Beacon Lights of History, Volume III, Part 1
John Lord

Part 5 out of 5

life. Everybody was agitated by fears. The clergy made use of
this universal feeling by presenting the terrors of the law,--the
penalty of sin,--everlasting physical burnings, from which the
tortured soul could be extricated only by penance and self-
expiation, offerings to the Church, and complete obedience to the
will of the priest, who held the keys of heaven and hell. The men
who lived when the Romanesque churches dotted every part in Europe
looked upon society and saw nothing but grief,--heavy burdens,
injustices, oppressions, cruel wrongs; and they hid their faces and
wept, and said: "Let us retreat from this miserable world which
discord ravages; let us hide ourselves in contemplation; let us
prepare to meet God in judgment; let us bring to Him our offering;
let us propitiate Him; let us build Him a house, where we may chant
our mournful songs." So the church arises, in Germany, in France,
in England,--solemn, mystical, massive, a type of sorrow, in the
form of a cross, with "a sepulchral crypt like the man in the tomb,
before the lofty spire pointed to the man who had risen to Heaven."
The church is still struggling, and is not jubilant, except in
Gregorian chants, and is not therefore lofty or ornamental. It is
a vault. It is more like a catacomb than a basilica, for the world
is buried deep in sorrows and fears. Look to any of the Saxon
churches of the period when the Romanesque prevailed, and they are
low, gloomy, and damp, though massive and solemn. The church as an
edifice ever represents the Church as an institution or a power,
ever typifies prevailing sentiments and ideas. Perhaps the finest
of the old Romanesque churches was that of Cluny, in Burgundy,
destroyed during the French Revolution. It had five aisles, and
was five hundred and twenty feet in length. It had a stately tower
at the intersection of the transepts, and six other towers. It was
early Norman, and loftier than the Saxon churches, although heavy
and massive like them.

But the Romanesque church, with all its richness, is still heavy,
dark, impressive, reminding us of the sorrows of the Middle Ages,
and the dreary character of prevailing religious sentiments,--
fervent, sincere, profound, but sad,--the sentiments of an age of
ignorance and faith.

The Crusades came. A new era burst upon the world. The old ideas
became modified; society became more cheerful, because more
chivalric, adventurous, poetic. The world opened towards the East,
and was larger than was before supposed. Liberality of mind began
to dawn on the darkened ages; no longer were priests supreme. The
gay Provencals began to sing; the universities began to teach and
to question. The Scholastic philosophy sent forth such daring
thinkers as Erigena and Abelard. Orthodoxy was still supreme
before such mighty intellects as Anselm, Bernard, and Thomas
Aquinas, but it was assailed. Abelard put forth his puzzling
questions. The Schoolmen began to think for themselves, and the
iron weight of Feudalism was less oppressive. Free cities and
commerce began to enrich the people. Kings were becoming more
powerful; the spiritual despotism was less potent. The end of the
world, it was found, had not come. A glorious future began to shed
forth the beams of its coming day. It was the dawn of a new

So a lighter, more cheerful, and grander architecture, with
symbolic beauties, appeared with changing ideas and sentiments.
The Church, no longer a gloomy power, struggling with Saracens and
barbarism, but dominant, triumphant, issues forth from darksome
crypts and soars upward,--elevates her vaulted roofs. "The
Oriental ogive appears. . . . The architects heap arcade on arcade,
ogive on ogive, pyramid on pyramid, and give to all geometrical
symmetry and artistic grace. . . . The Greek column is there, but
dilated to colossal proportions, and exfoliated in a variegated
capital." The old Roman arch disappears, and the pointed arch is
substituted,--graceful and elevated. The old Egyptian obelisk
appears in the spire reaching to heaven, full of aspiration. The
window becomes larger and encroaches on the naked wall, and
radiates in mystic roses. The arches widen and the piers become
more lofty. Stained glass appears and diffuses religious light.
Every part of the church becomes decorated and symbolical and
harmonious, though infinitely variegated. The altars have pictures
over them. Shrines and monuments appear in the niches. The
dresses of the priests are more gorgeous. The music of the choir
peals forth hallelujahs. Christ is risen from the tomb. "The
purple of his blood colors the windows." The roof, like pinnacles
and spires, seems to reach the skies. The pressure of the walls is
downwards rather than lateral. The vertical lines of Cologne are
as marked as the old horizontal lines of the Parthenon. The walls
too are not so heavy, and are supported by buttresses, which give
increased beauty to the exterior,--greater light and shade. "Every
part of the church seems to press forward and strive for greater
freedom, for outward manifestation." Even the broad and expansive
window presses to the outer surface of the walls, now broken by
buttresses and pinnacles. The window--the eye of the edifice--is
more cheerful and intelligent. More calm is the imposing facade,
with its mighty towers and lofty spires, tapering like a pyramid,
with its round oriel window rich in beautiful tracery, and its wide
portal with sculptured saints and martyrs. And in all the churches
you see geometrical proportions. "Even the cross of the church is
deduced from the figure by which Euclid constructed the equilateral
triangle." The columns present the proportions of the Doric, as to
diameter and height. The love of the true and beautiful meet. The
natural and supernatural both appear. All parts symbolize the
passion of Christ. If the crypt speaks of death, the lofty and
vaulted roof and the beautiful pointed arches, and the cheerful
window, and the jubilant chants speak of life. "The old church
reminds one of the Christ that lay in the tomb; the new, of the
Christ who arose the third day." The old fosters meditation and
silence; the new kindles the imagination, by its variety of
perspective arrangement and mystic representation,--still
reverential, still expressive of consecrated sentiments, yet more
cheerful. The foliated shaft, the rich tracery of the window, the
graceful pinnacle, the Arabian gorgeousness of the interior,--as if
the crusaders had learned something from the East,--the innumerable
shrines and pictures, the variegated marbles of the altar, with its
vessels of silver and gold, the splendid dresses of the priests,
the imposing character of the ritualism, the treasures lavished
everywhere, all speak greater independence, wealth, and power. The
church takes the place of all amusements. Its various attractions
draw together the people from their farms and shops. They are
gaily dressed, as if they were attending a festival. Their
condition is so improved that they have time for holidays. And
these the Church multiplies; for perpetual toil is the grave of
intellect. The people must have rest, amusement, excitement. All
these things the Catholic Church gives, and consecrates. Crusader,
baron, knight, priest, peasant, all resort to the church for
benedictions. Women too are there, and in greater numbers; and
they linger for the confessional. When the time comes that women
stay away from church, like busy, preoccupied, sceptical men, then
let us be on the watch for some great catastrophe, since practical
paganism will then be restored, and the angels of light will have
left the earth.

Paris and its neighborhood was the cradle of this new development
of architecture which we wrongly call the Gothic, even as Paris was
the centre of the new-born intelligence of the era. The word
"Gothic" suggests destructive barbarism: the English, French, and
Germans descended chiefly from Normans, Saxons, and Burgundians.
This form of church architecture rapidly spreads to Germany,
England, and Spain. The famous Suger, the minister of a powerful
king, built the abbey of St. Denis. The churches of Rheims, Paris,
and Bourges arose in all their grandeur. The facade of Rheims is
the most significant example of the wonderful architecture of the
thirteenth century. In the church of Amiens you see the perfection
of the so-called Gothic,--so graceful are its details, so dazzling
is its height. The central aisle is one hundred and thirty-two
feet in altitude,--only surpassed by that of Beauvais, which is
fourteen feet higher. It was then that the cathedral of Rouen was
built, with its elegant lightness,--a marvel to modern travellers.
Soon after, the cathedral of Cologne appears, more grand than
either,--but long unfinished,--with its central aisle forty-four
feet in width, rising one hundred and forty feet into the air, with
its colossal towers, grandly supporting the lofty openwork spires,
five hundred and twenty feet in height. The whole church is five
hundred and thirty-two feet in length. I confess this church made
a greater impression on my mind than did any Gothic church in
Europe,--more, even, than Milan, with its unnumbered pinnacles and
statues and its marble roof. I could not rest while surveying its
ten thousand wonders,--so much lightness combined with strength; so
grand, and yet so cheerful; so exquisitely proportioned, so
complicated in details, and yet a grand unity; a glorious and fit
temple for the reverential worship of the Deity. Oh, how grand are
those monuments which were designed to last through ages, and which
are consecrated, not to traffic, not to pleasure, not to material
wealth, but to the worship of that Almighty God to whom every human
being is personally responsible!

