John Wycliffe

WICLIFFE

Beyond that of most of our great men, has the fame of Wiclif [20] undergone fierce dispute within the last few years. From regarding him with reverence as "the Morning Star of the Reformation," it has come to be more than questioned whether he was a reformer at all, or whether a certain superior craft was not the motive that incited him throughout his career. It will be convenient to leave the consideration of this matter till we have looked at the leading events of his life, when we shall be better prepared to estimate his character. To assume a controversial tone—as it would be scarcely possible to avoid doing if we entered into the discussion of the various views and statements that have been put forth respecting him—is not at all our intention. We have examined the several statements; we shall be content with expressing our own opinions.

There is some uncertainty about both the year and the place of John Wiclif's birth: the place which seems most probable, however, is a little village pleasantly situated near the junction of the rivers Greta and Tees, about six miles from Richmond in Yorkshire; the year 1324. What is known of his life commences with the year 1340, when he entered as a commoner at Queen's College, Oxford, then newly founded: his name is in the list of the first scholars. From Queen's he soon removed to Merton College, at that time highest in repute at the University; where he greatly distinguished himself. The theology taught at this period was that of the schoolmen, who, as Bacon afterwards said of them, "did, out of no great quantity of matter, spin out those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books...admirable indeed for the fineness of the thread, but of no substance or profit." In this scholastic discipline Wiclif became so deeply versed, that his contemporary Knighton, a bitter enemy and a competent judge, declared he was without an equal (in scholasticis disciplinis incomparabilis.) Nor was he skilled in this alone; he appears to have pursued, with almost equal success, the whole round of moral, philosophical, and legal studies as then taught. According to the standard of his time he was an eminently learned man.

The earliest of Wiclif's publications, so far as is known, was written in 1356; it was first printed in 1840. The work itself does not occupy more than fourteen small pages, and is of little value on its own account, but deserving attention, as Wiclif's first work, written when he was thirty-two years old, a period in a man's life when his character is fixed and his tone of thought determined, and when consequently the opinions he has formed will almost certainly colour the actions of the remainder of his life. We may therefore spend a few minutes in looking at this production and at the circumstances which called it forth. In 1349 a fearful pestilence occurred in England. It had marched slowly from the east, ravaging every country it passed through. Nearly the whole of Europe was visited by it. The voice of the terrified nations affirmed that only a tithe of the human race had escaped; that all children born since it were deficient in the number of their teeth; that even the brute creation was not spared, their corpses being so many as to fill the air with a horrible taint. So severe indeed was the visitation, that, in this country at least, it long served as an epoch from which legal documents were dated. The Scriptures told that pestilence had of old been the scourge wherewith an offended God had punished the sins of the nations; and the people devoutly believed that this had been sent for such a purpose. The plague ceased, but sober men saw with sorrow that the rulers and the priests had not heeded the heavenly warning, and to the faithful the wickedness that stalked abroad seemed like an awful defiance of the divine power. Under such circumstances and prompted by some such feelings was it that Wiclif wrote 'The Last Age of the Church.' Taking for his guide the prophecies of Abbot Joachim, a mystic who lived in the twelfth century, and combining therewith a cabalistic computation of the Scriptural prophecies, and turning also to the verses of the Sybil, he thought the end of the world was at hand, and announced its speedy dissolution. He was mistaken, and lived to see that he was mistaken. But although his prophecy failed, there is much in the tract that shows the man as he then was, and throws a bright light on his future career. It proves that he had thus early come to have identified in his mind religion with the whole life of man, to look upon it as reaching to all his duties and employments, that he, indeed, regarded it as the animating principle of the whole of the political and social institutions. It proves that he had cast an anxious look around him, and, dissatisfied with the state of the world, he was more dissatisfied with the ministers of religion, whom he boldly and broadly charges with a disregard of their higher functions, and an indulgence in a greedy and unholy rapacity. It may in a word be said, that the object of the tract is to declare the troubles that will fall upon the church and the world, on account of the simony of the priests, and the encroachments and exactions of the papal power.

