Translator + Controversialist
30 October 1384
From the Satucket Lectionary
John Wyclif (also spelled Wycliffe, Wycliff, Wicliffe, or Wiclif) was born in Yorkshire around 1330, and was educated at Oxford, becoming a doctor of divinity in 1372.
In 1374, King Edward III appointed him rector of Lutterworth, and later made him part of a deputation to meet at Brussels with a papal deputation to negotiate difference between King and Pope. About this time Wyclif began to argue for “dominion founded on grace.” By “dominion” he meant both the right to exercise authority in church or state and the right to own property. He maintained that these rights were given to men directly from God, and that they were not given or continued apart from sanctifying grace. Thus, a man in a state of mortal sin could not lawfully function as an official of church or state, nor could he lawfully own property. He argued that the Church had fallen into sin and that it ought therefore to give up all its property and that the clergy should live in complete poverty. This disendowment was to be carried out by the king. From 1376 to 1378 Wyclif was clerical advisor to John of Gaunt, who effectively governed England until his nephew, Richard II, came of age in 1381. It is not clear what influence each man had on the other, but it is conjectured that John of Gaunt, who had his own reasons for opposing the wealth and power of the clergy, may have used a naive Wyclif as his tool. In 1377, King and Parliament asked his judgement on whether it was lawful to withhold traditional payments from Rome, and he responded that it was. Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against him, but without effect. Wyclif’s last political act was in 1378, when he argued that criminals who had taken sanctuary in churches might lawfully be dragged out of sanctuary. He then retired to private life in Lutterworth in 1381.
From Lutterworth, he published a series of severe attacks on corruption in the Church. These, although bitterly worded even for the time, might have found agreement, were it not that he also attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation (that, once the Eucharist has been consecrated, the bread is no longer present in reality, but only in appearance). He taught instead that the bread remains, but that Christ is truly present in the bread, though not in a material manner. This view cost him the support of John of Gaunt and of many other friends whose support he could not afford to lose. In all his controversies, he declared himself a loyal churchman, willing to submit his cause and his opinions to the judgement of the Pope.
In 1381, disaster struck with the Peasants’ Revolt. It is unlikely that Wyclif’s teachings, circulated chiefly among the learned, had any role in instigating the revolt, but the fact that many peasants were setting out to put to death all landlords, lay and clerical alike, made Wyclif’s “dominion founded on grace” look extremely dangerous; and Wyclif’s movement was bloodily suppressed along with the Revolt. In 1382, all of his writings were banned. In that year Wyclif suffered a stroke, and on 31 December 1384 a second stroke killed him. After his death, his opponents finally succeeded in having him condemned for heresy, and in 1428 his body was removed from consecrated ground. Later generations saw him as a precursor of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s, but his direct influence on the beginnings of that movement appear to be surprisingly slight. (Only John Hus seems to have read any of his work.)
Wyclif is chiefly remembered and honored for his role in Bible translating. In the early 1380’s he led the movement for a translation of the Bible into English, and two complete translations (one much more idiomatic than the other) were made at his instigation. (How much of the translating he did himself, if any, remains uncertain.) He proposed the creation of a new religious order of Poor Preachers who would preach to the people from the English Bible. Today, the Wyclif Foundation, named in his honor, is committed to translating the Bible into all the languages spoken anywhere in the world.
Sources: (1) Every Man’s Book of Saints (Mowbray’s, London and Oxford, 1981); (2) Encyclopedia Britannica; (3) The New Catholic Encyclopedia; (4) H B Workman, John Wyclif: a Study of the English Medieval Church, 2 vol, 1926.
by James Kiefer