Short Papers on Church History — Chapter 30

John Wycliffe

Every attentive reader of history must be frequently reminded of that weighty word of warning, given by the apostle: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." The most solemn and practical illustrations of this divine law in the affairs of men may be seen on every page of history. He who sows tares in spring cannot expect to reap wheat in autumn; and he who sows wheat in spring shall not be required to reap tares in autumn. We may see the truth of this principle of the divine government around us daily. How often the habits of youth determine the condition of old age! Even the riches of divine grace arrests not the course of this law. The King of Israel had to hear from the mouth of the prophet the solemn sentence, "The sword shall never depart from thine house;" but this did not hinder the flow of God's tender mercy to the royal penitent: "And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." (2 Sam. 12) Such is the boundless, measureless grace of God to the truly penitent; but such too the immutable law of His government.

Although we cannot speak with the same confidence as to the general system of human society, yet we may reverently trace the hand of the Lord in the wisdom of His ways and in the accomplishment of His purposes. For example -

The sanguinary triumphs of the papacy in Languedoc proved to be the means of its rapid decline and fall. In crushing the Count of Toulouse and the other great feudatory lords in the south of France, the dominions of the French Crown were greatly enlarged, and the kings of France from that moment became the irresistible adversaries of the pope. Louis IX. immediately published the Pragmatic Sanction, which established the liberties of the Gallican Church, and Philip the Fair compelled the haughty Boniface to drink the cup of humiliation which the popes had often mixed for the secular powers of Europe. From 1305 to 1377, the popes at Avignon were little better than the vassals of Philip and his successors. And from 1377 to 1417, the papacy itself was rent asunder by the great schism. Thus, by an equitable retribution in the providence of God, they who sought the destruction of others were their own destroyers.* We see the same thing in England.

{*Sir James Stephen's History of France, vol. 1, p. 240.}

England and the Papacy

The submission of John to Innocent III. was the turning-point in the history of the papacy in this country. In the humiliation of the sovereign the whole nation felt itself to be degraded. Innocent went too far, it was an abuse of assumed power, but it recoiled upon himself in due time. England never could forget such abject prostration on the part of its king at the feet of a foreign priest. From that hour a spirit of disaffection towards Rome grew up in the minds of the English people. The usurpations, the exorbitant claims, of the papacy, their interference with the disposal of English bishoprics, frequently brought the government and the church into collision and widened the breach. But just when men's patience was almost exhausted by the many practical grievances of popery, it pleased God to raise up a powerful adversary to the whole hierarchical system — the first man who shook the papal dominion in England to its foundation, and withal a man who sincerely loved the truth, and preached it both to the learned and to the lower classes. This man was John Wycliffe, justly styled the harbinger, or Morning Star of the Reformation.

The early part of Wycliffe's life is involved in much obscurity; but the general opinion is, that he was born of humble parentage in the neighbourhood of Richmond in Yorkshire, about the year 1324. His destination was that of a scholar, to which, we are informed, the humblest in those days could aspire. England was almost a land of schools, every cathedral, almost every monastery, having its own; but youths of more ambition, self-confidence, supposed capacity, and of better opportunities, thronged to Oxford and Cambridge. In England, as throughout Christendom, that wonderful rush of a vast part of the population towards knowledge, thronged the universities with thousands of students, instead of the few hundreds who have now the privilege of entering those seats of learning.*

{*Milman, vol. 6, p. 100.}

John Wycliffe found his way to Oxford. He was admitted a student of Queen's College, but soon removed to Merton College, the oldest, the wealthiest, and most famous of the Oxford foundations. It is supposed that he was privileged to attend the lectures of the very pious and profound Thomas Bradwardine, and that from his works he derived his first views of the freeness of grace, and the utter worthlessness of all human merit, in the matter of salvation. From Grostete's writings he first caught the idea of the pope being antichrist.

Wycliffe, according to his biographers, soon became master of the civil, the canon, and the municipal law; but his greatest efforts were diverted to the study of theology, not merely that barren art which was taught in the schools, but that divine science which is derived from the spirit as well as from the letter of scripture. In the prosecution of such inquiries, he had numerous and formidable difficulties to contend against. It was a study which the church had not sanctioned, and had not provided for. The sacred text was neglected, scholastic divinity had taken the place of the authority of scripture; the original language of the New, as well as of the Old Testament, was almost unknown in the kingdom. But, in spite of all these disadvantages and discouragements, Wycliffe pursued his way with great perseverance. "His logic," says one, "his scholastic subtlety, his rhetorical art, his power of reading the Latin scriptures, his varied erudition, may be due to Oxford; but the vigour and energy of his genius, the force of his language, his mastery over the vernacular English, the high supremacy which he vindicated for the scriptures, which by immense toil he promulgated in the vulgar tongue — these were his own, — to be learned in no school, to be attained by none of the ordinary courses of study."*

{*Latin Christianity, vol. 6, p. 103.}

Wycliffe and the Friars

About the year 1349, when Wycliffe had reached his twenty-fourth year, and was rising to some renown in the college, this country was visited by a terrible pestilence, called the "black plague." It is supposed to have made its appearance first in Tartary, and after ravaging various countries in Asia, proceeded by the shores of the Nile to the islands of Greece, carrying devastation to almost every nation of Europe. So prodigious was the waste of human life that some say a fourth part of the inhabitants were cut off others, that the half of the human race, besides cattle, were carried off in certain parts. This alarming visitation filled the pious mind of Wycliffe with the most gloomy apprehensions, and fearful forebodings as to the future. It was like the sound of the last trumpet in his heart. He concluded that the day of judgment was at hand. Solemnized with the thoughts of eternity, he spent days and nights in his cell, and no doubt in earnest prayer for divine guidance. He came forth a champion for the truth; he found his armour in the word of God.

