John Wyclif (c. 1328-1384)
A precursor of the Reformation in England
and the Lollards
Wyclif, a distant precursor of the Reformation, challenged the Church’s authority and hierarchy. His followers, the Lollards, instigated a peasant revolt. They denounced the established Church.
He called into question the established Church
Coming from a family of minor nobility in Yorkshire, John Wyclif was a brilliant student at Oxford, first studying science and then theology ; he obtained his doctorate in 1372. He was a professor at Oxford university then entered the service of the king of England.
From 1374 onwards, he published a large number of theological pamphlets in which he set out his doctrine :
- the ecclesiastical hierarchy : the true Church is the invisible Church of Christians in a state of grace. If they are in a state of mortal sin, the members of the hierarchy, and the pope himself, are excluded from it. Wyclif even advocated that the choice of pope be done by lot. The right to own property came directly from God (the pope was not involved). A king was responsible to God alone,
- the Bible is the ultimate authority,
- the indulgences : a sin can only be forgiven if there is expiation and only God can forgive,
- on the other hand, Wyclif still upheld the dogma that Christ was truly present in the bread at communion.
Wyclif was reproached with causing social disorder. His doctrine was forbidden in 1382 by three synods held in London by the dominicans but he himself was not excommunicated.
The Lollards spread his ideas far and wide
Wyclif created his own religious order, the Lollards, whom he sent out to preach all over England. Many people were interested in what they had to say.
Their sermons led, in part, to an uprising of the peasants in Sussex and Kent. They massacred many landlords, both noble and clerical, then invaded London in 1381. This revolt was bloodily suppressed by the authorities.
Their « Twelve Conclusions » (1395) attacked the established Church, the sacraments, the prayers for the dead, confession. The Lollards wanted people to have a simple, « evangelical » faith : every man should have free access to the Scriptures in his own language. Thanks to the Lollards, two translations of the Bible into English were carried out.
An English decree issued in 1401 set out that a Lollard heretic should be burnt at the stake.
A posthumous influence
Wyclif’s ideas spread all over England and beyond, especially to Prague and all over central Europe, where they inspired Jan Hus.
Long after his death, the council of Constance in 1415 declared him a heretic. In 1428, his body was removed from consecrated ground, burnt and then thrown into the River Swift.
The Lollard movement foreshadowed certain ideas of the Reformation and influenced public opinion in favour of the separation of the English Church with Rome, a decision made by Henry VIII in 1534.
- CONGAR Yves, L’Église, de saint Augustin à l’époque moderne, Paris, 1970
- KENNY Anthony, Wyclif, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985
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