Wycliffe Translates The Bible Into English
Author: Smyth, Paterson J.

Wycliffe Translates The Bible Into English


It may safely be said that no greater service has been rendered at once
to religion and to literature than the translation of the Bible into the
English tongue. This achievement did not indeed, like that of Luther's German
translation, come as it were by a single stroke. Luther's Bible caused him to
be regarded as the founder of the present literary language of Germany - New
High German - which his translation permanently established. The English
Bible, on the other hand, was the growth of centuries. But to the
contributions of able hands through many generations, during which the English
language itself passed through a wonderful formative development, the
incomparable beauty of King James' version owes its existence, and our
literature its greatest ornaments.

It is impossible to say when the first translation of any part of the
Bible into English was made. No English Bible of earlier date than the
fourteenth century has ever been found. But translations, even of the whole
Bible, older than Wcyliffe's are, by at least two eminent witnesses, said to
have existed. "As for olde translacions, before Wycliffe's time," says Sir
Thomas More, "they remain lawful and be in some folkes handes." "The hole
byble," he declares (Dyalogues, p 138, ed. 1530), "was long before Wycliffe's
days, by vertuous and well learned men, translated into the English tong." And
Cranmer, in his prologue to the second edition of the "Great Bible," bears
testimony equally explicit to the translation of Scripture "in the Saxons
tongue." And when that language "waxed olde and out of common usage," he says,
the Bible "was again translated into the newer language." There has never been
any means to testing these statements, which were probably due to some
inexplicable error. Abundant evidence exists relating to many Saxon and later
translations of various parts of the Bible before the time of Wycliffe. Among
the most notable of the early translators were the Venerable Bede and Alfred
the Great. Some portions of Scripture were likewise translated into
Anglo-Norman in the thirteenth century. Some of the early fragments are still
preserved in English libraries.

Three versions of the Psalter in English, from the early years of the
fourteenth century, still exist, one of which was by Richard Rolle, the
Yorkshire hermit, who also translated the New Testament.

But so far as known, the first complete Bible in English was the work of
John Wycliffe, assisted by Nicholas de Hereford - whom some would name first
in this partnership, though the product of their joint labors is known as
"Wycliffe's Bible."

John Wycliffe, the "Morning Star of the Reformation," was born near
Richmond, Yorkshire, about 1324. He became a fellow, and later master of
Balliol College, Oxford, afterward held several rectorships - the last being
that of Lutterworth, upon which he entered in 1374. For opposing the papacy
and certain church doctrines and practices, he was condemned by the
university, and his followers - known as Lollards - were persecuted. Something
of his life in connection with these matters is fitly dealt with by Smyth in
connection with his account of the famous translation.

After the early Anglo-Saxon versions comes a long pause in the history of
Bible translation. Amid the disturbance resulting from the Danish invasion
there was little time for thinking of translations and manuscripts; and before
the land had fully regained its quiet the fatal battle of Hastings had been
fought, and England lay helpless at the Normans' feet. The higher Saxon
clergy were replaced by the priests of Normandy, who had little sympathy with
the people over whom they came, and the Saxon manuscripts were contemptuously
flung aside as relics of a rude barbarism. The contempt shown to the language
of the defeated race quite destroyed the impulse to English translation, and
the Norman clergy had no sympathy with the desire for spreading the knowledge
of the Scriptures among the people, so that for centuries those Scriptures
remained in England a "spring shut up, a fountain sealed."

Yet this time must not be considered altogether lost, for during those
centuries England was becoming fitted for an English Bible. The future
language of the nation was being formed; the Saxon and Norman French were
struggling side by side; gradually the old Saxon grew unintelligible to the
people; gradually the French became a foreign tongue, and with the fusion of
the two races a language grew up which was the language of united England.

Passing, then, from the quiet death-beds of Alfred and of Bede, we
transfer ourselves to the great hall of the Blackfriars' monastery, London, on
a dull, warm May day in 1378, amid purple robes and gowns of satin and damask,
amid monks and abbots, and bishops and doctors of the Church, assembled for
the trial of John Wycliffe, the parish priest of Lutterworth.

