Wycliffe and his Followers
JOHN WYCLIFFE was undoubtedly the boldest and the ablest of the Reformers before the Reformation. The ecclesiastical history of England from its beginning to its end presents scarcely another exponent of religions faith and enterprise who stands upon the same plane with him as respects either originality or breadth of achievement. At least as regards the former title to eminence, English history may be challenged to name his superior. Wycliffe was emphatically a pioneer, pointing out in the fourteenth century the course which only daring souls were ready to enter in the sixteenth. In a double sense he was an innovator. Both in doctrines and methods of religious work he ran against the current of his age.
It might be expected that the biography of such a man would be filled with stirring recitals. As he broke more radically with the ecclesiastical system of his time than did a Huss or a Savonarola, it might be expected that be mould appear as the centre of a greater commotion, and that his life would be preeminently rich in that dramatic interest which forms so large an element in theirs. But the case is quite otherwise. The form of Wycliffe retreats behind his work. He is made known to us as the thinker and organizer. His record bespeaks a man in whom intellect and will were more conspicuous factors than sensibility and passionate enthusiasm. He saw his way with keenness of logical insight, and pursued if with unshaken resolution. But at the same time be pursued if without ostentation; he held himself in poise, and made no bids for a showy tournament in the sight of the public. Moreover, the balance of factors in Church and State tended to modify the sharpness of assaults against his person. So it results that we have a great man and & great work, but no exciting drama, no list of scenes in which the hero rivets our attention by the romantic interest of his experiences.
Guided by Providence, or by his own discretion, Wycliffe took plenty of time to lay the foundation. He did not attempt his great task until he had been well schooled in knowledge of men and things, and, most important of all, in knowledge of himself. Two thirds of his life had passed before he assumed to deal with questions of public, concern and it was only in the last six years of his life that he entered, in the more positive and comprehensive sense, upon the role of the reformer. If we suppose that he was born about 1320 and entered Oxford at the age of fifteen (no unusual age to begin university life in that era), his world for the next thirty years was the university.
At Oxford, which, as one of the great seats of learning, held its thousands of students, 1 Wycliffe passed, no doubt, 1 The halls for students in the thirteenth century are said to have numbered three hundred, each of which could accommodate one hundred boarders. through the ordinary mediaeval curriculum. Having studied the seven arts composing the trivium and quadrivium, namely, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, he was prepared to take up theology and canon law. Rising erelong to the dignity of a teacher, he was allowed, according to the custom of the time, to exercise his immature powers in lecturing on the Bible, and finally was advanced to the high honor of lecturing on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, in other words, upon the approved list of topics ill systematic theology. Meanwhile, he became a candidate for official distinctions. He appears as Fellow of Merton College in 1356, as Master of Balliol in 1360, and as Warden of Canterbury Hall in 1365. Some time within tile decade following this last date he was made Doctor of Theology. Four years previous to the same date he received (at Fillingham) the first of his pastoral charges, which, however, are not supposed to have occasioned any lengthy absence from Oxford. Lutterworth, the last of his parishes, and the asylum of his closing years, was appointed to him in 1374.
Wycliffe, then, up to an advanced point in his life was a man of the university. As he stood at Oxford in 1365, he was simply the scholastic philosopher. He had not attempted as yet to figure in any other character. He was known as the learned teacher, the trained disputant, a man who carried keen weapons and had a sure thrust, a formidable antagonist upon the field of debate. Such qualities were a sure passport to distinction. For the mediaeval valuation, we may say overvaluation, of logic was still rife. Skill in disputation was still the scholar's badge of honor. The renown of the master disputants, the keen metaphysicians of the preceding century - such as an Alexander Hales, a Thomas Aquinas, and a Dune Scotus -- still gave men the standard of estimate. As being in this glorious succession, Wycliffe occupied a most enviable place among his English contemporaries. He was indeed regarded by them as the most eminent scholastic of the age. Even so strong an opponent as the chronicler Knighton spoke of him in these terms: "In theology he was the most eminent doctor in those days. In philosophy he was reputed second to none, in scholastic studies incomparable,"1 Another tribute to his preeminent rank as a scholastic, as some have judged, may be found in the comparative immunity which he enjoyed, even after his position was known to be that of sharp antagonism to the existing church system. "Nothing," says Green, "marks more strongly the grandeur of Wycliffe's position as the last of the great schoolmen, than the reluctance of so bold a man as Courtenay, even after his triumph over Oxford, to take extreme measures against the head of Lollardry." 2 No doubt the imperious archbishop had other reasons for moderation than awe of Wycliffe's fame as a thinker 1 Quoted by Lechler, John Wycliffe and his English Precursors, p. 424. A more remarkable testimonial still, if its genuineness could be trusted, was that which appeared in 1406, in the name of the University of Oxford. While vouching for the pure life and orthodox faith of Wycliffe, it extols him as a man " who had written upon the themes of logic, philosophy, theology, and morals, without, we believe, an equal among all the representatives of our university." (Wilkins, Concilia, iii. 802.) Lechler is inclined to believe in the genuineness of this document; but such an endorsement of Wycliffe at that date seems rather incredible. 2 History of the English People. and scholar; but we can readily believe that directly or indirectly this was one of the causes which held the persecutor in check.
