BEFORE the Reformation there were at times
but very few copies of the Bible in existence, but God had not suffered His word to be
wholly destroyed. Its truths were not to be forever hidden. He could as easily unchain the
words of life as He could open prison doors and unbolt iron gates to set His servants
free. In the different countries of Europe men were moved by the Spirit of God to search
for the truth as for hid treasures. Providentially guided to the Holy Scriptures, they
studied the sacred pages with intense interest. They were willing to accept the light at
any cost to themselves. Though they did not see all things clearly, they were enabled to
perceive many long-buried truths. As Heaven-sent messengers they went forth, rending
asunder the chains of error and superstition, and calling upon those who had been so long
enslaved, to arise and assert their liberty.
Except among the Waldenses,
the word of God had for ages been locked up in languages known only to the learned; but
the time had come for the Scriptures to be translated and given to the people of different
lands in their native tongue. The world had passed its midnight. The hours of darkness
were wearing away, and in many lands appeared tokens of the coming dawn.
In the fourteenth century
arose in England the "morning star of the Reformation." John Wycliffe was the
herald of reform, not for England alone, but for all Christendom. The great protest
against Rome which it was permitted him to utter was never to be silenced. That protest
opened the struggle which was to result in the emancipation of individuals, of churches,
and of nations.
Wycliffe received a liberal
education, and with him the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. He was noted at
college for his fervent piety as well as for his remarkable talents and sound scholarship.
In his thirst for knowledge he sought to become acquainted with every branch of learning.
He was educated in the scholastic philosophy, in the canons of the church, and in the
civil law, especially that of his own country. In his after labors the value of this early
training was apparent. A thorough acquaintance with the speculative philosophy of his time
enabled him to expose its errors; and by his study of national and ecclesiastical law he
was prepared to engage in the great struggle for civil and religious liberty. While he
could wield the weapons drawn from the word of God, he had acquired the intellectual
discipline of the schools, and he understood the tactics of the schoolmen. The power of
his genius and the extent and thoroughness of his knowledge commanded the respect of both
friends and foes. His adherents saw with satisfaction that their champion stood foremost
among the leading minds of the nation; and his enemies were prevented from casting
contempt upon the cause of reform by exposing the ignorance or weakness of its supporter.
While Wycliffe was still at
college, he entered upon the study of the Scriptures. In those early times, when the Bible
existed only in the ancient languages, scholars were enabled to find their way to the
fountain of truth, which was closed to the uneducated classes. Thus already the way had
been prepared for Wycliffe's future work as a Reformer. Men
of learning had studied the
word of God and had found the great truth of His free grace there revealed. In their
teachings they had spread a knowledge of this truth, and had led others to turn to the
When Wycliffe's attention was
directed to the Scriptures, he entered upon their investigation with the same thoroughness
which had enabled him to master the learning of the schools. Heretofore he had felt a
great want, which neither his scholastic studies nor the teaching of the church could
satisfy. In the word of God he found that which he had before sought in vain. Here he saw
the plan of salvation revealed and Christ set forth as the only advocate for man. He gave
himself to the service of Christ and determined to proclaim the truths he had discovered.
Like after Reformers,
Wycliffe did not, at the opening of his work, foresee whither it would lead him. He did
not set himself deliberately in opposition to Rome. But devotion to truth could not but
bring him in conflict with falsehood. The more clearly he discerned the errors of the
papacy, the more earnestly he presented the teaching of the Bible. He saw that Rome had
forsaken the word of God for human tradition; he fearlessly accused the priesthood of
having banished the Scriptures, and demanded that the Bible be restored to the people and
that its authority be again established in the church. He was an able and earnest teacher
and an eloquent preacher, and his daily life was a demonstration of the truths he
preached. His knowledge of the Scriptures, the force of his reasoning, the purity of his
life, and his unbending courage and integrity won for him general esteem and confidence.
Many of the people had become dissatisfied with their former faith as they saw the
iniquity that prevailed in the Roman Church, and they hailed with unconcealed joy the
truths brought to view by Wycliffe; but the papal leaders were filled with rage when they
perceived that this Reformer was gaining an influence greater than their own.
