This Day in History – Wycliffe Summoned to London

On February 19, 1377, John Wycliffe was summoned before the Bishop of London, William Courtenay, to answer to the charge of heresy. 

Called “the Morningstar of the Reformation,” Wycliffe (1330-1384) was to produce the first English translation of the Bible.  He was a learned and capable advocate for Scripture and a tireless critic of Rome. 

The unique character of the Reformation in England—which included a strong defense of English sovereignty and independence, and her right to be free from meddling foreign prelates—begins with Wycliffe.  (On second thought, we could argue that it began with Stephen Langton, and continued with Wycliffe.)  The English-speaking people seem to be almost unique in their love of law and ordered liberty, and for hundreds of years have viewed the Roman Power with justified suspicion as a potential threat to that liberty. 

John Wycliffe did not like what the Roman Catholic Church was doing to his country, particularly through the mendicant friars:

These friars swarmed in England, casting a blight upon the greatness and prosperity of the nation. Industry, education, morals, all felt the withering influence. The monk's life of idleness and beggary was not only a heavy drain upon the resources of the people, but it brought useful labor into contempt. The youth were demoralized and corrupted. 

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The pope had bestowed on these monks the power to hear confessions and to grant pardon. This became a source of great evil. Bent on enhancing their gains, the friars were so ready to grant absolution that criminals of all descriptions resorted to them, and, as a result, the worst vices rapidly increased. The sick and the poor were left to suffer, while the gifts that should have relieved their wants went to the monks, who with threats demanded the alms of the people, denouncing the impiety of those who should withhold gifts from their orders. Notwithstanding their profession of poverty, the wealth of the friars was constantly increasing, and their magnificent edifices and luxurious tables made more apparent the growing poverty of the nation. GC 82-84

Wycliffe criticized the friars, but soon went straight to the root of the problem: Rome.  In his first major tract on church-state relations, “On Divine Dominion” (ca -1374), Wycliffe took aim at papal authority, arguing that there was nothing in the Bible to support even the existence of the papacy.  He would later argue that the papacy obscured the true scriptural authority for the Christian Church.

In his second major tract, “On Civil Dominion (ca 1375), Wycliffe argued that the Roman Catholic Church could not lawfully assert authority over the English crown. “There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is king or . . . [the pope] is king. We make our choice. We accept Edward of England and refuse . . . Rome.”  Wycliffe argued that if there is to be a superior lord or sovereign above the government of England, He must be no other than Christ Himself.  The pope was a mere man, liable as other men to sin, and had no claim to be the king’s overlord in temporal matters.

The popes of that time, Urban V and Gregory XI, were trying to force Edward III to resume making large annual payments to the Vatican that an earlier pontiff had forced on King John.  Edward appealed to Parliament, where Wycliffe’s ideas were influential, and Parliament agreed to reject the papacy’s demands.  Wycliffe stated, “as I am the king’s peculiar clerk [cleric], I the more willingly undertake the office of defending and counseling that the king exercises his just rule in the realm of England when he refuses tribute to the Roman pontiff.”

Pope Gregory XI considered that, by speaking out against his right to collect monetary tribute, Wycliffe had quit preaching and gone to meddling.  He issued five papal bulls, one of which was directed at Oxford University:

“ . . .  it has come to our ears that John de Wycliffe, rector of the church of Lutterworth in the diocese of Lincoln, professor of the sacred Scriptures (would that he were not also Master of Errors) has fallen into such a detestable madness that he does not hesitate to dogmatize and publicly preach, or rather vomit forth from the recess of his breast certain propositions and conclusions which are erroneous and false.   . . . we command your university . . . by the apostolic authority, in virtue of your sacred obedience and under penalty of the deprivation of all favors, indulgences, and privileges granted to you and your university by the said see, for the future not to permit to be asserted or proposed to any extent whatever, the opinions, conclusions, and propositions which are in variance with good morals and faith, even when those proposing them strive to defend them under a certain fanciful wresting of words or terms.  Moreover, you are on our authority to arrest the said John, or cause him to be arrested, and send him under trustworthy guard to our venerable brother, the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, or to one of them. 

