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into the speech of the nation. To him it not only CHAP. appeared as a novelty in the history of offences, but as an innovation on ecclesiastical discipline, fraught with profanity and sacrilege, and tending to destroy even the appearances of religion; nor can we forbear to regard his sentiments, in this respect, as those of his order in the fourteenth century. The historian no doubt knew that fragments, and even considerable portions, of holy writ, had been clothed in the unconsecrated dialect of his country; but he also knew, that hitherto they were merely parts of that secreted volume which had been so rendered, and that these curious documents had rarely travelled beyond the precincts of the cloister. Hence to invite the community without distinction to the study of the gospel, exhorting them to regulate their present conduct and their hopes and fears in relation to the future purely by its sanctions, is described as the assuming of ground for which no precedent could be pleaded, and is justly viewed as threatening the whole fabric of ecclesiastical power with dissolution.
Previous to the conquest, and through a considerable interval afterwards, there was but little evil to be apprehended from any such employment of the Bible. The repose of ignorance was too profound to be readily broken; and the vassalage both of the body and of the mind, had been too little disturbed to admit of being speedily removed. But in the age of Wycliffe, the aspect of society in England, retained but a faint tracing of its earlier features. The augmented population of the country, the progress of commerce, and of a representative government, and the partial re
CHAP. vival of learning, had all contributed to improve
the capacities of the nation; and together with the bolder encroachments of the papacy, and that spirit of complaint and resistance which these had produced; were pre-eminently favorable to the zeal of our reformer, as employed in applying the popular language to the pure records of the gospel. His antagonists, we have seen, were by no means insensible to the probable results of the enterprise in which his energies were engaged; and to his own discernment they were obvious in a much greater degree. He knew that to render the contents of the Bible familiar to the people, was to introduce a light which must impart a faithful colouring to the actions of men ; and that ignorance and irreligion might well tremble for their sway, when thus brought into nearest connection with their opposites. Nearly twenty years had now passed since his first dispute with the mendicants, and during this period his writings disclose a growing conviction as to the sufficiency of the scriptures, and the importance of the right of private judgment. The success, also, which attended his discussions on these points, evidently prepared him for his present effort; the effect of which, according to his enemies, was to make the matters of the gospel revelation better known to the laity, and even to females, than they had hitherto been to the most distinguished among the clergy.17
Some extracts, illustrative of the arguments 17 Knighton, Col. 2644. Another fact which was highly favorable to this great work of the reformer, is thus briefly and luminously stated by Mr. Baker : “ Englishmen were now beginning to be more attentive to “ their own tongue. Before the conquest, the popular language had “ been invaded by the Normannic. After that event, as the Norman lords
with which the reformer opposed the clamours of CHAP. his adversaries on this question, will be expected w by the reader. These we might select from nearly Wycliffe's the whole of his writings, subsequent to the year of de1378. In one of his earliest vindications he thus his conwrites; “ As it is evident that the truth of the “ christian faith becomes more obvious the more point.
the faith itself is known, and that lord bishops “ condemn in the ear of secular lords what is “ faithful and true, on account of hatred to the
person who maintains it; honest men are bound “ to declare the doctrine which they hold, not
only in latin, but in the vulgar tongue, that the “ truth may be more plainly, and more widely “ known.” The writer then refers to an english
“increased in power, their tongue became the language of polished “ society, of the laws, and of the pleadings in the courts of judicature. “ Latin was used for the services of the church, and the general purposes “ of literature; and the Anglo-saxon remained chiefly confined to the “ commonality. In the thirteenth century, the popular language began “ in some degree to recover its rank; the nobles, and the higher classes “ of society, did not, as heretofore, disdain to resort to it as a colloquial
tongue ; and original works, as well as translations from the produc“ tions of authors, who had written in french, now began to appear in an “ english dress. But at this period, it must be allowed our language
was rough and unpolished, and those who wrote in it were authors “ who possessed few ideas of taste or elegance. In proportion, howe
ever, as the tyrannical power of the barons declined, and as the paths " which led to honor and distinction became more open to commoners ; “ the english tongue in the fourteenth century became more general, “ and its improvements were considerable. The accessions it had “ received, and the changes it had experienced within the last three “ centuries, were at this period numerous and striking : for our language
as it was now spoken by the noble and the learned, was considerably “ enriched by words borrowed from the roman and french dialects, and “ much altered in its pronunciation, its form, and its terminations.
Among the lower orders of the people, however, upon whom refinement " makes but slow advances, english, with respect to its great mass, pre“ served more of its saxon origin and phraseology. Such was the state " of the vernacular tongue at the time in which Wiclif wrote. The “ reformer quickly discerned the advantage which might be derived from “ this propitious circumstance." Memoirs of Wiclif, 36, 37.
CHAP. treatise which he had previously addressed to se
cular lords, and in which he had urged them to regulate their life “exclusively according to the “ law of Christ.” That work is now lost, but the latin composition, under the same title, is preserved, and in this the author proceeds to state that “ those heretics ought not to be heard, who ima
gine that temporal lords should not possess “the law of God, but that it is sufficient for them “ to know what may be learnt from the lips of “ their priests and prelates." The error of this doctrine is thus exposed : “ As the faith of the “ church is contained in the scriptures, the more “ these are known in an orthodox sense, the bet
And since secular men should assuredly “ understand the faith, it should be taught them in “ whatever language is best known to them. In“ asmuch, also, as the doctrines of our faith are “ more clearly and precisely expressed in the
scriptures, than they may possibly be by priests, “ ---seeing, if one may venture so to speak, that
many prelates are but too ignorant of scripture, “ while others conceal parts of scripture,—and as “ the verbal instructions of priests have many “ other defects; the conclusion is abundantly
plain, that believers should ascertain for them“selves the matters of their faith, by hav• ing the scriptures in a language which they
fully understand. Besides, it was by faith, as “ described by the apostle, (Heb. chap. xi.) that “ the saints of old overcame kingdoms, and “ hastened to their own country.
Why then “ should not the things of faith be disclosed to the
people now, so that they may comprehend them
more clearly? He, in consequence, who shall CHAP. prevent this or murmur against it, does his ut
most to continue the people in a state of unbelief “ and condemnation. Hence, also, the laws made
by prelates are not to be received as matters of
faith, nor are we to confide in their public in“structions, or in any of their words, but as they “ are founded on holy writ; for according to the “ constant doctrine of Augustine, the scriptures “ contain the whole of truth ;18 and this translation “ of them should therefore do at least this good, “ viz. placing bishops and priests above suspicion
as to the parts of it which they profess to ex
plain. Other means also, as prelates, the pope, “ and friars, may prove defective; and to provide
against this, Christ and his apostles, evangelized “ the greater portion of the world, by making “ known the scriptures in a language which was “ familiar to the people. To this end, indeed, did “the Holy Spirit endow them with the know
ledge of all tongues. Why, therefore, should “ not the living disciples of Christ do as they did, “ opening the scriptures to the people so clearly “ and plainly that they may verily understand
them, since, except to the unbeliever disposed “ to resist the Holy Spirit, the things contained in “ scripture are no fiction?” The reformer then solemnly inculcates the doctrine of individual responsibility as extending to all the matters of faith and practice. From the certainty, also, that
18 Doctrina Christiana. lib. ii. in fine ep. ad Volusianum. cited by Lewis
Walden, the known antagonist of Wycliffe, affirmed that “ the 66 decrees of bishops in the church are of greater authority and dignity “ than is the authority of the scriptures.” Walden. Doc. Tri. i, lib. ii. c. 21. VOL. II.