John Wycliffe's Life and Work

An early critic of the Roman Catholic church and an advocate for translating the Bible into English, John Wycliffe paved the way for later reformers like Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

  • Diana Severance, Ph.D. edited by Dan Graves, MSL
  • 2023 7 Feb
John Wycliffe's Life and Work

John Wycliffe set the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation with his criticisms of the Roman Catholic church and his translation of the Bible into English. Let's take a look at this man's life and his importance today. 

John Wycliffe: Reformation Morningstar

John Wycliffe, heralded as the "Morning star of the Reformation" was the leading philosopher of the 14th century and an English priest.  There were many reformers throughout the history of the Christian church and all of the great ones that we will look at in the next several issues came from within the Roman Catholic heritage. They did not set out to form new denominations nor did they seek to break from the Church. Rather, they passionately desired that the Church reform from within and correct abuses that had crept in over many generations.

In the sixteenth century the need for drastic reform and correction of religious abuses burst forth in full force with leaders, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. (We will look at them in future issues in this cycle.) But a necessary groundwork had been laid long before them through the work, vision, and sacrifice of others like Hus (next issue) and John Wycliffe.

Pressures common to Modern Life: War and Disease

If you had lived in Wycliffe's time, you would have found many of the same uncertainties and pressures that are common to our own age. Seismic shifts dislocated the settled patterns of life. The "Black Plague" swept across England and Europe and in some places wiped out one-third of the population. What was known as the "100 Years War" between England and France sapped energy and resources. Wage controls locked the poor into a marginal existence and led to the violent Peasant's Revolt in England in 1381.

Both behavior and belief corrupted

Wycliffe cared deeply for the poor and common folk and railed against the abuses of the Church. The Church owned over one-third of the land in England. Clergy were often illiterate and immoral. High offices in the church were bought or given out as political plums. But the problems went even deeper. Wycliffe, a devoted student of the Bible, saw that some of the doctrines of the church had departed from biblical moorings. Based on his study of the Scripture, John wrote and preached against the teachings about purgatory, the sale of indulgences, and the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Recovery from rejection

This was too much. Even John's highly placed political friends deserted him. Church authorities had him banished from his university teaching post at Oxford. But his exile turned into a kind of liberation. Some of his students joined him at the parish church in Lutterworth. There they undertook the monumental task of translating all the Scriptures into English, working from a handwritten Latin translation that was over 1000 years old. And they continued John Wycliffe's practice of training "poor preachers," known as Lollards, who took the Word out to the common people across the land.

Think for a moment what it would mean to you if you could not own a Bible or if the Bible was not even available in your language. What if you were taught that the Bible was only for church officials to study and interpret? That was the exactly the case in Wycliffe's England.

Seed which overpowers . . . softens

So, nothing was more important to Wycliffe than getting the Bible and its message into the language and hearts of the people. He knew the Scriptures would change lives. As he put it: God's words will give men new life more than the other words that are for pleasure. O marvelous power of the Divine Seed which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into divine men, those men who had been brutalized by sins, and departed infinitely far from God. Obviously such miraculous power could never be worked by the work of a priest, if the Spirit of Life and the Eternal Word did not, above all things else, work with it.

A buried threat

John Wycliffe was condemned by the church and died of a stroke on New Year's Eve in 1384. But his memory and influence continued so strong that he was formally condemned again thirty years later at the Council of Constance. Orders were given for his writings to be destroyed, his bones exhumed and burned, and the ashes to be thrown into the nearby river. Somehow the Church authorities thought that by burning his remains they might erase his memory.

But even such bizarre and extreme actions could not could stop the hunger for God's Word and truth that Wycliffe had uncompromisingly advocated. The chronicler Fuller put it this way:

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 into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of John Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.

Wycliffe's work goes on today

How appropriate that a great missionary organization founded in 1942 took its name and inspiration from the "morning star" reformer. In cooperation with other like-minded ministries, Wycliffe Bible Translators aims to translate the Bible into every one of the over 2,500 remaining languages on earth that don't have the Scriptures. John Wycliffe, no doubt, smiles with joy.

(Excerpted from "John Wycliffe: Reformation Morningstar" by Ken Curtis)

John WycliffeeGraphic by G. Connor Salter. Photo is public domain painting by Thomas Kirby

Wycliffe's Final Days

The word that John Wycliffe was dying whipped like storm winds across England. Now on this day, December 30, 1384, clerics--many of them his enemies--crowded into his room at Lutterworth. If they hoped to hear some last word or a recantation from him, they were disappointed. John could not speak.

Two days earlier, he had grown numb and collapsed while saying mass. When he came to from this, his second stroke, he was paralyzed and unable to speak.

The Life of John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe was the most famous priest of his day. His learning was immense. He had been a leading scholar at Oxford and a chaplain to the King of England. More to the point, he spoke out boldly against the errors of the popes, the organizational hierarchy of the Roman Church, and the corruption of the clergy in his day. He criticized not only the organization of the medieval church but its theology as well and argued for a return to the Scriptures. Pastors should live lives of simplicity and holiness, he taught, shepherding their flocks (people)--not plundering them.

If the people in England were to know the truth, Wycliffe reasoned that they must have the Word of God in their own language. Under his direction, the Bible was translated into English for the first time, although the job was not completed by his associates until 1395, eleven years after his death. Repeatedly condemned and burned by church authorities, copies of Wycliffe's Bible continued in use for over a century, until printed Bibles took their place. This work greatly influenced William Tyndale who made the first printed translation of the New Testament into English.

We can still puzzle out the meaning of John Wycliffe's words. Here is how he describes the transfiguration: "And after six dayes Jesus took Petre, and James, and John and ledith [led] hem [them] by hem selve aloone into a high hil; and he is transfigurid before hem. And his clothis ben maad [were made] schynynge [shining] and white ful moche [much] as snow, and which maner clothis a fullere [cloth worker], or walkere [worker] of cloth, may not make white on erthe. And Helye [Elijah] with Myses apperide [appeared] to hem, and thei weren [were] spekynge [speaking] with Jhesu."

The Death of John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe died of his stroke on the last day of the year. The religious authorities had never excommunicated him because they feared public opinion--the people loved John and his fame was international. So he was buried in consecrated soil. But about thirty years later, the Council of Constance revenged itself on his criticism by condemning his teachings and ordering his bones to be dug up and burned.

But the burning of such a man's bones could not end his influence. As John Foxe said in his book of martyrs, "though they dug up his body, burnt his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet to this day...doth remain."

John Wycliffe stained glassPhoto Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Randy OH


  1. Adapted from earlier Christian History Institute stories.
  2. Bowie, Walter Russell. Men of Fire. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.
  3. Caughey, Ellen. John Wycliffe: herald of the Reformation Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour, 2001.
  4. Innis, George S. Wycliffe: the morning star. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1915.
  5. Kenny, Anthony. Wycliffe Oxford University Press, 1985.
  6. Kunitz, Stanley L. British Authors Before 1800; a biographical dictionary. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952.
  7. Russell, Bertrand. Wisdom of the West. London, 1959. p. 215.
  8. Wood, Douglas C. The Evangelical Doctor: John Wycliffe and the Lollards Herts, England: Evangelical Press, 1984.
  9. "Wycliffe, John." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1996.

Last updated July, 2007

(Excerpted from "John Wycliffe on His Death Bed" by Diana Severance, Ph.D. edited by Dan Graves, MSL)

Cover Photo Credit: 1853 painting by Robert Vaughan/Wikimedia Commons

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