Select Memoirs of the Reformers
The first English Reformer
JOHN WICKLIFF, or De Wickliffe, was born at a village of the same name, situated near Richmond in Yorkshire, but now extinct. He was early sent to Oxford, and at first admitted commoner of Queen’s College, and afterwards at Merton, where he became fellow. Merton college, at this time, was the best seminary in the university for great and learned men; and the following eminent individuals were his contemporaries at this celebrated seat of learning: Walter Burley, called the plain doctor; William Occam, called the singular doctor; Thomas Bradwardine, the profound doctor; Simon Mephatn, and Simon Islip; which last three succeeded one another as archbishops of Canterbury; William Rede, an excellent Mathematician, and Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry. Wickliff was afterwards called Dr. Evangelicus, or the Gospel Doctor, from his close application to the study of the Holy Scriptures, in which he took great delight. He was soon distinguished among his illustrious contemporaries for the vivacity of his genius, the elegance of his wit, and the strength of his reasoning. He was celebrated as a philosopher and a divine to that degree, that men of mediocrity considered him something more than human. He had acquired a thorough knowledge of the civil and canon law, the study of which, at that period, had been much neglected, as well as the municipal laws of his own country, in which he was an able proficient. He not only studied and commented on the scriptures, but also translated them into his own language, and wrote homilies on several passages, and was well acquainted with the writings of St. Austin, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory, the four fathers of the Latin church. He was thirtysix years of age, however, before he had an opportunity of exerting his excellent talents, or attracting the public observation.
The mendicant friars established at Oxford in 1230, had been extremely troublesome to the university, and occasioned considerable inquietude, both to the chancellor and scholars, by encroaching on their privileges, and setting up an exempt jurisdiction. These preaching friars laid hold on every opportunity to entice the students from the colleges, and into their convents, which greatly deterred the people from sending their children to the university. To remove this evil, an act of parliament, passed in 1366, prohibiting them from receiving any scholar under the age of eighteen; and empowering the king to adjust all controversies between them and the university. Still the friars, audaciously disregarding the determination of parliament, persevered in their offensive courses. Wickliff distinguished himself, on this occasion, by the boldness and zeal with which he attacked their errors and usurpations; while they endeavored to defend their mendicant profession by asserting, that the poverty of Christ and his apostles made them possess all things in common, and beg for a livelihood. This mendicant trade was first opposed by Richard Kilmyngton, dean of St. Paul’s, then by the archbishop of Armagh, and afterwards by Wickliff, Thorsby, Bolton, Hereford, Bryts, and Norris, who openly opposed: the system at Oxford, and made the friars ashamed of their ignorance and audacity. Wickliff wrote with an ease and elegance unknown in that age, especially in the English language, of which he is not improperly considered amongst the first improvers. The following specimen will shew what improvements have taken place, particularly in the orthography, since his day: In one of his tracts, where he exposes the friars for seducing the students of the university into their convents, he goes on to say, that “Freres drawn children to Christ’s religion into their private order, by hypocrisie, lesings, and steling; for they, telling that their order is more holy than any other, that they shullen have higher degree in the bliss of heaven than other men that been not therein, and seyn that men of their order shullen never come to hell, but shullen come other men with Christ at doomsday.” He wrote and published several tracts against sturdy beggars and idle beggary. In one of which he observes, that “There were abundance of poor people in the world prior to the existence of the mendicant orders; that their numbers had increased, and were still; increasing, while these indolent and impudent beggars, roaming from house to house, took advantage of the piety and simplicity of the people, and were snatching the morsel of charity from the famishing mouths of the aged and the infirm. That their vows of poverty amounted to a declaration, on their part, that they were determined to lead a life of indolence and idleness; and that whoever might be hungry, they should be fed at the expense of the community, and riot on the earnings of industrious poverty.”