These feelings were brought out more strongly a few years later. In 1360 he engaged in what a recent historian calls "a fierce but ridiculous controversy with the different orders of friars." To the stern moral dignity of Wiclif the controversy did not seem a ridiculous one, and indeed it hardly seems to us more ridiculous than that of Luther with Tetzel and the Dominicans. These friars had been established in England for more than a century, and had obtained considerable influence. Although vowing poverty, they had acquired great wealth; under the guise of sanctity they had concealed, it was affirmed, gross depravity. They had almost from the first been at enmity with the secular clergy, and were especially obnoxious to the University of Oxford. Before Wiclif, they met with a steady opponent in Fitz-Ralph, chancellor of Oxford, and afterwards Bishop of Armagh, who carried his charges against them to the papal throne. Fitz-Ralph died in 1360, from which time Wiclif pursued the war fiercely, and only ceased to prosecute it with his life. Of the works he produced against them at this period it is not certain that any remain. Two pieces, one which he presented to the court of Richard II., and the other which seems to have been written a year or two before his death, were printed by Dr. James in 1608, and serve to show the nature of his quarrel. It was not, as Dr. Lingard implies, merely a charge against them for depending upon alms, which Wiclif asserted to be repugnant to the Gospel; though upon that he strongly insisted, but rather that they misled the unwary, by holding out to them false hopes of pardon, and by their untrue representations obtained their property from them, leading them to trust to these worthless pardons thus purchased by money, instead of setting before them the great Gospel truth. He charges them with doing this that they might obtain the wealth of their dupes. They become, he says in his bitter and plain-spoken language, "confessors, preachers, and rulers commonly of all men, and they teachen them not their foul sins, for winning of stinking muck and lusts of their own bellies, that is foul worm's meat and a sack of dirt." And elsewhere, "St. James directs to visit the fatherless and motherless children, and widows in their tribulation, and to keep man unfouled from the world, that is, from pride, covetise, and vanities. But friars do all the contrary, for they visiten rich men, and by hypocrisy getten falsely their alms, and withdraw from poor men; but they visiten rich widows for their muck, and maken them to be buried at the Friars, but poor men come not in there." This was Wiclif's quarrel, and this continued to be his quarrel with them, that while intent only on driving a lucrative and disgraceful trade, they were deceiving the souls of those who trusted to them: no ridiculous controversy that, to a man of Wiclif's mind! As he said, so doubtless he thought—"Friars be worse enemies and slayers of man's soul, than is the cruel fiend of hell by himself. For they under the habit of holiness lead men and nourish them in sin, and be special helpers of the fiend to strangle men's souls." It is not our business to palliate the violence of Wiclifs language, but only to represent his feelings, and a cold statement in the calm phraseology of our day would poorly express the vehemence of his indignation. These words were not probably written till long afterwards, but these were no doubt his sentiments then. His controversy with the friars marks the commencement of his career as a reformer.

The year following that in which he engaged in this controversy he was chosen master of Baliol College, and presented to the living of Fillingham, a valuable benefice in the diocese of Lincoln. Four years afterwards he was appointed warden of Canterbury Hall, by Archbishop Islip, the founder of that college.[21] Originally the archbishop had appointed Woodhall, a friar, to be warden, and had founded eleven scholarships, three to be held by monks, and eight by clerks, or secular clergymen. At this time the dispute between these orders was at its height, and the peace and security of the infant establishment were soon disturbed by the bickerings of its inmates. To such a length were they carried, that Islip felt himself called upon to interfere, and he determined to prevent the probability of a recurrence of the quarrel by removing the monks, and substituting for them seculars. Islip did not live long after this change; and, on the succession of Langham to the vacant see, Woodhall appealed to him, as visitor of Canterbury Hall, to remove Wiclif, who, he affirmed, had procured his appointment at a time when Islip was incapable from sickness of judging aright. He was successful; but Wiclif in his turn appealed from the new archbishop to the pope; his holiness, however, ratified the decision of Langham, but not till after a delay of nearly four years. Meanwhile Wiclif had done nothing to propitiate the papal power, but he had done some things to offend it. In 1365 Urban V. renewed the papal claim to a domination over the sovereignty of England, which had been conceded to the holy see by John; and he demanded the payment of an annual tribute of a thousand marks, together with the arrears of the last thirty years. Edward III. was little disposed either to acknowledge his subjection or to pay the money. He submitted the claim of the pontiff to his parliament, which on the next day, and without dissent from laymen or clergy, declared his submission to the pope to be beyond the power of any sovereign to render, and engaged, if the demand were persisted in, to oppose it with the whole power of the nation. Urban was intimidated by an opposition so much more resolute than he expected. A monk, however, published a tract, in which he reasserted the right of the pontiff to the tribute, and ventured to declare, that England was justly forfeit on account of the non-payment of it; and hence he presumed to assert that the clergy were absolved from their subjection to the English king. To controvert his argument he challenged Wiclif by name. The reformer was not the man to submit quietly to such a challenge. He speedily replied to it, though, as he declared, he was not ignorant that the object of his antagonist was to involve him in difficulties with the pope, and to obtain for himself, and his order, the papal favour. Wiclif gives a statement of the debate in parliament, and of the reasons there adduced against the grant; and then, in his own name, shows that the papal claim, and the grant on which it was founded, were dishonest, and that therefore, as the conditions were bad, the consequences that were asserted to result logically from them were bad also. Wiclif in this tract calls himself the king's chaplain, and it is a proof of the eminence to which he had attained, that he should be singled out for this encounter, unless it arose from his prior controversy.

In 1368, before the dispute respecting the wardenship of Canterbury Hall was determined, Wiclif exchanged the rectory of Fillingham for that of Ludgershall, also in the diocese of Lincoln. After the award of the pontiff was received, Woodhall remained two years before he could obtain the king's confirmation, which was, it is said, then only procured by a bribe of two hundred marks. But another and more important dignity was at this time conferred upon Wiclif by the University. In 1372 he was elected Professor of Theology, and at the same time he took the degree of D.D. This is a most important period in his life. It is evident that he had already attained a high position in the esteem of those who were most competent to judge of his abilities, but it is probable that his election to this office may have arisen from their gratitude for his services in opposition to the growing influence and power of the monks, and his fervid declaration against the continuous encroachment of the pope. But if it were for these less immediately religious services that he received the appointment of professor of divinity, it is not to be doubted but, in accordance with his repeatedly declared sentiments of the responsibility of the ministers of religion, he would address himself devoutly to the important duties of the office he had undertaken. He appears, indeed, from this time to have more earnestly and more rigorously set himself to the study of the Scriptures. In those days the Scriptures were not unknown to the teachers of religion, as has been sometimes asserted, but the knowledge of them does not appear to have been general or exact. Wiclif's quotations from them were now more frequent; his expositions of them always exhibited them as the ultimate rule. It is probable that from this time we may date the establishment of his main doctrinal views, and also his departure from the received theology. It is not possible in our brief space to extract from the works that appear to belong to this period, but we may say that, if they have been correctly dated, he now distinctly set forth those truths which caused him to be branded as a heretic. His lectures on the Decalogue afford striking proofs of the clearness and vigour of his powers, and exhibit his leading views of religion with much distinctness. These views were very different from those generally received, and must have excited much surprise—much enmity, and much deep attachment. As we shall have to speak of his opinions more hereafter, we may conveniently leave any further remarks upon them for the present.

