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BR 315 .R4 1885

The Reformers: lectures
delivered in St. James 1









London, .... Hamilton, Adams atid Co.
Cambridge,. . . Macmillan and Bowes.
Edinburgh,. . . Douglas and Fonlis.







publishers to the Mnibcrsitti.

18 85.

^ MARIO 100!

~ .



These Lectures have, in substance, been delivered on
Sabbath evenings from a provincial pulpit by Lecturers
who are ministers of the same branch of our Scottish
Church, and graduates of the same University. It
was deemed seasonable, as the five hundredth anni-
versary of the death of Wyclif was approaching, thus
to commemorate the service which he and his suc-
cessors rendered to spiritual Christianity, and to the
cause of civil and religious liberty.

The selection made from among the lieformers was
determined by the desire to trace the general history
of the Reformation, from its distant beginnings in Wyclif
and Hus, down to its accomplishment by Luther and
its formulation by Calvin, taking account by the way of
kindred upheavals as represented by Savonarola, and
of the influence of the Renaissance as represented by
Erasmus ; and then to sketch the peculiar history of


the Scottish Reformation from its earlier and later
precursors, through its two most illustrious martyrs.
to its consummation under John Knox.

Bach Lecturer, in dealing with the subject assigned
to him, has been left free to select his standpoint and
method of treatment, and is responsible only for his
own lecture.

St. James' Manse,
Paislet, 8th December, 1884.








7. WYCLIF, 1


II. BUS, 49

By DANIEL M'LEAN, B.D., Alloa.


By JOHN P. MITCHELL, M.A., Cupar-Fife.


By JOHN MEIKLEJOHN, M.A., Kirkmiurhill.

V. LUTHER, . 191



By JAMES ORR, B.D., Hawick.




By JAMES KIDD, B.D., St. Andrews.


By JAMES BROWN, D.D., Paisley.


John SEsdif.

He would be a bold man, though hardly a wise one,
who should undertake to say exactly when and where
that momentous movement originated which, in the
sixteenth century, startled the whole civilized world of
Europe, and shook to its very foundation the time-
honoured ecclesiastical fabric of the Papacy. The
Reformation was a series of events of so complex
a character as to bid defiance to the most resolute
endeavours made to trace its history back to its
fountain-head. It was the resultant of well-nigh
numberless forces, political and religious, many of
which had been in operation even for ages before their
effects took shape in the revolution with which the
names of Luther and Melanchthon, Calvin and Zwingli
are identified. In periods and localities far apart
from each other, the surface of society had been again
and again disturbed by phenomena that witnessed to
undercurrents of thought which, flowing along various
channels, were all converging: to the one sure issue,
and foretelling, with no uncertain voice, of a deter-
mined, victorious revolt from intellectual and spiritual


despotism. It would betray, therefore, an utter lack
of historic sense, a complete misunderstanding of the
spirit and significance of the movement were we to
claim for any country or for any man the honour of
having really begun the work of which it was the
completion, and, certainly, we have no wish to inter-
pret in this absolute sense the title so often given
to John Wyclif, as " The morning star of the Informa-
tion." For even he had his predecessors both abroad
and at home.

To confine our view to our own country, his was
not the first English voice to make itself heard in
eloquent protest against the arrogant usurpations of
Rome. As near as may be a century and a half
before Wyclifs birth, the famous Robert Grosseteste
had been born at the little village of Stradbrook, and
of his character and work Matthew Paris gives this
summary : " He was a manifest confuter of the Pope
and the King, the blamer of prelates, the cor-
rector of monks, the director of priests, the instructor
of clerks, the support of scholars, the preacher to the
people, the persecutor of the incontinent, the sedulous
student of all Scripture, the hammer and the despiser
of the Romans." 1 In Wyclifs eyes it was one of the
many crimes of the Papacy that it had no honours of
saintship to bestow on a man whose fervent zeal for
the purity of the Church compelled him to denounce
the sins that were eating away its strength and -poi-
soning its influence, and were still, in his own day,
as virulent as before. Not fifty years had elapsed
after Grosseteste's death before another English hamlet
had given to the world the boy who subsequently be-