Wycliffe was a keen detector
of error, and he struck fearlessly against many of the abuses sanctioned by the authority
of Rome. While acting as chaplain for the king, he took a bold stand against the payment
of tribute claimed by the pope from the English monarch and showed that the papal
assumption of authority over secular rulers was contrary to both reason and revelation.
The demands of the pope had excited great indignation, and Wycliffe's teachings exerted an
influence upon the leading minds of the nation. The king and the nobles united in denying
the pontiff's claim to temporal authority and in refusing the payment of the tribute. Thus
an effectual blow was struck against the papal supremacy in England.
Another evil against which
the Reformer waged long and resolute battle was the institution of the orders of mendicant
friars. These friars swarmed in England, casting a blight upon the greatness and
prosperity of the nation. Industry, education, morals, all felt the withering influence.
The monk's life of idleness and beggary was not only a heavy drain upon the resources of
the people, but it brought useful labor into contempt. The youth were demoralized and
corrupted. By the influence of the friars many were induced to enter a cloister and devote
themselves to a monastic life, and this not only without the consent of their parents, but
even without their knowledge and contrary to their commands. One of the early Fathers of
the Roman Church, urging the claims of monasticism above the obligations of filial love
and duty, had declared: "Though thy father should lie before thy door weeping and
lamenting, and thy mother should show the body that bore thee and the breasts that nursed
thee, see that thou trample them underfoot, and go onward straightway to Christ." By
this "monstrous inhumanity," as Luther afterward styled it, "savoring more
of the wolf and the tyrant than of the Christian and the man," were the hearts of
children steeled against their parents.--Barnas Sears, The Life of Luther, pages 70, 69.
Thus did the papal
leaders, like the Pharisees of old, make the commandment of God of none
effect by their tradition. Thus homes were made desolate and parents were deprived of the
society of their sons and daughters.
Even the students in the
universities were deceived by the false representations of the monks and induced to join
their orders. Many afterward repented this step, seeing that they had blighted their own
lives and had brought sorrow upon their parents; but once fast in the snare it was
impossible for them to obtain their freedom. Many parents, fearing the influence of the
monks, refused to send their sons to the universities. There was a marked falling off in
the number of students in attendance at the great centers of learning. The schools
languished, and ignorance prevailed.
The pope had bestowed on
these monks the power to hear confessions and to grant pardon. This became a source of
great evil. Bent on enhancing their gains, the friars were so ready to grant absolution
that criminals of all descriptions resorted to them, and, as a result, the worst vices
rapidly increased. The sick and the poor were left to suffer, while the gifts that should
have relieved their wants went to the monks, who with threats demanded the alms of the
people, denouncing the impiety of those who should withhold gifts from their orders.
Notwithstanding their profession of poverty, the wealth of the friars was constantly
increasing, and their magnificent edifices and luxurious tables made more apparent the
growing poverty of the nation. And while spending their time in luxury and pleasure, they
sent out in their stead ignorant men, who could only recount marvelous tales, legends, and
jests to amuse the people and make them still more completely the dupes of the monks. Yet
the friars continued to maintain their hold on the superstitious multitudes and led them
to believe that all religious duty was comprised in acknowledging the supremacy of the
pope, adoring the saints, and making gifts to the monks, and that this was sufficient to
secure them a place in heaven.
Men of learning and piety had
labored in vain to bring about a reform in these monastic orders; but Wycliffe, with
clearer insight, struck at the root of the evil, declaring that the system itself was
false and that it should be abolished. Discussion and inquiry were awakening. As the monks
traversed the country, vending the pope's pardons, many were led to doubt the possibility
of purchasing forgiveness with money, and they questioned whether they should not seek
pardon from God rather than from the pontiff of Rome. Not a few were alarmed at the
rapacity of the friars, whose greed seemed never to be satisfied. "The monks and
priests of Rome," said they, "are eating us away like a cancer. God must deliver
us, or the people will perish."--D'Aubigne, b. 17, ch. 7. To cover their avarice,
these begging monks claimed that they were following the Saviour's example, declaring that
Jesus and His disciples had been supported by the charities of the people. This claim
resulted in injury to their cause, for it led many to the Bible to learn the truth for
themselves--a result which of all others was least desired by Rome. The minds of men were
directed to the Source of truth, which it was her object to conceal.
