We often look back fondly on our Pilgrim fathers as the starting point of America’s founding and the pioneers of religious freedom. After all, they were the first brave souls to deliberately settle here with the intent to start life over away from religious persecution. But the story didn’t start with William Bradford and his small group of believers. They owed their plight to the early Protestant reformers. The United States of America began with the Protestant Reformation.
For Englishmen, it began nearly 300 years before, with John Wycliffe, fondly remembered as the Morningstar of the Reformation. Wycliffe was born in to a world where the Church in Rome ruled. In 1302, the Church had released Unam sanctam, which declared,”outside of the Church, there is no salvation,” and “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
In the 1380s Wycliffe, an English professor at Oxford, translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. He did this because he felt that the Bible held authority over the Church, not vice versa.
“Christ and His Apostles taught the people in the language best known to them. It is certain that the truth of the Christian faith becomes more evident the more faith itself is known. Therefore, the doctrine should not only be in Latin but in the vulgar tongue and, as the faith of the church is contained in the Scriptures, the more these are known in a true sense the better. The laity ought to understand the faith and, as doctrines of our faith are in the Scriptures, believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand.” -John Wycliff
As might be expected, the Church was not pleased.
“And so the pearl of the Gospel is thrown before swine and trodden underfoot and what is meant to be the treasure both of clergy and laity is now become a joke of both.” -Henry Knighton, contemporary chronicler of English history.
Pope Gregory issued 5 edicts against Wycliffe. His response: “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue, so did Christ’s apostles.”
Wycliffe had almost completed his English translation of the Bible before he died of a stroke at the age of 54. His friends completed the work and helped to spread the English scriptures, despite being forced into hiding. But Wycliffe’s English Bible did spread, and set the stage for future reformers. But he was not treated kindly in memory. Forty years after his death, his body was dug up, burned, and the ashes thrown in the River Swift. He was retroactively excommunicated from the Church.
The Next English Reformer
William Tyndale was born in 1494, and became a well-educated man, being fluent in six languages (including Latin, Hebrew, and Greek). His reading of justification by faith in the Greek New Testament spurred his conviction that all of his fellow Englishmen should be able to read the Scriptures for themselves.
“I perceived how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.” – William Tyndale
In 1523, he requested permission from the Bishop of London to translate the Bible into English, but was denied. He soon found that his idea would be welcome nowhere in England, so he removed himself to safer places in Europe where the English church authorities – as well as the Pope’s long arm – could not reach him. Ironically, he settled in Wittenberg to begin his work; the very same city where Martin Luther had defied the Pope with his 95 theses just a few years earlier.
In 1525 Tyndale’s first New Testament, translated from Greek into English, was published. With Gutenberg’s recent invention of moveable type, it didn’t take long for copies of this translation to make its way to England, infuriating King Henry VIII. Tyndale was accused of writing his own translation of the Scriptures. He responded, “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honor, pleasure, or riches, might be given me.”
Tyndale wrote openly of the differences between the Catholic Church’s practices and what the New Testament taught, in addition to declaring that the Bible was the authority for all men to follow, and not the Church. “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.”
Tyndale was betrayed into the hands of the authorities and tried as a heretic. At the age of 42, he was strangled to death, and then burned. His last words: “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”
His prayer was answered. King Henry VIII continued to read Tyndale’s writings, and these, coupled with his own personal desire for a divorce, compelled him to split from the Church in Rome. By 1535, the King commissioned an official English translation of the Bible.
The Rise of Puritanism
In the century after the Protestant Reformation, small bands of English citizens began to question whether the Reformation had gone far enough. Many believed that the Church of England, conveniently founded by Henry VIII during the Reformation period, was rife with corruption and unbiblical practices. These Englishmen, nicknamed “Puritans”, desired a return to the simple, straightforward practices of the New Testament church. They hoped to work within the Church of England to bring about this change.
There was a smaller, more radical subset of Puritans who believed the only real pathway to free worship was through separation from the Church (“Separatists”). The Church authorities were more suspect of this group for their open rebellion.
When King James I took the throne, the Separatists became outlaws. They were arrested and imprisoned, and had their possessions confiscated. They began to meet for worship in secret. When the persecution became too great, they began leaving in groups for Holland. We now know these people as “the pilgrims.”
After 12 years in Holland, they decided that a new land would be more suitable to their purpose and braved the journey across the ocean to the American wilderness.
In his book, Of Plimouth Plantation, Pilgrim Governor William Bradford wrote:
“The one party of reformers endeavored to establish the right worship of God and the discipline of Christ in the Church according to the simplicity of the gospel and without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to be ruled by the laws of God’s word dispensed by such officers as pastors, teachers, elders, etc., according to the Scriptures. The other party, the episcopal, under many pretenses, endeavored to maintain the episcopal dignity after the popish manner with all its courts, canons, and ceremonies; its livings, revenues, subordinate officers, and other means of upholding their anti-Christian greatness, and of enabling them with lordly and tyrannous power to persecute the poor servants of God. The flight was so bitter that neither the honor of God, the persecution to which both parties were subjected, nor the mediation of Mr. Calvin and other worthies, could prevail with the episcopal party. They proceeded by all means to disturb the peace of this poor persecuted church of dissenters, even so fa as to accuse (very unjustly and ungodly, yet prelate-like) some of its chief members with rebellion and high treason against the Emperor, and other such crimes.”
Though they made a compact to honor the King in England, they practiced a completely independent kind of worship in the New World, and set the stage for freedom of religion in America. 150 years later, the First Congress would make religious freedom the very first right in the Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
Their ancestors in the colonies and in England knew all too well what it was for the Church and the Government to be two wings of the same tyrannical bird; they were determined to have none of it in America.
I love reading history from the standpoint of the 21st century. It’s amazing to look back over the centuries and see the domino effect that just one man or one event can have across the world.
Thanks to the zeal of the Protestant Reformers, the Gospel of Jesus has been translated into over 650 languages. And in countries with no written language, missionaries over the past centuries have been called to create written languages for primitive cultures for the sole purpose of giving them the Scriptures.
The Reformers passed their convictions and their zeal down through the generations, to other Reformers, Puritans, Separatists, American colonists, and founding fathers. Today, we still have the freedom of religion, and freedom from a “state religion” that requires only one approved form of worship. We are free to have a personal relationship with Christ. As Americans, we owe this freedom to the pioneers of the Protestant Reformation and the many martyrs who gave their lives for it. Without that spark of conviction in Wycliffe, Tyndale, (and Luther, Calvin, and others), who knows how different the world would look today?
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Nicki Truesdell is a 2nd-generation homeschooler and mother to 5. She is a homemaker at heart, and loves books, freedom, history and quilts, and blogs about all of these at nickitruesdell.com. She believes that homeschooling can be relaxed and that history is fun, and both can be done with minimal cost or stress, no matter your family’s circumstances. Nicki is a member of the Texas Home Educators Board of Directors. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
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