I cannot enumerate the churches of Mediaeval Europe,--projected,
designed, and built certainly by men familiar with all that is
practical in their art, with all that is hallowed and poetical. I
glance at the English cathedrals, built during this epoch,--the
period of the Crusades and the revival of learning.

And here I allude to the man who furnishes me with a text to my
discourse,--William of Wykeham, chancellor and prime minister of
Edward III., the contemporary of Chaucer and Wyclif,--who
flourished in the fourteenth century, and who built Winchester
Cathedral; a great and benevolent prelate, who also founded other
colleges and schools. But I merely allude to him, since my subject
is the art to which he gave an impulse, rather than any single
individual. No one man represents church architecture any more
appropriately than any one man represents the Feudal system, or
Monasticism, or the Crusades, or the French Revolution.

I do not think the English cathedrals are equal to those of
Cologne, Rheims, Amiens, and Rouen; but they are full of interest,
and they have varied excellences. That of Salisbury is the only
one which is of uniform style. Its glory is in its spire, as that
of Lincoln is in its west front, and that of Westminster is in its
nave. Gloucester is celebrated for its choir, and York for its
tower. In all are beautiful vistas of pillars and arches. But
they lack the inspiration of the Catholic Church. They are indeed
hoary monuments, petrified mysteries, a "passion of stone," as
Michelet speaks of the marble histories which will survive his
rhapsodies. They alike show the pilgrimage of humanity through
gloomy centuries. If their great wooden screens were removed,
which separate the choir from the nave, the cathedrals doubtless
would appear to more advantage, and especially if they were filled
with altars and shrines and pictures, and lighted candles on the
altars,--filled also with crowds of worshippers, reverent before
the gorgeously attired ministers of Divine Omnipotence, and excited
by transporting chants, and the various appeals to sense and
imagination. The reason must be assisted by the imagination,
before the mind can revel in the glories of Gothic architecture.
Imagination intensifies all our pleasures, even those of sense; and
without imagination--yea, a memory stored with the pious deeds of
saints and martyrs in bygone ages--a Gothic cathedral is as much a
sealed book as Wordsworth is to Taine. The Protestant tourist from
Michigan or Pennsylvania can "do" any cathedral in two hours, and
wonder why they make such a fuss about a church not half so large
as the New York Central Railroad station. The wonders of
cathedrals must be studied, like the glories of a landscape, with
an eye to the beautiful and the grand, cultured and practised by
the contemplation of ideal excellence, when the mind summons the
imagination to its aid, with all the poetry and all the history
which have been learned in a life of leisure and study. How
different the emotions of a Ruskin or a Tennyson, in surveying
those costly piles, from those of a man fresh from a distillery or
from a warehouse of cotton fabrics, or even from those of many
fashionable women, whose only aesthetic accomplishment is to play
languidly and mechanically on an instrument, and whose only
intellectual achievement is to have devoured a dozen silly novels
in the course of a summer spent in alternate sleep and dalliance!
Nor does familiarity always give a zest to the pleasure which
arises from the creations of art or the glories of nature. The
Roman beggar passes the Coliseum or St. Peter's without notice or
enjoyment, as a peasant sees unmoved the snow-capped mountains of
Switzerland or the beautiful lakes of Killarney. Said sorrowfully
my guide up the Rhigi, "I wish I lived in Holland, for there are
men there." Yet there are those whom the ascent of Rhigi and the
ruined monuments of ancient Rome would haunt for a lifetime, in
whose memory they would be perpetually fresh, never to pass away,
any more than the looks and the vows of early love from the mind of
a sentimental woman.

The glorious old architecture whose peculiarity was the pointed
arch, flourished only about three hundred years in its purity and
matchless beauty. Then another change took place. The ideal
became lost in meaningless ornaments. The human figure peoples the
naked walls. "Man places his own image everywhere. . . . The tomb
rises like a mausoleum in side chapels. Man is enthroned, not
God." The corruption of the art keeps pace with the corruption of
the Papacy and the discords of society. In the fourteenth century
the Mediaeval has lost its charm and faith.

And then sets in the new era, which begins with Michael Angelo. It
is marked by the revival of Greek art and Greek literature. At
Florence reign the Medici. On the throne of Saint Peter sits an
Alexander VI. or a Julius II. Genoa is a city of merchant-palaces.
Museums are collected of the excavated remains of Roman antiquity.
Everybody kindles with the contemplation of the long-buried glories
of a classic age; everybody reads the classic authors: Cicero is a
greater oracle than Saint Augustine. Scholars flock to Italy. The
popes encourage the growing taste for Pagan philosophy. Ancient
art regains her long-abdicated throne, and wields her sceptre over
the worshippers of the Parthenon and the admirers of Aeschylus and
Thucydides. With the revived statues of Greece appear the most
beautiful pictures ever produced by the hand of man; and with
pictures and statues architecture receives a new development. It
is the blending of the old Greek and Roman with the Gothic, and is
called the Renaissance. Michael Angelo erects St. Peter's, the
heathen Pantheon, on the intersection of Gothic nave and choir and
transept; a glorious dome, more beautiful than any Gothic spire or
tower, rising four hundred and fifty feet into the air. And in the
interior are classic circular arches and pillars, so vast that one
is impressed as with great feats of engineering skill. All that is
variegated in marbles adorns the altars; all that is bewitching in
paintings is transferred to mosaics. And this new style of Italy
spreads into France and England. Sir Christopher Wren builds St.
Paul's, more Grecian than Gothic,--and fills London with new
churches, not one of which is Gothic, and all different. The brain
is bewildered in attempting to classify the new and ever-shifting
forms of the revived Italian. And so for three hundred years the
architects mingle the Gothic with the classical, until now a
mongrel architecture is the disgrace of Europe; varied but not
expressive, resting on no settled principles, neither on vertical
nor on horizontal lines,--blended together, sometimes Grecian
porticos on Elizabethan structures, spires resting not on towers
but roofs, Byzantine domes on Grecian temples, Greek columns with
Lombard arches, flamboyant panelling, pendant pillars from the
roof, all styles mixed up together, Corinthian pilasters acting as
Gothic buttresses, and pointed arches with Doric friezes,--a heap
of diverse forms, alien alike from the principles of Wykeham and