What are we to say of this high estimate of contemporaries ? Taken literally, it is no doubt overdrawn. While in recent times too little account has been made of Wycliffe's distinction as a great scholastic doctor, a full acquaintance with his writings is not likely to make him fairly a rival of the more celebrated names of scholasticism. Even among these of his own century there were two, namely, Durandus and Occam, who will in all likelihood continue to take precedence of him. Within the circle of scholasticism Wycliffe was not the greatest. His honor is, that he was not confined to that circle, that he was a great deal more than a scholastic, that he thought himself clear of the trammels of the school at so many points, that his nature was broad and many-sided enough to give an ample place to the practical alongside of the speculative, and to correct the aberrations of the latter by means of the data supplied by the former.
One of the distinguishing features in the philosophic teaching of Wycliffe was his advocacy of realism. Under the lead of Occam in the fourteenth century, nominalism, which had been generally repudiated since the initial stage of scholasticism, claimed a revival. This naturally called out the champions of realism. There was a division of parties on the subject at Oxford, as there was likewise at Paris and Prague. Wycliffe, like his Bohemian disciple, John Huss, was an emphatic realist. His position was essentially the Platonic, As Plate regarded universals-the notions of genus and species, the Ideas as they were called in his system--as the prius of all individual being, objectively the ground of existence in individual things and subjectively the principle of rational thinking, so also did Wycliffe. There was, however, this difference between Plato's representation and that of Wycliffe. The former left the relation of the Ideas to the Divine Mind ambiguous. The latter affirmed with great distinctness and emphasis that the Ideas are in the mind of God. They are the thoughts of God. God thinks them in the Logos. The Logos is the inclusive content of the Ideas, and as the Logos is of the essence of God, so are the Ideas. While formally distinguished from God, they are essentially identical with Him.1 Trialogus, i. 8-10, ii. 3. The theological bearing of this tenet with Wycliffe was the same as it has been with others who have held it in an equally unqualified form. It nurtured in him a bias to go hack of the concrete to the general, to make the universal overshadow the individual, to magnify the agency of God to the limitation of the autonomy of the creature. In a word, it impelled him, as embracing it with warmth and enthusiasm, to make God all in all. The practical advantage of this tendency is that it ministers to self-humiliation, to devotion, to worship. Its speculative danger is, that, unless held in check, it is liable to push one across the border of theism into the limbo of pantheism. Wycliffe at times seems to approach dangerously near to the pantheistic edge. Joining the declaration that the Ideas which God thinks in the Logos are of the essence of God with the declaration that they are at the same time the ground of being in every existing thing, he stands in face of the conclusion that every existing thing is in its ground identical with God. Still, Wycliffe had no notion of accepting the pantheistic outcome, and uttered his caveat against it. If criticism be passed upon him, the criticism should be, that on the very difficult subject of adjusting the relation of God to the creature he hardly posited for the latter a sufficiently distinct sphere.
Wycliffe next appears in the character of patriot or ecclesiastico-political reformer. From 1366 to 1378 his career was such as is most aptly described by these terms. "In the first twelve years of his public activity," says Lechler, " the worst mischief of the Church appeared to him to be the usurpations of the papacy upon the sovereign rights of the English crown, the financial spoliation of the country for the benefit of the curia in Avignon, the general secularization of the clergy, including the monasteries and foundations, simony, and the corruption of morals. All these evils were ecclesiastico-political matters; and accordingly the means and ways which he recommended, and in part himself applied, were chiefly of an ecclesiastico-political character." 1 John Wycliffe and his English Precursors.
