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FORWARD to an ENGLISH Bible #1

The work of Wycliffe and his followers!

                         TOWARDS AN ENGLISH BIBLE

by Ken Connolly

Part One

The Bible in England before the Reformation

The dry ground

     Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would "grow up as a root
out of a dry ground" (Isaiah 53:2). That may also be said of many
reformers who followed their Master, and not least of Wycliffe,
England's first great reformer, known as "the Morning Star of the
Reformation." Though Wycliffe was not the first man to attack
corrupt practices in the church, he was the first to condemn the
underlying doctrine. He was born about 1330 in the village of
Wycliffe, six miles from Richmond, Yorkshire, but he spent most
of his life in Oxford. He was a man of outstanding intelligence,
courage and charisma. In a university where the art of arguing
was all-important, he could dispute with a panel of the greatest
academics and reduce them to silence. When he came to take an
unpopular stand on political and religious matters, he stood
undaunted before threats from king, Parliament, university and
even, most deadly and bitter of all, from the world-wide church.
     Young men enlisted in his cause and gave their lives to be
burned at the stake because they believed he was right.
     To appreciate the stature of this man, it is necessary to
know something of the "dry ground" of the Middle Ages. The
previous chapter has already touched on the religious climate; we
now consider two other important aspects of medieval life:

language and politics


     The people of Wycliffe's day spoke Middle English, which is
basically the same language as modern English, though people
today would not understand it if they heard it spoken. The
English language passed through three stages. The first was Old
English, which began with the tribes who invaded England from the
third century onwards. Remember, this is just a small island.
Only about 800 miles separate John O'Groats in the north of
Scotland from Land's End at the southernmost tip of England. No
place in the island is more than 100 miles from the sea. Foreign
marauders repeatedly swept in and took over different parts of
the country, bringing their language and culture with them. The
Jutes settled in the south-east, the Saxons in the south and the
Angles in the middle of Britain, from the Scottish border to the
river Thames. The islanders consequently spoke three separate
dialects of Old English. The Angles spoke Mercian, a form of
which was also spoken in London.

     The transition to Middle English came with William the
Conqueror, who landed in England only 260 years before Wycliffe
was born. His forces spoke Norman French, and this became the
language of law and government. But the ordinary people and
merchants continued to speak English, though borrowing many words
from the French. Modern English, therefore, often has two words
for the same thing - for example, the word "lamb," which was used
by the serfs, and "mutton," which came from their French masters.
The one referred to the animal as it was in the fields, and the
other to the meat on the tables.

     Two writers of Middle English stand out. Geoffrey Chaucer
(c1340-1400) is still regarded as one of the greatest English
poets. Everyone knows his masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales, but
few people are familiar with the great prose writings attributed
to Chaucer's friend John Wycliffe.


     In politics there was a similar state of flux. When William
the Conqueror took over the island in 1066, he ruled through
barons who governed regions for him, collecting taxes and
marshaling armies. They grew very powerful, and succeeding kings
became dependent on them. Within 150 years they were stubbornly
refusing to co-operate with the king without being granted a
larger voice in national affairs. King John (who reigned from
1199 to 1216) inherited enormous debts along with his crown, and
added further debt by going to war with France. He could receive
no assistance from the Pope because he had appointed his own
Archbishop of Canterbury and rejected the Pope's appointee. But
he needed money so desperately that he was forced to submit, and
even laid his crown at the feet of a Papal legate - an act of
monumental importance because it subordinated the crown to the
miter, the throne to the church.
     John could not survive without the financial support of the
barons. In return, in 1215 the barons forced him to sign the
Magna Carta, which limited the power of the king and recognized
the rights of barons, church, and freemen. He later attempted to
rescind the document, but when he lodged in a monastery in the
north of England a monk laced his wine with poison, and the
document outlived him. Out of that political conflict came the
English Parliament, the forerunner of the American Congress and
many other legislative bodies around the world.
     Wycliffe was to play a leading role in directing England out
of the political quagmire in which church and state were
embroiled, and one of his tools would be the Bible.

The morning star

     Of Wycliffe's childhood we know nothing. He spent a number
of years in Oxford as an undergraduate - becoming a fellow of
Merton College by 1356 - and the next sixteen years studying for
his doctorate, also at Oxford. In the last twelve years of his
life, he kept up his links with Oxford. Though he did some
traveling in the service of the crown, Oxford was his base, and
here he did most of his teaching and writing: he was truly a
citizen of Oxford. He spent the last two years of his life in
Lutterworth, where he died in 1384.
     What was Oxford like when Wycliffe arrived? When the French
evicted all the English students from the University of Paris in
1167, these students had formed their own University in Oxford.
The town was hostile to this invasion of robed academics, and a
"town and gown" controversy ensued in which opposing sides
sometimes came to blows. Consequently, in 1209 some of the
students fled to Cambridge, where they founded another
university. These two universities quickly became the leading
universities of Europe. The year before Wycliffe graduated,
sixty-two students were killed by the townspeople in a riot on 
St Scholastica Day. For the next 468 years, on the same day, the
townspeople placed sixty-two pennies on the altar at St Mary's to
atone for that misdeed.
     When Wycliffe was a student, the dreaded Black Death arrived
in England. It was merciless, touching both rich and poor, young
and old. The people of London used the open acres of ground at
Smithfield as a common burial site, and soon they were burying
200 victims a day. This continued until the plague had claimed
over 100,000 lives.
     During this terrifying plague, Wycliffe experienced a
profound spiritual revival that reached to the core of his being.
The holy fear of God that came upon him brought a disregard for
human Popes and potentates: it seemed that he held communion with
the citizens of the invisible world. He rearranged his priorities
and became more earnest in his theological studies. The
transformation was soul-shattering and proved to be permanent.
In 1356 he graduated from Merton College. Five years later, in
1361, he added his Master of Arts, and eight years later, in
1369, when he was in his forties, he was awarded his Bachelor of
Divinity degree. Then in 1372 he earned his doctorate in
divinity. By this time he was already considered the outstanding
philosopher and theologian of Oxford, which means he was probably
the most prominent theologian of England. He was the leading
speaker at theological debates, and when he lectured his
classrooms were always crowded.
     In 1361 he was ordained for the ministry and accepted a
living at Fillingham in Lincolnshire, which maintained him until
he was appointed to the rectory of Lutterworth. He did not live
in either of these places, however, except when he retired to
Lutterworth at the end of his life, for neither was within
commuting distance of Oxford and his first love was teaching. (It
was acceptable practice, in those days, to have "absentee
parsons," but it was the parson's responsibility to find someone
to take his place in the parish.) Wycliffe's debates in Oxford
sharpened his convictions and his studies led him to value truth
above tradition. The longer he studied, the more he saw issues in
terms of truth or falsehood, black or white. He could see clearly
where there was wrong thinking and evil practice, even when they
were robed in the red and purple garments of a high-ranking
clergyman. Whether the issues were sacred or secular, political
or ecclesiastical,
     Right was right and wrong was wrong, and right the day must
win. To doubt would be disloyalty, to falter would be sin.
     In Oxford, Wycliffe the fighter was born, and his sword was,
above all, the Bible.

