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John Wycliffe (1330-1384), a member of the faculty of Oxford University, was
an early crusader for Christian reform in England. He argued that secular and
ecclesiastical authorities were given earthly dominion in their respective spheres
by the grace of God as understood through Scripture. Implicit in this argument
was the idea that these dominions could be lost through sin and that all earthly
possessions would be forfeited. Wycliffe further argued that the church had
sinned because it had lost its biblical moorings and had become corrupted by
earthly concerns of wealth and power. He advocated a return to biblical poverty
either voluntarily or through confiscation of church property by civil authorities.
Kings and nobles found much to admire in Wycliffe's argument, but for very different
Wycliffe's central tenet was his belief in the Bible as the only source of
Christian doctrine. No earthly ecclesiastical authority, he felt, could augment
or change what was in the Scriptures. Additionally, he found no scriptural support
for the papacy or the many monastic and other religious orders. He further maintained
that the host of problems found in these orders necessitated reform by civil
authorities. Although Wycliffe's teachings were the subject of numerous papal
bulls issued by Gregory XI (r. 1370-1378), he persevered with support from the
English government and some assistance from within the university community.
His fortunes changed, however, when he attacked transubstantiation.
Wycliffe argued that it was unsound to believe that bread and wine ceased their
original existence and reanimated as flesh and blood after consumption. He sought
to replace what he saw as a superstitious belief with a new understanding of
the more important spiritual and moral messages intended by Christ. Following
these attacks he lost most of his official support and became the subject of
numerous condemnations from ecclesiastical and secular authorities. Nevertheless,
he left his mark on religious thought in Europe.
Wycliffe's belief in the supreme authority of Scripture led him to translate
the Bible into English and make plans for its dissemination through a network
of preachers. His efforts contributed to the formation of the Lollards, the
heretical proclaimers of his beliefs. Lollardism was to play an important role
in English religious life for the next several centuries, and Wycliffe's influence
helped prepare the way for the Protestant Reformation. His teachings continued
to inspire his remaining supporters at Oxford, and he was cited by many other
reformers, including Jan Huss (1372-1415), as a leading authority.
Works by the Author
Wycliffe, John. Select English Works. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas Arnold.
Oxford; Oxford at the Clarendon Press.
Works about the Author
Sargeant, Lewis. John Wyclif: Last of the Schoolmen and First of the English
Reformers. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1893.
Lechler, Gothtard V., and Peter Lorimer. John Wycliffe and his English Precursors.
London: The Religious Tract Society, 1884.
Gilpin, William. The Lives of John Wycliff and the Most Eminent of his Disciples:
Lord Cobham, John Huss, Jerome of Prague, & Zisca. London: 1766.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.