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The New Zealand Evangelist

Biographical Sketches, No. II. John Wickliff, D.D

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Biographical Sketches, No. II. John Wickliff, D.D.

(Concluded from page 29.)

For some months after Wickliff's appearance before the Convocation at St. Paul's, he was at liberty to pursue his professorial labours at Oxford, and discharge his pulpit and pastoral duties at Lutterworth, without any obstruction; but his enemies were not idle: four bulls were issued against him from Rome, and the Pope sént also a special letter to the king. But, in consequence of the death of king Edward III. about this time, no public notice was taken of these documents. The question of the political power of the Pope, on which the House of Commons requested Wickliff's opinion, he met by an apposite citation from Bernard, who argued against this claim from the words of the Apostle Peter and Christ himself. The testimony of Wickliff, at this juneture, with such a torrent of Papal wrath ready to burst upon him, is valuable as showing how calmly page 50 he could look at the existing state of things, irrespective of the circumstances in which he, as an individual stood.

In December, of the same year, in consequence of these bulls, he appeared again before the Archbishop at Lambeth; but as the popular feeling was strongly manifested in his favour, and as Sir Lewis Clifford came in as a messenger from the Princess of Wales, the widow of the Black Prince, and mother of the reigning monarch, Richard II., and forbade the clergy to proceed to any definite condemnation of Wickliff or his doctrines, the prelates were awed and no decisive steps were taken. The Archbishop was merely to try the case, the Pope had reserved to himself the power of passing, sentence; a circumstance which, in the providence of God, tied up the hands of Wickliff's enemies, during the most important period of his life. He had been assailing, one after another, the errors of the Romish Church, first the temporal, then the spiritual, power of the Pope; and he had found it more and more necessary to rest upon Scripture. He saw clearly that all his labours would be lost, unless he could furnish his countrymen with this unerring guide in their own tongue; and that spiritual death would reign over the land, unless he could unlock the wells of salvation, and give free access to the waters of life. But how was he, whom Popes and Prelates were continually harassing, to find time to accomplish this work? God permitted two ravenous wolves to quarrel and fight with each other, and while the contest lasted, Christ's lambs enjoyed safety and peace. At this very time Pope Gregory XI. died, and during the contest of Urban VI. and Clement VII., for the Papal chair, Wickliff was allowed three years of undisturbed tranquillity;—from the fifty-third to the fifty-sixth year of his age, a period when his mental powers were in their fullest maturity and vigor,—to accomplish his great work, the translation of the Old and New Testaments into English. This being the first complete translation of the Bible into English, deserves some notice.