In this line of activity, Wycliffe was allying himself with an already prepared public opinion. The nation had long groaned under the burden of papal exactions. In Wycliffe's time the burden was the more intolerable, because it was manifest that the Popes were acting as the agents of a rival kingdom, as the lieutenants of France. It was at the instigation of the French King that the Pope made the galling demand upon Edward III. that the annual tribute stipulated by John, which had long been discontinued, should be paid, together with the arrears. This demand, as we have seen, the nation heartily resented, and rejected by the mouth of its Parliament in 1366. Some have supposed that Wycliffe was a member of this body and a leading spirit in its proceedings. At any rate a critic of the decision rendered by the Parliament directed his attack against Wycliffe, and called forth a reply from his pen. From this time Wycliffe was known as a leading champion of the national cause. His prominence in the eyes of the government is evident from the fact that in 1374 he was made one of a commission to treat with the representatives of the Pope at Bruges.
With characteristic bent to thoroughness, Wycliffe was not content with putting in a protest against the spoliations by the Pope. He felt deeply aggrieved by the worldliness of the Church at large. It stirred his indignation to think that 80 many rich benefices were being enjoyed by men who cared only for the revenue, and had no regard for the spiritual welfare of their charge. It seemed to him a righteous thing that these evil stewards should be dispossessed, and, as under the circumstances there was no other power to effect this end, he thought that the civil government should take the initiative. In developing this subject, he showed how well the scholastic still held a place in his composition. He must have a theory as broad as the case. And so he brought out his famous theory of dominion. The ground that he took was this. To God alone belongs unqualified dominion; He alone has the unrestricted right to property; men have only a delegated right, and this delegated right they forfeit by mortal sin. Tenure of property depends upon the state of grace in the holder. "God is," he says, "and has dominion over all. Each man in his degree is bounden to serve God, and if he does not render this service he is no lord of goods of true title, for he that standeth in grace is the true lord of things, and whoever faileth by default of grace, he falleth short of the right title of that which he occupieth, and makes himself unfit to have the gifts." Quoted by A. R. Pennington in his Life of Wycliffe. This has truly something of a revolutionary sound. But notice that on Wycliffe's premises it points more largely to an ideal ground of property right than to a practical standard of decision among men. For he held very emphatically the opinion that a man's state of grace is God's secret. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied to leave the theory without any practical application. He used it to offset the notion that goods once given to the Church are held by a strictly inalienable title, and drew the inference that in cases of notorious misuse of spiritual positions the civil authority must take pains to deprive the incumbent. In doing this, however, as he was careful to state, if must proceed within the limitations of law. He implies also that the Church itself should be consulted, and the grounds of deprivation brought before its assemblies. Presented under these limitations, the doctrine of dominion does not appear specially extravagant. Some have even concluded that it was not calculated to affect the relative position of Church and State. But this can hardly be conceded. Wycliffe expressly taught that the Scriptures place us under obligation to render obedience and service even to bad rulers, whereas in case of wicked priests they impose no such duty upon us. As applied to the existing relation of Church and State, Wycliffe's teaching upon the subject favored to noticeable degree the primacy of the latter.
Naturally, the champion of such views was regarded by the hierarchy as a dangerous foe, who needed to be silenced or crushed. The first attempt in this direction was at the hands of the English bishops. In February, 1377, Wycliffe was cited to appear before Archbishop Sudbury and before Courtenay (then Bishop of London), in St. Paul's Cathedral. Wycliffe presented himself, but had no occasion or opportunity to answer charges. The meeting broke up in a tumult, owing to the intemperate language of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), who came forward as Wycliffe's defender. Failing in this attempt, the bishops now solicited the aid of the Pope. The desired aid was given in generous measure. In May, 1377, five bulls were issued, designed to weave the toils so effectually about Wycliffe that escape would be impossible, and calling upon the King, the royal princes, the Privy Council, the chief of the nobility, and the University of Oxford, to render their pious assistance in bringing the disturber to justice. A schedule of nineteen errors charged against Wycliffe accompanied the bulls.1 According to Lechler, the nineteen theses of Wycliffe fall, in respect of subject matter, into three groups: (1) That concerning rights of property and inheritance. (2) That concerning church property, and its rightful secularization in certain circumstances. (3) That concerning the power of church discipline and its necessary limits.
