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Beacon Lights of History, Volume V by John Lord

Part 5 out of 5

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argument drawn from the Scriptures, or from the history of the early
Apostolic Church, to warrant its existence. Nor would I defend the long
series of papal usurpations by which the Roman pontiffs got possession
of the government of both Church and State. I speak not of their
quarrels with princes about investitures, in which their genius and
their heroism were displayed rather than by efforts in behalf of

But the popes exercised certain powers and prerogatives in England,
about the time of Wyclif, which were exceedingly offensive to the
secular rulers of the land. They claimed the island as a sort of
property which reason and the laws did not justify,--a claim which led
to heavy exactions and forced contributions on the English people that
crippled the government and impoverished the nation. Boys and favorites
were appointed by the popes to important posts and livings. Church
preferments were almost exclusively in the hands of the Pope; and these
were often bought. A yearly tribute had been forced on the nation in the
time of John. Peter's pence were collected from the people. Enormous
sums, under various pretences, flowed to Rome. And the clergy were taxed
as well as the laity. The contributions which were derived from the sale
of benefices, from investitures, from the transfer of sees, from the
bestowal of rings and crosiers (badges of episcopal authority), from the
confirmation of elections, and other taxes, irritated sovereigns, and
called out the severest denunciation of statesmen.

Closely connected with papal exactions was the enormous increase of the
Mendicant friars, especially the Dominicans and Franciscans, who had
been instituted by Innocent III. to uphold the papal domination. These
itinerating beggars in their black-and-gray gowns infested every town
and village in England. For a century after their institution, they were
the ablest and perhaps the best soldiers of the Pope, and did what the
Jesuits afterwards performed, and perhaps the Methodists a hundred
years ago,--gained the hearts of the people and stimulated religious
life; but in the fourteenth century they were a nuisance. They sold
indulgences, they invented pious frauds, they were covetous under
pretence of poverty, they had become luxurious in their lives, they
slandered the regular clergy, they usurped the prerogatives of parish
priests, they enriched their convents, they accommodated themselves to
the wishes of the great, and were marked by those peculiarities of which
the Jesuits were accused in the time of Pascal. As they had not in
England, as in Spain and Italy, tribunals of inquisition, they were
ridiculed, despised, and hated, rather than feared. One gets the truest
impression of the popular estimate of these friars from the sarcasms of
Chaucer. The Friar Tuck whom Sir Walter Scott has painted was a very
different man from the Dominicans or the Franciscans of the thirteenth
century, when they reigned in the universities, and were the confessors
of monarchs and the most popular preachers of their time. In the
fourteenth century they were consumed with jealousies and rivalries and
animosities against each other; and all the various orders,--Dominican,
Franciscan, Carmelite,--in spite of their professions of poverty, were
the possessors of magnificent monasteries, and fattened on the credulity
of the world. Besides these Mendicant friars, England was dotted with
convents and religious houses belonging to the different orders of
Benedictines, which, though enormously rich, devoured the substance of
the poor. There were more than twenty thousand monks in a population of
three or four millions; and most of them led idle and dissolute lives,
and were subjects of perpetual reproach. Reforms of the various
religious houses had been attempted, but all reforms had failed. Nor
were the lives of the secular clergy much more respectable than those of
the great body of monks. They are accused by all historians of avarice,
venality, dissoluteness, and ignorance; and it was their incapacity,
their disregard of duties, and indifference to the spiritual interests
of their flocks that led to the immense popularity of the Mendicant
friars, until they, in their turn, became perhaps a greater scandal than
the parish priests whose functions they had usurped. Both priests and
monks in the time of Bishop Grostete of Lincoln frequented taverns and
gambling-houses. So enormous and scandalous was the wealth of the
clergy, that as early as 1279, under Edward I., Parliament passed a
statute of mortmain, forbidding religious bodies to receive bequests
without the King's license.

With the increase of scandalous vices among the clergy was a corruption
in the doctrines of the Church; not those which are strictly
theological, but those which pertained to the sacraments, and the
conditions on which absolution was given and communion administered. In
the thirteenth century, as the Scholastic philosophy was reaching its
fullest development, we notice the establishment of the doctrine of
transubstantiation, the withholding the cup from the laity, and the
necessity of confession as the condition of receiving the
communion,--which corruptions increased amazingly the power of the
clergy over the minds of superstitious people, and led to still more
flagrant evils, like the sale of indulgences and the perversion of the
doctrine of penance, originally enforced in order to aid the soul to
overcome the tyranny of the body, but finally accepted as the expiation
for sin; so that the door of heaven itself was opened by venal priests
only to those whom they could control or rob.