page 51

The translations of Scripture into English, before Wickliff's time, belong to two periods; the Anglo-Saxon, previous to the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century, and those executed from that time till the fourteenth century, while the language was undergoing great and important changes. Portions of the Scriptures were translated into English during both these periods; but there is no evidence that the whole bible was translated till it was done by Wickliff. He executed his translation with great fidelity, and made the most of the means at his command. He could have little, if any, knowledge of either Hebrew or Greek; and, although he had known these languages, his knowledge would have been of little service to him in this work; for it is doubtful if there was at that time a single copy of the Hebrew Bible, or the Greek New Testament, in all England. It was not till sixty years after, when Constantinople was taken by the Turks, that the learned men of the East fled and carried the remains of ancient literature with them into Italy and the West, and thus contemporaneously with the invention of printing, ancient learning revived in Europe. Wickliff's was not a translation from the original, but from the vulgate, or authorised Latin translation. But he seems to have collated a number of copies of this version, and from a thoroughly corrected Latin copy made a very literal translation into English. It is, upon the whole, a very faithful translation, and the language is far more elegant than it is in any of his other works: the dignity of the matter raised and refined the nervous but unpolished Saxon idioms of the translator, in the same way as our own authorised translation of the Scriptures was, in point of elegance, a full century in advance of the age in which it was translated. It is impossible to say how much our language and our literature are indebted to those elegant translations of the bible; the ideas of Scripture have become incorporated with the vary frame-work of the national mind, and the idioms of Scripture have become part and parcel of the national tongue. With such a page 52 model of correct speech, sounding daily on the national ear, and pronounced daily by the national lips, our language is indebted, perhaps more than to any other cause, for its dignity, elegance, and unchanging purity. It is remarkable how little our language has changed since the time of Wickliff. There are perhaps not a hundred obsolete words in the whole of his New Testament, and the most of these are still in use in the provincial dialects in England and Scotland. The idiom is more changed than the words; the pronunciation is evidently a good deal altered; but the spelling has undergone the greatest changes; Wickliff's own name has been spelled sixteen different ways. However, the essential principles of the language continue very much the same. As a specimen of Wickliff's translation, we subjoin the Lord's Prayer, Math. vi., 9—13. “Oure fadir, that art in heuenes, halowid be thi name, thi kyngdom come to, be thi wille don in erthe as in heuene, geve to us this day oure breed ouir other substance, & for-geve to vs oure dettouris, as we forgiven oure dettouris, & lede us not in to temptacion: but delyuer us from yuel amen.” Wickliff's translation was not, and could not be, printed, but it was published in 1380. Books were published then in two ways; either by their authors going from place to place, and reading them to such audiences as they could collect; as courses of popular lectures are sometimes delivered in the present day; or by employing transcribers to multiply copies of the original work. Wickliff's translation was published principally in this latter way, and that to an astonishing extent in a very short time after the translation was made. “The word of the Lord was precious in those days: there was no open vision;” few could read it; few could purchase it; a thousand bibles now could be purchased for the price of one then; the price of a copy of the New Testament was equal to the wages of a tradesman, yeoman, or curate for a year. It was but for a short time any were allowed to read the bible, even under these disadvantageous circumstances. The strict page 53 measures which the Popish clergy adopted to prevent its circulation, kept it from being either transcribed or read, except very privately, for the most of the following century. Still the living waters, though flowing only under ground, continued to refresh and fertilize God's wasted and weary heritage.

While Wickliff was in the midst of his translation, and possibly in consequence of intense application to his studies, he had a severe attack of palsy at Oxford. During this illness, some of his old antagonists, the begging friars, thinking this might be a favourable opportunity to obtain a recantation of his declarations against them, paid him a visit. A doctor from each of the four mendicant orders, together with some of the civil authorities of the city, entered Wickliff's chamber. They at first expressed sympathy for his sufferings, and hopes for his recovery. They then reminded him of what he had spoken and written against them, and, as death seemed to be near, they hoped that he would give proof of his sorrow and repentance for those sins, by distinctly recalling all that he had said to their disadvantage. The reformer listened patiently to their address. When it was finished, he beckoned to his servants to raise him on his bed; then summoning all his remaining strength, and fixing his eyes on the mendicants, he exclaimed aloud, “I shall not die, but live, and shall again declare the evil deeds of the friars.” The appalled doctors, with their attendants, hurried from the room, and in the after writings of Wickliff, especially in his translation of the bible, they found his prediction fully verified.

