The Reformers - Ministers of the United Presbyterian Church - ebook

Preface These Lectures have, in substance, been delivered on Sabbath evenings from a provincial pulpit by Lecturers who are ministers of the same branch of our Scottish Church, and graduates of the same University. It was deemed seasonable, as the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Wyclif was approaching, thus to commemorate the service which he and his successors rendered to spiritual Christianity, and to the cause of civil and religious liberty. The selection made from among The Reformers was determined by the desire to trace the general history of the Reformation, from its distant beginnings in Wyclif and Hus, down to its accomplishment by Luther and its formulation by Calvin, taking account by the way of kindred upheavals as represented by Savonarola, and of the influence of the Renaissance as represented by Erasmus; and then to sketch the peculiar history of the Scottish Reformation from its earlier and later precursors, through its two most illustrious martyrs, to its consummation under John Knox. Each Lecturer, in dealing with the subject assigned to him, has been left free to select his standpoint and method of treatment, and is responsible only for his own lecture. St. James’ Manse, Paisley, 8th December, 1884. CrossReach Publications

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The Reformers:

Lectures delivered in St. James’ Church, Paisley,


Ministers of the United Presbyterian Church,

Graduates of the University of Glasgow.


James Maclehose & Sons,

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John Wyclif





John Calvin

Lollards of Kyle and other Precursors of the Scottish Reformation

Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart

John Knox

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These Lectures have, in substance, been delivered on Sabbath evenings from a provincial pulpit by Lecturers who are ministers of the same branch of our Scottish Church, and graduates of the same University. It was deemed seasonable, as the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Wyclif was approaching, thus to commemorate the service which he and his successors rendered to spiritual Christianity, and to the cause of civil and religious liberty.

The selection made from among the Reformers was determined by the desire to trace the general history of the Reformation, from its distant beginnings in Wyclif and Hus, down to its accomplishment by Luther and its formulation by Calvin, taking account by the way of kindred upheavals as represented by Savonarola, and of the influence of the Renaissance as represented by Erasmus; and then to sketch the peculiar history of the Scottish Reformation from its earlier and later precursors, through its two most illustrious martyrs, to its consummation under John Knox.

Each Lecturer, in dealing with the subject assigned to him, has been left free to select his standpoint and method of treatment, and is responsible only for his own lecture.

St. James’ Manse,

Paisley, 8th December, 1884.

The Reformers

John Wyclif

He would be a bold man, though hardly a wise one, who should undertake to say exactly when and where that momentous movement originated which, in the sixteenth century, startled the whole civilized world of Europe, and shook to its very foundation the time-honoured ecclesiastical fabric of the Papacy. The Reformation was a series of events of so complex a character as to bid defiance to the most resolute endeavours made to trace its history back to its fountain-head. It was the resultant of well-nigh numberless forces, political and religious, many of which had been in operation even for ages before their effects took shape in the revolution with which the names of Luther and Melanchthon, Calvin and Zwingli are identified. In periods and localities far apart from each other, the surface of society had been again and again disturbed by phenomena that witnessed to undercurrents of thought which, flowing along various channels, were all converging to the one sure issue, and foretelling, with no uncertain voice, of a determined, victorious revolt from intellectual and spiritual despotism. It would betray, therefore, an utter lack of historic sense, a complete misunderstanding of the spirit and significance of the movement were we to claim for any country or for any man the honour of having really begun the work of which it was the completion, and, certainly, we have no wish to interpret in this absolute sense the title so often given to John Wyclif, as “The morning star of the Reformation.” For even he had his predecessors both abroad and at home.

To confine our view to our own country, his was not the first English voice to make itself heard in eloquent protest against the arrogant usurpations of Rome. As near as may be a century and a half before Wyclif’s birth, the famous Robert Grosseteste had been born at the little village of Stradbrook, and of his character and work Matthew Paris gives this summary: “He was a manifest confuter of the Pope and the King, the blamer of prelates, the corrector of monks, the director of priests, the instructor of clerks, the support of scholars, the preacher to the people, the persecutor of the incontinent, the sedulous student of all Scripture, the hammer and the despiser of the Romans.”11 In Wyclif’s eyes it was one of the many crimes of the Papacy that it had no honours of saintship to bestow on a man whose fervent zeal for the purity of the Church compelled him to denounce the sins that were eating away its strength and poisoning its influence, and were still, in his own day, as virulent as before. Not fifty years had elapsed after Grosseteste’s death before another English hamlet had given to the world the boy who subsequently became the “invincible doctor,” the “dear Master Ockham” of Martin Luther, a paragon of philosophical acumen, and, at the same time, a doughty champion of national independence as opposed to the political supremacy of the Pope. To him, as to Wyclif after him, the doctrine of the Papal infallibility was a delusion only to be laughed at by reasonable men, nor was it beyond the bounds of possibility that the Roman Pontiff might be the veriest heretic under the sun, as he shrewdly suspected was actually the case in the person of his particular enemy, John XXII. Much about the same time, at Hartfield in Sussex, Thomas Bradwardin was born, destined to be known as the “doctor profundus,” who was himself what he describes the great Augustin as having been, a “splendid and strenuous champion of grace,” and affirmed the all-sufficiency of that divine principle with an uncompromising effectiveness and eloquence on a par with those of Luther himself. In these and others like them the very spirit moved that asserted itself with more commanding power still in the greater Englishman whom his continental followers did not scruple to designate the fifth evangelist, and who is the subject of the present lecture.