Wycliffe began to write and
publish tracts against the friars, not, however, seeking so much to enter into dispute
with them as to call the minds of the people to the teachings of the Bible and its Author.
He declared that the power of pardon or of excommunication is possessed by the pope in no
greater degree than by common priests, and that no man can be truly excommunicated unless
he has first brought upon himself the condemnation of God. In no more effectual way could
he have undertaken the overthrow of that mammoth fabric of spiritual and temporal dominion
which the pope had erected and in which the souls and bodies of millions were held
Again Wycliffe was called to
defend the rights of the English crown against the encroachments of Rome; and being
appointed a royal ambassador, he spent two years in the Netherlands, in conference with
the commissioners of the pope. Here he was brought into communication with
from France, Italy, and Spain, and he had an opportunity to look behind the scenes and
gain a knowledge of many things which would have remained hidden from him in England. He
learned much that was to give point to his after labors. In these representatives from the
papal court he read the true character and aims of the hierarchy. He returned to England
to repeat his former teachings more openly and with greater zeal, declaring that
covetousness, pride, and deception were the gods of Rome.
In one of his tracts he said,
speaking of the pope and his collectors: "They draw out of our land poor men's
livelihood, and many thousand marks, by the year, of the king's money, for sacraments and
spiritual things, that is cursed heresy of simony, and maketh all Christendom assent and
maintain this heresy. And certes though our realm had a huge hill of gold, and never other
man took thereof but only this proud worldly priest's collector, by process of time this
hill must be spended; for he taketh ever money out of our land, and sendeth nought again
but God's curse for his simony." --John Lewis, History of the Life and Sufferings of
J. Wiclif, page 37.
Soon after his return to
England, Wycliffe received from the king the appointment to the rectory of Lutterworth.
This was an assurance that the monarch at least had not been displeased by his plain
speaking. Wycliffe's influence was felt in shaping the action of the court, as well as in
molding the belief of the nation.
The papal thunders were soon
hurled against him. Three bulls were dispatched to England,--to the university, to the
king, and to the prelates,--all commanding immediate and decisive measures to silence the
teacher of heresy. (Augustus Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and
Church, period 6, sec. 2, pt. 1, par. 8.) Before the arrival of the bulls, however, the
bishops, in their zeal, had summoned Wycliffe before them for trial. But two of the most
powerful princes in the kingdom accompanied him to the tribunal; and the people,
surrounding the building and rushing in, so intimidated the judges that the
were for the time suspended, and he was allowed to go his way in peace. A little later,
Edward III, whom in his old age the prelates were seeking to influence against the
Reformer, died, and Wycliffe's former protector became regent of the kingdom.
But the arrival of the papal
bulls laid upon all England a peremptory command for the arrest and imprisonment of the
heretic. These measures pointed directly to the stake. It appeared certain that Wycliffe
must soon fall a prey to the vengeance of Rome. But He who declared to one of old,
"Fear not: . . . I am thy shield" (Genesis 15:1), again stretched out His hand
to protect His servant. Death came, not to the Reformer, but to the pontiff who had
decreed his destruction. Gregory XI died, and the ecclesiastics who had assembled for
Wycliffe's trial, dispersed.
God's providence still
further overruled events to give opportunity for the growth of the Reformation. The death
of Gregory was followed by the election of two rival popes. Two conflicting powers, each
professedly infallible, now claimed obedience. Each called upon the faithful to assist him
in making war upon the other, enforcing his demands by terrible anathemas against his
adversaries, and promises of rewards in heaven to his supporters. This occurrence greatly
weakened the power of the papacy. The rival factions had all they could do to attack each
other, and Wycliffe for a time had rest. Anathemas and recriminations were flying from
pope to pope, and torrents of blood were poured out to support their conflicting claims.
