Old St. Paul's, in London, was one of the longest of all churches, but it was crowded in all its length and breadth on the day when John Wycliffe was brought there to be tried. Through the narrow lane between the people he made his way from the west door to the chapel behind the altar. Beside him walked the two most powerful men in England, greatest in riches and in influence, and highest in station, Lord Percy and Duke John of Gaunt. Behind him walked the representatives of the four Orders of friars, one for the Order of St. Dominic, one for the Order of St. Francis, two for lesser societies. And behind them came men-at-arms. The archbishop of Canterbury was to be the judge; the bishop of London was to be the accuser.
"Sit down, Wycliffe," said Lord Percy, "since you have much to reply, you will need all the softer seat." "Stand up, Wycliffe," cried the bishop of London. "An accused man may not sit in the presence of the judge." "Nay, but he shall sit," shouted the lord. "Nay, but he shall stand," shouted the bishop. And then the men-at-arms took one side of the dispute, and the townspeople took the other side. And so they fell to fighting. The church was filled with noise and violence. In the midst of the tumult, Wycliffe was carried off in safety.
John Wycliffe was a professor in the University of Oxford. He was the greatest scholar and the greatest preacher of this time. As a scholar he wrote in Latin for the reading of learned men, and proved his points by the complicated logic in which learned men delighted. As a preacher, he spoke in English, plainly, directly, and to the hearts of his hearers. Both in Latin and in English he said things which made all England give attention to him.
Wycliffe attacked the privileges of the Church. He said that the Church was too rich. He found that the temptations of wealth and power, against which Dominic and Francis had done their best, were constantly increasing. Every day the Church was piling up its treasure and extending its land. Even the Dominicans and Franciscans, bound as they were to poverty, were building splendid monasteries and gathering gold as a farmer gathers fruit. It is true that no friar had anything for his own, but the Orders grew rich, and the "little brothers of the poor," as Francis had called them, lived in palaces. The people hated them for their wealth, but still more because, being so rich, they still said that they were poor. Beside the great houses of the friars, Dominican and Franciscan, were the greater houses of the monks, Benedictine, Cluniac, Cistercian. A third of the land and wealth of England was said to be in the possession of the Church.
Now, at that time, the theory was that the chief business of the Church is to deal on behalf of men with God.
God sat far away upon a vast gold throne, and could be approached only as the king was approached, by His courtiers. Whoever wanted anything of God must get it in this way. They who were engaged in fighting, as most strong men were, could get God on their side, they thought, by keeping the friendship of the Church. So they gave gifts to the clergy; as business men, in places where a city is ruled by a political ring, give gifts to politicians.
The main matter, however, concerning which the Church was believed to have influence with God was that of punishment for sin. People were continually taught that they would be punished for their sins. In almost every church a great picture of the Last Judgment was painted on the wall. Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, is a familiar example. The pictures showed the torments of hell. But there was a way of escape. The Church could save men from these torments. The process was to confess one's sins to a priest, to be absolved by him in the name of God, and to perform such penance as the priest might direct. And this help was applied even to those who had already gone into the world unseen. The prayers of the priests were believed to be powerful even for such as these. They might still be saved from pain, and helped on into heaven.
Thus men and women employed the services of the Church both for themselves and for their friends. They gave lands, built churches, and paid money according to their means, in order to save themselves and those whom they loved from the distress of punishment for sin in the world to come. The value of the Church was thought to consist, not in its relation to this present life, helping people to be better, but in its relation to the future life. The theory that sin could be committed without fear of punishment by paying the Church to save the sinner from the pain which he deserved, encouraged men in sin. The principal business of a man of religion,—a priest, a monk, or a friar,—was to say prayers. The purpose of the Church was not so much to change the will of men, making them better, as to change the will of God, making Him more kind to sinners. And the great wealth which the Church got in payment for these services was spent upon the Church. The people got nothing back but prayers.
It was for speaking against all this that Wycliffe had been brought to trial. The one thing plain at that moment to his mind was that the Church was injured by its wealth. He felt, like Dominic and Francis, that poverty was essential to religion. What they meant was that a self-seeking Church, getting everything and giving nothing, was in no position to do its true work in the world. Wycliffe proposed that the property of the Church be taken away. That was the best solution he could think of. And Lord Percy and Duke John of Gaunt agreed with him most heartily; for when the property of the Church was taken away they hoped to get a large share of it for themselves.