He disputed with a friar, on the subject of idle beggary, before the duke of Gloucester, to whom he sent an account of both their arguments, addressing his grace in these words, “To you, lord, who herde the disputation, be geve the fyle to rubbe away the rust in either partye.” By these controversies, Wickliff acquired such a reputation in the university, that, in 1361, he was advanced to master of Baliol college; and four years after, made warden of Canterbury Hall, founded by Simon de Islip, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1361. The letters of institution, by which the archbishop appointed Wickliff to this wardenship, are dated the fourteenth of December 1365, in which he is mentioned as “a person in whose fidelity, circumspection, and industry, his grace very much confided, and one on whom he had fixed his eyes for that place, on account of the honesty of his life, his laudable conversation, and knowledge of letters.” Wickliff performed the duties of his office to the satisfaction, and with the approbation of all concerned, till the death of the archbishop in April 1366, when the archiepiscopal dignity was conferred on Simon Langham, bishop of Ely, who had been a monk, and was much inclined to favor the religious against the seculars. The monks of Canterbury, calculating on the frater feelings of the archbishop, applied to Langham to eject Wickliff from his wardenship, and the other seculars from their fellowships, alleging that, according to the original institution, the warden ought to be a monk, nominated by the prior and chapter of Canterbury, and appointed by the archbishop, but that Wickliff had obtained it by craft.
Accordingly, Wickliff and three other seculars were ejected, and a mandate issued, requiring their obedience to Woodhall as their warden. This they refused, as being contrary to the oath they had taken to the founder; and Langham sequestrated the revenue, and carried off the books and other things which the founder, by his will, had left to the hall.
Wickliff and his suffering companions appealed to the pope; the archbishop replied; and the pope commissioned cardinal Andruynus to examine and determine the matter. In 1370, the cardinal ordained, by a definitive sentence, which was confirmed by the pope, That none but the monks of Christ church, Canterbury , sought to remain in the college called Canterbury Hall; that’ the seculars should be all expelled? that Woodball, ‘and the other monks who were deprived, should be restored; and that perpetual silence should be imposed on Wickliff and his associates. Against such a powerful combination, Wickliff and three poor clerks formed but a feeble opposition; the decree pursuant to the papal bull, was rigorously executed, and the maleficent intentions of the founder frustrated by these arbitrary proceedings.
While this dispute was carrying on, king Edward had a notice from pope Urban, that he intended to summon him before his court at Avignon, to answer for his default of not performing” the homage that king John had acknowledged to the Roman see, and for refusing to pay the tribute of 700 marks yearly, granted by that prince to the pope. This subject was discussed in parliament, where it was determined to oppose the arbitrary claim with all the energy of the country; Here the pope prudently stopped short; nor has his successors, ever since, attempted to revive the odious claim. A monk, however, more daring than his brethren, ventured to defend the justice and propriety of the pontifical demand; to which defense Wickliff replied, and proved that the resignation of the crown, and the tribute promised by John, could neither prejudice the nation, or obligate the present king, inasmuch as the transaction was done without the consent of parliament. This especially procured for Wickjiff the bitter resentment of the pope, but introduced him to the knowledge of the court, and particularly to the duke of Lancaster, who took him under his patronage. At this timer Wickliff styled himself pecetarus regis clencus, or the king’s own chaplain; but, in order to avoid the personal injury intended by his adversaries, he professed himself an obedient son of the Roman church. The reputation he had acquired received no injury from his expulsion from Canterbury Ball; the obvious partiality of the transaction rather pointed him out as a meritorious, but mnchrinjured individual; and Wickliff was soon after presented, by favor of the duke of Lancaster, to the living of Lutterworth, in the diocese of Lincoln; where he published, in his writings and sermons, certain papers, which, because they were at variance with the doctrines of the day were considered as novel or heretical. Wickliff not haying explicitly declared his sentiments till after losing his wardenship, his enemies nave taken occasion to accuse him of acting from a spirit of revenge from the injuries he had received, “I shall not,” says Rapin, “undertake to clear him of this charge, God also sees into the hearts of men; it is rashness, therefore, either to accuse or excuse them, with regard to the motives of their actions. I shall only take notice, that his bitterest enemies have never taxed him with any immoralities. He was turned out of his wardenship by the court of Rome; and a man must % of a very disinterested