George Housman Thomas’ illustration, “Wycliffe on His Sick-Bed Assailed By the Friars at Oxford,” is a striking depiction of one of the many trials endured by the noble English priest and reformer, and a testimony to his courage in the face of stringent opposition. The illustration depicts an encounter from 1378, when Wycliffe was suffering from a severe illness, perhaps the aftereffects of a stroke. Supposing Wycliffe to be near death, the begging friars and four Oxford eminents came to his bedchamber and pleaded with him to retract the fulminations he had published against the mendicants–that is, itinerant friars and preachers who relied on alms for their living. After the friars made their statement, a servant raised Wycliffe in bed so he could respond. It is this moment that is depicted in Thomas’ work. The mendicants linger about the room, not with looks of compassion, but rather countenances of contempt. One corpulent friar sets his back to Wycliffe, even as he turns his head and glares at the reformer with bulging eyes. Wycliffe appears gaunt and sickly–eyes hollow, hair matted. Within reach at his bedside is a thick book, likely meant to represent the Scriptures. Steadied in bed by his servant, he raises his hand and replies, “I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars,” before driving his detractors from the room. Thomas’ illustration is imaginative, but emblematic of the battles faced by Wycliffe as he sought the purification of Christ’s church from the licentiousness and bombast that had come to characterize it.
Remarkably, though Wycliffe died a century before Martin Luther’s birth, he anticipated multiple of the doctrines that would eventually characterize mature Protestantism. This reality finds modest recognition in Wycliffe’s honorifics, “Evangelical Doctor” and “Morning Star of the Reformation.” But Wycliffe was more direct in his proto-Protestant convictions than is usually recognized. His opposition to the begging friars was founded upon a Gospel rooted in Scripture, and shorn of the ceremonialism and muddled soteriology of the Roman church.
When Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire around 1330, no complete English Bible yet existed. In fact, the church magisterium was hostile to vernacular translations of the Scriptures. When Wycliffe matriculated at Oxford around 1345, he followed in the wake of such distinguished Oxford affiliates as John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Thomas Bradwardine. He was accordingly tutored in scholastic philosophy.
Wycliffe established himself in the field of law—both civil and canon. It was in the legal arena that various controversies of the age presented themselves, specifically with regard to the prerogatives of sovereigns and subjects over against the church magisterium. Wycliffe was committed to resisting the unwelcome intrusions of the pope and the mendicants in English affairs. The term “mendicants” comes from the Latin mendicans, “begging”, and is interchangeable with “friars”, taken from the Latin frater, “brother.” The mendicants that Wycliffe encountered predominantly belonged to two new orders founded in the early 1200s around the time of the Fourth Lateran Council: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Much distinguished these new friars from older Western monastics, not least of all their status as itinerant preachers, traveling throughout Christendom and relying upon alms as they did so, rather than doing their ministry and earning their keep in stable monastic communities. Whilst the founders of these orders, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, were doubtless sincere reformers in their own way, they usefully served the ends of the papacy, since their calls to itinerancy afforded opportunities to impose piety and belief upon the laity. By Wycliffe’s day, this facet of the mendicant life had only increased, and their once well-intentioned ascetic poverty had morphed into a leeching mendicancy which exploited both the purses and the souls of Christians across Europe. Wycliffe’s understandable mistrust of these foreign influences grew as he came to see Scripture as the supreme authority over Christian faith and practice. He found no authorization for these offices or their practices in the Bible.
The Black Death reached England in June 1348, and over the following 18 months killed approximately half of the English population. The student body at Oxford, where Wycliffe was likely studying at the time, was decimated. Wycliffe was deeply affected by this catastrophe and came to see it as a judgment sent by God upon a wayward church, at whose head were debauched clergy and mendicants who exploited the people under their care.
Wycliffe remained an affiliate of the university in various capacities after the plague subsided. His dispute with the mendicants began in earnest in 1360. The begging friars had established themselves in various cities across England (including Oxford) by the middle of the 13th century, taking their solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The original Rule of St. Francis read, “Those brothers whom the Lord favors with the gift of working should do so faithfully and devotedly, so that idleness, the enemy of the soul, is excluded yet the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, which all other temporal things should serve, is not extinguished.” Suffice to say, this ideal had not been maintained: the orders had succumbed to moral corruption and idleness.
Though originally seen as reformers devoted to the betterment of the church, the friars eventually gained a negative reputation in Oxford. They seized preaching duties for themselves, claiming that the secular clergy (i.e. those clergy who did not live under a monastic rule) had proven deficient in the task. Nevertheless, many mendicants used their homilies to peddle myths and trivialities meant to gain the approval of the congregation. The friars also declared themselves free of the corrupting influence of wealth, but audaciously shamed the common people into subsidizing their idleness. They were also ceaseless in their efforts to enroll young men and children to their cause, persuading many students to leave the university through promises of standing before God and men.
The friars also engaged in the odious practice of issuing letters of fraternity. These letters, which were said to bear the power of saving merit drawn from the overflowing righteousness of a friar, could be imputed to a recipient toward the end of his own salvation—yet only for coin. The friars likewise sold indulgences.
Wycliffe decried this commerce as a curse on Oxford, and blasphemy against God. In his sermons and writings, he began answering the mendicant practices. But his purpose was not merely to persuade the friars to amend their ways. Through his reading of the Bible, Wycliffe had become convinced that Scripture was the supreme authority regarding Christian faith and practice. Wycliffe believed that the friars’ dissolute lives betrayed their rejection of the Bible, and he planned on answering their errors with Scripture. In Trialogus and Treatise Against the Orders of Friars, his arguments were suffused with Scripture, in keeping with his conviction that the Bible was the supreme authority in matters of Christian faith and practice.