The great hall, crowded to its heavy oaken doors, witnesses to the
interest that is centred in the trial, and all eyes are fixed on the pale,
stern old man who stands before the dais silently facing his judges. He is
quite alone, and his thoughts go back, with some bitterness, to his previous
trial, when the people crowded the doors shouting for their favorite, and John
of Gaunt and the Lord Marshal of England were standing by his side. He has
learned since then not to put his trust in princes. The power of his enemies
has rapidly grown; even the young King (Richard II) has been won over to their
cause, and patrons and friends have drawn back from his side, whom the Church
has resolved to crush.

The judges have taken their seats, and the accused stands awaiting the
charges to be read, when suddenly there is a quick cry of terror. A strange
rumbling sound fills the air, and the walls of the judgment hall are trembling
to their base - the monastery and the city of London are being shaken by an
earthquake! Friar and prelate grow pale with superstitious awe. Twice already
has this arraignment of Wycliffe been strangely interrupted. Are the elements
in league with this enemy of the Church? Shall they give up the trial?

"No!" thunders Archbishop Courtenay, rising in his place. "We shall not
give up the trial. This earthquake but portends the purging of the kingdom;
for as there are in the bowels of the earth noxious vapors which only by a
violent earthquake can be purged away, so are these evils brought by such men
upon this land which only by a very earthquake can ever be removed. Let the
trial go forward!"

What think you, reader, were the evils which this pale ascetic had
wrought, needing a very earthquake to cleanse them from the land? Had he
falsified the divine message to the people in his charge? Was he turning
men's hearts from the worship of God? Was his priestly office disgraced by
carelessness or drunkenness or impurity of life?

Oh, no. Such faults could be gently judged at the tribunal in the
Blackfriars' hall. Wycliffe's was a far more serious crime. He had dared to
attack the corruptions of the Church, and especially the enormities of the
begging friars; he had indignantly denounced pardons and indulgences and
masses for the soul as part of a system of gigantic fraud; and worst of all,
he had filled up the cup of his iniquity by translating the Scriptures into
the English tongue; "making it," as one of the chroniclers angrily complains,
"common and more open to laymen and to women than it was wont to be to clerks
well learned and of good understanding. So that the pearl of the Gospel is
trodden under foot of swine."

The feeling of his opponents will be better understood if we notice the
position of the Church in England at the time. The meridian of her power had
been already passed. Her clergy as a class were ignorant and corrupt. Her
people were neglected, except for the money to be extorted by masses and
pardons, "as if," to quote the words of an old writer, "God had given his
sheep, not to be pastured, but to be shaven and shorn." This state of things
had gone on for centuries, and the people like dumb, driven cattle had
submitted. But those who could discern the signs of the times must have seen
now that it could not go on much longer. The spread of education was rapidly
increasing, several new colleges having been founded in Oxford during
Wycliffe's lifetime. A strong spirit of independence, too, was rising among
the people. Already Edward III and his parliament had indignantly refused the
Pope's demand for the annual tribute to be sent to Rome. It was evident that
a crisis was near. And, as if to hasten the crisis, the famous schism of the
papacy had placed two popes at the head of the Church, and all Christendom was
scandalized by the sight of the rival "vicars of Jesus Christ" anathematizing
each other from Rome and Avignon, raising armies and slaughtering helpless
women and children, each for the aggrandizing of himself.

The minds of men in England were greatly agitated, and Wycliffe felt that
at such a time the firmest charter of the Church would be the open Bible in
her children's hands; the best exposure of the selfish policy of her rulers,
the exhibiting to the people the beautiful, self-forgetting life of Jesus
Christ as recorded in the Gospels. "The sacred Scriptures," he said, "are the
property of the people, and one which no one should be allowed to wrest from
them. Christ and his apostles converted the world by making known the
Scriptures to men in a form familiar to them, and I pray with all my heart
that through doing the things contained in this book we may all together come
to the everlasting life." This Bible translation he placed far the first in
importance of all his attempts to reform the English Church, and he pursued
his object with a vigor and against an opposition that remind one of the old
monk of Bethlehem and his Bible a thousand years before.