way of thinking, who would not resent such notorious partiality. Moreover, the spirit of the times was no small inducement to the measures he pursued.” “I must, however,” says Mr. Guthrie, “do Wickliff the justice, which has not been done him before, of observing, that he seems to have maintained his reforming opinions even before he was turned out of his rectorship.” This is the more to his honor, that it comes from an author unfriendly to his memory. The same opinion is further confirmed by the ingenious Mr. Gilpin; and Wickliff’s tract, entitled, The Last Age of the Church, published fourteen years before his expulsion, leaves the matter no longer doubtful. In 1372 he took his degree as doctor of divinity, and read lectures in it with very great applause. So much was his authority regarded, and his opinion respected hi the schools, that he was considered as an oracle. In these lectures he boldly exposed the fooleries and superstitions of the friars; he charged them with holding fifty heresies; he exhibited their1 corruptions, tore off the veil of pretended piety that covered their immoral and licentious lives, and lashed their beggary with unsparing severity. The pope still continued to dispose of the dignities and ecclesiastical benefices of the English church as he thought fit, a large proportion of which were bestowed on Frenchmen, Italians, and other aliens, who bad their revenues remitted abroad, to the great loss of the nation. The parliament complained to the king, who ordered an exact survey of all the ecclesiastical dignities and benefices, throughout his dominions, that were in the hands of aliens. The enormous amount astonished the king, who appointed seven ambassadors to treat with the pope on this delicate subject, and Dr. Wickliff was the second person mentioned in the order. The commission was met at Surges by the pope’s nuncio, two bishops and a provost, who, after consulting two years, agreed that the pope should forego the reservations of benefices. But all treaties with that corrupt court were useless. The very next year the parliament had to complain that the treaty had been infracted; and a long bill was brought in against the Roman usurpations, which were considered the cause of all the plagues, injuries, famine, and poverty, under which the nation groaned The tax paid to the pope was calculated to amount to five times the sum paid in taxes to the king; and it was roundly asserted, that when God gave his sheep to the pope, it was for the purpose of being pastured, not to be fleeced, and far less to be fled.
The doctor was, by this time, better acquainted with the pride, avarice, ambition, and tyranny of the pope, whom he designated the proud priest of Rome, Antichrist, the most accursed of clippers and pursekerpers. Nor did he spare the corruption that prevailed among the prelates and inferior clergy, asserting that .the abomination of desolation originated in the pride, profusion, and profligacy of a perverse clergy. Of prelates, he says, “O Lord, what token of meekness and forsaking of worldly riches is this, a prelate, as an abbot or priory that is dead to the world, and pride and vanity thereof, to ride with fourscore horse, with harness of silver and gold, and to spend, with earls and barons, and their poor tenants, both thousand marcs and pounds, to meantime a false plea of the world, and forbear men of their rights.” But Wickliff sufficiently experienced the persecuting animosity of those men he thus attempted to reform.
The monks complained to the pope that Wickliff had opposed his claim, to the homage and tribute due from the English nation, and .supported the royal supremacy; and, moreover, charged him with nineteen articles of heresy, which they had carefully extracted from his public lectures and sermons; all which were forwarded to his holiness. As these charges are inserted in the Introductory Sketch, we shall only notice their general import in this place, namely, That the true church is one, and composed of the predestinated to eternal life; that reprobates, though they be in, are not of this true church; that the Eucharist, after consecration, is not the real body of Christ, but a sign or symbol thereof; that the church of Rome is; no more the head of this true church, than any other church is her head; that Peter had no more authority given him than any other of the apostles; that the pope had no more power than another, priest in exercising the keys; that the gospel was sufficient to direct a Christian in the conduct of life; that neither popes or prelates had any right to imprison or punish men for their opinions, but that every man had a right to think for himself.
This was laying the axe to the root of the tree. It went to exempt the members of the church from corporeal punishment under ecclesiastic laws, and, on the other hand, to remove the exemption of clergymen, and the goods of the church, from the power of the civil magistrate. Such are the heresies with which this famous .reformer was charged; and, if we consider :for a moment the circumstances under which this noble stand for: the rights of men, and the purity of faith and manners, was .made, we shall find more cause of astonishment at what was attempted, than surprise that his reprehensions were not further extended.