But the meshes of the net were not equal, even in this case, to holding the prey. Wycliffe indeed appeared before the Pope's commissioners and commenced to explain and to justify his teachings. He had not proceeded far, however, when the conference was cut short by the interference of the government and the London populace in his behalf. Again he went out as free as he had come in, being under injunction of silence, it is true, but having given no promise to that effect.
We have now reached the year 1378, the year which begins the stadium of Wycliffe's career, in which he accomplished his most daring, most significant, most far-reaching work. It is here, if anywhere, that we shall find warrant for the remarkable words of John Milton. In his Areopagitica he wrote: "Had it not been for the obstinate perverseness of our prelates against the divine and admirable Wycliffe, to suppress him as a schismatic and innovator, perhaps neither the Bohemian Huss and Jerome, no, nor the name of Luther or Calvin, had been ever known. The glory of reforming all our neighbors had been completely ours."
Let us see, then, how far Wycliffe supplied the proper basis for a reformation, if only his age had been willing to build thereupon, -- how far he fulfilled the double role of a reformer of theological principles and a reformer of methods of propagating religious truth among the people.
It is quite certain that Wycliffe anticipated the formal principle of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the doctrine of the sole authority of Scripture as opposed to any traditions of men. His own words will give ample evidence on this point. "We ought," he says, "to believe in the authority of no man unless he say the Word of God. It is impossible that any word or any deed of man should be of equal authority with Holy Scripture. ... Believers should ascertain for themselves what are the true matters of their faith, by having the Scriptures in a language which all may understand. For the laws made by prelates are not to be received as matters of faith, nor are we to confide in their public instructions, nor in any of their words, but as they are founded in Holy Writ, since the Scriptures contain the whole truth.... It is the pride of Lucifer, and even greater pride than his, to say that the teachers of man's traditions, made of sinful fools, are more profitable and needful to Christian people than the preachers of the Gospel." As regards the interpretation of Scripture, Wycliffe was not at all behind the writers of the sixteenth century in asserting the right of the individual Christian to judge for himself. There is no human tribunal set over him to force him to its point of view. But while he has the right of judgment, he has by no means the right to exercise it in a flippant and egoistic manner. He can judge properly only under the conditions of a holy life and great study. " Christian men," says Wycliffe,"should stand to the death for the maintenance of Christ's gospel, and the true understanding thereof, obtained by holy life and great study, and not set their faith nor trust in sinful prelates and their clerks, nor in their understanding thereof.... And if Antichrist say that each man may feign that he has a right faith and a good understanding of Holy Writ, when he is in error, let a man seek in all things truly the honor of God, and live justly to God and man, and God will not fail to him in anything that is needful to him, neither in faith, nor in understanding, nor in answer against his enemies."1 See Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, edited for the Wycliffe Society, London, 1846; also Life and Writings of John Wiclif by Rudolf Buddensieg.
As regards the material principle of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it cannot be said that Wycliffe so distinctly anticipated the teaching of the sixteenth century. We need not lay much stress, in a comparative view, upon the fact that he did not make justification purely forensic. For while this became a tenet of Protestantism, it was not always asserted at the outset. Luther certainly, in one and another instance, seems to make justification something more than a forensic act, something more than mere pardon, and to include in it an incipient sanctification. He was more intent to repudiate the Romish prescriptions as to the way of attaining justification, than the Romish conception of justification itself. The chief point in Luther's pre-eminence over Wycliffe on this subject lies in the fact, that with full consciousness and all the energy of a prophetic vocation the German reformer urged men to look immediately to the atoning Redeemer, and to trust in Him alone for pardon and salvation. But if Wycliffe did not so positively inculcate this sole trust in Christ for justification, he did inculcate it in a negative way. With great explicitness and decision he removed all the intervening objects which in the Romish system are calculated to intercept the trust of the believer, and prevent its being centred in Christ. Observe how he deals with such impertinent mediums as an exaggerated trust in one's works, dependence upon the pardons, the indulgences, and the absolutions of the priesthood, and reliance upon the supererogatory merits and intercessions of the saints. As regards one's works, he may in terms have connected with them a kind of merit, a merituna de congruo, but in his general system of thought this reduces to a quasi merit. He really held without qualification the Augustinian maxim, that all of man's merits are God's gifts. " We should know," he says, "that faith is the gift of God, and so God may not give it to man except He give it graciously. And thus, all the goods which men have are the gifts of God. And thus when God rewardeth a good work of man, He crowneth his own gift."
