John Wyclif

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Portrait of John Wyclif

John Wyclif (or Wycliffe) (1330-1384) was a lecturer in Theology at Balliol College of Oxford University, a leading world university founded in the late 1100s. He became known for his criticisms of the wealth and power of the Catholic church, and for arguing that the Pope had no right to ecclesiastical revenues from English religious foundations. His arguments won the support of John of Gaunt, the powerful Duke of Lancaster, who brought him to London, where his preaching fell under the censure of William Courtenay, the Bishop of London. Wyclif had by this time many supporters among the ranks of the nobility, and the Church was unable to censure him directly.

In 1381, however, when the Peasants' Revolt broke out in Kent, some blamed Wyclif's teachings for this outbreak of popular dissent. A Synod was convened at Oxford in 1382 which condemned Wyclif's teachings, but he was permitted to retire to his country parish at Lutterworth, where he died peacefully in his bed two years later. During the last years of his life, he organized and supported an undertaking for a translation of the Bible into English; while there is no evidence that he himself translated any substantial portion of it, the translation became indelibly linked to his name. The first version of this work appeared in 1382; however, it was marred by clumsy syntax in which the English text followed the Latin word by word, rather than translating sentences into English forms and idioms; Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey, two of Wyclif's closest followers, revised the text extensively and, in 1388 - four years after Wyclif's death - produced the first full and readable translation of the Bible into English.

After the condemnation of Wyclif at Oxford and London, his followers were forced to recant or lose their ecclesiastical offices. In 1401, with the act De Haeretico Comburendo (on the Burning of Heretics), the new King, Henry IV added the power of the State to the condemnation of the Church, and followers of Wyclif who were found to have relapsed into their beliefs were burned at the stake. The teachings of Wyclif passed then into the hands of a number of itinerant preachers, who wandered the countryside, teaching peasants and artisans the rudiments of literacy, and leaving behind them copies of the Gospels in English.

In 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wyclif a heretic, and ordered his bones exhumed, burned and the ashes thrown into the River Swift. Henry IV, as well as his son Henry V, were vigorous in their persecution of suspected "Lollards" as these followers of Wyclif were known, and many were arrested; the preachers who had led them were executed. Nevertheless, many of the ideas taught by Wyclif survived in the popular imagination, and when the teachings of Martin Luther reached England in the early sixteenth century, the same areas of England where the Lollards had been prominent were among the strongest in Protestant dissent.

Due to changes in the nature of English, the "Wycliffite" translation of the Bible had become antiquated by the time that Protestantism became the official religion of England, and the Bible was translated afresh by scholars such as William Tyndale. Like Wyclif, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake, but his translation lived on, and many of its passages remained essentially the same through and beyond the King James (Authorized) text of 1611.