Wickliff had now opened the eyes of the people, who began to think the moment they could see; to which the example of the duke of Lancaster and lord Henry Percy,, earl marshal, added considerable excitement, by taking him, and the cause he defended, under their particular protection and patronage. All this alarmed the court of Rome, and Gregory XI issued a number of bulls against this heretic, all dated the twenty second of Mayl3T7. One was addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, a second to the king, and a third to the university of Oxford. In the first bull, addressed to the prelates, the pope tells them, that he was informed Wickliff had rashly proceeded to that detestable degree of madness, as not to be afraid to assert, and publicly preach, such propositions as were erroneous and false, contrary to the faith, and threatening to subvert and weaken the estate of the whole church; he therefore required them to apprehend and imprison him, by his authority, to take his confession concerning his propositions and conclusion’s, and transmit the same to Rome, also whatever he should say or write by way of introduction or proof. Of the king, he requested his patronage and assistance, to the bishops in the prosecution. But the king died before his bull reached England, and the university treated theirs with contempt, and protected Wickliff; who was also powerfully protected by the duke of Lancaster and lord Percy. These noblemen avowed their determination not to suffer him to be imprisoned;” neither as yet was there any act of parliament empowering the bishops to imprison heretics without the royal assent. But the delegated prelates issued their mandate to the chancellor of the university of Oxford, commanding him to cite Wickliff to appear before them, in the church of St. Paul, London, in thirty days.
In the mean time, the first parliament of Richard II. met at “Westminster, where the important question, Whether it was lawful to retain the tribute, and refuse the homage, claimed, by the pope from the king and the English nation, was, after much discussion, submitted to the decision of Dr. Wickliff; who declared the retention wise and warrantable.
The day appointed for Wickliff’s examination arrived, when he appeared at St. Paul’s, attended by the duke of Lancaster and lord Percy. His learning, talents, and integrity, had procured him the friendship and good opinion of these illustrious noblemen, who assured him he had nothing to fear in appearing before the bishops, who were mere children, and ignorantly compared with himself; that he might therefore, make his defense with the utmost confidence. An immense concourse of people blocked up the passage, so that there was great difficulty in entering the church. The manner of their entrance, with a train of attendants, was highly offensive to the bishop of London, to whom it appeared more like a triumph than a trial. The court was held in the chapel, where a number of prelates and few noblemen attended. Wickliff, according to custom, stood up to hear what was charged against him. The lord marshal would have him seated; the bishop of London opposed the proposition. The duke of Lancaster, in a warm reply, threatened to humble the pride of all the prelates in England; the bishop, making an animated and rather sarcastic reply, the duke threatened to drag him out of the church by the hair of his head, and in an instant all was uproar and confusion. The Londoners would revenge the insult offered to their bishop; the noblemen treated the citizens with disdain, and carried off their protégée in triumph.
The duke of Lancaster was made president of the council, and the bishops, enraged at the treatment they had received, as well as to please the pontiff, would have gladly exercised the utmost severities against this audacious heretic; but they were cautious in drawing down the resentment of his powerful protectors. He was summoned, however, a second time before them at Lambeth, where he appeared, and had a very different reception from the good citizens of London, who now rushed into the chapel to encourage the Doctor, and intimidate his adversaries. Wickliff seemed willing to give the prelates some sort of satisfaction, and presented a paper, wherein he explained the several conclusions with which he was charged. It is more than probable, that an explication so general would not have satisfied the delegates, if the king’s mother had not sent Sir Lewis Clifford to forbid their proceeding to any definitive sentence against him. On receiving this message, the delegates were utterly confounded; and, as their own historian relates, the asperity of “their speech became as smooth as oil,” though burning with rage at this fatal and unexpected rebuff. All thoughts of censure or punishment were therefore immediately relinquished, silence enjoined, and the heretic dismissed. To the silence imposed on Wickliff he paid no regard, but more avowedly than ever maintained his opinions, going about barefooted, it is said, in a long freeze gown, preaching every where to the people, and without the least reserve, in his own parish. All this assiduity and public exertion but ill agrees with the equivocating evasions with which he is said to have explained his opinions before, these bishops. But timidity was, of all others, the least observable ingredient in the temperament of this great man; nor can there be any thing more improbable than the disguise he has been charged with in explaining his sentiments. A modern writer, however, takes upon himself to say, that Wickliff appears to have been a man of slender resolution, and that his explanations are awkward apologies. Before venturing this bold and groundless assertion, this writer might, at least for his own credit, have considered, that the slender resolution and awkward apologies he charges on Wickliff, are merely what we have received from Walsingham, whom he has elsewhere charged with disingenuous partiality.