The papal claims occupied much of the attention of Edward III., especially in the latter part of his reign. An embassy had been sent to the pope, Gregory XI., in 1373, respecting the appointment of bishops, the reservation of benefices, and other matters in which Edward and his parliament declared that the pontiff had largely encroached on the ancient customs. Some partial concessions were made, but the English king was far from being satisfied with the extent of them, and it was resolved in 1374 to send another embassy. The name of Wiclif stands second on the list of commissioners, the first name being that of the Bishop of Bangor, who had been employed in the previous negotiation; with them were united five other persons. The conference was held at Bruges, where the papal nuncios met them. Wiclif appears to have stayed in this city from August, 1374, till July, 1376. What results were obtained are not exactly known. For Wiclif himself the consequences were probably of much importance. At this time, it will be remembered, the pope's residence was at Avignon, and the papal court had attained to a rather bad eminence. It is not probable that, with his strong feelings of the responsibility of the office of a minister of religion, Wiclif would become more attached to the dignitaries of the church from the closer intercourse he would now have with them. His visit to Bruges may have produced as strong an impression on his mind as was wrought on that of Luther by his journey to Rome. In fact, according to Dr. Vaughan, "his rebukes, which had hitherto been directed toward the head of the church but distantly and by implication, are applied in that quarter, soon after this time, with unsparing severity."

During his absence at Bruges the king marked his satisfaction with his conduct, by conferring on him the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, and a prebendal stall in the collegiate church of Westbury, in the diocese of Worcester. The principal commissioner, on the other hand, received his reward from the pope, who translated him to the see of Hereford, and a few years after to that of St. David's. A few months only elapsed after the return of Wiclif, when he was summoned to appear before a convocation to answer the charge of holding heretical doctrines. What was the exact nature of the heresies does not appear; they were probably not definitely stated, owing to a strange scene that occurred. The convocation was held at St. Paul's, February 19, 1377, and that edifice was crowded by the populace, as well as by the clergy, long before the reformer made his appearance. When he arrived it was between two of the most powerful nobles in the land, one the king's eldest surviving son, the celebrated John of Gaunt, the other Lord Percy, the Lord Marshal of England. With Gaunt Wiclif had probably become acquainted at Bruges, for, during his stay there, the duke had visited that city, as ambassador, to conduct some negotiations with the minister of the French monarch; and no doubt Wiclif, from his official position, would have some intercourse with him. The support of the duke and of Lord Percy arose most likely from political rather than religious motives. The dignity of these nobles scarcely sufficed to procure an approach through the crowd to Courtney, bishop of London, who presided on the occasion. Some slight tumult occurred in making their way, which, being perceived by the bishop, he called out "Lord Percy, if I had known beforehand what masteries you would have kept in the church, I would have stopt you out from coming hither." To this rough salutation the Duke of Lancaster replied, "He shall keep such masteries here, though you say nay." Percy desired Wiclif "to sit down, as he had many things to answer to, and needed to repose himself;" but the bishop declared it to be unreasonable that one cited before his ordinary should sit, and peremptorily affirmed that "he must and should stand." Gaunt replied that Percy's motion was but reasonable, and continued, "As for you, my Lord Bishop, who are grown so proud and arrogant, I will bring down the pride not only of you, but of all the prelacy in England." The bishop told him to "do his worst;" and after some further bickering, the duke vowed that sooner than submit to such words he would "pluck the bishop by the hair out of the church." The bystanders had been growing excited by these outrageous proceedings; and now, fancying the duke would proceed to violent acts, they rose in a body for their bishop, and the duke and his followers were compelled to a speedy flight. The Londoners, not content with driving the duke and his friends from the church, assembled in a tumultuous mob and proceeded to his palace, but he had made his escape, and they contented themselves with reversing his arms. They then proceeded to the house of Lord Percy, which they damaged, but they did not succeed in finding its owner: an unlucky priest, however, whom they found, and imagined to be Percy in an assumed habit, they hung. The mayor and aldermen were afterwards removed from their offices for not suppressing the riot, but none of the rioters appear to have been punished. It does not seem that Wiclif took any part in these discreditable proceedings, nor that the mob attempted to injure him. Of course, he would be far more obnoxious than ever to his opponents, and from this period they appear to have pursued him with more determined hate.

