The Englishman Crouching at Luther’s Feet
In the German city of Worms, the scene of Luther’s bold defence before Charles 5th, The Holy Roman Emperor, stands one of the world’s finest memorials to the Reformation. While this monument reflects the politics of the movement, it is fitting that the theology should be central. Flanked by the princes whose influence guaranteed Protestant freedom, we observe an impressive statue of Martin Luther, the Bible in hand. At the feet of the German Reformer crouch four figures that do not belong to the 16th Century, nor are they German. They are Peter Waldo (1140 – 1218), the founder of the Waldensian Churches, John Wycliffe, the English theologian, philosopher, academic and patriot (1324-1384), John Huss, the priest from Prague, who was burned to death by the Council of Constance in 1415 and Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498), the controversial Italian Renaissance Priest. These crouching figures rather than representing their inferiority to Luther are men whose ministries were foundational to the later work of the German Reformer. Of the four, the Englishman, John Wycliffe, stands out because he alone has been given the title, “The Morning Star of the Reformation.”
The connection between the 14th Century Englishman and the 16th Century European Reformation is an essential study, because it unlocks the door of our understanding explaining why the doctrines of the Reformation were received so readily within the British Isles. John Wycliffe has been called ‘The Father of English Prose’ doing for this genre what Chaucer did for poetry. No-one had previously written so prodigiously in English. Therefore a considerable amount of information is available detailing the controversies that engulfed 14th Century England, in which Wycliffe was a key player.
Our knowledge of the personal life of the man is somewhat sparse because ‘The Morning Star’ seldom wrote about himself. Wycliffe was principally a man of faith. Introduced to the Scriptures by the philosopher Bradwardine, while studying at Merton College in Oxford, he was brought later to understand the practical importance of faith during the decimation caused by ‘The Black Death’. The fear, the suffering, the sorrow and the mass graves could not fail to enforce upon the soul the importance of being prepared for eternity.
I have no doubt that if Wycliffe were alive today; he would have belonged to that group called ‘The Brexiteers’. Indeed he was the original ‘Euro-Sceptic’. England was dominated by the Pope, who paraded himself throughout Europe as a Prince assuming vast secular power. When Edward 3rd refused Pope Urban 5th the £1,000 marks per annum, backdated for 35 years, as a kind of lease in order to rule his people, Wycliffe wrote strongly in favour of the King. When the King and Parliament later entered into negotiations with the Papacy to seize control of Church appointments in England, Wycliffe was called up to represent The Crown. This was an issue of major economic concern because foreign clerics were regularly filling up the vacant wealthy church positions in England. Parliament reckoned that the Pope earned five times the money from England as King Edward 3rd from his own realm.
Politics, power, money, foreign influence and national autonomy. It is an incredible story that fits in with the current Brexit crisis as well as 14th Century politics. As we are all the product of our past, is it not the case that England prospered because she asserted her national independence in the face of European encroachments meaning that the Englishman is in his heart a natural Euro-Sceptic, a true patriot?
Wycliffe’s negotiations with the Papal Commissioners had a dramatic effect upon his theology and his views on the Church. Afterwards he was bold enough to denounce the Papacy as Antichrist, which amounted to a call for an independent Church of England, no longer under the Roman Pontiff. He had already found himself in controversy with the Mendicant (or begging) Friars who toured the countryside, relating stories from classic literature, never from the Scriptures. Despite the fact that they were wealthy they preyed on the people with their begging. This prompted Wycliffe to write what was one of his first works, ‘Objections to Friars’, where he charged them with “fifty heresies”. This work shows that Wycliffe believed the same doctrine which defined Martin Luther’s life, contending against the confessions and indulgences offered by these monks:
“Many think if they give a penny to a pardoner, they shall be forgiven the breaking of all the commandments of God, and therefore they take no heed how they keep them…May God of his endless mercy destroy the pride, covetousness, hypocrisy, and heresy of this feigned pardoning, and make men busy to keep His commandments, and to set their trust fully in Jesus Christ.”
After his work for the King was completed Wycliffe was granted The Royal Living at Lutterworth in Leicestershire. Here he had not only an income but a base from which he could influence England. His final years were characterised by severe persecution with no fewer than five Papal Bulls being arrayed against him. His greatest crisis erupted in 1381 when he objected to the doctrine of Transubstantiation. This was also the year of the popular uprising known as the Peasant’s Revolt for which he was falsely blamed because of his great popularity among the common people. His authority increased still further after these events because the Church Court, that was convened to try him, was interrupted by an earthquake, thereafter being called ‘The Earthquake Council’.
If God was preserving His servant it was for two great purposes which would influence the spiritual future of England. The man known as ‘The Father of English Prose’ was the first to give the people of England the Scripture in their native tongue. Translated from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate this was not as pure a work as Tyndale’s later translation, but nevertheless its value cannot be under-rated. He also engaged a company of preachers, who became known as ‘Lollards’, who toured the countryside reading fragments of the Bible, hand copied as the printing press had not yet been invented. They read and they expounded and like our Lord’s ministry, the common people heard them gladly.
Wycliffe’s eventful life and ministry concluded on 31st December 1384, only after he bequeathed this rich Gospel legacy to the people whom he loved. Living 150 years before the Reformation this Englishman is remarkable in that he represented in theology everything that the later Reformers proclaimed. Opposing indulgences and confessions, objecting to the authority of the Papacy, condemning transubstantiation, providing the people with the Bible and employing preachers to take God’s Word to the masses made Wycliffe the true ‘Morning Star’ in an age of terrible darkness.
Well might he sit at Luther’s feet at the scene of the German Monk’s courageous stand? But John Wycliffe did more than prepare Europe for Reformation. He planted a seed in the hearts of the English people that would germinate and grow into a fruitful bough in the days of Cranmer, Latimer, Hooper and Ridley.
Reference; ‘History of Protestantism’ by J.A. Wylie