John Wycliffe, Reformer Part 1: Wycliffe vs. the Begging Friars

John Wycliffe, Reformer Part 1: Wycliffe vs. the Begging Friars

Wycliffe called indulgences one of the “Luciferian seductions of the church” and a “fiction of the Prince of Darkness,” and called upon Christians to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ…and teach the people that they should trust in Christ alone, and in his law, and in his members…”

George Housman Thomas’ illustration, “Wycliffe on His Sick-Bed Assailed By the Friars at Oxford,” is a striking depiction of one of the many trials endured by the noble English priest and reformer, and a testimony to his courage in the face of stringent opposition. The illustration depicts an encounter from 1378, when Wycliffe was suffering from a severe illness, perhaps the aftereffects of a stroke. Supposing Wycliffe to be near death, the begging friars and four Oxford eminents came to his bedchamber and pleaded with him to retract the fulminations he had published against the mendicants–that is, itinerant friars and preachers who relied on alms for their living. After the friars made their statement, a servant raised Wycliffe in bed so he could respond. It is this moment that is depicted in Thomas’ work. The mendicants linger about the room, not with looks of compassion, but rather countenances of contempt. One corpulent friar sets his back to Wycliffe, even as he turns his head and glares at the reformer with bulging eyes. Wycliffe appears gaunt and sickly–eyes hollow, hair matted. Within reach at his bedside is a thick book, likely meant to represent the Scriptures. Steadied in bed by his servant, he raises his hand and replies, “I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars,” before driving his detractors from the room. Thomas’ illustration is imaginative, but emblematic of the battles faced by Wycliffe as he sought the purification of Christ’s church from the licentiousness and bombast that had come to characterize it.[1]

Remarkably, though Wycliffe died a century before Martin Luther’s birth, he anticipated multiple of the doctrines that would eventually characterize mature Protestantism. This reality finds modest recognition in Wycliffe’s honorifics, “Evangelical Doctor” and “Morning Star of the Reformation.” But Wycliffe was more direct in his proto-Protestant convictions than is usually recognized. His opposition to the begging friars was founded upon a Gospel rooted in Scripture, and shorn of the ceremonialism and muddled soteriology of the Roman church.

When Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire around 1330, no complete English Bible yet existed. In fact, the church magisterium was hostile to vernacular translations of the Scriptures. When Wycliffe matriculated at Oxford around 1345, he followed in the wake of such distinguished Oxford affiliates as John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Thomas Bradwardine. He was accordingly tutored in scholastic philosophy.

Wycliffe established himself in the field of law—both civil and canon. It was in the legal arena that various controversies of the age presented themselves, specifically with regard to the prerogatives of sovereigns and subjects over against the church magisterium. Wycliffe was committed to resisting the unwelcome intrusions of the pope and the mendicants in English affairs. The term “mendicants” comes from the Latin mendicans, “begging”, and is interchangeable with “friars”, taken from the Latin frater, “brother.” The mendicants that Wycliffe encountered predominantly belonged to two new orders founded in the early 1200s around the time of the Fourth Lateran Council: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Much distinguished these new friars from older Western monastics, not least of all their status as itinerant preachers, traveling throughout Christendom and relying upon alms as they did so, rather than doing their ministry and earning their keep in stable monastic communities. Whilst the founders of these orders, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, were doubtless sincere reformers in their own way, they usefully served the ends of the papacy, since their calls to itinerancy afforded opportunities to impose piety and belief upon the laity.[2] By Wycliffe’s day, this facet of the mendicant life had only increased, and their once well-intentioned ascetic poverty had morphed into a leeching mendicancy which exploited both the purses and the souls of Christians across Europe. Wycliffe’s understandable mistrust of these foreign influences grew as he came to see Scripture as the supreme authority over Christian faith and practice. He found no authorization for these offices or their practices in the Bible.[3]

The Black Death reached England in June 1348, and over the following 18 months killed approximately half of the English population. The student body at Oxford, where Wycliffe was likely studying at the time, was decimated. Wycliffe was deeply affected by this catastrophe and came to see it as a judgment sent by God upon a wayward church, at whose head were debauched clergy and mendicants who exploited the people under their care.[4]

Wycliffe remained an affiliate of the university in various capacities after the plague subsided. His dispute with the mendicants began in earnest in 1360. The begging friars had established themselves in various cities across England (including Oxford) by the middle of the 13th century, taking their solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The original Rule of St. Francis read, “Those brothers whom the Lord favors with the gift of working should do so faithfully and devotedly, so that idleness, the enemy of the soul, is excluded yet the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, which all other temporal things should serve, is not extinguished.” Suffice to say, this ideal had not been maintained: the orders had succumbed to moral corruption and idleness.[5]

Read More

Scroll to top