Back in the day, an Oxford Don named John Wycliffe (1320-1384) became convinced that English Christians needed the Scriptures in their own language. At the time, the Catholic Church forbade any translations of the Bible except the Latin Vulgate, which had been produced by Jerome, around the year 382. The Church fathers saw no need to abandon the translation which had been their approved version of Scripture for a thousand years. More importantly, they didn’t want just any schmo interpreting the Scriptures after reading them in his own tongue.
Although he was risking a charge of heresy, Dr. Wycliffe moved ahead with translating the Latin Vulgate into the English of that time, which we now call Middle English (or Chaucerian1 English). Several of his students assisted him in producing what came to be called The Wycliffe Bible.2 Modern English-speakers will find it quite readable after they become accustomed to the spellings of words, which differ somewhat from contemporary English.
Naturally, the Doc’s translation-work got him crosswise with Papal authorities, who took such “crimes” very seriously. They tried mightily to apprehend Wycliffe and put him on trial, but luckily (or in the Lord’s Providence) he enjoyed the protection of Anne of Bohemia, who had become queen of England when she married Richard II in 1382 at age 16. In Bohemia, young Anne was a disciple of the Christian reformer Jan Hus. His teaching led her to use her influence with King Richard to prevent Dr. Wycliffe’s harassment or arrest by the Church.
John Wycliffe died in 1384, before the entire Bible had been translated, but his students finished the job. Because of Queen Anne, the Church was never able to torch him, as they later did Jan Hus, in 1415. But clerical authorities were not about to let the wily Wycliffe escape “justice,” just by dying. In 1428, 44 years after his death, they tried Wycliffe – “in absentia” – and convicted him of heresy. Church officials dug up his bones, burned them, and scattered the ashes in a nearby river to finish what they wanted to do while he lived. For good measure they declared him ex communicant from the Church. (Whether that affected his eternal status is unknown.)
Today, sophisticated moderns scoff at those goings-on and say, “Good grief! Who would do such silly things?” But the answer is: Well… evidently we would. In recent years a dedicated cadre of “cultural purifiers” are conducting a crusade to erase the historical memories of persons whose past words and conduct are now considered unbearably racist, sexist, homophobic, trans-phobic, xenophobic, or even hydrophobic in some cases.
An attractive aspect of that crusade, by media and political reckoning, has been the destruction of numerous statues of Confederate heroes which have stood for more than a century in public parks and town squares throughout the South. Pulling down those statues, while hundreds cheer, is great political theater. Our moral arbiters – chiefly opportunistic politicians and media camp-followers looking for a cracking-good conflict – have declared that any person who served in the armed forces or government of the Confederacy cannot be celebrated or honored in any way: certainly not by a statue.
Two years ago, a window in the National Cathedral which had memorialized Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was removed by order of Cathedral Dean Gary Hall. The dean declared that Confederate generals should not be honored in a Christian house of worship because they had fought to preserve slavery.
Some social analysts reckon that it is just a matter of time until all statues of Confederate leaders are removed from Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg and Manassas. Future schoolchildren visiting those battlefields will wonder who the combatants were and what it was all about, as all traces of the Confederacy will have gone down the memory-hole of history. Historians say this is already happening in history textbooks used by public schools.
Speaking of the Confederacy – at this writing there has been no agitation to remove the tomb and commemorative window of Woodrow Wilson from the National Cathedral. Millennials who snoozed through ancient history class might not know that Wilson was the last president who had a living memory of the American Civil War. Born in 1856, he often spoke of seeing Confederate soldiers straggling home past the front gate of his Virginia home at the war’s end, in 1865.
Democrats like to recall Wilson’s leadership during the Great War, but they delicately avoid mentioning that he was one of the most racist presidents in our history. In 1915 he arranged for a private showing of the film, Birth of a Nation, at the White House. D. W. Griffith’s outrageously racist film produced racial unrest across the country, and spurred a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which Wilson supported.
Wilson segregated the U. S. Civil Service by executive order, restricting minorities to janitorial, maintenance and food-service jobs.3 He was also a supporter of Eugenics theory, which advocated eliminating “inferior” races by limiting their ability to reproduce. Margaret Sanger – modern Democrats’ “patron saint” of women’s reproductive rights – was a Eugenicist who championed the use of abortion as a primary tool to eliminate the brown and black “weed” races. Of course, Wilson was a Democrat, so don’t look for his bones to be exhumed very soon.
National Cathedral Woodrow Wilson Tomb and Window
Purifiers of our history and culture have now turned their attention to former entertainers like Kate Smith (1907-1986), whose rendition of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” has graced many public venues, including Yankee Stadium and the Philadelphia Flyers’ hockey arena. During her 50-year singing career Miss Smith was known as the Songbird of the South. She gained nationwide fame for singing Berlin’s patriotic song for the first time on radio, in a 1938 celebration of Armistice Day. During World War II Kate Smith joined other celebrities in donating her time to entertain our troops at home and abroad.
But none of that cuts any ice with today’s culture-purgers, who have now discovered songs with racist lyrics that Miss Smith recorded around 1931, early in her career. Archaeologists of ancient racism are aghast that she actually recorded songs like “That’s Why Darkies Are Born,” and “Pickaninny Heaven,” in a far different Virginia, 90 years ago. Because of this unforgivable crime, Miss Smith’s rich, free voice, soaring through her signature song, will no longer be heard at Yankees’ and Flyers’ games, as well as elsewhere across the country, where weak-kneed proprietors and managers head for the tall grass whenever some race-monger hollers “boo.”
Other historical icons are sure to fall under the reformers’ purifying axe in due course. How long will it be until all memories of Edwin Pearce Christy and his famous blackface Minstrels of the 1860s are stricken from the historical record? And what about Stephen Foster and his unbearably racist songs like “Old Black Joe,” “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and many others that evoke memories of the old South? They simply must be erased from the national memory. Walt Disney’s Song of the South? (Dear God, not that!)
Even recordings and films of Al Jolsen’s blackface acts have got to go. “Swanee, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Swanee…” Really, it’s just too much. For cryin’ out loud, the guy was a Russkie! He made a million bucks smearing black shoe-polish on his face, and he never even visited the American South. Shouldn’t his estate be sued for reparations? Where’s the justice?
Edwin Pearce Christy (1815-1862)
I don’t know how far this bones-burning campaign will go before the public – and even the media-joyriders – finally get tired of it. But this is the dumbest, most useless media-hyped obsession since (supposedly) serious churchmen dug up Wycliffe’s bones six hundred years ago, and burned them just for spite. The jokers hyping this campaign have got to find some honest work. Aren’t there some shoes that need selling? We need to get a grip.
- The poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was a contemporary of Wycliffe. His Canterbury Tales – regarded as a classic example of Middle English literature – is still studied by English Lit students.
- See the Wycliffe Bible at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(Wycliffe)
- President Eisenhower finally desegregated the armed forces and civil service in the 1950s.
Al Jolsen (1886-1950)