Attack on the Corruption of the Friars

While at Merton College, Oxford, in 1356 John Wycliffe wrote his treatise entitled The Last Age of the Church. The title of the work reveals what was going on in his mind and spirit at this time. He obviously believed that God’s final judgement was ready to be poured out on the world. Such a message would have been a powerful tool for a preacher like Wycliffe. With a heightened sense of fear in the hearts of men and women because of the plague, they needed a remedy for the torment of their souls. God could use this message to draw the lost to Himself.

In 1360, or thereabouts, Wycliffe was elected the Master of Balliol College. The reformer loved Oxford so much that even when he received a comfortable living as Rector of Fillingham in Lincolnshire in May 1361, he could not bear to leave the university. Instead he took lodgings in Queen’s College and became Warden of Canterbury Hall for a short time.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, son of King Edward III, took a liking to Wycliffe and his preaching. Maybe one reason for this is the fact that he was the overlord of the region that the preacher came from. Some have suggested that John of Gaunt actually financed Wycliffe’s education in Oxford, but this seems unlikely, especially since there is no evidence to support the claim. Whatever the circumstances, we do know that the prince began to act as Wycliffe’s benefactor and protector. John of Gaunt was in fact a member of the influential anti-clerical party in Parliament, whose main objective was to remove Pluralism (that is, the holding of several Church offices at any one time), Absenteeism (non-resident clergy), and Church abuses within the State. They may have had in mind the idea of reaping the accumulated treasures of the rich clergy for themselves once they had removed them from office. We shall see later that the prince was not a true friend of the reformer, but despite this, God was placing people in Wycliffe’s life who would be extremely useful in the days to come as his teachings became more and more controversial.

Because of his developing opposition to Roman Catholic doctrine and practice Wycliffe received a new title. This time it was not as pleasant as The Flower of Oxford or The Gospel Doctor, instead he was being labelled a heretic. The pope himself had heard of what was being taught in Oxford, and it was he who sought to quieten the voice of this heretic. In reality John Wycliffe was doing what no English man before him had ever dared to do. Here was a man, a Catholic priest, who made a decision to take his stand on the foundation of God’s word alone, and as a result reject the teachings of the papacy. This courage is even more remarkable when we realise that the Catholic Church was all that anyone knew so Wycliffe could not simply convert to a Bible-believing Church as many ex-Catholics do today – there were no other denominations, no other choice – everyone was a Roman Catholic.

Although there were the Waldensians in Italy and the Albigensians in France, these Christian groups had not yet appeared in England. John Wycliffe may have known about their existence but it is highly doubtful that he ever had any contact with them, nor would he have been influenced by their teachings or objections to Rome. There have been suggestions that Wycliffe fled England, because of persecution, to go to Bohemia and thus met with the Maldeans. There he found that their teachings were not dissimilar to his own and was even to learn deeper truths from them, but this account is pure fiction and does not relate to any possible event or time in the reformer’s life.

In John Wycliffe we find a man who is mightily moved upon by the Holy Spirit of God, in a similar way as Gideon was. Gideon was a “mighty man of valour” in the midst of the Midianite host (Judges 6:12). It seems that in every generation, and definitely when it is steeped in spiritual darkness and depravity, God always has His “mighty man of valour”.

In 1360 he published his work entitled Objections to the Friars. With this tract he hoped to enter into debate with the Mendicant orders so that the people might understand the true nature of both God and His word. Though he had previously held the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi in high esteem, he could no longer withhold himself from attacking the corruption of the Franciscan order of that day.

There were in fact two main orders of friars that Wycliffe stood against, these were the Franciscans and the Dominicans. St. Francis of Assisi who founded the Franciscan in 1215 considered that true holiness and virtue consisted in the practice of poverty. Before his death there were 2,500 monasteries dedicated to his teachings, and five popes have come from this religious order. St. Dominic aimed to kerb the rampant immorality and wickedness when he saw amongst priests and monks. The Dominicans were actually made up of two groups, the first was to preach the true doctrines of the Church, and the second was commissioned to put to death all known heretics. The Franciscans and Dominicans for a while became the champions of the people and eventually even the Church had to acknowledge them. Both orders had done immense work for the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe in the century before Wycliffe’s birth.