Crimes and scandals flooded the church. Meanwhile the Reformer, in the quiet retirement of
his parish of Lutterworth, was laboring diligently to point men from the contending popes
to Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
The schism, with all the
strife and corruption which it caused, prepared the way for the Reformation by enabling
the people to see what the papacy really was. In a tract which he published,
On the Schism
of the Popes, Wycliffe called
upon the people to consider whether these two priests were
not speaking the truth in condemning each other as the anti-christ. "God," said
he, "would no longer suffer the fiend to reign in only one such priest, but . . .
made division among two, so that men, in Christ's name, may the more easily overcome them
both."--R. Vaughan, Life and Opinions of John de Wycliffe, vol. 2, p. 6.
Wycliffe, like his Master,
preached the gospel to the poor. Not content with spreading the light in their humble
homes in his own parish of Lutterworth, he determined that it should be carried to every
part of England. To accomplish this he organized a body of preachers, simple, devout men,
who loved the truth and desired nothing so much as to extend it. These men went
everywhere, teaching in the market places, in the streets of the great cities, and in the
country lanes. They sought out the aged, the sick, and the poor, and opened to them the
glad tidings of the grace of God.
As a professor of theology at
Oxford, Wycliffe preached the word of God in the halls of the university. So faithfully
did he present the truth to the students under his instruction, that he received the title
of "the gospel doctor." But the greatest work of his life was to be the
translation of the Scriptures into the English language. In a work, On the Truth and
Meaning of Scripture, he expressed his intention to translate the Bible, so that every man
in England might read, in the language in which he was born, the wonderful works of God.
But suddenly his labors were
stopped. Though not yet sixty years of age, unceasing toil, study, and the assaults of his
enemies had told upon his strength and made him prematurely old. He was attacked by a
dangerous illness. The tidings brought great joy to the friars. Now they thought he would
bitterly repent the evil he had done the church, and they hurried to his chamber to listen
to his confession. Representatives from the four religious orders, with four civil
officers, gathered about the supposed dying man. "You
have death on your lips,"
they said; "be touched by your faults, and retract in our presence all that you have
said to our injury." The Reformer listened in silence; then he bade his attendant
raise him in his bed, and, gazing steadily upon them as they stood waiting for his
recantation, he said, in the firm, strong voice which had so often caused them to tremble:
"I shall not die, but live; and again declare the evil deeds of the
friars."--D'Aubigne, b. 17, ch. 7. Astonished and abashed, the monks hurried from the
Wycliffe's words were
fulfilled. He lived to place in the hands of his countrymen the most powerful of all
weapons against Rome--to give them the Bible, the Heaven-appointed agent to liberate,
enlighten, and evangelize the people. There were many and great obstacles to surmount in
the accomplishment of this work. Wycliffe was weighed down with infirmities; he knew that
only a few years for labor remained for him; he saw the opposition which he must meet;
but, encouraged by the promises of God's word, he went forward nothing daunted. In the
full vigor of his intellectual powers, rich in experience, he had been preserved and
prepared by God's special providence for this, the greatest of his labors. While all
Christendom was filled with tumult, the Reformer in his rectory at Lutterworth, unheeding
the storm that raged without, applied himself to his chosen task.
At last the work was
completed--the first English translation of the Bible ever made. The word of God was
opened to England. The Reformer feared not now the prison or the stake. He had placed in
the hands of the English people a light which should never be extinguished. In giving the
Bible to his countrymen, he had done more to break the fetters of ignorance and vice, more
to liberate and elevate his country, than was ever achieved by the most brilliant
victories on fields of battle.
The art of printing being
still unknown, it was only by slow and wearisome labor that copies of the Bible could be
multiplied. So great was the interest to obtain the book, that
many willingly engaged in
the work of transcribing it, but it was with difficulty that the copyists could supply the
demand. Some of the more wealthy purchasers desired the whole Bible. Others bought only a
portion. In many cases, several families united to purchase a copy. Thus Wycliffe's Bible
soon found its way to the homes of the people.