Such was the state of the Church when Wyclif was born,--in 1324, near
Richmond in Yorkshire, about a century after the establishment of
universities, the creation of the Mendicant orders, and the memorable
usurpation of Innocent III.

In the year 1340, during the reign of Edward III., we find him at the
age of sixteen a student in Merton College at Oxford,--the college then
most distinguished for Scholastic doctors; the college of Islip, of
Bradwardine, of Occam, and perhaps of Duns Scotus. It would seem that
Wyclif devoted himself with great assiduity to the study which gave the
greatest intellectual position and influence in the Middle Ages, and
which required a training of nineteen years in dialectics before the
high degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred by the University. We
know nothing of his studious life at Oxford until he received his
degree, with the title of Evangelical or Gospel Doctor,--from which we
infer that he was a student of the Bible, and was more remarkable for
his knowledge of the Scriptures than for his dialectical skill. But even
for his knowledge of the Scholastic philosophy he was the most eminent
man in the University, and he was as familiar with the writings of Saint
Augustine and Jerome as with those of Aristotle. It was not then the
fashion to study the text of the Scriptures so much as the commentaries
upon it; and he who was skilled in the "Book of Sentences" and the
"Summa Theologica" stood a better chance of preferment than he who had
mastered Saint Paul.

But Wyclif, it would seem, was distinguished for his attainments in
everything which commanded the admiration of his age. In 1356, when he
was thirty-two, he wrote a tract on the last ages of the Church, in view
of the wretchedness produced by the great plague eight years before. In
1360, at the age of thirty-six, he attacked the Mendicant orders, and
his career as a reformer began,--an unsuccessful reformer, indeed, like
John Huss, since the evils which he combated were not removed. He merely
protested against the corruptions which good men lamented; and that is
nearly all that great men can do when they are beyond their age. They
are simply witnesses of truth, and fortunate are they if they do not die
as martyrs; for in the early Church "witnesses" and "martyrs" were
synonymous ([Greek: _martyres_]). The year following, 1361, Wyclif was
presented to the rich rectory of Fillingham by Baliol College, and was
promoted the same year to the wardenship of that ancient college. The
learned doctor is now one of the "dons" of the university,--at that
time, even more than now, a great dignitary. It would be difficult for
an unlearned politician of the nineteenth century to conceive of the
exalted position which a dignitary of the Church, crowned with
scholastic honors, held five hundred years ago. It gave him access to
the table of his sovereign, and to the halls of Parliament. It made him
an oracle in all matters of the law. It created for him a hearing on all
the great political as well as ecclesiastical issues of the day. What
great authorities in the thirteenth century were Albertus Magnus, Thomas
Aquinas, and Bonaventura! Scarcely less than they, in the next century,
were Duns Scotus and John Wyclif,--far greater in influence than any of
the proud feudal lords who rendered service to Edward III., broad as
were their acres, and grand as were their castles. Strange as it may
seem, the glory that radiated from the brow of a scholar or a saint was
greatest in ages of superstition and darkness; perhaps because both
scholars and saints were rare. The modern lights of learning may be
better paid than in former days, but they do not stand out to the eye of
admiring communities in such prominence as they did among our ancestors.
Who stops and turns back to gaze reverentially on a poet or a scholar
whom he passes by unconsciously, as both men and women strained their
eyes to see an Abelard or a Dante? Even a Webster now would not command
the homage he received fifty years ago.

It is not uninteresting to contemplate the powers that have ruled in
successive ages, outside the realms of conquerors and kings. In the
ninth and tenth centuries they were baronial lords in mail-clad armor;
in the eleventh and twelfth centuries these powers, like those of
ancient Egypt, were priests; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
they were the learned doctors, as in the schools of Athens when
political supremacy was lost; in the sixteenth century--the era of
reforms--they were controversial theologians, like those of the age of
Theodosius; in the seventeenth century they were fighting nobles; in the
eighteenth they were titled and hereditary courtiers and great landed
proprietors; in the nineteenth they are bankers, merchants, and railway
presidents,--men who control the material interests of the country. It
is only at elections, though managed by politicians, that the people are
a power. Socially, the magnates are the rich. It is money which in these
times all classes combine to worship. If this be questioned, see the
adulation which even colleges and schools of learning pay to their
wealthy patrons or those from whom they seek benefits. The patrons of
the schools in the Middle Ages were princes and nobles; but these
princes and nobles bowed down in reverence to learned bishops and great
theological doctors.