The system of indulgences Wycliffe denounces in strong terms, calling it "a subtle merchandise of Anti-christ's clerks, to magnify their counterfeit power, and to get worldly goods, and to cause men not to dread sin." Again he remarks: "It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God, pretending in their avarice and folly that they understand what they really know not. They chatter on the subject of grace as if it were a thing to be bought and sold, like an ass or ox." All this artificial mechanism for removing sins, he contends, is worthless in comparison with a penitent and God fearing temper. "Christian men should know that whoever liveth best prayeth best; and that the simple paster-noster of a ploughman who hath charity is better than It thousand masses of covetous prelates and vain religious."
Respecting auriculur confession, Wycliffe allows that under proper conditions it might serve to restrain some in special need of a curb; but he plainly indicates his belief that its universal prescription has no warrant in Scripture, and has been the cause of great demoralization.
His opinion of supererogatory merits is thus expressed: "The Pope and the friars pretend that there is laid up in heaven an infinite number of supererogatory merits belonging to the saints, above all the merit of Christ, and that Christ has set the Pope over all this treasure, that he may dispose of it at his pleasure, and distribute there from to an infinite extent, since the remainder will still be infinite. All this is wild blasphemy. Neither the Pope nor the Lord Jesus Christ can grant indulgences to any man except as the Deity has determined by His just counsel." In the words just cited we have a hint of Wycliffe's predestinarianism. On this subject he held the full Augustinian theory.
After denying the doctrine of superfluous merits, Wycliffe naturally could acknowledge little or no place for prayer to the saints. Accordingly, we find him using this language: "As the Scripture assureth us, Christ is the only mediator between God and man. Hence many hold that, if prayer were directed only to that middle Person of the Trinity for spiritual help, the Church would be more flourishing and make greater advances than she now does, when many intercessors have been found out and introduced."
On the subject of the Church, its officiary, and its sacraments, Wycliffe was likewise a radical innovator, and a precursor of sixteenth century teaching. He took pleasure in considering the Church on its invisible side, and, passing over the Romish conception of a definite outward organism, defined it as the whole body of God's elect.
As for the claims of the papacy, Wycliffe treated them with about as little ceremony as did Luther, his reverence for the successor of Peter being doubtless not a little abated by the great schism which, in 1318, began to scandalize Christendom. Rebutting the claim that it is necessary to believe that the Pope is the head of the Church, he asks, "How then shall any sinful wretch, who knows not whether he be damned or saved, constrain men to believe that he is head of holy Church? Certainly, in such a case they must sometimes constrain men to believe that a devil of hell is head of holy Church, when the Bishop of Rome shall he; a man damned for his sins." Again he remarks: "It is supposed, and with much probability, that the Roman pontiff is the great Antichrist." There is no need of going to Rome, as he maintains, to find a head for the Church. "If they say that Christ's Church must have a head here on earth, true it is, for Christ is the head which must be here with His Church until the day of doom." Indeed, Wycliffe had so little regard for the hierarchical conception of church government that he was willing apparently to spare a good deal besides the papacy. He emphasized the fact that the primitive Church had only presbyters and deacons, and declared his conviction that all orders above these had been introduced by Cæsarean pride.
Wycliffe criticized the scholastic doctrine of the sacraments at various points; but his special departure in this sphere was his denial of transubstantiation. In the view of his opponents, this was above all other sins of heresy the unpardonable sin. Nor from their standpoint was the verdict altogether illogical. For if the infallible authority of the Church is the foundation of Romanism, its doctrine of the Eucharist, taken in its totality, is the next atone to the foundation, and the basis for an immense superstructure. It was with much vehemence that Wycliffe attacked this idol, for he regarded it as a chosen means of Satan to sink men to perdition. As to the positive view which Wycliffe entertained of this sacrament, it may be briefly defined by its relation to two of the Reformation types, that of Luther and that of Calvin. Lechler, in his admirable work on Wycliffe, expresses the opinion that it was nearer to the former than to the latter. To us, the reverse appears to be the truth. Indeed, we think that with only moderate change of expression the view of Wycliffe might be made to appear identical with that of Calvin. Unlike Luther, Wycliffe taught that the glorified body of Christ is locally confined in heaven. Unlike Luther also, he taught that it is not so present in the elements as to be received by the wicked. On both of these points he agreed with Calvin; and he agreed further with Calvin in teaching a spiritual and virtual or efficacious presence of the body of Christ.