(God was beginning to open up the Bible and truths that had been
hidden to much of the Holy Roman Empire. Wycliffe had some truth
but certainly not all, and not the truth of the correct Sabbath
day or the Festivals of the Lord, as opposed to the Roman
Catholic's Sunday and feasts from pagan Rome. God's people with
more truth that Wycliffe were scattered in the hills and valleys
of Europe and in the East where the Holy Roman Empire had not
taken rule - Keith Hunt)

The Cold War

     During this time Rome and Oxford were engaged in a cold war,
fighting a battle on two fronts.

The political front

     In Wycliffe's day nearly all the leading positions of state
were occupied by the clergy, who were influential and aggressive.
This state of affairs was wrong. It harmed the clergy, who were
called to a superior ministry, and it was damaging for the state,
since these men took their orders from Rome. Quite simply, it was
bad politics.
     In addition, major religious positions were filled by the
Pope's nominees, many of whom were foreigners, who never even set
foot on English soil but had their lucrative salaries sent to
them. While Wycliffe could see the political harm of this policy,
he felt the religious harm more keenly. Clergymen were being
bought, sold and traded in return for favors to their religious
superiors, and any sense of sacred service to Christ had vanished
from their pulpits. Wycliffe wrote a tract on this subject before
Parliament presented a petition to the king concerning the grip
which Rome had on England. Most students of history are persuaded
that it was Wycliffe who gave Parliament the ammunition and the
incentive for its action.
     The highest insult to England came when French priests were
awarded positions in the church in England. This was a foolish
move on the part of Rome. England at that time was engaged on the
Hundred Years War against France, and these appointments only
inflamed passions and aggravated hostilities. This was the final
straw and it provoked the English Parliament to pass two very
important statutes.
     The first was the Statute of Provisors, in 1351. This stated
that no one had the right to make any appointment on foreign soil
when that appointment could be considered an insult to the
sovereign of the country. The statute ruled that foreign
appointments within the English realm must first receive the
king's approval.
     The second was the Statute of Praemunire, passed in 1353.
This law prevented any foreign court from demanding trial, or
exacting penalty from any Englishman, before he had been tried in
an English court. It also nullified any existing writ demanding
that an Englishman appear for trial in a foreign country. In
future such writs would require the permission of Parliament.
     These statutes were soon to be tested. When King John had
placed his crown before a Papal legate, Pope Innocent III had
imposed an annual tax of 666 pound on the British crown. It was
paid, erratically, until 1320. In 1365, the Pope demanded the
reinstatement of this tax, and an immediate payment of the
arrears. To add insult to injury, the following year a Papal Bull
was issued ordering the king to appear in Rome and defend
himself. Those decisions on Rome's part trampled over
Parliament's Statute of Praemunire.
     Six years later, in 1372, the year Wycliffe received his
doctorate, Rome sent an agent to collect money for the Pope's war
with Milan. The agent's extravagant and pompous retinue, his
costly robes, and his large staff of accountants requiring
numerous rooms, were all more suitable for a minister of state
than a representative of the church. The Pope's emissary promised
Parliament that he would do nothing that was against the
interests of the king, but Wycliffe could see that he was
promising what he could not perform. Immediately Wycliffe
published a tract pointing out that the nature of the agent's
mission was inconsistent with his promise to Parliament, which,
in effect, made him a liar.

     Two years later, Wycliffe was appointed to a royal
commission which was sent to Bruges in an attempt to relieve
tension between London and Rome. That assignment occupied the
next two years of his life but proved to be a tedious waste of
time. Many of the English bishops on the commission gave way when
their foreign superiors promised them lucrative jobs, but
Wycliffe could not be bribed or swayed, and resolutely opposed
payment of the tribute. Though he failed to turn the
negotiations, his stance endeared him to Parliament and earned
him the friendship of John of Gaunt, the powerful fourth son of
the king. Wycliffe was later made a royal chaplain.

The theological front

     The second front in the cold war centered on Wycliffe's
rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This doctrine, a
recent innovation, dating only to 1215, attempted to explain the
words of Jesus, "This is my body." The church contended that
though the "accidents" or "species" (the bread and wine
observable by human senses) remained the same, their substance
was literally and mysteriously changed into the actual body and
blood of Christ. Wycliffe saw serious problems in this
interpretation, which he considered to be unscriptural. The fact
that he had received his doctorate in 1372 suggests that he was
not considered heretical by the church at that time, but after he
published his book On the Eucharist in 1381 he lost most of his
friends in palace, Parliament and university.

The pen is mightier

     Wycliffe gave lectures to his students on the secular
immoralities of the church. But he decided that his pen was more
powerful than his pulpit. There were no printing presses and all
publications had to be hand written, and then painstakingly
hand-copied for distribution; but the pen was nevertheless the
most potent vehicle for the dissemination of revolutionary ideas.
     Wycliffe's earliest writing was a tract written in 1360
entitled it Objections to Friars, in which he accused the friars
of disrupting school discipline and domestic relationships, and
called them a pestilence. He said they were guilty of ignorance
and proselytizing, and were a major inconvenience both to church
and to university. Two important facts about this tract deserve
notice. First, it was not an attack on the church but on a
corrupt order of friars within it. Second, it gained Wycliffe
great support in the University of Oxford.
     His great treatise on Civil Dominion, written in 1376, was
aggressive and strong. He declared that "England belongs to no
Pope. The Pope is but a man, subject to sin; but Christ is the
Lord of lords, and this kingdom is held directly and solely of
Christ alone." John Wycliffe considered that the division between
Rome and London was irreconcilable and went so far as to argue
that "every Papal resident in England, and every Englishman
living at the court of Rome, should be punished with death."
In 1378 he wrote The Truth of Holy Scripture in which he made
clear his view on truth in the Bible. He stated that the
scriptures are without error and contain God's entire revelation.
No further teaching from any other source is necessary, and all
other teaching must be tested against the Bible.
     His book On the Eucharist, published in 1381, was followed
by Twelve Propositions. As we have seen, his courageous stance
against what he regarded as unbiblical teaching lost him the
friendship and support of much of the establishment.

     In Wycliffe's writings we see all the seeds of the
Reformation. For nearly every issue on which he expressed his
opinion, godly men were burned at the stake 150 years later. He
condemned trust in personal works, pardons, indulgences and
priestly absolution. He called the sale of indulgences "a subtle
merchandise of Antichrist's clerks to magnify their counterfeit
power, and to get worldly goods, and to cause men to dread sin."
He held that Scripture comes "from the mouth of God": it is the
truth - superior to the teaching of the Pope, the Church or the
Fathers, and tells us all we need to know. Wycliffe set the table
and wrote the menu for the great reform that was to shake Europe
to its roots.

     One of his last tracts was the Trialogue which took the form
of a conversation between Truth, Falsehood and Understanding.
"The church has fallen," he argued, "because she has abandoned
the gospel and preferred the laws of the Pope. Although there
should be a hundred Popes in the world at once [there were two
contending at the time], and all the friars living should be
transformed into cardinals, we must withhold our confidence from
them in the matter of faith, except so far as their teachings are
those of the Scriptures."

     Wycliffe's powerful and prolific pen was dipped in acid. But
its greatest product was yet to come - a Bible in the language of
the ordinary Englishman and woman (see the next section).
However, he had first to face the fury of an offended church.

The lion's den

     After Wycliffe wrote Civil Dominion, the opposition
determined that, by one means or another, Wycliffe must be
silenced. The threats now turned into action.
     On February 19, 1377, Wycliffe was called to answer charges
before a convocation of bishops at St Paul's. The trial drew a
fanatical crowd, blindly obedient to the church. When Wycliffe
arrived, it was with a small procession of men who supported and
helped him. These included the two most powerful men in England:
Lord Percy, the marshal of England, and John of Gaunt, the Duke
of Lancaster, who was administering the kingdom during the
terminal sickness of Edward III. These two great men walked ahead
of Wycliffe. Following him were four doctors of divinity, who
were his counsel. They bravely threaded their way through the
hostile crowds thronging the entrances to the church. Once they
stepped across the threshold, they were confronted by a solid
wall of booing people, who swayed to and fro, their hands raised
in anger. The prince turned to Wycliffe and assured him that they
were there to protect him. Some sharp, angry words passed between
Percy and Courtenay, the Bishop of London. When Percy noticed
that Wycliffe stood during this exchange, he turned to him and
said, "Sit down and rest yourself." This assumption of authority
enraged Courtenay, who was acting as chairman, and he cried, "It
is unreasonable that one cited to appear before a bishop should
sit down during his answer. He must and shall stand." A riot
broke out which disrupted the entire proceedings, and Wycliffe
and his escort providentially escaped from the threatening
     Later that year five Papal Bulls were issued against
Wycliffe, the Benedictines having examined his writings and taken
exception to eighteen propositions, and King Edward III was
ordered to place Wycliffe in prison awaiting the Pope's pleasure.
The king, however, was a sick man, on the point of death, and no
action was taken against Wycliffe.
     Early in 1378, with the new Richard II a mere boy of ten,
Wycliffe appeared once more before the bishops. The citation was
issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury; the king and the
university were silent. The venue was astutely changed from St
Paul's to Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop
of Canterbury. Again there were angry crowds. "Men expected that
he should be devoured," wrote one historian, "being brought into
the lion's den." But there was uneasiness at the royal palace. As
we have seen, a law had been passed stating that Papal Bulls
should have no effect in England without the consent of
Parliament and king. Shortly after the trial began, it was
interrupted by Sir Louis Clifford with a message from the old
king's widow to the effect that they should pass no verdict on
the Reformer. The bishops were panic-stricken. They made an
immediate about-turn, attempted to placate Wycliffe, and told him
simply that he should not argue his controversial opinions in
Oxford university or preach them from the pulpit.

