John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century Oxford scholar. Charismatic, fluent in Latin, and a major philosopher and theologian, Wycliffe was living the life of a sequestered intellectual professor. He was well respected and ensconced in the halls of academia. For most, that would have been the end of the story; but not for Wycliffe.
It was a time of unbelievable church dominance, in which the church was a government all its own, crossing national and/or feudal borders and commanding control over every aspect of people's lives. It was powerful, often suppressive, political, bureaucratic, and sometimes ruthless. It had a monopoly on worship in most of Europe, and controlled church attendance, taxation, and every aspect of private behavior. The prevailing attitude was that the church was the guardian and interpreter of all Scripture, and the common people had no right to their own understanding of God's truths apart from the pronouncements of the official church. From our vantage point nearly seven hundred years later, it is difficult to imagine. Nothing exists in today's world to resemble it.
It was real enough for Wycliffe, however, and he felt driven to do something about it. According to author Melvyn Bragg, "His prime revolutionary argument, one which, if accepted in any shape or form, would have toppled the Church entirely, was that the Bible was the sole authority for religious faith and practice and that everyone had the right to read and interpret scripture for himself. This would have changed the world, and those who ruled the world knew it. He was to become their prime enemy." Wycliffe decided to square off against this gargantuan power by an act that today sounds so harmless; providing a Bible translated into the common language of the English people. To that point it had only been available in Latin, which none but priests could understand. Wycliffe was convinced that getting the truth to the people by placing the Scriptures in their own hands and in their own language was worth risking his very life.
The translation itself was a huge task, but producing and disseminating the final copies was even more difficult, as everything had to be done in secret. Hidden production lines were established, and hundreds of volunteers rose up to help in the clandestine movement. Wycliffe then trained itinerant preachers to get the books to the people and teach them the Scriptures, which they could now verify by their own readings. They became known as the Lollards, a word taken from the root meaning "to mumble." Calling themselves the Christian Brethren, their movement spread high and low throughout England and Scotland, with thousands of copies of the Wycliffe English Bible permeating the countryside.
The church began by officially condemning Wycliffe. They complained that "the jewel of the clerics is turned to the sport of the laity and the pearl of the gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine." In 1382, a synod of the church declared Wycliffe and his followers to be heretics. They were soon gathered up, tortured, and killed. English Bibles were confiscated and burned. Later, the English Parliament enacted a ban on all English language Bibles. At roughly this same time, Wycliffe suffered a stroke and was paralyzed, dying two years later. Bragg wrote, "After Wycliffe's death and despite the condemnation and harshness of the Church, copies of Wycliffe's Bible continued to be produced and circulated - even when it became a mortal crime to own any of Wycliffe's works. With astonishing courage, Catholics who spread the English language were prepared to defy the Pope and take a chance with their lives and their eternal souls in order to read the word of God to the English in their own language." As is common with extreme Rascals such as Wycliffe, the work lived on.
Though Wycliffe's efforts were largely snuffed, the seeds had been planted. Where Wycliffe and his Lollards had been stopped, William Tyndale and others would later succeed. Within a little over a century, the same English government that had been so zealous in helping the church eliminate any and all English Bibles would officially sponsor the publication of one of the most famous Bibles in history; the King James. Wycliffe had not fought in vain.