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CHARACTERISTICS OF THE REFORMATION.-XXV. .
CHARACTER AND DEATH OF WYCLIFFE. We have seen Wycliffe as the Reformer, let us look at him as the parish priest. In the course of this work we have had frequent occasion to speak of the degradation of Christianity into Priestcraft at the hands of the Church, and to condemn (as every right-thinking man must) that Priestly Caste who led Europe into the slough of superstition and degradation for their own vile purposes. It is, therefore, the more pleasing to be able to recognize in many of the poor parish priests men of the true Christian spirit. It is to the existence of such men in the old Church, that we have to attribute the love and veneration with which she was regarded by the poor and ignorant people for so many centuries, indeed, still is, even to this day, in the rural districts of Catholic countries. Charity and self-sacrifice, kindly sympathy with human woe, and unflagging endeavours to alleviate the sufferings around them, have ever, indeed, been found in larger measure among the Catholic parish priests, than
among the Protestant ministry, who seem to think their whole duty is to preach“ sound doctrine,” and attend alone to the "spiritual interests of their “ flocks." But we never can look upon these men with unmixed approbation, they are priests after all, and, like every Priesthood - Protestant, Catholic, or other than either—work not to raise the people out of their degradation, but to make them contented in it. Let us, however, be just to their virtue so far as it goes; and this Wycliffe had in all its fullness, but he had something more—he sought to make his people think, and to free them from the superstitions which had so close hold of them.
Wycliffe held the Rectory of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire, for many years previous to and up to the time of his death, and there it was that he first promulgated the truths which the Church of Rome does, and the Church of England should, call heresy; for he was the enemy of Priesteraft in all its forms. In Chaucer's fine description of the “ Parson,” we have a picture of what Wycliffe was at Lutterworth—the man of real practical piety. It is interesting to know that it is credibly believed the poet had Wycliffe in his mind when writing it. Some passages we quote :
“Benign he was, and wondrous diligent,
And in adversity full patient :
He was a shepherd, and no mercenary,
To drawen folk to heaven with faireness
A better priest I trow that nowhere none is,
He taught, but first he followed it himselve." In this last touch we have one of the many proofs, existent in his writings, of the wonderful power of painting character in a few words
possessed by Chaucer ; in it we at once see how far the original of this picture differed from priests in general.
Between Wycliffe's duties at Lutterworth, and his University lectures, his time was fully occupied, Ever at work, he asked not, and cared but little, what his enemies were preparing against him. It was in the year 1379, that in the midst of his work, he was struck down by sickness so severe that it was thought to be a fatal sickness. In his weakness a body of Mendicant Monks visited him, believing him to be at the point of death ; their visit was, ostensibly, to exhort him to repentance, but their manner expressed the exultation they felt that their enemy was in the grasp of death. In the midst of their exhortations to him, lying there in the last stage of weakness, a sudden life seemed to inspire him ; gradually raising himself up, his countenance glowing with indignation, to the consternation of the monks, thus he spoke :-“I “shall not die, but live—to declare the glory of God and the evil deeds of the “ Friars !” From that moment he quickly recovered strength, and the superstition of the time thought a miracle had been wrought. The Friars departed in confusion. We have already seen how he redeemed his pledge, through those years of incessant labour for the truth he had at heart, glanced at in our last week's paper.
Much more, of course, could be told were we writing the biography of Wycliffe ; but our aim here is only to sketch his career, and to form an estimate of the part he took in the gradual evolution of the great historic drama known as the Reformation. The results of his work will hereafter more fully appear; and it is rather in the results, than in the actual achievements, of the lives of many of the greatest men of the past, that we learn the true value of what they did.
Earnestly and honestly this man lived, and wrote, and spoke, and worked; whatsoever he had to do he did it with his might, and as with all who have done, or shall do likewise, his memory can never be lost, and the influence of his life and work was felt through the ages which came after him. But a time came when he, too, must depart. We look across the gulf of five centuries into the Church of Lutterworth, on the morning of Sunday, the 31st of December, 1384. We listen to the glorious chaunts which form a portion of the service, and note, too, that a large portion from the Bible is read in English, and that there is no raising of the consecrated host. The service over, we see entering at the front door the aged Pastor, Wycliffe. With tottering steps and slow, he passes up the aisle, and many a tear is dropped as the people note how much he has altered since he last met them. With simple earnestness he had wished them, and they him, a Merry “ Christmas and a happy New Year ; and merry it has been for many of them, but since then paralysis has laid a heavy hand upon their aged friend. He has been earnestly advised not to go to preach this morning, but yes ! yes ! he will even go and say what he has to say. As he ascends the pulpit stairs, many a silent heartfelt prayer is offered up for him; for the people love him. “And now he speaks, his trembling tones becoming stronger and stronger as enthusiasm is kindled by his subject, as he tells his people that once more they are entering on a new year, and that once more new chances are offered to them to work out their own salvation, as he begs them not to believe that oblations and gifts are of any use, but to remember that a righteous life is what God demands. At length his sermon closes, and he spreads out his hands to bless the congregation; they wait to hear the wellknown sounds. See! see! he has sunk back;—he will never speak benediction more.
