John Wycliffe was an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, Biblical translator, reformer, English priest, and a seminary professor at the University of Oxford, became an influential dissident within the Roman Catholic priesthood during the 14th century and is considered an important predecessor to Protestantism.
Wycliffe attacked the privileged status of the clergy, which had bolstered their powerful role in England. He then attacked the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies.
Wycliffe also advocated translation of the Bible into the vernacular. In 1382 he completed a translation directly from the Vulgate into Middle English – a version now known as Wycliffe’s Bible. It is probable that he personally translated the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and it is possible he translated the entire New Testament, while his associates translated the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible appears to have been completed by 1384, additional updated versions being done by Wycliffe’s assistant John Purvey and others in 1388 and 1395.
Wycliffe’s followers, known as Lollards, followed his lead in advocating predestination, while attacking the veneration of saints, the sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the very existence of the Papacy.
Beginning in the 16th century, the Lollard movement was regarded as the precursor to the Protestant Reformation. Wycliffe was accordingly characterised as the evening star of scholasticism and as the morning star of the English Reformation. Wycliffe’s writings in Latin greatly influenced the philosophy and teaching of the Czech reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415), whose execution in 1415 sparked a revolt and led to the Hussite Wars of 1419–1434.
Wycliffe was born in the village of Hipswell near Richmond in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England, in the mid-1320s. His family was long settled in Yorkshire. The family was quite large, covering considerable territory, principally centred on Wycliffe-on-Tees, about ten miles to the north of Hipswell.
Wycliffe received his early education close to his home. It is not known when he first came to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected until the end of his life, but he is known to have been at Oxford around 1345. Thomas Bradwardine was the archbishop of Canterbury, and his book On the Cause of God against the Pelagians, a bold recovery of the Pauline-Augustine doctrine of grace, would greatly shape young Wycliffe’s views, as did the Black Death which reached England in the summer of 1348. From his frequent references to it in later life, it appears to have made a deep and abiding impression upon him. According to Robert Vaughn, the effect was to give Wycliffe “Very gloomy views in regard to the condition and prospects of the human race.” Wycliffe would have been at Oxford during the St Scholastica Day riot in which sixty-three students and a number of townspeople were killed.
Wycliffe completed his arts degree at Merton College as a junior fellow in 1356. That same year he produced a small treatise, The Last Age of the Church. In the light of the virulence of the plague that had subsided only seven years previously, Wycliffe’s studies led him to the opinion that the close of the 14th century would mark the end of the world. While other writers viewed the plague as God’s judgment on sinful people, Wycliffe saw it as an indictment of an unworthy clergy. The mortality rate among the clergy had been particularly high, and those who replaced them were, in his opinion, uneducated or generally disreputable.
He was Master of Balliol College in 1361. In this same year, he was presented by the college to the parish of Fillingham in Lincolnshire, which he visited rarely during long vacations from Oxford. For this he had to give up the headship of Balliol College, though he could continue to live at Oxford. He is said to have had rooms in the buildings of The Queen’s College. In 1362 he was granted a prebend at Aust in Westbury-on-Trym, which he held in addition to the post at Fillingham.
His performance led Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, to place him in 1365 at the head of Canterbury Hall, where twelve young men were preparing for the priesthood. In December 1365 Islip appointed Wycliffe as warden but when Islip died the following year his successor, Simon Langham, a man of monastic training, turned the leadership of the college over to a monk. In 1367 Wycliffe appealed to Rome. In 1371 Wycliffe’s appeal was decided and the outcome was unfavourable to him. The incident was typical of the ongoing rivalry between monks and secular clergy at Oxford at this time.
In 1368, he gave up his living at Fillingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, which enabled him to retain his connection with the university. In 1369 Wycliffe obtained a bachelor’s degree in theology, and his doctorate in 1372. In 1374, he received the crown living of St Mary’s Church, Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which he retained until his death.
- Born: 01 January 1330, Hipswell
- Died: 31 December 1384, Lutterworth
- Notable Works: Wycliffe's Bible