John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 3: Wycliffe and the Poor Priests

English Christians of the 14th century were spiritually interested, eager to learn about the Gospel, and receptive to Bible teaching and preaching. Nevertheless, with respect to spiritual formation, Bible instruction occupied a subordinate place in this era. The “common people” received their principal catechesis by means of church images—from stained glass windows, to frescoes, to the crucifix, and the supreme image of the Eucharist. Most parishioners attended Mass and observed these images with regularity. But their comprehension of the liturgy was limited by the priest’s employment of an unintelligible Latin. Earnest souls sought to improve people’s understanding through English primers like The Lay Folks Mass Book. Besides outlining the liturgy, this book offered basic instruction in the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and other devotional prayers. Yet, for those who could not read—perhaps 90 percent of the people—even English primers did not furnish a fruitful supplement to the Mass. Moreover, for most of the century, no complete English Bible existed, so even literate Christians were impaired in better understanding their own faith and worship.[1]

Some priests considered the people’s comprehension of the liturgy to be a matter indifferent, or even unwarranted. These priests saw themselves as overseers of a ceremony, in which the body and blood of Christ were effectually offered on the altar, irrespective of the people’s acquaintance. The Mass, therefore, presented a serious dilemma for spiritually hungry Christians. As Bernard Lord Manning wrote of worship in this era:

“The holy drama was too exact to be followed, too scientific to be popular. To understand the elaborated ritual demanded at least as much scholarship as the Latin rite itself. The ordinary man was left at the end very nearly where he had been at the beginning. He might be interested, but he could hardly be edified; his wonder was increased, but his mind was not informed.”[2]

Priests were expected to expound the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed, but sermons remained a secondary consideration. The friars’ popularity over against the secular clergy was partly due to their zeal for preaching, which the people enjoyed. Nevertheless, even the friars’ preaching was often of inferior vintage. Whether out of biblical illiteracy or out of a desire to win the acclaim of the people, they frequently allowed their homilies to lapse into pious fables. The people heard rousing stories and poems about saints and heroes of old, but received little biblical nourishment.

John Wycliffe (c.1328-1384) lamented this debasement of the pulpit. Over the course of his career, Wycliffe had become convinced of the supremacy of Scripture in directing Christian faith and practice. This conviction was at the forefront of his remonstrations to the begging friars and the papal apologists. Moreover, he recognized that the Bible must not only direct the outward conduct of the clergy, it must be preached to laypeople so they might repent and have faith in Jesus Christ. In this determination, the reformer found himself out of step with the prevailing opinion of the age, which asserted that prayer and contemplation held supreme importance in the clerical life. Nevertheless, Wycliffe stayed the course of preaching rooted in Scripture. He delivered numerous sermons to the faculty and students of Oxford, as well as to his congregation at St. Mary’s Church, Lutterworth. He admonished fellow priests who had stooped to the dispensing of entertainment:

“Some men enjoy telling stories they find in the lives of saints or outside Holy Scripture, and this often pleases the people. However, we hold it is good to leave such words and rather trust in God, and tell of His law and especially His Gospels; as we believe they came from Christ and all are from God. And these words, since they are God’s, should be believed, and they will quicken men more than other words that they do not know.”[3]

In one tract, Wycliffe established that Jesus Christ principally devoted Himself to preaching during His earthly ministry; so also did the Apostles after Him. Therefore, taught the reformer, “The highest service that men have on earth is to preach God’s Word, and that service falls to the priests.”[4] In a rebuke to the mendicants, Wycliffe wrote:

“True men boldly say that true preaching is better than praying by mouth, even though it comes from the heart and pure devotion, and it edifies the people more. Therefore, Christ commanded specifically his apostles and disciples to preach the Gospel, and not to close them in cloisters or churches or stones to pray thus. And therefore, Isaiah says, ‘Woe is to me, for I was silent’ (Isaiah 6:8). And Paul says, ‘Woe is to me if I do not preach the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:16). And God says to the prophet, ‘If he does not show the sinful man his sins, he shall be damned for it’ (Ezekiel 3:18).”[5]

Wycliffe also taught that a priest’s good words should be united with pious living—a pairing lamentably absent in the lives of many priests and friars:

“A priest should live holily, in prayer, in desires and thought, in godly conversation and honest teaching, having God’s commandments and His Gospel ever on his lips. And let his deeds be so righteous that no man may be able with cause to find fault with them, and so open his acts that he may be a true book to all sinful and wicked men to serve God. For the example of a good life stirreth men more than true preaching with only the naked word.”[6]

Given his emphasis on the preaching office, it should come as no surprise that a large number of Wycliffe’s sermons have survived to the present: approximately 250 in English, and approximately 170 in Latin. But beyond his own preaching, the reformer also sought to instill in other men the importance of Gospel instruction, so that they might, of their own accord, follow the Apostolic pattern of going among the people to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.[7]

The date at which Wycliffe began organizing such a body of preachers remains uncertain. But their work came to notice by May 1382. It was then that Archbishop of Canterbury William Courtenay—the former Bishop of London who had opposed Wycliffe during his examination at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1377–authored a mandate mentioning “certain unauthorized itinerant preachers who set forth erroneous, yea, heretical assertions in public sermons, not only in churches, but also in public squares and other profane places.” Courtenay complained that these men labored “under the great guise of holiness, but without any episcopal or papal authorization.”[8]

