The Reformation: Wycliffe, Huss, and Lutherby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay:
“We are at the dawn of a new era!”
Explain the reformation movement centering on John Wycliffe, John Huss, and Martin Luther.
“He strolls into the church and sees a Bible chained to the desk. Since Mary has come to the throne, only the priests are allowed to read it; but William dares to open it.
‘Reading the Bible! What right have you to read it?’
It is the shout of the beadle, who opens and shuts the doors.
‘I read it because I like to.’
The beadle runs for the priest, who comes in hot haste.
‘Sirrah! Who gave you the leave to read the Bible?’
‘I have found it here, and I have read it because I wish to.’
‘You have no business with it.’
‘I intend to read it as long as I live.’
‘You are a heretic.’
‘No I am not.’
On the 27th of March, 1555, the boy goes to his death. His brother Robert walks by his side to comfort him.
‘God be with thee son!’ says his father, bidding him farewell.
‘We shall meet again, father.’ He kneels upon the fagots and prays.
‘Here is the queen’s pardon if you will recant,’ says the sheriff.
‘I cannot accept life on those terms.’
‘Put the chains around him.’
‘As you are about to burn here, so shalt thou burn in hell,’ says a bigoted priest. The fagots kindle.
‘Good-bye, William; be of good cheer.’
‘Good-bye, Robert. I fear neither torture nor death. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”(Coffin. 277-279.)
The Bible is undeniably the most precious book on the planet. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of people have given their lives for the Bible. Why? The Bible is the Word of God. When people read it, the veils, the myths, the lies, the doubts that consume them are swept away. A whole new world is opened up before their eyes. In the case of Europe before the Reformation, the people who had the means to obtain a copy of the Bible immediately saw that what the clergy quoted as Scripture did not measure up to what they were reading. People would no longer take what they were told for granted; instead they began to question the fables that the priests had deluded them with. For the popes and clergy who thrived on cheating and lying to the common people, this sweeping desire for the truth was both troubling and dangerous, and they tried to take steps to root out this pestilence that threatened their webs of deceit. However, no matter how hard they tried, the Bible had opened a door that no pope could shut. But how could this be? Something had to have happened. How could God have made the Bible available to the common people? How could He have awakened this desire for the truth within them? The answer lies in the times. The time was ripe for God to move. The Catholic Church was in a mess; the papacy was in shambles. What better time to raise up seekers who would bear the torch of truth to the common people? There were some in the clergy who saw that what the Catholic Church presented did not equate with what the Bible said. But, they could do nothing about it. They were as superstitious as the common people, and the fear of excommunication and eternal damnation loomed over them. However, there were a few, who, when empowered by God, challenged the practices of the Church and brought the Bible to the common people. Among the most prominent of these few were John Wycliffe, John Huss and Martin Luther. There were others, but these remain the principal ones who carried the torch of truth that would light up the world, and whose glimmering light continues to have effect today.
John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English was something that no one ever anticipated. When it was released in it’s complete form in 1380, everyone was caught by surprise. Wycliffe did not like the idea of the Bible only being available in Latin, so he translated it. He wanted the common people to could get a hold of the Word of God and read it for themselves and form their own opinions of what the clergy told them. One of his adversaries said of his work, “Wycliffe has made the gospel common, and more open to laymen and to women who can read then it is wont to be to clerks well learned and of good understanding; so that the pearl of the gospel is scattered and is trodden under the foot of swine.”(Miller. 646.) The impact of his work, of bringing home the word of God to the unlearned, cannot be estimated. Now, the Word of God would forever be rid of the dusty shelves of the monasteries. Yes, it would be read by those swine, so that they could see the contrast between what the Bible said and what the clergy told them the Bible said. God would not have been able to move in this amazing way if it had not been for that English scholar who dared to stand up. Hence, John Wycliffe is rightly called the Morning Star of the Reformation.
Wycliffe also challenged the clergy on many grounds of doctrine and practice. However, it must be understood that to challenge the clerical traditions was no small undertaking. It was a confrontation that on a Biblical scale would rival and even surpass that of David and Goliath. The traditions and doctrines of the clergy were accepted everywhere. People just did not question them. Since the time of Gregory VII, popes had granted themselves immense power over world affairs. They were somewhat like religious emperors. Fortunately, for Wycliffe, England had grown a little cold toward the papacy. In fact, during the conflict between John Lackland and the barons over the Magna Carta, the nobles had issued a statement to the pope saying, “It is not the Pope’s business to meddle with the political affairs or the rights and liberties of Englishmen.”(Coffin. 24.) England still maintained that stance later during Wycliffe’s time, but not as rigidly as before. They were still greatly influenced by the clergy. Consequently, Wycliffe’s challenging caused a great stir in the papal and clerical circles. He was summoned to councils to answer charges made by the clergy, but God’s hand was on him, and he was usually accompanied by powerful nobles to see that he was not harmed. This caused him to grow bolder and he challenged many doctrines of the Catholic Church, including transubstantiation. He was expelled from Oxford because of that, but he continued to preach against these doctrines and practices. It was no small thing that he did. For the first time someone had dared to openly challenge the corrupt practices and superstitious traditions that the clergy promoted. What made it all the more remarkable was that Wycliffe was not a noble or prince or bishop, but a little priest of common origin.
