The Influence of John Wycliffe

In this section we will deal with something of the influence that John Wycliffe’s life and theology has had on both the Church and the world. It is not possible to adequately provide extensive documentation of his impact and influence, since to a large degree it is fathomless. It is nevertheless safe to suggest that Wycliffe has affected every person who has the liberty to name Jesus Christ as Saviour and to carry a copy of the Holy Bible in the common language. The influence of Wycliffe has to be considered, not in terms of his direct personal influence on any given individual but in terms of the impact of his teachingss, as they are set out in his writings.

It is said that John Wycliffe accomplished more than any other man in English history to change the downward course of society to enlightenment and liberty. England in the 14th century needed a “man sent from God” (John 1:6) who could rightly and mightily wield the sword of the Spirit in the midst of the countless armies of the enemy of souls. As a man of the Holy Scriptures he believed what was written, rejected all that was contrary to the truth, and sought to rid the nation of the darkness imposed by Satan. He believed that just as the Scriptures had transformed him, so they could do the same for every man, woman and child coming under the sound of the gospel.

Great stress has been laid on such mighty men as Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, and John Knox, as being the fathers of the Reformation, but in so doing we lose sight of probably the most important event in reformation history both in this country and abroad. We must not forget that John Wycliffe was the leading light of the Reformation and has therefore just cause to be titled The Morning Star of the Reformation or The Rising Star of the Reformation. Even though he has received such a glorious title, the sad fact remains, that he has never been given due regard for his work. This may be because the story of his life has been lost in the mists of time, or maybe at first glance his influence does not appear as dramatic as a Luther, Whitefield, or Wesley. Generally speaking, Wycliffe has always been underestimated. We can obtain translations of the manuscripts of other great reformers, but it is extremely difficult to find those of John Wycliffe. The availability of literature, especially for our generation, is meagre in the extreme. If it were not necessary to dig so deep into secular history to find details of the reformer’s life maybe he would receive recognition in the Church of today.

His life and teaching have had tremendous influence not only on the nations, but also on denominations and societies. Yes, even the Roman Catholic Church, to some degree, has been affected by the theology of England’s first reformer. The following details offer a brief insight into the main aspects of the influence of John Wycliffe. 

Though he never intended to involve himself with politics, the momentum of his message mixed with the atmosphere of the day, brought him into contact with important political personalities. In a very real sense the reformer is responsible for influencing the government (both the King and Parliament) as England was emerging from darkness both spiritual and secular. H. B. Workman, in his book entitled The Dawn of the Reformation, on a number of occasions classifies Wycliffe as a being a communist. Though the definition is meant in the best possible way, it is nevertheless misleading, for the reformer did not seek to change the living conditions of the common man because of some political idealism, but because he knew what the Scriptures taught regarding the poor and underprivileged. He based his advice to Parliament upon God’s word, and was therefore no different from the Old Testament prophets who spoke out against the unmerciful wealthy in favour of the downtrodden poor. Wealth-sharing is not a new message and certainly not the result of communistic thinking.

Politicians have always used whatever means available to advance their causes, and just as in this age, the national leaders of the late 14th century were quite willing to make use of John Wycliffe and his theology, though in truth few were interested in neither. Since he argued for religious and social change, his preaching fitted their agenda either for or against him. He has been labelled as the instigator of the rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt, but the fact is that he was not in the least responsible for it or the anticlericalism of the rebels, it is simply that they held several views in common. The reformer’s attack on the greatest spiritual and temporal power on earth, particularly as he advised against sending revenues to Rome, made him a man well suited for their needs. As we have previously seen, he acted as a commissioner for King Edward III when negotiating with the papacy.

Though all this is no doubt true, if we were to ask John Wycliffe what he felt about being used by the national leaders, he would probably reply by saying that he used them too. For in fact he did use his position in Parliament to advance the cause of the gospel of Christ, and for the time being it was an available vehicle for his message. He knew that the government was only interested in secular matters, but without his involvement they would not have achieved so much so quickly.

Religion in England and Europe
Various aspects of religion, or more precisely, Biblical Christianity has been affected by the theology of John Wycliffe. His great concern was for the preaching of the gospel, especially in the markets and other places where people gathered. He engaged in evangelism himself and trained his preachers in the same thing. His style of preaching has had a direct impact upon all Protestant denominations and non-conformist churches. Generally speaking, Protestantism is evangelical by nature, for its history is full of men who were bold enough to take the word of salvation outside of the church building and into the streets. Like them Wycliffe saw more souls saved from sin and unto Christ through evangelistic preaching than within the four walls of the parish church.

He was the first Bible preacher in England that determined to do something about the salvation of souls by abiding steadfastly to the authority of the Holy Scriptures. He believed that every individual, no matter how unlearned he or she might be, had the right to spiritual rebirth and to understand the doctrines of the word of God. Biblical theology was not for scholars who locked themselves away in cold, dark cells, but in the reformers eyes it was for everyday life and for the common man. It may be permissible to say that John Wycliffe is the father of Evangelicalism, for up until then the clergy were Sacramentalist, and few cared about their lack of knowledge of the Holy Bible.