The extent of Wycliffe's departure from current beliefs might be illustrated in other particulars. He took exception, for example, to the enforced celibacy of the clergy. He also criticized monasticism as he found it in his day, and came in particular, in his last years, to regard the mendicant friars as a public pest. His encounter with the Mendicants is said to have been the occasion of a noteworthy scene in his history. Wycliffe, so Vaughan recounts, was confined to his chamber in Oxford by sickness. "From the four orders of friars, four doctors were formally deputed to present themselves to their expiring enemy; and to these the same number of civil officers, called senators of the city and aldermen of the wards, were added. When these persons entered the apartment of the sick man, he was seen stretched on his bed. Some expressions of sympathy were dropped, and some of hope concerning his better health. But it was presently intimated that he must be aware of the many injuries which the whole mendicant brotherhood had sustained at his hands, having been the special object of attack in many of his sermons and writings; and as it was now manifest that death was about to bring his course to its conclusion, it was only charitable to hope that he would not conceal his penitence, but that with the Christian humility he should revoke whatever he had said tending to the disreputation of fraternities so eminent in learning, sanctity, and usefulness. Wycliffe continued silent and motionless until this address was concluded. He then beckoned his servants to raise him in his bed; and this done, he fixed his eyes on the persons assembled, and, summoning all his remaining strength, exclaimed, 'I shall not die, but live; and shall again declare the evil deeds of the friars!"' We can easily believe that it was a hasty retreat which was effected by the honorable delegation, and that they had a feeling that they had made an unfortunate bid for a death-bed repentance. One item more in Wycliffe's views should be mentioned; for while it is without special connection with his theological system, it indicates how decided became his bent to think for himself. I refer to his attitude toward war. In terms well-nigh anticipating the peace policy of the Quakers, he denounced the barbarous appeal to the sword. He defined the right of conquest as the right of wholesale robbery, and disparaged the honor which the knight claimed as an adept in slaughter, by comparing him with the hangman, who killeth more and with a better title." 1 On the Seven Deadly Sins.
We come now to the second part of the twofold character in which Wycliffe appears as a reformer, and have to consider the practical expedients to which he resorted for the religious enlightenment of the masses. Perhaps we shall not be at fault in including among these that marvelous issue of tracts which engaged his later years. No longer reposing confidence in the patronage of the learned and wealthy, "he appealed," says Green, " and the appeal is memorable as the first of such a, kind in our history, to England at large. With an amazing industry he issued tract after tract in the tongue of the people itself. The dry syllogistic Latin, the abstruse and involved argument which the great doctor had addressed to his academic hearers, were suddenly flung aside, and, by a transition which marks the wonderful genius of the man, the schoolman was transformed into the pamphleteer. If Chaucer is the father of our later English poetry, Wycliffe is the father of our later English prose. The rough, clear, homely English of his tracts, the speech of the ploughman and the trader of the day, though colored with the picturesque phraseology of the Bible, is in its literary use as distinctly a creation of his own as the style in which he embodied it, the terse vehement sentences, the stinging sarcasms, the hard antitheses which roused the dullest mind like a whip."
A second practical expedient was the order of itinerant preachers which Wycliffe instituted and superintended. They were called the order of "poor priests." According to the directions of their founder, they preached the ethics and religion of the Bible in language level to the understanding of the common people. "These men went forth," writes Lechler, "in long garments of coarse red woolen cloth, barefooted, with staff in hand, in order to represent themselves as pilgrims, and their wayfaring as a kind of pilgrimage, their coarse woolen dress being a symbol of their poverty and toil. Thus they wandered from village to village, from town to town, and from county to county, without halt or rest, preaching, teaching, warning, wherever they could find willing hearers; sometimes in church and chapel, wherever any such stood open for prayer and quiet devotion; sometimes in the churchyard, when they found the church itself closed; and sometimes in the public street or marketplace." Referring to this method of evangelism Canon Pennington remarks, "Wycliffe was unquestionably the Wesley of his day."
The third and most renowned of Wycliffe's practical expedients for enlightening the masses was his translation of the Bible into English. The idea was not wholly a novel one. There had been attempts at translation at various intervals in the preceding history.