Born, not later than 1324, in quiet Teesdale, Wyclif spent his childhood and early youth amid scenes whose natural loveliness is enhanced to the modern visitor because of the glamour cast over them by the wizard hand of Sir Walter Scott, who, in his romance of Rokeby, celebrates the very hills and streams frequented by our young Reformer. The family he belonged to owed their name to the peculiar features of the locality in the heart of which the ancestral mansion stands overlooking the river, and there may still be seen the little, simple church, within whose walls, with boyish faith yet undisturbed, Wyclif was wont to kneel. Little is told us, practically nothing indeed, of the home in which he was reared. We search in vain through his writings for such reminiscences of early days as abound in Luther’s works, nor do the family records throw any light upon the domestic influences by which the man was “fashioned in his youth.” No echoes can we catch of the sounds either of merriment or trouble that issued from his childish lips, nor any signs of the inevitable pains that accompanied his first attempts to pluck the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whether he gave early indications of the sceptical spirit that, in later years, drove him so far away from the traditional Christianity of his family, or showed himself a loyal and unquestioning son of the Church till he went forth to breathe the perilous air of Oxford, we have no means of deciding. This only appears to be tolerably certain, that he came of a stock marked by a jealous conservatism of the staunchest and most orthodox type. The fact is a noticeable one that Romanism has always held its own in that secluded Yorkshire parish, and that no other member of the Wyclif family seems to have regarded with aught but utter repugnance the revolutionary tenets of their greatest representative. There is, indeed, one passage in his writings which reads like a page out of his own experience, and may imply that his assaults upon the established order of things had alienated from him the affection and good-will of those nearest to him. It occurs in a wise and pithy tract entitled “Of wedded men and wives, and of their children also,”21 and reads thus—wedded men and women often say “that if their child draw him to meekness and poverty, and flee covetousness and pride, for dread of sin and for to please God, he shall never be man, and never cost them penny, and curse him, if he live well and teach other men God’s law, to save men’s souls. For by this doing, the child getteth many enemies to his elders, and they say that he slandereth all their noble kin that ever were held true men and worshipful.” Even this unique reference to his own circumstances, if such it is, is too meagre to permit any biographer, however cunning, to weave out of it a narrative of the early joys and sorrows of young Wyclif, and we must be content to leave his boyhood in the obscurity that has hitherto enveloped it.

Some compensation for this misfortune is to be found in the fact that it is not impossible to form a fairly satisfactory idea of the social conditions that prevailed in the country whilst Wyclif was advancing towards manhood. The England to which he belonged was that which still lives and moves before us in Chaucer’s bright, unfading page. In the ordinary society of the day were to be found in abundance representatives of all the characters delineated with such infinite grace and skill by the father of English poetry. The travelled knight who, meek as he is brave, has fought on every field of battle where a strong arm and a stout heart can be of service; the gentle squire who has not yet lost youth’s predilection for a dainty coat; the nut-headed, short-haired yeoman, who is skilled in the use of the weapon that wrought such havoc at Cressy and Poitiers; the solid merchant whose well-to-do comfort shines out in his costly raiment and his solemn speech; the weather-beaten sailor, better able to handle a ship than to ride a horse; the sage doctor, learned in astronomy and fond of gold; and the ready lawyer, full, like Shakespeare’s Justice, of “wise saws and modern instances,” all figure on Chaucer’s stage, only because they were every day playing their part on the English soil trodden by John Wyclif’s feet. How women dressed and gossiped in their pithy mother-tongue or the French of Stratford-le-Bowe; how goat-voiced pardoners exhibited their relics to gaping, superstitious crowds; how threadbare students spent their little all on the purchase of their meagre store of books; how jolly friars lisped and sang and harped the money out of people’s pockets, may all be seen on the rich canvas painted for us by the author of the Canterbury Tales. The subtle spirit of that wonderful poem, too, reveals better far than any prosaic history the temper of the time. There is a strange lack of earnestness and true sobriety. As has been well remarked, it is the life rather of children than of men and women that we are spectators of. The gaiety that loves bright surfaces, however thin, and hates a preacher with all its small apology for a soul, is the common characteristic of the actors in the panoramic drama. In almost equally distinct relief the extravagance stands out which contemporary annals delineate with hardly less force of language, and which was not to be repressed even by the sumptuary laws that forbade a third course at dinner or the use of furs for trimming. It is, indeed, not too much to say that there was prevalent a “desire to make life one long holiday, dividing it between tournaments and the dalliance of courts of love, or between archery meetings (skilfully substituted by royal command for less useful exercises) and the seductive company of “tumblers,” “fruiterers,” and “waferers.”31

To take a somewhat deeper and broader view than is furnished by the poet, Wyclif’s lot was cast in times of singular interest and importance. But a few years after his birth, Edward III., a prince of fourteen, was proclaimed king, and began a reign in the course of which good and evil, honour and shame, were almost equally distributed. While Wyclif was yet a boy there broke out the disastrous conflict with France which “dragged its slow length along” for a weary hundred years. Vast changes were passing over the social conditions of the people. Serfdom was giving token of very speedily becoming a thing only of the past. The question of the poor, which ever since has so severely taxed the wisdom alike of statesmanship and philanthropy, was beginning to force itself imperiously upon the thoughts of men. The stern conflict between capital and labour, which rages so fiercely still, was entering upon its earliest stages and provoking attempts at pacification that, like many later ones, were pregnant alike with good intentions and evil consequences. Vagabondage and mendicancy were assuming dimensions ominous of disaster. The rapid dissolution of those restraints on freedom of movement that were inseparable from feudalism, was being followed, on the part especially of the poorer classes, by a restlessness quite new in English history. The tongue of the common people was at last triumphantly asserting itself against the foreign language that had hitherto been regarded as the only honourable medium of intercourse, and the real birthday both of English poetry and English prose is to be found in this epoch, in the chronicles of which the names of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Wyclif stand side by side. So far, indeed, as regards the strong, solid framework of the national life, the England of this fourteenth century was essentially modern rather than mediaeval, despite unglazed windows and unchimneyed houses, narrow and filthy streets, rough and perilous roads, rush-strewn floors and morning-dinners, and despite the lack of forks and the plethora of priests.