Wycliffe was certainly puritanical in theology and practice, in fact he could not be otherwise given the wickedness and godlessness of the age that he lived in. In him we see the beginnings of Protestant thought, but we must remember though that he lived and died as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Today we would call him a fundamentalist in theology, except for a few areas, and this being so, his influence opened the doors that still permits Bible-believing Christians to hold a faith that differs from those who do not accept the final authority of Scripture. If it were not for Wycliffe we may still be ruled by the papacy, for it was the pope’s intention to establish the Inquisition in England, but because of the reformer’s influence on and advice to Parliament, he was unable to accomplish his desire. We can only wonder how much more terrible persecution of English Christians would have been over the next two hundred years if the pontiff had succeeded with his plan. The Reformation of the 16th Century, as even secular historians agree, owes much to the influence of Wycliffe. It was in fact his writings that reached into the regions of Europe that he nor his followers were able to get to.

John Huss (1332-1415) was a Roman Catholic priest living in Bohemia, and through his study of Scripture and coming into contact with the writings of Wycliffe professed conversion to Christ. Later Huss would write in defence of Wycliffe’s treatise on the Holy Trinity. It was a direct manifestation of God’s miracle-working power with regards to how John Wycliffe’s works arrived in Bohemia. We read of a Czech scribe, who after reading the reformer’s works, exclaimed, “O good God, do not let this man come into our beloved Bohemia!”, but the Lord did just the opposite and began to shed the light of the gospel in that place too. It was through the marriage of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia that spiritual links were established between the two countries. The queen was a godly woman who read the Scriptures, and enjoyed and respected Wycliffe’s ministry and works. She wanted Bohemia to hear about the glorious gospel of Christ which she had be reading about in the reformer’s writings.

Thus we come to Bohemia’s own reformer who was greatly influenced by Wycliffe’s works. Eventually John Huss would be summonsed by the Catholic clergy to appear before them at the Council of Constance in 1414. He was condemned as being both a heretic and a Wycliffeite, and for this he was burned at the stake in 1415.

Another European reformer titled Jerome of Prague (1365-1416) came to England to study theology in Oxford University after the death of Wycliffe. It is accepted that he learned of John Wycliffe through the preaching of the Lollards, and so he began to secretly study his doctrines and even distributed copies of his translation of the Bible when he returned to Prague in 1407. He associated with John Huss, and like Huss and Wycliffe preached against the ungodliness of the clergy. Because of intense persecution he recanted, but soon withdrew his recantation and was burned at the stake.

John Knox (1513-1572) is known as the Father of Presbyterianism in Scotland. It is known that he studied the works of Wycliffe, and he may have read his translation of the New Testament since a Scottish version of it was available at that time.

William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli all honour Wycliffe in some way, and they are the result of the foundation laid down by the first reformer. These famous men deserve to be honoured, but in reality they took the torch onward that Wycliffe left behind.

The Holy Bible in the Common Language
The holy Scriptures, as we have them today are a direct descendent of Wycliffe’s Bible. If it had not been for his tireless work in destroying the foundations of Rome and replacing them with a Biblical one, the Bible would still be banned and the Church would be burdened with a language the majority could not understand.

John Wycliffe wanted to see the word of God set aside the foolishness of the travelling monks who taught nonsense when it came to the Scriptures. For the clerics “dock God’s word” says the reformer, “and tatter it by their rhymes so that the form that God gave it is hidden in hypocrisy.” The followers of Wycliffe painstakingly produced handwritten copies of the English Bible, which sometimes took eighteen months to complete, but it would be centuries before his version would go to the press.

Wycliffe Bible Translators
Wycliffe Bible Translators was founded in 1934 by William Cameron Townsend. By taking the name of Wycliffe they were associating their work with that of the first reformer and English Bible translator. Today WBT are the largest organisation engaged in the work of translating the Bible into foreign languages and they have over six thousand members working with eight hundred and fifty languages in over fifty countries.

In concluding this section on the influence of John Wycliffe a tribute to his memory by Professor Montago Barrows, historian at Oxford University in 1881 would be fitting. :

    “To Wycliffe we owe, more than to any one person who can be mentioned, our English language, our English Bible, and our reformed religion. How easily these words slip from the tongue! But, is not this almost the very atmosphere we breathe? Expand the three-fold claim a little further. It means nothing less than this: that in Wycliffe we have the acknowledged Father of English prose, the first translator of the whole Bible into the language of the English people, the first disseminator of the Bible amongst all classes, the foremost intellect of his times brought to bear upon the religious questions of the day, the patient and courageous writer of innumerable tracts and books, not for one, but for all classes of society, the sagacious originator of that whole system of ecclesiastical reformation, which in its separate parts had been faintly shadowed forth by a genius here and there, but which had acquired consistency in the hands of the master.

“Wycliffe founded no college for he had no means; no human fabric enshrines his ideas; no great institution bears his name. The country for which he lived and died is only beginning to wake up to a sense of debt it owes his memory. And yet as vast is that debt, so overpowering the claim, even when briefly summarised, that it might be thought no very extravagant recognition if every town in England had a monument to his memory.”