1 Quoted in H. Morley's English Writers, book i. chapter 22.


came the " invincible doctor," the " dear Master Ockham"
of Martin Luther, a paragon of philosophical acumen,
and, at the same time, a doughty champion of national
independence as opposed to the political supremacy of
the Pope. To him, as to Wyclif after him, the doc-
trine of the Papal infallibility was a delusion only to be
laughed at by reasonable men, nor was it beyond the
bounds of possibility that the Pioman Pontiff might be
the veriest heretic under the sun, as he shrewdly sus-
pected was actually the case in the person of his
particular enemy, John XXII. Much about the same
time, at Hartfield in Sussex, Thomas Bradwardin was
born, destined to be known as the " doctor profundus,''
who was himself what he describes the great Augustin
as having been, a " splendid and strenuous champion
of grace," and affirmed the all-sufficiency of that divine
principle with an uncompromising effectiveness and
eloquence on a par with those of Luther himself. In
these and others like them the very spirit moved that
asserted itself with more commanding power still in
the greater Englishman whom his continental followers
did not scruple to designate the fifth evangelist, and
who is the subject of the present lecture.

Born, not later than 1324, in quiet Teesdale, Wyclif
spent his childhood and early youth amid scenes whose
natural loveliness is enhanced to the modern visitor
because of the glamour cast over them by the wizard
hand of Sir "Walter Scott, who, in his romance of
Eokeby, celebrates the very hills and streams frequented
by our young Pieformer. The family he belonged to
owed their name to the peculiar features of the locality
in the heart of which the ancestral mansion stands
overlooking the river, and there may still be seen the


little, simple church, within whose walls, with boyish
faith yet undisturbed, Wyclif was wont to kneel.
Little is told us, practically nothing indeed, of the
home in which he was reared. We search in vain
through his writings for such reminiscences of early
days as abound in Luther's works, nor do the family
records throw any light upon the domestic influences
by which the man was " fashioned in his youth." No
echoes can we catch of the sounds either of merriment
or trouble that issued from his childish lips, nor any
signs of the inevitable pains that accompanied his first
attempts to pluck the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Whether he gave early indications of the sceptical
spirit that, in later years, drove him so far away from
the traditional Christianity of his family, or showed
himself a loyal and unquestioning son of the Church
till he went forth to breathe the perilous air of Oxford,
we have no means of deciding. This only appears to
be tolerably certain, that he came of a stock marked
by a jealous conservatism of the staunchest and most
orthodox type. The fact is a noticeable one that
Romanism has always held its own in that secluded
Yorkshire parish, and that no other member of the
Wyclif family seems to have regarded with aught but
utter repugnance the revolutionary tenets of their
greatest representative. There is, indeed, one passage
in his writings which reads like a page out of his own
experience, and may imply that his assaults upon the
established order of things had alienated from him the
affection and good-will of those nearest to him. It
occurs in a wise and pithy tract entitled " Of wedded
men and wives, and of their children also," 1 and reads
1 Select English Works of Wyclif (Edit. Arnold.) vol. 3, p. 188.


thus — wedded men and women often say " that if their
child draw him to meekness and poverty, and flee
covetousness and pride, for dread of sin and for to
please God, he shall never be man, and never cost them
penny, and curse him, if he live well and teach other
men God's law, to save men's souls. For by this do-
ing, the child getteth many enemies to his elders, and
they say that he slandereth all their noble kin that
ever were held true men and worshipful." Even this
unique reference to his own circumstances, if such it is,
is too meagre to permit any biographer, however
cunning, to weave out of it a narrative of the early
joys and sorrows of young Wyclif, and we must be con-
tent to leave his boyhood in the obscurity that has
hitherto enveloped it.