His lips are closed for ever :- he is dead !
So, as quaint old Fuller says : " The hare so often hunted, with so many “packs of dogs, expired at last quietly sitting on his form." They buried him in Lutterworth Churchyard ; and for 30 years his bones lay there undisturbed. And then-O impotent malice !-the Council of Constance ordered his body to be exhumed and burnt as that of a heretic. The order was obeyed, for persccution was rife in England then. The ashes were cast into the little river Swift, which runs through Lutterworth ; and “the “ brook,” says Fuller, “ did convey liis ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, “Severn into the narrow Seas, they into the main Ocean. And thus the “ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrines, which now are dispersed s all the world over.” Yes ! they might burn his body, as, had he been alive, they would have burnt him, but they could not destroy the truth he spoke, which was destined to work out many and great results, and the force of which even yet is not exhausted, nay, as with all truth, whenever, whereeyer, and by whomever spoken, can never be.
Fifteen years after the death of Wycliffe, Richard II. was deposed and Henry IV. reigned in his stead. The utmost severity of persecution, short of death, had characterised the proceedings of the Church against the followers of Wycliffe during those fifteen years, but beyond imprisonment and fines, Richard had never allowed them to go. Henry, however, owed the Church a debt of gratitude, and, moreover, feared her power, as being a Usurper (or, to say the least, capable of being represented such), the Church might, by throwing in the weight of her authority on the side of the malcontents, hurl him from the throne he had gained. This made him the humble servant of the Church. Immediately on his accession, he proclaimed himself protector of the Church, and ere he had reigned two years, the infamous statute de Heretico comburendo was passed, by which, for the first time in the history of England, persecution was legalised. The common law of England had stood in the way hitherto. This act was passed for the protection of the “ Church," and the suppression of the Lollards. The very same year the first victim fell a sacrifice, and it was not long before burning for Lollardy became common; and, but that the English people never looked kindly on this work, would have been much more common. But not all the burning and persecution was of any avail; the more they burnt and punished, the more there were to burn and punish.
The Lollards in England must be looked upon as the immediate progenitors of the Puritans of a later date, to whom, and whom only, can we look for the true religious Reform of the 16th and 17th centuries—those grand old iron men who would have nought to do with the miserable compromises which a Henry VIII. and an Archbishop Cranmer called a Reformation. We shall look at these Puritans at a later date, and see that they were the real creators of Religious Freedom (so far as it is existent) amongst us, thereby approving themselves as the real inheritors of the spirit of Wycliffe. But a long and a fiery ordeal had the spirit of religious earnestness and freedom to go through ere finally it conquered. That, however, it would conquer, Priestcraft itself, if not judicially blinded by its hate of true religion, might have seen; for during all those years of Lollard persecution and martyrdom, the heart of England was being irretrievably alienated from the Church, and the system which, in the name of religion, perpetrated such deeds. Come what might, Popery and Priestcraft could never again reign absolute in England; although Protestants no less than Catholics sought to make them so.
None of the leaders of the Reformation were so thorough in their attacks
upon the strongholds of Priestcraft as Wycliffe. We have already said, that, in spite of attempts to prove the contrary, it is quite certain Wycliffe was no Episcopalian, as he was opposed to a priestly caste. He would have destroyed, root and branch, the State Church. In him the Spirit of Religious Freedom found its full expression, so far as ecclesiastical polity is concerned ; and even his doctrinal heresies arose out of his hatred to Priestcraft. Mr. Le Bas (his high Church biographer) has perceived this, and consequently cannot find it in his heart to express more than a qualified admiration of his work. He sums up the evils (as he calls them) which would have resulted if the Reformation of the Anglican Church had been conducted by Wycliffe. “ Episcopal government,” he says, "might then “have been discarded-ecclesiastical endowments and foundations might “have been, for the most part, sacrificed—the clergy consigned to a de"grading dependence on their flocks.. Had Wiclif flourished,” he continues, " in the sixteenth century, it can hardly be imagined that he “would have been found under the banners of Cranmer and of Ridley. “ Their caution, their patience, their moderation, would scarcely have been “intelligible to him,
and therefore it is, that every faithful son “ of the Church of England must rejoice, with trembling, that the work “ of her final deliverance was not consigned to him :"* that is, must rejoice that Priestcraft was not entirely overthrown.