By his zeal and faithfulness in preaching the gospel, especially to the common people on Sundays, he acquired and deserved the title of the "evangelic doctor." But that which brought him such fame and popularity at Oxford, was his defence of the university against the encroachments of the mendicant friars. He fearlessly and unsparingly attacked these orders, which he declared to be the great evil of Christendom. They were now four in number — Dominicans, Minorites or Franciscans, Augustinians, Carmelites — and swarmed in all the best parts of Europe. They strove hard in Oxford, as heretofore in Paris, to obtain the ascendancy. They took every opportunity of enticing the students into their convents, who, without the consent of their parents, were enlisted into the mendicant orders. To such an extent was this system of trepanning carried on, that parents ceased to send their children to the universities. Thirty thousand youths had at one time studied at Oxford, but from this cause the number was reduced to six thousand. Bishops, priests, and theologians, in almost every country and university in Europe were contending against those arch-deceivers, but it was all to little effect, for the pontiffs vigorously defended them as their best friends, and conferred on them great privileges.

Wycliffe struck boldly, and we believe fatally, at the root of this great and universal evil. Next to the decline of the papal power, which we have already noticed, we may begin to mark that of the mendicant orders. He published some spiritual papers entitled, "Against able Beggary," "Against idle Beggary," and on "The poverty of Christ." "He denounced mendicancy in itself, and all the others as able-bodied beggars, who ought not to be permitted to infest the land. He charged them with fifty errors of doctrine and practice. He denounced them for intercepting the alms which ought to belong to the poor; for their unscrupulous system of proselytizing; for their invasion of parochial rights; their habit of deluding the common people by fables and legends; their hypocritical pretensions to sanctity; their flattery of the great and wealthy, whom it would rather have been their duty to reprove for their sins; their grasping at money by all sorts of means, the needless splendour of their buildings, whereas parish churches were left to decay."*

{*J.C. Robertson, vol. 4, p. 201.}

Wycliffe was now the acknowledged champion of a great party in the university and in the church; and dignities and honours were conferred upon him. But if he had gained many friends, he had many enemies whose wrath it was dangerous to provoke. His troubles and changes now began. The friars supplied the pope with information as to all that was going on. In 1361 he was advanced to the mastership of Balliol college and rectory of Fillingham. Four years after he was chosen warder of Canterbury hall. His knowledge of scripture, the purity of his life, his unbending courage, his eloquence as a preacher, his mastery of the language of the common people, rendered him the object of general admiration. He maintained that salvation was by faith, through grace, without human merit in any way. This was striking, not at the outward evils merely, but at the very foundations of the whole system of popery. Led by divine wisdom he commenced his great work at the right place and in the right way. He preached the gospel and explained the word of God to the people in vernacular English. In this way, he planted deep in the popular mind those great truths and principles which eventually led to the emancipation of England from the yoke and tyranny of Rome.

Wycliffe and the Government

The fame of Wycliffe, as a defender of truth and liberty was no longer confined to the university of Oxford. The pope and the cardinals feared him, and minutely watched his proceedings. But on the other hand, the king and the parliament entertained so high an opinion of his integrity and judgment as to consult him on a matter of grave importance to both church and state.

About the year 1366 a controversy had arisen between Urban V. and Edward m. in consequence of the renewed demand of an annual tribute of one thousand marks, which King John had bound himself to pay to the Roman See, as an acknowledgment of the feudal superiority of the Roman pontiff over the kingdoms of England and Ireland. The payment of this ignominious tribute had never been regular, but it had been entirely discontinued for thirty-three years. Urban demanded payment in full of the arrears. Edward refused, declaring himself resolved to hold his kingdom in freedom and independence. The parliament and the people sympathized with the king. The arrogance of the pope had created great excitement in England; both houses of parliament were consulted; the settlement of the question interested all classes, even all Christendom. Wycliffe, who was already one of the king's chaplains, was appointed to answer the papal arguments; and so effectually did he prove that canon, or papal law, has no force when it is opposed to the word of God, that the papacy from that day to this ceased to lay claim to the sovereignty of England. The arguments of Wycliffe were used by the lords in parliament, who unanimously resolved to maintain the independence of the crown against the pretensions of Rome. The short, pithy, plain speeches of the barons on this occasion are curious and characteristic of the times.

In the year 1372 Wycliffe was raised to the theological chair. This was an important step in the cause of truth, and used by the Lord. Being a Doctor of Divinity, he had the right of delivering lectures on theology. He spoke as a master to the young theologians at Oxford; and having such authority in the schools, whatever he said was received as an oracle. It would be impossible to estimate the wholesome influence which he exercised over the minds of the students, who attended in great numbers at that time. The invention of printing had not yet supplied the student with books, so that the voice, the living energy, of the public teacher, was nearly all he had to depend upon. Hundreds who listened to him were in their turn to go forth as public teachers bearing the same precious seed.