Some compensation for this misfortune is to be
found in the fact that it is not impossible to form a
fairly satisfactory idea of the social conditions that pre-
vailed in the country whilst Wyclif was advancing
towards manhood. The England to which he belonged
was that which still lives and moves before us in
Chaucer's bright, unfading page. In the ordinary
society of the day were to be found in abundance re-
presentatives of all the characters delineated with such
infinite grace and skill by the father of English poetry.
The travelled knight who, meek as he is brave, has
fought on every field of battle where a strong arm and
a stout heart can be of service ; the gentle squire who
has not yet lost youth's predilection for a dainty coat ;
the nut-headed, short-haired yeoman, who is skilled in
the use of the weapon that wrought such havoc at
Cressy and Poitiers ; the solid merchant whose well-to-
do comfort shines out in his costly raiment and his


solemn speech ; the weather-beaten sailor, better able
to handle a ship than to ride a horse ; the sage doctor,
learned in astronomy and fond of gold ; and the ready
lawyer, full, like Shakespeare's Justice, of " wise saws
and modern instances," all figure on Chaucer's stage,
only because they were every day playing their part
on the English soil trodden by John Wyclifs feet. How
women dressed and gossiped in their pithy mother-
tongue or the French of Stratford-le-Bowe ; how goat-
voiced pardoners exhibited their relics to gaping,
superstitious crowds ; how threadbare students spent
their little all on the purchase of their meagre store of
books ; how jolly friars lisped and sang and harped
the money out of people's pockets, may all be seen on
the rich canvas painted for us by the author of the
Canterbury Tales. The subtle spirit of that wonder-
ful poem, too, reveals better far than any prosaic
history the temper of the time. There is a strange
lack of earnestness and true sobriety. As has been
well remarked, it is the life rather of children than of
men and women that we are spectators of. The
gaiety that loves bright surfaces, however thin, and
hates a preacher with all its small apology for a soul,
is the common characteristic of the actors in the pano-
ramic drama. In almost equally distinct relief the
extravagance stands out which contemporary annals
delineate with hardly less force of language, and which
was not to be repressed even by the sumptuary laws
that forbade a third course at dinner or the use of
furs for trimming. It is, indeed, not too much to say
that there was prevalent a " desire to make life one
long holiday, dividing it between tournaments and the
dalliance of courts of love, or between archery meetings


(skilfully substituted by royal command for less useful
exercises) and the seductive company of " tumblers/'
" fruiterers," and " waferers." 1

To take a somewhat deeper and broader view than
is furnished by the poet, Wyclifs lot was cast in times
of singular interest and importance. But a few years
after his birth, Edward III., a prince of fourteen, was
proclaimed king, and began a reign in the course of
which good and evil, honour and shame, were almost
equally distributed. While Wyclif was yet a boy there
broke out the disastrous conflict with France which
" dragged its slow length along " for a weary hundred
years. Vast changes were passing over the social con-
ditions of the people. Serfdom was giving token of
very speedily becoming a thing only of the past. The
question of the poor, which ever since has so severely
taxed the wisdom alike of statesmanship and philan-
thropy, was beginning to force itself imperiously upon
the thoughts of men. The stern conflict between
capital and labour, which rages so fiercely still, was
entering upon its earliest stages and provoking attempts
at pacification that, like many later ones, were pregnant
alike with good intentions and evil consequences.
Vagabondage and mendicancy were assuming dimensions
ominous of disaster. The rapid dissolution of those
restraints on freedom of movement that were insepar-
able from feudalism, was being followed, on the part
especially of the poorer classes, by a restlessness quite
new in English history. The tongue of the common
people was at last triumphantly asserting itself against
the foreign language that had hitherto been regarded as
the only honourable medium of intercourse, and the
1 Ward's Chaucer, in English Men of Letters, p. 42.


real birthday both of English poetry and English prose
is to be found in this epoch, in the chronicles of which
the names of Geoffrey Chaucer and John "Wyclif stand
side by side. So far, indeed, as regards the strong,
solid framework of the national life, the England of this
fourteenth century was essentially modern rather than
mediaeval, despite unglazed windows and unchimneyed
houses, narrow and filthy streets, rough and perilous
roads, rush-strewn floors and morning-dinners, and
despite the lack of forks and the plethora of