The duke of Lancaster flattered himself with the hopes of becoming sole regent during the minority of his nephew; but the parliament joined some bishops and noblemen with him in the regency, which considerably damped the rising spirits of the followers of Wickliff, who were, by this time, 1377, become so astonishingly numerous, that, it is said, two men could not be found together but one was a Wickliffite. But the death of Gregory XI March 1378, was highly favorable to Wickliff, as it put an end to the commission and power of the delegated bishops; and the double election to the pontificate, that happened at this time, afforded a breathing space to his persecuted followers, as Urban VI. was not acknowledged in England till the end of the following year. In the interim, he wrote a tract, entitled, the Schism of the Roman Pontiffs; and shortly after published his book on the Truth of the Scriptures, in which he contended, contrary to the faith of the church, for the necessity of having them translated into the English language; asserting that the law of Christ was a sufficient rule to his church; that the will of God was delivered to man in two testaments; and that all disputations, not originating from thence, must be accounted profane.
The fatigue of attending the delegates threw Wickliff into a dangerous fit of illness on his return to Oxford. On this occasion he was waited on by a very extraordinary deputation. The begging friars, whom he had heretofore treated with so much severity, sent four of their order, accompanied by four of the most respectable citizens of Oxford, to attend him; who having gained admission to his bedchamber, acquainted him, that on learning he lay at the point of death, they had been sent, in name of their order, to put him in mind of the manifold injuries he had done them, and hoped, that now, for the sake of his own soul, he would render them that justice that yet remained in his power, by retracting, in presence of these respectable persons, the many false and malicious slanders, and injurious misrepresentations, he had published of their lives and opinions. Wickliff, surprised at the solemnity of this strange deputation, raised himself on his pillow, and, with a stern countenance, thundered in their ears, “I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars.” Struck with the unexpected foree of his expression, and the terror of his looks, the deputation retired in precipitant confusion. In 1380, while the parliament was engaged in framing a statute for rendering all foreign ecclesiastics ineligible to hold any benefices in England, and for expelling from the kingdom all foreign monks, Wickliff was ardently employed, both by his lectures and his writings, in exposing the Roman court, and detecting the vices of the clergy, whether religious or secular. Wickliff considered it as one of the leading errors of popery, that the bible was locked up from the people; and having resolved to remove that grievous inconveniency, by a translation, was encouraged in the undertaking with the best wishes of alt sober people. It, however, raised the clamors of an enraged priesthood; and Knighton, a canon of Leicester, has left us a “specimen of the language of his brethren on this important subject. “Christ,” says he, “entrusted his gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, to minister it to the laity and weaker sort, .according to their exigencies and several occasions. But this: Mr. John Wickliff, by translating it, has made it vulgar, and laid it more open to the laity, and even women who can read, than it used to be to the most learned of .the clergy and those of the best understanding; and thus the gospel jewel, the evangelical pearl, is thrown about, and trode under the foot of swine.” Wickliff and his assistants were at much pains in making their translation. Having carefully corrected the Latin text, collected the glosses, and consulted the ancient fathers, they proceeded with the translation, not literally, but so as to express the meaning and import of the text, according to the Hebrew, as well as the Latin bibles. In this laborious undertaking, they found the commentators, and particularly the annotations of Lyra, of especial service; they distinguished the books having the authority of holy writ from such as were apocryphal, and asserted the justness of their translation.
