The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4


Chapter 5—Early Reformers

So bitter had been the war waged upon the Bible, that at times there were very few copies in existence; but God had not suffered his word to be wholly destroyed. Its truths were not to be forever hidden. He could as easily unchain the words of life as he could open prison doors and unbolt iron gates to set his servants free. In the different countries of Europe, men were moved by the Spirit of God to search for the truth as for hidden treasure. Providentially guided to the Holy Scriptures, they studied the sacred pages with intense interest. They were willing to accept the light, at any cost to themselves. Though they did not see all things clearly, they were enabled to perceive many long-buried truths. As Heaven-sent messengers they went forth, rending asunder the chains of error and superstition, and calling upon those who had been so long enslaved to arise and assert their liberty. 4SP 85.1

Except among the Waldenses, the word of God had for ages been locked up in languages known only to the learned; but the time had come for the Scriptures to be translated, and given to the people of different lands in their native tongue. The world had passed its midnight. The hours of darkness were wearing away, and in many lands appeared tokens of the coming dawn. 4SP 85.2

In the fourteenth century arose in England the “morning star of the Reformation.” John Wycliffe was the herald of reform, not for England alone, but for all Christendom. He was the progenitor of the Puritans; his era was an oasis in the desert. 4SP 86.1

Wycliffe received a liberal education, and with him the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. He was noted at college for his fervent piety as well as for his remarkable talents and sound scholarship. He was educated in the civil and the canon law, and sought to become acquainted with every branch of knowledge. In his after-labors the value of this early discipline was apparent. While he could wield the sword of the Spirit, he was acquainted also with the practice of the schools. This combination of accomplishments won for him the respect of all parties. His followers saw with satisfaction that their teacher was foremost among the sages and doctors of his time. The Lord saw fit to intrust the work of reform to one whose intellectual ability would give character and dignity to his labors. This silenced the voice of contempt, and prevented the adversaries of truth from attempting to put discredit upon his cause by ridiculing the ignorance of the advocate. 4SP 86.2

When Wycliffe had mastered the learning of the schools, he entered upon the study of the Scriptures. Every subject to which he turned his attention he was accustomed to investigate thoroughly, and he pursued the same course with the Bible. Heretofore he had felt a great want, which neither his scholastic studies nor the teachings of the church could satisfy. In the Scriptures he found that which he had before sought in vain. Here he saw the plan of salvation revealed, and Christ set forth as the only advocate for man. He saw that Rome had forsaken the Biblical paths for human traditions. He gave himself to the service of Christ, and determined to proclaim the truths which he had discovered. 4SP 86.3

He commenced with great prudence, but as he discerned more clearly the errors of the papacy, he taught more earnestly the doctrine of faith. His knowledge of theology, his penetrating mind, the purity of his life, and his unbending courage and integrity, won for him general confidence and esteem. He was an able and earnest teacher, and an eloquent preacher, and his daily life was a demonstration of the truths he preached. He accused the clergy of having banished the Holy Scriptures, and demanded that the authority of the Bible should be reestablished in the church. Many of the people had become dissatisfied with their former faith as they saw the iniquity that prevailed in the Roman Church, and they hailed with unconcealed joy the truths brought to view in these discussions; but the papist leaders trembled with rage when they perceived that this reformer was gaining an influence greater than their own. 4SP 87.1

Wycliffe was a clear thinker and a keen detector of error, and he struck boldly against many of the abuses sanctioned by the authority of Rome. Thus he brought upon himself the enmity of the pope and his supporters. Repeated attempts were made to condemn and execute him for heresy; but God had given him favor with princes, who stood in his defense. While acting as chaplain for the king, he had taken a bold stand against the payment of the tribute claimed by the pope from the English monarch, and had declared the papal assumption of authority over secular rulers to be contrary to both reason and revelation. A few years later, he ably defended the rights of the English crown against the encroachments of the Romish power. The people and the nobility of England sided with him, and his enemies could accomplish nothing against him. Upon one occasion, when he was brought to trial before a synod of bishops, the people surrounded the building where the synod met, and, rushing in, stood between him and all harm. 4SP 87.2

About this time, strife was caused in the church by the conflicting claims of two rival popes. Each professed infallibility, and demanded obedience. Each called upon the faithful to assist him to make war upon the other, enforcing his demand by terrible anathemas against his adversaries, and promises of rewards in Heaven to his supporters. This occurrence greatly weakened the power of the papacy, and saved Wycliffe from further persecution. 4SP 88.1

God had preserved his servant for more important labors. Wycliffe, like his Master, preached the gospel to the poor. As a professor of theology, he presented the truth to the students under his instruction, and received the title of “The Gospel Doctor.” In his parish he addressed the people as a friend and pastor. 4SP 88.2

But the greatest work of his life was the translation of the Scriptures into the English language. This was the first complete English translation ever made. The art of printing being still unknown, it was only by slow and wearisome labor that copies of the work could be multiplied; yet this was done, and the people of England received the Bible in their own tongue. Thus the light of God's word began to shed its bright beams athwart the darkness. A divine hand was preparing the way for the Great Reformation. 4SP 88.3

