Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Before the Reformation

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Dissatisfaction with the Roman church did not begin with Luther and Calvin. There were several notable reformers who sought change prior to 1500. While they made a historical imprint, all ultimately failed.

Peter Waldo

Peter Waldo is believed to have been born sometime around 1140 and died around 1205. He is thought to have been a clothier and merchant from the region around Lyons, France. He had some events occur in his life before 1160 that caused him to undergo a spiritual awakening, after which he gave away his worldly goods and began to preach. His followers were called Vaudois or Waldensians.

What He Believed

Waldo held beliefs which varied significantly from orthodox Roman Catholicism in these areas:

  • The priesthood of all believers: denial of the role of priests as mediators between God and the laity;
  • Fitness of the laity to preach;
  • Voluntary poverty;
  • Denial of purgatory;
  • Denial of transubstantiation;
  • The Bible as the sole source of authority.

At this time, kings considered themselves to be anointed by God through the Pope. Most European kingdoms, including France, considered it their mission to enforce religious belief on Earth. Denial of transubstantiation could get you burned at the stake.

The Roman Catholic church taught — and still teaches — that the Bible is not the sole source of authority, but is supplemented by Divine Tradition that also contains the word of God [The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, 1969, p. 240]. Protestantism denies the authority of Divine Tradition.

What Happened To Him and His Followers

In 1179, Waldo was summoned to Rome to defend his preaching. The results of this meeting were inconclusive, but he was excommunicated in 1184. The Vaudois were pronounced heretical at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and the Roman church began to instigate their persecution. However, as the Vaudois had accepted a life of poverty anyway, they were not economically tied to the populated areas; many moved to remote Alpine regions of France and Switzerland where they could not be easily found. There their descendants formed a receptive audience for Calvinist reforms in the 1500s.

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe was born in the 1320s in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England. He was educated at Oxford and entered the clergy. As his ideas formed and his preaching expanded, he found a patron in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who was politically and economically powerful; he is considered among the twenty richest men in history.

Protected from persecution by John of Gaunt and other well-positioned supporters, Wycliffe published a series of tracts beginning in 1376. He organized translation of the Bible from Latin (the Vulgate) into English in 1382, and is generally believed to have translated at least the Gospels himself.

Followers of Wycliffe were called Lollards. This is originally an insult; a lollard was a person who had spiritual pretensions and no education. The followers of Wycliffe took the name as their own, in a manner that would be repeated by the Methodists 400 years later.

Wycliffe died of a stroke while officiating in December 1384.

What He Believed

Wycliffe and the Lollards held these beliefs that challenged the prevailing doctrines of the Roman church:

  • Scripture as the sole source of authority;
  • Rejection of worldly wealth and property by Church leaders;
  • Rejection of temporal authority by Church leaders;
  • The Church is a community of believers, not a hierarchy of priests and bishops;
  • God, having perfect foreknowledge, predestines some to salvation;
  • The Bible in the vernacular, accessible to all believers.
  • Denial of transubstantiation.

What Happened To Him and His Followers

Support for Lollardy weakened among the nobility after the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Although Wycliffe was against the Revolt, John Ball was a follower and Lollardy was tarred with a radical brush. Over the next three decades, support for Lollardy in the upper classes gradually ebbed away.

In 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic and ordered his remains should be exhumed and burned. In 1428 this was done, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift.

Nevertheless, Wycliffe’s proposed reforms meshed with other forces at work in England that resented the large wealth of the monasteries, plurality, simony and the authority of Rome. These initiatives never really went away and were the seedbed for the English Reformation one hundred years later.

Jan Hus

Jan Hus was born in Bohemia in 1369. By 1402 he was preaching in Prague and agitating for reformation of the Church. He was familiar with the works of John Wycliffe and helped translate them into Czech and circulate them through the region.

The closest Hus had to an aristocratic patron was King Wenceslaus IV (“the Idle”) of Bohemia. Wenceslaus was Holy Roman Emperor, but was deposed in 1400 by the electors. Wenceslaus also had troubles with the Bohemian nobility, a situation common to kings of his day. He had a reputation for sustaining court favorites. He may also have been an alcoholic.

The Archbishop of Prague, Zbyněk Zajíc, was initially tolerant of Hus. However, by 1409 the Western Schism was approaching resolution and Zajíc, possibly responding to political conditions as he saw them, began to take a harder line against Hus.

What He Believed

Hus and his followers held these beliefs that challenged the Roman church:

  • The priests should exemplify a higher morality and be less worldly than the laity;
  • The Bible should be in the vernacular and available to all believers;
  • Scripture as the sole source of authority;
  • Scripture as final authority contrary to the pronouncements of councils and popes;
  • Communion of two kinds for all believers;
  • Salvation by grace as a gift from God, rather than being deserved through good works done by the believer;
  • Condemnation of the sale of indulgences.

At this time, laypersons were only offered the bread at communion; only priests could receive the bread and wine.

What Happened To Him and His Followers

The Council of Constance was convened in 1414 to resolve the split between Rome and Avignon. This council also took up the Lollard and Hussite challenges. The then-current Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, had granted Hus a safe conduct to Constance to defend his views, but when bishops had Hus imprisoned, Sigismund allowed them to persuade him that his promises to Hus, as a heretic, were not binding.

Hus was tried in council for heresy in 1415. He was burned at the stake and his ashes flung into the Rhine. His works were condemned and ordered burned.

However, the martyrdom of Hus helped promote his message through Bohemia. Pope Martin V proclaimed a crusade against the followers of Hus. These crusades became the Hussite Wars. The forces arrayed by the Pope and the Emperor were unable to assert religious conformity against the Hussites. The Moravian Church traces its founding to the Hussites.


The reform movements demonstrated the depth of popular dissatisfaction with the corruption of the Roman Church and its emphasis on temporal power. Although none of the movements achieved its objectives in creating reform, and many followers paid for their beliefs with their lives, the hierarchy was unable to completely stamp out their followings.

Luther, Calvin and the other 16th century reformers built on the experience and doctrines of these earlier reform movements. They also enjoyed more favorable conditions. Luther had the benefit of:

  • The development of Renaissance humanism, which emphasized that life on earth has intrinsic value, rather than merely being a means to enter heaven;
  • The printing press, which both reduced the cost of a Bible by a factor of ten and made it possible to distribute Luther’s writings to a wider audience;
  • In his prince, the Elector Frederick III “the Wise” of Saxony, a more determined protector than Wycliffe or Hus ever had.

Like Hus, Luther was brought to Worms in 1521 under a safe conduct to defend himself to Charles V, who as Holy Roman Emperor was charged with enforcing papal decrees. When the Emperor declared Luther an outlaw who could be killed by anyone without legal consequence, Frederick organized a fake highway attack and had Luther removed to a castle in Eisenach that the Elector controlled.

It is important to understand that the Reformation did not just suddenly happen. It was the culmination of a desire for reform that had been around for centuries and was accelerated by politics, economics, technology and the right person in the right place at the right time.


Written by srojak

December 24, 2014 at 4:54 pm

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