This last feature was singularly characteristic of
Wyclif 's age as compared with our own. Ecclesiastics
were ubiquitous. There was, on the average, one priest
for every eighty of the population. Monks and friars,
abbots and bishops swarmed like bees. They crowded
about the steps of the throne and clutched greedily at
offices of state, and they crept into the hovels of the
poor, and cajoled or threatened them out of their scanty
earnings. They were of every type and character.
There were black friars and grey ; there were sum-
moners, limitors and pardoners ; there were priests that
played the mountebank, and priests that played the
tyrant ; there were priests that feigned a poverty to
which they were utter strangers, and priests that made
no attempt to hide their predilection for horses and
hounds, for furs and jewellery, for good fellowship and
dainty fare. Others, certainly, there were of nobler
mould, and the poet has not neglected to adorn his
canvas with the figure of the poor parson of the town,
who was " rich of holy thought and work," who failed

" Not for either rain or thunder
In sickness nor mischance to visit all—


The furthest in his parish, great and small,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.

He put not out his benefice on hire,

And left his sheep encumbered in the mire,

And ran to London unto Sainte Paul's,

To seek himself a chantery for souls,

Or maintenance with a brotherhood to hold,

But dwelt at home, and kepte well his fold ; "

while, to all his other virtues, he added this, that he
would " sharply snub at once " any " obstinate " person
either of " high or low estate." This, however, was all
too surely a comparatively rare type of ecclesiastic, and
it is not improbable that the exquisite figure would
not have been found at all in Chaucer's gallery had
Wyclif not been among his contemporaries.

With many of these features of the period our young
Yorkshire scholar may have been little familiar whilst
he still lingered in remote, secluded Teesdale, but his
removal to Oxford, when he was, in all likelihood, about
fifteen or sixteen years of age, would vastly enlarge his
horizon, and would necessarily bring him face to face
with characters and movements full of interest and
novelty to his quick, observant intellect. An almost
bewildering change it would be from the quiet country
home to the thronged, restless university town, with its
six or seven thousand students, for many of whom there
was but scanty, uncleanly accommodation. Of the five
colleges that then existed, one had a special interest for
Wyclif, as it had been founded in 1269 by the widow
of Sir John de Balliol of Barnard Castle, a lordly man-
sion only five miles distant from our student's native
parish ; and there can be little doubt that it was to this
college he attached himself on his arrival at Oxford.


It was a troubled and tumultuous world into which
he now entered, not by any means distinguished by the
calm, dignified repose popularly associated with the idea
of intellectual and philosophical pursuits. The air of
Oxford was full of the spirit of strife. There was
rivalry and contention, sometimes fierce and deadly,
between the Australes and the Boreales, the southerns
and the northerns, as the two nations were called into
which the students were divided. There was war
still, even after long ages of battle, between the Eealists
and the Nominalists, whose contests, marked by a
vehemence strangely disproportioned to the intrinsic
insignificance of the questions discussed, recall the
poet's question, " Dwells such dire wrath in minds
divine ? " And there were conflicts between gown and
town, to use modern phraseology, where the combatants
were counted by thousands, and in one of which,
occurring in Wyclif's own time, no fewer than forty
students were killed. Notwithstanding these elements
of unrest Oxford was, " during the fourteenth century,
by far the greatest theological and philosophical uni-
versity in Europe," 1 and the young Yorkshire student
w T as destined to add not a little to the lustre already
belonging to her famous schools.

For the first four years of his curriculum he would
attend lectures on logic, rhetoric, grammar and arith-
metic, and would then attain his Bachelor's degree,
provided he passed with Mat through a nine days'
ordeal, in the course of which he was expected to settle
all manner of subtle dialectical conundrums flung at
him in a vivd voce examination. Three years more,
spent in mastering geometry, astronomy, and philosophy,
1 Creasy's History of England, vol. ii. chap 5.


would prepare him for the higher degree that secured
the right of lecturing, of which at a later elate, at
all events, Wyclif largely availed himself. 1 It is im-
possible, unfortunately, to follow his career with any
minuteness throughout the greater portion of his student
life, and he must have been at the university for some
sixteen years or more before the occurrence of a change
in his position which witnesses to the reputation he had
then achieved.