The appeal to men's reason aroused them from their passive submission to papal dogmas. The Scriptures were received with favor by the higher classes, who alone in that age possessed a knowledge of letters. Wycliffe now taught the distinctive doctrines of Protestantism,—salvation through faith in Christ, and the sole infallibility of the Scriptures. Many priests joined him in circulating the Bible and in preaching the gospel; and so great was the effect of these labors and of Wycliffe's writings, that the new faith was accepted by nearly one-half of the people of England. The kingdom of darkness trembled. Mendicant friars, who swarmed in England, listened in anger and amazement to his bold, eloquent utterances. The hatred of Rome was kindled to greater intensity, and again she plotted to silence the Reformer's voice. But the Lord covered with his shield the messenger of truth. The efforts of his enemies to stop his work and to destroy his life were alike unsuccessful, and in his sixty-first year he died in peace in the very service of the altar. 4SP 89.1

The doctrines which had been taught by Wycliffe continued for a time to spread; but soon the pitiless storm of persecution burst upon those who had dared to accept the Bible as their guide and standard. Martyrdom succeeded martyrdom. The advocates of truth, proscribed and tortured, could only pour their suffering cries into the ear of the Lord of Sabaoth. The hunted reformers found shelter as best they could among the lower classes, preaching in secret places, and hiding away even in dens and caves. Many bore fearless witness to the truth in massive dungeons and Lollard towers. 4SP 89.2

The papists had failed to work their will with Wycliffe during his life, and their hatred could not be satisfied while his body rested quietly in the grave. More than forty years after his death, his bones were disinterred and publicly burned, and the ashes were thrown into a neighboring brook. “The brook,” says an old writer, “did convey his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, and they into the main ocean, and thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.” Little did his enemies realize the significance of their malicious act. 4SP 90.1

It was through the writings of Wycliffe that John Huss of Bohemia was led to renounce many of the errors of Romanism, and to enter upon the work of reform. Like Wycliffe, Huss was a noble Christian, a man of learning and of unswerving devotion to the truth. His appeals to the Scriptures and his bold denunciations of the scandalous and immoral lives of the clergy, awakened wide-spread interest, and thousands gladly accepted a purer faith. This excited the ire of pope and prelates, priests and friars, and Huss was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance to answer to the charge of heresy. 4SP 90.2

A safe-conduct was granted him by the German emperor, and upon his arrival at Constance he was personally assured by the pope that no injustice should be done him. In a short time, however, he was placed under arrest, by order of the pope and cardinals, and thrust into a loathsome dungeon. Some of the nobles and people of Bohemia addressed to the council earnest protests against this outrage. The emperor, who was loth to permit the violation of a safe-conduct, opposed the proceedings against him. But the enemies of the Reformer were malignant and determined. They appealed to the emperor's prejudices, to his fears, to his zeal for the church. They brought forward arguments of great length to prove that he was perfectly at liberty not to keep faith with a heretic; and that the council, being above the emperor, could free him from his word. Thus they prevailed. 4SP 90.3

After a long trial, in which he firmly maintained the truth, Huss was required to choose whether he would recant his doctrines or suffer death. He chose the martyr's fate, and after seeing his books given to the flames, he was himself burned at the stake. In the presence of the assembled dignitaries of Church and State, the servant of God had uttered a solemn and faithful protest against the corruptions of the papal hierarchy. His execution, in shameless violation of the most solemn and public promise of protection, exhibited to the whole world the perfidious cruelty of Rome. The enemies of truth, though they knew it not, were furthering the cause which they sought vainly to destroy. 4SP 91.1

In the gloom of his dungeon, John Huss had foreseen the triumph of the true faith. Returning, in his dreams, to the humble parish where he had preached the gospel, he saw the pope and his bishops effacing the pictures of Christ which he had painted on the walls of his chapel. The sight caused him great distress; but the next day he was filled with joy as he beheld many artists busily engaged in replacing the figures in greater numbers and brighter colors. When their work was completed, the painters exclaimed to the immense crowd surrounding them, “Now let the popes and bishops come! They shall never efface them more!” Said the Reformer, as he related his dream, “I am certain that the image of Christ will never be effaced. They have wished to destroy it, but it shall be painted in all hearts by much better preachers than myself.” 4SP 91.2

Soon after the death of Huss, his faithful friend Jerome, a man of the same fervent piety and of greater learning, was also condemned, and he met his fate in the same manner. So perished God's faithful light-bearers. But the light of the truths which they proclaimed,—the light of their heroic example,—could not be extinguished. As well might men attempt to turn back the sun in its course, as to prevent the dawning of that day which was even then breaking upon the world. 4SP 92.1

Notwithstanding the rage of persecution, a calm, devout, earnest, patient protest against the prevailing corruption of religious faith continued to be uttered after the death of Wycliffe. Like the believers in apostolic days, many freely sacrificed their worldly possessions for the cause of Christ. Those who were permitted to dwell in their homes, gladly received their brethren who had been banished from home and kindred. When they too were driven forth, they accepted the lot of the outcast, and rejoiced that they were permitted to suffer for the truths sake. 4SP 92.2

Strenuous efforts were made to strengthen and extend the power of the papacy; but while the popes still claimed to be Christ's representatives, their lives were so corrupt as to disgust the people. By the aid of the invention of printing, the Scriptures were more widely circulated, and many were led to see that the papal doctrines were not sustained by the word of God. 4SP 93.1

When one witness was forced to let fall the torch of truth, another seized it from his hand, and with undaunted courage held it aloft. The struggle had opened that was to result in the emancipation, not only of individuals and churches, but of nations. Across the gulf of a hundred years, men stretched their hands to grasp the hands of the Lollards of the time of Wycliffe. Under Luther began the Reformation in Germany; Calvin preached the gospel in France, Zwingle in Switzerland. The world was awakened from the slumber of ages, as from land to land were sounded the magic words, “Religious Liberty.” 4SP 93.2