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

By 1382, John Wycliffe was a careworn man. For years he had waged a difficult battle against the mendicant friars, the papal apologists, and the prelates of the church—opposing the avaricious practices of the friars and challenging Rome’s encroachments against English liberty. In the midst of these contests the great reformer had also set forth an alternative view of the Lord’s Supper.[1] In Wycliffe’s estimation, transubstantiation was an unbiblical doctrine of recent vintage, which the church had only embraced because it had neglected Scripture.[2]

Because of these dissents, Wycliffe became the target of numerous attacks in the closing years of his life. In 1377 and 1378, he was summoned before ecclesiastical tribunals, in part to explain his denunciations against corruption in the church hierarchy. The Pope sought to enlist the chancellor and faculty of the University of Oxford to deliver Wycliffe over to the latter tribunal. Wycliffe was even for a time placed under house arrest.[3],[4]

When Wycliffe declared himself opposed to transubstantiation, many of his erstwhile allies abandoned him. In early 1381, the chancellor of Oxford convened a committee which censured two of Wycliffe’s eucharistic teachings as erroneous and prohibited discussion of his ideas under threat of suspension, excommunication, and imprisonment. Shortly thereafter, years of English social unrest exploded in the Peasants’ Revolt. Two waves of the Black Death and decades of war with France had devastated the English population and increased the demand for laborers. Labor wages increased sharply, and landowner profits plummeted. Parliament sought to unburden landowners by fixing wages and criminalizing refusal to work. This alienated peasants across the realm. Against this backdrop, Parliament instituted three poll taxes within four years, to fund the protracted war with France. Indignant subjects evaded the tax.

Tensions came to a head in May 1381, when a parliamentary representative sought to collect subsidies owed by the people of Essex. This encounter culminated in violence, which then spread to multiple counties. The Peasants’ Revolt was completely suppressed by the autumn, but not before the rebels attacked London and killed Simon Sudbury, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer. Fifteen hundred rebels were ultimately killed. Wycliffe disavowed the revolt, but his enemies claimed that his teachings, which subverted the authority of the church, had provoked the peasants to violence.[5],[6]

Succeeding Sudbury in the Archbishopric of Canterbury was Wycliffe’s longtime opponent, William Courtenay, who convened a council in Blackfriars, London, in May 1382. This council condemned twenty-four “Wycliffite” beliefs—declaring ten heretical and fourteen erroneous. Before the council closed in November, it conducted an aggressive purge of Wycliffe’s supporters at Oxford, and received recantations from multiple faculty members who had previously been the reformer’s allies. Parliament and the Crown then issued their own broadsides against Wycliffe and the Lollards, calling for the arrest of unauthorized preachers and their supporters.[7]

Amidst this heightening opposition, Wycliffe suffered a debilitating stroke, from which he never recovered. Indeed, when summoned to appear before the papal curia in late 1383, Wycliffe declined partially on the grounds that his ill health would not permit it.[8]

These were the extremities that confronted Wycliffe in the closing years of his life. But over and against them, the reformer set into motion a world-changing labor, the one for which he is most widely recognized: the translation of the Bible into the English tongue. Wycliffe was not the first person to translate or paraphrase Scripture in English. The poet Caedmon had paraphrased portions of the Bible in Old English verse around the year 680. When the monk-scholar Bede died in 735, he was working on an Old English translation of John’s Gospel. Alfred the Great had translated various Bible passages into Old English and adjoined them as the mainstay to his law code in the late 9th century. The Wessex Gospels were translated in the late 10th century. Shortly thereafter, Aelfric of Eynsham produced an Old English Hexateuch.

However, following the Norman invasion of 1066, French and Latin eclipsed English in the court and universities. The 1229 Council of Toulouse concluded that the heresy of Catharism was linked to the promiscuous spread of the Scriptures among the laity and decreed, “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; unless anyone from motive of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”[9]

Wycliffe overcame these unfavorable circumstances and began translating the Latin Vulgate into English. Foundational to the work was the reformer’s steadfast conviction that the Scriptures represent the infallible Word of God, completely truthful and without error. In On the Truth of Holy Scripture, his summa on the subject, he writes, “No testimony could possibly be better, more certain, or more efficacious. For if God, who cannot lie, has spoken something in his own Scripture, which is itself the mirror of his will, then it is true.” According to Wycliffe, anyone who questions the truthfulness of Scripture undermines its authority. Indeed, echoing Augustine, he says that no adversary of Scripture can credibly claim to be a Christian; and this applies even to the pope. Regarding priests, he writes, “Inasmuch as the duty of a shepherd is one which requires driving, feeding, and defending his flock, this spiritual duty cannot possibly be fulfilled without a knowledge of Holy Scripture. This is why it is essential that every spiritual shepherd have a knowledge of Holy Scripture above all else.” Wycliffe goes on to argue that every Christian must be a theologian, which can only be accomplished by granting every Christian access to Christ’s law in the Scriptures.[10]

The precise extent to which Wycliffe himself translated the Scriptures remains elusive, although it is likely he translated the entire New Testament. Nicholas Hereford (d. 1420) was responsible for translating the Old Testament. They both worked from the Latin Vulgate, as Hebrew and Greek were not widely known, and were not taught at Oxford. The date at which the work commenced is uncertain, although it may be suggested by a finding in Hereford’s original Old Testament translation. The original manuscript abruptly ends in the third chapter of the Apocryphal book of Baruch, implying that the work was interrupted. It is known that a provincial synod convened on June 18, 1382, to hear Hereford’s answer regarding his embrace of Wycliffe. The synod excommunicated Hereford, who then traveled to Rome to appeal his sentence. There he was imprisoned for nearly three years, escaping in June 1385. If Hereford had advanced so far in his translation work by the time he was called before the synod, then it is likely the New Testament translation—which is known to have commenced first—was complete or at an advanced stage of completion by the summer of 1382. This first version shows a taut adherence to the Latin text.[11]