The result of the Blackfriars' synod was that after three days'
deliberation Wycliffe's teaching was condemned, and at a subsequent meeting he
himself was excommunicated. He returned to his quiet parsonage at Lutterworth
- for his enemies dared not yet proceed to extremities - and there, with his
pile of old Latin manuscripts and commentaries, he labored on at the great
work of his life, till the whole Bible was translated into the "modir tongue,"
and England received for the first time in her history a complete version of
the Scriptures in the language of the people.

And scarce was his task well finished when, like his great predecessor
Bede, the brave old priest laid down his life. He himself had expected that a
violent death would have finished his course. His enemies were many and
powerful; the Primate, the King, and the Pope were against him - with the
friars, whom he had so often and so fiercely defied; so that his destruction
seemed but a mere question of time. But while his enemies were preparing to
strike, the old man "was not, for God took him."

It was the close of the old year, the last Sunday of 1384, and his little
flock at Lutterworth were kneeling in hushed reverence before the altar, when
suddenly, at the time of the elevation of the sacrament, he fell to the ground
in a violent fit of the palsy, and never spoke again until his death on the
last day of the year.

In him England lost one of her best and greatest sons, a patriot sternly
resenting all dishonor to his country, a reformer who ventured his life for
the purity of the Church and the freedom of the Bible - an earnest, faithful
"parson of a country town," standing out conspicuously among the clergy of the

"For Criste's lore and his apostles twelve
He taughte - and first he folwede it himselve."

Here is a choice specimen from one of the monkish writers of the time
describing his death: "On the feast of the passion of St. Thomas of
Canterbury, John Wycliffe, the organ of the devil, the enemy of the Church,
the idol of heretics, the image of hypocrites, the restorer of schism, the
storehouse of lies, the sink of flattery, being struck by the horrible
judgment of God, was seized with the palsy throughout his whole body, and that
mouth which was to have spoken huge things against God and his saints, and
holy Church, was miserably drawn aside, and afforded a frightful spectacle to
beholders; his tongue was speechless and his head shook, showing painfully
plainly that the curse which God had thundered forth against Cain was also
inflicted on him"

Some time after his death a petition was presented to the Pope, which to
his honor he rejected, praying him to order Wycliffe's body to be taken out of
consecrated ground and buried in a dunghill. But forty years after, by a
decree of the Council of Constance, the old reformer's bones were dug up and
burned, and the ashes flung into the little river Swift which "runneth hard by
his church at Lutterworth." And so, in the often-quoted words of old Fuller,
"as the Swift bear them into the Severn, and the Severn into the narrow seas,
and they again into the ocean, thus the ashes of Wycliffe is an emblem of his
doctrine, which is now dispersed all over the world."

But it is with his Bible translation that we are specially concerned. As
far as we can learn, the whole Bible was not translated by the reformer. About
half the Old Testament is ascribed to Nicholas de Hereford, one of the Oxford
leaders of the Lollards; the remainder, with the whole of the New Testament,
being done by Wycliffe himself. About eight years after its completion the
whole was revised by Richard Purvey, his curate and intimate friend, whose
manuscript is still in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Purvey's
preface is a most interesting old document, and shows not only that he was
deeply in earnest about his work, but that he thoroughly understood the
intellectual and moral conditions necessary for its success.

"A simpel creature," he says, "hath translated the Scripture out of Latin
into Englische. First, this simpel creature had much travayle with divers
fellows and helpers to gather many old Bibles and other doctors and glosses to
make one Latin Bible. Some deal true and then to study it anew the texte and
any other help he might get, especially Lyra on the Old Testament, which
helped him much with this work. The third time to counsel with olde
grammarians and old divines of hard words and hard sentences how they might
best be understood and translated, the fourth time to translate as clearly as
he could to the sense, and to have many good fellows and cunnying at the
correcting of the translacioun. A translator hath great nede to studie well
the sense both before and after, and then also he hath nede to live a clene
life and be full devout in preiers, and have not his wit occupied about
worldli things that the Holy Spyrit author of all wisdom and cunnynge and
truthe dresse him for his work and suffer him not to err." And he concludes
with the prayer, "God grant to us all grace to ken well and to kepe well Holie
Writ, and to suffer joiefulli some paine for it at the laste."

