Most practicing Christians – Protestants, anyway – as well as some others are aware that the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation was recently marked. On October 31, 1517, an unremarkable Catholic priest nailed his now-famous 95 Theses to the church-door in Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt – a German province now part of unified Germany. Dr. Luther had laid out – in lavender, one might say – the need for reform of the Roman Church. (See English translation of the Theses at http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html )
The ordeal Luther went through after his act of defiance against the Roman Church had too many twists and turns to be recounted in detail here, but the obvious highlight – “lowlight” might be more accurate – was his excommunication by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521. After that, Luther made his defense at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521, which included his famous ringing declaration:
“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
After an attempted compromise on the charges against Luther could not be reached by a committee of electors, Luther was declared an “outlaw” and ordered arrested. But a fake kidnapping arranged by Frederick the Wise, an elector of Saxony, spirited Luther away and shielded him from arrest. Eventually his reformation-rebellion produced the Peasants’ War (1524-’25) against the upper classes. Most of Northern Germany became converted to the rapidly spreading Protestant doctrine. Luther later married a former nun (Katherine von Bora), fathered a family of six children, and published his translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into vernacular German. He died in 1546 at age 62.
I mention all this about Martin Luther as context to a brief recounting of the largely ignored life of a celebrated Oxford Don named John Wycliffe, who lived from 1320 to 1384. From an article written by Dr. Diana Severance:
“[Wycliffe had been a leading scholar at Oxford and a chaplain to the King of England who spoke out boldly against the errors of the popes, the organizational hierarchy of the Roman Church, and the corruption of the clergy in his day. He criticized not only the organization of the medieval church but its theology as well, and argued for a return to the Scriptures. Pastors should live lives of simplicity and holiness, he taught, shepherding their flocks (people) – not plundering them.”
In Wycliffe’s time the Roman Catholic Church crushed any sign of rebellion against its authority, just as in Martin Luther’s time 150 years later, only more-so. A key element of this enforcement was an absolute prohibition on any version of the Scriptures other than the Latin Vulgate, which had been translated from the Hebrew and Greek between AD 382 and 405 by St. Jerome. Rendering Biblical texts in any common local tongue was thus, as the Germans might say, strengstens verboten. The crux of it was that Church leaders didn’t want common folk to read the Bible directly. Limiting its publication to Latin, which only educated people could read by the 14th century, guaranteed that result.
Already on a Roman Church “watchlist,” Wycliffe really kicked over the hive when he had his students translate the New Testament Vulgate into vernacular English of the time – i.e., what my teachers called “Chaucerian English.” Dr. Severance further writes:
“If the people in England were to know the truth, Wycliffe reasoned that they must have the Word of God in their own language. Under his direction, the Bible was translated into English for the first time, although the job was not completed by his associates until 1395, eleven years after his death. Repeatedly condemned and burned by church authorities, copies of Wycliffe’s Bible continued in use for over a century, until printed Bibles took their place. This work greatly influenced William Tyndale who made the first printed translation of the New Testament in English.”
Wycliffe came under censure because of his “crimes” against Church-authority. He might have been excommunicated, condemned, and possibly executed by the Church had he not been under the protection of Anne of Bohemia, who became Queen of England by marrying Richard II at age 16. She was the eldest daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. More importantly, she was also a disciple of the Bohemian reformer-priest Jan Hus, who later got crosswise with the Church over his teachings and was burned at the stake in 1415. Queen Anne sympathized with Wycliffe’s efforts to bring the Scriptures to the common people, and saw that no harm came to him.
Anne of Bohemia, ca. 1381
In those days, when the Church was mad at you, it was really mad. Wycliffe died in 1384, but his name was still anathema, as Dr. Severance concludes:
“The religious authorities had never excommunicated Wycliffe because they feared public opinion. The people loved John, and his fame was international. So he was buried in consecrated soil. But about thirty years later, the Council of Constance revenged itself on his criticism by condemning his teachings and ordering his bones to be dug up and burned. But the burning of such a man’s bones could not end his influence. As John Foxe said in his book of martyrs, ‘though they digged up his body, burnt his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet to this day…doth remain.’” 
A century and a half later Bishop Hugh Latimore summed it all up as he stood at the stake with Bishop Nicholas Ridley in Oxford Square, waiting for the flames to reach them:
“We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
Bless the Lord for raising up men of such strength and resolve to lead His Church. We need people like them today, more than ever.
Latimer and Ridley burned at the stake, October 15, 1555
 The Wycliffe Bible is quite readable, differing from modern English mainly in spelling and some grammatical construction. Find it online at http://www.bibledbdata.org/onlinebibles/wycliffe_nt/
 John Wycliffe’s legacy in our time is the Florida-based Wycliffe Bible Translators, who have worked since 1950 to help people around the world translate the Bible into their own languages. In 75 years their associates have completed over 500 translations of the Bible. Our friends John and Carolyn Miller have spent most of their working lives on translating the Bible into the language of the Bru tribe in southern Vietnam.