The zeal of the clergy to suppress Wickliff’s bible, only tended, as is commonly the case, to promote the circulation. The reformers, who possessed the ability, purchased whole copies; the poorer sort were obliged to content themselves with transcripts of particular gospels or epistles, as their inclinations directed, and their means enabled them. Hence it became a practice among the prelates, when the reformers became numerous , and the fires of persecution were kindled, to fasten these scraps of the scriptures about the necks of the condemned heretics, and to commit them, with their possessor, .to the flames. Wickliff still proceeded by detecting the errors, and lashing the abuses of the clergy, and set himself to oppose, both with the arms of reason and ridicule, that doctrine of absurdity called transubstantiation. Prior to the ninth century there had been a vast number of foolish ceremonies attached to the sacrament of the supper, and, with a view to impress the minds of the communicants, much nonsense had been expressed about the Eucharist; but none had seriously taken, up, the subject of transformation till about 820, when Radbertus asserted, and in a copious work defended the proposition, that the bread and wine in the sacrament are, after consecration, no longer bread and wine, but really and substantially the body and blood of Christ; a doctrine at variance with the canons of the church for nearly a thousand years after the death of Christ, and particularly the church of England, as appears by the Saxon homilies. This Wickliff attacked, in his divinity lectures, in 1381, and maintained the true and ancient notion of the Lord’s Supper. On this point he published sixteen conclusions, the first of which is, that the consecrated host, seen on the altar, is not Christ, or any part of him, but an effectual sign of him. He offered to engage, in a public disputation, with any man on, the truth of these conclusions; but was prohibited by the religious, who were doctors, of divinity, and Wickliff published his opinions to the world; bat soon found he had touched the most tender part, by attempting to eradicate a notion, that, above all others, exalted the mystical and hierarchical powers and importance of the clergy. Accordingly, William de Barton, chancellor of the university, and eleven doctors, eight of whom were of the religious, condemned his conclusions as erroneous assertions. Wickliff told the chancellor, that neither him nor his assistants were able to confute his opinions, and appealed from their sentence of condemnation to the king.
William Courtney, archbishop of London, and a devoted tool of his patron the pope, had, by this time, succeeded Sudbury in the see of Canterbury; he had formerly opposed Wickliff with uncommon zeal and animosity, and now proceeded against him and his adherents with renovated asperity. But so soon as the parliament met in 1382, Wickliff presented: his appeal to the king and both houses.
This appeal is represented, by Walsingham, as a crafty attempt to draw the nobility into erroneous opinions; who further asserts, that the appeal was disapproved by the duke of Lancaster, by whom Wickliff was ordered to withdraw it. Others as confidently assert, that the duke advised him against appealing to the king at all, but submit to the judgment of his ordinary. On which ground the monks take the liberty to assert, that be retracted his errors .at Oxford, in presence of the archbishop of Canterbury, six bishops, and many doctors surrounded with a great concourse of the people. It has never been denied, that, on such an occasion and place, Wickliff publicly read a Latin confession; but this paper, so far from being a retraction of his principles and opinions, was a defense, so far as the doctrine of transubstantiation was concerned; for it declares his determination to defend it with his blood, and boldly censures the contrary heresy, and explains at large in what sense he understands the body of Christ to be in the Eucharist: “This venerable sacrament,” says he, “is naturally bread and wine; but is, sacramentally, the body and blood of Christ.”
Archbishop Courtney, still continuing his persecuting rage against Wickliff, appointed a court of select bishops, doctors, and bachelors, who met in the monastery of the preaching friars, London. This court declared fourteen conclusions, of Wickliff and others, erroneous and heretical. Wickliff was accordingly summoned to attend, but prevented by his friends, who had been apprised of a plot laid to seize him on his way thither. His cause, nevertheless, was taken up and defended by the chancellor of Oxford and two proctors, as also by the greater part of the senate, who, in a letter addressed to the court, to which was affixed the university seal, gave him an unqualified recommendation for learning, piety, and orthodox faith. Dr. Nicholas Hereford, Dr. Philip Rapyridon, and John Ashton, M, A. appeared, and at this court, as well as at the convocation, defended his doctrines.
The bigoted Courtney, in the rage of his disappointment, exerted all his authority in the church, and exercised all his ingenuity, interest, and influence, at court and in the state, to punish the Wickliffites, and suppress their opinions. But Wickliff rose in reputation in proportion to the persecuting severity of this dignified ecclesiastic; and his doctrines, taking hold of the affections of the people, were circulated with astonishing rapidity through most part of the European continent; but Wickliff, amidst the blaze of his fame, and in the zenith of his usefulness, was forced to quit his professorship, and retire to his living at Lutterworth; where he continued to vindicate the doctrines he had taught, and encourage the converts he had made.