And this varied mongrel style of architecture corresponds with the
confused civilization of the period,--neither Greek nor Gothic, but
a mixture of both; intolerant priests wrangling with pagan sceptics
and infidels,--Aquaviva with Pascal, the hierarchy of the French
Church with Voltaire and Rousseau, Protestant divines with the
Catholic clergy; Geneva and Rome compromising at Oxford, the
authority of the Fathers made antagonistic to the authority
of popes, new vernacular tongues supplanting Latin in the
universities: everywhere war on the Middle Ages, without full
emancipation from their dogmas, ancient paganism made to uphold the
Church, an unbounded activity of intellect casting off all
established rules, the revival of the old Greek republics,
democracy asserting its claim against absolute power; nothing
settled, nothing at rest, but motion in every direction,--science
combating faith, faith spurning reason, humanity arrogating
divinity, the confusion of races, Babel towers of vanity and pride
in the new projected enterprises, Christian nations embroiled in
constant wars, gold and silver set up as idols, the rise of new
powers in the shapes of new industries and new inventions, commerce
filling the world with wealth, armies contending for rights as well
as for the aggrandizement of monarchies: was there ever such a
simmering and boiling and fermenting period of activities since the
world began? In such a wild and tumultuous agitation of passions
and interests and ideas, how could Art reappear either in the
classic severity of Greek temples or the hoary grandeur of
Mediaeval cathedrals? In this jumble we look for new creations,
but no creations in art appear, only fantastic imitations. There
is no creation except in a new field, that of science and
mechanical inventions,--where there is the most extraordinary and
astonishing development of human genius ever seen on earth, but "of
the earth earthy," aiming at material good. Architecture itself is
turned into great feats of engineering. It does not span the apsis
of a church; it spans rivers and valleys. The church, indeed,
passes out of mind, if not out of sight, in the new material age,
in the multiplication of bridges and gigantic reservoirs,--old Rome
brought back again in its luxuries.

And yet the exactness of science and the severity of criticism--
begun fifty years ago, in the verification of principles--produce a
better taste. Architects have sought to revive the purest forms of
both Gothic and Grecian. If they could not create a new style,
they would imitate the old: as in philosophy, they would go round
in the old circles. As science revives the atoms of Democritus, so
art would reproduce the ideas of Phidias and Vitruvius, and even
the poetry and sanctity of the Middle Ages. Within fifty years
Christendom has been covered with Gothic churches, some of which
are as beautiful as those built by Freemasons. The cathedrals have
been copied rigidly, even for village churches. The Parthenon
reappears in the Madeleine. We no longer see, as in the eighteenth
century, Gothic spires on Roman basilicas, or Grecian porticos
ornamenting Norman towers. The various styles of two thousand
years are not mixed up in the same building. We copy either the
horizontal lines of Paganism or the vertical lines of the ages of
Faith. No more harmonious Gothic edifice was ever erected than the
new Catholic cathedral of New York.

The only absurdity is seen when radical Protestantism adopts the
church of pomps and liturgies. When the Reformation was completed,
men sought to build churches where they could hear the voice of the
preacher; for the mission of Protestantism is to teach, not to
sing. Protestantism glories in its sermons as much as Catholicism
in its chants. If the people wish to return again to ritualism,
let them have the Gothic church. If they wish to be electrified by
eloquence, let them have a basilica, for the voice of the preacher
is lost in high and vaulted roofs. If they wish to join in the
prayers and the ceremonies of the altar, let them have the
clustering pillars and the purple windows.

Everything turns upon what is meant by a church. What is it for?
Is it for liturgical services, or is it for pulpit eloquence?
Solve that question, and you solve the Reformation. "My house,"
saith the Divine Voice, "shall be called the house of prayer." It
is "by the foolishness of preaching," said Paul, that men are

If you will have the prayers of the Middle Ages and the sermons of
the Reformation both together, then let the architects invent a new
style, which shall allow the blending of prayer and pulpit
eloquence. You cannot have them both in a Grecian temple, or in a
Gothic church. You must combine the Parthenon with Salisbury,
which is virtually a new miracle of architecture. Will that
miracle be wrought? I do not know. But a modern Protestant
church, with all the wonders of our modern civilization, must be
something new,--some new combination which shall be worthy of the
necessity of our times. This is what the architect must now aspire
to accomplish; he must produce a house in which one can both hear
the sermon, and be stimulated by inspiring melodies,--for the
Church must have both. The psalms of David and the chants of
Gregory must be blended with the fervid words of a Chrysostom and a

This, at least, should be borne in mind: the church edifice MUST be
adapted to the end designed. The Gothic architects adapted their
vaults and pillars to the ceremonies of the Catholic ritual. If it
is this you want, then copy Gothic cathedrals. But if it is
preaching you want, then restore the Grecian temple,--or, better
still, the Roman theatre,--where the voice of the preacher is not
lost either in Byzantine domes or Gothic vaults, whose height is
greater than their width. The preacher must draw by the
distinctness of his tones; for every preacher has not the musical
voice of Chrysostom, or the electricity of St. Bernard. He can
neither draw nor inspire if he cannot be heard; he speaks to
stones, not to living men or women. He loses his power, and is
driven to chants and music to keep his audience from deserting him.
He must make his choir an orchestra; he must hide himself in
priestly vestments; he must import opera singers to amuse and not
instruct. He cannot instruct when he cannot be heard, and heard
easily. Unless the people catch every tone of his voice his
electricity will be wasted, and he will preach in vain, and be
tired out by attempting to prevent echoes. The voice of Saint Paul
would be lost in some of our modern fashionable churches. Think of
the absurdity of Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians
affecting to restore Gothic monuments, when the great end of sacred
eloquence is lost in those devices which appeal to sense. Think of
the folly of erecting a church for eight hundred people as high as
Westminster Abbey. It is not the size of a church which prevents
the speaker from being heard,--it is the disproportion of height
with breadth and length, and the echoes produced by arcades,
Spurgeon is heard easily by seven thousand people, and Talmage by
six thousand, and Dr. Hall by four thousand, because the buildings
in which they preach are adapted to public speaking. Those who
erect theatres take care that a great crowd shall be able to catch
even the whispers of actors. What would you think of the good
sense and judgment of an architect who should construct a reservoir
that would leak, in order to make it ornamental; or a schoolhouse
without ventilation; or a theatre where actors could only be seen;
or a hotel without light and convenient rooms; or a railroad bridge
which would not support a heavy weight?

A Protestant church is designed, no matter what the sect may be to
which it belongs, not for poetical or aesthetic purposes, not for
the admiration of architectural expenditures, not even for music,
but for earnest people to hear from the preacher the words of life
and death, that they may be aroused by his enthusiasm, or
instructed by his wisdom; where the poor are not driven to a few
back seats in the gallery; where the meeting is cheerful and
refreshing, where all are stimulated to duties. It must not be
dark, damp, and gloomy, where it is necessary to light the gas on a
foggy day, and where one must be within ten feet of the preacher to
see the play of his features. Take away facilities for hearing and
even for seeing the preacher, and the vitality of a Protestant
service is destroyed, and the end for which the people assemble is
utterly defeated. Moreover, you destroy the sacred purposes of a
church if you make it so expensive that the poor cannot get
sittings. Nothing is so dull, depressing, funereal, as a church
occupied only by prosperous pew-holders, who come together to show
their faces and prove their respectability, rather than to join in
the paeans of redemption, or to learn humiliating lessons of
worldly power before the altar of Omnipotence. To the poor the
gospel is preached; and it is ever the common people who hear most
gladly gospel truth. Ah, who are the common people? I fancy we
are all common people when we are sick, or in bereavement, or in
adversity, or when we come to die. But if advancing society, based
on material wealth and epicurean pleasure, demands churches for the
rich and churches for the poor,--if the lines of society must be
drawn somewhere,--let those architects be employed who understand,
at least, the first principles of their art. I do not mean those
who learn to draw pictures in the back room of a studio, but
conscientious men, if you cannot find sensible men. And let the
pulpit itself be situated where the people can hear the speaker
easily, without straining their eyes and ears. Then only will the
speaker's voice ring and kindle and inspire those who come together
to hear God Almighty's message; then only will he be truly eloquent
and successful, since then only does his own electricity permeate
the whole mass; then only can he be effective, and escape the
humiliation of being only a part of a vain show, where his words
are disregarded and his strength is wasted in the echoes of vaults
and recesses copied from the gloomy though beautiful monuments of
ages which can never, never again return, any more than can "the
granite image worship of the Egyptians, the oracles of Dodona, or
the bulls of the Mediaeval popes."