The appeal to men's reason
aroused them from their passive submission to papal dogmas. Wycliffe now taught the
distinctive doctrines of Protestantism--salvation through faith in Christ, and the sole
infallibility of the Scriptures. The preachers whom he had sent out circulated the Bible,
together with the Reformer's writings, and with such success that the new faith was
accepted by nearly one half of the people of England.
The appearance of the
Scriptures brought dismay to the authorities of the church. They had now to meet an agency
more powerful than Wycliffe--an agency against which their weapons would avail little.
There was at this time no law in England prohibiting the Bible, for it had never before
been published in the language of the people. Such laws were afterward enacted and
rigorously enforced. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the efforts of the priests, there was for
a season opportunity for the circulation of the word of God.
Again the papal leaders
plotted to silence the Reformer's voice. Before three tribunals he was successively
summoned for trial, but without avail. First a synod of bishops declared his writings
heretical, and, winning the young king, Richard II, to their side, they obtained a royal
decree consigning to prison all who should hold the condemned doctrines.
Wycliffe appealed from the
synod to Parliament; he fearlessly arraigned the hierarchy before the national council and
demanded a reform of the enormous abuses sanctioned by the church. With convincing power
he portrayed the usurpation and corruptions of the papal see. His enemies were brought to
confusion. The friends and supporters of Wycliffe had been forced to yield, and it had
confidently expected that the Reformer himself, in his old age, alone and friendless,
would bow to the combined authority of the crown and the miter. But instead of this the
papists saw themselves defeated. Parliament, roused by the stirring appeals of Wycliffe,
repealed the persecuting edict, and the Reformer was again at liberty.
A third time he was brought
to trial, and now before the highest ecclesiastical tribunal in the kingdom. Here no favor
would be shown to heresy. Here at last Rome would triumph, and the Reformer's work would
be stopped. So thought the papists. If they could but accomplish their purpose, Wycliffe
would be forced to abjure his doctrines, or would leave the court only for the flames.
But Wycliffe did not retract;
he would not dissemble. He fearlessly maintained his teachings and repelled the
accusations of his persecutors. Losing sight of himself, of his position, of the occasion,
he summoned his hearers before the divine tribunal, and weighed their sophistries and
deceptions in the balances of eternal truth. The power of the Holy Spirit was felt in the
council room. A spell from God was upon the hearers. They seemed to have no power to leave
the place. As arrows from the Lord's quiver, the Reformer's words pierced their hearts.
The charge of heresy, which they had brought against him, he with convincing power threw
back upon themselves. Why, he demanded, did they dare to spread their errors? For the sake
of gain, to make merchandise of the grace of God?
"With whom, think
you," he finally said, "are ye contending? with an old man on the brink of the
grave? No! with Truth--Truth which is stronger than you, and will overcome
you."--Wylie, b. 2, ch. 13. So saying, he withdrew from the assembly, and not one of
his adversaries attempted to prevent him.
Wycliffe's work was almost
done; the banner of truth which he had so long borne was soon to fall from his hand; but
once more he was to bear witness for the gospel. The
truth was to be proclaimed from the
very stronghold of the kingdom of error. Wycliffe was summoned for trial before the papal
tribunal at Rome, which had so often shed the blood of the saints. He was not blind to the
danger that threatened him, yet he would have obeyed the summons had not a shock of palsy
made it impossible for him to perform the journey. But though his voice was not to be
heard at Rome, he could speak by letter, and this he determined to do. From his rectory
the Reformer wrote to the pope a letter, which, while respectful in tone and Christian in
spirit, was a keen rebuke to the pomp and pride of the papal see.
"Verily I do
rejoice," he said, "to open and declare unto every man the faith which I do
hold, and especially unto the bishop of Rome: which, forasmuch as I do suppose to be sound
and true, he will most willingly confirm my said faith, or if it be erroneous, amend the
"First, I suppose that
the gospel of Christ is the whole body of God's law. . . . I do give and hold the bishop
of Rome, forasmuch as he is the vicar of Christ here on earth, to be most bound, of all
other men, unto that law of the gospel. For the greatness among Christ's disciples did not
consist in worldly dignity or honors, but in the near and exact following of Christ in His
life and manners.... Christ, for the time of His pilgrimage here, was a most poor man,
abjecting and casting off all worldly rule and honor. . . .
