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Historical Notes

John Wycliffe

Born: 1320 ~ Great Britain
Died: 1384
Note: English philosopher, reformer, theologian, lecturer, translator

Almost two full centuries before Martin Luther created ripples in the pond of Europe, John Wycliffe was making waves from Britain to Rome and has been called the "Morning Star of the Reformation." He achieved masteries in religious education, taught at Oxford University, and won support from English nobility for his systematic attacks on the hierarchical system, the churches influence over governmental matters, and the demand of Rome for tribute. About one fourth of Europe's population died from the Black Death during the 1300's not counting deaths from the Hundred Years War between Britain and France. It was a turbulent period with church officials vying for power against kings and their nobles which aroused many questions. Was the pope higher than a monarch? Could governments punish church officials? Could the church tax the state? Or vice-versa?

The papacy was currently experiencing a period known as the "Babylonian Captivity" with rival popes; one seated in Rome and another in France. Wycliffe lectured on these issues which brought him into constant danger from the authorities. In 1376 he began preaching; that authority in both church or state comes only from God and is forfeited when a person falls into a mortal sin, that religion is an inward experience not dependent on form, and that the doctrine of transubstantiation is false because Wycliffe considered that it gave priests undue superiority over people. Pope Gregory XI excommunicated him the next year, but the royal family protected him from civil and papal courts. He was not sentenced or imprisoned, although denied the opportunity to continue teaching at Oxford. Many years after his death, church officials exhumed and burned his remains.

Wycliffe endeavored to translate Jerome's Latin Vulgate into English, and finished just before his death in 1384. It was extremely literal and often corresponded more to the Latin word order instead of the expected English which made it slightly difficult for reading. His followers, led by John Purvey, produced a smoother, more natural version by 1388. In the spiritual darkness of corruption that enshrouded Europe during these centuries there have been momentary flashes of light that gave hope of relief from corruption in both church and state. John Wycliffe was such a light, and a principal influence to John Huss of Bohemian, another star who would burn at the stake of persecution for denouncing papal authority which he called an "institution of Satan."

In 1408, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel convened a synod at Oxford to forbid anyone from reading or translating any part of a non-Latin version of the Bible without the approval of his bishop or a special council. The entire collection of thirteen such prohibitions were called the "Constitutions of Oxford." English authorities used them to thwart the efforts of the next reformer, William Tyndale.

Written by Ronald J. Gordon as extended information for other major articles

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