Wycliffe at Avignon

Although it was now well known that Wycliffe held many anti-papal opinions, he was not yet committed to direct opposition to Rome. But in the year 1374 he was employed in an embassy to the pope, Gregory XI., whose residence was at Avignon. The object of this mission was to represent and have removed the flagrant abuses of the papal reservation of benefices in the English church. But we doubt not the Lord allowed this, that Wycliffe might see, what strangers were slow to believe, namely, that the papal court was the fountainhead of all iniquity. On his return from that mission he became the open, direct, and dreaded antagonist of Rome. The experience of Avignon and Bruges added to the results of his previous thought and inquiry, and satisfied his mind that the pretensions of the papacy were without foundation in truth. He published indefatigably the deep convictions of his soul, in learned lectures and disputations at Oxford, in pastoral addresses in his parish, and in spirited tracts written in clear English prose, which reached the humbler and less educated classes. He denounced with a burning and long-treasured indignation the whole papal system. "The gospel of Jesus Christ," he said, "is the only source of true religion. The pope is Antichrist, the proud worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and purse-carvers." The pride, the pomp, the luxury, the loose morals of the prelates, fell under his withering rebuke. And being a man of unimpeachable morals himself, of profound devotion, undoubted sincerity, and original eloquence, numbers gathered around the dauntless professor.*

{*J.C. Robertson, vol. 4, p. 203; Latin Christianity, vol. 4, p. 94; Encyclopedia Britannica, article, WYCLIFFE.}

Wycliffe a Heresiarch

Wycliffe had now risen to high distinction, and had received many marks of the royal favour. In the end of the year 1375, he was presented by the crown to the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which was his home throughout the remainder of his life, although he frequently visited Oxford. But dangers were gathering around him from other quarters: he had incurred the displeasure of the pope, and the prelates. At Lutterworth and in the villages around, he was the plain, bold, vernacular preacher; at Oxford, he was the great master. But whether in town or country, he raised his voice against the discipline of the church, the scandalous lives of churchmen, their ignorance, their neglect of preaching and the abuse of their privileges as ecclesiastics to shelter notorious criminals. It was only natural that such plain speaking should give offence. The professor was accused of heresy, and summoned to appear before the convocation which commenced its sittings in February, 1377.

Wycliffe answered to the citation and proceeded to St. Paul's Cathedral, but not alone. He was accompanied by John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and Lord Percy, marshal of England. The motives of these great personages were no doubt political, and added no real honour to the name or to the cause of Wycliffe. But we find a strange collision and confusion of religion and politics in the history of all the reformers. William Courtenay, son of the Earl of Devon, was then bishop of London, and appointed president of the assembly by Archbishop Sudbury. The proud and haughty bishop was moved to great displeasure when he beheld the heretic supported by the two most powerful nobles in England. So great was the concourse of people to witness this exciting trial, that the Earl-marshal assumed the authority of his office to make a way to the presence of the judges. The indignant bishop resented this exercise of the marshal's power inside the cathedral.

"If I had known, my lord," said Courtenay to Percy sharply, "that you claimed to be master in this church, I would have taken measures to prevent your entrance." Lancaster, who at that time administered the kingdom, coldly replied, "that the marshal would use the authority necessary to maintain order in spite of the bishops." When they reached the court in the Lady Chapel, Percy demanded a seat for Wycliffe. Courtenay now gave way to his anger, and exclaimed in a loud voice, "He must not sit down, criminals stand before their judges." Fierce words followed on both sides. The duke threatened to humble the pride, not only of Courtenay, but of all the prelacy of England. The bishop replied with a provoking, specious humility, that his trust was in God alone. A scene of great violence followed; and, instead of the proposed inquiry, the assembly broke up in confusion. The partisans of the bishop would have fallen upon the duke and the marshal; but they had force enough for their protection. Wycliffe, who had remained silent, escaped under their shelter.

Although the people were then all Roman Catholics, there were many who favoured reform; these were called Wycliffites, and they prudently remained in their own houses during this excitement. The clerical party that had thronged St. Paul's filled the streets with their clamour. The populace arose — a wild tumult began. The rioters first attacked the house of Percy; but after bursting open every door, and searching every chamber, without finding him, they imagined that he must be concealed in Lancaster's palace. They rushed to the Savoy, at that time the most magnificent building in the kingdom. A clergyman who had the misfortune of being taken for Lord Percy was put to death. The ducal arms were reversed like those of a traitor; the palace was plundered, and further outrages might have been committed but for the interposition of the bishop, who had cause to fear the consequences of such lawless proceedings.

