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John Wycliffe – "the language not of angels but of Englishmen"

After Wycliffe's body was buried in 1384, officials exhumed his bones, burned them and scattered the ashes on the River Swift. It was not so easy to destroy his ideas.

A controversial Oxford scholar and philosopher, energetic and logical, John Wycliffe called for a church that follows the New Testament and is dedicated to a simple, charitable life without wealth or endowments. He asserted that the King can take the church’s property if it is misused, basing his revolutionary proposal on the principle that the King has been consecrated to rule and has a covenant with the people to protect them from injustice. At the same time Wycliffe cautioned that ‘it is indeed an insupportable mistake for the king or any other lord of the realm to tyrannize over his people’.

In 1377 he was summoned before the Bishop of London "to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth". John of Gaunt and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, defended him, and the interrogation abruptly ended.

Realizing that few people could hear Christ’s radical teachings of equality and love because they did not understand Latin, Wycliffe organised the Bible’s translation from Latin into English –

“into the language not of angels but of Englishmen, so that he made that common and open to the laity, and to women who were able to read, which used to be for literate and perceptive clerks’ (Knighton's Chronicle, 242–4).

The English Bible had a profound effect because it spread the word that God loves justice and that freedom is God’s gift to every person. The scriptural idea that every individual is created in the image of God, and has equal and inestimable value, will be crucial to the development of democracy.

In 1381 the Great Revolt (pervasively but inaccurately known as the Peasants' Revolt) was partly inspired by some of his ideas. Wycliffe was deeply sympathetic to the revolt and to the plight of the poor, and fiercely critical of the policies, whether ecclesiastical or lay, that had led to their plight (DNB).

Wycliffe’s criticism of Church and secular power and his spiritual ideas about the sacrament of the Eucharist infuriated the powers-that-be. In 1382 he was driven from Oxford, and his original translation of the Bible was burned. However, copies survived, and the seeds of reform were planted, in England and as far away as Bohemia, where Wycliffe’s ideas inspired Jan Hus.

In the Anglican Calendar, Wycliffe's feast day is celebrated today.

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