After this meeting Wiclif devoted himself to his parochial duties, but in a few months he was summoned from them to answer new charges. Probably some of his more inveterate enemies had forwarded to Rome statements of his heterodox notions, for on the 22nd of May, 1377, the pope issued four bulls against him, addressed respectively to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and the University of Oxford, and with these was sent a letter to the king, stating that information had been received from creditable persons that John Wiclif, rector of Lutterworth, and professor of theology, had been actively engaged in propagating certain detestable and erroneous notions utterly subversive of the church. These bulls authorise the incarceration of Wiclif, and his examination upon the various matters stated: the results of the examination were to be transmitted to the pope for his determination. The charges preferred are probably nearly similar to those that would have been brought forward at the convocation but for the unexpected disturbances. These charges, or "conclusions" as they are called, show that the pontiff was most moved by their appearing to question his pre-eminence. They state that Wiclif denied the political supremacy of the pope, and asserted that the whole race of men agreeing had not power to ordain such supremacy—that it was beyond the power of God himself to confer it. That he denied the efficacy alike of benediction and of excommunication assumed by priests; that absolutions are valueless except as they agree with the law of God; and that the spiritual power of the ministers of religion does not differ in degree. These bulls vary only in trifling particulars. They impress alike on all to whom they are sent the urgent necessity of extirpating such detestable heresies, which they liken to those of Ganduno and Marcillus, condemned fifty years before by Pope John XXII. These men opposed the papal see on political grounds; and it is plain from the tone of the bulls that it was the attack on his temporal authority that disconcerted Gregory. Before these documents could arrive Edward III. had ceased to live, and his decease afforded Wiclif a little breathing time. The other parties to whom they were addressed did not take any public proceedings in connexion with them till several months had elapsed. The University of Oxford seriously demurred at receiving the bull, and, when they had received it, took no steps for furthering the object of it. The Archbishop of Canterbury, however, had no such scruples; he addressed a letter to the Chancellor of Oxford, directing him to make inquiries respecting the errors referred to in the papal mandate, and to forward to him the result of his investigations, with his own judgment thereon, sealed with the University seal: he also directs him to cite Wiclif to appear at St. Paul's to answer the charges, on the thirtieth court-day from the 18th of December, 1377. Wiclif appeared not at St. Paul's, but at Lambeth; but the result was not more hurtful to him than on the previous occasion. Gaunt was no longer supreme in the court, but the reformer had now another friend there. The Dowager-Princess of Wales, the king's mother, at this time possessed much influence, and she used it on this occasion on Wiclif's behalf. The Londoners, too, appear to have been now as much opposed to the bishops as they had before been to Wiclif's friends. They attended, and, by their clamours against the proceedings, created much confusion; and before the tumult could be appeased, a messenger from the princess commanded the bishops to abstain from any decision injurious to Wiclif; they, as Walsingham indignantly says, "became soft as oil in their speech; so were they stricken with fear, you would think them as a man who hears not, or one in whose mouth are no reproofs." Before this convocation was held Wiclif had circulated an answer to the papal "conclusions;" which, somewhat altered or corrected, he put in at his trial. These modifications, and his answers or explanations to the "conclusions," have been declared to be "quibbles and evasions unworthy of a sensible or of an honest man." But the proofs adduced by the reverend historian, especially as coming from one so learned in the theology of the schools, are strangely inadequate to sustain so grave a charge. The explanations are undoubtedly strained, but the conclusions are strained too, and the whole bears the appearance of a scholastic wrangle. It would not be worth while to examine these answers here, could we afford the space, but we must repeat that to us they appear anything but evasive, although not consistent with our modes of reasoning. It does not appear that Wiclif had really expressed his opinions in anything like the form they bear in the pope's mandate; they were "conclusions" gathered out of his writings. In judging Wiclif in this matter it should not be forgotten either, that the only authority for the paper ascribed to him is Walsingham, who was most unfriendly to him, and it may be not literally exact. Wiclif concludes his paper by assuring his judges that he is a true son of the church; that he has not advanced any opinions without warrant from Scripture and the writings of holy doctors, as he is ready to show; but that he is most willing to retract whatever can be proved to be erroneous. The answers were admitted as sufficient by the bishops, and he was dismissed with a warning to avoid in future such questionable matters. By Wiclif the result was considered as a triumph, and the warning disregarded. He was immediately afterwards attacked on the subject of the papal infallibility by an anonymous writer whom he calls a "Motley divine" (Mixtus theologus), who appears to have been not a little startled by Wiclif's daring, and in consequence to have thought it necessary to reassert the authority and infallibility of the pontiff in the strongest terms. Among other things he declared, according to Wiclif, that as the pope could not commit mortal sin, whatever he ordained must be just. To which Wiclif replied, that if so, he might remove any book from the Scripture, and introduce any novelty in its place; and thus, making the very Scripture heresy, establish heresy in its stead. From this Wiclif advances to more direct and stronger attacks on a power so enormous and so capable of abuse, and urges the more influential classes to cast off so intolerable a thraldom. He attacks with equal vigour his other positions, but the full swell of his indignation is reserved for the impious declaration that the pope and clergy could as fully absolve from sin as the Almighty himself. It is evident that he had now arrived at the point when he was prepared to oppose to the utmost the papal power.

That this power would soon have been brought to bear upon him, if Gregory had lived, is not to be doubted, but he was saved by the breaking out of the "Great Schism of the West." Pope Gregory XI. died on the 27th of March, 1378, and while the Italian cardinals elected and obeyed Urban VI., those attached to the interests of France chose Clement VII. Urban was acknowledged in England, but he had too much employment at home to prosecute an English heretic. For the next three years, therefore, Wiclif was left undisturbed. He spent most part of this time at Lutterworth, diligently pursuing the course he had already commenced.

