Historical Profile: John Wycliffe

Great movements that affect the thinking of man on a global scale happen gradually. Contributions to such change are made by those who, at the time, are either ignored or considered rebellious or dangerous. But future generations may bask in the glorious sunshine of those who toiled in the dark of obscurity and/or persecution.

The first great movement away from Catholic tyranny, the Reformation, was triggered by the efforts of courageous men who were willing to risk or even sacrifice their lives for principles of religious freedom. Some of these died in anonymity; others remain known only to scholars and historians.

But one name stands out as “the Morning Star of the Reformation”: John Wycliffe. He is so nicknamed because his efforts were among the first to kickstart the Reformation, later led by such men as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin and others. 

Wycliffe lived in England from ca. 1325-1384. He wrote and spoke against papal power and the abuses of that power, but one of his most important contributions was the translation of the Latin Vulgate (the translation by Jerome that kept the Scriptures from the common people) into English. This began to awaken many to the wide disparity between Catholic doctrines and practices, and what the Bible actually taught.

Though Wycliffe died in peace, “31 years after his death the council of Constance condemned him as a heretic, ordered his bones removed from their tomb, burned and the ashes thrown in the Severn River" ("The Eternal Kingdom," F.W. Mattox, p. 225). His followers, called Lollards, were systematically persecuted and the movement -- for the time being -- extinguished. But their spirit lived on in the reformers of the following century.

The next time you pick up a Bible or drive to worship, think about the countless believers who created a rising tide of resistance that resulted in our religious freedom. What we may take for granted was a life-and-death proposition for many in the history of Christianity.