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Pre-Reformation: John Wycliffe

Greg Strand – February 19, 2017 Leave a comment

On this date this date, February 19, in 1377, John Wycliffe (1330-1384) was on trial at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, for having criticized the Roman Catholic Church.

What were his criticisms? Wycliffe spoke against . . .

  • the sale of indulgences;
  • the worship of saints;
  • the veneration of relics;
  • the meaninglessness of some church traditions;
  • the sloth and laziness of clerics.

These matters sound a lot like the issues the Reformers addressed in their reform from the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe stated them 140 years before the posting of the 95 Theses (October 31, 1517).

Interestingly, even though five papal bills were issued for Wycliffe’s arrest, he was never convicted as a heretic.

For the rest of Wycliffe’s story, he died on December 31, 1384. He was officially condemned as a heretic in 1415, the time at which another Pre-Reformer, Jan Hus, was martyred. Finally in 1428, Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed, burned, and scattered in a little river called Swift.

What was the meaning of all this? Did justice finally catch up with Wycliffe? Or was this the ironic yet beautiful providence of God such that Wycliffe’s ashes in the little Swift river were carried into the ocean known as the Reformation?

One writes,

As a postscript to his life, it must be noted that Wycliffe died officially orthodox. In 1415 the Council of Constance burned John Hus at the stake, and also condemned John Wycliffe on 260 different counts. The Council ordered that his writings be burned and directed that his bones be exhumed and cast out of consecrated ground. Finally, in 1428, at papal command, the remains of Wycliffe were dug up, burned, and scattered into the little river Swift. Bishop Fleming, in the reign of Henry VI, founded Lincoln College for the express purpose of counteracting the doctrines which Wycliffe and his followers had promulgated. As history has revealed, Wycliffe’s bones were much more easily dispersed than his teachings, for out of a sea of controversy and angry disputation rose his greatest contribution-the English Bible.

The chronicler Fuller later observed: “They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”

 For more, see Christian History, Issue 3 (1983), “John Wycliffe and the 600th Anniversary of the Translation of Bible into English