Wyclif was the representative of the schools when he attacked the abuses
of the Church. It is not a little singular that the great religious
movements in England have generally come from Oxford, while Cambridge
has been distinguished for great movements in science. In 1365 he was
appointed to the headship of Canterbury Hall, founded by Archbishop
Islip, afterwards merged into Christ Church,--the most magnificent and
wealthy of all the Oxford Colleges. When Islip died, in 1366, and
Langham, originally a monk of Canterbury, was made archbishop, the
appointment of Wyclif was pronounced void by Langham, and the revenues
of the Hall of which he was warden, or president, were sequestered.
Wyclif on this appealed to the Pope, who, however, ratified Langham's
decree,--as it would be expected, for the Pope sustained the friars whom
Wyclif had denounced. The spirit of such a progressive man was, of
course, offensive to the head of the Church. In this case the Crown
confirmed the decision of the Pope, 1372, since the royal license was
obtained by a costly bribe. The whole transaction was so iniquitous that
Wyclif could not restrain his indignation.

But before this decision of the Crown was made, the services of Wyclif
had been accepted by the Parliament in its resistance to the claim which
Pope Urban V. had made in 1366, to the arrears of tribute due under
John's vassalage. Edward III. had referred this claim to Parliament, and
the Parliament had rejected it without hesitation on the ground that
John had no power to bind the realm without its consent. The Parliament
was the mere mouthpiece of Wyclif, who was now actively engaged in
political life, and probably, as Dr. Lechler thinks, had a seat in
Parliament. He was, at any rate, a very prominent political character;
for he was sent in 1374 to Bruges, as one of the commissioners to treat
with the representatives of the French pope in reference to the
appointment of foreigners to the rich benefices of the Church in
England, which gave great offence to the liberal and popular party in
England,--for there was such a progressive party as early as the
fourteenth century, although it did not go by that name, and was not
organized as parties are now. In fact, in all ages and countries there
are some men who are before their contemporaries. The great grievance of
which the more advanced and enlightened complained was the interference
of the Pope with ecclesiastical livings in England. Wyclif led the
opposition to this usurpation; and this opposition to the Pope on the
part of a churchman made it necessary for him to have a protector
powerful enough to shield him from papal vengeance.

This protector he found in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who, next
to the King, had the greatest authority in England. It is probable that
Wyclif enjoyed at Bruges the friendship of this great man (great for his
station, influence, and birth, at least), who was at the head of the
opposition to the papal claims,--resisted not only by him, but by
Parliament, which seems to have been composed of men in advance of their
age. As early as 1371 this Parliament had petitioned the King to exclude
all ecclesiastics from the great offices of State, held almost
exclusively by them as the most able and learned people of the realm.
From the time of Alfred this custom had not been seriously opposed by
the baronial lords, who were ignorant and unenlightened; but in the
fourteenth century light had broken in upon the darkness: the day had at
least dawned, and the absurdity of confining the cares of State and
temporal matters to men who ought to be absorbed with spiritual duties
alone was seen by the more enlightened of the laity. But the King was
not then prepared to part with the most efficient of his ministers
because they happened to be ecclesiastics, and the custom continued for
nearly two centuries longer. Bishop Williams was the last of the clergy
who filled the great office of chancellor, and Archbishop Laud was the
last of the clergy who became a prime minister. The reign of Elizabeth
was marked, for the first time in the history of England, by the almost
total exclusion of prelates from great secular offices. In the reign of
Edward III. it was William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester,
who held the great seal, and the Bishop of Exeter who was lord
treasurer,--probably the two men in the whole realm who were the most
experienced in public affairs as men of business. Wyclif, it would
appear, although he was an ecclesiastic, here took the side of
Parliament against his own order. In his treatise on the "Regimen of the
Church" he contends that neither doctors nor deacons should hold secular
offices, or even be land stewards and clerks of account, and appeals to
the authority of the Fathers and Saint Paul in confirmation of his
views. At this time he was a doctor of divinity and professor of
theology in the University, having been promoted to this high position
in 1372, two years before he was sent as commissioner to Bruges. In
1375, he was presented to the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire
by the Crown, in reward for his services as an ambassador.

In 1376 Parliament renewed its assault on pontifical pretensions and
exactions; and there was cause, since twenty thousand marks, or pounds,
were sent annually to Rome from the Pope's collector in England, which
collector was a Frenchman,--another indignity. Against these corruptions
and usurpations Wyclif was unsparing in his denunciations; and the
hierarchy at last were compelled, by their allegiance to Rome, to take
measures to silence and punish him as a pertinacious heretic. The term
"heretic" meant in those days opposition to papal authority, as much as
opposition to the theological dogmas of the Church; and the brand of
heresy was the greatest stigma which authority could impose. The bold
denunciator of papal abuses was now in danger. He was summoned by the
convocation to appear in Saint Paul's Cathedral and answer for his
heresies, on which occasion were present the Archbishop of Canterbury
and the arrogant Bishop of London,--the latter the son of the Earl of
Devonshire, of the great family of the Courtenays. Wyclif was attended
by the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl Marshal,--Henry Percy, the
ancestor of the Dukes of Northumberland,--who forced themselves into the
Lady's chapel, behind the high altar, where the prelates were assembled.
An uproar followed from this unusual intrusion of the two most powerful
men of the kingdom into the very sanctuary of prelatic authority. What
could be done when the great Oxford professor--the most learned
Scholastic of the kingdom--was protected by a royal duke clothed with
viceregal power, and the Earl Marshal armed with the sword of State?

