Not many people have been sentenced to death more than forty years after they actually died!
But one man, known as ‘The Morning Star of the Reformation,’ was an extraordinary man indeed.
In fact, he’s the reason we have an English Bible today.
John Wycliffe was born sometime between 1324 and 1330 on a sheep farm in Yorkshire, England.
A bright young man, he received most of his early education at home, showing a natural aptitude for theology and philosophy.
Wycliffe was born into a turbulent time in England. Throughout the 1300s, the Church of England increasingly tried to restrict access to the Bible and to spirituality in everyday life.
For this reason, the common people of England had begun to resent church officials. Yet there was still a vibrant longing for the Word of God and for sound preaching among the laypeople.
Wycliffe was given the opportunity to attend Oxford University when he was in his late teens or early twenties. At Oxford, he studied a broad variety of subjects, showing interest in science, mathematics, theology, and philosophy.
He quickly became known for his keen insight and natural talent for debate and argumentation. Even his ideological opponents at Oxford admitted that he was unusually gifted with words and arguments!
However, Wycliffe’s studies at Oxford were repeatedly interrupted by outbreaks of the Black Death and he wasn’t able to earn his official doctorate from the university until 1372, near the end of his life.
But the lack of a doctorate didn’t matter. Wycliffe was considered the leading theologian and philosopher of his day, both in England and throughout Europe.
Rather than using his education and fame to pursue personal gain, as many of his fellow scholars did, John Wycliffe began to take note of the struggles within the Church of England.
Many church officials were abusing their authority to seek wealth and oppress the common people. Wycliffe argued that Christ’s Gospel called for peace, humility, and sacrifice, and he publicly reminded church leadership of key Biblical concepts.
Naturally, the officials were not pleased with Wycliffe’s inflammatory statements, and they charged him with heresy against the Church.
Even though Wycliffe knew that his actions would have grave consequences, he refused to recant his statements. He began to write bold theological works and stirred up church politics, urging spiritual reforms and a removal of church officials from foreign alliances.
“I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death,” Wycliffe said. “I have followed the Sacred Scriptures.”
Wycliffe repeatedly argued that church officials should be considered second in authority to the Word of God, which was a controversial and dangerous statement in his day.
As Wycliffe developed his arguments and fought for the rights of the common people, he realized that most of the people he was defending couldn’t even read the Scripture on which he based his statements.
Only Latin translations of the Bible were available at the time, and only those who attended universities like Oxford could read Latin. Common Englishmen were limited to hearing Scripture read in church buildings each Sunday.
When this realization dawned on Wycliffe, he immediately began translating the Bible into English. With the help of a friend, John Purvey, he distributed copies of his translation to common people across England.
“Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English,” Wycliffe asserted. “Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
Church officials were outraged by Wycliffe’s translation, saying, “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to [laypeople], and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence.”
It was important, these officials believed, to restrict Scriptural access to those who were specially educated for it. As a result, they worked harder than ever to convict Wycliffe of heresy in order to kill him.
Sadly, Wycliffe died before his translation was complete—but also before the church authorities could convict him of heresy.
Wycliffe’s friend, John Purvey, is widely considered responsible for continuing the translation work which transformed the spiritual landscape in England.
It was thanks to the availability of the Scriptures in English that the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, bringing enlightenment and change! In fact, John Wycliffe is known as ‘The Morning Star of the Reformation’ for his work.
But not everyone was grateful for Wycliffe’s work in translation and advocacy. Decades after his death, church officials finally declared him a heretic, dug up his remains, and burned them.
The ashes of John Wycliffe were cast into the River Swift as a final insult. But for all those of us who have benefitted from having a Bible in our own language, this act is also symbolic of the incredibly broad impact Wycliffe had on the world!
One historian observed, “Thus the 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 Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”
Wycliffe pioneered the idea of Bible translation as key to the Christian life. Bible translators around the world still carry on his transformative work today!
If you have an English Bible in your home, praise God for His generosity through the work and life of John Wycliffe.