The Lollards, Courageous Bible Preachers
THE death of John Wycliffe* caused great rejoicing among his enemies. No longer would they be plagued by the problems that his teachings had brought about. They would be able to reestablish their hold over the people. Wycliffe’s writings and his Bible translation into English could be pushed into the background. While that may have been their hope, it did not materialize. His followers, the Lollards, were more determined than ever to keep Wycliffe’s work alive.
The nickname “Lollard” had been heard in former years, its origin going back to the 14th century in the Netherlands. However, after the death of Wycliffe, this name really came to the fore. It is derived from the Middle Dutch lullen (from which comes the English word “lull,” archaically meaning to sing, hum or chant), and hence denotes ‘a praiser of God.’ Mixed with the idea of praise is the Middle English loller (Latinized as lollardus), designating an idle vagabond or lounger. That the Lollards were anything but idle is shown by their industrious preaching of God’s Word throughout England.
The Second Wycliffe Bible
Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible created an appetite for the Scriptures that needed to be satisfied. At the same time, the use of this version in preaching revealed that often its renderings were hard to understand. A revision was needed to put the Bible’s message into the language of the ordinary people. In this work, a number of Wycliffe’s followers assisted, and his closest companion, John Purvey, seems to have taken the lead.
A preface or prologue to the second Wycliffe version describes some of the principles used in the translation. The Latin text was not simply accepted as it stood, for the translators realized that errors and corruptions had crept in through the centuries. As many old editions as possible were collected and compared “to make one Latin Bible some deal true; and then to study it anew, the text with the gloss”—a method almost unheard of in those days. In arriving at a purer Latin text, the translators also endeavored to find the most correct and accurate meaning of difficult words and phrases, and to understand something of the grammar used. Finally, the translator would stick “as clearly as he could to the sentence” and would then have the work checked and corrected.—The English Hexapla, p. 29.
The result was an English translation in which an effort was made to keep the sense of the Latin while using the English idiom. Indicative of the popularity of the revision may be the fact that today five times as many copies of the later version exist as of the earlier one. Many of the words and phrases were carried over into Tyndale’s version, and thus into the Authorized Version.
A simple comparison will demonstrate the difference between the two Wycliffe versions. A modern translation of Hebrews 1:1, 2a reads: “God, who long ago spoke on many occasions and in many ways to our forefathers by means of the prophets, has at the end of these days spoken to us by means of a Son.” The first Wycliffe version reads: “Manyfold and many maners sum tyme God spekinge to fadris in prophetis, at the laste in thes daies spak to us in the sone.” Notice the improved sense attained through the use of English idiom in the second Wycliffe version: “God, that spak sum tyme bi prophetis in many maneres to oure fadris, at the laste in these daies he hath spoke to us bi the sone.”—Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts.
Many of the early English Bibles are large and ornate, bespeaking their use by the wealthy and educated classes. However, there are a good number of later Wycliffe versions in small format, closely written and designed for use by ordinary persons and for possible concealment in a pocket or a cloak. The small, simple format kept down the cost and was practical at a time when possession of a Bible in the vernacular put a person in a dangerous position with the powerful religious authorities.
The Lollard preachers traveled mostly on foot, carrying a heavy staff for some protection and assistance in walking. Keeping to the country areas for greater safety, they would arrive at a village or a small town, where the knight or squire would call the people together to listen, often in the open air, in cottages or barns, or in the hall of a larger house. A small treatise and a Bible would be passed around, sometimes just one or two books of the Bible. After the itinerant preacher left for the next village, these writings would be handed from one person to another, thus being eagerly read and discussed. Not only was the Bible read at these gatherings, but reading was taught so that more people would have personal access to the Scriptures.
The Bible was appealed to in support of what was taught. In training the preachers, Wycliffe himself had stressed the need to follow the simple instructions that Jesus had given when he sent out the 70 disciples. (Luke 10:1-11) The Lollards were to look to friends for food and a bed, and were simply attired, often with a russet cloak to distinguish them. Many of those who heard God’s Word accepted it, and Lollardy spread from Oxford and Leicester through the Midlands, the Welsh Border country and the West of England. Those who were resident in an area could then study with others who were eager to learn.
The following is one example: “Nicolas Belward is one of the same sect and hath a New Testament which he bought at London for four marks and forty pence, and taught the said William Wright and Margery his wife and wrought with them the space of one year and studied diligently upon the said New Testament.”—Foxe’s Acts and Monuments.
During the remaining years of the 14th century, the Lollard movement continued to grow, but mostly remained within the Roman Catholic Church. The formation of a separate body was unheard of in those times. Wycliffe had always worked to convert the Church from within, and his followers continued his aims for some time. But as Lollard influence increased in the country, more controversy was generated. The Lollard preachers did not display the niceties of reasoning shown in Wycliffe’s writings. They roundly denounced pilgrimages, superstitions, indulgences, saints, shrines and the use of images. Gradually, certain prominent Lollards realized that they could no longer remain within the Church. However, its hold was so great that, when caught, many preachers renounced their new beliefs for fear of excommunication. Persecution by the authorities drove the movement underground.
In an attempt to obtain some more permanent and legal reform a manifesto was presented to Parliament in 1395, setting out the main articles of Lollard belief. It was also nailed to the doors of St. Paul’s Cathedral and other notable churches. Infuriated, the bishops called on King Richard II to take action. He frightened the ringleaders into submission, and Parliament threw out the petition. From that time on, the bishops sought to obtain more definite decrees to put down the Lollards.