The position of Wyclif was as strong as it was before he was attacked.
Nor could he be silenced except by the authority of the Pope
himself,--still acknowledged as the supreme lord of Christendom; and the
Pope now felt that he must assert his supremacy and interpose his
supreme authority, or lose his hold on England. So he hurled his
weapons, not yet impotent, and fulminated his bulls, ordering the
University, under penalty of excommunication, to deliver the daring
heretic into the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of
London; and further commanding these two prelates to warn the King
against the errors of Wyclif, and to examine him as to his doctrines,
and keep him in chains until the Pope's pleasure should be further
known. In addition to these bulls, the Pope sent one to the King
himself. It was resolved that the work should be thoroughly done this
time. Yet it would appear that these various bulls threatening an
interdict did not receive a welcome from any quarter. The prelates did
not wish to quarrel with such an antagonist as the Duke of Lancaster,
who was now the chief power in the State, the King being in his last
illness. They allowed several months to pass before executing their
commission, during which Wyclif was consulted by the great Council of
State whether they should allow money to be carried out of the realm at
the Pope's demands, and he boldly declared that they should not; thus
coming in direct antagonism with hierarchal power. He also wrote at this
time pamphlets vindicating himself from the charges made against him,
asserting the invalidity of unjust excommunication, which, if allowed,
would set the Pope above God.

At last, after seven months, the prelates took courage, and ordered the
University to execute the papal bulls. To imprison Wyclif at the command
of the Pope would be to allow the Pope's temporal rule in England; yet
to disobey the bulls would be disregard of the papal power altogether.
In this dilemma the Vice-Chancellor--himself a monk--ordered a nominal
imprisonment. The result of these preliminary movements was that Wyclif
appeared at Lambeth before the Archbishop, to answer his accusers. The
great prelates had a different spirit from the University, which was
justly proud of its most learned doctor,--a man, too, beyond his age in
his progressive spirit, for the universities in those days were not so
conservative as they subsequently became. At Lambeth Wyclif found
unexpected support from the people of London, who broke into the
archiepiscopal chapel and interrupted the proceedings, and a still more
efficient aid from the Queen Dowager,--the Princess Joan,--who sent a
message forbidding any sentence against Wyclif. Thus was he backed by
royal authority and the popular voice, as Luther was afterwards in
Saxony. The prelates were overcome with terror, and dropped the
proceedings; while the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, who had tardily and
imperfectly obeyed the Pope, was cast into prison for a time and
compelled to resign his office.

Wyclif had gained a great triumph, which he used by publishing a summary
of his opinions in thirty-three articles, both in Latin and English. In
these it would seem that he attacked the infallibility of the
Pope,--liable to sin like any other person, and hence to be corrected by
the voices of those who are faithful to a higher Power than his,--a blow
to the exercise of excommunication from any personal grounds of malice
or hatred, or when used to extort unjust or mercenary demands. He also
maintained that the endowments of the clergy could be lawfully withdrawn
if they were perverted or abused,--a bold assertion in his day, but
which he professed he was willing to defend, even unto death. If the
prelates had dared, or had possessed sufficient power, he would
doubtless have suffered death from their animosity; but he was left
unmolested in his retirement at his rectory, although he kept himself
discreetly out of the way of danger. When the memorable schism took
place in the Roman government by the election of an anti-pope, and both
popes proclaimed a crusade and issued their indulgences, Wyclif, who
heretofore had admitted the primacy of the Roman See, now openly
proclaimed the doctrine that the Church would be better off with no pope
at all. He owed his safety to the bitterness of the rival popes, who in
their mutual quarrels had no time to think of him. And his opportunity
was improved by writing books and homilies, in which the antichristian
claims of the popes were fearlessly exposed and commented upon. In fact,
he now openly denounces the Pope as Antichrist, from his pulpit at
Lutterworth, to his simple-minded parishioners, for whose good he seems
to have earnestly labored,--the model of a parish priest. It is supposed
that Chaucer had him in view when he wrote his celebrated description of
a good parson,--"benign" and diligent, learned and pious, giving a noble
example to his flock of disinterestedness and devotion to truth and
duty, in contrast with the ordinary lives of the clergy of those times,
who were infamous for their ignorance, sensuality, gluttony, and
ostentation; frequenting taverns, and wasting their time in gambling,
idleness, and disgraceful brawls.