Fergusson's History of Architecture; Durand's Parallels; Eastlake's
Gothic and Revival; Ruskin, Daly, and Penrose; Britton's Cathedrals
and Architectural Antiquities; Pugin's Specimens and Examples of
Gothic Architecture; Rickman's Styles of Gothic Architecture;
Street's Gothic Architecture in Spain; Encyclopaedia Britannica
(article Architecture).


A. D. 1324-1384.


The name of Wyclif suggests the dawn of the Protestant Reformation;
and the Reformation suggests the existence of evils which made it a
necessity. I do not look upon the Reformation, in its earlier
stages, as a theological movement. In fact, the Catholic and
Protestant theology, as expounded and systematized by great
authorities, does not materially differ from that of the Fathers of
the Church. The doctrines of Augustine were accepted equally by
Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. What is called systematic
divinity, as taught in our theological seminaries, is a series of
deductions from the writings of Paul and other apostles,
elaborately and logically drawn by Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine,
and other lights of the early Church, which were defended in the
Middle Ages with amazing skill and dialectical acuteness by the
Scholastic doctors, with the aid of the method which Aristotle, the
greatest logician of antiquity, bequeathed to philosophy. Neither
Luther nor Calvin departed essentially from these great deductions
on such vital subjects as the existence and attributes of
God, the Trinity, sin and its penalty, redemption, grace, and
predestination. The creeds of modern Protestant churches are in
harmony with the writings of both the Fathers and the Scholastic
doctors on the fundamental principles of Christianity. There are,
indeed, some ideas in reference to worship, and the sacraments,
and the government of the Church, and aids to a religious life,
defended by the Scholastic doctors, which Protestants do not
accept, and for which there is not much authority in the writings
of the Fathers. But the main difference between Protestants and
Catholics is in reference to the institutions of the Church,--
institutions which gradually arose with the triumph of Christianity
in its contest with Paganism, and which received their full
development in the Middle Ages. It was the enormous and scandalous
corruptions which crept into these INSTITUTIONS which led to the
cry for reform. It was the voice of Wycif, denouncing these
abuses, which made him famous and placed him in the van of
reformers. These abuses were generally admitted and occasionally
attacked by churchmen and laymen alike,--even by the poets. They
were too flagrant to be denied.

Now what were the prominent evils in the institutions of the Church
which called for reform, and in reference to which Wyclif raised up
his voice?--for in his day there was only ONE Church. An
enumeration of these is necessary before we can appreciate the
labors and teachings of the Reformer. I can only state them; I
cannot enlarge upon them. I state only what is indisputable, not
in reference to theological dogmas so much as to morals and
ecclesiastical abuses.

The centre and life and support of all was the Papacy,--an
institution, a great government, not a religion.

I have spoken of this great power as built up by Leo I., Gregory
VII., and Innocent III., and by others whom I have not mentioned.
So much may be said of the necessity of a central spiritual power
in the dark ages of European society that I shall not combat this
power, or stigmatize it with offensive epithets. The necessities
of the times probably called it into existence, like other
governments, and coming down to us with the weight of centuries
behind it the Papacy wields perhaps a greater influence than any
other single institution of our times. But I would not defend the
papal usurpations by which the Roman pontiffs got possession of the
government of both Church and State. I speak not of their quarrels
with princes about investitures, in which their genius and their
heroism were displayed rather than by efforts in behalf of

But the popes exercised certain powers and prerogatives in England,
about the time of Wyclif, which were exceedingly offensive to the
secular rulers of the land. They claimed the island as a sort of
property which reason and the laws did not justify,--a claim which
led to heavy exactions and forced contributions on the English
people that crippled the government and impoverished the nation.
Boys and favorites were appointed by the popes to important posts
and livings. Church preferments were almost exclusively in the
hands of the Pope; and these were often bought. A yearly tribute
had been forced on the nation in the time of John. Peter's pence
were collected from the people. Enormous sums, under various
pretences, flowed to Rome. And the clergy were taxed as well as
the laity. The contributions which were derived from the sale of
benefices, from investitures, from the transfer of sees, from the
bestowal of rings and crosiers (badges of episcopal authority),
from the confirmation of elections, and other taxes, irritated
sovereigns, and called out the severest denunciation of statesmen.

Closely connected with papal exactions was the enormous increase of
the Mendicant friars, especially the Dominicans and Franciscans,
who had been instituted by Innocent III. for Church missionary
labor. These itinerating preachers in black-and-gray gowns were in
every town and village in England. For a century after their
institution, they were the ablest and perhaps the best soldiers of
the Pope, and did what the Jesuits afterwards performed, and
perhaps the Methodists a hundred years ago,--gained the hearts of
the people and stimulated religions life; but in the fourteenth
century they were a nuisance. They sold indulgences, they invented
pious frauds, they were covetous under pretence of poverty, they
had become luxurious in their lives, they slandered the regular
clergy, they usurped the prerogatives of parish priests, they
enriched their convents.

Naturally, Catholic authorities do not admit the extent of
degeneration to which these Orders came in their increasing numbers
and influence. But other historians strongly represent their evil
conduct, which incited the efforts of the early reformers--
themselves Catholic. One gets the truest impression of the popular
estimate of these friars from the sarcasms of Chaucer. The Friar
Tuck whom Sir Walter Scott has painted was a very different man
from the Dominicans or the Franciscans of the thirteenth century,
when they reigned in the universities, and were the confessors of
monarchs and the most popular preachers of their time. In the
fourteenth century they were consumed with jealousies and rivalries
and animosities against each other; and all the various orders,--
Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite,--in spite of their professions of
poverty, were the possessors of magnificent monasteries, and
fattened on the credulity of the world. Besides these Mendicant
friars, England was dotted with convents and religious houses
belonging to the different orders of Benedictines, which, though
enormously rich, devoured the substance of the poor. There were
more than twenty thousand monks in a population of three or four
millions; and most of them led idle and dissolute lives, and were
subjects of perpetual reproach. Reforms of the various religious
houses had been attempted, but all reforms had failed. Nor were
the lives of the secular clergy much more respectable than those of
the great body of monks. They are accused by many historians of
venality, dissoluteness, and ignorance; and it was their
incapacity, their disregard of duties, and indifference to the
spiritual interests of their flocks that led to the immense
popularity of the Mendicant friars, until they, in their turn,
became perhaps a greater scandal than the parish priests whose
functions they had usurped. Both priests and monks in the time of
Bishop Grostete of Lincoln frequented taverns and gambling-houses.
So enormous and scandalous was the wealth of the clergy, that as
early as 1279, under Edward I., Parliament passed a statute of
mortmain, forbidding religious bodies to receive bequests without
the King's license.

With the increase of scandalous vices among the clergy was a
corruption in the doctrines of the Church; not those which are
strictly theological, but those which pertained to the ceremonies,
and the conditions on which absolution was given and communion
administered. In the thirteenth century, as the Scholastic
philosophy was reaching its fullest development, we notice the
establishment of the doctrine of transubstantiation, the
withholding the cup from the laity, and the necessity of confession
as the condition of receiving the communion,--which measures
increased amazingly the power of the clergy over the minds of
superstitious people, and led to still more flagrant evils, like
the perversion of the doctrine of penance, originally enforced to
aid the soul to overcome the tyranny of the body, by temporal
punishment after repentance, but later often accepted as the
expiation for sin; so that the door of heaven itself was opened by
venal priests only to those whom they could control or rob.