This last feature was singularly characteristic of Wyclif’s age as compared with our own. Ecclesiastics were ubiquitous. There was, on the average, one priest for every eighty of the population. Monks and friars, abbots and bishops swarmed like bees. They crowded about the steps of the throne and clutched greedily at offices of state, and they crept into the hovels of the poor, and cajoled or threatened them out of their scanty earnings. They were of every type and character. There were black friars and grey; there were summoners, limitors and pardoners; there were priests that played the mountebank, and priests that played the tyrant; there were priests that feigned a poverty to which they were utter strangers, and priests that made no attempt to hide their predilection for horses and hounds, for furs and jewellery, for good fellowship and dainty fare. Others, certainly, there were of nobler mould, and the poet has not neglected to adorn his canvas with the figure of the poor parson of the town, who was “rich of holy thought and work,” who failed

“Not for either rain or thunder

In sickness nor mischance to visit all—

The furthest in his parish, great and small,

Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.

He put not out his benefice on hire,

And left his sheep encumbered in the mire,

And ran to London unto Saintë Paul’s,

To seek himself a chantery for souls,

Or maintenance with a brotherhood to hold,

But dwelt at home, and keptë well his fold;”

while, to all his other virtues, he added this, that he would “sharply snub at once” any “obstinate” person either of “high or low estate.” This, however, was all too surely a comparatively rare type of ecclesiastic, and it is not improbable that the exquisite figure would not have been found at all in Chaucer’s gallery had Wyclif not been among his contemporaries.

With many of these features of the period our young Yorkshire scholar may have been little familiar whilst he still lingered in remote, secluded Teesdale, but his removal to Oxford, when he was, in all likelihood, about fifteen or sixteen years of age, would vastly enlarge his horizon, and would necessarily bring him face to face with characters and movements full of interest and novelty to his quick, observant intellect. An almost bewildering change it would be from the quiet country home to the thronged, restless university town, with its six or seven thousand students, for many of whom there was but scanty, uncleanly accommodation. Of the five colleges that then existed, one had a special interest for Wyclif, as it had been founded in 1269 by the widow of Sir John de Balliol of Barnard Castle, a lordly mansion only five miles distant from our student’s native parish; and there can be little doubt that it was to this college he attached himself on his arrival at Oxford.

It was a troubled and tumultuous world into which he now entered, not by any means distinguished by the calm, dignified repose popularly associated with the idea of intellectual and philosophical pursuits. The air of Oxford was full of the spirit of strife. There was rivalry and contention, sometimes fierce and deadly, between the Australes and the Boreales, the southerns and the northerns, as the two nations were called into which the students were divided. There was war still, even after long ages of battle, between the Realists and the Nominalists, whose contests, marked by a vehemence strangely disproportioned to the intrinsic insignificance of the questions discussed, recall the poet’s question, “Dwells such dire wrath in minds divine?” And there were conflicts between gown and town, to use modern phraseology, where the combatants were counted by thousands, and in one of which, occurring in Wyclif’s own time, no fewer than forty students were killed. Notwithstanding these elements of unrest Oxford was, “during the fourteenth century, by far the greatest theological and philosophical university in Europe,”41 and the young Yorkshire student was destined to add not a little to the lustre already belonging to her famous schools.

For the first four years of his curriculum he would attend lectures on logic, rhetoric, grammar and arithmetic, and would then attain his Bachelor’s degree, provided he passed with éclat through a nine days’ ordeal, in the course of which he was expected to settle all manner of subtle dialectical conundrums flung at him in a vivâ voce examination. Three years more, spent in mastering geometry, astronomy, and philosophy, would prepare him for the higher degree that secured the right of lecturing, of which at a later date, at all events, Wyclif largely availed himself.51 It is impossible, unfortunately, to follow his career with any minuteness throughout the greater portion of his student life, and he must have been at the university for some sixteen years or more before the occurrence of a change in his position which witnesses to the reputation he had then achieved.

In the interval, however, occurred one terrible incident which must have left its impress upon a man of Wyclifs temperament as it certainly did upon the history of the nation as a whole; I refer to the first of the four epidemics of the black death that occurred during his lifetime. For fourteen years rumours had reached England of a fell plague that was raging in Central Asia, and in 1347 it made its appearance at Constantinople. Before a few months had gone it burst upon Avignon, and carried off no fewer than 60,000, for whom burial could be secured only in the Rhone, which was duly consecrated for that purpose by the Pope. In August, 1348, it swooped down on Dorsetshire, and thence spread over the length and breadth of the land, working appalling desolation and ruin wherever it came, and utterly disorganizing the whole fabric of society. In Norwich, where seven out of every ten were carried off, no fewer than “15,374 died besides religious and beggars, and twenty churches fell into ruins”; and in Bristol “grass grew several inches high on the High Street and Broad Street.”62 In the West Riding of Yorkshire two-thirds of the priests fell victims to its power. In London, after all the existing burial places had been filled, 50,000 corpses were laid in a graveyard specially provided by Sir Walter Manny, and at least half the population of the country was swept away in the course of a few months. The rural districts were as fiercely scourged as the towns, and there were whole villages in which no sound of life was to be heard either from man or beast. This, too, was but a specimen of what was taking place over the entire continent of Europe, where it is calculated that the enormous number of twenty-five millions were destroyed. It is impossible that Wyclif learnt nothing from a calamity so overwhelming. His was not the ear to be deaf to, nor was his the heart to be proof against the lessons that were being imparted in this visitation by a higher teacher than any whose scholastic disquisitions were to be heard in Oxford’s lecture-halls. We can hardly be wrong in thinking that to this agony of distress something was due of the passionate earnestness of the man, and of the vivid sense he had of the supreme importance of spiritual realities.

