Wyclif and Hus: Two Attempts at Reform:

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries were a time of struggling over the issue of spiritual and civil authority. Popes and sovereigns battled over power and wealth. The showdowns between Pope Boniface VIII and the French King Philip IV the Fair resulted in Boniface's 1303 Bull Unnum Sanctum declaring the Papacy soveriegn over temporal powers; Philip IV first attempted to kidnap the Pope, then succeeding in kidnapping the Papacy to Avignon, in France, for a period of seventy years (called the Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1309-1378), putting papal power under his control. The high demands of maintaining papal courts and royal armies resulted in excessive taxation and battle over church controlled lands and properties. Meanwhile, the Black Death and other plagues decimated populations, and the fear of witches and witchcraft was widespread. The Turks threatened from the East, and from within, starving peasants fermented rebellions. The Peasant Rebellion in Worms in1431 haunted princes in the days of Luther and Zwingli. (and later inspired the communistic writings of Frederick Engels). Efforts to restore the Papacy resulted in two popes elected by the same council, then a third intended to replace the other two elected by the Council of Pisa in 1409.

In 1324, Marsiglio de Padua (? -1342) wrote the Defensor Pacis setting forth the views that power belongs to the people, the state is concerned with temporal matters, the church with spiritual; the Church is the body of all believers and the New Testament the final authority. These views were condemned in 1327, though the writer was in a safe refuge. The Papacy in France was pre-occupied with other matters.

Such was the nature of Europe as John Wyclif (also spelled Wycliffe, Wycliff, Wicliff, or Wiclif) (1330 - 1384) who lived in England; and John Hus (also spelled Jan Huss) (1371 - 1415) who lived in Bohemia (Modern Czechslovakia) attempted to bring reform to the church. The connection between the two was a royal wedding - the marriage of the Bohemian Princess Anne to England's Richard II. The writings of Wyclif came to Hus through Bohemian scholars returning from Oxford. Both men attempted reforms of the Church - addressing the nature of the Church, the funal authority of Scripture, and though protected by royal interests, both had their views condemned and were consigned to the flames (Wyclif fourteen years after his death).

Wyclif studied at Oxford become a prominent theologian influenced by St. Augustine's writings, and Rector of Lutterworth in 1374. He found a supporter in John of Gaunt (1340 -99), Duke of Lancaster who saw in him a opportunity to divert the tribute and taxation being demanded by the Papacy into England's coffers at a time when England was threatened with invasion by France. (John of Gaunt was King Edward III's son, uncle to the ill-starred Richard III and father to Henry IV and the Lancastrian line - the richest and most powerful subject in England, a key actor on the international stage, patron of Wycliffe and Chaucer, John of Gaunt was deeply involved in the Peasant's revolt and the Hundred Years War. He is also one of the most hated men of his time.)

Wyclif's On Civil Lordship in 1376 expressed the viewpoint that power whether religious or civil was God's to extend to faithful stewards as was the usage of temporal property. The Church should not own property, nor emass wealth, nor could it inflict punishment or excommunication. Even as warrents for his arrest were ignored, he suggested that a Pope who grasps after worldly power is of Anti-Christ and could be deposed. He affirmed that the Church is the whole body of the elect. (Both Wyclif and Hus were strong Predestinarians.) He declared the Scriptures to be the only law of the church; (at this time there were two competing popes) and from 1382-84 directed an English translation of the Bible from the Vulgate which circulated widely. He sent out pairs of poor preachers to teach God's Word to preach to the people in the venacular. His followers became numerous, and came to be called Lollards (mumblers - though the term could be derisive, referring to the Tares in Matt 13:30).

But Wyclif also attacked the doctrine of Transubstantiation - which cost him John of Gaunt's support and he was blamed for the Peasant Revolt of 1381 in England as well. His writings were banned in 1382, and he died of a stroke on December 31st, 1384. Fourteen years later his bones would be exhumed, burned at the stake and the ashes cast into a river. That same year, Gerard Groote, founder of the Brethern of the Common Life was also called home to the Lord .

