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England had a head start on the Reformation because of the work of John Wycliffe (c. 1324–1384). It was Wycliffe who held that the Bible alone (sola Scriptura) set forth the definition of true Christianity. Wycliffe’s efforts to translate the Bible into the language of the people prepared the way for a reform movement that would take England and the New World by storm. His hand written translations were based on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the only source text available to Wycliffe. Like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Tyndale, Wycliffe’s reform efforts did not go unopposed. Thirty-one years after his death, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe on 260 different counts, ordered his writings to be burned, and directed that his bones be exhumed and buried in unconsecrated ground. In 1428, on orders from the Pope, Wycliffe’s remains were dug up and burned. His ashes were thrown in a nearby river. Wycliffe’s followers, called Lollards,* carried on his work under severe persecution from Henry V (1413–1422). Because of continued opposition from the Crown and the outlawing of Bible reading in the English language, the Lollards worked in secret. But by the late fifteenth century, the activity of the Lollards began to grow more bold and effective. They brought the discussion of theological issues to the masses which in turn led some people to question certain aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine. In the end, Wycliffe’s views won out. His ashes became seed for a Reformation that transformed the world. “The sacred Scriptures,” Wycliffe wrote, “be the property of the people, and one which no party should be allowed to wrest from them.”
* The Lollards derived their name from the medieval Dutch word meaning “to mutter” (lollaerd), possibly a reference to their style of worship, which was based on reading the scriptures. The derivation may be of Latin origin, from lollen, “to sing softly” (cf. Eng. lull)