Wycliffe and the Papal Bulls

Wycliffe was again at liberty. The severities which his persecutors had intended for him were not inflicted, and he continued to preach and instruct the people with unabated zeal and courage. Just about this time there were two popes or anti-popes; one in Rome, and one in Avignon. This fact is spoken of in history as "The schism," and caricatured by some writers as the cloven, or two-headed Antichrist. Through which head apostolic succession flows, the reader must judge for himself. Wycliffe denounced both popes alike as antichrist, and found strong sympathy in the hearts and minds of the people. The most disgraceful scenes followed. The pontiff of Rome proclaims war against the pontiff of Avignon. A crusade is preached in favour of the former. The same indulgences are granted as to the crusaders of old who went to the Holy Land. Public prayers are offered up, by order of the primate, in every church of the realm, for the success of the pontiff of Rome against the pontiff of Avignon. The bishops and clergy are called on to enforce upon their flocks the duty of contributing to this sacred purpose. Under the mitred captain, Spencer, the young and martial bishop of Norwich, the crusaders moved forward. They took Gravelines and Dunkirk, in France; but alas! this army of the pope, headed by an English bishop, surpassed the ordinary inhumanity of the times. Men, women, and children, were hewn to pieces in one vast massacre. The bishop carried a huge two-handed sword, with which he seems to have hewn down with hearty goodwill the unoffending flock of the rival pope at Avignon.

Such an expedition could only end in shame and disaster. It shook the papacy to its foundation, and greatly strengthened the cause of the reformer. From 1305 to 1377, the popes were little more than the vassals of the French monarchs at Avignon; and from that till 1417, the papacy itself was rent asunder by the great schism. But the myrmidons of the pope continued eager and constant in their pursuit after the heresiarch. Nineteen articles of accusation against him were submitted to Gregory XI. In answer to these accusations, five bulls were despatched to England, three to the archbishop, one to the king, and one to Oxford; commanding inquiry into the erroneous doctrines of Wycliffe. The opinions charged against him, were not against the creed of the church, but against the power of the clergy. He was charged with reviving the errors of Marselius of Padua, and John Gaudun, the defenders of the temporal monarch against the pope.

Wycliffe was cited a second time to appear before the same papal delegates, but on this occasion it was not at St. Paul's but at Lambeth. He had no longer the duke of Lancaster and the Earl-marshal at his side. He trusted in the living God. "The people thought he would be devoured, being brought into the lion's den," and many of the citizens of London forced themselves into the chapel. The prelates seeing their menacing looks and gestures became alarmed. But scarcely had the proceedings been opened, when a message was received from the young king's mother — the widow of the Black Prince — prohibiting them from proceeding to any definite sentence respecting the doctrine or conduct of Wycliffe. "The bishops," says Walsingham the papal advocate, "who had professed themselves determined to do their duty in spite of threats or promises, and even at the hazard of their lives, were as reeds shaken by the wind, and became so intimidated during the examination of the apostate, that their speeches were as soft as oil, to the public loss of their dignity, and the damage of the whole church. And when Clifford pompously delivered his message, they were so overcome with fear, that you would have thought them to be as a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth are no reproofs. Thus this false teacher, this complete hypocrite, evaded the hand of justice, and could no more be called before the same prelates, because their commission expired by the death of the pope Gregory XI."*

{*Milner, vol. 3, p. 251.}

The death of Gregory and the great schism in the papacy combined, in the good providence of God, to deliver Wycliffe from the cruel hand of persecution, which no doubt had marked him as its victim. He therefore returned to his former occupations, and by his pulpit discourses, his academic lectures, and his various writings, laboured to promote the cause of truth and liberty. He also organized about this time an itinerant band of preachers, who were to travel through the land, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, accepting hospitality by the way, and trusting in the Lord to meet all their need. They were called "poor priests," and not infrequently met with persecution from the clergy; but the simplicity and earnestness of these missionaries drew crowds of the common people around them.

Wycliffe and the Bible

Without following more minutely the general labours of Wycliffe, or the plottings of his enemies to interrupt him, we will now notice that which was the great work of his useful life — the complete English Version of the Holy Scriptures. We have seen him boldly and fearlessly assailing and exposing the countless abuses of popery, unfolding the truth to the students, and zealously preaching the gospel to the poor; but he is now engaged in a work which will a thousand times more enrich his own soul. He is yet more exclusively engaged with the Sacred Writings. It was not until he became more fully acquainted with the Bible, that he rejected the false doctrines of the church of Rome. It is one thing to see the outward abuses of the hierarchy, it is quite another to see the mind of God in the doctrines of His word.

As soon as the translation of a portion was finished, the labour of the copyists began, and the Bible was ere long widely circulated either wholly or in parts. The effect of thus bringing home the word of God to the unlearned — to citizens soldiers, and the lower classes — is beyond human power to estimate. Minds were enlightened, souls were saved, and God was glorified. "Wycliffe," said one of his adversaries, "has made the gospel common, and more open to laymen and to women who can read than it is wont to be to clerks well learned and of good understanding; so that the pearl of the gospel is scattered and is trodden under foot of swine." In the year 1330 the English Bible was complete. In 1390 the bishops attempted to get the version condemned by Parliament, lest it should become an occasion of heresies; but John of Gaunt declared that the English would not submit to the degradation of being denied a vernacular Bible. "The word of God is the faith of His people," it was said, "and though the pope and all his clerks should disappear from the face of the earth, our faith would not fail, for it is founded on Jesus alone, our Master and Our God." The attempt at prohibition having failed, the English Bible spread far and wide, being diffused chiefly through the exertions of the "poor priests," like "the poor men of Lyons" at an earlier period.