The Lollard's movement continued, but as a persecuted group. Many were martyred as heretics, (one, Sir John Oldcastle was Shakespeare's character, Falstaff before his conversion,) but while they persisted into Reformation times, they did not have a significant role in the English Reformation. Wyclif's Bible was banned, but widely read, and much more significant in shaping events that followed. 130 copies have survived to this day.

It was John Hus who carried on the teaching of Wyclif in Bohemia. A theologian at the University of Prague, and preacher at Bethehem Chapel, Wyclif's writings came to his attention before 1402. Though torn between German and Slavic interests, nationalism in Bohemia afforded Hus support and protection by King Wenchslaus IV. Though accepting Transubstantiation, Hus took Wyclif's views on the nature of the Church as God's elect, with Christ, not the pope as its head. (About this time, there were three who claimed the office) Hus challenged the indulgence issued for a crusade against the King of Naples in 1412. (An indulgence for a war against fellow Christians??) He published his views on the Church in De Ecclesia that same year. Hus' disputes over authority however were in matters of discipline, and in particular the withholding of the cup from the laity, as contrary to Scripture. Summoned to the Council of Constance under the promise of a safe conduct by the Emperor - he was challenged on his views, convicted of heresy and burned at the stake July 6th, 1415. Johannes Eck, sidestepping the issues of indulgences and justification by faith, in his debate with Luther, raised this incident, asking if the Church had been right in condemning Hus. Luther concluded they were wrong and that councils and popes could err.

The death of Hus intensified resistence to Rome and the Emperor, Sigismund, also king of Bohemia. Hus' supporters in Bohemia soon began administering both the elements to the believers in communion, and the Hussites, as they were called successfully defended themselves against five crusades sent by Rome lead by a blind general named John Zizka, who used some innovative military methods to win over 30 battles with the forces against them. The Hussites were divided into two groups, the aristocratic group called the Utraquists (who forbid only those practices forbidden by Scripture) established a treaty of tolerance for thier beliefs in 1436; the democratic party called the Taborites (who accepted only practices commanded by Scripture) were closer to Hus' views, and though persecuted formed into the Bohemian Brethren and eventually into the Moravian Church. The Moravians did not unite with the Reformation, though many of their views were similar, and persists today as a faith. One of the best known Moravians was Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf.

It is for their views on the nature of the Church and on the sole authority of Scripture that John Wyclif and John Hus are considered to be forerunners of the Protestant Reformation.

There were others who were significant in the Fifteenth century. The mystic Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) , Patron Saint of Joan of Arc (1411-31), tried to unify the church even as Joan tried to unify France. Meanwhile, England and France and Burgundy slugged it out in the Hundred Years war. England was torn by the civil wars called the Wars of the Roses. Despite the efforts of Councils (who erred win electing a pope before enacting reforms) and a monk named Girolamo Savonarola who attempted to transform Florence into a penitential city in 1496-98, only to be betrayed, excommunicated, tortured and hanged at the hands of Alexander VI, the culmination of a whole line of Renaissance popes noted for their worldiness and power and patronage of the arts, and the methods of Machiavelli to achieve their ends. The stage was now set for the Reformation.

Published Resources:

  • The History ot Civilization: The Reformation by Will Durant
  • The Perilous Vision of John Wyclif by Louis Brewer Hall (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc. 1983)
  • England in the Age of Wycliffe by George MacAulay Trevelyan 3rd edition (AMS Press, 1978)
  • John Wycliffe and Reform by John Stacey (AMS Press, 1979)
  • Wiclif and Hus by Johann Loserth (AMS Press, 1979)
  • Wycliffe and Movements for Reform (Epochs of Church History.) by Reginald L. Poole (AMS Press, 1978)
  • Wyclif (Past Masters) by Anthony Kenny
  • John Hus: A Biography; also John Hus and the Czech reform; and John Hus at the Council of Constance by Matthew Spinka
  • John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe by A. Goodman (1992)

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