Eventually, Wycliffe’s time had come to an end. After his death, in 1384, things quieted down for a bit. His work did continue to have astounding impact, but the need for someone else to rise up, to stand on Wycliffe’s shoulders, and continue what he had begun was manifesting itself. The way that God raises up people is beyond human comprehension to understand. Who would have thought that far away from England, in the tiny country of Bohemia, God would raise up someone to continue Wycliffe’s work? In the capital, Prague, there was a young man, the queen’s confessor, who in an attempt to prove Wycliffe wrong, began to study the Scriptures. His attempt backfired, not exactly on himself, but on the clergy. He began to agree with Wycliffe in that people should read the Bible, and that the clergy was corrupt. This was an interesting assumption for him to make, as he was also a priest. But God wanted to move in John Huss, and He had His way.
A tradition practiced by the clergy, was to preach in Latin, so that the common people could not understand what was being said. Huss directly challenged that tradition when he began to preach in the vernacular tongue of the people. Much like Wycliffe, who made the Word of God available for the common people in England, Huss preached in Bohemian so that the people could understand what he was saying. His acute knowledge of the Scriptures only enhanced his words to the people, to whom he pointed out the shortcomings of the clergy and the falsities that they had been inundated with. In addition, being a very learned man, he was able to translate many of Wycliffe’s works into Bohemian. Wycliffe had a very strong influence on Huss, who called Wycliffe a true believer, and stated that Wycliffe’s soul was in heaven and that he wished his soul to be as safe as that of Wycliffe’s. Huss’s strong admiration for Wycliffe can account for why he translated so many of his works. He saw the need to spread this truth throughout the world, and so he began with Bohemia. Eventually, when the archbishop of Prague collected all of the translations of Wycliffe’s writings, he collected about two hundred volumes. All the copies that could be gotten a hold of were burned. The translations, though, had already done their work, and the people were infested with a disease that would eventually rid them of any illusions about the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, John Huss paid a dear price for his work. He made his way to the city of Constance, after receiving the word of the German Emperor Sigismund that he would not be harmed. When he reached the city, he was thrown into jail and harassed continuously in an effort to get him to retract his views. Huss’s calm reply was that if it could be proven that his views were wrong, according to scripture, then he would immediately retract. His request was just met with more harassment. On the morning of July 6th, 1415, after a mockery of a trial, John Huss was burned at the stake. He died watching his translations of Wycliffe’s writings going up in flames. After all his work, the price that he paid was martyrdom. It is interesting that the popes and bishops and cardinals involved in his death have been wiped from the pages of history. We know very few of their names, and those that we do know are synonymous with infamy, corruption, and degradation. The Emperor Sigismund, who broke his word to Huss, later saw his empire drenched in blood, the land desolate, and towns and cities in flames. Ultimately, those who killed Huss are remembered in infamy, whereas Huss is remembered to this day as “one of the true harbingers of the Reformation.”(Miller. 671.)
John Wycliffe and John Huss essentially provided the base for the Reformation. All that was needed was for someone to stand on what they had already accomplished and go forward. That person came in the form of a German monk, named Martin Luther, perhaps the most central figure in the Reformation. His knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was a great asset in translating the Bible into German, and he used it to the fullest of his ability. It was published in 1530. Because the printing press was already in use, his translation was printed quickly and spread from one corner of Germany to another, and even to other countries. Previously, Luther had preached and spoken. But, now God was going to speak through His Word to the hearts and consciences of men. The word of God was no longer to be concealed in an unknown tongue; the way of peace was no longer to be obscured by the traditions of men; and the testimony of God Himself concerning Christ and salvation would be rescued from the superstitions of a corrupt and deceptive system. God Himself would now speak to the common people.
