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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. M. Cramp
Taken from the book Baptist History, 1868
Wycliffe spent the latter years of his life in translating the Scriptures into the English language, and happily accomplished his purpose. For the first time the people of England had the opportunity of reading the Word of God in their own tongue. A more precious gift than the English Bible could not have been bestowed upon them.
When the pope condemned Wycliffe's sentiments, he ordered the government of England to deal with him as a heretic; but the Reformer's friends were so numerous and influential that the Papal shaft fell harmless. The subject was taken up by the Council of Constance, which met in the year 1415, and a sentence of condemnation was issued.
Wycliffe was out of their reach, but his books were widely circulated, and his bones were in his grave at Lutterworth. Books and bones were deemed fit objects of revenge, and orders were given to burn them. The sentence was not executed on his bones till the year 1428, when, by command of Pope Martin V, the tomb was violated. After a repose of upward of forty years, the remains of the good man were disinterred. The fire reduced them to ashes, and the ashes were cast into the Swift, a small stream that runs through Lutterworth.
Thomas Fuller, the quaint church historian, says: "This brook has conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over."
After Wycliffe's death, the work was carried on by the Lollards, as those who embraced his opinions were called. The origin of that appellation is hid in obscurity. Some derive it from the name of one of their traders, Walter Lollard. Others, with Mosheim, regard it as "a term of reproach, brought from Belgium into England." So great was their success that a Romish writer of those times affirms that one-half of the people had become disaffected to the church. This was an exaggeration; but it is evident, from the strenuous endeavors of the ecclesiastics to procure the adoption of violent measures, that the reforming party had assumed a formidable appearance.
The Lollards traveled from place to place, preaching and teaching, as the Waldenses and others did on the Continent. Sometimes they obtained the churches; for many of them belonged to the clergy, and kept their places as Wycliffe had done before them. Sometimes they preached in the churchyards; they went to the fairs and markets, where the people congregated in great numbers, and often addressed immense assemblies, who heard them with much sympathy and respect.
They circulated portions of the Scriptures as they had opportunity, and thus there grew up a strong attachment to the Word of God. Men would sit up all night to read it or to hear it read by others. Some "would give a load of hay for a few chapters of St. James or St. Paul in English," as John Foxe testifies.
The bishops stormed and raved. In the year 1400 they procured the enactment of the statute de haeretico comburendo, and burned as many so-called heretics as they could lay their hands on. In some instances even children were compelled to set fire to the pile in which their parents were to be consumed. "Others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings." Yet the light of the gospel was not extinguished. When the Reformation broke out, there were many thousands in England who were already prepared to side with the friends of truth against the pope and his abettors.
From England the movement spread eastward as far as Bohemia. To what extent the influence of Wycliffe's writings was felt in the intervening countries I am not able to say, but that they were very popular in Bohemia is matter of history. Anne of Bohemia, queen of Richard II, befriended the Reformer, and probably transmitted copies of his works to her own country. John Huss possessed them and studied them attentively. Many others, some of them persons of high rank, were eager to obtain the Englishman's books.
When the Council of Constance ordered them to be burned, upward of two hundred volumes, most of them richly bound and adorned, were thrown into the flames. But many more, we may be sure, were retained by their owners. Wycliffe, though dead, continued to speak and instruct. Peter of Bruys and other godly men lived in their successors.
At the close of this period there were vast numbers in every part of Europe who "worshiped God in the spirit, rejoiced in Christ Jesus, and had no confidence in the flesh." Councils had thundered forth their curses, popes had issued their bulls, and inquisitors had exhausted their ingenuity, but it was all in vain. The Church of God still lived.