an institution second to none in Europe. … In Oxford, Wycliffe stood without a rival. He was a man of slender frame, genial disposition, immense energy, immovable conviction, and of austere plainness and purity of life” (History of the Church of God, page 457, Hassell).
Another historian wrote, “The great theme of Wycliffe’s life was summed up in his glorious statement, ‘The sacred Scriptures be the property of the people, and one which no party should be allowed to wrest from them’ ” (Foxe’s
Christian Martyrs, Moody Press, page 323).
Though he came from a different background than Waldo, his passion for the Bible was just as fervent. They both believed that having a readable Bible in the hands of the people was an important principle. Today there are over 500 English translations available. Before Wycliffe there were none. If someone wanted to read the Bible, they had to learn Latin, or Provence, an ancient version of French.
The Roman Catholic church knew that common people reading the Bible would lead to questioning church dogma and so opposed it at every turn. But having Bibles available for the masses was going to be difficult, since books
were still handwritten. It would be another 80 years before Gutenberg’s printing press began to mass produce books. So initially, when the Bible was translated into common languages, complete Bibles were still uncommon.1
At age 56, Wycliffe followed his predecessors in publicly criticizing the clergy. He observed that wealth and power had so corrupted the church that reform was needed and that the church should return to the poverty and simplicity
of the Apostles. He even preached that the property of the church should be taken over by the state. In observing the conduct of Papacy, Wycliffe finally concluded that the prophecies concerning antichrist in the book of Daniel
applied to that system. He wrote pamphlets and gave lectures that denounced the Papacy and preached that the Bible, not the Catholic church, should be the only rule people should follow. He opposed church hierarchy, the priesthood, indulgences, confession, penance, veneration of images, and transubstantiation.
(1) Despite the zeal with which the church sought to destroy Wycliffe’s Bibles, there still exist about 150 complete or partial manuscripts. From this, we can see how widely it was circulated in the fifteenth century. These books were a labor of love by the saints of the Gospel Age. They wrote not just with ink but with their own blood. We should feel a solemn bond with brethren who devoted their lives to the preservation and advancement of God’s word. Can we do any less?
Wycliffe’s teachings became popular among his students at Oxford and he soon had a substantial following. He organized these followers into a group of itinerant preachers. They took his message throughout England and beyond.
They became known as “The Lollards.”
The origin of the name Lollards is interesting. There are at least three possibilities as to its etymology, all of which are derogatory. It has been suggested that since Wycliffe’s teaching had become popular in Holland, the word had been taken from the Dutch word, lollaerd, which means to lull, as when a mother lulls her child to sleep. Our English word “lullaby” is so derived. His enemies said that Wycliffe’s teachings were lulling people to sleep.
The second possibility is that the word comes from the Latin lolium, which means “tares.” This meant the Lollards were tares mingled with the Catholic wheat. The third possibility is that it comes from the old English word loller,
which means “a lazy vagabond or a fraudulent beggar.” Initially the Lollards hated the name but later came to regard it as a badge of honor, distinguishing themselves from the church.
After translating the Bible, Wycliffe’s followers laboriously transcribed
additional copies. It was a tedious process, often taking months to produce just one Bible.
Wycliffe lived about 150 years before the Reformation, but his teachings
were to become the foundation of Luther’s work. Protestant historians refer to Wycliffe as the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” We are grateful for the courageous people who stood up for the truth and were not intimidated by the power of their enemies.
Though he was excommunicated and lost his position at Oxford, Wycliffe himself died a natural death. Unlike their leader, the Lollards were not allowed to die peacefully. Like the Waldensians before them, they were methodically hunted almost to extinction.
Some 40 years after his death, as an act of contempt, Pope Martin V ordered Wycliffe’s bones removed from his local parish cemetery and burned. The ashes were then thrown into a local river. The English poet William Wordsworth once wrote that the teachings of Wycliffe would spread throughout the world as his ashes spread to the sea. And so they have.
Wycliffe’s message spread throughout Europe. One year before his death King Richard II of England married Princess Ann of Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic). Princess Ann favored Wycliffe’s doctrines and her
influence may be the reason Wycliffe himself was not killed.
Ann began offering Bohemian students scholarships to attend Oxford University where they learned the teachings of Wycliffe. Impressed with his message, they carried his teachings back home where John Huss was to
learn of them.
One never knows how their stand for truth will affect others. The results of one’s work are in the Lord’s hands. Our responsibility is simply to “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). These men of God did their part and faithfully preserved God’s word.