Hitherto Wyclif had simply protested against the external evils of the
Church without much effect, although protected by powerful laymen and
encouraged by popular favor. The time had not come for a real and
permanent reformation; but he prepared the way for it, and in no slight
degree, by his translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular
tongue,--the greatest service he rendered to the English people and the
cause of civilization. All the great reformers, successful and
unsuccessful, appealed to the Scriptures as the highest authority, even
when they did not rebel against the papal power, like Savonarola in
Florence, I do not get the impression that Wyclif was a great popular
preacher like the Florentine reformer, or like Luther, Latimer, and
Knox. He was a student, first of the Scholastic theology, and afterwards
of the Bible. He lived in a quiet way, as scholars love to live, in his
retired rectory near Oxford, preaching plain and simple sermons to his
parishioners, but spending his time chiefly in his library, or study.

Wyclif's translation of the Bible was a great event, for it was the
first which was made in English, although parts of the Bible had been
translated into the Saxon tongue between the seventh and eleventh
centuries. He had no predecessor in that vast work, and he labored amid
innumerable obstacles. It was not a translation from the original Greek
and Hebrew, for but little was known of either language in the
fourteenth century: not until the fall of Constantinople into the hands
of the Turks was Greek or Hebrew studied; so the translation was made
from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. The version of Wyclif, besides its
transcendent value to the people, now able to read the Bible in their
own language (before a sealed book, except to the clergy and the
learned), gave form and richness to the English language. To what extent
Wyclif was indebted to the labors of other men it is not easy to
determine; but there is little doubt that, whatever aid he received, the
whole work was under his supervision. Of course it was not printed, for
printing was not then discovered; but the manuscripts of the version
were very numerous, and they are to-day to be found in the great public
libraries of England, and even in many private collections.

Considering that the Latin Vulgate has ever been held in supreme
veneration by the Catholic Church in all ages and countries, by popes,
bishops, abbots, and schoolmen; that no jealousy existed as to the
reading of it by the clergy generally; that in fact it was not a sealed
book to the learned classes, and was regarded universally as the highest
authority in matters of faith and morals,--it seems strange that so
violent an opposition should have been made to its translation into
vernacular tongues, and to its circulation among the people. Wyclif's
translation was regarded as an act of sacrilege, worthy of condemnation
and punishment. So furious was the outcry against him, as an audacious
violator who dared to touch the sacred ark with unconsecrated hands,
that even a bill was brought into the House of Lords forbidding the
perusal of the Bible by the laity, and it would have been passed but for
John of Gaunt. At a convocation of bishops and clerical dignitaries held
in St. Paul's, in 1408, it was decreed as heresy to read the Bible in
English,--to be punished by excommunication. The version of Wyclif and
all other translations into English were utterly prohibited under the
severest penalties. Fines, imprisonment, and martyrdom were inflicted on
those who were guilty of so foul a crime as the reading or possession of
the Scriptures in the vernacular tongue. This is one of the gravest
charges ever made against the Catholic Church. This absurd and cruel
persecution alone made the Reformation a necessity, even as the
translation of the Bible prepared the way for the Reformation. The
translation of the Scriptures and the Reformation are indissolubly
linked together. Nobody doubts that the whole influence of the Catholic
hierarchy has ever been, and still continues to be, hostile to the
perusal of the Scriptures by the people in the vulgar tongue; and it was
this translation by Wyclif which made him more obnoxious to the Pope
than all his tirades against the vices of the monks and the other evils
which disgraced the Church. We cannot call this translation a reform,
but it led to reforms: it arrayed the people against the usurpations of
the Pope and the corruptions of the Church as an institution. Yea, more,
it was the main cause of that memorable religious movement which
followed the death of Wyclif: there would have been no Lollards had
there been no translation of the Bible. It led also to the affirmation
of that private judgment which was the foundation pillar of
Protestantism, and which existed among the Lollards long before Luther
delivered his message.

