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 reasons.
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.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 10, 2014