The christian reader will not fail to trace the hand of the Lord in this great work. The grand, the divine, instrument was now ready and in the hands of the people, by means of which the Reformation in the sixteenth century was to be accomplished. The word of God which liveth and abideth for ever is rescued from the dark mysteries of scholasticism, from the dust-covered shelves of the cloister, from the obscurity of ages, and given to the English people in their own mother-tongue. Who can estimate the blessing? Let the ten thousand times ten thousand tongues which shall praise the Lord for ever, give the answer. But oh! the wickedness the soul-murdering wickedness — of the Romish priesthood in keeping the word of life from the laity! Is the glorious truth of God's love to the world in the gift of His Son — of the efficacy of the blood of Christ to cleanse from all sin — to be concealed from the perishing multitude, and seen only by a privileged few? There is no refinement in cruelty on the face of the whole earth to compare with this. It is the ruin of both soul and body in hell for ever.

Partial Translations

The first attempt at anything like a vernacular translation of a portion of the holy scriptures appears to have been in the seventh century. Down to this period they were only in the Latin tongue in this country, and being chiefly in the hands of the clergy, the people in general received what they knew of the revelation of God from their instructions. But, as most of the priests knew nothing more than what they were obliged to repeat in the church service, the people were left in gross darkness.

The Venerable Bede mentions a poem in the Anglo-Saxon tongue, bearing the name of Caedmon, which gives with tolerable fidelity some of the historical parts of the Bible, but owing to its epic character, it has not been ranked with the versions of the sacred writings. Still it was a commencement in this blessed work, for which we can be truly thankful. It may have given the idea to others more competent, and been the precursor of real translations.

In the eighth century, Bede translated the apostles' creed and the Lord's prayer into Anglo-Saxon, which he frequently presented to illiterate priests: and one of his last efforts was a translation of the Gospel of St. John; which is supposed to be the first portion of the New Testament which was translated into the vernacular language of the country. He died in 735.

King Alfred, in his zeal for the improvement of his realm, did not overlook the importance of vernacular scripture. With the assistance of the learned men in his court he had the four Gospels translated. And Elfric, towards the close of the tenth century, had translated some books of the Old Testament. About the beginning of the reign of Edward III. William of Shoreham rendered the Psalter into Anglo-Norman; and he was soon after followed by Richard Rolle, chantry priest at Hampole. He not only translated the text of the Psalms, but added an English commentary. He died in 1347. The Psalter appears to be the only book of scripture which had been entirely rendered into our language before the time of Wycliffe. But the moment was come in the providence of God for the publication of the whole Bible, and for its circulation among the people. Every circumstance, in spite of the enemy, was overruled of God to favour the noble design of His servant.

Having received many warnings, many threatenings, and experienced some narrow escapes from the loathsome dungeon and the burning pile, Wycliffe was allowed to close his days in peace, in the midst of his flock and his pastoral labours at Lutterworth. After a forty-eight hours' illness from a stroke of paralysis, he died on the last day of the year 1384.*

{*For full details of the earliest English translations, see preface to Wycliffe's Bible, edited by the Rev. Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederick Madden, both of the British Museum. It is a noble book, four volumes folio, printed at the University Press, Oxford, and a noble monument of christian zeal and devotedness, under the sheltering hand of God. See also preface to Bagster's English Hexapla.}

Reflections on the Life of Wycliffe

The humble Christian, the bold witness, the faithful preacher, the able professor, and the great reformer, has passed off the scene. He has gone to his rest and his reward is on high. But the doctrines which he propagated with so much zeal can never die. His name in his followers continued formidable to the false priests of Rome. "Every second man you meet in the way," said a bitter adversary, "is a Wycliffite." He was used of God to give an impulse to christian inquiry which was felt in the most distant corners of Europe, and which rolled on through future ages. No person has expressed a juster sense of the influence of Wycliffe's Biblical labours than Dr. Lingard, the Roman Catholic historian. Thus he writes, "He made a new translation, multiplied copies with the aid of transcribers, and by his poor priests recommended it to the perusal of his hearers. In their hands it became an engine of wonderful power. Men were flattered with the appeal to their private judgment; the new doctrines insensibly acquired partizans and protectors in the higher classes, who alone were acquainted with the use of letters; a spirit of inquiry was generated; and the seeds were sown of that religious revolution, which, in little more than a century, astonished and convulsed the nations of Europe." Many of Wycliffe's doctrines were far in advance of the age in which he lived. He anticipated the principles of a more enlightened generation. "The scripture alone is truth," he said; and his doctrine was formed on that foundation alone. But it was the translation and circulation of the Bible that gave lasting efficacy to the holy truths which he taught, and was the imperishable crown of all his other labours — the treasure which he bequeathed to future and to better ages.*