     In the winter of 1380-1381, a commission of twelve Oxford
doctors investigated Wycliffe's teaching on the Mass and
concluded, by a majority of seven to five, that Wycliffe was in
error. The chancellor warned that anyone who held such views,
taught them or defended them would be imprisoned, suspended from
university office and excommunicated. In response, Wycliffe
declared that the chancellor could not possibly make him weaken
his opinion; and in May 1381 he published a defense of the
condemned opinions.
     This was the year of the Peasants' Revolt, when, under the
leadership of Wat Tyler and John Ball, peasants marched on London
to air their grievances, and the King was obliged to seek refuge
in the Tower of London. Those in authority suggested that
Wycliffe's views had inspired the revolt, and in 1382 a Council
of theologians meeting at Blackfriars in London decreed that his
writings contained both heresy and error. In the middle of their
proceedings, an earthquake shook the whole building, whereupon
both the supporters of Wycliffe and his detractors claimed that
it showed God agreed with them. Wycliffe's enemies instigated a
Parliamentary bill condemning Wycliffe's teachings and this bill
was given royal assent without ever being debated by the Commons.
     The attack was now concentrated on Wycliffe's Oxford
disciples, many of whom were brought to recant publicly. Wycliffe
himself, who had not been present at Blackfriars, escaped such a
fate. In 1382 he left Oxford and retired to Lutterworth, where he
continued to write despite the effects of a stroke. On December
28, 1384, while he was at communion in his parish church, he
suffered a second stroke and slumped back into his chair. Four
men came forward, lifted up the chair and carried it silently out
through a side door of the church to the parsonage. The old man
never spoke another word until he talked with his Savior in the
presence of the angels on the last day of that year (the false
immortality of the soul is here taught by the writer - Keith

A book for burning

     Before Wycliffe, others had translated parts of the Bible
into English... In addition, about the year 1200, Orm, an
Augustinian monk, made a metrical paraphrase of parts of the
Gospels. He was followed by William of Shoreham, a parish priest
living in Kent, who made a translation of the Psalms in 1320. A
third translator was Richard Rolle, a hermit from Yorkshire, who
in 1340 also made a translation of the Psalms, adding a verse by
verse commentary. But it was left to Wycliffe and his followers
to provide the first complete Bible in the English language.

     Wycliffe fervently believed that the Bible needed no special
interpretation even for laymen to understand, but since the
ordinary man could not understand Latin, the Bible had to be
translated into English.

     Wycliffe's Bible was not a translation from the original
languages, for two reasons: first, the manuscripts which later
became available had not yet been discovered, and second, Hebrew
and Greek were little known in England. 

(The Greek and Hebrew Scriptures were preserved in the East from
the Greek church and the Jews, hence God's people in that part of
the world were never without true light. It was the Holy Roman
Empire that was in spiritual darkness and many a false teaching -
Keith Hunt)

     But Wycliffe and his followers were good Latin scholars, and
the source for their translation of the Scriptures was Jerome's
Vulgate of AD 405. As the church accepted the authority of the
apocryphal writings, the Wycliffe Bible included them.
     It is not clear whether or not Wycliffe himself did any of
the translation but he certainly inspired, instigated and
probably supervised the work. There is every reason to believe
that the Old Testament, as far as Baruch 3:20, was translated by
(or under the direction of) Nicholas Hereford, one of Wycliffe's
disciples and fellow workers. There is a sharp contrast between
the style of the translation before and after that point. The
first part was scholarly, stiff and excessively literal - it may
have been intended chiefly as a "crib" for those clergy who
needed help with following their Latin Bibles - whereas the
remainder inclined more to the common language of the people. We
know that Nicholas Hereford was summoned to stand trial in London
as a heretic, and was excommunicated from the church. We do not
know for certain who was responsible for the rest of the
translation, but tradition has it that Wycliffe worked on some or
all of the New Testament.

(Some light was beginning to shine through in the work and
writings of Wycliffe. Certainly some of the false claims of Rome
were being exposed, and the Bible was beginning to move into the
hands of those outside of the clergy of Rome - Keith Hunt)

     That was the Bible in English until, in 1396, a dozen years
after Wycliffe's death, a revision was made by John Purvey, who
had been Wycliffe's close assistant and secretary during the
Reformer's retirement at Lutterworth. Purvey revised the literal,
crabbed style of the original Old Testament translation to make
it much more readable and in keeping with the style of the New
Testament. It is Purvey's revision that was circulated as the
Wycliffe Bible, and it is impossible to over-emphasise its
importance and influence.

     Remember, there were as yet no printing presses. It took ten
months to reproduce one copy of the Bible, and the cost of a copy
was between 30 and 40 pound. It was reported that two pennies
could buy a chicken, and four a hog. 40 pound was 9,600 pennies -
an enormous amount of money. Fox wrote of people who provided a
load of hay for the privilege of having the New Testament to read
for one day. Some would save for a month in order to purchase a
single page. Soon copies had to be made and distributed by
stealth, the Arundel Constitutions of 1408 having decreed that
"no one henceforth do by his own authority translate any text of
Holy Scripture into the English tongue or into any other, by way
of book or treatise; nor let any book or treatise now lately
composed in the time of John Wycliffe, or since, or hereafter be
composed, be read in whole or in part, in public or private,
under pain of the greater excommunication... He that shall do
contrary to this shall likewise be punished as a favorer of
heresy and error." The "punishment" referred to involved
execution by burning. Nevertheless, so many copies were produced
that even today there still exist over 200 manuscript copies of
this Bible. Wycliffe had started something in England which it
was impossible to stop. He had released an irresistible force
that would dispel the darkness, liberate the church and elevate
the social conditions of mankind for generations to come.

No man is an island

     By the time of Wycliffe's death, his disciples, or Lollards,
looked upon themselves as a Christian church, dependent on the
Bible, and independent of Rome. They accepted the priesthood of
all believers and administration of the sacraments by men who had
not been ordained by a bishop. The poverty of the Wycliffites,
and their insistence on preaching in the language of the people
rather than in Latin, won them respect. Their views were so
popular that Wycliffite slogans and insults were placarded on the
walls of St Paul's and other public places. In 1395 a manifesto
was nailed to the door at Westminster Hall demanding that
Parliament "abolish celibacy, transubstantiation, prayers for the
dead, offerings at images, auricular confession, the practice of
blessing the oil," and so on.
     When Wycliffe's supporters nailed the Twelve Conclusions, a
summary of the teaching of the early Lollards, on to the doors of
St Paul's and Westminster Abbey, Arundel, the Archbishop of York,
and Bray brooke, the Bishop of London, reacted angrily, storming
off to King Richard II, who was in Ireland at the time. By then
the king's wife, Anne of Bohemia, had died, and without her
influence for good, the king was easily swayed by these men. When
he returned to England, he ordered Parliament not to deliberate
the issue, threatening to punish anyone who persisted in
defending the followers of Wycliffe. A strange twist of
circumstances then occurred. Richard had previously quarreled
violently with his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of
Wycliffe's patron John of Gaunt, and had banished Bolingbroke
from the country. When Richard was in Ireland, Bolingbroke had
landed in Yorkshire and amassed a rebel army. His efforts were a
success. In 1399, he dethroned Richard and became England's new
king, Henry IV.

     Thomas Arundel, now Archbishop of Canterbury, had seen the
handwriting on the wall and had already deserted Richard to align
with Henry. It was he who placed the crown on the head of Henry,
and directed him at the coronation to "consolidate the throne,
conciliate the clergy and sacrifice the Lollards." Henry replied,
"I will be the protector of the church." Two years later, in
1401, the infamous De Haeretico Comburendo, the Act for burning
heretics, was passed by Parliament. Within eight days of its
passage, the fires of Smithfield were burning for William Sawtre,
the first martyr for Wycliffe's doctrine, who had been guilty of
saying, "Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I
adore Christ who suffered on it." He was dragged to the precincts
of St Paul's cathedral, where his head was ceremonially shaved. A
layman's cap was put on his head and then he was handed over to
the "mercy" of the state. 

     With Lollardy condemned in the Constitutions of Arundel, a
Lollards' prison was built at Lambeth Palace, the London
residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a room twelve
feet by twelve, with a ceiling seven feet high; it is still
there, with iron rings attached to the wall a few feet apart. You
can still see the etchings made on the wall by the prisoners. One
reads "Jesus amor meus" (Jesus is my love).
     In Norwich, the Bishop was zealous in his persecution of the
Lollards, causing so many to be killed that the place of public
execution became known as the Lollards' Pit. Such burnings took
place all over England, testifying to the large numbers of
Lollards who were willing to die for their faith.
     The faith of these persecuted people is exemplified by Sir
John Oldcastle who took the title of Lord Cobham through his
third wife. He became a disciple of Wycliffe's theology, attended
the preaching of Lollard priests, and helped to provide
literature in English for them to distribute. He was brought to
trial at St Paul's on September 23, 1413. When he was questioned,
and the shouting priests demanded, "Believe!" Sir John responded:
"I am willing to believe all that God desires, but that the Pope
should have authority to teach what is contrary to Scripture -
that I can never believe." At this he was led back to the Tower
of London. Two days later he was attacked in the most abusive
language by the priests, canons, friars and indulgence-sellers,
but he was adamant. He informed them: "I ask not for your
absolution: it is God's only that I need."

     He was given forty days to prepare his soul for death in the
hope that he would recant before his execution, and so weaken the
Lollard cause. Miraculously he escaped from the Tower, and fled
to Wales, where he led a Lollard rising. After three years, he
was recaptured, in December of 1417, and dragged on a hurdle to
St Giles's Fields, tied by chains to a spit over a slow fire, and
slowly roasted to death like a hog.

     Wycliffe's followers could not be stamped out by
persecution. They were still numerous and active 125 years later,
when the Reformation started in earnest and turned all Europe
upside down.

(The sacrifice of these men and women in giving their very lives,
often in a horrible death, we should honor and value. Those true
saints [though they did not understand all the truths of the
Lord] brought forth people who would only honor the Bible, and
not men, be it Pope or King. It was the beginning towards an
English Bible - Keith Hunt)

The priest of Prague

     The fires of reform that were being kindled in England were
burning also in Bohemia (today part of the Czech republic). In
1360 the king of Bohemia invited Conrad of Waldhausen to come and
preach against the corruption which was prevalent in the church.
That was the beginning of a national reform movement which was
later to focus in a man called John Huss.
     Born in 1372, Huss entered an elementary school when he was
twelve. Five years later he enrolled as a student at the
University of Prague, where he remained as student and professor
for the rest of his life. He earned his B.A. and his M.A. degrees
in 1396 and was then invited to teach on the faculty. He used
this opportunity to pursue a bachelor's degree in theology, which
he gained in 1404. By then he had become a prominent leader in
the reform movement.
     In 1400 he was ordained as a priest, and two years later he
was appointed to the key position of rector and preacher at the
Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. The chapel had been founded by a
wealthy merchant as a center of the reformed movement, and two
sermons were delivered there daily. Into this environment came
the explosive ideas of John Wycliffe.
     The Wycliffe connection came through a Bohemian princess,
Anne, who, in 1382, had married Richard II of England. In England
Anne came across Wycliffe's writings and became an ardent
supporter of his teaching. Not only was she able to sway the
king's thinking, but she brought an entourage of ladies-in-
waiting who exerted considerable spiritual influence over the
court in England. The presence of a Bohemian queen in the courts
of Richard led several students to come over from Bohemia to
study in England. One of these students returned to Prague with
several of the more reformed writings of Wycliffe. When Anne died
in 1394, her bereaved ladies-in-waiting returned to Bohemia with
the writings of Wycliffe in their traveling bags. These were
distributed throughout the state of Bohemia.

     Though Huss did not agree with Wycliffe's views on
transubstantiation, he did accept several of Wycliffe's
propositions, notably Wycliffe's denial of the need for Popes,
priests and prelates, and his support for the participation of
the laity in the cup of the communion, an idea which was totally
unacceptable to Rome.
     There were a large number of Germans in Prague, with power
to vote, and as a result of their influence the University
condemned Wycliffe on forty-five issues. This divided the entire
country, and led the king to eliminate the German vote at the
University. At this, the Germans packed their bags and quit
Prague, leaving Huss with supreme influence over the city and its
     The Church of Rome was furious, and in February 1411 the
archbishop obtained a Papal ban on all preaching at the Bethlehem
Chapel. Huss refused to obey, so he was excommunicated. The
archbishop burned 200 volumes of Wycliffe's writings, and Huss
responded by publicly defending Wycliffe. For this he was ordered
to go to Rome and respond to questions. Once more, he refused to
comply with the Pope's orders.
     In 1412, Pope John XXIII launched a crusade against the King
of Naples and offered all the supporting soldiers full remission
of sins in return for their assistance. Huss was so outraged at
such unwarranted spiritual concessions that he more openly
attacked the entire idea of the sale of indulgences. The result
was that the city of Prague was placed under interdict by the
Pope, which meant that no religious services could be conducted,
not even baptisms or funerals. Under this pressure, Huss left the
city and went into southern Bohemia, spending his time in writing
two important books, one on the church and the other on the
buying and selling of positions in the church.
     During this time three contesting Popes were simultaneously
attempting to rule the Church: Gregory XII in Rome, Benedict XIII
in Perpignan and John XXIII in Avignon, France. They had been
condemning and anathematizing each other and so dividing the
power of the church. In 1414-1418 a Council was convened in the
Swiss city of Constance, in the hope that the schism might be
resolved and the Papacy reunited. The emperor, Sigismund, wanted
to resolve the Huss/Wycliffe issue at the same time, and invited
Huss to Constance, promising safe passage in both directions, no
matter what the outcome of the dispute might be. With great
hesitation Huss accepted the emperor's offer. The Council did
mend the Papal schism, but behaved treacherously to Huss.
Within a month of his arrival, he was captured on orders from the
Popes, and put in prison, awaiting trial for heresy. When the
Bohemians heard about it, they protested vehemently, but the
Popes maintained that the arrest was in keeping with canon law
and to deceive heretics was a pious act. After languishing in
prison for eight months without a trial, Huss was taken from his
dungeon to the cathedral in Constance. On July 6, 1415, he was
publicly disgraced by the removal of every article of priestly
clothing, each with a curse. Then he was made to wear a conical
cap with an inscription identifying him as a heretic. At the city
gates, tied with water-soaked ropes, he was burned to death. His
martyrdom became the symbol of the reformed movement.

Candles in the darkness

     If we were to delineate the Middle Ages politically, they
would begin at the fall of Rome in 476 and reach to the discovery
of America in 1492. In terms of religion, the period stretches
from the conversion of Constantine in 312 to Erasmus' Greek New
Testament in 1516. Looked at from the point of view of
scholarship, the Middle Ages begin with the fall of Rome, and end
some time after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the
development of the printing press in 1454. Within this period we
may distinguish between the "Dark Ages" of the earlier part and
the revival of learning in the later part. This revolution in
academic attitudes came about in three stages.


     When all the secular schools of the Roman empire were swept
away by the barbarian hordes, the only institution left was the
church. In 800 Charlemagne became the emperor and he gradually
established cathedral schools for the training of priests, and
convent schools for the training of monks. He also had a palace
school for his own children and the children of his nobles, and
often studied with them. He ordered manuscripts, especially
manuscripts of the Bible, to be copied with extreme care, and it
became axiomatic that the church was the guardian of education.
Knowledge increased and minds began to open. Though theology was
the only subject of study, the approach was philosophical.
Attempts were made to reduce Christian doctrine to scientific
form, and to harmonize reason and religion. Because the teachers
were known as schoolmen, or scholastics, this movement, which
flourished from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, became
known as scholasticism. Some of the discussions were trifling and
absurd and scholasticism came under severe criticism from Roger
Bacon, who died some thirty years before Wycliffe was born. In
fact, Wycliffe was considered the last of the scholastics.


     The second stage came with Francesco Petrarch, an Italian
poet who was contemporary with John Wycliffe. He studied art,
society and especially literature, focusing attention on human
achievement. Under his influence, scholasticism gave way to
humanism and the foundation was laid for an age of "inner
motivated" men who emphasised human values and rational thought
and studied the liberal arts, such as history, poetry, philology
and rhetoric. This stage reached its peak at the beginning of the
sixteenth century with such scholars as John Colet, Thomas More,
and Erasmus.

The Renaissance

     The third stage came with the fall of Constantinople in
1453. The ancient city of Byzantium, which Constantine had
enlarged and renamed, became, in AD 330, the seat of government
for the whole Roman Empire. It survived for more than eleven
centuries before falling to the Turks, who made it the capital of
their Ottoman Empire. At its fall, the Greeks fled from
Constantinople to the west, taking with them their humanist
scholarship and culture. The mixing of eastern and western
cultures brought about a renaissance of learning in western
Europe which affected many fields of endeavor. In fine art, when
Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci put paint on canvas, they expressed
the humanism that had captured the minds of Europe. They painted
people, even nudes, with a new care for accuracy of
representation. Michelangelo's sculpture showed the same interest
in the human body. In architecture, builders became imaginative
and inventive, introducing new ideas in space, decoration and
style. The dome was brought from the east and began to be seen on
many western buildings.
     The new appreciation of art of all kinds spread to music.
Musicians and composers were esteemed as important people in
their own right, and there was a resurgence of creativity. Music
was also secularised. Composers turned to poets for lyrics and
the madrigal was born.
     In the field of scholarship, there was a rebirth of what is
called classical education. Scholars not only explored new
subjects, but also adopted new tools, such as the classical
language of Greek. This led to a study of Greek and Latin
authors, and required the collecting, printing, annotating and
translating of the writings of the great thinkers of Greece and
     The exploration of new concepts and the intellectual
interest in Greek led to an interest in the original text of the
New Testament. Study of the New Testament in Greek was no longer
frowned upon, since it was associated with a revival in learning.
The day had dawned on the dark medieval night.

The end of ignorance

Johann Gutenberg

     About the time that Constantinople fell, the process began
for the publication of the first printed Bible. It came to
fruition some three years later, on August 15, 1456. Its printer,
Johann Gutenberg, was a visionary of the type who has millions of
dollars in the bank but cannot afford the cab fare to get there
and collect it.
     Johann was born in Mainz, Germany, about 1398. His father,
Friele zum Gensfleisch, was a well-to-do gentleman and one of the
city's leading officials. (Gutenberg took his name from the place
of his mother's birth.) How his father made his fortune is not
known to us. Some historians relate that he was a scribe who
carefully copied manuscripts, and it was that tedious and tiring
work that motivated his son to invent the printing press. We have
no doubt that the father lost his fortunes. Johann's later
financial calamities prove it - and it is surmised that he lost
them at the uprisings of the artisans in 1428. The family was
finally forced to leave Mainz in 1434 and for the next ten years
they lived in Strasbourg. While at Strasbourg, Johann seized and
imprisoned the town clerk of Mainz for a debt owed to him by the
corporation of that city. But when the mayor and the councilors
of Strasbourg disapproved of his conduct, he withdrew his charges
and forfeited all claims to the money.
     The story is told that as a boy Johann entertained himself
in his father's workshop by carving the separate letters of his
name on soft wood. He was lining them up on his father's table
when the "H" fell off into a bucket of purple dye. He quickly
retrieved it, cleaned off the excess on the side of the bucket,
and let it rest on a piece of paper to dry. The impression it
left on the paper, and in his mind, was indelible. This was where
the concept of a printing press with movable type was born. If
this story is true, it took some forty years for the press to
move from an idea to a reality.

     Gutenberg eventually produced a steel stamp, or punch, of
each letter of the alphabet, which, when stamped into a block of
the softer metal, copper, created a mold or matrix into which hot
metal could be poured, and any amount of type cast. But this
process was expensive: it involved not only the manufacture of
type and the building of presses, but also the creation of
special printing inks. The paper of that day, made from rags, was
also expensive. Gutenberg was to print 200 copies of the Bible on
paper. Each page had two columns of 42 lines, and each Bible had
a total of 1,282 pages. He was also to produce 30 of his Bibles
on vellum, made from the hides of calves; and it required 10,000
calves just to accomplish this task. All this required money, and
it was money he did not have. He had to find it.
     In 1450, a lawyer by the name of Johann Fust advanced 800
guilders to Gutenberg to promote his work, requiring no other
security than the tools which were to be made by the investment.
Fust was also to have provided 300 guilders every year for
expenses, though there is no record that this ever happened. In
1452, Fust had to come up with another 800 guilders, in order to
prevent the collapse of Gutenberg's entire venture. Some time
before November 1455 Fust took legal proceedings against
Gutenberg, apparently won the case, and moved all the tools to
his own house in Mainz. There, with the assistance of Peter
Schoeffer, they published various books. It is not known if the
Bible had been printed before the court case. If it had, all the
money that came from its sale would have undoubtedly gone to

     Johann Gutenberg died in Mainz in 1468, destitute and
forgotten. He was buried in the Franciscan church, but it was
demolished and replaced by another church, which in turn has also
been demolished. It is tragic how simple it was to erase the
knowledge of a man who had created a machine which did so much to
bring about the sudden death of medieval ignorance.
     Some thirty years later, his invention had been reproduced
in nearly every country in Europe. By 1500, there were no fewer
than 151 printing shops in Venice alone; and in the town of
Wittenberg, Luther's city, a printer by the name of Lufft
produced more than 100,000 Bibles. Because the paper contained no
wood, the pages have remained white to this day, and the gold of
the illuminated initials has lost none of its splendor.

William Caxton

     William Caxton was the first English printer. He had been an
apprentice to Robert Large, the Lord Mayor of London, upon whose
death he was sent to Bruges, where he was responsible for the
central foreign market of the Anglo-Flemish trade. He later
became the commercial adviser to Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy.
By July 1471, he was in Cologne, where he learned the art of
printing. In 1476 when he returned to England, he set up a
printing press "at the sign of the Red Pale" in Westminster. He
published about a hundred volumes, printing over 18,000 pages,
and although he did not print the Bible, his presses fired the
imagination of English reformers. Burning in their minds was a
new idea: a printed English Bible.

Playing with matches

     A child came into the world in 1466 or 1467, born (like his
brother Peter) the illegitimate son of a monk. The parents later
married, and the father named the boy Herasmus. Later, Herasmus
decided to adopt the Greek form of his name, Erasmus, preceding
it with the Latin equivalent, Desiderius, and, because he was
born in Rotterdam, he added Roterodamus. Desiderius Erasmus
Roterodamus became known to the world as Erasmus, one of the
keenest brains of the humanist movement.
     At the age of eight he went to the School of the Brethren of
the Common Life, attached to St Lebuins' church in Deventer,
where he made important acquaintances, including Adrian of
Utrecht, who became Pope during the great Lutheran debate.
At the age of eleven, he suffered a very great tragedy when first
his mother and then his father died of the plague. Though
custodians for his welfare were named, one of them soon died of
the same plague. In that day, defenseless and immature children
were kidnapped by monks or enticed into religious orders. His
brother Peter submitted to the enticements of the monks, but
Erasmus refused. His health was weak and he felt he would be
unable to stand the rigors of monastic life. Moreover, he was a
free spirit and did not want to be in bondage to any person or
power on earth. He did, however, agree to a friend's suggestion
that he become a boarder in an Augustinian monastery for a
three-month trial period. This gave him access to the library and
required no fasting.
     At the end of the three months, facing the prospect of being
homeless and penniless, Erasmus had little choice but to take the
next step and become a novice. This led, in 1486, to his
reluctantly becoming an Augustinian canon. He was ordained in
1492, but left the monastery a few years later, and took up the
position of Latin secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. Thus ends
the first chapter of his life.

