In 1412, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quoted as saying,
“…that wretched and pestilent fellow, son of the serpent, herald and child of the Anti-Christ, John Wycliffe has filled up the measure of his malice by divining the expedient of a new translation of Scripture in the mother tongue.”
John Wycliffe, was born in Ipreswell, Yorkshire from Saxon origins. He took full advantage of his educational opportunities, went to Oxford, and eventually became one of the Masters. Having excelled in the Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Law, and in particular, Philosophy and Theology, Wycliffe became the university head in 1360 He had the king’s confidence for a time, representing him in various political arena’s. During his lifetime England was continually at war with France (the Hundred Years War), the Black Plague ravaged Europe (1348-49), and Christendom was starting to fragment as nation states began pursuing political independence from Rome.
Wycliffe came into conflict with the Church for two reasons. Firstly, he began to promote the importance of having the Bible available in English, declaring it to be the supreme authority for Christian’s, superior even to the authority of the Pope and the Church Father’s. Bragg explains the times,
“[T]he central power of words, in fourteenth century England lay in the Bible. There was no Bible in English…In formal terms; God spoke to the people in Latin… a language wholly inaccessible to the vast majority…
It would be a formidable struggle to wrench that power from the priests, to replace the Latin with English…the language of the people. The battle would eventually tear the church in two…”
Secondly, Wycliffe dared to use the Scriptures to critique the practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Amongst other things, he demanded that the Church give away all its worldly wealth to the poor. He presented these and other ideas in numerous books and treatises. His work was so saturated with quotes from the Scriptures that some called him “the evangelical doctor.” The Church saw his words and actions as subversive and seditious. He was called the “Morning Star of the Reformation” for good reasons. Cheyney says,
“It is but a short step from denying the Church temporal property to denying to it temporal office. Wycliffe asserted boldly that the Churchmen had no right to interfere in matters of government. Temporal rule belonged alone to the civil powers… The whole theory of an organized church system gradually disintegrated under Wycliffe’s critical thinking.”
Wycliffe, as a logical consequence of his stand, took the initiative and became the first to translate the whole Bible into English. In doing so, he also made a significant contribution to the English language itself. He was the first to introduce certain phrases and words into English including: “Woe is me” and “An eye for an eye.” ; “birthday, canopy, child-bearing, communication, crime, frying-pan, godly, humanity, injury, madness, menstruation, novelty, pollute, and schism.” Other words were derived directly from the Latin such as: “profession, multitude and glory.” The work was scholarly, but some felt it was influenced too much by the Latin. For example, he would often keep the same word order in the English as in the Latin leading to awkward phrasing.
Wycliffe withdrew from public life in 1378 to write. He had a stroke in 1382, and died in 1384. His teachings were officially condemned at Blackfriars in 1382, but he wasn’t declared a heretic until 1412.
Wycliffe’s followers (the Lollards) continued the work he’d begun to “bring God back to the people through the language of the land…” Despite heavy persecution, the Lollards couldn’t be stopped and John Wycliffe’s English Bible was taken all over England. So many hand-written copies were made that – despite many book burnings – 150 still exist today. Henry VIII was still trying to remove Wycliffe’s translation from circulation in 1521.
Today, Wycliffe Bible Translators carry on the tradition by sending couples to translate the Bible into the spoken language of many different people groups. Some friends of mine, Keith and Christine Berry, recently finished translating the Bible (NT) into the Abun language after 20 years of hard work.
Interestingly, these translations are playing an important role in helping many people groups to retain their own languages and cultures – some of which were never written down until the missionaries came. Given that English has become the language of globalization, it seems ironic that these indigenous translations may actually hinder that process as many indigenous peoples fight to keep their identities.