On February 19, 1377, Wycliffe appeared at the Lady Chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Although then only about 47 years old, he was already white-haired and frail.  He probably would have been found guilty of heresy and condemned to death had he not been protected by John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and uncle to Richard II.  Because Edward was 4 months from death and Richard was ten years old, John of Gaunt was just then the most powerful man in England, and Bishop Courtenay, soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, dared not oppose him.

“But two of the most powerful princes in the kingdom accompanied him to the tribunal; and the people, surrounding the building and rushing in, so intimidated the judges that the proceedings were for the time suspended, and [Wycliffe] was allowed to go his way in peace. A little later, Edward III, whom in his old age the prelates were seeking to influence against the Reformer, died, and Wycliffe's former protector [John of Gaunt] became regent of the kingdom [for the ten-year old Richard II].”  GC 85-86

The hand of providence in these events is unmistakable. 

Providential events further protected Wycliffe when, after the death of Gregory XI in March, 1378, rival claimants battled for control of the papacy.  In what has been called “the Western Schism,” Bartolomeo Prignano was elected Pope Urban VI, but another faction elected Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII.  This schism was not finally healed until 1417, at the Counsel of Constance (1414-1418).

“This occurrence greatly weakened the power of the papacy. The rival factions had all they could do to attack each other, and Wycliffe for a time had rest. Anathemas and recriminations were flying from pope to pope, and torrents of blood were poured out to support their conflicting claims. Crimes and scandals flooded the church. Meanwhile the Reformer, in the quiet retirement of his parish of Lutterworth, was laboring diligently to point men from the contending popes to Jesus, the Prince of Peace.”  GC 86

The great work of the last seven years of Wycliffe’s life was to translate the Bible into English for the very first time.  

At last the work was completed--the first English translation of the Bible ever made. The word of God was opened to England. The Reformer feared not now the prison or the stake. He had placed in the hands of the English people a light which should never be extinguished. In giving the Bible to his countrymen, he had done more to break the fetters of ignorance and vice, more to liberate and elevate his country, than was ever achieved by the most brilliant victories on fields of battle. GC 88

Decades after Wycliffe’s death, and after repairing the “Western Schism,” the Counsel of Constance gave orders that Wycliffe’s bones be dug up, burned, and his ashes scattered into the River Swift.  Thus, his ashes became the symbol of his influence, as the Swift “conveyed his ashes into Avon, the Avon into Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas, and they into the main ocean to disperse them all the world over.”

The character of Wycliffe is a testimony to the educating, transforming power of the Holy Scriptures. It was the Bible that made him what he was. The effort to grasp the great truths of revelation imparts freshness and vigor to all the faculties. It expands the mind, sharpens the perceptions, and ripens the judgment. The study of the Bible will ennoble every thought, feeling, and aspiration as no other study can. It gives stability of purpose, patience, courage, and fortitude; it refines the character and sanctifies the soul. An earnest, reverent study of the Scriptures, bringing the mind of the student in direct contact with the infinite mind, would give to the world men of stronger and more active intellect, as well as of nobler principle, than has ever resulted from the ablest training that human philosophy affords. "The entrance of Thy words," says the psalmist, "giveth light; it giveth understanding." Psalm 119:130.


Also on this day:  On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines began the invasion of Iwo Jima.  Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph of the flag-raising atop Mt. Suribachi on February 23rd includes one man, Harlan Block, who was raised by Seventh-day Adventist parents and educated, in part, at Valley Grande Academy, the SDA boarding school in south Texas.  "Bloody Iwo" was the only time the marines suffered more casualties—6,800 killed and over 19,000 wounded—than the total number of enemy combatants involved.  Some 18,000 of the 21,000 Japanese defenders were either killed in combat or committed ritual suicide.  Historians question whether the island’s use as an emergency landing field for fighter planes and B-29 bombers justified the enormous cost of securing it.  The extreme bloodletting at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa convinced President Truman to use the atomic bomb to obviate an invasion of the Japanese home islands.