But none of these, if we are to judge by extant remains or distinct accounts, had resulted in the transference of the whole Bible to the vernacular. The Anglo-Saxon versions comprised little besides the Pentateuch, the Psalter, a few of the historical books of the Old Testament, and the four Gospels. The Normans are said to have had a version of the Bible in their own tongue in the thirteenth century; but this was not in the language of the great body of the people, being French rather than English. Excluding metrical renderings, which were not translations proper, if appears that prior to the labors of Wycliffe the Psalter (two versions of which were executed before the middle of the fourteenth century) was the only part of the Bible that had been rendered into Old English. The enterprise of Wycliffe had also this distinctive feature, that it was designed not merely for the accommodation of a few scholars, nobles, or princes, but was to serve pre-eminently as a means of acquainting the common people with Holy Writ. Herein it challenged an obstinate prejudice of the age. What the partisans of the hierarchy thought on the subject is clearly enough revealed by the language of the chronicler, Knighton. In a passage which was probably written before the year 1400, "he maintains that Christ gave the Gospel, not to the Church, but only to the clergy and doctors of the Church, to be by them communicated to the weaker brethren and the laity according to their need; whereas Wycliffe had rendered the Gospel from Latin into English, and through him it had become the possession of the common people, and more accessible to the laity, including even women who can read, than it used to be to the well educated clergy. The pearl is now thrown before swine, and trodden under foot.'' 1 Lechler, chap. vii. §2. Some years later Archbishop Arundel and his suffragans, in a memorial to the Pope, vented their indignation against the work of translation by calling it the completing act in the malice of the arch-heretic.
The details pertaining to the execution of this great enterprise are lost to history. It is commonly understood, however, that the first version was completed in 1382; that the New Testament was rendered by Wycliffe himself; that Nicholas Hereford rendered the larger part of the Old Testament; that the remainder of the Old Testament (beginning in the Book of Baruch) was rendered by Wycliffe; that a revision of the whole under the editorship of John Purvey was completed by 1388, and that this revised version was widely circulated.
How far was this translation influential upon later ones? What permanent contributions did it make to our English Bible? An exact answer is as difficult as the question is interesting. Following, however, the hints of skilled investigators, we conclude that the indirect influence of the Wycliffe version was considerable; that the direct influence, while perhaps appreciable, was not large. It exercised a moulding influence upon the speech of the people; it gave to the peculiar phraseology of many familiar texts a right of possession, so to speak, which later translators could not easily discard. In this way it supplied materials to Tyndale, Coverdale, Whittingham, and other distinguished architects of the English Bible. But as a translation of a translation (being from the Vulgate), executed with helps much inferior to those which were at the command of the later translators, it could hardly have served them to any great extent as a specific model. No doubt, the name of Wycliffe will always hold an eminent place among those whose shaping genius has given us our English Bible. Still, impartial history will probably assign the foremost position in the honored list.of translators to that tireless laborer and heroic martyr, William Tyndale. 1 W. F. Moulton, History of the English Bible. J. I. Mombert, English Versions of the Bible. John Stoughton, Our English Bible, its Translations and Translators.
What now were the personal fortunes of Wycliffe in the midst of these great innovations? By his attack upon transubstantiation he forfeited in large measure the support which he had received from the University. In 1381 the Chancellor issued a mandate forbidding some of Wycliffe's theses on the Lord's Supper to be longer taught in the University as being plainly heterodox. At the middle of the next year the archbishop sent orders to the University prohibiting attendance upon the preaching of Wycliffe, and requiring public notice that he had been suspended from all scholastic functions. Near the end of the same gear he was summoned before 8 provincial synod in Oxford. According to Knighton, he responded to the summons, and escaped censure by a recantation The former statement may be true; the latter, instead of being sustained by any evidence, is contradicted by the confession of Wycliffe, which Knighton inserts at this point in his Chronicle, the confession being the reverse of a retractation. Such was the extent of the persecution against Wycliffe. Without any restriction upon his personal liberty, or any restraint upon his labors, except in the University, he was allowed to finish his course. The last two years were spent in his parish of Lutterworth. Meanwhile his principal adherents, such as Aston, Repyngdon, and Hereford, did not escape so easily. They were pursued with unrelenting vigor, and found no refuge except in recantation or exile.