The first distinct discoverable token of the high place Wyclif occupied in the esteem of the university is the occurrence of his name in 1356 as one of the Fellows of Merton College, to which both Ockham and Bradwardin had belonged. The significance of this fact is all the greater that Merton and Balliol were, in some respects, antagonistic, and the election of Wyclif to this office cannot well be explained except on the ground of his acknowledged preeminence. Four years afterwards he appears as the Master of Balliol, a position he held only for a short time, and the last honour of this kind bestowed upon him was the Wardenship of the new Canterbury Hall with which he was invested at the close of 1365. From this he was dismissed by Archbishop Langham on grounds it is unnecessary to specify, but which were of such a nature that Wyclif appealed to the Pope, though without effect.71 These dignities bestowed upon him witness to the fact that his learning and power were such as to make him one of the very foremost men of the university, if, indeed, there were any at all to be put in the same rank. “He made his great aim,” says an opponent who lived in his own day, “with learned subtlety, and by the profundity of his genius, to surpass the genius of other men,” and he is constrained to allow that “as a theologian Wyclif was the most eminent in the day, as a philosopher second ton one, and as a schoolman incomparable.”82 A similar judgment is passed upon him by Professor Shirley, who assigns to Wyclif a place with Duns Scotus, Ockham, and Bradwardin as the “four great schoolmen of the fourteenth century.”93

It has, indeed, become the fashion to laugh at the representatives of scholasticism as though they were little better than earnest quibblers who spent their strength in splitting hairs and spinning cobwebs. “They constructed monstrous books,” writes one brilliant critic, “in great numbers, cathedrals of syllogism of unheard-of architecture, of prodigious finish, heightened in effect by intensity of intellectual power, which the whole sum of human labour has only twice been able to match. These young and valiant minds thought they had found the temple of truth, they rushed at it headlong, in legions, breaking in the doors, clambering over the walls, leaping into the interior, and so found themselves at the bottom of a moat. Three centuries of labour at the bottom of this moat added not one idea to the human mind. Each one in turn mechanically traversed the petty region of threadbare cavils, scratched himself in the briars of quibbles, and burdened himself with his bundles of texts, nothing more.”101 A higher and truer estimate of the schoolmen than M. Taine’s will be formed by all who are not oblivious of the simple fact that the philosophy of which they are the exponents was “the philosophy which created the universities of Europe,”112 an achievement which a whole army of sparkling critics could neither appreciate nor accomplish, though their glib pens should run on till doomsday. There is doubtless much in the aims and methods of scholasticism that strikes the modern student with utter amazement, so plainly does it carry in itself the doom of barrenness and failure. Numberless questions are discussed the very mention of which provokes a smile and brands them as mere ingenious but absolutely impractical speculations. But there is at the same time a most impressive grandeur about the earnestness and hungry zeal with which the mighty intellects of the schoolmen press forward to the furthest verge of the only world of thought they felt at liberty to explore, and there are names associated with this stage of philosophy which will bear an untarnished glory so long as the world sets any value on sublety, acuteness, and accuracy of thought. Nor can we fail to see that, even whilst indulging in these wild, fanciful speculations, the intellect was but passing laboriously across the wilderness in unconscious search of a rich land of promise, and was there undergoing the very discipline necessary to fit it for the conquest and enjoyment of a worthier heritage. Many of the qualities developed in the arid soil and in the dry air of scholasticism were to stand humanity in good stead when once a breach had been made in the stone boundary-walls beyond which it was, for centuries, counted heresy to peep.

It is not, therefore, to be regretted that Wyclif passed with such signal success through this scholastic discipline, and it may well be doubted whether he would ever have been so resolute and so incisive a reformer had he not first achieved fame as a prince among the schoolmen. When he had taken his degree of Doctor of Theology, he was at liberty to expound not merely the “Sacred Page,” as the Bible was called in academical circles, but also the great university textbook of the age, “The Sentences of Peter the Lombard,” a “series of extracts from the Latin Fathers and the Popes, so tesselated together as to construct a system of theology out of the most unsystematic of all possible materials.”121 In all probability, however, Wyclif did not take this degree till after his removal from the Wardenship of Canterbury Hall, and after the occurrence of a crisis in his career which brought him to the very front of the national life and committed him virtually to the path he pursued throughout his subsequent history.

This happened in 1366, when Pope Urban V. demanded from Edward payment of arrears of an annual tribute of 1000 marks which, promised by King John, had not been transmitted to the papal treasury for the last thirty years. There were many circumstances that made this demand peculiarly offensive and exasperating. Very shortly before, statutes had been framed and enacted asserting most emphatically the independence of the empire, and imposing severe penalties upon all who should affirm the supremacy of the Pope in any such way as infringed the rights of the people or the King. Urban’s insolent demand, therefore, was ominously like an intentional defiance, and a formal declaration that all such enactments would be treated by him as null and void. The claim, too, came not from but Rome from Avignon, where the head of the Church was bearing his share of what was termed the “second Babylonian captivity.” He was himself a Frenchman and a slave of the French monarch, and it was quite reasonably suspected that the money was needed, not to meet the wants of the Church, but to swell the resources of the nation’s rival and enable him to carry on the war with this country. If ever England might have been expected to play a part so suicidal as that the Pope enjoined upon her, it was not like an infallible Pontiff to ask her to do so when just at the zenith of her power, and when she had won victory after victory in the open field.

It might have been conjectured beforehand how Parliament would deal with the foolish and impertinent demand when the matter was referred to them by Edward. With one voice, Lords spiritual and temporal, as well as the members of the lower chamber, indignantly denied the obligation, and with no “bated breath or whispered humbleness” let it be known after what fashion they would shape their reply, were any attempt made to enforce the claim. Challenged by an anonymous monk to vindicate the attitude of the King and Parliament, Wyclif, not without manifest delight in the work, published a most vigorous statement, professedly reproducing the arguments used by certain of the Lords. “Let the Pope get the money if he can; England is not afraid,” says one. “Christ was no civil governor,” affirms another, “neither should the Pope be if he is Christ’s follower.” “Wages are for work,” argues a third, “but popes and cardinals do us no good either in body or soul, therefore, give them no pay, say I.” “If King John undertook to pay in silver and gold for spiritual blessings,” another insists, “the King was a fool and the Pope a simonist.” “If, as is maintained, the Pope gave the King this country of England, then,” a fifth declares, “the Pope either gave what was not his and so could not have been given, or he gave what was his only for the Church, and so should not have been given.” Thus with strong, sturdy strokes, the reply is shaped into a form there could be no mistake about, and which pretty well settled the matter for all time to come. Speaking in his own name, Wyclif emphatically repudiates the opinion that the State has no right to touch or meddle with ecclesiastical persons and possessions, though, whilst broaching this most pernicious heresy, he claims to be “a lowly and obedient son of the Roman Church,” and to “assert nothing that may appear unjust towards the said Church, or that may reasonably offend pious ears.”

