by John Foxe
Author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
It will not be inappropriate to devote a few pages of this work to a brief detail of the lives of some of those men who first stepped forward, regardless of the bigoted power which opposed all reformation, to stem the time of papal corruption and to seal the pure doctrines of the gospel with their blood.
Among these, Great Britain has the honor of taking the lead and first maintaining that freedom in religious controversy which astonished Europe, and demonstrated that political and religious liberty are equally the growth of that favored island. Among the earliest of these eminent persons was John Wickliffe.
This celebrated reformer, called the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” was born about the year 1324 in the reign of Edward II.
The first thing which drew him into public notice was his defense of the university against the begging friars, who from the time of their settlement in Oxford in 1230, had been troublesome neighbors to the university. Feuds were continually fomented; the friars appealing to the pope, the scholars to the civil power; and sometimes one party, and sometimes, the other, prevailed. The friars became very fond of a notion that Christ was a common beggar; that His disciples were beggars also; and that begging was of gospel institution. This doctrine they urged from the pulpit and wherever they had access.
Wickliffe had long held these religious friars in contempt for the laziness of their lives, and took advantage of the opportunity of exposing them. He published a treatise against able beggary, in which he lashed the friars and proved that they were not only a reproach to religion, but also to human society.
As a professor of divinity he complained against the pope in his lectures, citing his usurpation, supposed infallibility, pride, avarice, and his tyranny. He was the first who termed the pope Antichrist. From the pope, he would turn to the pomp, the luxury, and trappings of the bishops, and compared them with the simplicity of the first bishops. Their superstitions and deceptions were topics that he assailed with energy of mind and logical precision.
From the patronage of the duke of Lancaster Wickliffe received a good wage; but after the death of Edward III, the duke of Lancaster’s power began to decline and the enemies of Wickliffe, taking advantage of the circumstance, renewed their articles of accusation against him. Wickliffe was brought to trial and was undergoing examination at Lambeth, when, because of the riotous behavior of the populace without, they could not proceed to any definitive sentence. They terminated the whole affair in prohibiting Wickliffe from preaching those doctrines which were obnoxious to the pope. This was laughed at by our reformer, who, going about barefoot and in a long gown, preached more vehemently than before.
In the year 1378 a contest arose between two popes, Urban VI and Clement VII (who was the lawful pope). This was a favorable period for the exertion of Wickliffe’s talents: he soon produced a tract against popery, which was eagerly read by all sorts of people.
Next he set about a most important work, the translation of the Bible into English. Before this work appeared, he published a tract wherein he showed the necessity of it. The zeal of the bishops to suppress the Scriptures greatly promoted its sale, and they who were not able to purchase copies, procured transcripts of particular Gospels or Epistles. Afterward, when Lollardy8 increased and the flames kindled, it was a common practice to fasten about the neck of the condemned heretic such of these scraps of Scripture as were found in his possession, which generally shared his fate.
Immediately after this transaction, Wickliffe ventured a step further and attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation. Wickliffe then became a subject of the archbishop of Canterbury’s determined malice. The king, solicited by the archbishop, granted a license to imprison the teacher of heresy, but the commons made the king revoke this act as illegal. Letters were obtained from the king, directing the head of the University of Oxford to search for all heresies and books published by Wickliffe; in consequence of which order, the university became a scene of tumult. Wickliffe is supposed to have retired from the storm into an obscure part of the kingdom. The seeds, however, were scattered, and Wickliffe’s opinions were so prevalent that it was said if you met two persons upon the road, you might be sure that one was a Lollard. At this period, the disputes between the two popes continued. Urban published a bull in which he earnestly called upon all who had any regard for religion to exert themselves in its cause; and to take up arms against Clement and his adherents in defense of the holy see.
This war, in which the name of religion was so vilely prostituted, roused Wickliffe’s inclination even in his declining years. He took up his pen once more and wrote against it with the greatest acrimony. This severe piece drew upon him the resentment of Urban, and was likely to have involved him in greater troubles than he had before experienced, but providentially he was delivered out of their hands. He was struck with the palsy, and though he lived some time, yet it was in such a way that his enemies considered him as a person below their resentment.
Wickliffe returning within short space, either from his banishment or from some other place where he was secretly kept, repaired to his parish of Lutterworth, where he was parson; and there, quietly departing this mortal life, slept in peace in the Lord in the end of the year 1384.
After forty-one years of rest in his sepulcher, Wickliffe’s enemies ungraved him and turned him from earth to ashes; which ashes they also took and threw into the river. And so was he resolved into three elements, earth, fire, and water, thinking thereby utterly to extinguish and abolish both the name and doctrine of Wickliffe forever. But these and all others must know that, as there is no counsel against the Lord, so there is no keeping down of verity, but it will spring up and come out of dust and ashes, as appeared right well in this man; for though they dug up his body, burned his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn. (from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, chapter 7, Lighthouse Trails, 2010)