Regarding their debased preaching, Wycliffe wrote: “The result shows its tendency to deteriorate the church, for they give all their attention to ritual, flattery, detraction, and falsehood, rejecting Scripture, and neglecting to rebuke sin.”
Regarding their begging, Wycliffe condemned their pretense of being like Christ in poverty, while actually holding great riches fleeced from the common people. Wycliffe acknowledged the virtue of voluntary poverty adopted for the sake of others. But his examination of the Scriptures set him against the self-interested poverty which the friars claimed gave them standing before God. He wrote:
“Now such real begging, without insinuative petition, offered in words, is a faultless and most noble begging, for it became Christ to beg thus, for the interests of his church. But if the friars make a sophistical use of such begging, and beg stoutly from the people with clamor and annoyance, who can doubt that this begging is a diabolical and sophistical perversion of this act of Christ’s, that was so full of goodness, and so serviceable to his church? Beyond this, the friars defend their falsehood by adding that it is not only proper, but absolutely meritorious to thus embrace a life of voluntary poverty.”
Wycliffe further rebuked the friars from Scripture for their refusal to work:
“When paupers, the blind, the sick, and the infirm, ought to receive such alms, according to God’s commandment (Luke 14:13), the robust mendicant taking the relief away from them, wrongs this class of men; and what robbery can be more infamous? Such beggary is contrary to the law of nature. What blasphemous necessity, then, could impose it upon our Lord Jesus Christ, especially when it neither became him to so beg, nor have the Gospel commandments (in which all truth is involved) expressed anything of the sort. How dare the friars, then, thus blaspheme the Lord Christ Jesus? For in abstaining from such mendicancy, Christ and his disciples obeyed the tenth commandment in the decalogue, the law of nature, and the bidding of the Old Testament.”
Regarding the friars’ issuance of letters of fraternity, he wrote:
“Had no such letters ever been dispensed, and if men had depended simply on the graciousness of Christ, it would have been better than at present. Accordingly, may these absurdities which the friars chatter about, return on their own head.”
And additionally, he wrote:
“With covetousness; for they do this to win the penny, for if a poor man does not give the penny, however true he is to God, he shall not have them; but a rich man, however cursed he is, shall have such letters, and think he is well enough by them, however much wrong he does to poor men. With simony [i.e. the selling of church offices for money], for they sell this supernal good for temporal goods, and that is done unskillfully; for such haggling and granting of letters was never exemplified by Christ, nor his apostles, and yet they loved men’s souls best.”
He called indulgences one of the “Luciferian seductions of the church” and a “fiction of the Prince of Darkness,” and called upon Christians to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ… and teach the people that they should trust in Christ alone, and in his law, and in his members….”
He went on to assail the very legitimacy of mendicant orders and practices, arguing, “According to Scripture, men may not introduce such unfounded novelties beyond the religion instituted by Christ.”
“If we take, therefore, their whole occupation into consideration, it is evident that they are useless persons in the church. For the introduction of their heresy, lacking in the authority of Scripture, can be of no value unless we ironically concede importance to it, made up of subtle conclusions, by means of which they disturb the peace of the church.”
The reformer also argued that the friars were so dogmatic in their error, that they made God out to be a liar:
“Friars teach and maintain that Holy Writ is false; and so they put falseness upon our Lord Jesus Christ, and on the Holy Ghost, and on all the blessed Trinity. For since God Almighty taught, confirms, and maintains Holy Writ, if this writing be false, then God is false, and He is a maintainer of error and falseness; but certainly then he is no God.”
Wycliffe contended that these friars would never be morally reformed unless they were first spiritually transformed to accept the clear religion of Jesus Christ found in the Scriptures.
Given Wycliffe’s conviction that the Bible was authoritative over the Church, one implication was clear: a vernacular Bible should be made available to the common people so they could understand and receive its authority. The reformer ultimately initiated the first complete English translation of the Bible. But, years before this work was completed, and generations before God, in the fullness of time, raised up the 16th century Reformers to preach, “ad fontes!” Wycliffe embraced what would come to be the Protestant position on Scripture in his confrontation with the begging friars.
Still, the mendicants were not the only parties who had tarnished the reputation of the Church in the years preceding Wycliffe’s call to reform. Wycliffe’s challenge to another agent would compel him to further articulate his Protestant positions regarding faith, grace, salvation, Scripture, and authority. That agent was the pope–and it is to him we shall turn in our next installment.
This is part one in a four part series on the reforming work of John Wycliffe.
Miles Foltermann holds degrees from Texas A&M University, McGovern Medical School, and Covenant Theological Seminary. A native Texan, he now lives and practices medicine in Middle Tennessee.
John Foxe, “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2020, https://ccel.org/ccel/f/foxe/martyrs/files/martyrs.html), 96 ↑
For a summary of St. Francis’s own reform movement, see another recent Ad Fontes article by Jackson Gravitt, “In Darkness, Light: Francis of Assisi, Proto-Reformer” ↑
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. VI: The Middle Ages, AD 1294-1517 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), 309. ↑
John Wycliffe, Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wickliff (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1842), 5-7. ↑
Rule of St. Francis [see rule 5] available online at https://ofm.org/en/the-rule.html. ↑
Schaff, History, 334-35. ↑
John Wycliffe “Introductory Memoir by Robert Vaughan”, Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, D.D. (London: Blackburn and Pardon, Hatton Garden, 1845); “Trialogus,”186-216; “Treatise Against the Orders of Friars,” 217-56. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 202. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 186-87. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 188. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 194. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 230. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 198. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 201. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 203. ↑
Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 241. ↑
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons