Updated December 30, 2008 (first published March 17, 2005) (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, email@example.com; for instructions about subscribing and unsubscribing or changing addresses, see the information paragraph at the end of the article) -
The early history of the English Bible is one of the most fascinating chapters of church history and reads almost like a novel. The average English-speaking Christian today knows little about this glorious heritage, and it is crucial that each generation be re-instructed.
It will be seen that the King James Bible is not merely another translation. Its heritage and the manner in which it was produced are unique in the history of Bible translation.
This history begins with John Wycliffe (1324-1384). The Scripture portions most commonly found among English people before Wycliffe were Anglo Saxon and French.
In Wycliffe’s day Rome ruled England and Europe with an iron fist.
One hundred years earlier, Pope Innocent III had humbled King John of England. The king had done things that displeased the pope, so the pope excommunicated him and issued a decree declaring that he was no longer the king and releasing the people of England from obeying him. The pope further ordered King Philip of France to organize an army and navy to overthrow John, which Philip began to do with great zeal, eager to conquer England for himself.
The pope also called for a general crusade against John, promising the participants remission of sins and a share of the spoils of war.
In the meantime, King John submitted to the pope, pledging complete allegiance to him in all things and resigning England and Ireland into the pope’s hands. The following is an excerpt from the oath that John signed on May 15, 1213:
“I John, by the grace of God King of England and Lord of Ireland, in order to expiate my sins, from my own free will and the advice of my barons, give to the Church of Rome, to Pope Innocent and his successors, the kingdom of England and all other prerogatives of my crown. I will hereafter hold them as the pope's vassal. I will be faithful to God, to the Church of Rome, to the pope my master, and to his successors legitimately elected.”
The Scriptures was forbidden in the common languages of the people in Wycliffe’s day. One of Wycliffe’s enemies, Knyghton, a canon of Leicester, complained that by translating the Scriptures into English and thus laying it “open to the laity and to women who could read” Wycliffe was casting the gospel pearl under the feet of swine. This was the attitude that was typical of Roman Catholic leaders in that day.
Wycliffe was a Catholic priest but began to preach against Rome’s errors in his mid-30s. He did not reject Rome all at once but gradually grew in his understanding. There is a lot we do not know about his doctrine, as many of his writings have perished, but we do know that Wycliffe exposed many of Rome’s errors:
He rejected the doctrine that tradition is equal in authority with the Scriptures. He rejected transubstantiation and indulgences. He taught that the apostolic churches have only elders and deacons “and declared his conviction that all orders above these had been introduced by Caesarean pride” (Shelton, II, p. 415).
Wycliffe believed the Bible to be the Word of God without error from beginning to end. He testified, “It is impossible for any part of the Holy Scriptures to be wrong. In Holy Scripture is all the truth; one part of Scripture explains another” (Fountain, John Wycliffe, p. 48).
Wycliffe’s foundational doctrine was that the Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice and that men had the right to interpret Scripture for themselves before the Lord. He said, “Believers should ascertain for themselves what are the true matters of their faith, by having the Scriptures in a language which all may understand.”
Wycliffe was very bold against the pope, contending that “it is blasphemy to call any head of the church, save Christ alone” (Thomas Crosby, History of the English Baptists, I, 1740, p. 7).
Consider some other statements by Wycliffe on the subject of the papacy:
“It is supposed, and with much probability, that the Roman pontiff is the great Antichrist.”
“How than shall any sinful wretch, who knows not whether he be damned or saved, constrain men to believe that he is head of holy Church?” (Shelton, II, p. 415).
“Antichrist puts many thousand lives in danger for his own wretched life. Why, is he not a fiend stained foul with homicide who, though a priest, fights in such a cause?” (Eadie, History of the English Bible, I, pp. 46,47).
Wycliffe taught that men have the right to have the Bible in their own languages and was willing to endure the wrath of the Catholic authorities by translating the Scriptures into English. When Wycliffe began the translation work, the Pope in Rome issued “bulls” against him. Wycliffe’s reply was as follows:
“You say it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English. You call me a heretic because I have translated the Bible into the common tongue of the people. Do you know whom you blaspheme? Did not the Holy Ghost give the Word of God at first in the mother-tongue of the nations to whom it was addressed? Why do you speak against the Holy Ghost? You say that the Church of God is in danger from this book. How can that be? Is it not from the Bible only that we learn that God has set up such a society as a Church on the earth? Is it not the Bible that gives all her authority to the Church? Is it not from the Bible that we learn who is the Builder and Sovereign of the Church, what are the laws by which she is to be governed, and the rights and privileges of her members? Without the Bible, what charter has the Church to show for all these? It is you who place the Church in jeopardy by hiding the Divine warrant, the missive royal of her King, for the authority she wields and the faith she enjoins” (Fountain, John Wycliffe, pp. 45-47).
Wycliffe also taught that men had the right to interpret Scripture. “Believers should ascertain for themselves what are the true matters of their faith, by having the Scriptures in a language which all may understand.”
There is some evidence that Wycliffe rejected infant baptism, at least toward the end of his life. There is evidence of this from his own writings. Wycliffe taught that “baptism doth not confer, but only signify grace, which was given before.” This principle undermines the doctrine of infant baptism. The Martyrs Mirror, first published in Dutch in 1660, states that in 1370 Wycliffe issued an article “declared to militate against infant baptism” (p. 322).
There is also evidence of this from the Catholic authorities. Thomas Walden and Joseph Vicecomes claimed that Wycliffe rejected infant baptism and they charged him with Anabaptist views. Walden, who wrote against the Wycliffites or Hussites in the early part of the 1400s, called Wycliffe “one of the seven heads that came out of the bottomless pit, for denying infant baptism, that heresie of the Lollards, of whom he was so great a ringleader” (Danver’s Treatise, p. 2, 287, cited by Joseph Ivimey, History of the English Baptists, 1811, I, p. 72).
Even if Wycliffe did not entirely deny infant baptism, it is certain that many of his Lollard followers did. The term “Lollard,” like that of “Waldensian,” was a general term that encompassed a wide variety of doctrine and practice. While many of the Lollards retained infant baptism, it is certain that others did not.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WYCLIFFE AND THE WALDENSIANS
It is important to understand that there were already Waldensian, or separatist Anabaptist Christians, in England during the days of Wycliffe. We documented this in our study on the Waldenses in the Advanced Bible Studies Series course on Church History. Waldenses came to England in the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.
The Martyrs Mirror describes the persecution of 443 Waldenses in England in 1391. At least one of these told the inquisitors that he had been a Waldensian for 30 years. That takes us back to 1361, when Wycliffe was only 37 years old and when he first began preaching against Catholic errors.
Anglican historian Joseph Milner notes the possible connection between the Waldensians and John Wycliffe: “The connection between France and England, during the whole reign of Edward III, was so great, that it is by no means improbable, that Wickliffe himself derived his first impressions of religion from [Raynard] Lollard [a Bible-believing Waldensian leader who was burned at the stake at Cologne]” (Milner, The History of the Church of Christ, 1819, III, p. 509).
Catholic writers connected Wycliffe with the Waldenses. “Thomas Walden, who wrote against Wickliff, says, that the doctrine of Peter Waldo was conveyed from France into England—and that among others Wickliff received it. In this opinion he is joined by Alphonsus de Castro, who says that Wickliff only brought to light again the errors of the Waldenses. Cardinal Bellarmine, also, is pleased to say that ‘Wickliff could add nothing to the heresy of the Waldenses’” (Jones, A History of the Christian Church, II, p. 91).
Joshua Thomas, in his History of the Welsh Baptists, describes some Baptists who lived in the 14th century in Olchon in Herefordshire, and he believes Wycliffe “received much of his light in the gospel” from these separatist believers (Ivimey, I, pp. 65-67).
Frederick Nolan, who diligently pursued the history of the transmission of the biblical text, says that the Lollards were disciples of the Waldenses (Nolan, Inquiry into the Integrity of the Received Text, 1815, p. xix, footnote 1).
WYCLIFFE’S BATTLES WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
For his translation efforts and his biblical views, Wycliffe was hounded by the Roman authorities.
Wycliffe was forced to appear before the Catholic bishops in the first half of the year 1377 to give an account of his doctrine.
The bishops then appealed to Pope Gregory XI, and he issued five papal bulls against Wycliffe in May 1377.
From then on, Wycliffe had trouble with the Catholic authorities.
THE PROTECTING HAND OF GOD UPON WYCLIFFE
Wycliffe would have been cut off by the Roman Catholic authorities had he not, by divine intervention, been protected by certain powerful individuals and unusual events.
One of these was JOHN OF GAUNT, the Duke of Lancaster, who protected Wycliffe for many years. John was a large man and a bold warrior. His armor, which is displayed today in the Tower of London, is 6 foot 9 inches.
Another protector was JOAN THE PRINCESS OF WALES (1328-85). She was the wife of Edward (1330-76), also known as the Black Prince (so named because of his black armor). He was the eldest son of King Edward III. In 1378, the enemies of Wycliffe called him to stand before a tribunal of bishops in Lambeth Palace. Wycliffe was accused of spreading heresies, but the bishops were frustrated in carrying out any sentence. “…Sir Richard Clifford entered with a message from [Joan, the widow of the Black Prince], forbidding them to pass sentence upon Wycliffe” (Fountain, John Wycliffe, p. 33). The trial ceased.
QUEEN ANNE, the wife of Richard II (1367-1400), also assisted Wycliffe. She was daughter to the Roman emperor Charles IV and sister of Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia. Anne was only a teenager when she was brought to England to wed Richard. She brought versions of Scriptures in German, Bohemian, and Latin with her into England. She loved Wickliffe’s doctrine and sent copies of Wycliffe’s books into Bohemia by her attendants (Ivimey, I, p. 69). The godly queen died in June 1394, at the age of twenty-seven.
Further, in 1378 Pope Gregory XI died, and THE GREAT PAPAL SCHISM began, during which there were two (Gregory XII and Benedict III) and then three popes, and these were too busy hurling curses at one another to worry much about Wycliffe in England!
WYCLIFFE’S MISSIONARY ENDEAVORS
Wycliffe not only translated the Bible but he carried out missionary endeavors.
Wycliffe had a powerful influence through his extensive writings, which were widely distributed in England and even in Europe and created a dissident revival movement.
Wycliffe had a missionary heart and he trained and sent out preachers to proclaim the Gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ. These were called “Bible men” and eventually were also called Lollards, and they were hounded and bitterly persecuted by the Catholic authorities. (The term “Lollard” predated Wycliffe. It might have been derived from a Waldensian preacher named Walter Lollardus, an Englishman who was burnt for heresy in Cologne. See William Canton, The Bible and the Anglo-Saxon People, 1914, p. 42; and Joseph Ivimey, The History of the English Baptists, 1811, I, p. 64.)
Wycliffe also had copies of the hand-written Scriptures produced and distributed not only in England but also abroad in Europe. That these multiplied widely is evident from the record that still exists of the many copies that were confiscated by the authorities: “By reference to the Bishop’s Registers it will appear that these little books were numerous, as they are often specified as being found upon the persons of those accused. Sometimes the Gospels are spoken of either separately, or together; or it is the book of Acts, or the Epistle of James, or the Apocalypse that is specified. It appears also from these Registers, that many of those who possessed these little volumes were either servants or tradesmen” (Condit, History of the English Bible, p. 75).
THE END OF WYCLIFFE’S LIFE
In 1381, just three years before his death, Wycliffe boldly proclaimed that the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation was false. He taught that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper do not change substance and are merely symbolic of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Wycliffe’s protector, John Gaunt, refused to accept Wycliffe’s denial of Rome’s foundational doctrine. He warned Wycliffe to be silent about this, but Wycliffe refused, though he knew by his stand he would probably lose his protection from an earthly perspective. Gaunt did withdraw his guardianship, but Wycliffe put his trust in Someone who is larger than 6 foot 9 inches!
Wycliffe was expelled from his teaching position at Oxford at that time and was forced to withdraw to his parish of Lutterworth where he lived until his death.
In May 1382, Wycliffe was called before yet another synod of ecclesiastical authorities. This is called the Blackfriars’ Synod, because it was held in the monastery of Blackfriars in London (so named because of the black robes worn by the Dominican monks).
When the 47 bishops and monks and religious doctors took their seats, a powerful earthquake shook the city. Huge stones fell out of castle walls and pinnacles toppled. “Wycliffe called it a judgment of God and afterwards described the gathering as the ‘Earthquake Council’” (Fountain, John Wycliffe, p. 39).
The synod condemned Wycliffe, charging him specifically with 10 heresies and 16 errors. His writings were forbidden and the king gave authority to imprison all of those who believed the condemned doctrines.
Wycliffe died on December 31, 1384.
THE WYCLIFFE BIBLE
Wycliffe’s greatest influence was through the Bible that he translated. The New Testament was completed in 1380 and the Old Testament in 1382, just two years before he died.
It was revised by JOHN PURVEY, one of Wycliffe’s disciples. The Wycliffe Bible commonly distributed was the Purvey edition.
Purvey knew that the fear of God and great care were necessary for an accurate translation. The following is from the introduction he wrote to his revision:
“A translator hath great need to study well the sense both before and after, and then also he hath need to live a clean life and be full devout in prayers, and have not his wit occupied about worldly things, that the Holy Spirit, Author of all wisdom and cunning and truth, dress him for his work and suffer him not to err. God grant to us all grace to know well and to keep well Holy Writ, and to suffer joyfully some pain for it at the last.”
In 1421, Purvey was arrested a second time for his persistence in preaching against Rome’s errors and for the distribution of Scriptures. It is said that during his first arrest in 1400, he recanted, but if that is true, he repented of it and ultimately died for his faith.
It is probable that Purvey died in prison in miserable straits for his faith in the Word of God sometime during or after 1427. We are told he “endured great suffering in Saltwood Castle” (Eadie, History of the English Bible, I, p. 65).
Wycliffe’s translation was based on the Latin Vulgate, and it contained most of the errors common to that version. Following are some examples:
MATTHEW 5:44 — “bless them that curse you” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 6:13 – “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 9:13 – “to repentance” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 15:8 – “draweth nigh unto me with their mouth” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 16:3 – “O ye hypocrites” is omitted in the Wycliffe
MARK 2:17 – “to repentance” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 6:11 – “more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha” is omitted in th the Wycliffe
------ 10:21 – “take up the cross” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 13:14 – “spoken by Daniel the prophet” is omitted in the Wycliffe
LUKE 2:33 – “Joseph” is changed to “father” in the Wycliffe
------ 2:43 – “Joseph and his mother” is changed to “his parents” in the Wycliffe
------ 4:8 – “get thee behind me Satan” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 11:2-4 – “Our … which art in heaven … Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth … but deliver us from evil” is omitted in the Wycliffe
JOHN 4:42 – “the Christ” is omitted in the Wycliffe
ACTS 2:30 – “according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 7:30 – “of the Lord” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 16:7 – “Spirit of Jesus” is added in the Wycliffe
------ 17:26 – “blood” is omitted in the Wycliffe
ROMANS 1:16 – “of Christ” is omitted in the Wycliffe
1 CORINTHIANS 5:7 – “for us” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 7:5 – “fasting” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 15:47 – “the Lord” is omitted in the Wycliffe
EPHESIANS 3:9 – “by Jesus Christ” is omitted in the Wycliffe
COLOSSIANS 1:14 – “through his blood” is missing in the Wycliffe
1 THESSALONIANS 1:1 – “from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” is omitted in the Wycliffe
1 TIMOTHY 1:17 – “wise” God is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 3:16 – “God was manifest in the flesh” is changed to “which was manifest in the flesh” in the Wycliffe
------ 6:5 – “from such withdraw thyself” is omitted in the Wycliffe
HEBREWS 1:3 – “by himself” is omitted in the Wycliffe
JAMES 5:16 – “faults” is changed to “sins” in the Wycliffe
1 PETER 1:22 – “through the Spirit” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 4:1 – “for us” is omitted in the Wycliffe
REVELATION 1:11 – “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” is omitted in the Wycliffe
------ 8:13 – “angel” is changed to “eagle” in the Wycliffe
The language of the Wycliffe version is simple and forceful and laid the foundation for other Bibles in English. Following is a selection from John 11:
“The disciples said to him, Master now the Jews soughten for to stone thee, and goist thou thither? Jesus answered whether there be not twelve hours of the day? If any man wander in the night he stomlish, for light is not in him. He saith these things and after these things he saith to him Lazarus our friend sleepeth but I go to raise him from sleep; therefore his disciples saiden: Lord, if he sleepeth, he shall be safe.”
Many phrases from our English Bible of 1611 can be traced back to Wycliffe, including the following:
“for many be called, but few be chosen”; “a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country”; “he that is not against us, is for us”; “Suffer ye little children to come to me, and forbid ye them not, for of such is the kingdom of God”; “how hard it is for men that trust in riches to enter in to the kingdom of God”; “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to each creature”; “And Mary said, Lo! the handmaid of the Lord”; “ask ye, and it shall be given to you; seek ye, and ye shall find; knock ye, and it shall be opened to you”; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”; “In the beginning was the word”: “he was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”; “For God loved so the world, that he gave his one begotten Son”; “I am bread of life”; “I am the light of the world”; “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”; “I am a good shepherd”; “I and the Father be one”; “and Jesus wept”; “straight is the gate and narrow the way”; “And no man ascendeth [up] into heaven, but he that came down from heaven”; “I have overcome the world”; “my kingdom is not of this world”; “what is truth?”; “born again”;
“a living sacrifice”; “the deep things of God”; “upbraideth not”; “whited sepulchres”; “for the wages of sin is death”; “ye be the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you”; “when I was a little child, I spake as a little child, I understood as a little child, I thought as a little child”; “I have kept the faith”; “what fellowship hath light with darkness”; “we make known to you the grace of God”; “the world and all that dwell therein is the Lord’s”; “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only”; “for your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion goeth about, seeking whom he shall devour”; “Lo! I stand at the door, and knock”; “And he said to me, It is done; I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.”
In fact, some entire verses are retained in the KJV from the Wycliffe. Following are three examples:
MATTHEW 11:29 Take ye my yoke upon you, and learn ye of me, for I am mild and meek of heart; and ye shall find rest to your souls.
MATTHEW 18:20 “For where two or three shall be gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
MATTHEW 22:21 “ …Therefore yield ye to Caesar those things that be Caesar’s, and to God those things that be of God.”
The Wycliffe Bible had a strong impact on the English language itself. “There is an important relation existing between Vernacular versions of the Scriptures and the languages into which they are translated. So marked is this influence where such translation is made, that it constitutes an epoch in the literary and in the religious history of the people. … It was a bold stroke on the part of Wycliffe to set forth the Scriptures in the language of the people, but the results far exceeded his fondest expectations. In all simplicity he thought to give the word of God to his own age, but in fact he laid the foundation for the Reformation in England, and for the permanence and excellence of the English language” (Blackford Condit, History of the English Bible, 1896, pp. 79,80).
THE STRANGE TALE OF WYCLIFFE’S BONES
At the Roman Catholic Council of Constance, which met between 1415 and 1418, John Wycliffe was condemned and his bones were ordered dug up and burned. This is the same Catholic council that burned John Huss and Jerome of Prague.
“As his Bible aroused the English conscience, the pope felt a chill; he heard unearthly sounds rattle through the empty caverns of his soul, and he mistook Wickliff’s bones for his Bible. The moldering skeleton of the sleeping translator polluted the consecrated ground where it slept. The Council of Constance condemned his Bible and his bones to be burnt together” (Armitage, A History of the Baptists, I, p. 315).
For some reason, another 13 years passed before the strange deed was actually performed. It occurred during the reign of Pope Martin V (1417-1431). In 1428, nearly 44 years after his death, Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and burned and the ashes scattered. What sight could be more unscriptural, more pagan, more wicked, than these Catholic leaders digging up old bones in a grave yard so they can publicly desecrate the long-dead Bible translator and preacher of the Gospel of Grace? What other evidence do we need that the Roman Catholic Church is apostate? After the remains of Wycliffe were burned, the ashes were cast into the little river Swift, which flows near the Lutterworth church.
The British historian Thomas Fuller saw in this a far grander vision than the one enjoyed that day by the Catholic authorities that carried out the dastardly deed:
“To Lutterworth they come, Sumner, Commissarie, Official, Chancellour, Proctors, Doctors, and the Servants … take, what was left, out of the grave, and burnt them to ashes, and cast them into Swift a Neighbouring Brook running hard by. Thus this Brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow Seas; they, into the main Ocean. And thus the Ashes of Wickliff are the Emblem of his Doctrine, which now, is dispersed all the World over.”
THE INFLUENCE OF WYCLIFFE AND THE LOLLARDS
The Word of God was preached in England in a dark day and many came to the light and were saved. The record of this is largely unwritten and that which was written was largely destroyed, but it can be found in Heaven’s libraries.
After Wycliffe’s death the Lollards and other dissident believers continued to preach the Word of God and congregate together in fellowships to the extent possible.
The term “Lollard,” like the terms “Waldensian” and “Albigensian” and “Paulician,” was a catchall word that encompassed a wide variety of Christians who were opposed to Roman Catholic doctrine.
While there were Lollards who were pedobaptists and still held to some of Rome’s errors, others progressed farther in their spiritual understanding and were immersionists. This fact is commonly overlooked or denied by Protestant (and even some Baptist) historians today, but the evidence is overwhelming. In a letter dated October 10, 1519, Erasmus gave this description of the Lollards in Bohemia: “… they own no other authority than the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament; they believe or own little or nothing of the sacraments of the church; such as come over to their sect, must every one be baptized anew in mere water…” (Crosby, I, pp. 14,15). Thus Erasmus described the Lollards as Anabaptists.
The authorities in England persecuted the readers of the Wycliffe Scriptures. “This Bible provoked bitter opposition, and it became necessary for the people to meet in secret to read it, as they often did. Persecution did not begin at once, but it finally became widespread and bitter. Many suffered and it has been said that some, for daring to read the Bible, WERE BURNED WITH COPIES OF IT ABOUT THEIR NECKS” (Simms, The Bible from the Beginning, p. 161).
Many laws were passed against Bible believers, such as the following:
The Constitutions of Thomas Arundel: In 1408 Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Synod of Oxford, made a constitution which rendered it illegal to read any of Wycliffe’s writings or translations within the province of Canterbury. “Detected copies of the Bible, or of any of its component books, would consequently be destroyed” (H.W. Hoare, Our English Bible: The Story of Its Origin and Growth, 1901, p. 100). The Constitutions of Thomas Arundel made this brash demand: “WE THEREFORE DECREE AND ORDAIN THAT NO MAN SHALL, HEREAFTER, BY HIS OWN AUTHORITY, TRANSLATE ANY TEXT OF THE SCRIPTURE INTO ENGLISH, OR ANY OTHER TONGUE, by way of a book, libel, or treatise, now lately set forth in the time of John Wyckliff, or since, or hereafter to be set forth, in part of in whole, privily or apertly, upon pain of greater excommunication, until the said translation be allowed by the ordinary of the place, or, if the case so require, by the council provincial” (Eadie, I, p. 89). This was the first English statute for the burning of heretics (though Bible-believing Christians had been burned before this), and it was not repealed until 1677, or 276 years later. This is Arundel’s estimation of the Bible translator: “This pestilential and most wretched John Wycliffe of damnable memory, a child of the old devil, and himself a child or pupil of Anti-Christ, who while he lived, walking in the vanity of his mind … crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue” (Fountain, John Wycliffe, p. 45).
During the reign of Henry V (1413-22), an Act was confirmed by which the “English sheriffs were forced to take an oath to persecute the Lollards, and the justices must deliver a relapsed heretic to be burned within ten days of his accusation. ... No mercy was shown under any circumstances” (Armitage, A History of the Baptists, 1890, I, pp. 323, 325).
In 1414 the legislature under Henry V joined in asking for harder measures against the Lollards. “After a suspected rising of the Lollards, a law was passed, declaring that ALL WHO READ THE SCRIPTURES IN THE MOTHER TONGUE SHOULD ‘FORFEIT LAND, CATEL, LIF, AND GOODS, FROM THEYR HEYRES [THEIR HEIRS] FOR EVER’” (Eadie, History of the English Bible, I, p. 89).
Many of the Lollards were burned alive for their faith in the 1400s. Following are a few examples. In our Advanced Bible Studies course on Church History we list about 40 that were burned in the 15th century, but there were probably many more. Much of the record is gone.
In 1409 a tailor named Bradbe was roasted alive in a barrel (Eadie, I, p. 87; Hassell, pp. 465,66).
Thomas Bagley was burned at Smithfield in 1430. He had stated that if a priest made the consecrated wafer into God, he made a God that can be eaten by rats and mice.
At Christmas time in 1417, Sir John Oldcastle was roasted alive for his faith in the Word of God and his rejection of Rome’s authority. Oldcastle was the Lord of Cobham, a famous and fearless knight, and a favorite of King Henry IV. He loved John Wycliffe and the Wycliffe doctrine and often stood by Wycliffe or other Lollard preachers in his armor to protect them. Oldcastle used his position to shield Lollard preachers and his wealth to have copies of the Wycliffe Scriptures made for distribution. In spite of his open rejection of Roman Catholicism, Oldcastle was himself shielded King Henry IV until his death in 1413, at which time Oldcastle’s Romanist enemies connived destroy him. They falsely charged Oldcastle with plotting a rebellion against the new king and had him arrested and condemned to die as a traitor and a heretic. Brought to the place of punishment a few days before Christmas 1417, “having a cheerful countenance,” it was evident that the old warrior still carried a burden for the souls of the people. Prior to his brutal execution, he warned the people to obey the Holy Bible and to beware of false teachers, whose lives are contrary to Christ and His example. He refused to allow a Catholic priest to minister to him, boldly declaring, instead, that he would confess his sins “to God only.” Falling down on his knees, he prayed that God would forgive his persecutors. This man who had loved the Word of God and had caused it to be distributed among the people, was hung in chains and suspended over the fire to be roasted alive. As this barbarous execution proceeded, the hateful priests and monks reviled and cursed the poor man and did their best to prevent the people from praying for him. It was to no avail. The people loved the godly knight and they wept and prayed with him and for him. The last words which were heard, before his voice was drowned by the roaring flames, was “Praise God!”
John Goose was burned at Tower Hill in 1474. He had been arrested and had abjured ten years earlier, but he repented of his abjuration and continued in the truth. After Goose’s final arrest, a sheriff in London, Robert Billesdon, took the condemned man to his home to plead with him to repent of his “errors.” The steadfast believer refused and requested something to eat, saying “I eat now a good and competent dinner, for I shall pass a little sharp shower or I go to supper.” Thus, he was planning to eat his supper in Heaven, but before that, he had to go through the fire, which he described as “a little sharp shower.” After he finished his meal, John Goose asked to be taken to the execution.
In 1494, 80-year-old Joan Boughton was burned to death at Smithfield. She was charged with holding eight heretical opinions derived from Wycliffe. Joan Boughton’s daughter, Lady Young, widow of Sir John Young, a mayor of London, was also burned at the stake. She had accepted Christ and apostolic doctrine, but her husband remained a Catholic.
Many others suffered imprisonment in the Lollard’s Tower and other places:
So many of the dissident Christians were arrested and incarcerated that a tower in Lambeth Palace, the London headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was named Lollard’s Tower. It was made into a prison in the early 15th century by Archbishop Henry Chichele.
Those imprisoned in the Tower were shackled in chains. The rings for the shackles could still be seen in the early 20th century.
In one three-year period (1428-31) 120 persons were imprisoned for Lollardy.
The Lollard’s Tower was bombed on May 10, 1941, during World War II, and was “completely gutted.” It has been rebuilt and today it houses private apartments. When we had a private tour of Lambeth Palace in March 2003, our guide told us that she did not know what, if anything, still remains of the prison room. But there is a photo in the official Lambeth Palace guide book that appears to possibly have been taken after World War II and that shows a corner of the prison room with the rings in the walls (Lambeth Palace, Warners Midlands PLC: 1998, p. 11).
Many Lollards were branded and otherwise marked: Many were marked for life as “heretics” by branding or by being forced to wear special clothes.
Some were forced to wear a depiction of a fiery torch on their clothes during the rest of their lives as a reminder “that they deserved burning” and as a continual warning to others of the potential price of standing upon the Bible and rejecting Roman Catholic authority. To go into the public without this garment or with it covered meant death. “And, indeed, to poor people it was true,--put it off, and be burned; keep it on, and be starved: seeing none generally would set them on work that carried that badge about them” (Evans, Early English Baptists, I, p. 23, f1).
Others were branded on the cheeks. “Their necks were tied fast to a post with towels, and their hands holden, that they might not stir; and so the hot iron was put to their cheeks. It is not certain whether branded with L for Lollard, or H for heretic, or whether it was only a formless print of iron” (Fuller, Church History, p. 164).
The Scriptures were confiscated and burned
In 1375, the Archbishop of Prague issued orders for Wycliffe’s books to be burned, and “consequently two hundred volumes of them … were committed to the flames“ (Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists, p. 237). In 1410 about 200 copies of Wycliffe’s writings were publicly burned at Oxford.
So many of the Wycliffe Bibles were destroyed that only 15 copies of the Old Testament and 18 of the New still exist, in spite of the fact that they were reproduced over a period of more than 140 years prior to the printing of the Tyndale New Testament (Simms, The Bible from the Beginning, p. 164).
The Forbidden Book
“The Bible was worth more than life itself to many of these ancient Christians, and so it is today to those who understand its true value. “The forbidden book was often read by night, and those who had not been themselves educated listened with eagerness to the reading of others; but to read it, and to hear it read, were alike forbidden. Copies of the New Testament were also borrowed from hand to hand through a wide circle, and poor people gathered their pennies and formed copartneries for the purchase of the sacred volume. Those who could afford it gave five marks for the coveted manuscript (a very large amount of money in that day), and others in their penury gave gladly for a few leaves of St. Peter and St. Paul a load of hay. … Some committed portions to memory, that they might recite them to relatives and friends. Thus Alice Colins was commonly sent for to the meetings, ‘to recite unto them the Ten Commandments and the Epistles of Peter and James.’ … In 1429 Margery Backster was indicted because she asked her maid Joan to ‘come and hear her husband read the law of Christ out of a book he was wont to read by night.’ … The means employed to discover the readers and possessors of Scripture were truly execrable in character. Friends and relations were put on oath, and bound to say what they knew of their own kindred. The privacy of the household was violated through this espionage; and husband and wife, parent and child, were sworn against one another. The ties of blood were wronged, and the confidence of friendship was turned into a snare in this secret service. Universal suspicion must have been created; no one could tell who his accuser might be, for the friend to whom he had read of Christ’s betrayal might soon be tempted to act the part of Judas towards himself, and for some paltry consideration sell his life to the ecclesiastical powers” (Eadie, History of the English Bible, I, pp. 91, 92, 93).
The persecutions continued right up to William Tyndale’s day in the early 16th century. The Lollard believers continued to be imprisoned, persecuted, and burned. In our Advanced Bible Studies course on Church History we list 99 Christians who were burned for their faith in England between 1500 and 1532, and many others were imprisoned, beaten, and otherwise tormented.
Because of the fierce persecution in Britain, the Word of God was carried abroad. Because of the bitter persecution in England following Wycliffe’s death, multitudes of Christians were forced into exile, fleeing to the wilds of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, to Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Bohemia. As they moved from place to place, they carried with them the precious words of eternal life and in this manner the outlawed Scriptures spread even in the face of bitter persecution.
The preaching of the Word of God prepared the way for the Reformation in England and elsewhere. The groups of Christians who established their faith and practice upon the Wycliffe Bible continued to exist until the formation of the Church of England. The doctrine of the Lollards was still being proclaimed in England in 1529. The royal proclamation that year called upon the authorities to “destroy all heresies and errors commonly called Lollardies.” As late as 1546, well into the Protestant Reformation, another proclamation by the English authorities forbidding the possession of Scriptures also mentioned the writings of Wycliffe.
Thus, John Wycliffe is called the “MORNINGSTAR OF THE REFORMATION.”
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