It is often regarded that The Reformation began with Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses on the doors of Wittenberg on 31st October 1517. However, the Reformation actually began much earlier in England, from the mid– 1300s, when John Wycliffe contended against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Thus, he is rightly known as the “morning star of the Reformation.”

John Wycliffe was born in Hipswell, Yorkshire in 1324. He enrolled in the University of Oxford at the age of 16, where he excelled in his studies and obtained his Doctor of Theology. He later became a professor of the University and was the Master of Balliol College in 1361. He was renowned for his gifted mind, skillful writing, and brilliant oratory.

Wycliffe became dissatisfied with the malaise of the RCC while he was at Oxford University. The church was no longer simple and humble, but pompous and proud. The clergy were living lavishly, exploiting the common folk. The monks were lazy, begging for bread rather than toiling the fields. The bishops spent their time accumulating riches, properties and lands. Such corruption angered Wycliffe who wrote and spoke vehemently against these practices.

In addition, Wycliffe contended against many of the false teachings of the church. He rejected the teaching of Transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and the cup becomes the literal flesh and blood of Christ during the Lord’s Supper. He also denounced indulgences, the existence of Purgatory, and the veneration of saints. He declared Christ to be the only head of the church, and denied the infallibility of the RCC in matters of the faith.

The RCC was soon infuriated with Wycliffe’s criticisms. In 1377, five papal bulls were issued against Wycliffe for his writings against the RCC. In 1381, the King of England also withdrew his support because of Wycliffe’s stance against Transubstantiation. If not for Wycliffe’s popularity with the people, many in Oxford University who opposed him would have gotten him expelled from the university. This mirrors the same spirit as the Apostles who stood before the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts: 
“But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, Saying, What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable miracle hath been done by them is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. But that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name. And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for all men glorified God for that which was done.” (Acts 4:15-21)

Wycliffe later concluded that for reformation to take place, the people needed to read the Bible for themselves. However, the Bible was hidden away from the people in those days. Those who wanted to hear God’s Word must do so via the priest who interpreted the Word of God for them. Nonetheless, many of the priests were deficient in true spiritual knowledge of the Scriptures. Moreover, there was no translation of the Bible in the language of the people. So long as such conditions continued, the people would remain ignorant of the truth!

John Wycliffe became the Rector of St. Mary’s Church in Lutterworth in his later years. It was here that Wycliffe started translating the whole Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. However, as the printing press was not yet invented, each copy of the Bible was painstakingly copied by hand. Such a process would take about 10 months, and cost about 5000 chickens. Thus, many chose instead to pay a few cents for a portion of the New Testament to be read for just a day. What a contrast to how we can now have the Word of God easily available in printed and electronic forms!

In order to promote the truth, Wycliffe instituted the Order of Poor Preachers, who were also known as the Lollards. These preachers would use Wycliffe’s translation to read and preach the Word to the people. Many of these Lollards were hunted down and burnt at the stake. Numerous copies of Wycliffe’s translation were also burned and destroyed. Alas, the production of these translations could not be stopped. God’s Word had gone forth and worked in the hearts of the common folk.

The RCC hated Wycliffe for his work. Their hatred was so great that they dug up his bones at the 40th anniversary of his death and burnt them. They then proceeded to cast his ashes into the River Swift. However, it did not deter the people who saw it as an emblem of how Wycliffe’s doctrine is now being propagated throughout the entire world. Indeed, The Bible is unstoppable and indestructible.

“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall pros-per in the thing whereto I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

Lovingly in Christ,
Preacher Clement Chew