The comparative tranquillity in which he now found himself, he left not unimproved. He had now resolutely bent the whole of his energy against the doctrine of the pope's infallibility, and he gladly seized the opportunity of exhibiting the absurdity of the tenet, afforded by the rival claimants. His 'Schism of the Popes,' which he now published, is a keen piece of controversy, and from the circumstances must have been very effective at the time it was produced. All reserve is now cast aside in his attacks on the rival heads of the church, whom he contrasts with Christ and his apostles, and assimilates to Simon Magus.

From this time it may be said that he left the consideration of the political bearings of the papal usurpation, and directed his attention to the religious aspect of it. Henceforth, indeed, his writings and teaching were almost entirely religious. Very much of the confusion respecting Wiclif's opinions at various periods, and the support they gained for him from different parties of influence in the country, has arisen from inattention to the ground on which he received that support. The commencement of his career was signalized by his attacks on the mendicant friars. At that time they were opposed, as they had long been, as interlopers by the secular clergy, and Wiclif was hailed as a powerful champion by them and by the University of Oxford. Their admiration of him arose from party  considerations, though his dislike to the friars rested on a far wider basis. During the greater part of the reign of Edward III. the king and the parliament were engaged in a determined struggle against papal encroachments. It was prolonged through the whole of his reign and the greater part of the reign of his successor, before it terminated successfully for the English monarch. When so learned and able a clergyman stepped forth as an opponent of the pope's supremacy, it is not surprising that he should be received with welcome, and be firmly upheld by the sovereign and his advisers, so long as he confined himself to the political  bearings of the subject; and if he exceeded those limits a little, it would not in such an age be taken much heed of. Again, when with a more earnest zeal he set his face against the corruptions of the clergy of all ranks—when he denounced as hirelings such as sought after "filthy lucre" and neglected the spiritual advancement of their charges, and pronounced them the most desperate of sinners, backed as his animadversions were by the purity and even austerity of his own life—he would be sure to obtain the suffrages of serious men of all classes, who would bitterly regret the contradiction between the lives and the profession of such priests. Nor is this an imaginary sketch. It appears to have been exactly the course of events in his life and teaching. His doctrinal views were either not propagated, or they did not attract much attention till the latter part of his life. Then a devoted band rallied round him, and, when those who had used him for temporary purposes had cast him off, they clung to him with an ever growing intensity of affection.

Nothing is more manifest in tracing his opinions than the increasing attention he gave to the Scriptures. In his last years they were the test to which he brought every doctrine, almost every opinion, or matter of practice. As his regard for the Scriptures increased, his anxiety to impart a knowledge of them to others increased also. At this time, of course, the version used in the church was the Latin Vulgate. There had been at various times portions of the Old and New Testament translated into the Saxon and English languages, but no complete translation had, it is probable, been made. Wiclif resolved to enable his countrymen to read the Word of God in their own tongue—a noble resolution nobly performed. Aided no doubt by some of the learned disciples who now surrounded him, he diligently commenced his undertaking, and in due time completed it. Before the invention of printing the publication of a book was a very different matter to what it now is. The only mode of making known the contents of a work then was by transcribing and circulating many copies, and this was the way in which Wiclif published his Bible. That it was diligently circulated there can be no question—from the number of copies of it remaining; and from the certainty that he would be anxious to diffuse as widely as possible the authority to which he so constantly appealed, and on the acknowledgment of which the acceptance of his views depended.[22]

Wiclif's version was not made from the original Greek, but from the Vulgate, of which it is a faithful representation. The language is firm and nervous, and was no doubt perfectly intelligible at the time it was written. But nearly five centuries have passed since then, and many changes have taken place in our English. There is however, even now, little difficulty in understanding it, if the uncouth spelling be disregarded, and it is read with the pronunciation of the northern counties, as we have ascertained in several trials with different listeners. The New Testament has been three times printed: by the Rev. J. Lewis, the author of his Life, in 1731; by the Rev. H. H. Baber, in 1810; and again, and more carefully, in Bagster's 'Hexapla,' 1841. This last work contains the six principal English translations from that of Wiclif to the Authorized Version; and it is interesting to trace the influence of Wiclif's on all the succeeding versions. Most who examine them in this work, as they stand side by side, will agree with Professor Blunt, that "on comparing it with the authorized version of King James, it will be found that the latter was hammered on Wiclif's anvil." Besides its vast importance in a higher point of view, there can be no doubt that Wiclif's translation of the Scriptures did very much to fix our language. Except Mandeville's 'Travels,' it was the first English prose work of any importance. Wiclif's Old Testament has never been printed—it has been spoken of for some years as in preparation for printing at the Clarendon Press.

