Wycliffe & the Lollards

A page from the First Wycliffe Bible

The Legacy of John Wycliffe

After the body of John Wycliffe (1329-1384) rested for nearly 50 years in the grave, the Bishop of Lincoln ordered that his remains be exhumed and unceremoniously burned by in 1429. The ashes were dispatched with contempt into the local river. This hatred for Wycliffe was nothing new, but a continuation of what he endured through the course of his life. But why the passion so long after his death? One might hastily, but wrongly, conclude, "Surely this man was a great heretic!"

Certainly, it was not his illustrious scholarship and rise to become the master of Balliol College, Oxford, that invited such scorn, for few have rivaled Wycliffe's academic career. The envy remaining for his accomplishments was great, but such does not explain the zeal to dig up his lifeless corpse after more than four decades.

John Wycliffe's statesmanship was also remarkable by any standard. He rose to public prominence after boldly asserting that the King of England owed no financial tribute to the Pope. This helped to carry the tide in the English parliament for so 'strange' a notion.

John of Gaunt used Wycliffe as a successful diplomat and a very capable negotiator. No doubt Wycliffe incurred many enemies in these spheres of activity. Still, these issues leave the fate of his remains unexplained.

The reason for what happened exists in the simple reality that John Wycliffe understood the true nature of being Christ's servant. Despite his weaknesses, he performed whatever was necessary to extend the kingdom of the Saviour, whom he loved and trusted unreservedly.

Wycliffe's affection for the truth demanded that he expose the indolent monks and worldly priests who were instrumental in debasing the church of his day. This did not make him popular, and John of Gaunt often protected Wycliffe from the plots against him. Even more noteworthy is the fact that Wycliffe proceeded beyond the exposure of clerical corruption to shake the very foundations of the church by boldly repudiating transubstantiation, the doctrine of the mass that held the whole Romish sacramental system together. As a result, the heads and fellows of the other great colleges of Oxford censured Wycliffe, and even his protector, John of Gaunt, warned him to back off from his attempts to reform the abuses in the church.

Wycliffe did not waver. He pressed on and rejected the whole sacramental system while affirming the free grace of God heralded plainly in the Bible. Undeterred by the condemnation of formal church councils and demands to appear before the Pope, he continued his monumental work of translating the Bible so that every man, even the plough boy, might possess the Word of God in their own language. Attempts to burn copies of the translation made them even more precious to those who possessed them. Though many sought to kill Wycliffe, the Lord mercifully allowed him to die peacefully in his own bed. In the end, the hatred for Wycliffe and his refusal to compromise the truth for human opinion was really a rejection of Jesus Christ and the gospel that proclaimed him.

As great as his translation work was, Wycliffe's most strategic labors among the illiterate people of England in his time involved organising his 'poor preachers' (also known as Lollards) to not only read but evangelically preach God's Word. The effect was amazing and the burning passion of the Lollards long outlasted even Wycliffe's exhumation. Despite vicious persecution, the movement beginning in his own time stood ready for the arrival of reviving grace 250 years later. Those who had walked the Lollard path did not find the writings of Martin Luther to be outlandish, for the German Reformer benefited greatly from the foundational work of Wycliffe and the Bohemian pre-Reformer John Huss after him.

This biographical sketch helps to explain why we have chosen the title, John Wycliffe Theological College. We do not endorse everything he believed, but we do stand in his legacy as those who have a burning passion to communicate the truth of God's Word in the face of error and to equip others to do the same. In a world where the church is so inclined to compromise and do what is right in the eyes of men, we labor to train faithful men to scatter the seed of God's Word.

For a helpful introductory biography on the life and work of Wycliffe, please consult David Fountain, John Wycliffe: The Dawn of the Reformation (GBR: Mayflower Christian Books, 1984).