Wycliffe died on December 31, 1384. He died in fellowship with the Church. Singular immunity ! In an age when free thought was branded as treason, the most daring innovator, the man who dealt his powerful blows against the whole framework of the Romish system, passed to his end unscathed. This, however, indicates rather the restraining hand of circumstances, than the pleasure of the hierarchy. What their real pleasure was, they indicated clearly enough in 1415, when, in the great Council of Constance, they condemned a list of Wycliffe's propositions, and commanded his body to be removed from consecrated ground. Thirteen years later, the command was fulfilled. The bones were exhumed and burned, and the ashes cast into the neighboring stream. 1 The little river Swift. "The little river," in the celebrated words of Thomas Fuller, "conveyed Wycliffe's remains into the Avon, Avon into the Severn, Severn into tile narrow seas, they to the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which is now dispersed all the world over."
The Council of Constance, which condemned John Huss to the flames was not at fault in associating Wycliffe's name with his. Huss was in truth a disciple of Wycliffe. Recent research has made it entirely certain that he drew largely from the writings of the English reformer. 1 See Prof. J. Loserth, Wiclif and Huss. Thus the fire which was kindled in England ignited a kindred flame in distant Bohemia. The influence of Wycliffe early started forth upon its far-reaching circuit.
Shortly after the death of Wycliffe the name of Lollards, which had been occasionally used before, became the current designation of those who embraced his teachings. The name seems to have been imported from the Netherlands. Some have supposed that it was derived from the Latin lolium, meaning darnel or tares; others connect it with the old German lollen, to hum or whine. On either supposition, the satirical intent with which the term was applied is sufficiently manifest.
For a number of years the Lollard party was of no mean strength. Knighton probably expressed himself in exaggerated terms, when he said that one could scarcely meet two men on the road one of whom would not be found to be a disciple of Wycliffe. Still, the party was numerous, and counted among its adherents representatives of all the different ranks of society. So great was their confidence and courage in 1395, that they presented to Parliament a document in the interest of reform, wherein their most radical beliefs were stated without reserve.
But the tide soon turned against the Lollards. The revolution by which Richard II. was deposed, and the house of Lancaster in the person of Henry IV. was brought to the throne, was one in which the hierarchy took a conspicuous part. A close alliance resulted between the King and the prelates. To repay the latter, and to insure their continued support, Henry IV. readily responded to their request for repressive measures against the Lollards. At the opening of the year 1401 the act De Hæretico Comburendo, the grim provision for the burning of heretics, was entered into the statute-book. This act authorized the bishops, not only to arrest and imprison those suspected of heresy, but also to hand over obstinate and relapsed heretics to the civil officers "to be by them burned on a high place before the people." Scarcely was the law recorded before it was given practical application. In March, 1401, William Sawtree, a London priest, was burned in Smithfield. Some years later, the same place witnessed the burning of John Badby. Others experienced in the hardships of imprisonment a fate scarcely more to be coveted.
The most distinguished victim was Sir John Oldcastle, or Lord Cobham. He was a man of distinction, having served with credit in the French wars. Though he made no secret of his opinions, respect for his character secured him comparative freedom from attack during the reign of Henry IV. But under Henry V. he was adjudged a heretic, and consigned to the fewer. Escaping thence, he remained concealed several years. A high price was set upon his head, as he was accused of being the patron and instigator of the insurrectionary movements which took place at this time. Whether there was any truth in this charge or not, it is difficult to determine. Very different verdicts have been rendered by historians. In any case, all that we know of the man, whether in life or in the ordeal of martyrdom, favors the conclusion that he was loyal to his conscience, let his attitude toward his King have been what it may. Having been apprehended in 1417, he was brought to London and sentenced to the double punishment of being hanged as a traitor and burned as a heretic.
"This sentence was literally carried out. He was placed upon a sledge, as if he had been a traitor of the deepest dye, and thus dragged through the town to St. Giles's Fields. On arriving there he was taken down from the sledge, and, immediately falling on his knees, he began to pray for the forgiveness of his enemies. His prayer ended, he rose, and, addressing the assembled multitude, warned them to obey God's commands written down in the Bible, and always to shun such teaching as they saw to be contrary to the life and example of Christ. He was then suspended between two gallows by chains, and the funeral pile was kindled beneath him, so that he was slowly burned. So long as life remained in him, he continued to praise God, and to commend his soul to His divine keeping." 1 Lechler, chap, x. § 6 After the death of Lord Cobham no conspicuous leader appeared in the ranks of the Lollards. While never wholly exterminated, the party was reduced to a small remnant, which obtained immunity only because of its quietness and obscurity.