Since about 1220 the Begging Friars (Mendicants) had their headquarters in Oxford, but instead of living the simple life as proposed by St. Francis, they had become greedy for gain and lazy, to the point that their presence in the city was becoming intolerable. Intolerable because the friar’s life of idleness and begging became a heavy drain on the resources of the people who felt obliged and obligated to assist them. The friars would enter the colleges to convince students to give up their studies and to take up the monastic life themselves. These evil men acted in a similar way to the modern day cultist, that is, they targeted the young, especially the vulnerable and discouraged, to increase their numbers.

Those beguiled by the monks were led into a life of corruption and misery instead of occupying their time with their studies as their parents had desired. This caused much heartache and the break-up of many families, especially when we take account of the fact that parents often never learned where their sons had been spirited off to. The universities were not being attended because parents were too frightened to send their sons there. Sometimes the young men would simply be kidnapped by the monks, so it is little wonder that people were calling for a restriction to be placed on their activities. The monks callously taught their new recruits that even if their own father and mother lay at the door pleading with them, they must trample over their bodies in obedience to Christ. Cruel words as these must have caused John Wycliffe’s blood to boil with holy anger at such unbiblical and ungodly teachings. He could do nothing less than declare the monks to be false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The pope had granted the monks the power to hear confessions and forgive sins at a price. This they used to raise money for themselves and the Church. Needless to say, the papacy saw no reason to object. They would sell indulgences even to the most hardened of criminals, yet they refused to attend the poor since they had no means of paying for their service. They prospered while so many all around them were underprivileged, starving and sick. Others were being reduced to poverty and misery through the money making racket of the friars. Though the monks were selling indulgences to raise capital for the Vatican, they siphoned off huge amounts for themselves also. They, who were supposed to be dedicated to a life of poverty, soon became landowners and men of great wealth. It is said that they lived like princes with their houses, orchards, and hunting grounds. These wicked men promised that whoever took the garb of their order would escape purgatory and go straight to Heaven when they died.

John Wycliffe greatly objected to all of this, for now they were teaching that Christ and His disciples were beggars themselves. He saw this as yet another way for them to pick the pockets of the rich and poor alike. He could not stand this any longer, therefore he exposed their gross wickedness and laziness by saying that they were a reproach on the holy name of Jesus Christ and the purity of the gospel. He said, “If the monks shall be converted to the true religion of Christ, they must abandon their unbelief, return freely, with or without the permission of the Antichrist (the pope), to the primitive religion of the Lord, and build up the Church, as did Paul.”

Wycliffe’s attack on the friars was assisted by Richard FitzRalph, one of his students, who had become Archbishop of Armagh in 1347. Even before meeting the reformer he had personally appealed to the pope to restrict the activities of the friars, and he had even travelled to Avigion to meet with Pope Innocent VI over this matter. He would have been a great loss to Wycliffe when he died in 1360.

In 1362 the University asked Pope Urban V to permit the election of John Wycliffe to the canonry and dignity of York, but instead of granting this request the Vatican granted him the canonship of Aust in Westbury-on-Trym near Bristol. The pope had heard about the activities of the reformer, so it is seems rather ironic that he should allow him this position in the Church. It may be that he thought that a little flattery and honour would quell Wycliffe’s passion for the truth. From this point nothing is known of Wycliffe for the next couple of years.

He seems to resurface again in the year 1365 with his work entitled Summary of Religion, a compendium of philosophical questions. This deals with two basic subjects, ‘What is Man?’ and ‘What is God?’ In this work he draws upon Aristotle, Augustine, Anslem, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, but he does not hesitate to disagree with them on a number of points. The Summary (printed in two volumes) is in fact pure philosophy and extremely difficult to comprehend, as is the case with many of Wycliffe‘s political and social works. It is therefore unnecessary to burden our minds with quotations from the same, and may be unwise to do so, since all modern translations are the work of philosophers who are not given to the appreciation of Wycliffe’s Christian beliefs according to the Holy Scriptures.