And yet it is not strange that the Catholic hierarchy (I say Catholic
rather than Roman, because in the fourteenth century there was but one
Church, although in that Church considerable difference of opinion
existed both as to matters of faith and government) should have bitterly
opposed the translation of the Scriptures into vernacular tongues, since
it opened the door to private judgment. If there is anything the
Catholic Church has hated, it is private judgment. The very phrase is
obnoxious. It means the emancipation of the people from papal domination
and ecclesiastical bondage of all description; while the thing itself is
subversive of all the claims which the Catholic hierarchy have ever put
forth as to the authority of the Church as an institution: it has
undermined and will continue to undermine spiritual despotism,--the
great evil of the Middle Ages and of the Papal Church in our times. The
unrestrained circulation of the Scriptures in the language the people
can understand must lead to the breaking up of the false doctrines and
all the instruments by which the clergy have maintained their
usurpations. It necessarily opens the eyes of the people to the
antichristian doctrine of penance, to the absurdity of indulgences for
sin, to the unwarranted worship of the Virgin Mary, to the monstrous
claim of papal infallibility, and to all other glaring usurpations by
which the popes have ruled the world. There is not a false doctrine in
religion, nor an antichristian form of worship, nor a usurped
prerogative of the Pope and clergy, which the unrestrained perusal of
the Scriptures does not expose. "_Hinc illae lacrymae_." The dignitaries
of the Roman Catholic Church are not fools. They know that the free
circulation of the Scriptures in vulgar tongues does undermine their
authority, and will ultimately destroy the edifice of pride and pomp and
power which it took a thousand years to build. This is what they ever
have consistently opposed and will continue to oppose, as a thing
dangerous to them. They would have destroyed, if they could, every copy
of the version which Wyclif made. And now, when they can no longer
prevent the Bible from being printed, they would exclude it from the
schools which they control, and from the houses of those who belong to
their Church. Doubtless the well-known opposition to the circulation of
the Bible in the vernacular has been exaggerated, but in the fourteenth
century it was certainly bitter and furious. Wyclif might expose vices
which everybody saw and lamented as a scandal, and make himself
obnoxious to those who committed them; but to open the door to free
inquiry and a reformed faith and hostility to the Pope,--this was a
graver offence, to be visited with the severest penalties. To the storm
of indignation thus raised against him Wyclif's only answer was: "The
clergy cry aloud that it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in
English, and so they would condemn the Holy Ghost, who gave tongues to
the Apostles of Christ to speak the Word of God in all languages
under heaven."

Notwithstanding the enormous cost of the Bible as translated by
Wyclif,--L2, 16s. 8d., a sum probably equal to thirty pounds, or one
hundred and fifty dollars of our present money, more than half the
annual income of a substantial yeoman,--still it was copied and
circulated with remarkable rapidity. Neither the cost of the valuable
manuscript nor the opposition and vigilance of an almost omnipresent
inquisition were able to suppress it.

Wyclif was now about fifty-eight years of age. He had rendered a
transcendent service to the English nation, and a service that not one
of his contemporaries could have performed,--to which only the foremost
scholar and theologian of his day was equal. After such a work he might
have reposed in his quiet parish in genial rest, conscious that he had
opened a new era in the history of his country. But rest was not for
him. He now appears as a doctrinal controversialist. Hitherto his
attacks had been against the flagrant external evils of the Church, the
enormous corruptions that had entered into the institutions which
sustained the papal power. "He had been the advocate of the University
in defence of her privileges, the champion of the Crown in vindication
of its rights and prerogatives, the friend of the people in the
preservation of their property.... He now assailed the Romish doctrine
of the eucharist," but without the support of those powerful princes and
nobles who had hitherto sustained him. He combats one of the prevailing
ideas of the age,--a more difficult and infinitely bolder thing,--which
theologians had not dared to assail, and which in after-times was a
stumbling-block to Luther himself. In ascending the mysterious mount
where clouds gathered around him his old friends began to desert him,
for now he assailed the awful and invisible. The Church of the Middle
Ages had asserted that the body of Christ was actually present in the
consecrated wafer, and few there were who doubted it. Berengar had
maintained in the eleventh century that the sacred elements should be
regarded as mere symbols; but he was vehemently opposed, with all the
terrors of spiritual power, and compelled to abjure the heresy. In the
year 1215, at a Lateran, Council, Innocent III. established the doctrine
of transubstantiation as one of the fundamental pillars of Catholic
belief. Then metaphysics--all the weapons of Scholasticism--were called
into the service of superstition to establish what is most mythical in
the creed of the Church, and which implied a perpetual miracle, since at
the moment of consecration the substance of the bread was taken away and
the substance of Christ's body took its place. From his chair of
theology at Oxford, in 1381, Wyclif attacked what Lanfranc and Anselm
and the doctors of the Church had uniformly and strenuously defended.
His views of the eucharist were substantially those which Archbishop
Berengar had advanced three hundred years before, and of course drew
down upon him the censure of the Church. In his peril he appealed, not
to the Pope or the clergy, but to the King himself,--a measure of
renewed audacity, for in those days no layman, however exalted, had
authority in matters purely ecclesiastical. His boldness was too much
even for the powerful Duke of Lancaster, his friend and patron, who
forbade him to speak further on such a matter. He might attack the
mendicant and itinerant friars who had forgotten their duties and their
vows, but not the great mysteries of the Catholic faith. "When he
questioned the priestly power of absolution and the Pope's authority in
purgatory, when he struck at indulgences and special masses, he had on
his side the spiritual instincts of the people;" but when he impugned
the dignity of the central act of Christian worship and the highest
expression of mystical devotion, it appeared to ordinary minds that he
was denying all that is sacred, impressive, and authoritative in the
sacrament itself,--and he gave offence to many devout minds, who had
approved his attacks on the monks and the various corruptions of the
Church. Even the Parliament pressed the Archbishop to make an end of
such a heresy; and Courtenay, who hated Wyclif, needed not to be urged.
So a council was assembled at the Dominican Convent at Blackfriars,
where the "Times" office now stands, and unanimously condemned not only
the opinions of Wyclif as to the eucharist, but also those in reference
to the power of excommunication, and the uselessness of the religious
orders. Yet he himself was allowed to escape; and the condemnation had
no other effect than to drive him from Oxford to his rectory at
Lutterworth, where until his death he occupied himself in literary and
controversial writings. His illness soon afterwards prevented him from
obeying the summons of the Pope to Rome, where he would doubtless have
suffered as a martyr. In 1384 he was struck with paralysis, and died in
three days after the attack, at the age of sixty,--though some say in
his sixty-fourth year,--probably, in spite of ecclesiastical censure,
the most revered man of his day, as well as one of the ablest and most
learned. Not from the ranks of fanatics or illiterate popular orators
did the Reformation come in any country, but from the greatest scholars
and theologians.