But the translation and publication of the Scriptures was not the only object that occupied his thoughts. Among the plans he had devised for spreading abroad his views of truth, was the formation of a band of what he termed his "poor priests." Wiclif had assumed a plain coarse garb, and they were clad like him. Their duty was to go about instructing the poor in the truths of the Gospel. They were to be unencumbered by worldly goods themselves, and they were not to acquire wealth for their order. They had no benefices, and the reasons for it he explained in a tract he promulgated, entitled 'Why poor priests have no benefices.' His principal reasons are—1. The fear of simony. 2. The danger of misspending the money of the poor. 3. The hope of doing more good by moving from place to place. Allowing for the difference of the times, they bear a strong resemblance to John Wesley's original "preachers;" and they were as effective. Wiclif was untiring in his labours; the amount of tracts he wrote is surprising, even allowing that he was much assisted in preparing them. His position and employment at this time were very similar to Luther's the years preceding his death. His pen was ever employed, and ever ready for fresh employment. But, important as were his own labours, it is probable that his poor priests did even more to diffuse his doctrines; and how widely they were diffused may be guessed from Knighton's angry assertion—taken as it may and ought to be with considerable abatement—that "his followers so increased that they everywhere filled the compass of the kingdom; insomuch that a man could not meet two people on the road, but one of them was a disciple of Wiclif." This, he affirms, arose from "the respect they always pretended for what they call 'Goddis Law,' to which they profess themselves to be in their opinions and actions strictly conformable."

While thus zealously employed in furthering the great purpose to which he had devoted himself, his life was an example of what he upheld as the character of a true priest. His conduct was unblameable, his attention to his pastoral duties unremitting. Three hundred of his sermons are said to be still remaining, and they fully prove his energy, fervour, and devotion—he  was no idle, careless priest. Like Milton—who in many respects greatly resembled him—he believed that he who attempts a great work must live a life worthy of his undertaking; and the whole of his own conduct, and the judgment he formed of others, were moulded by his exalted notion of the dignity of the priestly office.[23]

So long as Wiclif confined himself, in his attacks on the popes and their agents, to their political claims or their immoral conduct, he met with the support of the secular authorities; and also of the people, whose dislike of the papal supremacy was a national far more than a religious feeling. They could not endure that an Italian or a French priest should domineer over their country and their king, and they little liked that his representatives, though Englishmen, should usurp such power. They would not have a priest to rule over them. When Wiclif preached against the doctrinal errors of the popes, he was regarded with suspicion by those who had before most strenuously supported him, and soon indeed encountered from them strong opposition. In 1381 he published at Oxford his twelve "conclusions," in which he appears for the first time to have questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation. His view of it much resembled that of Luther, and which is still that of the Lutheran church. The Chancellor of Oxford immediately summoned a meeting of twelve doctors, who condemned the "conclusions" as heterodox, and adjudged that all who should teach them in the University should be placed under the ban of the greater excommunication, suspended from all their offices and privileges, and imprisoned—and, that the chance of such errors spreading might be at once cut off, they condemned those who listened to them to a similar punishment. Wiclif was lecturing in the school of the Augustinians when their sentence was communicated to him. He appealed from them to the civil magistrate. Until the parliament, to which the matter was now referred, should meet, which was not till the next year, it is probable that Wiclif abstained from teaching his views at the University, but he developed them more clearly and fully in some tracts which he now published: one of them, entitled the 'Wicket,' has been three or four times printed, and is a powerful piece of controversial writing.

The year 1381 was signalized by the revolt of the commons under Wat Tyler, and many of Wiclif's enemies have with small success endeavoured to connect his name with that affair. It arose from causes sufficiently known to all acquainted with our history, and Wiclif is as little responsible for it, as Luther for the famous rise of the peasants after the publication of his doctrines. In May, 1382, Courtney, now Archbishop of Canterbury, summoned a council to consider the doctrines attributed to Wiclif. Eight bishops and fourteen doctors, with other learned persons, met on the 17th of May, at Grey Friars in London. The proceedings had scarcely commenced when the place in which they were assembled was shaken by an earthquake, to the great alarm of the doctors, who were disposed to attribute it to the Divine displeasure—an opinion in which Wiclif coincided. The archbishop, however, explained it differently, and the doctors, reassured, proceeded with their deliberations.[24] After three days' careful consideration they pronounced ten of the "conclusions" to be heretical, and the remaining fourteen to be erroneous. The heretical notions being those on the eucharist, his denial of the need of priestly absolution, his declaration that clerical endowments were unlawful, and his condemnation of the papal infallibility. Everything was done that appeared likely to impart force and solemnity to this decision. After an imposing procession through London, a friar was appointed to explain to the people from St. Paul's the enormity of the heresy. Copies of the sentence were forwarded to the leading bishops; and even to the clergy about Lutterworth. Messengers were dispatched to the king, and to the University of Oxford. Wiclif again appealed to the secular power. This appeal has been complained of as opposed to his principles: after all, it has been said, "the new apostle was in no haste to grasp the crown of martyrdom."[25] But Wiclif did not depart from his own principles. He held and taught that the secular power ought to preserve the lives and liberties of the subjects, and it does not seem that he asked the parliament to affirm the truth of his doctrines. The archbishop called on the king to put down by force the growing heresy; and the monarch readily answered the call, by issuing a writ to the Chancellor of Oxford, directing him to search out such as were suspected of holding these opinions, and to seize and imprison any who harboured Wiclif or his followers. In his appeal to the parliament Wiclif had somewhat more success. The king, at the instigation of the bishop, had promulgated an ordinance in the form of an act of parliament, directing all sheriffs, &c. to arrest any persons found preaching any of the doctrines condemned at the convocation; but on the meeting of parliament this ordinance was declared to be illegal, the parliament itself having had no share in framing it—and they would not, they said, subject themselves to the jurisdiction of the prelates in a manner unknown to their fathers. It was, in fact, a bold attempt of the bishop to introduce something very like the Holy Office into England.

