2011 is the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible. Many ecclesias will be using this topic in their preaching activities throughout this year. As readers may like to have an outline of how we came to have the Bible in English, and in particular the King James Version, or Authorised Version (AV) as it is often called, this series will give an overview of events of that period. As we consider these events we will readily appreciate that the hand of God was at work behind the translating and then the printing of the Bible in the common language, so people could read the Word of God for themselves. This is a great privilege that generations for over 1000 years before its translation did not have. Do we appreciate and value our Bible and its message as we should?

The gravediggers were perplexed and somewhat alarmed at the unusual request the priests had made of them. This time they were to go to the graveyard of the Lutterworth Church and instead of digging a grave for a dead parishioner, they were to exhume the body of a man who had been buried some 44 years earlier. This request was weighing heavily on their conscience for the Churchyard was ‘consecrated ground’. What eternal condemnation would await them on death for this seemingly blasphemous deed? But then it was the priests of the Catholic Church who were demanding this of them, and they said that the Bishop of Rome himself had ordered it, so who would dare challenge the authority of the Pope! So, calming their conscience with this thought, they exhumed the remains so the Church could execute their execration and condemnation upon the bones of this ‘heretic’. The bones were duly burnt and then cast into the River Swift that flows south west through England into the Avon, then into the Severn and out to the sea.

The Avon to the Severn runs,

The Severn to the sea,

And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,

Wide as the waters be.

These words of an unknown poet foretold the widespread effects that would follow this brave man, John Wycliffe, who challenged the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church of his day by translating the Latin Vulgate into the language of the common people of England so they could read and know the Word of God themselves.

Wycliffe, “the Morning Star of the Reformation” 1320? – 1384

John Wycliffe was born around 1320 in the village of Wycliffe-on-Tees in Yorkshire. He attended Balliol College in Oxford and in 1356 he obtained his Bachelor of Arts and then in about 1373 received his Doctor of Theology. By the time Wycliffe left Oxford he had been Master of Balliol College and Warden of Canterbury Hall. His studies had been well rooted in Latin as was typical of such scholars of that era. England at that time was Roman Catholic and subservient to the Pope. The only Bible that was available was the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible made by Jerome (382–405 AD). The actual title given to this translation was ‘versio vulgata’, which means ‘common translation’. Being in Latin it could only be read by priests and scholars who understood Latin. The common people were therefore unable to know

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what the Bible taught. Even the Mass was spoken in Latin so the people were kept in ignorance of understanding this church service. Wycliffe turned from the mental subservience expected of followers of the Church and read the Bible with an openness of mind. He was soon convicted that the Bible alone should be the basis of authority as it gave both the doctrinal teachings of God, and the basis of moral conduct for the individual and therefore for all the people of England.

It was not long before he was out of step with the Church on its absurd teaching regarding Transubstantiation and Indulgences (see next issue for note on these two Catholic doctrines). He also became involved in political matters, particularly relating to the secularization of ecclesiastical properties in England. This, of course, was welcomed by the powerful and wealthy in England as it meant the Church would forfeit its large land holdings. He also attacked the temporal rule of the clergy – he believed that in temporal things the King was above the Pope. Obviously with these views he was challenging the foundations of Roman Catholicism both in England and by implication throughout the whole Holy Roman Empire.

Wycliffe’s greatest challenge to the Church – the Bible in the language of the people

As if these views of Wycliffe were not enough to have him excommunicated and anathematised by Pope and Church, he now challenged the Church at its most vital point – the removal of ignorance and superstition upon which the Church was established and thrived. He commenced translating the Bible into the common language of the people of England.

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Wycliffe realised that it was imperative that the people be able to read and consider the message of God’s Word for themselves. The fact that it was only available in Latin until that time meant that the priests alone were able to read it. Wycliffe expressed his mind on this as follows:

“Those heretics who pretend that the laity need not know God’s law but that the knowledge which the priests have had imparted to them by word of mouth is sufficient, do not deserve to be listened to. For the Holy Scriptures is the faith of the Church, and the more widely its true meaning becomes known the better it will be. Therefore since the laity should know the faith, it should be taught in whatever language is most easily comprehended … Christ and His apostles taught the people in the language best known to them.”

