John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe, born around 1330 in England, was one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation, but is best known for his translation of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.  His goal was to reform, not replace the Catholic Church though he challenged some core beliefs of the Catholic Church, such as the doctrine of transubstantiation and the absolute authority of the papacy. He argued for simpler church structures, criticized corruption within the clergy, and advocated for the authority of scripture over papal pronouncements. He penned numerous tracts, treatises, and sermons, propagating his ideas and sparking fierce debates in theological circles.

Wycliffe preached that, as the church was in sin, it ought to give up its possessions and return to evangelical poverty. The disendowment was, to be carried out by the state, and particularly by the king.  He believed in  predestinarianism – an “invisible” church of the elect – those predestined to be saved – rather than in the “visible” organized, institutional church of his day. Wycliffe taught against the doctrine of f transubstantiation—that the substance of the bread and wine used in the Eucharist is changed into the body and blood of Christ -and condemned the doctrine as idolatrous and unscriptural.

For his outspokenness, Wycliffe was declared a heretic though never formally condemned in his lifetime. Facing condemnation, he retreated to his parish in Lutterworth, where he died in 1384. The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on May 4, 1415, and decreed that Wycliffe’s works should be burned and his bodily remains removed from consecrated ground. This order, confirmed by Pope Martin V, was carried out in 1428, Wycliffe’s corpse was exhumed, on the orders of the bishop. The remains were burned, and the ashes drowned in the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth.[

The Lollards

The follower s of Wycliff were known as the Lollards, a pejorative term the Dutch lollaert or “mumbler.”The name was applied to those suspected of combining pious pretensions with heretical beliefs.  Many attributed the English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 to Wycliffe’s teachings.

The first Lollard group (c. 1382) were many of Wycliffe’s colleagues at Oxford led by Nicholas of Hereford. The Twelve Conclusions, intended to show the heresies of the Lollards was presented to the Parliament of 1395. The document including accusations that

  • the Church in England had become subservient to her “stepmother the great church of Rome” since the Roman ritual of ordination had no warrant in Scripture,
  • Clerical celibacy occasioned unnatural lust,
  • the “feigned miracle” of transubstantiation led men into idolatry and was related to necromancy,
  • condemned special prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, and offerings to images,
  • declared Confession to a priest unnecessary for salvation, and
  • warfare was contrary to the New Testament.

The document claimed that vows of chastity by nuns led to the horrors of abortion and child murder and the multitude of unnecessary arts and crafts pursued in the church encouraged “waste, curiosity, and disguising.”

In 1401, the Lollards’ first martyr, William Sawtrey, was burned a few days followed days afterward by an English statute for burning heretics.

Despite the persecution, the Lollards persisted. In 1414, a Lollard rising led by Sir John Oldcastle was quickly defeated by Henry V and marked the end of the Lollards’ overt political influence.