"No faithful man ought
to follow either the pope himself or any of the holy men, but in such points as he hath
followed the Lord Jesus Christ; for Peter and the sons of Zebedee, by desiring worldly
honor, contrary to the following of Christ's steps, did offend, and therefore in those
errors they are not to be followed. . . .
"The pope ought to leave
unto the secular power all temporal dominion and rule, and thereunto effectually to move
and exhort his whole clergy; for so did Christ, and especially by His apostles. Wherefore,
if I have erred in any of these points, I will most humbly submit myself unto correction,
even by death, if necessity so require; and if I could labor according to my will or
desire in mine own person, I would surely present myself before the bishop of Rome; but
the Lord hath otherwise visited me to the contrary, and hath taught me rather to obey God
In closing he said: "Let
us pray unto our God, that He will so stir up our Pope Urban VI, as he began, that he with
his clergy may follow the Lord Jesus Christ in life and manners; and that they may teach
the people effectually, and that they, likewise, may faithfully follow them in the
same."--John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, vol. 3, pp. 49, 50.
Thus Wycliffe presented to
the pope and his cardinals the meekness and humility of Christ, exhibiting not only to
themselves but to all Christendom the contrast between them and the Master whose
representatives they professed to be.
Wycliffe fully expected that
his life would be the price of his fidelity. The king, the pope, and the bishops were
united to accomplish his ruin, and it seemed certain that a few months at most would bring
him to the stake. But his courage was unshaken. "Why do you talk of seeking the crown
of martyrdom afar?" he said. "Preach the gospel of Christ to haughty prelates,
and martyrdom will not fail you. What! I should live and be silent? . . . Never! Let the
blow fall, I await its coming."--D'Aubigne, b. 17, ch. 8.
But God's providence still
shielded His servant. The man who for a whole lifetime had stood boldly in defense of the
truth, in daily peril of his life, was not to fall a victim of the hatred of its foes.
Wycliffe had never sought to shield himself, but the Lord had been his protector; and now,
when his enemies felt sure of their prey, God's hand removed him beyond their reach. In
his church at Lutterworth, as he was about to dispense the communion, he fell, stricken
with palsy, and in a short time yielded up his life.
God had appointed to Wycliffe
his work. He had put the
word of truth in his mouth, and He set a guard about him that
this word might come to the people. His life was protected, and his labors were prolonged,
until a foundation was laid for the great work of the Reformation.
Wycliffe came from the
obscurity of the Dark Ages. There were none who went before him from whose work he could
shape his system of reform. Raised up like John the Baptist to accomplish a special
mission, he was the herald of a new era. Yet in the system of truth which he presented
there was a unity and completeness which Reformers who followed him did not exceed, and
which some did not reach, even a hundred years later. So broad and deep was laid the
foundation, so firm and true was the framework, that it needed not to be reconstructed by
those who came after him.
The great movement that
Wycliffe inaugurated, which was to liberate the conscience and the intellect, and set free
the nations so long bound to the triumphal car of Rome, had its spring in the Bible. Here
was the source of that stream of blessing, which, like the water of life, has flowed down
the ages since the fourteenth century. Wycliffe accepted the Holy Scriptures with implicit
faith as the inspired revelation of God's will, a sufficient rule of faith and practice.
He had been educated to regard the Church of Rome as the divine, infallible authority, and
to accept with unquestioning reverence the established teachings and customs of a thousand
years; but he turned away from all these to listen to God's holy word. This was the
authority which he urged the people to acknowledge. Instead of the church speaking through
the pope, he declared the only true authority to be the voice of God speaking through His
word. And he taught not only that the Bible is a perfect revelation of God's will, but
that the Holy Spirit is its only interpreter, and that every man is, by the study of its
teachings, to learn his duty for himself. Thus he turned the minds of men from the pope
and the Church of Rome to the word of God.