The next important step in Wyclif’s career was the publication in 1367 or 1368 of his treatise on “Divine Dominion,” the preface to which is regarded by Professor Shirley as “the true epoch of the beginning of the English Reformation.”131 The fundamental principle of the work is that all dominion belongs to God alone, and that others—popes, priests, emperors, kings, and individual men—hold whatever authority they possess only and directly from Him on condition of loyal service and obedience, and that to Him each is immediately responsible. Into any examination of this striking theory it is impossible to enter here, but it is evident that this one simple principle struck at the very root of sacerdotal supremacy, and must have provoked the ire of the ecclesiastical world, apart altogether from Wyclif’s assertion of the startling paradox, at which his adversaries clutched with jubilant avidity, that “God must obey the devil.”

Another opportunity for the affirmation of his bold radicalism with regard to the relative power of Church and State arose out of the national disgrace and humiliation which followed so swiftly upon the noon-day of England’s glory. After a period of almost uninterrupted successes, there came a time when disaster after disaster robbed the kingdom of all the fruits of her toil, bravery, and sacrifice. “It was a time of shame and suffering such as England had never known. Her conquests were lost, her shores insulted, her fleets annihilated, her commerce swept from the sea; while within she was exhausted by the long and costly war, as well as by the ravages of the pestilence.”141 The interests of the country demanded that most strenuous efforts should be made to utilize all her resources for the maintenance of her integrity. The community in general were already overburdened, but there was one organization that still rolled in riches and whose members managed to keep themselves well out of the straits in which all besides were pressed; that organization was the Church. Hitherto its representatives had been allowed to tax themselves, and, being human, and especially ecclesiastically human, they had not made too severe demands upon their exchequer. Now, however, the hour was come for them to bear a heavier yoke, and no sooner was it proposed that taxes should be levied upon livings hitherto exempt, and that the Church should bleed a little for the nation’s good, than the clergy were up in arms. The thought of such sacrilege stung their noble souls to the quick, and the Archbishop of Canterbury fainted, either from pious horror or physical exhaustion, whilst denouncing the enormity from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A nobler voice than the Archbishop’s championed the cause of the patriot as against the ecclesiastic, and in his work on Civil Dominion, published probably in 1371, Wyclif quotes, with marked approval, a fable ascribed to a certain peer who argued that the temporalities should be taken from the clergy, as being the property of the realm, and so the kingdom should be wisely defended with its own possessions.

The appearance of a Papal emissary called Garmer kept the fire burning in Wyclif’s soul. He came, of course, to gather funds, travelled in great style, with a large retinue, netted a considerable amount of ill-spared gold, and, after two years and a half of pleasant harvesting, withdrew to Rome resolved in a few months to return for fresh spoil. This new illustration of Papal greed called forth from Wyclif a tractate in which he demonstrates the falsehood of this rapacious foreigner, who had secured permission to prosecute his work in England only by taking an oath of which his whole procedure was a violation. For he had sworn to do nothing hurtful to the interests of the kingdom when his very mission was to rob it of resources most urgently required for its own necessities. Such procedure should be withstood, Wyclif insists, by every true patriot, even though sanctioned by the Head of the Church himself, for even our Lord Pope, he dares to say, is “sufficiently peccable.” Evidently he is moving fast, and not without the sympathy and approval of some at least who are high in power. Of this proof is given in the appointment of Wyclif to act on a Commission sent to Bruges in 1374, to confer with representatives of the Pope about questions of procedure and jurisdiction. The meeting was productive of little good, and a curious illustration of the subtle power of the Church is furnished in the anomaly that a reward for his services was given to the chief of the English commissioners, the Bishop of Bangor, not by the King, but by the Pope.

This visit to Bruges, however, was not without result, as it would appear to have brought our Reformer into close relationship with the famous John of Gaunt, who was in the city at the same time on a political mission. “Time-honoured Lancaster” had no love for the grasping, ambitious ecclesiastics that kept so firm a hold upon the highest offices of State, and was as eagerly desirous to humble the Church as Wyclif was to exalt it. Strangely enough, though apparently antagonistic, these aims were, so the two men thought, to be fulfilled by pursuing one single path. Hence, whilst no actors in the eventful history could be more unlike in spirit, they were drawn together, and were, to some extent, sympathetic. The alliance was not of much real benefit to Wyclif. John of Gaunt had, by his anti-ecclesiastical policy, incurred the bitter enmity of Courtenay, the Bishop of London, who had his revenge in an accusation of heresy he brought against Wyclif, Lancaster’s friend and ally. The patience of the clergy was by this time fairly exhausted, and their desire to silence the Reformer’s voice was intensified by the action of “The Good Parliament,” which made it patent to all that the leaven of his principles was working effectively in the popular mind. Wyclif, therefore, was summoned to answer for himself before the Archbishop, and appeared accompanied on one side by John of Gaunt, and on the other by Lord Percy, the Earl Marshal. An unseemly squabble between Lancaster and Courtenay opened the proceedings, which terminated in something like a riot, Wyclif standing calmly by and needing not even to unclose his lips.

But higher dignitaries than Courtenay were now alarmed, and, three months after this memorable fiasco, the Pope himself issued no fewer than five separate bulls, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, the University of Oxford, and even the King himself were all enjoined to take immediate steps to muzzle the heretic of Lutterworth. After some delay, occasioned by the death of Edward and the accession of Richard II., Wyclif received another summons, and appeared before another tribunal in the early spring of 1378. He had laid upon him the formidable duty of vindicating or repudiating nineteen different errors which he was alleged to have propounded in his writings; but, though he handed in to his judges a written defence of his teaching, this fresh attempt to arrest his influence ended in a manner as pointless as the preceding one. The King’s mother forbade the prosecution of the case, and the people of London assumed a threatening attitude, whereupon, in Walsingham’s angry and scornful language, the champions of orthodoxy were “like reeds shaken with the wind, and their words were softer than oil.” They retained only courage enough to give the vexatious Reformer a caution, to which he paid practically no attention.