This grand old man, the illustrious pioneer of reform in England, and
indeed on the Continent, did not live to threescore years and ten, but,
being worn out with his exhaustive labors, he died peaceably and
unmolested in his retired parish. Not much is known of the details of
his personal history, any more than of Shakspeare's. We know nothing of
his loves and hatreds, of his habits and tastes, of his temper and
person, of his friends and enemies. He stands out to the eye of
posterity in solitary and mysterious loneliness. Tradition speaks of him
as a successful, benignant, and charitable parish priest, giving
consolation to the afflicted and to the sick. He lived in
honor,--professor of theology at Oxford, holding a prebendal stall and a
parochial rectory, perhaps a seat in Parliament, and was employed by the
Crown as an ambassador to Bruges. He was statesman as well as
theologian, and lived among the great,--more as a learned doctor than as
a saint, which he was not from the Catholic standpoint. "He was the
scourge of imposture, the ponderous hammer which smote the brazen
idolatry of his age." He labored to expose the vices that had taken
shelter in the sanctuary of the Church,--a reformer of ecclesiastical
abuses rather than of the lax morals of the laity, and hence did
different work from that of Savonarola, whose life was spent in a
crusade against sin, wherever it was to be found. His labors were great,
and his attainments remarkable for his age. He is accused of being
coarse in his invectives; but that charge can also be laid to Luther and
other reformers in rough and outspoken times. Considering the power of
the Pope in the fourteenth century, Wyclif was as bold and courageous as
Luther. The weakness of the papacy had not been exposed by the Councils
of Pisa, of Constance, and of Basil; nor was popular indignation in view
of the sale of indulgences as great in England as when the Dominican
Tetzel peddled the papal pardons in Germany. In combating the received
ideas of the age, Wyclif was even more remarkable than the Saxon
reformer, who was never fully emancipated from the Mediaeval doctrine of
transubstantiation; although Luther went beyond Wyclif in the
completeness of his reform. Wyclif was beyond his age; Luther was the
impersonation of its passions. Wyclif represented universities and
learned men; Luther was the oracle of the people. The former was the
Mediaeval doctor; the latter was the popular orator and preacher. The
one was mild and moderate in his spirit and manners; the other was
vehement, dogmatic, and often offensive, not only from his more violent
and passionate nature, but for his bitter and ironical sallies. It is
the manner more than the matter which offends. Had Wyclif been as
satirical and boisterous as Luther was, he would not probably have ended
his days in peace, and would not have accomplished so much as a
preparation for reforms.

It was the peculiarity of Wyclif to recognize occasional merits in the
system he denounced, even when his language was most vehement. He
admitted that confession did much good to some persons, although as a
universal practice, as enjoined by Innocent III., it was an evil and
harmed the Church. In regard to the worship of images, while he
denounced the waste of treasure on "dead stocks," he admitted that
images might be used as aids to excite devotion; but if miraculous
powers were attributed to them, it was an evil rather than a good. And
as to the adoration of the saints, he simply maintained that since gifts
can be obtained only through the mediation of Christ, it would be better
to pray to him directly rather than through the mediation of saints.