But Wiclif's success ended here. He was now left to sustain the unequal conflict alone. His principal supporters at Oxford had been summoned before a synod to answer for their own delinquencies, and had been compelled to retract or explain away their obnoxious sentiments. John of Gaunt no longer stood by him. Perhaps sincerely shocked at his venturing to question so sacred a doctrine as transubstantiation was then generally believed to be, he earnestly recommended Wiclif to submit to his diocesan—and left him to his fate. Wiclif was soon summoned to appear before a convocation at Oxford, at which the archbishop presided, and several bishops were present. He delivered in two statements of his sentiments on the eucharist; one in Latin, the other in English. The former is declared to be unintelligible—it is fenced about with all the forms of scholastic dialectics, and may be passed by; the other, as it is in English, was probably meant for the unlearned, and is plain and perfectly comprehensible. It is evident that his matured and deliberate views were the same as we have already stated them to be. His bearing before the assembly was firm and manly—his enemies say haughty and obstinate. He did not retract. The result was that his opinions were again condemned, and himself deprived of his professorship of divinity, and banished from the University.

He was not further molested,—at least for the next two years. This interval was busily employed. A host of opponents sprung up against him after the adjudication at Oxford, and he was not of a temper to let them pass unanswered. His intense energy was little impaired by age or anxiety, and his opponents still found him a ready antagonist. Bowed down by persecution, his life by illness made a living death, he wavered not, nor ceased from his labours. During his last years Wiclif suffered much from paralysis—the effect, no doubt, of his anxious and stormy life. His first attack was in 1379. Perhaps the knowledge of his weak state prevented his enemies from pressing for the infliction of physical punishment. But a few months before his death he was cited by Urban II. to appear before him at Rome, to answer for his heresies. Wiclif was unable from illness to go, but he addressed a letter to his holiness in which he "tells his belief." The main points of it are his declaration of his entire dependence on Christ as the Son of God, and of his assurance of the supreme authority of Scripture. He acknowledges the pope to be Christ's chief vicar on earth—but adds, that he ought to follow the example of his master, who was the poorest of men when in this world. "This I take as wholesome counsel that the pope leave his worldly lordship to worldly lords, as Christ gave (charged) him, and move speedily all his clerks (clergy) to do so: for thus did Christ, and taught thus his disciples, till the fiend had blinded this world." He declares that if he were able he would go to the pope; but as he cannot, he supposes the pope will not show himself open anti-Christ by commanding him again to do that which God had rendered him unable to do. If his opinions can be prayed to be wrong, he is ready to recant; if it be necessary to die for them, he is willing, "for that I hope were good for me."

As he was assisting at the celebration of mass by his curate in his parish church of Lutterworth, on the 29th of December, 1384, another and more fatal stroke of paralysis deprived him of the use of speech and of motion. He lingered two days, when his spirit ascended to that world where misapprehension and strife are alike unknown. His corpse was buried in the church; and there it rested, till forty years afterwards the Council of Constance, at the same time that it crowned itself with eternal infamy by its treacherous murder of John Huss and of Jerome, condemned Wiclif's doctrines, and directed that his corpse should be exhumed and burnt, "if it could be discerned from those of the faithful." The order was obeyed. Richard Fleming, bishop of Lincoln, in whose diocese Lutterworth was situated, directed the process. The reformer's remains were taken up, burnt, and the ashes cast into the Swift, a little stream that runs at the foot of the hill on which the town is built. "Thus this brook," says Fuller, "hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over."

We have endeavoured, as far as our limits would allow us, to exhibit Wiclif according to his own principles. It remains for us to add a few words on his sentiments, and express our own impression of his character. His opinions have been the subject of much disputation, and it is often said that they are so enwrapped in explanations and mystifications, that it is difficult to make out what they really were. But to one desirous to understand them, the difficulty soon disappears. The contemporary notices of him do not imply that there was any obscurity: the charges brought against him; his own defences; the references his followers make to him, do not suggest it. That his opinions will appear contradictory to one who extracts from his different writings, without regard to the circumstances and the time in which each was written, there can be no doubt; but if it be borne in mind that his creed, like that of every reformer, and especially of every religious reformer, was progressive—that his opinions were slowly formed, often forced upon his conviction after a long struggle against them—so that he would more than any other lament the necessity imposed upon him to admit, and especially to diffuse them,—if this gradual formation of his creed be remembered, the difficulty of reconciling the articles of it with the statements and reasonings to be found in others of his writings, will not surprise any candid inquirer, whether he admit the truth of the opinions or not. To us it appears he might truly be called the first Protestant—the first who boldly and firmly protested against the papal domination, both in relation to society and to individual man. His doctrinal views were in the main those afterwards adopted by Luther and the reformed churches—in others, he went far beyond them, verging closely upon Puritanism; while to the last he held many things now only retained by the Romish church.

