Reflections on the Past VIII: The Morning Star of the Reformation

This blog post is based on the Covenant Reformed Seminary of Asia’s lesson on Church History Module – The Forerunners of the Reformation (Part 2): John Wycliffe

We learned how the Waldensians suffered for more or less 500 years under the hands of the Roman Catholic religion. Now, we’ll see how the same large group opposed a man who held to the supremacy of God’s revealed word.

All Christian life is to be measured by Scripture; by every word thereof.

John Wycliffe

The morning star’s era

John Wycliffe (1330-1384), is known as the Grandfather or Morning Star of the Reformation. Old English. Before 1066, England had the Latin Vulgate. The Gospels, the Psalms, and the Pentateuch were translated into Old English from the Vulgate, and there’s no complete Bible in Old English. After the Norman invasion, the Old English began changing into Middle English. Middle English reigned until about 1500. Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion and Vulgate inhibited English translation work. John Wycliffe belongs to this era. There were also sentiments that the Bible should be translated into common language.

Source: John Wycliffe in a 16th-century portrait.

During the late Middle Ages, Nation States were beginning to form where political rulers resented the powerful and wealthy Roman Catholic religion that owned over 1/4 of all land in England. This was the time that they began to question the church’s claim over the entire land. King John was made a vassal of Rome by Pope Innocent III to rule England on behalf of the Pope. John was one of the persons who saw Pope’s abuse of power.

When it comes to religion. People lived in profound ignorance of the gospel because there was no printing press yet that can disseminate copies of the gospel quickly. French was spoken at court by most nobles until 1362. There was little or no English preaching in churches, many priests were ignorant of Latin and there was only a memorized liturgy.

The morning star’s Life

He was born in Richmond, England about 1330. His parents were probably well-to-do farmers. Wycliffe would doubtless be about 16 years old when he went to Oxford but to which of its colleges is uncertain. He remained in association with the University for the rest of his life, becoming first a Fellow, and then in 1361 the Master of Balliol College. He became a Doctor of Theology there also.

It was during this time that the Black Death ravish Europe which probably killed off one-third or even a half of the population. Wycliffe never forgot the terrible results of the plague that came to England in the year 1348-1353. His writings mention it frequently.

At Oxford, he achieved fame as a lecturer in theology and philosophy (Needham 382). He was well-educated. Graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1369 which is comparable to a Master’s Degree today. He also finished his Doctor of Divinity in1372. He was gifted. A leading teacher at Oxford and in many schools in Europe.

He loved the Scriptures, he was one of the first Englishmen who maintained the sufficiency and supremacy of [the] Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice (J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times 4).

In 1366, Wycliffe came to the notice of King Edward III in connection with the refusal of the King to pay tribute to the Pope; he wrote a pamphlet containing the arguments which seven lords used in Parliament when the matter was debated.

Wycliffe wrote against the Pope that “he has no right to required the King to collect money from the church in England to be sent to Rome.” He believed that the Pope is the Antichrist.

“The pope is the Antichrist, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, the most accursed of clippers and purse-curvers (robbers).”

John Wycliffe

He was a True Patriot. If the King respected him, the bishops, priests, and monks hated him. He sharply criticized the monks for their indolence, for their habit of begging, and for their perversion of religion.

He called relics foolishness. He condemned indulgences, masses for the dead, and processions and pilgrimages.

The morning star’s enemies

The bishops of the Church of England were greatly alarmed and summoned Wycliffe to appear before the Convocation of the Church at St. Paul’s, London, 1377.

He was savagely attacked by his opponents but protected by the king’s son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

In that same year, the Pope issued five Bulls (decrees) against him, condemned him on nineteen different charges taken from his writings.

The morning star as a reformer

During his writing ministry, he wrote On Divine Dominion and On Civil Dominion. J.C. Ryle notes that he was one of the first Englishmen who attacked and denounced the errors of the Church of Rome (J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times 5). When he published The Truth of Holy Scripture, he argued the the Bible alone was the only source of Christian doctrine, by which believers must test all the teachings of the Church, including the early Church fathers, the papacy and ecumenical Councils (Needham 385). He attacked the Roman Catholic religion’s exercise of power in two revolutionary points. (1) The Roman Catholic religion should not hold jurisdiction over the state, and (2) Scripture should determine tradition. In our last blog, remember that someone commented that Peter Waldo was an unlearned man and he simply gave his opinions. Here, take note that John is an Oxford University professor, and long before Luther, agreeing with Peter Waldo upheld Sola Scriptura.

In the development of his theology, he redefined the church as he wrote in his pamphlet “On Apostasy” (1379). According to him, the Church is not an external organization. It is invisible, spiritual body made up of the elect. He strongly maintained that the Head of the Church is Jesus Christ, and Pope may not even be a member. In fact, he may be the Antichrist!

He also reexamined the Scripture. During his time, people had come to regard the Bible as the clergy’s book: priests and theologians alone could interpret it correctly and teach laypeople what it meant (Needham 385). He insisted that the people ought to be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Forasmuch as the Bible contains Christ, that is all that is necessary for salvation. It is necessary for all men, not for priests alone. It alone is the supreme law that is to rule Church, State, and Christian life, without human traditions and statutes.

(Christian History 6:26).

Furthermore, he advocated that priests ought to preach the word since they only memorize their liturgy. He said, “Some men who preach tell the tales that they find in the saints’ lives without teaching Holy Writ. And such things often please more people. But we believe there is a better way – to avoid such that please and, instead, to trust in God and to tell surely his law and especially his Gospel.” He continued, “And since these words are God’s words, they should be taken and believed, and God’s words will give men new life more than the other words that are for pleasure.”

