It is not uncommon for famous men, especially within the Church world, to describe some peculiar or outstanding event surrounding their birth, but with John Wycliffe we have no such detail. It would have been a great opportunity for some prophet or priest to announce over the infant in his mother’s arms, “A star is born!”, yet we can only give him this title with hindsight. Nevertheless, we believe that he was born at exactly the right time in history and according to the plan and purpose of God. The spiritual darkness which people were living under in the 14th century called for such a star to be born to guide them to true liberty in Christ.
John Wycliffe was born sometime around 1324, during the reign of King Edward III, and when Marco Polo was setting out on his famous journey to the Far East. He was born into a world where there was no such thing as the holy Bible in the English language, a world where in fact the holy Scriptures were banned by the Roman Church.
As with many details regarding his life, there is some argument concerning the exact place of Wycliffe’s birth. Two villages are put forward as possible sites. The first being Hipswell, and the other Wyclif-upon-Tees, both in West Riding, Yorkshire. It appears very likely that he was born in the village of Wyclif (sometimes spelt Wycliffe), especially when we consider that it was common for people to take a town name as their surname in that day. The Wycliffe’s (not John’s family) were lords of the village. The overlord was John of Gaunt (son of King Edward III), who will be spoken of later in the reformer’s story.
It is possible that John’s family were wealthy sheep farmers. This is only a guess, but we do know that they must have had enough money to send their son to Oxford University. Also wool was an valuable commodity which was being exported in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; for even today Yorkshire is famous for its textile mills. Apart from this we do not know anything else about Wycliffe’s family. This may be a little disappointing for researchers, but we must remember that he was born before the invention of the printing press or mass communication networks. Therefore it should not surprise us to realise that there are no existing records of a mere farmer’s son. If we are correct about the details so far, then we can assume that he would have worked alongside his father on the farm. This background would cause him to grow up into the typical Yorkshireman, very blunt and to the point, independent, and forthright. Living in Yorkshire in the 1330’s would have made him very aware of the war between England and Scotland, since the military would have been seen advancing towards the Scottish border as they passed through that region.
At a very early age John’s parents must have become aware of his academic abilities and given him every opportunity to study. The English language that he grew up with was still developing, and was in fact a mixture (as were the English people themselves) of Old Saxon and Norman French. At about fifteen years of age he was sent to Oxford to further his education and to enter the Church, the two usually going hand-in-hand. His parents obviously had very high hopes for their son, but God was working in the heart and mind of this brilliant young student to bring England out of spiritual darkness as well as to glorify His name. There have always been true members of God’s Church, who have fearlessly stood on the foundation of the Word of God and did not conform to the deception presented by Rome. John Wycliffe was to be one of these warriors.
Like everyone else at the time, he grew up under the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church. He would live to see the reign of eight popes: John XXII, Nicholas V, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XII, and Clement VII. Rome held ultimate authority in the lives of all people both on the continent of Europe and in the British Isles. The papacy controlled both the Church and State, which were inseparably joined together in medieval England. This meant that there was no personal liberty in everyday life or in religion, in fact the Papacy was universally accepted as the head of a common Christian religion. It is estimated that the clergy owned almost half of the estates in the kingdom, therefore they did not see any need for freedom of choice for the common man. They were the lords over the whole nation, the people merely being the servants at their beck and call. They dictated what the people did, thought and believed. Such a situation as this called for a prophet of God to appear to call the nation back to righteousness and holiness.
As a child, what little he had learned of the gospel of Christ would have been a mixture of mythical stories, miracle and morality plays about Jesus, as the travelling monks and friars preached and taught in the villages. He would have been accustomed to seeing indulgences sold on every street in order to raise funds for the pope’s war efforts and building plans. Many of these friars would have come from both the Franciscan and Dominican orders. John Wycliffe greatly admired St. Francis of Assisi and his teachings regarding poverty. It is interesting to note that the friars originally denounced the Vatican for its riches and avarice, but all was to change, as we shall see.
The teachings, traditions, and fables kept the nation bound up in Satanic darkness, but unbeknown to the Roman pontiff, England was on the verge of a spiritual revolution that would set the hearts and minds of men and women free for centuries to come. Little did the demonic powers realise that this young man, on his way to Oxford, would shake the very foundations of their power on earth, that is, the Vatican itself.