Almost immediately after this, Pope Gregory XI. died, and then occurred the great schism in the Church, and the edifying spectacle was presented to the world of two rival Pontiffs, each claiming to be the vicegerent of Christ, the one at Rome thundering forth anathemas against his brother at Avignon, and the other at Avignon proving himself quite as good at hating and cursing as his brother at Rome. At first Wyclif was in hopes that Urban VI., the Italian Pope, would introduce beneficial changes and prove himself in sympathy with the spirit of the gospel. But he was doomed to disappointment, and as, from his peaceful home at Lutterworth, he watched the progress of the wretched quarrel he came to the common-sense conclusion that the Church would not lose much even if it lost both its heads.

A few months more, and our Reformer, less and less able to rest content with a system so utterly disorganized, found himself compelled to take a great step forward, and to surrender the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is of the very essence of the Papacy. To his repudiation of this dogma he gave formal expression in a series of twelve theses, which he undertook to defend against all comers. This bold utterance set even Oxford on fire, reluctant as its authorities had been to take action against their ablest and most influential graduate. The Chancellor of the university called together instantly a judicial committee, largely composed of monks, who branded Wyclif’s statements as erroneous and heretical. On the basis of this decision, an ordinance was published prohibiting all students from listening to such revolutionary teaching, and forbidding Wyclif from any further academical promulgation of his opinions. This injunction, which practically terminated his connection with the university, was brought to the Reformer whilst lecturing to his students on the very doctrine in dispute, and evoked from him the immediate declaration that neither the Chancellor nor any similar authority could make him alter his opinion.

There were other methods of promulgating the truth than that from which he was thus debarred, and whilst for scholars he published a treatise on the sacrament of the altar, written in his not too classical Latin, he sent forth for the people generally his famous tract entitled “The Wicket,” of which the English is full as usual of nervous force. His adversaries, however, were not done with him, and his old antagonist Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, summoned a large council consisting of ten bishops, sixteen doctors of law, thirty doctors of divinity, thirteen bachelors of theology, and four bachelors of law, reliable men all of them, and of unimpeachable orthodoxy, who would not find it hard to agree upon a verdict. They assembled in the Dominican Chapter House at Blackfriars, but hardly had they begun their deliberations when an earthquake startled them, and made them dubious as to the wisdom of their action. Courtenay was not, however, to be thus baffled, and interpreted the omen as a sign of Heaven’s approval, and an indication that, following the trembling earth’s example, the Church must purge herself of the evil humours that were distressing her. After this ingenious piece of exegesis, things moved on comfortably, and a most satisfactory issue was reached. A long catalogue of damnable errors and heresies was drawn up, some twenty-four in all, and these were duly condemned. A mandate was sent to Oxford ordering that steps should be taken to prevent the dissemination of these obnoxious tenets. An imposing penitential procession of barefooted priests and others paraded the streets of London, and a Carmelite monk wound up the demonstration with a sermon denouncing the heresies of Wyclif, and threatening with severe ecclesiastical penalties all who might teach them or adopt them. The authorities at Oxford resented the interference with their right of self-government, but, after a little restiveness, they found themselves under the necessity of virtually pronouncing sentence of exile upon their famous “Doctor Evangelicus.”

So only Lutterworth remains to him as the sphere of his labours, and thither he finally withdrew, but two or three years before his death, with health already shattered by incessant toil. Retirement, however, was not rest. Message after message he sent out into the world, whilst diligently fulfilling his duty to the parishioners he loved most truly. What his idea of a clergyman’s life was we may gather from a passage in “A Short Rule of Life,” one of his English writings. “If thou be a priest,” he says, “live thou holily, passing others in holy prayer and holy desire and thinking, in holy speaking, counselling, and true teaching, and ever that God’s commands and His gospel be in thy mouth, and ever despise sin, to draw men therefrom. And that thy deeds be so rightful that no man shall blame them with reason, but thine open deeds be a true book to all subjects, and lead men to serve God and do His commands thereby. For example of God, and open and lasting, stirreth rude men more than true preaching by naked word. And waste not thy goods in great feasts of rich men, but live a mean life of poor men’s alms and goods, both in meat and drink and clothes; and the remnant give truly to poor men that have nought of their own, and may not labour for feebleness or sickness, and then shalt thou be a true priest both to God and man.” A beautiful picture fitted to stand alongside of Chaucer’s, to which reference has been already made, and the first of a notable series of similar portraits of the ideal English clergyman with which our literature has been enriched. Nor was Wyclif’s only a fancy sketch, but rather a model he did his best to realize in his several parishes of Fylingham, Ludgershall, and Lutterworth, though it was impossible for him to confine his work to the comparatively little sphere of the quiet Lincolnshire village.

Even after his withdrawal to its retirement, he was not left alone by those who imagined they could silence his fearless voice. He was again cited to appear before an imposing array of bishops in November, 1382, at a time when he was sorely discouraged by the cowardly retractations of more than one of his most intimate associates, and in 1383 he was ordered to betake himself to Rome to answer before the Pope himself for the heresies he had so persistently propounded. Whether he actually responded to the former summons is a matter involved in considerable uncertainty, but his reply to the last citation, which he did not obey, is still extant. Pleading his inability to take so long a journey, he uses the opportunity for a renewed and impressive assertion of some of the convictions he had already reiterated in many forms. Before this incident took place, moreover, his fierce indignation had been enkindled by the proceedings of Spencer, Bishop of Norwich, who headed a crusade and went forth to wage war in the interests of Pope Urban, and against those of Pope Clement. Every kind of spiritual bribe was held out to induce people to join the army by which this holy war was to be prosecuted, and Wyclif, burning with wrath as he heard of the blasphemous allurements, denounced in keen, uncompromising words the guilt incurred by such gross departure from the law of Christ.