Increased Persecution Fails
The dawn of the 15th century still saw the Lollards being supported by influential friends who had helped to ward off many attacks upon them. But the new king, Henry IV, owed his ascendancy to the Roman Church. Although his father, John of Gaunt, had been one of Wycliffe’s most loyal friends, Henry of Lancaster was the very opposite. In 1401 a statute was passed by Parliament that gave the bishops the real backing for burning heretics.
When brought to trial in 1401, John Purvey recanted. However, another outstanding leader, William Sawtry, refused to alter his conviction that, after consecration by a priest, the bread was still material bread and did not undergo transubstantiation. After two days of argument, he was burned at the stake in Smithfield cattle market, London. Despite this victory, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, trod his way carefully. There still was much support for the Lollards in some counties, and bishops in those areas did not dare to take a lead in persecution. When John Badby, a tailor from Evesham in Worcestershire, was brought to the stake in 1410, young Prince Henry came personally to try to urge him to change his mind. At one point the faggots were pulled away, but all persuasion failed. The fire was finally lit. When the prince became king as Henry V, he still decided to continue his father’s policy. He seized an eminent Lollard, Sir John Oldcastle, thinking that such an example might be more effective in putting down the heretics.
When Oldcastle succeeded in escaping from the Tower of London, his supporters rose in arms to defend him. This was one of their greatest mistakes, for they had renounced war as being against the principles of Christianity. Failing in an effort to kidnap the king at Eltham, near London, they marched to St. Giles’ Fields in London to join other groups. But they were all captured or defeated. Although Oldcastle escaped and avoided capture for three years, he was finally arrested and burned at the stake in 1417. The Lollards never again interfered by force of arms nor entered the political arena. Though persecution increased and many more Lollards perished at the stake, this could not halt their message. Even in Norfolk it spread like wildfire once the crusading Bishop Spencer had died. Schools were opened to teach reading and writing, and unauthorized meeting places flourished.
The use of the Bible became a focal point of persecution. An earlier statute, passed at the Council of Toulouse in 1229, prohibited laymen from having any copy of the Scriptures in the vernacular, but it was not enforced very much in England. However, an episcopal license was supposed to be required before any translating of the Bible could be undertaken. In 1408 a Convocation of Canterbury decreed that no part of the Bible should be translated, and that no one should read “any such book, pamphlet, or treatise, now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe or since . . . publicly or privately, upon pain of greater excommunication.” This was further strengthened in 1414 by a law that penalized persons who read the Scriptures in English. They were to forfeit their land, cattle, goods and life.
Certain local bishops issued other decrees, notably in Somerset and Lincolnshire. In Lincolnshire “James Brewster was charged because he had a certain little book of Scripture in English.” Agnes Ashford had taught a man “part of the Sermon on the Mount.” Brought before six bishops, Agnes was especially warned not to teach these things, even to her own children.
Wycliffe’s Teachings on the Continent
While the common people could not read the Bible openly, a person in high authority could do so. Anne, the queen of England and wife of Richard II, had a Latin Bible and one in her own Bohemian language. The marriage in 1382 had been agreed to by her brother King Wenceslaus, on the advice of the pope, who wished to serve his own ends but did not anticipate the result. Anne soon came to hear about the writings of Wycliffe and obtained some of them, together with the four Gospels in English. Finding them to her liking, she gave him her support. Members of the Prague Court visiting her took some of Wycliffe’s works back to Bohemia. Prague University also forged links with Oxford University, which still favored Wycliffe considerably.
As a result of this contact, John Huss came to read the writings of John Wycliffe. Educated in Prague University, he rose to become its rector. In 1403, a series of discussions took place about Wycliffe’s teachings. They were condemned by the authorities, but Huss continued to lecture about them. Finally, in 1409, Pope Alexander V issued a papal bull ordering an inquiry. Huss and his followers were excommunicated, and 200 volumes of Wycliffe’s writings were burned. But Bohemia was alight from end to end with the teachings of Huss and Wycliffe, and the king did not support the pope. When the pope died in 1410, followed the next year by the death of the archbishop of Prague, Huss used the breathing space to continue his preaching.
In an endeavor to end the destructive papal schism, the Council of Constance was called in 1414 by Emperor Sigismund. Once again, the alarming effects of Wycliffe’s writings were up for consideration. The papacy could now see the results in two countries widely separated from each other, England and Bohemia. In 1415 Huss was condemned and burned at the stake despite a safe-conduct given him by the emperor. Wycliffe was declared the leader of heresy in that age. His books were to be burned, and his remains taken from his grave and cast out of ‘consecrated ground.’ To two successive bishops of Lincoln such an action was so repugnant that it was not carried out until 1428. Then, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burned, and his ashes were scattered over the nearby river Swift. It was natural for some to see in this despicable action a symbolic meaning: As the waters of the river conveyed his ashes to the wide ocean, so the teachings of Wycliffe were spreading throughout the world.
A testimonial of 1572 depicted Wycliffe striking a spark, Huss kindling the coals, and Luther holding aloft the burning torch. Wycliffe set in motion many of the ideas and principles that surfaced in the 16th century when the Reformation removed some of the tradition and false teaching that had grown through the Dark and Middle Ages. The Lollards survived throughout this period. When Luther’s writings were introduced into England, the Lollard congregations merged into the new movement, so similar were the teachings.
Gradually, the Bible was being freed of the shackles that had made it a closed book to all but a few favored wealthy persons. Do we today appreciate the courage that may have been displayed by our ancestors? They cherished the Bible as a book worth reading and studying—indeed worth their land, freedom and life. Does that hard-won freedom to study the Scriptures count with us? We can only say that it does if we ourselves take up study of the Bible and display an active faith, sharing its truths with others.
See the article “John Wycliffe, Champion of the Bible,” in The Watchtower of July 1, 1980.
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