Such was the state of the Church when Wyclif was born,--in 1324,
near Richmond in Yorkshire, about a century after the establishment
of universities, the creation of the Mendicant orders, and the
memorable usurpation of Innocent III.

In the year 1340, during the reign of Edward III., we find him at
the age of sixteen a student in Merton College at Oxford,--the
college then most distinguished for Scholastic doctors; the college
of Islip, of Bradwardine, of Occam, and perhaps of Duns Scotus. It
would seem that Wyclif devoted himself with great assiduity to the
study which gave the greatest intellectual position and influence
in the Middle Ages, and which required a training of nineteen years
in dialectics before the high degree of Doctor of Divinity was
conferred by the University. We know nothing of his studious life
at Oxford until he received his degree, with the title of
Evangelical or Gospel Doctor,--from which we infer that he was a
student of the Bible, and was more remarkable for his knowledge of
the Scriptures than for his dialectical skill. But even for his
knowledge of the Scholastic philosophy he was the most eminent man
in the University, and he was as familiar with the writings of
Saint Augustine and Jerome as with those of Aristotle. It was not
then the fashion to study the text of the Scriptures so much as the
commentaries upon it; and he who was skilled in the "Book of
Sentences" and the "Summa Theologica" stood a better chance of
preferment than he who had mastered Saint Paul.

But Wyclif, it would seem, was distinguished for his attainments in
everything which commanded the admiration of his age. In 1356,
when he was thirty-two, he wrote a tract on the last ages of the
Church, in view of the wretchedness produced by the great plague
eight years before. In 1360, at the age of thirty-six, he attacked
the Mendicant orders, and his career as a reformer began,--an
unsuccessful reformer, indeed, like John Huss, since the evils
which he combated were not removed. He firmly protested against
the corruptions which good men lamented; and strove against
doctrines that he regarded as untruthful and pernicious. Such are
simply witnesses of truth, and fortunate are they if they do not
die as martyrs; for in the early Church "witnesses" and "martyrs"
were synonymous [Greek text]. The year following, 1361, Wyclif was
presented to the rich rectory of Fillingham by Baliol College, and
was promoted the same year to the wardenship of that ancient
college. The learned doctor is now one of the "dons" of the
university,--at that time, even more than now, a great dignitary.
It would be difficult for an unlearned politician of the nineteenth
century to conceive of the exalted position which a dignitary of
the Church, crowned with scholastic honors, held five hundred years
ago. It gave him access to the table of his sovereign, and to the
halls of Parliament. It made him an oracle in all matters of the
law. It created for him a hearing on all the great political as
well as ecclesiastical issues of the day. What great authorities
in the thirteenth century were Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and
Bonaventura! Scarcely less than they, in the next century, were
Duns Scotus and John Wyclif,--far greater in influence than any of
the proud feudal lords who rendered service to Edward III., broad
as were their acres, and grand as were their castles. Strange as
it may seem, the glory that radiated from the brow of a scholar or
a saint was greatest in ages of superstition and darkness; perhaps
because both scholars and saints were rare. The modern lights of
learning may be better paid than in former days, but they do not
stand out to the eye of admiring communities in such prominence
as they did among our ancestors. Who stops and turns back to
gaze reverentially on a poet or a scholar whom he passes by
unconsciously, as both men and women strained their eyes to see an
Abelard or a Dante? Even a Webster now would not command the
homage he received fifty years ago.

It is not uninteresting to contemplate the powers that have ruled
in successive ages, outside the realms of conquerors and kings. In
the ninth and tenth centuries they were baronial lords in mail-clad
armor; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries these powers, like
those of ancient Egypt, were priests; in the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries they were the learned doctors, as in the
schools of Athens when political supremacy was lost; in the
sixteenth century--the era of reforms--they were controversial
theologians, like those of the age of Theodosius; in the
seventeenth century they were fighting nobles; in the eighteenth
they were titled and hereditary courtiers and great landed
proprietors; in the nineteenth they are bankers, merchants, and
railway presidents,--men who control the material interests of the
country. It is only at elections, though managed by politicians,
that the people are a power. Socially, the magnates are the rich.
It is money which in these times all classes combine to worship.
If this be questioned, see the adulation which even colleges and
schools of learning pay to their wealthy patrons or those from whom
they seek benefits. The patrons of the schools in the Middle Ages
were princes and nobles; but these princes and nobles bowed down in
reverence to learned bishops and great theological doctors.

Wyclif was the representative of the schools when he attacked the
abuses of the Church. It is not a little singular that the great
religious movements in England have generally come from Oxford,
while Cambridge has been distinguished for great movements in
science. In 1365 he was appointed to the headship of Canterbury
Hall, founded by Archbishop Islip, afterwards merged into Christ
Church, the most magnificent and wealthy of all the Oxford
Colleges. When Islip died, in 1366, and Langham, originally a monk
of Canterbury, was made archbishop, the appointment of Wyclif was
pronounced void by Langham, and the revenues of the Hall of which
he was warden, or president, were sequestered. Wyclif on this
appealed to the Pope, who, however, ratified Langham's decree,--as
it would be expected, for the Pope sustained the friars whom Wyclif
had denounced. The spirit of such a progressive man was, of
course, offensive to the head of the Church. In this case the
Crown confirmed the decision of the Pope, 1372, since the royal
license was obtained by a costly bribe. The whole transaction was
so iniquitous that Wyclif could not restrain his indignation.

But before this decision of the Crown was made, the services of
Wyclif had been accepted by the Parliament in its resistance to the
claim which Pope Urban V. had made in 1366, to the arrears of
tribute due under John's vassalage. Edward III. had referred this
claim to Parliament, and the Parliament had rejected it without
hesitation on the ground that John had no power to bind the realm
without its consent. The Parliament was the mere mouthpiece of
Wyclif, who was now actively engaged in political life, and
probably, as Dr. Lechler thinks, had a seat in Parliament. He was,
at any rate, a very prominent political character; for he was sent
in 1374 to Bruges, as one of the commissioners to treat with the
representatives of the French pope in reference to the appointment
of foreigners to the rich benefices of the Church in England, which
gave great offence to the liberal and popular party in England,--
for there was such a progressive party as early as the fourteenth
century, although it did not go by that name, and was not organized
as parties are now. In fact, in all ages and countries there are
some men who are before their contemporaries. The great grievance
of which the more advanced and enlightened complained was the
interference of the Pope with ecclesiastical livings in England.
Wyclif led the opposition to this usurpation; and this opposition
to the Pope on the part of a churchman made it necessary for him to
have a protector powerful enough to shield him from papal

This protector he found in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who,
next to the King, had the greatest authority in England. It is
probable that Wyclif enjoyed at Bruges the friendship of this great
man (great for his station, influence, and birth, at least), who
was at the head of the opposition to the papal claims,--resisted
not only by him, but by Parliament, which seems to have been
composed of men in advance of their age. As early as 1371 this
Parliament had petitioned the King to exclude all ecclesiastics
from the great offices of State, held almost exclusively by them as
the most able and learned people of the realm. From the time of
Alfred this custom had not been seriously opposed by the baronial
lords, who were ignorant and unenlightened; but in the fourteenth
century light had broken in upon the darkness: the day had at least
dawned, and the absurdity of confining the cares of State and
temporal matters to men who ought to be absorbed with spiritual
duties alone was seen by the more enlightened of the laity. But
the King was not then prepared to part with the most efficient of
his ministers because they happened to be ecclesiastics, and the
custom continued for nearly two centuries longer. Bishop Williams
was the last of the clergy who filled the great office of
chancellor, and Archbishop Laud was the last of the clergy who
became a prime minister. The reign of Elizabeth was marked, for
the first time in the history of England, by the almost total
exclusion of prelates from great secular offices. In the reign of
Edward III. it was William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who
held the great seal, and the Bishop of Exeter who was lord
treasurer,--probably the two men in the whole realm who were the
most experienced in public affairs as men of business. Wyclif, it
would appear, although he was an ecclesiastic, here took the side
of Parliament against his own order. In his treatise on the
"Regimen of the Church" he contends that neither doctors nor
deacons should hold secular offices, or even be land stewards and
clerks of account, and appeals to the authority of the Fathers and
Saint Paul in confirmation of his views. At this time he was a
doctor of divinity and professor of theology in the University,
having been promoted to this high position in 1372, two years
before he was sent as commissioner to Bruges. In 1375, he was
presented to the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire by the
Crown, in reward for his services as an ambassador.

