The First Bible in English
In 1428, when John Wycliffe had been dead for forty-three years, Pope Martin V commanded that his bones be dug up, burned, and the ashes thrown into England’s River Swift.
It’s hard for us today to comprehend the intensity of the battle between Wycliffe and the Roman Church. His translation of the Bible into English became the lightning rod for the disagreement.
The medieval church sought for itself ecclesiastical, political, economic, and intellectual authority. Its power and prosperity brought corruption, and popes sought to control and suppress their opponents by threats of excommunication and even death.
Wycliffe, however, said the church should be poor like the church of the first century instead of rich as the result of the abuse of indulgences, and squandering of donations by unfit priests.
While the church claimed authority for itself, Wycliffe, called by many the Morning Star of the Reformation, said the only authority is Scripture and, naturally, wanted to see the Bible translated into English. He completed a translation of the New Testament by 1380 and Nicholas de Hereford, a friend, translated much of the Old Testament until he was excommunicated and left England.
After Wycliffe completed de Hereford’s Old Testament translation, the entire Bible was then revised by John Purvey to smooth out differences of style. Because this translation is Middle English—like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—it is not easy for modern readers.
Wycliffe continued to write, speak, and preach about the imperfections of the church. He suffered a stroke and died on December 31, 1384. In 1408, the church threatened with excommunication anyone who read the Scripture in English. Wycliffe’s translation, it was said, caused “the pearl of the gospel to be scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.”
But there was a hunger for access to the Bible. Wycliffe opened the Bible so that English-speaking people could read that salvation comes by faith. But it was left to Martin Luther and others one hundred fifty years later to bring reformation to the hearts and minds of believers throughout Europe.