The most absorbing and momentous work of these last few years was, however, beyond all question, that of preparing, completing, and revising the first Bible ever issued in our mother tongue, and, indeed, the first, by a century, in any living European language.151 It was the grandest work of his life, a most fitting close to his splendid service, and when once that priceless gift had been bestowed upon his country, it might well seem that there was little left for him to do but die, and enter into rest. No premature summons, therefore, was that which came to him while attending service in his church at Lutterworth, and was obeyed when, two days after, on 31st December, 1384, he “fell asleep in Jesus.” “Requiescat in pace” was, we may be sure, the tender prayer breathed by many as they took farewell of a master and a friend who had endeared himself to them, not more by his untiring zeal than by the purity and grace of his personal character. The loving wish was vain, indeed, so far as the poor mortal dust of him was concerned. For forty years it lay undisturbed beneath the stones of Lutterworth Church; but then, in obedience to one of the countless irrational and inhuman decrees of which Church Courts have been guilty, the innocent bones were rudely disinterred, borne to the village bridge, burned to ashes, and flung in contemptuous triumph into the waters of the village the Swift. And there was an end of Wyclif—at least, so some men thought.

A very meagre sketch this is of the life of one of the grandest Englishmen that ever breathed. The outline needs filling up as it cannot be filled up here. The years over which we have run so swiftly were packed to the uttermost with diligent toil. “Man is born to work,” Wyclif says in one passage, “as the bird for flight,” and the principle is one to which he rendered most constant homage. His writings are a library in themselves, numbering, according to different methods of estimating them, from 150 to 200 separate compositions. The larger proportion of them are in Latin, and the others, in English, belong, most of them to the last few years of his life, when he made his appeal directly to the people, one of those daring, original, and patriotic acts that threw great light upon his character and spirit, and elicited the bitter animadversion of his opponents. In 1410 two hundred volumes of his works were burned by order of the Archbishop of Prague, and there are still extant some four hundred of his sermons.161 Of the theologico-philosophical system expounded in his writings no survey can be attempted in this lecture, and it will be hardly possible to do more than indicate even his fundamental positions as a Reformer.

One fact to be constantly borne in mind, if our estimate of his character is to be fair and intelligent, is that Wyclif’s was eminently a progressive life. He has been often charged with inconsistency, and the accusation was plausible enough so long as no attempt had been made to discover the sequence of his writings. It is now manifest that the inconsistency is only such as is inseparable from growth. He declares honestly that he has changed, and that he is ready to change again should that be necessitated by loyalty to truth and conscience. He was not the man to see any beauty in the metallic immobility that, with so many, passes current for faithfulness, when it is nothing better than an amalgam of indolence and cowardice.

Another point with reference to which censure has been passed upon him is the part he took in the politics of his day. Milner laments that “a political spirit deeply infects Wyclif’s conduct,” and for that and other reasons he cannot “rank him among the highest worthies of the Church,” and a greater critic than Milner has spoken of politics as the rock on which Wyclif split. Such a judgment is possible only when a mere fragment of his work is kept in view, and when there has been an entire failure to appreciate the spirit that animated him when bearing his part in the settlement of national problems. Happily, he was not ashamed to be a patriot. He had enough of the old prophet’s faith in him to be convinced that a man is little likely to do any divine work in the world who is so exceedingly cosmopolitan that his fatherland is no more to him than any other country on the face of the earth. He was jealous, with a godly jealousy, for the honour and welfare of the nation. There was nothing in him of the sickly other-worldliness that surrenders the reins of civic and political government into any hands, however dirty, and regards such matters as too secular to have any claim upon the attention of a pious soul. All honour to his memory, that any attempt to trample on the independence of England provoked him to passionate protest and resistance, and that his very faith in God made it simply impossible for him to sit tamely by, “a dumb dog,” whilst the people were being wronged by foreign usurpation or domestic injustice. Wyclif was, to his praise be it said, an Englishman, every inch of him, not unworthy of a place in the very front rank of those whose names, “familiar in our ears as household words,” suggest the memory of glorious battles fought and won in the cause of Britain’s liberties. Besides, it was impossible that Wyclif could steer clear of politics if he were to be a Reformer at all. The Church itself was more political than anything else. It claimed to be the supreme civil power in Europe. It arrogated to itself the right to dethrone kings and instruct parliaments. Its dignitaries were at the bottom of every intrigue that sought to arrest the nation’s march to freedom. If, therefore, Wyclif was political, the fault lay not with the Reformer but with the system he laboured to reform; if he wrote much about Church and State, it was only because the former was intent upon devouring the latter, or degrading it into a mere puppet of ecclesiastic ambition.

What, essentially, Wyclif’s aim was, there can be little doubt about. It was just to bring back Christianity to its original character as portrayed in the New Testament. He was a reformer because he was, first and above everything else, a student of the “Sacred Page.” The early Apostolic records he had pored over year after year, until the one fact that, more than any other, bulked largely in his intellectual horizon, was the absolute disparity between the Christianity of the first and that of the fourteenth century. “Back to the Bible,” the so-called formal principle of the sixteenth century movement, was the scroll he blazoned on his banner from the outset, and in the elevation of this principle, as has been truly said, he is without a compeer throughout the history of the English Reformation.171 Authority which, with the Church, meant the whole heterogeneous mass of ecclesiastical tradition, meant, with Wyclif, simply and alone the Word of God. That constituted, he maintained, the sole tribunal whose verdict was final and without appeal in matters of doctrine, worship, and practice. “If there were a hundred popes, and all the monks were to be transformed into cardinals, we ought not,” he said, “to ascribe to their opinion in matters of faith any other value than they have as founded on the Scriptures.” His convictions as regards the supreme glory and excellency of the Bible were intense. It is “the immutable Testament of God the Father.” “God and His Word is all one and they may not be separated.” “To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ,” Who, in these writings, “has given a law sufficient for the government of the whole militant Church,”181 the one Magna Charta of the kingdom of God.

