John Wycliffe is famed as the man who first translated the whole Bible into English. He was born in the 1320s and died in 1384 and, for much of his life, he was a theologian, lecturer and academic at Oxford University. It was only at the very end of his life that he turned to Bible translation.

Part of the first page of the Gospel of John from a Wycliffe Bible. It is illustrated with a figure writing in a book, observed by a bird, with stars in the background John Cassell / Public domain: Facsimile from a Wycliffe Bible

In his day, John Wycliffe was highly influential in church and political life. But once he was dead, the church sought to eradicate that influence. He was declared a heretic after his death and in 1428 his bones were dug up and burnt. Yet, despite the facts that all he wrote had to be laboriously hand copied and that his translation work might not pass muster by later standards, his influence grew and grew. Today, we call him ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation’.

There is more to this man than first meets the eye. Intrigued? Read on…

The use of English was changing in early 14th-century England. The church might not have been keeping up with this change, but God was!

In England, at the start of the 14th century, the language of sophistication, education and power was not English. The language of the king’s court was Anglo-Norman, a variety of French. Indeed, no king of this period spoke English as their mother tongue. Both Parliament and the law courts likewise used this form of French. University lectures were conducted in Latin as were church services. The variety of Anglo-Saxon that today we call Middle English was spoken by those people who were not landowners – serfs and the ‘common people’, as they were termed. Education and knowledge, including religious knowledge, were accessible only to those with Latin, and political and economic power was accessible only to those who knew Anglo-Norman.

A stained glass window showing the coat of arms of Edward III Philadelphia Museum of Art. Edward III’s coat of arms. The fleurs de lys represent his claim to the French throne

Edward III, who was King of England 1327–77 (thus almost matching Wycliffe’s life), wanted to regain some of the territory in France, which he considered to be his by ancestral right. He is known for starting the Hundred Years’ War with France. But in order to get the support of his English nobles, the King built up anti-French sentiment by emphasising English and Englishness. The new value he put on the English language is exemplified in a 1362 Act of Parliament, known as the Statute of Pleading, that insisted law courts operate in English. Parliament also opened for the first time in English in 1377. This was also the period when Chaucer began writing in English.

Thus John Wycliffe’s advocacy of the use of English rode a wave of increasing support for English from the crown. He lectured publicly in Oxford using English, not Latin as would have been usual. He preached in English and expounded the Scriptures in English.

There had long been an uneasy relationship between the English King and the Church, which owed allegiance to the Pope in Rome. The story of the tensions between Archbishop Thomas Becket and Henry II in the 12th century is well known. Less known is the story of 13th-century King John and his dispute with Rome over who had the authority to appoint the archbishop. King John lost that argument, and the consequences were still keenly felt by Edward III a century later. Resentment against Rome in royal circles was rife.

John Wycliffe attacked church privilege and misconduct

The Church had its own problems in this period too. 1377 saw the start of the Western Schism with two (and eventually three) popes. Corruption and misuse of power in the church was widespread and a source of much resentment.

Chris Stafford / Wycliffe's Church of St Mary’s Lutterworth

So when Wycliffe attacked church privilege and misconduct, it resonated. He found support from no less a figure than John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward and father of the future Henry IV. Wycliffe attacked a number of church practices, which, he argued, varied from what the Scriptures taught, such as the veneration of saints and requiem masses.

He also launched a scathing attack on the mendicant friars, a group of men who were supposed to live a life of simplicity focused on ministry, but had instead become a corrupt group feeding on the naivety of the common people. By way of alternative, he established a company of followers who did indeed lead a simple life, dedicated to teaching the word of God. These men and women were later referred to as ‘Lollards’.

In 1374, Wycliffe was made rector of St Mary’s Church, Lutterworth, in Leicestershire. Such a position might have provided the average Oxford lecturer with a little extra income. But Wycliffe took this role very seriously and was constantly ministering to the ordinary people in Lutterworth in English, instructing them in his sermons about what the Scriptures taught.

A page from a John Wycliffe Bible with decorative flourishes in blue and red ink John’s Gospel in a copy of John Wycliffe's translation of the Bible
At the right time, God had the right people ready and able

After the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, Wycliffe’s position at the heart of English life became untenable. He was obliged to retire to Lutterworth where he had the freedom to translate the Latin Scriptures into the language of the common people. We know little of how he did that, but almost certainly he had help from his followers. At the right time, God had the right people ready and able.

In the years after his death in 1384, it was his followers, the Lollards, who went around teaching from handwritten copies of the translation. What a Bible impact team!

Despite severe persecution, the Lollards continued to make an impact; in the end it was their vision that prevailed. The Church tried to suppress Wycliffe’s influence, but the fact that he showed translation could – indeed should – be done, sent shock waves around Europe that no church council could stop. Jan Hus in Prague was deeply influenced by Wycliffe’s thinking and from Hus there is a clear link to the 16th-century Reformation.

And the Bible translation movement continues today, the effects of which ripple out into all areas of life and from generation to generation. Follow the link below to find out more.

Story by: David Morgan

Date: 26/06/2022

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