Like all the earlier English translations, Wycliffe's Bible was based on
the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome; and this is the great defect in his work, as
compared with the versions that followed. He was not capable of consulting
the original Greek and Hebrew even if he had access to them - in fact, there
was probably no man in England at the time capable of doing so; and therefore,
though he represents the Latin faithfully and well, he of course handed on its
errors as faithfully as its perfections. But, such as it is, it is a fine
specimen of fourteenth-century English. He translated not for scholars or for
nobles, but for the plain people, and his style was such as suited those for
whom he wrote - plain, vigorous, homely, and yet with all its homeliness full
of a solemn grace and dignity, which made men feel that they were reading no
ordinary book. He uses many striking expressions, such as (II Tim. ii.4): "No
man holding knighthood to God, wlappith himself with worldli nedes;" and many
of the best-known phrases in our present Bible originated with him; e.g., "the
beame and the mote," "the depe thingis of God," "strait is the gate and narewe
is the waye," "no but a man schall be born againe," "the cuppe of blessing
which we blessen," etc.

Here is a specimen form Wycliffe's Gospels:

In thilke dayes came Foon Baptist prechynge in the desert of Fude,
saying, Do ye penaunce: for the kyngdom of beuens shall neigh. Forsothe
this is he of whom it is said by Ysaye the prophete, A voice of a
cryinge in desert, make ye redy the wayes of the Lord, make ye rightful
the pathes of hym. Forsothe that like Foon badde cloth of the beeris of
cameylis and a girdil of skyn about his leendis; sothely his mete weren
locustis and bony of the wode. Thanne Jerusalem wente out to hym, and al
Jude, and al the cuntre aboute Jordan, and thei weren crystened of hym in
Jordan, knowlechynge there synnes.

It is somewhere recorded that at a meeting in Yorkshire recently a long
passage of Wycliffe's Bible was read, which was quite intelligible throughout
to those who heard.

It will be seen that this specimen (Matt. iii. I-6) is not divided into
verses. Verse division belongs to a much later period, and, though convenient
for reference, it sometimes a good deal spoils the sense. The division into
chapters appears in Wycliffe's as in our own Bibles. This chapter division
had shortly before been made by a cardinal Hugo, for the purpose of a Latin
concordance, and its convenience brought it quickly into use. But, like the
verse division, it is often very badly done, the object aimed at seeming to be
uniformity of length rather than any natural division of the subject.
Sometimes a chapter breaks off in the middle of a narrative or an argument,
and, especially in St. Paul's epistles, the incorrect division often becomes
misleading. The removal as far as possible of these divisions is one of the
advantages of the Revised Version to be noticed later on.

The book had a very wide circulation. While the Anglo-Saxon versions
were confined for the most part to the few religious houses where they were
written, Wycliffe's Bible, in spite of its disadvantage of being only
manuscript, was circulated largely through the kingdom; and, though the cost a
good deal restricted its possession to the wealthier classes, those who could
not hope to possess it gained access to it too, as well through their own
efforts as through the ministrations of Wycliffe's "pore priestes." A
considerable sum was paid for even a few sheets of the manuscript, a load of
hay was given for permission to read it for a certain period one hour a day,
^1 and those who could not afford even such expenses adopted what means they
could. It is touching to read such incidents as that of one Alice Collins,
sent for to the little gatherings "to recite the Ten Commandments and parts of
the epistles of SS. Paul and Peter, which she knew by heart." "Certes," says
old John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, "the zeal of those Christian days seems
much superior to this of our day, and to see the travail of them may well
shame our careless times."