     The second chapter opened when an old schoolmaster persuaded
the Bishop to let Erasmus study at the University of Paris. Poems
he had written were already circulating in Paris, and he was
welcomed there by the intelligentsia. To augment his income, he
started both learning and teaching Greek. One of his students,
William Blount, invited him to England to become a student of
Greek at Oxford. There he was introduced to Richard Charnock, the
prior of one of the colleges, who in turn brought him to meet Dr
John Colet, who was lecturing on the book of Romans at the
university. One day Colet took Erasmus for a meal at the home of
the Lord Mayor of London and at the table he sparred with a
nineteen-yearold boy who sat opposite him, whose name was Thomas
More. They were to become lifelong friends. More took Erasmus to
the royal nursery to meet the nine-year-old Henry, who was to be
the future King Henry VIII. On every occasion, Erasmus dazzled
and amazed his hosts with his sharp mind and keen wit.

     One of Erasmus' friends enabled him to accomplish a lifelong
dream and travel to Italy. Venice was a thrilling experience. At
Rome he had a great and flattering reception, meeting cardinals
and strengthening his existing friendship with Pope Julius II.
The Pope asked him to stay and write papers on the pontiff's
military activities, but he declined, considering Rome another
tempting cage in which he would end up with his wings clipped. On
his way back to England he was awarded a doctorate at the
University of Turin.

     Erasmus owed much of his popularity to his writings. The
early poems of the 1490s gave way to his Manual of the Christian
Soldier, in which he showed that much of the dogma and ceremony
in the church were irrelevant. Writings such as this fed the
future reform movement. William Tyndale, who was born the year
Erasmus died, had the manuscript translated into English, and
then printed and circulated.

     When Erasmus returned to England in 1505, he stayed with Sir
Thomas More and wrote his famous satire In Praise of Folly, in
which he portrayed kings, bishops, princes and popes in bondage
to Folly. But his greatest work was his edition of the Greek New
Testament, which appeared in 1516. For this, Erasmus collected
the Greek documents of antiquity for the entire New Testament,
and compiled and printed them with a Latin translation, on 672
pages. To assure its acceptance, he dedicated it to Pope Leo X.
This was the first time the New Testament in its original
language was made generally available - about 3,300 copies were
printed of the first two editions. The only other Greek edition
available was confined to about 600 unwieldy and expensive
copies. Erasmus' edition formed the basis of vernacular
translations of the New Testament for much of Europe: Zwingli and
Calvin used it to give their people a Bible, Luther did the same
for the German nation, and Tyndale for England. The fourth and
fifth editions of 1527 and 1536 were used in the King James
version. Erasmus had never intended to create such a
conflagration, but then, he should have known better than to play
with matches. As he himself admitted, he "laid the egg which
Luther hatched."


     It might be helpful to see where our trail has led us so
     We have seen that the New Testament writings were the work
of apostles or men who knew the apostles. The young church grew
rapidly, turning the world upside down. Persecution, far from
destroying the church, fanned the fire of faith into a blaze.
Though the church was often bitterly split by controversies and
heresies, out of these inner turmoils emerged the creeds.
     With Constantine there came new dangers... the church became
materialistic, secular, power-seeking, and immoral. Ritual
increased. Preacher gave way to priest, the Lord's table to the
altar, the apostle to the Pope. Excommunication turned into
execution. The Latin Bible was known only to priest and monk, and
even then was little studied. Without the Bible, apostasy went
unchecked while ordinary people fed on superstition and fear.

     In the middle of the medieval night, scholasticism opened up
an opportunity for debate. In the fourteenth century the voice of
reform was heard in the West. Since John Wycliffe's benefactor
was the king's brother, every attempt to silence his voice was
     As humanist learning spread from Constantinople, scholars
began to study Erasmus' Greek New Testament. With the invention
of printing new and subversive ideas spread rapidly throughout
Europe. The door was open at last for the Reformation, and for
the collapse of the wall which had divided the people from the
indestructible book.


To be continued


Most today in our 21st century space-age world, with all of our
modern tech computers, cell phones, iPads, and other forms of
contact and translating in high speed form, language and photos,
most will not stop to investigate the history of HOW we got our
English Bible. It is a story of people who loved the word of God
above any physical man, even above their very own lives; they
often had to die to defend the Bible and the truths they were
seeing taught in its pages, in contradiction to the false
teachings of the Church of Rome. Many of them were part of the
Church of Rome, but could see where falsehood above truth had
prevailed in Rome, where traditions had been placed above the
truth and commandments of God.

Many of them DIED for the truths that God was granting them to
see. We need to ever give honor to them. They started the freedom
we now enjoy in being free to have and to read the entire Bible.
Our English Bible was founded upon their work, their vision,
their sacrifice, even upon their death, so we today can enjoy
reading our English Bible.

The work that people like Wycliffe undertook cannot be
overestimated for its value for us today. It was the beginning of
the promised end time work of "the Elijah to come" whom Jesus
said would come and "restore all things" (Matthew 17:9-13). John
the baptist was the fulfilment for Jesus' first coming. Another
will fulfil at the end time "Elijah shall truly first come, and
restore all things" just as promised in the very end time
prophecy of Malachi 3:1 and 4:1-6. Before the coming of the great
and dreadful day of the Lord [the last year or so of this age]
God will make sure someone comes in the spirit and power of

What Wycliffe and others of his age started was the beginning of
getting the Bible to the native language, the English language,
that God would choose, to be the universal language of the entire
world. Then the world would be ready for "the Elijah shall truly
first come, and restore all things" as Jesus promised.

What about YOU? Are you reading the Bible wanting to be taught,
corrected, instructed? Are you wanting, desiring, to see the
restitution of all things. The time has come when all things are
being restored. God is working; are you recognizing His voice? I
pray you are!

Keith Hunt

June 2010

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