In regard to the Mendicant friars, it does not appear that his vehement
opposition to them was based on their vows of poverty or on the spirit
which entered into monasticism in its best ages, but because they were
untrue to their rule, because they were vendors of pardons, and
absolved men of sins which they were ashamed to confess to their own
pastors, and especially because they encouraged the belief that a
benefaction to a convent would take the place of piety in the heart. It
was the abuses of the system, rather than the system itself, which made
him so wrathful on the "vagrant friars preaching their catchpenny
sermons." And so of other abuses of the Church: he did not defy the Pope
or deny his authority until it was plain that he sought to usurp the
prerogatives of kings and secular rulers, and bring both the clergy and
laity under his spiritual yoke. It was not as the first and chief of
bishops--the head of the visible Church--that Wyclif attacked the Pope,
but as a usurper and a tyrant, grasping powers which were not conferred
by the early Church, and which did not culminate until Innocent III. had
instituted the Mendicant orders, and enforced persecution for religious
opinions by the terrors of the Inquisition. The wealth of the Church was
a sore evil in his eyes, since it diverted the clergy from their
spiritual duties, and was the cause of innumerable scandals, and was
closely connected with simony and the accumulation of benefices in the
hands of a single priest.

So it was indignation in view of the corruptions of the Church and
vehement attacks upon them which characterized Wyclif, rather than
efforts to remove their causes, as was the case with Luther. He was not
a radical reformer; he only prepared the way for radical reform, by his
translation of the Scriptures into a language the people could read,
more than by any attacks on the monks or papal usurpations or
indulgences for sin. He was the type of a meditative scholar and
theologian, thin and worn, without much charm of conversation except to
men of rank, or great animal vivacity such as delights the people. Nor
was he a religious genius, like Thomas a Kempis, Anselm, and Pascal. He
had no remarkable insight into spiritual things; his intellectual and
moral nature preponderated over the emotional, so that he was charged
with intellectual pride and desire for distinction. Yet no one disputed
the blamelessness of his life and the elevation of his character.

If Wyclif escaped the wrath and vengeance of Rome because of his high
rank as a theological doctor, his connection with the University of
Oxford, opposed to itinerating beggars with great pretensions and greedy
ends, and his friendship and intercourse with the rulers of the land,
his followers did not. They became very numerous, and were variously
called Lollards, Wyclifites, and Biblemen. They kept alive evangelical
religion until the time of Cranmer and Latimer, their distinguishing
doctrine being that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith. There was
no persecution of them of any account during the reign of Richard
II.,--although he was a hateful tyrant,--probably owing to the
influence of his wife, a Bohemian princess, who read Wyclif's Bible;
but under Henry IV. evil days fell upon them, and persecution was
intensified under Henry V. (1413-1422) because of their supposed
rebellion. The Lollards under Archbishop Chicheley, as early as 1416,
were hunted down and burned as heretics. The severest inquisition was
instituted to hunt up those who were even suspected of heresy, and every
parish was the scene of cruelties. I need not here enumerate the victims
of persecution, continued with remorseless severity during the whole
reign of Henry VII. But it was impossible to suppress the opinions of
the reformers, or to prevent the circulation of the Scriptures. The
blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church. Persecution in this
instance was not successful, since there was a noble material in
England, as in Germany, for Christianity to work upon. It was in humble
homes, among the yeomanry and the artisans, that evangelical truth took
the deepest hold, as in primitive times, and produced the fervent
Christians of succeeding centuries, such as no other country has
produced. In no country was the Reformation, as established by Edward
VI. and Elizabeth, so complete and so permanent, unless Scotland and
Switzerland be excepted. The glory of this radical reform must be
ascribed to the humble and persecuted followers of Wyclif,--who proved
themselves martyrs and witnesses, faithful unto death,--more than to
any of the great lights which adorned the most brilliant period of
English history.


The Works of Wyclif, as edited by F.D. Matthew; The Life and Sufferings
of Wicklif, by I. Lewis (Oxford, 1820); Life of Wiclif, by Charles Wehle
Le Bas (1846); John de Wycliffe, a Monograph, by Robert Vaughan, D.D.
(London, 1853); Turner's History of England should be compared with
Lingard. Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History; Neander's Church History;
Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography; Gieseler, Milner, and general
historians of the Church; Geikie's English Reformation. A German Life of
Wyclif, by Dr. Lechler, is often quoted by Matthew, and has been
fortunately translated into English. There is also a slight notice of
Wyclif by Fisher, in his History of the Reformation.

The name of the English reformer is spelled differently by different
historians,--as Wiclif, Wyclif, Wycliffe, Wyckliffe; but I have selected
the latest authority upon the subject, F.D. Matthew.

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