{*Waddington, vol. 3, p. 175.}

So long as Wycliffe confined his vehement denunciations to the anti-christian spirit of the court of Rome, the wealth of the clergy, and the peculiar tenets of the papacy, so long he could count on many powerful protectors. He might sweep away one by one the many abuses of the system; but no sooner did he rise into the higher region of the positive truth and free grace of God, than the number and enthusiasm of his followers rapidly declined. His doctrinal controversy secured his banishment from Oxford about two years before his death. But this, in the providence of God, was overruled to give him a period of repose at the end of a laborious and stormy life. For many years he had preached the most distinguishing doctrines of the reformers of the sixteenth century, especially those held by Calvin. But his opposition to the Romish doctrine of salvation by works would naturally lead him to speak strongly. "To believe in the power of man in the work of regeneration," he would say, "is the great heresy of Rome, and from that error has come the ruin of the church. Conversion proceeds from the grace of God alone, and the system which ascribes it partly to man and partly to God is worse than Pelagianism. Christ is everything in Christianity; whosoever abandons that fountain which is ever ready to impart life, and turns to muddy and stagnant waters, is a madman. Faith is a gift of God, it puts aside all human merit, and should banish all fear from the mind. Let Christians submit not to the word of a priest, but to the word of God. In the primitive church there were but two orders, bishops and deacons: the presbyter and the bishop, or overseer, were one. The sublimest calling which man can attain on the earth is that of preaching the word of God. The true church is the assembly of the righteous for whom Christ shed

Such were the essential points of Wycliffe's preaching and pamphlets for nearly forty years, proclaimed with great fervour and ability in the midst of papal darkness, superstition and the worst forms of worldliness. To write the words which hand down to posterity so great, so glorious, a work of God's Spirit in our land, causes the heart to expand and arise to the throne of grace in praise and thanksgiving unfeigned, unmingled, unending. The popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, abbots, and doctors, who thirsted for his blood, have either perished from the page of history, or they are associated in our minds with the demon of persecution, while the name and the memory of John Wycliffe continue to be held with unimpaired and increasing veneration.*

{*See Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 21, p. 949; D'Aubigné, vol. 5, p. 137.}

The Lollards

Wycliffe had organized no sect during his life, but the power of his teaching was manifested in the number and zeal of his disciples after his death. From the hut of the peasant to the palace of royalty, they were to be found everywhere under the vague name of "Lollards." Crowds gathered round their preachers. They denied the authority of Rome and maintained the absolute supremacy of the word of God alone. They maintained that the ministers of Christ should be poor, simple, and lead a spiritual life; and they publicly preached against the vices of the clergy. For a time they met with so much sympathy and success, that they no doubt thought the Reformation was about to triumph in England.

In the year 1395 the followers of Wycliffe boldly petitioned Parliament to "abolish celibacy, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, offerings to images, auricular confession," and many other popish abuses, and then nailed their petition to the gates of St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey. But these murmurs of a burdened and oppressed people were lost sight of for the moment in the dethronement and death of King Richard II., son of the favourite Black Prince, and the accession of Henry IV., the first of the Lancastrian dynasty.

When Henry, son of the famous Duke of Lancaster, the friend and patron of Wycliffe, ascended the throne, the Lollards naturally expected a warm supporter of their principles in the new king. But in this they were bitterly disappointed. Archbishop Arundel, the implacable enemy of the Lollards, had great influence with Henry. He had contributed more than all other adherents to the overthrow of Richard and to the usurpation of Henry. Arundel had great influence, was high-born, haughty, unscrupulous as a partisan, skilful as a politician, and withal, practised in the cunning and cruelty peculiar to the priesthood. He had made up his mind, through the influence of the king, to sacrifice the Lollards. Almost the first act of Henry IV. was to declare himself the champion of the clergy, the monks, and the friars, against their dangerous enemies.

The Statute for the Burning of Heretics

Down to the beginning of the fifteenth century there had been no statute law in England for the burning of heretics. In all other parts of Christendom the magistrate, as under the old Roman imperial law, had obeyed the mandate of the bishops. England stood alone: without a legal warrant no officer would have executed the ecclesiastical criminal. "In all other countries," says Milman, "the secular arm received the delinquent against the law of the church. The judgment was passed in the ecclesiastical court or that of the Inquisition; but the church, with a kind of evasion which it is difficult to clear from hypocrisy, would not be stained with blood. The clergy commanded, and that under the most awful threats, the fire to be lighted and the victim tied to the stake by others, and acquitted themselves of the cruelty of burning their fellow-creatures." But the end of this honourable distinction for England was come. The obsequious Henry, to gratify the archbishop, issued a royal edict, ordering every incorrigible heretic to be burnt alive. The lying tongues of the priests and friars had so industriously circulated reports of the wild and revolutionary purposes of the Lollards, that Parliament became alarmed and sanctioned the King's decree.

In the year 1400 "the burning of heretics" became a statute law in England. "On a high place in public, before the face of the people, the incorrigible heretic is to be burnt alive." The primate and the bishops hastened to their work.

William Sautree is the first victim under this terrible edict. He is the proto-martyr of Wycliffism. He was a preacher at St. Osyth's in London. Through natural fear of suffering he had recanted and again relapsed at Norwich; but afterwards, coming to London, and gaining more strength of mind through faith, he openly preached the gospel, and testified against transubstantiation. He was now doomed to the flames as a relapsed heretic. "The ceremony of his degradation," says the historian, "took place at St. Paul's, with all its minute, harassing, impressive formalities. He was then delivered over to the secular arm, and for the first time the air of London was darkened by the smoke of this kind of human sacrifice."