In the interval, however, occurred one terrible inci-
dent which must have left its impress upon a man of
Wyclif s temperament as it certainly did upon the
history of the nation as a whole ; I refer to the first of
the four epidemics of the black death that occurred
during his lifetime. For fourteen years rumours had
reached England of a fell plague that was raging in
Central Asia, and in 1347 it made its appearance at
Constantinople. Before a few months had gone it
burst upon Avignon, and carried off no fewer than
60,000, for whom burial could be secured only in the
Rhone, which was duly consecrated for that purpose by
the Pope. In August, 1348, it swooped down on
Dorsetshire, and thence spread over the length and
breadth of the land, working appalling desolation and
ruin wherever it came, and utterly disorganizing the
whole fabric of society. In Norwich, where seven out
of every ten were carried off, no fewer than "15,374
died besides religious and beggars, and twenty churches
fell into ruins " ; and in Bristol " grass grew several
inches high on the High Street and Broad Street." 2

1 Canon Pennington's John Wyclif, chap. 2

2 Longman's Life and Times of Edward III., vol. i. p. 305.
Hecker's Epidemics of the Middle Ages. Seebohm, Fortnightly
Review, vol. i.


In the West Hiding of Yorkshire two- thirds of the
priests fell victims to its power. In London, after all
the existing burial places had been filled, 50,000
corpses were laid in a graveyard specially provided by
Sir Walter Manny, and at least half the population of
the country was swept away in the course of a few
months. The rural districts were as fiercely scourged
as the towns, and there were whole villages in which
no sound of life was to be heard either from man or
beast. This, too, was but a specimen of what was
taking place over the entire continent of Europe, where
it is calculated that the enormous number of twenty-
five millions were destroyed. It is impossible that
Wyclif learnt nothing from a calamity so overwhelming.
His was not the ear to be deaf to, nor was his the heart
to be proof against the lessons that were being imparted
in this visitation by a higher teacher than any whose
scholastic disquisitions were to be heard in Oxford's
lecture-halls. We can hardly be wrong in thinking
that to this agony of distress something was due of the
passionate earnestness of the man, and of the vivid
sense he had of the supreme importance of spiritual

The first distinct discoverable token of the high place
Wyclif occupied in the esteem of the university is the
occurrence of his name in 1356 as one of the Fellows
of Merton College, to which both Ockham and Brad-
wardin had belonged. The significance of this fact is
all the greater that Merton and Balliol were, in some
respects, antagonistic, and the election of Wyclif to this
office cannot well be explained except on the ground of
his acknowledged preeminence. Four years afterwards
he appears as the Master of Balliol, a position he held


only for a short time, and the last honour of this kind
bestowed upon him was the Wardenship of the new
Canterbury Hall with which he was invested at the
close of 1365. From this he was dismissed by Arch-
bishop Langham on grounds it is unnecessary to specify,
but which were of such a nature that Wyclif appealed
to the Pope, though without effect. 1 These dignities
bestowed upon him witness to the fact that his learning
and power were such as to make him one of the very
foremost men of the university, if, indeed, there were
any at all to be put in the same rank. " He made his
great aim," says an opponent who lived in his own
day, " with learned subtlety, and by the profundity of
his genius, to surpass the genius of other men," and he
is constrained to allow that " as a theologian Wyclif
was the most eminent in the day, as a philosopher second
ton one, and as a schoolman incomparable." 2 A similar
judgment is passed upon him by Professor Shirley, who
assigns to Wyclif a place with Duns Scotus, Ockham,
and Bradwardin as the " four great schoolmen of the
fourteenth century." 3

It has, indeed, become the fashion to laugh at the
representatives of scholasticism as though they were
little better than earnest quibblers who spent their
strength in splitting hairs and spinning cobwebs. " They
constructed monstrous books," writes one brilliant critic,
" in great numbers, cathedrals of syllogism of unheard-of

1 The doubts raised by the late Professor Shirley as to the

Online LibraryJoseph CorbettThe Reformers: lectures delivered in St. James' Church, Paisley → online text (page 1 of 34)