It was Wycliffe who taught and mentored these itinerant preachers. The school originally tended to the guidance of evangelical priests, and later to the needs of similarly disposed laymen. The preachers—called “poor priests”—were initially discouraged from accepting pastoral charges. In his tract, “Why Poor Priests Have No Benefices,” Wycliffe warned that the temporal rewards typically connected to these offices, and overseen by venal lords and prelates, could be a source of worldly temptation. Simony and decadence were constant dangers for a man who accepted benefices. The reformer took courage in that many poor priests willingly rejected these advantages and sought “a better occupation, one that is lighter or easier, more certain and more profitable on every side”; that is, a life of itineracy permitting them to “dwell among the people where they will most profit, and conveniently come and go according to the stirring of the Holy Ghost.” It was Wycliffe’s hope that, through such humble work, “the simony, covetousness, and idleness of worldly clerics would be laid down, and holiness and true teaching and knowing God’s law, would be brought about in both clerics and laymen.”[9]

The territories from whence the preachers originated and the number of men who accepted the call remain uncertain. But their labor left a distinctive impression upon the populace. They made their way from village to village; traveling by foot, staff in hand, clad in long russet gowns, zealous to preach the Gospel. Sometimes they preached in churches; at other times in churchyards or public spaces. Their messages were marked by Gospel simplicity and clarity.11 Wycliffe instilled in the poor priests a belief in the unique power of biblical preaching to edify and transform people. This power ultimately stemmed from the inherent power of God’s Word—the divine seed. So, Wycliffe rejoined,

“O marvelous power of the Divine Seed, which overpowers strong warriors, softens hard hearts, and renews, and makes divine, men brutalized by sin, and departed infinitely far from God. Plainly, so mighty a wonder could never be wrought by the word of a priest, if the Spirit of Life and the Eternal Word did not, above all things else, work with it.”[10]

The poor priests adopted Wycliffe’s method of preaching a “humble and homely” Gospel, and prayed for the Holy Spirit to enliven their hearers through the plain preaching of God’s Word. Their opponents soon began calling them Lollards—a pejorative designation of uncertain origin, but perhaps derived from the Middle Dutch word, lollaerd (“mumbler, mutterer”), and intended to raise in people’s minds the specter of illiteracy and ignorance. Nevertheless, many Lollards cheerfully submitted to scorn and tribulation, “for the thanks of God and the love of saving Christian souls….”[11] They continued planting Gospel seeds after Wycliffe’s death in 1384, and God gave these seeds growth. By the opening years of the 15th century, a contemporary chronicler claimed that of every two men encountered on an English road, one was certain to be a Lollard.[12] The convictions that fortified Lollard persistence are found in the testimony of William Thorpe, a preacher who was arrested and imprisoned in 1407 after many years of faithful labor. He testified before Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel,

“By the authority of the Word of God, and also of many saints and doctors, I have been brought to the conviction that it is the office and duty of every priest, faithfully, freely, and truly to preach God’s Word. Without doubt it behoves every priest, in determining to take orders, to do so chiefly with the object of preaching the Word of God to the people to the best of his ability. We are accordingly bound by Christ’s command and holy example, and also by the testimony of His holy apostles and prophets, under heavy penalties, to exercise ourselves in such wise as to fulfill this duty of the priesthood to the best of our knowledge and powers. We believe that every priest is commanded by the Word of God to make God’s will known to the people by faithful labor, and to publish it to them in the spirit of love, to the best of our ability, where, when, and to whomsoever we may.”[13]

The Lollards remained resolute, even as a century and a half of persecution descended upon them. Long-suffering and fidelity are the legacy of these noble Christians. But they are also the legacy of John Wycliffe, the reformer who proclaimed at the inception of the Lollard movement that priests should savor the nourishment of Scripture and share such manna freely and faithfully.

Still, though the English people benefited greatly from this biblical preaching, Wycliffe sought to provide them spiritual food in a more robust and enduring form: a written Scripture in their own tongue. So, in our final installment, we will turn to Wycliffe’s crowning work: the translation of the Bible into the English language.

This is part three in a four part series on the reforming work of John Wycliffe.

John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 1: Wycliffe vs. the Begging Friars

John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 2: Wycliffe vs. the Pope

John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 4: Wycliffe and the English Bible

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.

  1. Bernard Lord Manning, The People’s Faith in the Time of Wyclif (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919), 4-16. See also Thomas Frederick Simmons (ed.), The Lay Folks Mass Book (London: N. Trübner & Co., 1879).

  2. Manning, The People’s Faith, 14-15.

  3. Thomas Arnold (ed.), Select English Works of John Wyclif, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1869), 332.

  4. Thomas Arnold (ed.), Select English Works of John Wyclif, vol. III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871), 143-44.

  5. F. D. Matthew (ed.), The English Works of Wyclif Hitherto Unprinted (London: Trübner & Co., 1880), 111-12.

  6. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. VI: The Middle Ages, AD 1294-1517 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), 329.

  7. John Laird Wilson, John Wycliffe—Patriot and Reformer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1884), 153-54.

  8. John Wycliffe, “Why Poor Priests Have No Benefices,” in Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, D.D. (London: Blackburn and Pardon, Hatton Garden, 1845), 287, 292-93.

  9. Gotthard Victor Lechler, John Wycliffe and His English Precursors (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1904), 217.

  10. Lechler, Wycliffe and Precursors, 195.

  11. Arnold (ed.), Works of Wyclif, vol. III, 464.

  12. Schaff, History, 351.

  13. Lechler, Wycliffe and Precursors, 214.

*Image Credit: “Wycliffe Sending Out His ‘Poor Priests’ by W.F. Yeames


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