John Wycliffe Biography

English Bible Translator and Early Reformer

John WyCliffe
John Wycliffe (1324-1384), English church reformer and Bible translator. Kean Collection / Getty Images

John Wycliffe loved the Bible so much that he wanted to share it with his English countrymen.

However, Wycliffe lived in the 1300s when the Roman Catholic Church ruled, and it authorized Bibles written only in Latin. After Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, each copy took ten months to write by hand. These translations were banned and burned as quickly as church officials could get their hands on them.

Today Wycliffe is remembered first as a Bible translator, then as a reformer who spoke out against church abuses nearly 200 years before Martin Luther. As a respected religious scholar during a tumultuous time, Wycliffe got embroiled in politics, and it is difficult to separate his legitimate reforms from the fight between church and state.

John Wycliffe, Reformer

Wycliffe rejected transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine that says the communion wafer is changed into the substance of the body of Jesus Christ. Wycliffe argued that Christ was figuratively but not essentially present.

Long before Luther's doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone, Wycliffe taught, "Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation."

Wycliffe denounced the Catholic sacrament of individual confession, saying it had no basis in Scripture.

He also refuted the practice of indulgences and other works used as penance, such as pilgrimages and giving money to the poor.

Certainly, John Wycliffe was revolutionary in his time for the authority he placed in the Bible, elevating it higher than the edicts of the pope or the church. In his 1378 book, On the Truth of Holy Scripture, he asserted that the Bible contained everything necessary for salvation, without the church's additions of prayers to saints, fasting, pilgrimages, indulgences, or the Mass.

John Wycliffe, Bible Translator

Because he believed the common person could, through faith and the help of the Holy Spirit, understand and benefit from the Bible, Wycliffe launched into a translation of the Latin Bible starting in 1381. He tackled the New Testament while his student Nicholas Hereford worked on the Old Testament.

When he finished his New Testament translation, Wycliffe finished the Old Testament work Hereford had started. Scholars give great credit to John Purvey, who later revised the whole work.

Wycliffe thought an English translation of the Bible needed common, down-to-earth preachers to take it to the people, so he trained students from Oxford University, where he had studied and taught.

By 1387, lay preachers called Lollards roamed throughout England, inspired by Wycliffe's writings. Lollard means "mumbler" or "wanderer" in Dutch. They called for reading the Bible in the local language, stressed personal faith, and criticized the church's authority and wealth.

Lollard preachers gained support from the wealthy early on, who hoped they would aid their desire to confiscate church property. When Henry IV became King of England in 1399, the Lollard Bible was banned and many of the preachers were thrown in prison, including Wycliffe's friends Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey.

The persecution escalated and soon Lollards were being burned at the stake in England. Harassment of the sect continued on and off until 1555. By keeping Wycliffe's ideas alive, these men influenced reforms in the church in Scotland, and the Moravian Church in Bohemia, where John Huss was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415.

John Wycliffe, Scholar

Born in 1324 in Yorkshire, England, John Wycliffe became one of the most brilliant scholars of his time. He received his doctor of divinity degree from Oxford in 1372.

Just as remarkable as his intellect was Wycliffe's impeccable character. Even his enemies conceded that he was a holy man, blameless in his conduct. Men of high station were attracted to him like iron to a magnet, drawing on his wisdom and attempting to imitate his Christian life.

Those royal connections served him well throughout life, providing both financial support and protection from the church. The Great Schism in the Catholic Church, a period of infighting when there were two popes, helped Wycliffe avoid martyrdom.

John Wycliffe suffered a stroke in 1383 that left him paralyzed, and a second, fatal stroke in 1384. The church exacted its revenge on him in 1415, convicting him of more than 260 charges of heresy at the Council of Constance. In 1428, 44 years after Wycliffe's death, church officials dug up his bones, burned them, and scattered the ashes on the River Swift.

(Sources: John Wycliffe, Morning Star of the Reformation;​ and Christianity Today.)