His moral character was unimpeached. His sincerity has been questioned, but to us it seems to stand firm and unshaken. His faults, however, are manifest. Living up to the lofty character he set before him, he stooped not to one who was unable to attain to the same elevation. A fierce polemic, he is unmeasured in the expression of his wrath against all whom he opposed. But we must not let our dislike of such violence lead us too far. A wise man has told us "not to condemn bitter and earnest writing." In truth, a man cannot beat down idols with a feather broom: and Wiclif's task was not merely to sweep the dust off those about the holy place. After all, Wiclif was abundantly repaid in his own coin. For every handful of mud he flung, a cart-load was thrown back upon him. Let him not be condemned for a fault common to every one who has undertaken so apparently hopeless a task as the destruction of a mighty system of evil. It is a fault that seems to spring out of the vehemence of temper natural and almost necessary to the character of a reformer. The vehemence of his language in some instances, and its cautiousness at other times, appear to have arisen from the fact that, seeing  palpably the evil practices of the religious orders about him, and the consequences that resulted from them, he attacked them with an overflowing asperity—while in matters of doctrine  he formed his opinions deliberately, was conscious of all the difficulties of the question, and spoke cautiously, moderately, and with an honest desire not to obtrude extreme opinions. This, at least, appears to us the true explanation.

We regard Wiclif as one of the noblest of our Worthies; and as long as true manly earnestness and Christian worth are honoured by his countrymen, his name will live in their remembrance, and be cherished with devout gratitude, A true, honest, noble-hearted man, he recognised the divinity within him, and followed its bidding—through evil and through good report. With him worldly honours were nought; the fear of man he knew not; he had a work to accomplish, and he turned not aside from it. As long as he had a hand or a tongue to labour with, he ceased not to labour. Wiclif was the pioneer in the great struggle to release man from spiritual thraldom. He stood forth and proclaimed the forgotten truth, that the soul of man is responsible alone to its Creator; that no man can stand between his fellowman and his Divine Master. The welcome with which his doctrine was met showed that the hollowness of the ground upon which men stood was felt. He died, but his work survived him. In this country a goodly band remained, and carried on what he had begun; and when they were silenced, his opinions were cherished in private, till on the introduction of the reformed doctrines they were lost in the broader stream. It is probable, indeed, that these secret dissentients within the English church largely contributed to the easy introduction of the reformed opinions here. On the Continent, too, his views found a home and a welcome. Carried into Bohemia immediately after his death, they there spread widely; nor did the martyrdom of John Huss stop their progress. The result was their accomplishment in the great Reformation.

The number of writings attributed to Wiclif, from tracts of a page up to large and elaborate works, which remain in MS. scattered through public libraries, is very great. Few of them have been printed, and it is not creditable to our literature that while the various societies established for the republication of the works of our earlier writers are loading their shelves with much worthless rubbish, only one work attributed to Wiclif (and that not known to be his) should have been printed. The Religious Tract Society, a few years back, published a volume of selections from his writings; but the language is modernized with very little judgment, and the work is of course of no value.

The authorities we have consulted for this sketch are Wiclif's own writings, so far as accessible to us; Walsingham, Knighton, and Wilkins; the Lives by Lewis and Vaughan; the Introduction to the 'Hexapla;' the various ecclesiastical histories; and the papers and prefaces by Dr. Todd.



20 There are about twenty variations of the mode of spelling the name. Wiclif, Wicliffe, and Wycliffe are the most common modes. In strict propriety we ought to write De  Wiclif.

21 In the Gentleman's Mag. 1841, an attempt was made to show that the warden of Canterbury Hall was another John Wiclif (or Wiclive ). The writer proves that there was another of that name, then rector of Mayfield in Sussex, for which living he was indebted to the friendship of Islip, but he does not succeed in identifying him with the warden of Canterbury; if the wardens of Canterbury and Baliol could be shown to be different persons, it would, however, remove some difficulties that had been pointed out long before this curious discovery was made (see Vaughan's 'Life of Wycliffe,' i. 272, note). Wiclif nowhere mentions his connexion with Canterbury Hall himself, but it seems to be referred to by his contemporaries.

22 It is said, on the authority of Sir Thomas More, who asserts that he had seen Bibles of an earlier date than Wiclif's, that the Scriptures had been translated long before his time, but although parts had been at different times translated, there is good reason to doubt whether any complete  translation had been made. See an excellent summary of the information on the subject in the Introduction to Bagster's 'Hexapla,' p. 5 et seq.

23 Milton's tracts on 'Church Government,' 'Removing Hirelings from the Church,' &c., might have been written by Wiclif if he had lived in that day. Their views were very similar in these matters, and there is an approximation in Wiclif to Milton's opinions on Divorce. The men were greatly alike in character—stern, uncompromising, each gave himself up with his whole heart to the promotion of the objects he had in view, and both measuring other men by their own lofty standard, dealt out the harshest censure on such as fell short of it.—Milton, by the way, obliquely defends the violence of his own language by the example of Wiclif. The genius of the two was so different as obviously to prohibit comparison—it is in their inflexibility of purpose, their moral and religious severity of character, that the resemblance consists.

24 Courtney said it was a symbol of the need there was of purifying the church from the pestiferous vapours that hung over it; Wiclif, that the earth trembled because they were about to put a heresy upon Christ, as it before trembled when they put his body to death.

25 Dr. Lingard is hard to please: he sneers at Wiclif for not  seeking the martyr's crown, yet when one of his followers, a few years later, obtains it, he coolly says, "The enthusiast aspired to the crown of martyrdom, and had the satisfaction to fall a victim to his own folly!"—'Hist. of England,' iv. 188 and 332.