In the Scripture, he found no evidence of: Roman Catholic Bishops – “overseers” are pastors, pilgrimages, & indulgences, of which he said, There is no greater heresy for a man than to believe that he is absolved from sin if he gives money, or because a priest lays his hand on his head and says “I absolve you,” for you must be sorrowful in your heart, else God does not absolve you.

In re-thinking the Mass, John of Gaunt withdrew his support to Wyclif. But they cannot touch him because he was well-known during his time.

Pastor Jeremiah said that the great crisis of Wycliffe’s life was when he attacked the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, that is, the teaching that in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. As all the priests claimed the power to perform this so-called miracle, it raised them, in the eyes of the Church, high above princes. Wycliffe’s attitude in the matter aroused the greatest opposition, the king began to withdraw his support, and as for the University of Oxford, the heads and fellows of its various colleges were also in opposition to him. But he was so popular with the common people that his enemies feared to molest him. Possibly he might have brought about a better state of things in the Roman Catholic religion had he used more moderation and had he possessed more patience. But he wished to overthrow with one blow the false teachings of Rome and to re-establish the pure, undiluted gospel. Yet, he discovered, as time passed, that reformation could not be brought about in one year or in ten. It required long effort and much patience.

These were revolutionary ideas, 140 years before Luther made these same discoveries.

The morning star’s persecution

Even though Wycliff had nothing to do with the Peasant Revolt, he and his supporters were blamed for it. As a result, John of Gaunt persuaded Wycliffe to postpone his plans. Wycliffe, on the other hand, printed a pamphlet presenting his confession of faith. At this time, Parliament requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury convene a church council to resolve the issues. Because of the tremor that happened while the council was in session, the council became known as the Earthquake Council (1382). This was interpreted by Wycliffe’s supporters as a sign of divine intervention in their favor. Despite this, Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned.

He felt the persecution when his patron, John of Gaunt, withdrew his support. During the Blackfriars Synod (1382), assembled by an old nemesis, Archbishop Courtney, 24 of his theological positions were condemned. He was also fired from Oxford and suffered a severe stroke. Indeed, This is the cost of following the truth!

The morning star’s legacy

Although Wycliffe’s followers and friends suffered persecution, Wycliffe himself remained untouched. He retired to Lutterworth, and lived a quiet but active life there until his death on the last day of the year 1384. He began translating the Latin Vulgate into English with a group of colleagues which came to be known as the First English New Testament. They completed the translation in two years. He suffered a second stroke while celebrating the Lord’s Table in December 1384 and died on December 31, 1384, at 54 years old.

The Wycliffe Bible was completed by his assistants, producing first copy shortly after his death and began distributing copies of this first English translation of the Bible. His followers became known as Lollards (this word may be related to “mumblers” in medieval Dutch – a derogatory language). He delegated group of preachers who were called Lollard Preachers to preach the gospel.

His followers faced severe opposition. In English Church Council (1408), the Wycliffe Bible was condemned, and those who owned or sell one were punishable by death. It continued through the 15th century. Lollards were excommunicated and often executed, and Bible bonfires were held.

During the Council of Constance (1415), they assembled to solve papal schism. Again they condemned Wycliffe (and his Bible) on 260 counts and burned his disciple Jan Hus. Pope Martin V also exhumed and burned Wycliffe’s body in 1428. The ashes were thrown into River Swift, which runs through Lutterworth.

The Chronicler Thomas Fuller writes, They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they went into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.

Today, 250 Wycliffe Bibles have survived and can still be found in many libraries and museums. Truly, he paved the way for the Reformation in English in the 16th century, and his work was picked by the great English translator William Tyndale. The Word of God must be heard, and great are those who endeavored to preach it and make it known.

Where the Bible and the Church do not agree, we must obey the Bible, and, where the conscience and human authority are in conflict, we must follow conscience.

John Wycliffe

Sinclair Ferguson applies his legacy when he writes, “…we learn the importance of getting the Word of God into the hands of the people. Despite the fact that the church’s hierarchy was beset with ambitions for earthy power, some were focused on helping people know God’s Word and be transformed by the gospel” (Church History 101).

According to Steven Lawson, John Wycliffe maintained seven positions:

  1. The Bible is the Sole criterion of Doctrine
  2. No Church Council can add to the teaching of the Bible
  3. The Authority of the Pope has no Scriptural basis
  4. He spoke against Indulgences
  5. He denied the doctrine of Purgatory
  6. He asserted that Christ Alone is the Head of the Church.
  7. The True Church is Made of the Elect only

The true church of Christ in all ages though persecuted is kept by God’s hand. Satan and his subjects are actively working to destroy the church but praised be unto God who has raised men who are willing to stand and die for the truth, who were really Light from Old Times. The church will stand because her Head, Jesus Christ is with her and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.

The higher the hill, the stronger the wind; so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.

John Wycliffe



  • Houghton, S M, and B J Bennink. Sketches from Church History. Edinburgh ; Carlisle, Pa., Banner Of Truth Trust, , Printing, 1980.
  • Needham, Nick R. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. Volume 2, the Middle Ages. London, Grace Publications Trust, 2016.
  • Hall, Gary J. John Wycliffe, A Light Shining in a Dark Place.,
  • Ferguson, Sinclair B, et al. Church History 101 : The Highlights of Twenty Centuries. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.
  • Ryle, J C. Light from Old Times. London, Evangelical Press, 1980.
  • Lawson, Steven. The Road to the Reformation: Wycliffe to Luther

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

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