[Footnote 1: The readers, as might be expected, often surreptitiously copied
portions of special interest. One is reminded of the story in ancient Irish
history of a curious decision arising out of an incident of this kind nearly a
thousand years before, which seems to have influenced the history of
Christianity in Britain. St. Columb, on a visit to the aged St. Finian in
Ulster, had permission to read in the Psalter belonging to his host. But
every night while the good old saint was sleeping, the young one was busy in
the chapel writing by a miraculous light till he had completed a copy of the
whole Psalter. The owner of the Psalter, discovering this, demanded that it
should be given up, as it had been copied unlawfully from his book; while the
copyist insisted that, the materials of labor being his, he was entitled to
what he had written. The dispute was referred to Diarmad, the King at Tara,
and his decision (geniunely Irish) was given in St. Finian's favor. "To every
book," said he, "belongs its son-book [copy], as to every cow belongs her
calf." Columb complained of the decision as unjust, and the dispute is said to
have been one of the causes of his leaving Ireland for Iona.]

But it was at a terrible risk such study was carried on. The appearance
of Wycliffe's Bible aroused at once fierce opposition. A bill was brought
into parliament to forbid the circulation of the Scriptures in English; but
the sturdy John of Gaunt vigorously asserted the right of the people to have
the Word of God in their own tongue; "for why," said he, "are we to be the
dross of the nations?" However, the rulers of the Church grew more and more
alarmed at the circulation of the book. At length Archibishop Arundel, a
zealous but not very learned prelate, complained to the Pope of "that
pestilent wretch, John Wycliffe, the son of the old Serpent, the forerunner of
Antichrist, who had completed his iniquity by inventing a new translation of
the Scriptures"; and, shortly after, the Convocation of Canterbury forbade
such translations, under penalty of the major excommunication.

"God grant us," runs the prayer in the old Bible preface, "to ken and to
kepe well Holie Writ, and to suffer joiefulli some paine for it at the laste."
What a meaning that prayer must have gained when the readers of the book were
burned with the copies round their necks, when men and women were executed for
teaching their children the Lord's Prayer and Ten Commandments in English,
when husbands were made to witness against their wives, and children forced to
light the death-fires of their parents, and possessors of the banned Wycliffe
Bible were hunted down as if they were wild beasts!

Thus did Wycliffe, in his effort for the spread of the Gospel of Peace,
bring, like his Master fourteen centuries before, "not peace, but a sword."
Every bold attempt to let in the light on long-standing darkness seems to
result first in a fierce opposition from the evil creatures that delight in
the darkness, and the weak creatures weakened by dwelling in it so long. It
is not till the driving back of the evil and the strengthening of the weak, as
the light gradually wins its way, that the true results can be seen. It is,
to use a simile of a graceful modern writer. ^1 "As when you raise with your
staff an old flat stone, with the grass forming a little hedge, as it were,
around it as it lies. Beneath it, what a revelation! Blades of grass
flattened down, colorless, matted together, as if they had been bleached and
ironed; hideous crawling things; black crickets with their long filaments
sticking out on all sides; motionless, slug-like creatures; young larvae,
perhaps more horrible in their pulpy stillness than in the infernal wriggle of
maturity. But no sooner is the stone turned and the wholesome light of day
let in on this compressed and blinded community of creeping things than all of
them that have legs rush blindly about, butting against each other and
everything else in their way, and end in a general stampede to underground
retreats from the region poisoned by sunshine. Next year you will find the
grass growing fresh and green where the stone lay - the ground-bird builds her
nest where the beetle had his hole - the dandelion and the buttercup are
growing there, and the broad fans of insect-angels open and shut over their
golden disks as the rhythmic waves of blissful consciousness pulsate through
their glorified being.

[Footnote 1: Oliver Wendell Holmes" Autocrat of the Breakfast-table.]

"The stone is ancient error, the grass is human nature borne down and
bleached of all its color by it, the shapes that are found beneath are the
crafty beings that thrive in the darkness, and the weak organizations kept
helpless by it. He who turns the stone is whosoever puts the staff of truth
to the old lying incubus, whether he do it with a serious face or a laughing
one. The next year stands for the coming time. Then shall the nature which
had lain blanched and broken rise in its full stature native lines in the
sunshine. Then shall God's minstrels build their nests in the hearts of a
new-born humanity. Then shall beauty - divinity taking outline and color -
light upon the souls of men as the butterfly, image of the beatified spirit
rising from the dust, soars from the shell that held a poor grub, which would
never have found wings unless that stone had been lifted."

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