Early Christian Reformists: What Did the Lollards Believe?

History Hit

2 mins

02 Aug 2018

The exact beliefs of the Lollards can be hard to pin down as they had no real doctrine or central organisation. They tended to model their theology on that of John Wycliffe, but in practice the movement was sufficiently large and loosely connected that it encompassed a range of opinions.

Scripture

Wycliffe_John_Gospel

A page from the gospel of John in Wycliffe’s Bible.

At the core of Lollard ideology lay the belief that Christianity could be improved by a closer connection to scripture. They aimed to achieve this by translating the bible into vernacular English.

This was a personal project of their leader John Wycliffe. Between 1382 and 1395 he and some of his close supporters produced a vernacular English Bible which became popular among Lollards, despite efforts to suppress it by Henry IV.

The point of the vernacular bible was to break the Church’s monopoly on religious knowledge, which the Lollards regarded as one of a number of injustices perpetuated by the Roman Church.

Religious practice

The 12 Conclusions of the Lollards was arguably the closest thing they had to a manifesto. Produced for a petition to parliament in 1395, the conclusions outlined what their authors considered to be key tenets of Lollardy. This included a number of matters of liturgy and religious practice.

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The ambiguity of the Eucharist’s nature was brought up in the fourth conclusion, and the ninth conclusion protested the veneration of images and material things in the Church – which amounted to idolatry in the view of the Lollards.

Like later Protestant movements, the Lollards denied the Church’s claims to be able to invest priests with special status as intermediaries between the laity and the divine. They believed instead in a lay priesthood in which all of the faithful were on an equal footing in the eyes of God.

Church corruption

Satan distributing indulgences, an illumination from a Czech manuscript, 1490s; Jan Hus (the main leader of the Bohemian Reformation) had condemned the selling of indulgences in 1412.

The reforming zeal of the Lollards was particularly focused on what they saw as endemic church corruption. The Church had an extensive reach in the Middle ages and Lollards were concerned about its temporal influence.

The sixth of their twelve conclusions reflected this concern and stipulated that the Church would not involve itself in secular matters:

The sixth conclusion asserts that it is inappropriate for men who hold high office in the Church to simultaneously hold positions of great temporal power.

Their other great objection to the Church’s corruption was that the great wealth it had acquired was both unjustly acquired (for example, through indulgences) and irresponsibly spent.

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Complementing their belief that plainer churches were more conducive to prayer, the Lollards believed that rich ornamentation was a wasteful kind of spending – it distracted from more pious causes like charitable donations.