In 1376 Parliament renewed its assault on pontifical pretensions
and exactions; and there was cause, since twenty thousand marks, or
pounds, were sent annually to Rome from the Pope's collector in
England, a tribute which they thought should be canceled. Against
these corruptions and usurpations Wyclif was unsparing in his
denunciations; and the hierarchy at last were compelled, by their
allegiance to Rome, to take measures to silence and punish him as a
pertinacious heretic. The term "heretic" meant in those days
opposition to papal authority, as much as opposition to the
theological dogmas of the Church; and the brand of heresy was the
greatest stigma which authority could impose. The bold denunciator
of papal abuses was now in danger. He was summoned by the
convocation to appear in Saint Paul's Cathedral and answer for his
heresies, on which occasion were present the Archbishop of
Canterbury and the powerful Bishop of London,--the latter the son
of the Earl of Devonshire, of the great family of the Courtenays.
Wyclif was attended by the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl Marshal,--
Henry Percy, the ancestor of the Dukes of Northumberland,--who
forced themselves into the Lady's chapel, behind the high altar,
where the prelates were assembled. An uproar followed from this
unusual intrusion of the two most powerful men of the kingdom into
the very sanctuary of prelatic authority. What could be done when
the great Oxford professor--the most learned Scholastic of the
kingdom--was protected by a royal duke clothed with viceregal
power, and the Earl Marshal armed with the sword of State?

The position of Wyclif was as strong as it was before he was
attacked. Nor could he be silenced except by the authority of the
Pope himself,--still acknowledged as the supreme lord of
Christendom; and the Pope now felt that he must assert his
supremacy and interpose his supreme authority, or lose his hold on
England. So he hurled his weapons, not yet impotent, and
fulminated his bulls, ordering the University, under penalty of
excommunication, to deliver the daring heretic into the hands of
the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London; and further
commanding these two prelates to warn the King against the errors
of Wyclif, and to examine him as to his doctrines, and keep him in
chains until the Pope's pleasure should be further known. In
addition to these bulls, the Pope sent one to the King himself. It
was resolved that the work should be thoroughly done this time.
Yet it would appear that these various bulls threatening an
interdict did not receive a welcome from any quarter. The prelates
did not wish to quarrel with such an antagonist as the Duke of
Lancaster, who was now the chief power in the State, the King being
in his last illness. They allowed several months to pass before
executing their commission, during which Wyclif was consulted by
the great Council of State whether they should allow money to be
carried out of the realm at the Pope's demands, and he boldly
declared that they should not; thus coming in direct antagonism
with hierarchal power. He also wrote at this time pamphlets
vindicating himself from the charges made against him, asserting
the invalidity of unjust excommunication, which, if allowed, would
set the Pope above God.

At last, after seven months, the prelates took courage, and ordered
the University to execute the papal bulls. To imprison Wyclif at
the command of the Pope would be to allow the Pope's temporal rule
in England; yet to disobey the bulls would be disregard of the
papal power altogether. In this dilemma the Vice-Chancellor--
himself a monk--ordered a nominal imprisonment. The result of
these preliminary movements was that Wyclif appeared at Lambeth
before the Archbishop, to answer his accusers. The great prelates
had a different spirit from the University, which was justly proud
of its most learned doctor,--a man, too, beyond his age in his
progressive spirit, for the universities in those days were not so
conservative as they subsequently became. At Lambeth Wyclif found
unexpected support from the people of London, who broke into the
archiepiscopal chapel and interrupted the proceedings, and a still
more efficient aid from the Queen Dowager,--the Princess Joan,--who
sent a message forbidding any sentence against Wyclif. Thus was he
backed by royal authority and the popular voice, as Luther was
afterwards in Saxony. The prelates were overcome with terror, and
dropped the proceedings; while the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, who
had tardily and imperfectly obeyed the Pope, was cast into prison
for a time and compelled to resign his office.

Wyclif had gained a great triumph, which he used by publishing a
summary of his opinions in thirty-three articles, both in Latin and
English. In these it would seem that he attacked the impeccability
of the Pope,--liable to sin like any other person, and hence to be
corrected by the voices of those who are faithful to a higher Power
than his,--a blow to the exercise of excommunication from any
personal grounds of malice or hatred, or when used to extort unjust
or mercenary demands. He also maintained that the endowments of
the clergy could be lawfully withdrawn if they were perverted or
abused,--a bold assertion in his day, but which he professed he was
willing to defend, even unto death. If the prelates had dared, or
had possessed sufficient power, he would doubtless have suffered
death from their animosity; but he was left unmolested in his
retirement at his rectory, although he kept himself discreetly out
of the way of danger. When the memorable schism took place in the
Roman government by the election of an anti-pope, and both popes
proclaimed a crusade and issued their indulgences, Wyclif, who
heretofore had admitted the primacy of the Roman See, now openly
proclaimed the doctrine that the Church would be better off with no
pope at all. He owed his safety to the bitterness of the rival
popes, who in their mutual quarrels had no time to think of him.
And his opportunity was improved by writing books and homilies, in
which the anti-christian claims of the popes were fearlessly
exposed and commented upon. In fact, he now openly denounces the
Pope as Antichrist, from his pulpit at Luttenworth, to his simple-
minded parishioners, for whose good he seems to have earnestly
labored,--the model of a parish priest. It is supposed that
Chaucer had him in view when he wrote his celebrated description of
a good parson,--"benign" and diligent, learned and pious, giving a
noble example to his flock of disinterestedness and devotion to
truth and duty, in contrast with the ordinary lives of the clergy
of those times, who had sunk far below the levels of their calling
in purer ages and such as neither popular nor churchly standards of
intelligent times would tolerate.

Hitherto Wyclif had simply protested against the external evils of
the Church without much effect, although protected by powerful
laymen and encouraged by popular favor. The time had not come for
a real and permanent reformation; but he prepared the way for it,
and in no slight degree, by his translation of the Scriptures into
the vernacular tongue,--the greatest service he rendered to the
English people and the cause of civilization. All the great
reformers, successful and unsuccessful, appealed to the Scriptures
as the highest authority, even when they did not rebel against the
papal power, like Savonarola in Florence. I do not get the
impression that Wyclif was a great popular preacher like the
Florentine reformer, or like Luther, Latimer, and Knox. He was a
student, first of the Scholastic theology, and afterwards of the
Bible. He lived in a quiet way, as scholars love to live, in his
retired rectory near Oxford, preaching plain and simple sermons to
his parishioners, but spending his time chiefly in his library, or

Wyclif's translation of the Bible was a great event, for it was the
first which was made in English, although parts of the Bible had
been translated into the Saxon tongue between the seventh and
eleventh centuries. He had no predecessor in that vast work, and
he labored amid innumerable obstacles. It was not a translation
from the original Greek and Hebrew, for but little was known of
either language in the fourteenth century: not until the fall of
Constantinople into the hands of the Turks was Greek or Hebrew
studied; so the translation was made from the Latin Vulgate of St.
Jerome. The version of Wyclif, besides its transcendent value to
the people, now able to read the Bible in their own language
(before a sealed book, except to the clergy and the learned), gave
form and richness to the English language. To what extent Wyclif
was indebted to the labors of other men it is not easy to
determine; but there is little doubt that, whatever aid he
received, the whole work was under his supervision. Of course it
was not printed, for printing was not then discovered; but the
manuscripts of the version were very numerous, and they are to-day
to be found in the great public libraries of England, and even in
many private collections.