The second victim of this sanguinary edict was a plain working man. His crime was a common one among the Lollards — the denial of transubstantiation. This poor man, John Badby, was brought from Worcester to London to stand his trial. But what must the plain country-man have thought when he found himself before the dignified tribunal of the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of London Winchester, Oxford, Norwich, Salisbury, Bath, Bangor, St. David's, Edmund Duke of York, the Chancellor, and the Master of the Rolls? Arundel took great pains to persuade him that the consecrated bread was really and properly the body of Christ. Badby's answers were given with courage and firmness, and in words of simplicity and plain sense. He said that he would believe "the omnipotent God in Trinity," and said, moreover, "if every host being consecrated at the altar were the Lord's body, that then there be twenty thousand gods in England. But he believed in one God omnipotent." This incorrigible heretic was condemned to be burnt alive by these wolves, or rather fiends, in sheep's clothing. The Prince of Wales chanced to be passing through Smithfield just as the fire was kindling, or he came on purpose to witness the auto da fe. He looked on the calm inflexible martyr; but on the first sensation of the fire, he heard the word, "Mercy" fall from his lips. The prince, supposing that he was entreating the mercy of his judges, ordered him to be pulled out of the fire. "Will you forsake heresy?" said young Henry; "will you conform to the faith of holy mother church? If you will, you shall have a yearly maintenance out of the King's treasury." The martyr was unmoved. It was to the mercy of God, not of man, that he was appealing. Henry, in a rage, ordered him to be thrust back into the blazing faggots, and he gloriously finished his course in the flames.

The Constitutions of Arundel

Encouraged by the royal countenance, the clergy drew up the well-known Constitutions of Arundel, which forbade the reading of the Bible and the books of Wycliffe, asserting the pope to be "not of pure man, but of true God, here on the earth." Persecution now raged in England; a prison in the archiepiscopal palace at Lambeth, which received the name of the Lollards' tower, was crowded with the followers of Wycliffe. But there was a prisoner in the royal chamber as well as in the Lollards' tower. Death, the messenger of divine judgment to the unpardoned, had come. In the year 1413 Henry IV. died. "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." These two dark and heavy clouds — death and judgment — were now ready to burst in all their fury on the unsheltered soul of the persecuting monarch. His last years were darkened by a loathsome disease — eruptions in his face. But oh! what must his future be! Darkened not merely by a temporal disease, which divine mercy restrains within certain limits, but with the full vengeance of eternal woe; and darkened and deepened still more by the fearful shadows of the burning piles in Smithfield. Oh death, oh judgment, oh eternity, great, terrible and certain! How is it, why is it, that man, in whose very nature this solemn truth is deeply planted, should be so forgetful, and so regardless?

One thing is certain with regard to future judgment and retribution, that even where such doctrines are not expressly denied, they are not made to occupy in the pulpit and in the press, the place which they hold in the New Testament. There is a very general disinclination to press, in the plain way of scripture, these most awful subjects. Yet it cannot be denied that the discourses of our blessed Lord — whose mission was love, the tenderest compassion, the richest grace — abound with the most solemn statements of future judgment. Some may say, that the fear of punishment is a comparatively low motive: be it so, but how many there are who have immortal souls, whose intelligence is such that they are not raised above such motives! God is wiser than man, and we so find with the fullest revelations of divine love, and the freest proclamations of salvation, the most solemn warnings are given. Listen to one: "Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him." (Ps. 2; Matt. 11:20-30)

We now return to our history.

The witness of the execution of John Badby is now on the throne under the title of Henry V. But it is to be feared that the triumphs of divine grace in that simple artisan made no salutary impression on his mind. Few princes have had a worse character before they reached the throne and it was hoped that, having no religion, he would not be the slave of the hierarchy. But in this the Lollards were again bitterly disappointed. When he became king, he became religious according to the ideas of the time; and that was, to signalise his orthodoxy by suppressing heresy. Thomas Netter, a Carmelite, one of the bitterest opponents of Wycliffism, was his confessor. Under his influence the laws against heretics were now rigorously executed.

The Trial of Lord Cobham

The victims, under this fresh outbreak of persecution, were of all classes; but the most distinguished for character and for rank was Sir John Oldcastle, who, in right of his wife, sat in parliament as Lord Cobham. He is spoken of as a knight of the highest military reputation, and who had served with great distinction in the French wars. The whole ardour of his soul was now thrown into his religion. He was a Wycliffite — a believer in the word of God, a reader of Wycliffe's books, and a violent opposer of popery. He had caused numerous copies of the reformer's writings to be made, and encouraged the poor priests to circulate them, and to preach the gospel throughout the country. And so long as Henry IV. lived he was unmolested, the King would not permit the clergy to lay hands on his old favourite. But the young King had not the same appreciation of Sir John, though he knew something of his value as a brave soldier and a skilful general, and wished to save him.