This single principle once adopted, all else, in Wyclif’s procedure as a reformer, followed by natural and necessary sequence. In Apostolic days he could find nothing answering to the haughty, grasping priesthood. “These brokers of the city of Rome,” as they are styled in the Complaint of the “Good Parliament,” who sold benefices to the highest bidder, whose income was as large again as the royal revenue, who had turned the Church into a huge banking concern, and who haggled and bargained about the very grace of God as if it were an ox or an ass, these were no successors of the men who had said, “Silver and gold have we none.” Wretched “penny priests” they were who bartered to the devil the souls Christ had redeemed by His precious blood.192 “Ah, Lord God, where is there reason,” he exclaims in a Petition to King and Parliament, “to constrain the poor people to find a worldly priest, sometimes unable both of life and cunning, in pomp and pride, covetousness and envy, gluttony and drunkenness and lechery, in simony and heresy, with fat horse, and jolly and gay saddles, and bridles ringing by the way, and himself in costly clothes and furs, and to suffer their wives and children and their poor neighbours perish for hunger, thirst, and cold, and other mischiefs of the world.”201 And the case was in no way better that at the head of this priesthood was a Pope who, in life and teaching, was “most contrary to Christ,” not Peter’s successor but Christ’s enemy, “poison under colour of holiness,” the “root and ground of all the misgoverning of the Church,”212 and nothing else, indeed, than Antichrist, and if a vicar at all, then a vicar only of Satan. As Wyclif scanned the features of the organization represented by this priesthood he could discover there no resemblance to the “Church of poor confessors” described in the New Testament. There was clamant need of reform, and the measures he advocates are sufficiently drastic. He is a champion of the principles of “Thorough.” His plea is for a “root and branch” re-organization. He does not hesitate to cry out even for disendowment, strange as such a method may appear amid the old-fashioned manners and customs of the fourteenth century. The Church is being suffocated by its wealth, he argues, and the State should restore to it its original poverty, undeterred by any denunciations of sacrilege and spoliation, or any predictions of calamity and retribution. Wyclif even appeals to the clergy themselves, with what success need hardly be said, to forego their riches and return to the wholesome use-and-wont of earlier days. He quotes with emphatic approval St. Bernard’s famous saying, “Whatsoever thou takest to thee of tithes and offerings besides simple livelihood and straight clothing, it is not thine, it is theft, ravine, and sacrilege”; and argues that all priests of whatsoever rank should live “of alms, freely and wilfully given.”221 There you have a reformer indeed, and one who approaches very near the furthest extremes even of voluntaryism itself.

We have already seen how absolutely he denies the right of Pope or priest to possess temporal lordship or to be independent of civil authority. The State must assert its rule, he avers, over all citizens alike without distinction of class or person. This he holds to be indispensable to the welfare both of the nation and the Church, and, curious, unaccountable soul that he is, he lets it be plainly seen that he has little faith in the ecclesiastical administration of justice, and that, if he had to be tried at all, he would prefer, as his judges, a bench of civil magistrates to a bevy of tonsured priests.232

With equal emphasis did he challenge the Pope’s supremacy in spiritual things. The “power of the keys” was a figment of sacerdotal assumption. Excommunication he did indeed believe in as a terrible reality, but not one in the control of any but God Himself, Who is alone able to discern the true character of men. Hence he affirmed that “no man could be excommunicated at all who had not first and chiefly excommunicated himself”;243 and that “man’s curse harmeth nothing, neither interdicting, nor any censures that Satan may feign.”251 Just as little could the Pope grant remission of sins, and indulgences he brands as worthless and wicked mockeries, “a subtle merchandise of Antichrist’s clerks,” which tempt men to wallow in sin like hogs.262 Christ, and Christ alone, is the true custodier of heavenly grace.

Whilst Wyclif condemns so unsparingly the wealth and luxury of the clergy, he is not less vehement in his denunciation of the mendicant orders who professed to have adopted poverty as their rule of life. His assault upon the friars was not, as has often been supposed, one of the earliest exhibitions of his zeal as a reformer, though even in his Oxford days he must have grown suspicious of the Franciscans, who exercised a pernicious influence over the youthful students at the university. As he approached the close of his career, however, his wrath boiled over, and he scourges, with overwhelming scorn, these able-bodied and strong-handed beggars who were robbers alike of the rich who willingly gave and of the poor who had need to receive. He tramples upon their appeal to the example of Christ, Who, he indignantly protests, was no mendicant, as they affirmed, even though (to refer to the incidents they founded on) He had asked a drink of the woman of Samaria, cast Himself upon the hospitality of Zacchæus, and borrowed the ass on which He rode into Jerusalem.273 He accumulates proof upon proof of their falsehood, dishonesty, and blasphemy, and never, in the whole history of the Church, has so conclusive a demonstration been given of the utter corruption of the orders that began their career in a spirit of holy enthusiasm and magnificent promise.

The wrath enkindled by his assault upon the friars grew into white heat when Wyclif repudiated the dogma of Transubstantiation, of which they especially were the acknowledged champions. In defence of his position on this matter (which, as already seen, was absolutely antagonistic to that of the Church), he appealed to Scripture, to the testimony of the senses, to the axioms of philosophy, and even the poor church-mouse is called into court as an unprejudiced witness whose testimony is more to be depended on than that of any number of bigoted bishops and popes. The orthodox doctrine, he insisted, cast an unpardonable slur upon the truthfulness of the evangelists and apostles, and even of Christ Himself; it involved the blasphemy of believing that a creature can create its Creator; it imposed upon men the necessity of discrediting and contradicting the clearest evidence of the faculties of taste and touch; and it posited the utterly impossible absurdity of “accident without subject,” qualities without an underlying substance, “the most heresy that God suffered to come to His Church.”281