We shall have an opportunity hereafter of testing the real nature of the Reformation in England as it was actually carried out.
Suffice it now to remark, that Wycliffe's reform remains yet to be accomplished. Priestcraft (shorn of its terrors, it is true, but still with much power of evil) yet exists among us; a State Church still stands to remind us, with its tithes and church-rates, that Religious Freedom, even of the merely outward kind, is a thing to be accomplished in the future, and not yet a fact amongst us. But let us not forget that there is a Religious Freedom, even beyond that marked out by Wycliffe, which must be consummated before our Spiritual Progress, as a people, is possible; and for this, as well as the full fruition of the other, Religious Reformers must work: we speak of freedom from those theological fetters which, now, alas ! as much as in the past, bind in soul-slavery so large a majority amongst men ; and wherein lies the strength of Priestcraft still. So must it be until men hail all truth as a Revelation from God, and do not start with the foregone conclusion that we know all God's Truth already, that it is contained within the lids of any Bible, or has ever yet been revealed in its entirety. To establish a Church without Creed, a Religion which shall satisfy the Reason, while it ignores not the intuitions of the soul of man; believing that God is a Living God, and yet speaketh, and that the more we study History, and recognise His Hand there, the more we question Nature, and comprehend His Work there, the nearer shall we arrive at a knowledge of His Being ; to seek in our lives to obey His Laws and work out His Will, believing that so doing we may go, when Death calls us, to meet Him and the Great Ones who, working in the like spirit, have gone before us into His presence—these are our aims, these our earnest beliefs, and to aid in this work should be the object of every lover of real Religious Freedom. This is the proper work of To-day. And if in reviewing the careers of the Reformers of the Old Time, we bear this in mind, we shall find therein many a useful lesson.
JAS. L. GOODING, to the Life of Wiclif, pp. 365.6.
OUR NEW HALL, NEWMAN STREET, OXFORD STREET. The time has at length arrived when the Society of Independent Religious Reformers will be in a position to work out their proposed plans with greater chances of success. According to their programme the objects of the society are threefold :
“To secure the association of such persoas as are desirous of cultivating the Religious sentiment in a manner which shall be free from the evil spirit of creed, the intolerance of sectarianism, and the leaven of priestcraft, of such persons as respect the authority of Reason, and reverentially accept the decrees of Conscience :
“ To discover and methodise Truths connected with either the Laws of Nature, the Progress of Thought, or the Lives of Good Men of all ages and countries, so that they may be rendered of practical value as guides to a healthful, moral, and manly life :
“ To assist, as in the performance of a religious duty, in the regeneration of Society, by co-operating with every organized body whose aim is to abolish superstition, ignorance, drunkenness, political injustice, or any other of the numerous evils which now afllict society:
“The Society proposes to attain its objects by means of co-operating to promote the public delivery of Lectures bearing upon Science, History, and Religious Freethought; by means of Schools in which the young shall be educated to love God and goodness, to know the inestimable value of truth and freedom, and to fear nothing but vice, serfdom, and dishonour; by means of Classes for adults; and finally, by means of Publications in the form of journals, essays, and volumes.”
Up to the present time little towards accomplishing those objects has been done, besides securing the delivery of Lectures and the weekly publication of the Pathfinder, but having more scope we hope henceforth to do more and to achieve a wider success.
The Editor of this journal, acting for the Committee, has taken upon lease for 21 years, the fine premises in Newman Street, Oxford Street, long known as the Philharmonic Hall, and more recently used as a district church. The hall itself will seat, with great comfort to all, thirteen hundred persons, beside which there is a space which may, at small expense, be fitted up so as to extend the accommodation to sixteen hundred sittings. In connexion with the hall there are various roous, easily made available for classes, and even for small meetings, so that while lectures are being delivered in the hall, or meetings are being held, the classes could go ou as usual.
It is proposed that there shall be a regular Theistic religious service, conducted by P. W. Perfitt, every Sunday morning. In the evening lectures upon English IIistory, Biography, Science, and kindred subjects, will be delivered, so that while upon the one hand the wants of man's religious nature will be met, on the other, there will be a recognition of the equallyimportant desire for general and practical knowledge, which is not usually supplied on Sunday evenings. Weekly lectures will also be deliver d under the auspices of the Society, and the Hall will be available, and will be let, for other lectures and public meetings.
The Committee consider it to be a great advantage that these promises have been secured for their purposes, and now all that remains to be dove is to fit the Hall up with seats, and to supply other requisites for the holding of meetings. The sum required for this purpose is three hundred pounds.