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John Wycliffe and the Wycliffe Translation of the Bible

Shelly Bryant divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a writer, researcher, and translator.

John Wycliffe

Dr. John Wycliffe lived in the 1300s, and was one of the men responsible for helping to bring the Dark Ages to an end in England. Despite serious opposition from the Catholic church, Wycliffe fought tirelessly and fearlessly for the right to translate the Bible into "the vulgar tongue" (English). Recognizing that the church's insistence on using Latin for all religious ceremonies was preventing the common people from understanding the Christian faith, Wycliffe devoted his later years to translating the Bible, even though translating the Bible was outlawed by the church.

Opposition to the practice of translating the Bible into languages other than Latin eventually became so severe that translators and distributors of the Bible were even killed, usually burned at the stake. Many Lollards, the traveling preachers who spread Wycliffe's translation about the countryside on their travels, were thus punished (though some have suggested that there were Lollards who coupled with their preaching work a tendency toward sedition). Wycliffe himself died of old age and ill health in 1384, but as the church grew more and more adamant in its stand against the work he had done in his lifetime, the decision was made 41 years later to dig up his bones, burn them, and scatter the ashes into the River Swift.

In discussion of the development of the English language in the 14th Century, Wycliffe stands beside Geoffrey Chaucer in importance. Chaucer's poetry and Wycliffe's prose were of fundamental importance to the growth of the language in their day. Wycliffe's commitment that laypersons be able to read the Bible in their own language paved the way for great advances that were yet to come, culminating 200+ years later, in the days of Shakespeare and King James.


The Wycliffe Bible

Wycliffe's translation of the Bible, one of the first in the English language, feels quite foreign to today's readers of English. Anyone who has read Chaucer in the original has some feel for the sort of language which Wycliffe was using. But added to the difficulties created by changes in the language itself over time is the problem of Wycliffe's own theory concerning the sort of language to be used in his text. He believed that his Bible should follow the Latin as closely as possible, resulting in a text whose grammar is unlike that of English. And, over a thousand Latin words were first used in English in Wycliffe's translation of the Bible.

While the text itself might seem foreign to us today, and though some of the methods used by Wycliffe's followers were lacking in wisdom, the man and his work are to be admired by Christians today. Without Wycliffe's commitment, there is no telling whether modern Christians would have the right to read and understand their faith in their own tongue at all.

  • Glimpses of Truth
    a review of Glimpses of Truth, a fictional account of the spread of Wycliffe's translation in 14th Century England
  • William Tyndale and the Tyndale Bible
    William Tyndale (c.1494-1536) was another of England's early church reformers. Like Wycliffe, he focused his efforts on translating the Bible into the language of common men and women in England rather more successfully than Wycliffe.


Shelly Bryant (author) from Singapore and/or Shanghai on October 14, 2010:

He really was an impressive figure, Tim.

Thanks for stopping by to comment.

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Tim Mehr on October 13, 2010:

Dr. Wycliff was truly a man of GOD....I can only pray that I will have convictions as strong as his.

Shelly Bryant (author) from Singapore and/or Shanghai on April 17, 2010:

Thanks, Jane.

It is pretty impressive to think how "cutting edge" Wycliffe was in his thinking and work. What seems so common sensical to us must have seemed quite radical when he said it.

Ann Leavitt from Oregon on April 17, 2010:

I love the Reformation and studying it too! This article made me realize something new-- that Wycliff was a long time before the "real" start of the Reformation in the 1500s, and he was perhaps a visionary of his time. Again, very well written!

Shelly Bryant (author) from Singapore and/or Shanghai on January 28, 2010:

Thanks, John.

John Harper from Malaga, Spain on January 28, 2010:

I learned something and it was good, thank you!


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