Martyrs of Reason: English Gadfly John Wycliffe

Martyrs of Reason: English Gadfly John Wycliffe June 27, 2018

Blogger’s note: This is the third in a continuing series of posts on skeptical historical figures who were formally executed for religious views deemed “heretical” by establishment ecclesiastic authorities, persecuted by the same authorities and prevented from publicly disseminating their ideas, or, simply fearing death or persecution — Copernicus and Darwin among them — long self-concealed their viewpoints and theories in private. In all instances, humanity’s progress suffered, and the ill effects are still evident today. Previous “Martyrs of Reason” posts were on Socrates, Giordano Bruno and Hypatia of Alexandria.

 

John Wycliffe martyr
Medieval English theologian John Wycliffe. (Tim Evanson, Flikr, CC BY -SA2.0)

Medieval Catholic priest and Oxford University scholar John Wycliffe (1330-1384) is lucky that the first English law authorizing the burning of heretics wasn’t passed until 1401, a few years after his natural death.

Otherwise, he almost certainly would have been a prime candidate.

Wycliffe was a complicated character. He was reputedly irascible, insulting, argumentative, ingenious, pious, egalitarian, anti-pope, patriotic and determined to bring the word of God to the masses (a capital offense in his time). He was by all accounts not a warm, cuddly fellow, more a cantankerous firebrand.

Not a charmer

But the question isn’t whether he was charming but whether he was persecuted despite being right. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him thus:

“His restless, probing mind was complemented by a quick temper and a sustained capacity for invective. Few writers have damned their opponents’ opinions and sometimes, it would appear, the opponents themselves, more comprehensively.”

Historically, Wycliffe is widely viewed as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation that would emerge nearly two centuries later in Germany and abruptly transform traditional religious ideology and practice in the West.

In an age when any criticism of the monolithic Catholic Church was viewed with trembling horror, Wycliffe refused to be politically correct. He believed that the pope’s office and authority were not explicitly authorized by scripture (even hinting he might be the anti-Christ), that the church’s extravagant wealth was sinful and should be divested, that Christ was not actually present bodily in communion bread and wine (a sacrosanct Catholic doctrine known as “transubstantiation”), and that the Bible’s text should be made available in their own language to everyone.

King over pope

As an English patriot and royalist, Wycliffe also believed that citizens should accord deference to king over pope at a time when the pope aspired to absolute temporal and religious rule in Western Europe. He wrote:

“Already a third and more of England is in the hands of the Pope. There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is King or Urban is king. We make our choice. We accept Edward of England and refute Urban of Rome.”

You can see his problem.

Church of England

Wycliffe wasn’t the only nationalistic Briton who had an issue with Rome. About a century after the gadfly priest died, King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) chafed when the pope refused to formally annul is marriage to Catherine of Aragon, one of his eventually many wives. So Henry goaded the English Parliament into passing a series of laws formally separating the English church from the papal hierarchy, and making himself head of the domestic church. In the process, monasteries were also suppressed, and their wealth confiscated.

Ironically, Henry liked the glitz and pageantry of Catholicism, so his new Church of England still remained very Catholic in nature, but he didn’t have to answer to the pope.

But for Wycliffe, the treasures and extravagances of the church were anathema, un-Christian, as Reformation igniter Martin Luther also passionately later preached. Unfortunately for both, church leaders knew their wealth and public splendor were the keys to their power.

As Wycliffe pressed his controversial reformist ideas, he inevitably clashed with church officials but also eventually temporal leaders, such as his patron and arch-supporter John of Gault, King Edward III’s ambitious fourth-born son who purportedly played the priest for his own political ends.

Schism

Amid Wycliffe’s troubles, Western Europe was beset by what’s now commonly known as the Western Schism, a geo-political, papal-royal rather than religious dispute that badly damaged the prestige and authority of the papacy. Between 1378 and 1417, the Roman Catholic Church had two — and later three — rival popes, each with his own adherents, Sacred College of Cardinals and administrative curias.

What happened was that Pope Urban VI (in power 1378-89) angered his cardinals, who fled Rome to Anagni (later Avignon) and elected one of their own, Clement VII as pope. In 1409, a church council representing both sides met in Pisa, deposing the successors to Urban VI and Clement VII, and replaced them with yet another pope, Alexander V.

But the deposed popes did not accept their ejections, so the bipartisan Council of Constance (1414-18) was convened to formally end the schism and re-unify the church. The council removed the three existing successor popes and replaced them with one, Martin V, who held the office unopposed to 1431.

Booted from Oxford

Wycliffe did not benefit from all the ecclesiastic chaos, as anxieties were unusually heightened in his realm, but is popularity and political connections softened the blows. His scathing attacks on church doctrines and practices at the beginning of the schism landed him in a church court in 1378, but no official charges were levied. In 1380, however, his views were rejected by a commission of Oxford theologians, and he was forced out of the university. Thus banished, he wrote copiously to his death in 1380 after a series of strokes.

He indirectly inspired a movement known as Lollardy (the word derives from a term for disingenuous mumbling), in which two Wycliffe disciples translated the Bible into vernacular English and vigorously spread the reformer’s religious message. The English government aggressively but unsuccessfully tried to destroy the movement.

Before his time

Although Wycliffe has sometimes been referred to as “the Morning Star of the Reformation,” historians mostly scoff at this as overblow. However, it’s clear that the cantankerous priest championed many of the same antagonisms against the established church that Reformation founder Martin Luther would later popularize throughout Europe: opposition to unscriptural papal authority, sinful greed and wealth of the church and its princes, and the primacy of the Bible (not the church hierarchy) in interpreting God’s intent and of individuals in deciding through it how best to live a righteous life.

But in the end, he was marginalized, sidelined and disrespected. Had his ideas been less repressed in his final years, and those of his Lollard successors, the Reformation may have arrived a bit sooner. However, thankfully, Wycliffe’s challenging views, stark and seemingly heretical in the religiously enthralled milieu of his day, did not send him straight to the burning post. It hadn’t been invented yet.

Several decades later, however, he was “executed” — symbolically — which I will explain in a later “Martyrs of Reason” post.

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