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England and the Wycliffe Bible Part I

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

Over the next several posts I will be putting extracts from an upcoming book on the King James Bible.

England, England, England, what do we say of thee England? Volumes have been written over the centuries trying to explain England. As individuals they are no brighter, prettier or more entitled than any other people on this earth. As a nation, they have far eclipsed the nations of the earth. The world speaks English. The legacy of civil liberty on this earth is closely intertwined with the legacy of civil liberty in England. England gave us the Bible we know today as the King James Bible.

It is to this Bible that we shall turn our attention. Hopefully this, and the next couple of chapters, will give my readers a greater insight into how God used England to give us our bible. Those who are already familiar with the history of the English Bible may question my lack of emphasis on the chain of bibles between Wycliffe and the King James Bible. My answer is twofold, First, I am well satisfied with the extant histories, and secondly, the history of those bibles has little bearing on the history I am about to reveal. Instead I hope to take my readers beyond the current histories which are so often lacking and filled with repeated half-truths. It seemed during the run up to the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and during that 400th year (2011) that every major ministry felt the need to publish its own pamphlet. If all that literature were gathered into one place there would be little new on the table. We’ll take a fresh look.

We need to understand the revolution in book translating which took place in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. For most of the history of the western world Latin was the foremost language of science, theology and literature. Latin dominated the western world from the time of Rome in the first century BC until the mid-17th century, and even then, it loosened its grip slowly. Almost all bibles were Latin Bibles. England was just like the rest of Europe: vernacular bibles were almost non-existent. There was little need for them since almost no one could read their native tongue, and since almost no tongue understood in England was written.

However, there were exceptions. The persecution of Baptist Churches[1] are chronicled throughout Europe within the records of the Catholic Church, for they used secular governments to do the heavy hitting after they had captured, tortured and tried those who were non-compliant. Those who had, and read, scripture in the Middle Ages were not apt to publish the matter. To do so would bring the cruel power of the church and state upon their heads. Instead, if we are to gauge the extent to which the bible penetrated the common masses in those dark times, we often must resort to Inquisition records. For example, in the mid 1300’s a man listed as Bernard of Toulouse confessed that he had seen two heretics, a father and son, in his house, and heard the son “read in a certain book of the gospels and epistles, as he said”; another woman heard the same two heretics read the gospels and epistles from a certain book; and others heard them also “read in a certain book.” A certain William “went to a house with others and sat around a fire, and there was a certain man whom he did not know, and then that man pulled out a certain book and read many words from that book, and it seemed to him that the words were from the gospels, and immediately when he, William heard this, he thought and believed that that man was one of the heretics.”[2]

I’m not sure how many of my readers would witness to their neighbors or conduct a bible study for the unlearned if it might well cost them burning at the stake. It is clear however, from the historical record that many believers chose just such a life and many paid for their choice with a gruesome death. Historian Leonard Verduin records that the abundance of Anabaptists or dissenters from Catholicism in the Middle Ages was so great that some inquisitors had records of consigning at least one “heretic” a day to the flames. In fact, Verduin tells us that it would have been impossible to have lived a normal lifespan in mediaeval Europe without having come into contact with one of these dissidents.[3] It took an exacting, never ending, vigilance by the Catholic Church, in league with the secular powers to torture, burn, and in any other way eradicate all of the churches that did not make league with the secular powers. All this was done to maintain the illusion that the Roman Church was the first and only church.

We are interested in the pursuit of this narrative to examine what bible these dissenters used. Jesus Christ had said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32. We can be certain that these dissenters knew the truth because they held it in their hands and they paid a very dear price to keep it. One of the motivations for Innocent III who reigned as pope from 1198 to 1216, to conduct his wholesale slaughter of the Albigensians[4] was his realization that they were using vernacular bibles. Verduin quotes a French translation of Innocent III’s letter to the people of Metz in which he says, “a great many lay-folk, both men and women . . . have had French translations made of the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Psalms. . . and other books, which they read together and preach from in their clandestine conventicles.”[5] The letter goes on to lambaste these same people for essentially trusting their understanding of the bible more than the teaching of the church. Which bible did they use? In those records, there is an occasional reference to someone reading a portion of a gospel in the vernacular of the land. These bibles were rare and probably never complete with very few exceptions[6]. There just weren’t enough people who could read a vernacular language. If a person were literate it can be assumed that they spoke and read Latin.

[1] For the record I am using the word Baptist in an extremely generic way similar to how it would be used in America today. Almost any doctrine or form of church government could be found under such an umbrella. By Baptist I am referring to churches independent of the Roman Catholic Church and practicing adult baptism. Some of these churches were noble conclaves of truly born again believers, others were cults.

[2] Margaret Deanesly, The Lollard Bible (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1920),39, 40

[3] Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,

1964),36 Reprinted in 1980 by Baker Book House Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[4] The Albigensians were a non-Roman Catholic population of Baptist Christians who inhabited the South of France and into the South of Spain. They were the descendants of Christians who refused to obey Constantine’s directives making the Church of Rome the official and only church. Most other populations of Baptists who had refused to be conscripted into Rome’s myth of being the first and only church were slaughtered out of hand. The Albigensians survived until Innocent III, because until then the Muslims who controlled their territory were more charitable towards dissidents than were the Catholics who eventually wrested military control from the Muslim State.

[5] Ibid, 166

[6] For an interesting compilation of the records of vernacular scripture throughout the middle ages see Margret Deanesly’s The Lollard Bible which can be obtained through reprints from many sources online.

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