In 1382, soon after his leaving Oxford, he was struck with the palsy; and, about the same time, summoned to appear at Rome., to answer, before the holy father, for his many and great offences; but excused himself, in a letter to the pope, wherein he tells him, that “he had learned of Christ to obey God rather than man.” His enemies were now sensible, that his disorder would soon put a period to his opposition, and therefore suffered him to pass the short remains pf a life, already exhausted with labor and unceasing persecution, without further molestation. On Innocent’s day 1384, he had another and more violent attack of the same disorder, when officiating in his own church, where he fell down, and never again recovered his speech, but soon” after terminated a life of laborious activity and triumphant opposition, in the sixtieth year of his age.
Such was the life of John Wickliff, than “whom the Christian world, since the age of the apostles, has not produced a greater man. His enemies, however, and that of the cause he defended, have some of them vainly endeavored to depreciate his talents, and even to question the strength of his resolution; but the dangers he encountered, and the victories he achieved, under circumstances so peculiarly unpropitious, while they mark the character of his traducers with malice, envy, and unmanly partiality, will serve to secure his glory, and transmit his untarnished renown. For mankind, with all their defects, are not so blind, but they can perceive that the man who, single handed, dares to attack at once the prejudices, the interests, and the united power of a world, cannot be a coward; and most assuredly, that he who triumphs over such a powerful combination, convinces or confounds the learned, opens the eyes of blinded ignorance, and, through an inextricable maze of error, traces out the plain path of religious purity and moral propriety, it were madness to call him a fool: All this did Wickliff, whose amazing penetration, and rational manner of thinking, and facility in shaking off the prejudices of education, drew forth the admiration of his contemporaries, and will secure him the veneration of posterity, by whom he will be considered as one of those prodigies which providence, on some rare occasions, raises, inspires, and abundantly qualifies for conducting his most difficult and astonishing operations.
Wickliff had studied theology with great care and remarkable success. He was endowed with an uncommon gravity, and the purity of his manners corresponded with his character as a teacher of religion and a minister of Jesus Christ. His anxiety to restore the primitive purity and simplicity of the church, in that ignorant and degenerate age, was such, that he labored in season and out of season, if, by any means, he might draw the public attention and consideration to a subject so much neglected, and so shamefully perverted by the Romish church; and we have reason to believe, that his success far exceeded his warmest anticipations. He was allowed, even by his enemies, to he a man of excellent practice, uncommon learning, and gigantic abilities. His works, that are yet extant, discover a soundness of judgment, and reasoning powers of the first order; they breathe a spirit of genuine piety, and manifest a modesty altogether uncommon in that age of trifling puerility. Every thing he says is judicious, important, and correct.
Next to his reading the scriptures, Bradwardine’s writings first opened Wickliff’s eyes to the genuine doctrine of justification by grace; in these he discovered the amazing difference between salvation by the grace and unmerited favor of God, and that held out by meritmongers, penances, purgatory, and pilgrimages.
Wickliff was an avowed necessitarian; and in vindicating his opinion on this singularly delicate and long contested point, had averred, that without admitting his argument, all prophecy must be considered as mere conjecture, inasmuch as God’s foreknowledge of any event is paramount to his having decreed and determined the bringing of it to pass; and, on the supposition that it was unforeknown, how was it possible to foretell its future existence? This argument so puzzled an archbishop of Armagh, that he labored two years to reconcile the prophecies of Christ to the doctrine of freewill; but, with all his skill and labor, the task turned out more than a match for this learned and dignified Roman prelate.
Regalding the doctrine of gratuitous pardon, Wickliff says, “The merit of Christ alone is sufficient to redeem every man from hell; and that, without the aid of any other concurring cause whatever, all those who are justified by his righteousness, shall be saved by his atonement.” Save us, Lord, for nought, says Wickliff, that is, without any merit of ours, but for the merits of the great atoning sacrifice.
As Dr. Wickliff was diligent in preaching and reading his divinity lectures, so he wrote a great many tracts, of which bishop Bale has given a particular account. They amount to two hundred and fifty-five, of which thirty-two are preserved in Trinity college, a great many in Cambridge, five in Trinity college, Dublin, four in the Bodleian library, two in the Cotton library, and three in the king’s library; most of them are theological, but some philosophical. Forty-eight are written in English, and the rest in Latin. A fair copy of his translation of the bible is in Queen’s college, Oxford, and two copies more in the University library; besides these, there is also a volume of English tracts, said to be written by Wickliff, some of which are yet extant. His works, especially his translation of the bible, were wrote in the most expressive language