Considering that the Latin Vulgate has ever been held in supreme
veneration by the Catholic Church in all ages and countries, by
popes, bishops, abbots, and schoolmen; that no jealousy existed as
to the reading of it by the clergy generally; that in fact it was
not a sealed book to the learned classes, and was regarded
universally as the highest authority in matters of faith and
morals,--it seems strange that so violent an opposition should have
been made to its translation into vernacular tongues, and to its
circulation among the people. Wyclif's translation was regarded as
an act of sacrilege, worthy of condemnation and punishment. So
furious was the outcry against him, as an audacious violator who
dared to touch the sacred ark with unconsecrated hands, that even a
bill was brought into the House of Lords forbidding the perusal of
the Bible by the laity, and it would have been passed but for John
of Gaunt. At a convocation of bishops and clerical dignitaries
held in St. Paul's, in 1408, it was decreed as heresy to read the
Bible in English,--to be punished by excommunication. The version
of Wyclif and all other translations into English were utterly
prohibited under the severest penalties. Fines, imprisonment, and
martyrdom were inflicted on those who were guilty of so foul a
crime as the reading or possession of the Scriptures in the
vernacular tongue. This is one of the gravest charges ever made
against the Catholic Church. This absurd and cruel persecution
alone made the Reformation a necessity, even as the translation of
the Bible prepared the way for the Reformation. The translation of
the Scriptures and the Reformation are indissolubly linked

The authorities of those days would have destroyed, if they could,
every copy of the version Wyclif made. But the precious
manuscripts were secreted and secretly studied, and both from the
novelty and the keen interest they excited they were unquestionably
a powerful factor in the religious unrest of those times.
Doubtless the well known opposition to the circulation of the Bible
in the vernacular has been exaggerated, but in the fourteenth
century it was certainly bitter and furious. Wyclif might expose
vices which everybody saw and lamented as a scandal, and make
himself obnoxious to those who committed them; but to open the door
to free inquiry and a reformed faith and hostility to the Pope,--
this was a graver offence, to be visited with the severest
penalties. To the storm of indignation thus raised against him
Wyclif's only answer was: "The clergy cry aloud that it is heresy
to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English, and so they would
condemn the Holy Ghost, who gave tongues to the Apostles of Christ
to speak the Word of God in all languages under heaven."

Notwithstanding the enormous cost of the Bible as translated by
Wyclif,--L2, 16s. 8d., a sum probably equal to thirty pounds, or
one hundred and fifty dollars of our present money, more than half
the annual income of a substantial yeoman,--still it was copied and
circulated with remarkable rapidity. Neither the cost of the
valuable manuscript nor the opposition and vigilance of an almost
omnipresent inquisition were able to suppress it.

Wyclif was now about fifty-eight years of age. He had rendered a
transcendent service to the English nation, and a service that not
one of his contemporaries could have performed,--to which only the
foremost scholar and theologian of his day was equal. After such a
work he might have reposed in his quiet parish in genial rest,
conscious that he had opened a new era in the history of his
country. But rest was not for him. He now appears as a doctrinal
controversialist. Hitherto his attacks had been against the
flagrant external evils of the Church, the enormous corruptions
that had entered into the institutions which sustained the papal
power. "He had been the advocate of the University in defence of
her privileges, the champion of the Crown in vindication of its
rights and prerogatives, the friend of the people in the
preservation of their property. . . . He now assailed the Romish
doctrine of the eucharist," but without the support of those
powerful princes and nobles who had hitherto sustained him. He
combats one of the prevailing ideas of the age,--a more difficult
and infinitely bolder thing,--which theologians had not dared to
assail, and which in after-times was a stumbling-block to Luther
himself. In ascending the mysterious mount where clouds gathered
around him his old friends began to desert him, for now he assailed
the awful and invisible. The Church of the Middle Ages had
asserted that the body of Christ was actually present in the
consecrated wafer, and few there were who doubted it. Berengar had
maintained in the eleventh century that the sacred elements should
be regarded as mere symbols; but he was vehemently opposed, with
all the terrors of spiritual power, and compelled to abjure the
heresy. In the year 1215, at a Lateran Council, Innocent III.
established the doctrine of transubstantiation as one of the
fundamental pillars of Catholic belief. Then metaphysics--all the
weapons of Scholasticism--were called into the service of
superstition to establish what is most mythical in the creed of the
Church, and which implied a perpetual miracle, since at the moment
of consecration the substance of the bread was taken away and the
substance of Christ's body took its place. From his chair of
theology at Oxford, in 1381, Wyclif attacked what Lanfranc and
Anselm and the doctors of the Church had uniformly and strenuously
defended. His views of the eucharist were substantially those
which Archbishop Berengar had advanced three hundred years before,
and of course drew down upon him the censure of the Church. In his
peril he appealed, not to the Pope or the clergy, but to the King
himself,--a measure of renewed audacity, for in those days no
layman, however exalted, had authority in matters purely
ecclesiastical. His boldness was too much even for the powerful
Duke of Lancaster, his friend and patron, who forbade him to speak
further on such a matter. He might attack the mendicant and
itinerant friars who had forgotten their duties and their vows, but
not the great mysteries of the Catholic faith. "When he questioned
the priestly power of absolution and the Pope's authority in
purgatory, when he struck at indulgences and special masses, he had
on his side the spiritual instincts of the people;" but when he
impugned the dignity of the central act of Christian worship and
the highest expression of mystical devotion, it appeared to
ordinary minds that he was denying all that is sacred, impressive,
and authoritative in the sacrament itself,--and he gave offence to
many devout minds, who had approved his attacks on the monks and
the various corruptions of the Church. Even the Parliament pressed
the Archbishop to make an end of such a heresy; and Courtenay, who
hated Wyclif, needed not to be urged. So a council was assembled
at the Dominican Convent at Blackfriars, where the "Times" office
now stands, and unanimously condemned not only the opinions of
Wyclif as to the eucharist, but also those in reference to the
power of excommunication, and the uselessness of the religious
orders. Yet he himself was allowed to escape; and the condemnation
had no other effect than to drive him from Oxford to his rectory at
Lutterworth, where until his death he occupied himself in literary
and controversial writings. His illness soon afterwards prevented
him from obeying the summons of the Pope to Rome, where he would
doubtless have suffered as a martyr. In 1384 he was struck with
paralysis, and died in three days after the attack, at the age of
sixty,--though some say in his sixty fourth year,--probably, in
spite of ecclesiastical censure, the most revered man of his day,
as well as one of the ablest and most learned. Not from the ranks
of fanatics or illiterate popular orators did the Reformation come
in any country, but from the greatest scholars and theologians.