All this social preaching of Wycliffe, wise or unwise, was suddenly stopped by the Peasants' Revolt. All over England, the poor arose against the rich. The times were hard and people were hungry. The situation was embittered by a long and unsuccessful war with France, for whose heavy and foolish expenses the land was taxed. Then came John Ball and Wat Tyler and other leaders, and burned castles, and invaded London. And their attack was directed, not only against the rich towns, but against the rich monasteries. The archbishop of Canterbury, who was to have judged Wycliffe in St. Paul's, they killed, and they would have killed John of Gaunt also if they could have caught him. It was made plain that all wealth, whether held by laymen or by churchmen, was in peril. Any attack upon it, even with the best of motives, was likely to be like a lighted match beside a magazine of powder. The Peasants' Revolt stopped the assault of Wycliffe upon the bad wealth of the Church.
He turned his attention to bad doctrine.
It became plain to Wycliffe that the power and the wealth which were destroying the spiritual life of the Church were due to the evil influences of a mistaken doctrine of the Lord's Supper. According to this doctrine, the pronouncing of certain words by a priest in the service had the effect of bringing Christ to the altar at which he ministered. The bread of the Supper was changed by the priest's words into the body of Christ, and the wine into the blood of Christ. Thus the priest brought God down out of heaven. The miracle proved the priest's power with God. This power he could turn for or against men as he chose. He could save men from the punishment of their sins, or he could condemn them to everlasting torment. His blessing was the blessing of heaven; his curse was the curse of hell.
This doctrine Wycliffe denied. In his lecture room at Oxford he showed his pupils that it had no foundation in Scripture or in reason. The bread of the sacrament was bread still, the wine was wine still. The presence of Christ was a spiritual presence. As for the excommunications of the Church, they are of effect, he said, only when they are deserved. The way to be saved is not by sacraments but by godly living. Every man may come straight to God without the aid of any priest.
The new teaching startled the country. John of Gaunt hurried down to Oxford to tell Wycliffe that he could expect no protection from the court for such ideas as these. The pope sent word from Rome to have the preacher silenced. But Wycliffe replied to John of Gaunt that he proposed to follow truth wherever it might lead him. As for the pope, he said that the Greek Church got on very well without any pope, and he thought the Latin Church might do the same.
They held a council against him in London and condemned his teachings. But in the afternoon, while the churchmen were busy pointing out his errors, there came a tremendous earthquake. The whole house in which they sat was shaken, church steeples fell, and towers of castles were destroyed. The effect of this singular coincidence was to strengthen the influence of Wycliffe. He was, indeed, dismissed from his professorship at Oxford; but he retired to his parish at Lutterworth, and there continued both to write and to preach.
The little parish became the center of the new movement. Wycliffe took up the work of Dominic and Francis. Dominic had tried to save the Church by the preaching of the truth; the Dominicans were to reason with heretics. But the plan had failed, and instead of convincing men by reason the endeavor was made to compel them by torture. Francis had tried to save the Church by living a life of love. But his example was followed only for a little while. The time came when the Franciscans who desired to live like Francis were persecuted by the Franciscans who desired to live more comfortably. Wycliffe sent out men from Lutterworth to save the Church by attacking the positions which made the Church strong as an institution but weak as an influence for good. These men, clad in long russet gowns, and called Lollards, carried in their hands pages of the English Bible.
Wycliffe, in his quiet rectory of Lutterworth, had translated the Bible. He had taken it over from the Latin of Jerome, and had made it speak the common speech of the people. That speech would sound strange in our ears. The English language had not yet come into the form which we have it now. Chaucer, about the same time, was writing the Canterbury Tales. A glance at Chaucer's pages shows how like his English was to ours, and yet how very different. But that was how men spoke. And when the Bible was read to them in those words, they understood it. That was what Wycliffe wanted. He believed that what was needed to save the Church was an understanding of the Bible, and a return to the spirit of the Bible. "Here," cried the Lollards in the market-places, "here is God's truth in God's book. Where are the priests, where are the penances, where the images of the saints, where are the prayers for the dead, where is the ritual of the sacrament of the altar, where is the pope, in God's book?"
Wycliffe died in peace, being taken with his last illness in the midst of a service in his church. Half a century later, his enemies dug up his body and burned it, and cast the ashes upon the surface of the little river Swift. And the Swift, as his friends said, bore them to the Severn, and the Severn to the sea. It was a symbol of the spread of Wycliffe's influence. For Wycliffe was the beginner of the English Reformation.