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A Brief History of the Reformation (1517 – 1648)

Balliol College Portraits: 161 Oil on canvas, 27×21″, c. 1828. Poole number 5

Chapter 1: John Wycliffe

Martin Luther was not the church’s first reformer. In the latter part of the Middle Ages there arose many individuals who criticized the doctrine and government of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the most important was John Wycliffe (1320-1384). 

Wycliffe was born in England in the year 1320. He studied at the university of Oxford, and later became professor in that institution. Wycliffe believed the plague known as the Black Death was the judgment of God on a faithless people and a corrupt church. He charged his audience to turn back to the Bible and to God in repentance. Catholic doctrine taught that the teachings of the church were equal to the Bible, but Wycliffe insisted that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the only infallible authority; and, therefore, it is superior to the Church, its hierarchy, and its traditions. 

Wycliffe taught that individuals need to establish a direct and personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. No priest or pope could serve as a mediator between God and man. Wycliffe denounced the worship of images, relics, the sale of indulgences, masses for the dead, processions, and pilgrimages. Wycliffe also denounced the Pope as Antichrist; and he condemned the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that at the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus. 

The Bible at that time was written in Latin and could not be read by the people. In order that Christians in England might be able to read the Bible for themselves, Wycliffe translated it into the English language. He was the first to translate the Bible into the language of the people. Since few people could read, Wycliffe tackled this obstacle through a massive literacy campaign to teach people to read God’s word without the need of the clergy. Wycliffe’s followers, called the “Lollards,” carried his teaching and the newly translated Bible into many parts
of England. 

The pope and the clergy “did all they could to destroy Wycliffe. But a large portion of the English people and among them many powerful nobles were in hearty sympathy with the reformer. These nobles protected him so that he did not fall into the hands of his persecutors. Wycliffe died in peace on the last day of the year 1384” (Kuiper, The Church in History, 144). 

Because of his influence, Wycliffe helped to prepare the way for the Reformation, and for this reason has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.”

 David Fagrey
Grace Reformed Church, Rapid City, SD

Anecdotes of Church History | Reformation History


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