Wycliffe was one of the
greatest of the Reformers. In breadth of intellect, in clearness of thought, in firmness
to maintain the truth, and in boldness to defend it, he was equaled by few who came after
him. Purity of life, unwearying diligence in study and in labor, incorruptible integrity,
and Christlike love and faithfulness in his ministry, characterized the first of the
Reformers. And this notwithstanding the intellectual darkness and moral corruption of the
age from which he emerged.
The character of Wycliffe is
a testimony to the educating, transforming power of the Holy Scriptures. It was the Bible
that made him what he was. The effort to grasp the great truths of revelation imparts
freshness and vigor to all the faculties. It expands the mind, sharpens the perceptions,
and ripens the judgment. The study of the Bible will ennoble every thought, feeling, and
aspiration as no other study can. It gives stability of purpose, patience, courage, and
fortitude; it refines the character and sanctifies the soul. An earnest, reverent study of
the Scriptures, bringing the mind of the student in direct contact with the infinite mind,
would give to the world men of stronger and more active intellect, as well as of nobler
principle, than has ever resulted from the ablest training that human philosophy affords.
"The entrance of Thy words," says the psalmist, "giveth light; it giveth
understanding." Psalm 119:130.
The doctrines which had been
taught by Wycliffe continued for a time to spread; his followers, known as Wycliffites and
Lollards, not only traversed England, but scattered to other lands, carrying the knowledge
of the gospel. Now that their leader was removed, the preachers labored with even greater
zeal than before, and multitudes flocked to listen to their teachings. Some of the
nobility, and even the wife of the king, were among the converts. In many places there was
a marked reform in the manners of the people, and the idolatrous symbols of Romanism were
removed from the churches. But soon the pitiless storm of persecution burst upon those who
had dared to accept the Bible as their
guide. The English monarchs, eager to strengthen
their power by securing the support of Rome, did not hesitate to sacrifice the Reformers.
For the first time in the history of England the stake was decreed against the disciples
of the gospel. Martyrdom succeeded martyrdom. The advocates of truth, proscribed and
tortured, could only pour their cries into the ear of the Lord of Sabaoth. Hunted as foes
of the church and traitors to the realm, they continued to preach in secret places,
finding shelter as best they could in the humble homes of the poor, and often hiding away
even in dens and caves.
Notwithstanding the rage of
persecution, a calm, devout, earnest, patient protest against the prevailing corruption of
religious faith continued for centuries to be uttered. The Christians of that early time
had only a partial knowledge of the truth, but they had learned to love and obey God's
word, and they patiently suffered for its sake. Like the disciples in apostolic days, many
sacrificed their worldly possessions for the cause of Christ. Those who were permitted to
dwell in their homes gladly sheltered their banished brethren, and when they too were
driven forth they cheerfully accepted the lot of the outcast. Thousands, it is true,
terrified by the fury of their persecutors, purchased their freedom at the sacrifice of
their faith, and went out of their prisons, clothed in penitents' robes, to publish their
recantation. But the number was not small--and among them were men of noble birth as well
as the humble and lowly--who bore fearless testimony to the truth in dungeon cells, in
"Lollard towers," and in the midst of torture and flame, rejoicing that they
were counted worthy to know "the fellowship of His sufferings."
The papists had failed to
work their will with Wycliffe during his life, and their hatred could not be satisfied
while his body rested quietly in the grave. By the decree of the Council of Constance,
more than forty years after his death his bones were exhumed and publicly burned, and the
ashes were thrown into a neighboring brook. "This brook," says
an old writer,
"hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas,
they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine,
which now is dispersed all the world over."-- T. Fuller, Church History of Britain,
b. 4, sec. 2, par. 54. Little did his enemies realize the significance of their malicious
It was through the writings
of Wycliffe that John Huss, of Bohemia, was led to renounce many of the errors of Romanism
and to enter upon the work of reform. Thus in these two countries, so widely separated,
the seed of truth was sown. From Bohemia the work extended to other lands. The minds of
men were directed to the long-forgotten word of God. A divine hand was preparing the way
for the Great Reformation.