This grand old man, the illustrious pioneer of reform in England,
and indeed on the Continent, did not live to threescore years and
ten, but, being worn out with his exhaustive labors, he died
peaceably and unmolested in his retired parish. Not much is known
of the details of his personal history, any more than of
Shakspeare's. We know nothing of his loves and hatreds, of his
habits and tastes, of his temper and person, of his friends and
enemies. He stands out to the eye of posterity in solitary and
mysterious loneliness. Tradition speaks of him as a successful,
benignant, and charitable parish priest, giving consolation to the
afflicted and to the sick. He lived in honor,--professor of
theology at Oxford, holding a prebendal stall amid a parochial
rectory, perhaps a seat in Parliament, and was employed by the
Crown as an ambassador to Bruges. He was statesman as well as
theologian, and lived among the great,--more as a learned doctor
than as a saint, which he was not from the Catholic standpoint.
"He was the scourge of imposture, the ponderous hammer which smote
the brazen idolatry of his age." He labored to expose the vices
that had taken shelter in the sanctuary of the Church,--a reformer
of ecclesiastical abuses rather than of the lax morals of the
laity, and hence did different work from that of Savonarola, whose
life was spent in a crusade against sin, wherever it was to be
found. His labors were great, and his attainments remarkable for
his age. He is accused of being coarse in his invectives; but that
charge can also be laid to Luther and other reformers in rough and
outspoken times. Considering the power of the Pope in the
fourteenth century, Wyclif was as bold and courageous as Luther.
The weakness of the papacy had not been exposed by the Councils of
Pisa, of Constance, and of Basil; nor was popular indignation in
view of the sale of indulgences as great in England as when the
Dominican Tetzel peddled the papal pardons in Germany. In
combating the received ideas of the age, Wyclif was even more
remarkable than the Saxon reformer, who was never fully emancipated
from the Mediaeval doctrine of transubstantiation; although Luther
went beyond Wyclif in the completeness of his reform. Wyclif was
beyond his age; Luther was the impersonation of its passions.
Wyclif represented universities and learned men; Luther was the
oracle of the people. The former was the Mediaeval doctor; the
latter was the popular orator and preacher. The one was mild and
moderate in his spirit and manners; the other was vehement,
dogmatic, and often offensive, not only from his more violent and
passionate nature, but for his bitter and ironical sallies. It is
the manner more than the matter which offends. Had Wyclif been as
satirical and boisterous as Luther was, he would not probably have
ended his days in peace, and would not have accomplished so much as
a preparation for reforms.

It was the peculiarity of Wyclif to recognize the real merits in
the system he denounced, even when his language was most vehement.
He admitted that confession did much good to some persons, although
as a universal practice, as enjoined by Innocent III., it was an
evil and harmed the Church. In regard to the worship of images,
while he denounced the waste of treasure or "dead stocks," he
admitted that images might be used as aids to excite devotion; but
if miraculous powers were attributed to them, it was an evil rather
than a good. And as to the adoration of the saints, he simply
maintained that since gifts can be obtained only through the
mediation of Christ, it would be better to pray to him directly
rather than through the mediation of saints.

In regard to the Mendicant friars, it does not appear that his
vehement opposition to them was based on their vows of poverty or
on the spirit which entered into monasticism in its best ages, but
because they were untrue to their rule, because they were vendors
of pardons, and absolved men of sins which they were ashamed to
confess to their own pastors, and especially because they
encouraged the belief that a benefaction to a convent would take
the place of piety in the heart. It was the abuses of the system,
rather than the system itself, which made him so wrathful on the
"vagrant friars preaching their catchpenny sermons." And so of
other abuses of the Church: he did not defy the Pope or deny his
authority until it was plain that he sought to usurp the
prerogatives of kings and secular rulers, and bring both the clergy
and laity under his spiritual yoke. It was not as the first and
chief of bishops--the head of the visible Church--that Wyclif
attacked the Pope, but as a usurper and a tyrant, grasping powers
which were not conferred by the early Church, and which did not
culminate until Innocent III. had instituted the Mendicant orders,
and enforced persecution for religious opinions by the terrors of
the Inquisition. The wealth of the Church was a sore evil in his
eyes, since it diverted the clergy from their spiritual duties, and
was the cause of innumerable scandals, and was closely connected
with simony and the accumulation of benefices in the hands of a
single priest.

So it was indignation in view of the corruptions of the Church and
vehement attacks upon them which characterized Wyclif, rather than
efforts to remove their causes, as was the case with Luther. He
was not a radical reformer; he only prepared the way for radical
reform, by his translation of the Scriptures into a language the
people could read, more than by any attacks on the monks or papal
usurpations or indulgences for sin. He was the type of a
meditative scholar and theologian, thin and worn, without much
charm of conversation except to men of rank, or great animal
vivacity such as delights the people. Nor was he a religious
genius, like Thomas a Kempis, Anselm, and Pascal. He had no
remarkable insight into spiritual things; his intellectual and
moral nature preponderated over the emotional, so that he was
charged with intellectual pride and desire for distinction. Yet no
one disputed the blamelessness of his life and the elevation of his

If Wyclif escaped the wrath and vengeance of Rome because of his
high rank as a theological doctor, his connection with the
University of Oxford, opposed to itinerating beggars with great
pretensions and greedy ends, and his friendship and intercourse
with the rulers of the land, his followers did not. They became
very numerous, and were variously called Lollards, Wyclifites, and
Biblemen. They kept alive evangelical religion until the time of
Cranmer and Latimer, their distinguishing doctrine being that the
Scriptures are the only rule of faith. There was no persecution of
them of any account during the reign of Richard II.,--although he
was a hateful tyrant,--probably owing to the influence of his wife,
a Bohemian princess, who read Wyclif's Bible; but under Henry IV.
evil days fell upon them, and persecution was intensified under
Henry V. (1413-1422) because of their supposed rebellion. The
Lollards under Archbishop Chicheley, as early as 1416, were hunted
down and burned as heretics. The severest inquisition was
instituted to hunt up those who were even suspected of heresy, and
every parish was the scene of cruelties. I need not here enumerate
the victims of persecution, continued with remorseless severity
during the whole reign of Henry VII. But it was impossible to
suppress the opinions of the reformers, or to prevent the
circulation of the Scriptures. The blood of martyrs was the seed
of the Church. Persecution in this instance was not successful,
since there was a noble material in England, as in Germany, for
Christianity to work upon. It was in humble homes, among the
yeomanry and the artisans, that evangelical truth took the deepest
hold, as in primitive times, and produced the fervent Christians of
succeeding centuries, such as no other country has produced. In no
country was the Reformation, as established by Edward VI. and
Elizabeth, so complete and so permanent, unless Scotland and
Switzerland be excepted. The glory of this radical reform must be
ascribed to the humble and persecuted followers of Wyclif,--who
proved themselves martyrs and witnesses, faithful unto death,--more
than to any of the great lights which adorned the most brilliant
period of English history.


The Works of Wyclif, as edited by F. D. Matthew; The Life and
Sufferings of Wicklif, by I. Lewis (Oxford, 1820); Life of Wiclif,
by Charles Wehle Le Bas (1846); John de Wycliffe, a Monograph, by
Robert Vaughan, D. D. (London, 1853); Turner's History of England
should be compared with Lingard. Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History;
Neander's Church History; Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography;
Gieseler, Milner, and general historians of the Church; Geikie's
English Reformation. A German Life of Wyclif, by Dr. Lechler, is
often quoted by Matthew, and has been fortunately translated into
English. These is also a slight notice of Wyclif by Fisher, in his
History of the Reformation.

The name of the English reformer is spelled differently by
different historians,--as Wiclif, Wyclif, Wycliffe, Wyckliffe; but
I have selected the latest authority upon the subject, F. D.


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