John Purvey collaborated with Wycliffe to construct a more fluent revised translation, which was ultimately published in 1388, after Wycliffe’s death. In his prologue to the revised edition, Purvey discusses the philosophy of translation and articulates four senses of Scripture: the literal (the things done in deed), the allegorical (the spiritual understanding), the moral (the virtues to be followed), and the anagogical (pointing to the bliss the saints will enjoy hereafter). In agreement with Wycliffe, he gives priority to the literal sense:

“Nevertheless all spiritual understandings set before, or require, the literal understanding, as the foundation; therefore as a building bending away from the foundation is disposed to falling, so a spiritual exposition, that discords from the literal sense, ought to be stopped as unseemly and inconvenient, or less seemly, and less convenient….”

Purvey says the translation is that of a “simple creature.” Nevertheless, as it has been undertaken “with common charity to save all men in our realm, which God will have saved,” the work has been approached with utmost seriousness:

“First, this simple creature had much labor, with diverse fellows and helpers, to gather many old Bibles, and other doctors, and common glosses, and to make one Latin Bible very true; and then to study it anew, the text with the gloss, and other doctors, as he might get, and especially [Nicholas of] Lyra on the Old Testament, that helped very much in this work; the third time to council with old grammarians, and old diviners, of hard words, and hard sentences, how they might best be understood and translated; the fourth time to translate as clearly as he could to the sentence, and to have many good and knowledgeable fellows at the correcting of the translation.”

Reflecting on the significance of this new access to the biblical text, Purvey writes:

“By this manner, with good living and great labor, men may come to true and clear translating, and true understanding of Holy Writ, even if it seems the hardest at the beginning. God grant to us all grace to know well, and keep well Holy Writ, and suffer joyfully some pain for it at the last! Amen.”[12]

It is worth nothing that the Old Testament Apocrypha is included in the Wycliffe Bible, but it is distinguished from the other Scriptures and is said by the prologue to be “without authority of belief.”

Wycliffe and his collaborators recognized the limited literacy then prevailing in England. Nevertheless, they hoped that literate Christians would read the vernacular Scriptures and freely share Christ’s law with their non-literate brethren.

More than 250 Wycliffe Bible manuscripts survive, representing a larger number of copies than for any other English medieval text. This is especially remarkable, given the fact that these Bibles had to be laboriously created by hand under the shadow of a 150-year persecution against the Lollards. It is unknown how many Wycliffe Bibles were destroyed during this period of desolation. Wycliffe’s work should be viewed as a vital achievement that anticipated the publication of William Tyndale’s English New Testament in 1526 and Myles Coverdale’s complete English Bible in 1535.[13]

Wycliffe avoided death at the hands of his opponents. While hearing Mass on Innocents’ Day, 1384, at his parish church in Lutterworth, he suffered a fatal second stroke. But the anti-Wycliffite faction continued its battle against him. In 1408, the Oxford Convocation decreed:

“…that henceforth no one shall by their authority translate any text of the sacred Scriptures into the English language or any other, by means of a book, booklet, or treatise, nor shall anyone read such a book, booklet, or treatise now recently composed by the said John Wycliffe or in the future to be composed, in part or in whole, publicly or secretly, under penalty of the greater excommunication, until such translation has been approved by the diocesan authority of the place, or if necessary, by a provincial council: and anyone who acts contrary to this shall be punished as a supporter of heresy and error alike.”

Despite this decree, Wycliffe Bibles multiplied, and the late reformer’s teachings leavened England and other lands. In 1415, the Council of Constance condemned Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague—Bohemian reformers who had been decisively influenced by Wycliffe. The same council declared Wycliffe a “notorious and obstinate heretic,” condemned his writings, and ordered that his body and bones be exhumed and scattered far from church burial ground. This last decree was fulfilled in 1428, when the bones of the English reformer were disinterred, burned, and cast into the River Swift. Yet, even in this ignominious end, the 17th century church historian Thomas Fuller saw a poetic testimony to the resilience of Wycliffe’s doctrines:

“Thus this brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wickliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.”[14]

Thus has been the diffusion of Wycliffe’s doctrines. But even more importantly for the world, thus has been the spread of the English Bible.

This is the last 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. 3: Wycliffe and the Poor Priests

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. John Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, D.D. (London: Blackburn and Pardon, Hatton Garden, 1845), 131-156 [Trialogus].

  2. John Laird Wilson, John Wycliffe—Patriot and Reformer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1884), 162-165.

  3. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 132-134.

  4. Andrew E. Larsen, “John Wyclif, C. 1331-1384,” in A Companion to John Wyclif, edited by Ian Christopher Levy (Boston: Brill, 2006), 38-39.

  5. Larsen, “John Wyclif,” 60.

  6. Ian Christopher Levy, “Wyclif and the Christian Life,” in A Companion to John Wyclif, 317-318.

  7. Larsen, “John Wyclif,” 52-56.

  8. John Wycliffe, “De citationibus frivolis,” in John Wiclif’s Polemical Works in Latin, vol. 2, edited by Rudolf Buddensieg (London: Trübner & Co., 1883), 556.

  9. Edward Peters (ed.), Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), 194-195.

  10. John Wycliffe [Ian Christopher Levy, trans.], On the Truth of Holy Scripture (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2001), 171, 197-200, 288-289.

  11. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 32, 202, 216.

  12. John Purvey, Wycliffite Prologue to the Bible, available online at

  13. David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 66.

  14. Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain From the Birth of Jesus Christ Until the Year 1648, vol. 1 (London: William Tegg, 1868), 572-573.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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