The primate Arundel had been watching narrowly the movements of his antagonist, and resolved to crush him. He was accused of holding many heretical opinions, and on the ground of these crimes he was denounced to the King. He was summoned to appear and answer before Henry. Cobham protested the most submissive loyalty. "You I am most prompt and willing to obey: you are a christian king, the minister of God that bears not the sword in vain, for the punishment of wicked doers, and the reward of the righteous. To you, under God, I owe my whole obedience. Whatsoever you command me in the name of the Lord that I am ready to fulfil. To the pope I owe neither suit nor service, he is the great antichrist, the son of perdition, the abomination of desolation in the holy place." Henry thrust aside Cobham's hand as he presented his confession of faith: "I will not receive this paper: lay it before your judges." Lord Cobham retired to his strong castle of Cowling, near Rochester. The summonses and the excommunications of the archbishop he treated with utter contempt. The King was influenced to send one of his officers to apprehend him. The loyalty of the old baron bowed to the royal officer. Had it been any of the pope's agents, he would have settled the question with his sword according to the military spirit of the age, rather than have obeyed. He was led to the Tower. Ill-omened journey for nearly all who ever went that way!

The ecclesiastical tribunal such as John Badby stood before, was sitting at St. Paul's. The prisoner appeared. "We must believe," said Arundel, "what the holy church of Rome teaches, without demanding Christ's authority." He was called upon to confess his errors. "Believe!" shouted the priests, "believe!" "I am willing to believe all that God desires," said Sir John; "but that the pope should have authority to teach what is contrary to scripture, I never will believe." He was led back to the Tower. Two days after he was tried again in the Dominican convent. A crowd of priests, canons, friars, clerks, and indulgence-sellers, thronged the large hall of the convent, and attacked the prisoner with abusive language. The suppressed indignation of the old veteran at length burst out into a wild prophetic denunciation of the pope and the prelates. "Your wealth is the venom of the church," he cried with a loud voice. "What meanest thou," said Arundel, "by venom?" "Your possessions and your lordships .... Consider ye this, all men. Christ was meek and merciful; the pope haughty and a tyrant. Rome is the nest of anti-christ; out of that nest come his disciples." He was now adjudged a heretic and condemned.

Resuming his calm courage, he fell on his knees, and lifting up his hands unto heaven, exclaimed: "I confess to thee, O God! and acknowledge that in my frail youth I seriously offended Thee by my pride, anger, intemperance, and impurity: for these offences I implore Thy mercy!" With mild language, but with a stern and inflexible purpose, the wily priest endeavoured to reduce the high spirit of the baron, but in vain. "I will none otherwise believe than what I have told you. Do with me what you will. For breaking God's commandments man has never cursed me, but for breaking your traditions I and others are thus cruelly entreated." He was reminded that the day was passing, that he must either submit to the church or the law must take its course. "I ask not your absolution: it is God's only that I need." said the honest knight, his face still wet with tears. The sentence of death was then read by Arundel with a clear and loud voice, all the priests and people standing with their heads uncovered. "It is well," replied the intrepid Cobham, "though you condemn my body, you have no power over my soul." He again knelt down and prayed for his enemies. He was led back to the Tower; but before the day appointed for his execution he made his escape.

Rumours of conspiracies, of a general rising of the Lollards, were now circulated by the priests and friars. The King became alarmed; about forty persons were instantly put on trial and executed; a new and violent statute was passed for the suppression of the Lollards; the government was afraid of such a man as Cobham heading the insurrection; a thousand marks was offered for his arrest. It does not appear that there was any ground for these alarms, except in the lies of the priests — their false rumours. For about three years Lord Cobham was concealed in Wales. He was retaken in December 1417, and suffered without delay.

The Martyrdom of Lord Cobham

The once valiant knight, the man whom the King honoured, was now ignominiously dragged on a hurdle to St. Gile's-in-the-Fields, and there suffered a double execution. He was suspended on a gallows over a slow fire, and then burned to death. Many persons of rank and distinction were present. Before his execution he fell on his knees and implored forgiveness for his enemies. He then addressed the multitude, exhorting them to follow the instructions which God had given them in His holy word; and to disclaim those false teachers, whose lives and conversation were so contrary to Christ and His example. He refused the services of a priest: "To God only, now as ever present, I confess and entreat His pardon," was his ready answer. The people wept and prayed with him and for him. In vain did the priests affirm that he was suffering as a heretic, and as an enemy to God. The people believed in him. His last words, drowned by the crackling of flames, were "Praise God;" and, in his chariot of fire, surrounded by the angels of God, he joined on high the noble army of martyrs.

How sweet the song of victory
That ends the battle's roar;
And sweet the weary warrior's rest
When all his toils are o'er.

The London prisons at this time were filled with Wycliffites, awaiting the vengeance of the persecuting clergy. "They should be hanged on the King's account, and burned on God's account," was the cry of the false priests of Rome. From this time until the Reformation their sufferings were severe. Those who escaped prison and death, were compelled to hold their religious meetings in secret. But the papal influence gradually decreased and prepared the way for the Reformation in the next century.

Henry Chicheley, who succeeded Arundel as Archbishop of Canterbury, not only followed in his footsteps, but exceeded him in his exterminating wars against the Lollards. He is called by Milner "the firebrand of his age." He urged on Henry in his contest with France, which caused an enormous loss of human life and the most dreadful miseries to both kingdoms. Arundel seems to have died by the hand of the Lord. Soon after he read the sentence of death on Lord Cobham, he was seized with a malady in the throat, of which he died. But here we leave them, and follow the Spirit of God who is working in other lands and preparing the way for a glorious Reformation in Europe.*

{*D'Aubigné, vol. 5, p. 147; Milner, vol. 3, p. 242, Milman, vol. 6, p 154; Fox's Acts and Monuments.}