After finishing his translation, Wickliff attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation, first, in his theological lectures at Oxford, and, afterwards, in various publications. This drew down upon him the displeasure of the Chancellor of the University, who prohibited him from teaching at Oxford. Wickliff, to secure his personal liberty, protested, and appealed to Parliament. Here again God brought good out of evil; for the disturbances raised this year by Wat page 54 Tyler, who, at the head of the mob, took possession of London, and beheaded Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, allowed Wickliff to pursue his labours without molestation, and volume after volume emanated from his prolific pen. Courtney, the successor of Sudbury, who was a zealous and dexterous churchman, and a great opponent of Wickliff, renewed the process against him. The Duke of Lancaster, who stood by him when the temporalities of the Church, and the secular power of the Pope, were the principal points at issue, now that the question was one of doctrine, advised Wickliff to yield to the church, and avowedly abandoned him in this really higher, because more spiritual, contest. He was summoned before the Convocation at Oxford, a letter was procured against him from the King, and he was banished from the University. But to live and be silent was with him impossible. In 1382, he presented a statement of his doctrines to the King and Parliament. He was afterwards cited to appear before the Pope, but he gave the Pontiff some salutary advice, and said that he had neither strength nor inclination for such a journey. The last two years of his life were spent at Lutterworth. Here he continued to labour with unabated energy in the cause of God and truth. He appears to have been chiefly occupied during that period in composing or correcting his writings, and to have called in largely the aid of amanuenses and transcribers, till worn out by his extraordinary labours, he was attacked fatally by paralysis, while dispensing the Lord's Supper in the church at Lutterworth, and two days thereafter, on the 31st December, 1384, about the sixtieth year of his age, he entered, as we hope, into his eternal rest.

It is impossible to estimate fully the effects of the labours and writings of Wickliff upon England, and even upon Europe, especially of his translation of the Scriptures. His writings were said to be as voluminous as those of Augustine. He wrote with great clearness and vigor against all the prevailing errors and corruption's of the age,—the mendicant page 55 orders, forced celibacy, Simony, indulgences and transubstantiation, and on the right and duty of the people to read the Scriptures. It has been matter of regret to some, who have examined his writings, that there is not that prominence given to the doctrines of grace, and of free justification, through the righteousness of Christ, that is given in the writings of Luther and the reformers of the sixteenth century. This may be the case. But he doubtless rested on the true foundation, Christ Jesus. He established the great Protestant principle, “the Bible alone”; he unlocked its treasures for the first time to his countrymen; as Milner says, “There can be no doubt that he loved light and truth, and the real wonder is that in his circumstances he attained so much of them.” Fuller remarks of him “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, and he that shall endeavour to prove a pitcher of clay to be a pot of gold will take great pains to small purpose. He was a man and so subject to error, he lived in a dark age and was vexed with opposition. Many of his expressions want not granum ponderis but salis, no weight of truth but some grains of discretion. But, alas! two hundred of his books are burnt, and we are fain to borrow the titles of them from his adversaries, who have winnowed his works as Satan did Peter, not to find corn but chaff.” His followers were numerous and zealous. The amount of persecution directed against them in the following century shows what a deep and extensive hold the truth had taken of the public mind. John Wickliff's “poor priests” shared largely of the same honours as John Wesley's preachers of the last century,—the world's scorn and hatred. Lord Cobham, one of the most illustrious of his followers, and many of humbler name, sealed their testimony to the truth with their blood. His principles spread upon the Continent. Anne of Bohemia, Queen of Richard II., read regularly the four Gospels in English; and at her death her attendants carried many of Wickliff's works into Bohemia. Jerome of Prague, who studied for some time at Oxford page 56 did the same. Wickliff's controversial writings being written in Latin were patent to all the learned in Europe. Jerome and his pious leader John Huss, fell martyrs by the decree of the Council of Constance; but the extent to which the English Reformer's writings and doctrines had spread in Bohemia may be best learned from the fact stated by Camerarius, that about the year 1409, Subinco, archbishop of Prague, collected and burned 200 of the writings of Wickliff. Wickliff died in peace, but his writings and doctrines did not die with him. His writings were multiplied and his doctrines spread. His enemies saw this. The Council of Constance could not burn him in 1415 like the two Bohemian Reformers, but they decreed that his bones should be dug up and strewed on a dunghill. His countrymen were slow to do this, but in 1428, Pope Martin V. ordered Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln, to carry the decree into execution, which was done; and thus, after he had Iain more than forty years quietly in the grave, his mouldering remains were dug up and burnt, and his ashes cast into an adjoining rivulet called Swift. As Fuller beautifully observes, “This brook conveyed his ashes into the Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; they into the main Ocean. And thus the ashes of Wickliff are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed all the world over.”