In fulfilling this aim Wycliffe commenced the translation of the Latin Vulgate into the English of the day. Possibly he had others assisting him and by the time of his death in Lutterworth in 1384 the translation was completed. Now began the tedious and dangerous task of making copies. Let us remember that this translation into English was completed before the invention of the printing press. Every copy had to be carefully copied by quill and ink onto parchment paper and then bound into book form. At last it was possible for those literate and well off among the common people to obtain a copy for themselves and read for the first time the Word of the living God. Those who were illiterate would listen attentively to the Word of God read in their native tongue and then commit it to memory to be drawn upon as the basis of God’s guidance for their life. We may wonder how many of these handwritten copies of the Wycliffe Bible were actually made. It would seem that there were a great number since there still remain more than 250 copies in existence today – 600 years later!

We give two further quotations of Wycliffe that show the spirit in which he saw the need for the Word of God to be available to the people of England:

“It seems first that the knowledge of God’s law should be taught in the tongue that is more known, for this is the knowledge of God’s word.”

And further:

“That the New Testament is of full Authority, and open to understanding of simple men, as to the points that have been most needful to salvation … That men ought to desire only the truth and freedom of the holy Gospel, and to accept man’s law and ordinances only as much as they have been grounded in holy Scriptures.”

As the teachings of Wycliffe spread, his followers grew in number, becoming known as ‘Lollards’. These people took up a very humble lifestyle as they travelled around proclaiming the newfound teachings Wycliffe taught them from the Bible.

Wycliffe – the ‘heretic’!

With the English translation of the Bible being circulated, and the teachings of Wycliffe challenging some of the basic tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, it was deemed that a stern response was needed to stop the influence of his work. Although efforts were made to silence and condemn him during his lifetime, these failed and he died in 1384 and was buried in the churchyard at Lutterworth. However, the Catholic Church realised that the challenge that faced them remained, with the Bible now in the language of the people. In 1408, under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Arundel, a meeting of Catholic Church leaders at Oxford passed what are known as the ‘Constitutions of Oxford’. These laws outlawed the reading and translation of the Scriptures into the English vernacular without the permission of the bishop. They declared the English translation of the Bible to be illegal. Those who translated it or were discovered with copies could be charged with heresy. Burning was the most common sentence for heretics who were normally publicly burned at the stake to warn others of the seriousness of their ‘blasphemous crime’. Despite this cruel opposition, the Bible and its influence continued to spread. In 1411 Archbishop Arundel wrote the following to Pope John XIII (one of three popes each claiming to be supreme pontiff at the same time during the Western or Papal Schism – he later was classified an Antipope):

“This pestilent and wretched John Wycliffe, of cursed memory, that sone of the old serpent … endeavoured by doctrine of Holy Church, devised – to fill up the measure of his malice – the expedient of a new translation of the scriptures into the mother tongue.”

One wonders how the Catholic Church could explain why, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles, including Peter (who they claim was their first Pope!) so that every man could hear in their own tongue wherein they were born the wonderful works of God (Acts 2:8, 11).

At the Catholic Council of Constance held in 1415 Wycliffe’s teachings were declared heretical. Some two hundred and forty of his writings were condemned. Although Wycliffe had died as an orthodox member of the English Church (as a Catholic), he was declared to be a heretic thirty one years after his death. Finally, in 1428, on the express orders of the Bishop of Rome, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed, his bones burned, and the ashes thrown into the River Swift.

The ‘Constitutions of Oxford’ remained law in England for nearly one hundred and thirty years until King Henry VIII licensed the Matthews Bible to circulate in 1537. It was these laws that hindered Tyndale greatly in his translation of the Bible, as we will see when we come to consider him and his work. We should also remember that Henry VIII had by 1537 established the Church of England, of which he was the head.

We have commenced the journey that finally led to the King James Version. God’s hand was working to provide men with His Word and the way of salvation, while also exposing the corruption and blasphemy of the Catholic Church. Our next article will look at the far-reaching effects that Wycliffe’s work had in Europe.