Editor’s Note: The following post is second in a series about the Protestant Reformation, the 496th anniversary of which is on October 31. You can see the previous post here. Through these posts, we will examine the historical context, key figures and long-term ramifications of the Reformation.
“Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
- John Wycliffe
Enter the Reformers. By the time Luther arrived on the scene, much of the groundwork for the Reformation had been laid. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses served as the spark that ignited the tinderbox of deep societal unrest that already existed in Europe. Others had gone before Luther and paid dearly for their opposition to the church in Rome and the existing ecclesiastical order.
Not much is known of John Wycliffe’s early life. He was born in the village of Wycliffe-on-Tees in the English region of Yorkshire. In 1345, Wycliffe, at age 15, began studying at Oxford and rapidly distinguished himself from his peers by his scholarship.
During Wycliffe’s years at Oxford, England was taking steps to separate itself from the authority in Rome. This was fertile ground for Wycliffe to espouse his belief that papal authority was corrupt and a gross overreach of ecclesiastical power.
Wycliffe was passionate about the one idea at the heart of the Protestant Reformation: that all believers have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. As a result of this belief, Wycliffe began translating the Latin Vulgate (a 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible) into English.
For centuries the church leadership had maintained that only they were allowed to read and translate the Bible and then pass it on to the flock. Wycliffe’s radical idea was that everyone within the church had the right to have the Bible in his own language.
Wycliffe’s primary point of departure from traditional church teaching, however, was on the topic of communion.
Traditional church dogma up to that time declared that the bread of communion became the actual body of Christ upon being consumed by the believer.
Wycliffe opposed this idea because he saw it as a rejection of the incarnation. According to Wycliffe, in the incarnation, Christ was present in a human body and neither were destroyed by the presence of the other. Christ is present in the communion but so is the bread. It was primarily this teaching that drew the attention of Rome and, in 1377; Pope Gregory XI issued a series of five papal bulls (formal papal letters) against Wycliffe condemning him for his heresies.
Wycliffe died of a stroke in 1384 at his parish in Lutterworth and, since he had not been excommunicated, he was buried on church ground. However the Council of Constance, convened in 1414, condemned Wycliffe and ordered that his remains be dug up, burned and thrown into the Swift River.
Wycliffe suffered many indignities throughout his life, but his enduring legacy remains one of a man who firmly believed that all Christians have a right to read and study the word of God in their own tongue. This idea rests at the core of the Protestant Reformation.
John Huss was born in 1362 in the Czech Republic. Huss was a devout man of faith who studied at the University of Prague. He was not an exceptional student, but he labored diligently and had a gift for preaching.
Huss advanced quickly within the university and the church as his preaching and hard work set him above the rest of his peers. Huss was a proponent of reform within the church and did not initially set out to break completely from the established ecclesiastical order. His primary interest was restoring the Christian ethic within the church and the clergy.
Huss, who at one point had spent most of his money purchasing an indulgence, railed against the corruption that had weaved its way into the church hierarchy.
To stem Huss’ teachings and silence him, Pope Alexander V ordered that preaching could occur only in a cathedral, a church or a monastery. Since Huss’ church fell into none of those categories, he was to be silenced completely. However, after much prayer and meditation, Huss decided he could not stop preaching what he believed the Lord had called him to preach.
In 1410 the Pope ordered Huss to Rome to answer for his rebellion.
Huss refused to go and was excommunicated in 1411. Huss was, however, incredibly popular with the people and the king; therefore, this excommunication did little to silence him.
Huss now believed that it was up to God alone to forgive sins and that the system of indulgences was a corrupt heresy designed to line the pockets of the powerful papal families.
Eventually the political favor that Huss had enjoyed turned against him, and he was forced to leave Prague or be responsible for embroiling the country in a conflict that could ultimately tear it apart.
Huss retired to the countryside where he continued writing about the need to reform the church. During this self-imposed exile, the church called a council. Huss was invited to the council to defend himself and was promised that he would be unharmed in his journey.
When Huss arrived in Constance, Pope John XXIII had him taken aside and demanded that he renounce his heretical teachings. Huss responded that we would do so if someone could prove that he were, in fact, a heretic.
A short time later, Huss was condemned by the council for refusing to recant his heresies. One historian records the events as follows:
“Finally, on July 6, Huss was taken to the cathedral. There he was dressed in his priestly garments, which were then torn from him. His tonsure was erased by shaving his head, which was then covered with a paper crown decorated with demons. On his way to the stake, they led him past a pyre where his books were being burned. When he was tied to the stake, they gave him a last chance to recant, and once again he refused. He then prayed aloud, ‘Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.’ He was heard reciting the Psalms as he died.”
Huss is remembered as a man who stood firmly in his conviction that church leadership who were flagrantly disobedient to the word of God were not real church leadership and that they should not be followed as such.
These early reformers were laying the groundwork for those who would follow, as the church moved closer and closer to a decisive split that would render two opposing and irreconcilable versions of the Christian life.
Questions or comments? I’m always glad to hear from my readers. firstname.lastname@example.org
 McGrath, Alister E. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea The Protestant Revolution—A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperOne, 2008.
 González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Reformation. Vol. 1. New York, NY: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2010.
 González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Reformation. Vol. 1. New York, NY: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2010. p. 419