In addition, Luther’s boldness to stand up to the papacy and the clergy can be exemplified through his war on indulgences. John Tetzel was an agent of the pope and had come to preach the message of absolution from sins through monetary purchase. In fact, according to Tetzel one could even purchase an indulgence for a crime that he was going to commit. “Oh stupid and brutish people, who do not understand the grace so richly offered! Why, the very instant your money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. The Lord our God no longer reigns, He has resigned all power to the pope.”(Miller. 727.) Luther had watched Tetzel’s progress and knew that things were coming to a crisis. In a move that had to have been prompted by God, he stepped forward and made his famous appeal to the conscience of the German people. In 1517, in the form of ninety-five theses, which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church, Luther challenged the whole Catholic Church to defend the actions of Tetzel and sale of indulgences. “This was the first electric flash from the torch that was kindled at the funeral pile of the Martyred Huss.”(Miller. 728.)
The opposition against the Reformation was enormous and was to be expected, for it painted the Catholic Church in it’s true colors. The retaliation of the clergy is very evident in the lives of John Wycliffe and John Huss. In 1424, forty years after Wycliffe died, some monks dug up Wycliffe’s bones and burned them, so that the effect that he seemed to be having all over Europe would vanish with his ashes. But how could the people forget the taste of freedom? Freedom from their worries and superstitions could not be forgotten. It was better then any ale they ever tasted. Essentially, the Catholic Church was blaming Wycliffe for something that he was not doing. He had just found the key and cracked open the door. It’s rather ironic because the clergy were persecuting and killing in the name of God, when in actuality, God was the one they were trying to stamp out, although they did not know it. They were hopelessly perplexed at how a man could have such influence after he was dead. It was not Wycliffe, it was God seeping through the crack in the door that Wycliffe had managed to pry open. The same is the case with John Huss. He became the target of the clergy because he was the most visible proponent of Wycliffe’s beliefs. His influence on the Bohemian people was resented and the clergy burned him at the stake in 1415. But this attempt to quell the spread of the truth boomeranged. Huss just opened the door wider and God was coming in. However, the door had yet to be fully opened, and the man who would do it was Martin Luther. He was perhaps the most dangerous reformer, in the eyes of the Catholic Church. He preached against indulgences, one of the principal moneymaking devices of the Church. He pointed out the corrupt practices in which the clergy indulged and nailed it all up on a door. This was possibly the most blatant challenge to the Church yet. He was denounced vehemently by the clergy, who continued to do so after his death, in 1546, which was not by their hands. But, no matter what they said, no matter how indignant they grew, no matter how much they debased his name and the names of his forbears, it was all for naught. The Reformation had begun and there was nothing that the Church could do about it. They persecuted and killed and destroyed, but the torch of truth just grew brighter. St. Bartholomew’s Day, the massacre of the Vaudois, Queen “Bloody” Mary’s burnings and executions in England, all were attempts to stifle what Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther had begun. But God would not be denied.
The far-reaching effects of the Reformation are easily traced. From a political and religious standpoint, the thinking of the people had been revolutionized. No longer could they be told what to think. As they began to think for themselves, a new consciousness enveloped them. Why should they be told what to believe in? This new type of thinking was devastating to the Catholic Church, as Protestantism grew out of the Reformation. People became more conscious of their rights as human beings. They realized that the kings and popes were no different than they were. Religious freedom was something they desired mightily and this led them to flee to the New World where they could believe whatever they wanted to believe. This led to the Revolutionary War as England encroached on the rights of the colonists. The colonists were afraid of the potential power of the monarchy over them and after seven years of fighting and many more years of arguing, they developed a system of government that altered the course of history. As time passed religious freedom became an accepted right, and missionaries were free to go out to China, to India, to the Americas, to Africa, everywhere. Wycliffe Bible Translators went abroad, developing alphabets for tribes that had none, and teaching them literacy and translating the Bible, in the tradition of John Wycliffe, into the alphabets that they had developed. The world would never be the same again because of the Reformation. That’s why it’s called the Reformation. The way people thought underwent rehabilitation and the end result was that their thought process was reformed. This was the exact opposite of what the clergy and papacy desired. Ironically, their efforts to suppress the Reformation had just given it more fuel. Luther described the Reformation best when he said, “We are at the dawn of a new era.”(Spitz. 301) Over the course of time, since the Reformation, the sun has steadily risen. It must not set.
Carleton, Charles Coffin. “The Story of Liberty.” United States of America: Maranatha Publications. 1987
“John Huss.” Encarta Encyclopedia. 1997 ed.
“John Wycliffe.” Encarta Encyclopedia. 1997 ed.
“Martin Luther.” Encarta Encyclopedia. 1997 ed.
Miller, Andrew. “Miller’s Church History.” U.S.A: Bible Truth Publishers. 1980
Spitz, Lewis W. “The Renaissance and Reformation Movements. Vol. 2. The Reformation.” St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1971.
“Luther, Martin.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1987 ed.
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