Sunday, July 19, 2020

Robert Reilly’s New Book

Robert R. Reilly has written a book -- "America on Trial" -- that seeks to defend the American founding from the perspective of traditional Catholicism. Long story short, some notable traditional Catholics (Patrick Deneen et al.) have argued to the contrary.

I hope to have much more to say on this book in the future; I haven't gotten it yet but am well familiar with what it argues, having read many of Reilly's articles and other commentary about his book, for instance the symposium on Reilly's book at Catholic World Report. It's a great symposium that features analysis that is pro, con and in between.

Daniel J. Mahoney's article is my favorite and it's in the "in between" box. What I see as key from his article:
Still, the Founders bought into what the great southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy called a “mishmash anthropology.” No moral relativists, they nonetheless adopted the idiom of the “state of nature” which was intended by its great proponents to be a substitute account of human origins from the old one, so strikingly provided in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. Such an account is remarkably “conventionalist,” in that it takes its bearings from solitary or semi-solitary individuals in the state of nature who are in no way political animals by nature. And Locke, a most canny writer, presented arguments in his Second Treatise of Government for human beings being both the product of Divine workmanship and beings who own themselves. Human beings have duties in the state of nature (contra Hobbes) but only when these are not at odds with the overwhelming imperative of self-preservation. For Locke, God and nature are not particularly provident, 9/10, nay 999/1000, Locke says, of what human beings have is the product of human industriousness. In numerous and subtle ways, Locke undermines the multiple reasons why human beings ought to be grateful to a loving and Provident God and a beneficent natural order.
I don't like the term "mishmash" because it suggests incoherence. Rather, I prefer "synthesis." In good faith, America's founders, good Whigs they, attempted to "harmonize" (see Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).

We can discuss whether Locke's teachings were properly "Christianized"* with tips of the hat to the Anglican Thomist, Richard Hooker. Yes, Locke's ideas were presented, often from pulpits, in a manner that suggested compatibility with traditional Christianity and the natural law (Aristotle-Thomism-Hooker); but also often included the "state of nature/social contracts and rights" speak that is, as Leo Strauss put it, "wholly alien" to not only the Bible but also the traditional natural law.

Allan Bloom, one of Strauss' disciples, has an instructive quotation:
When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. ("The Closing of the American Mind," 41-2). 
Note that it was not Hobbes who was cited from the pulpits, but either Locke explicitly, or Locke's ideas on the state of nature/social contract and rights, without attribution. Bloom, like Strauss before him and Deenen and others, operate under the assumption that Locke was "Hobbesian." We need not operate under this assumption, but rather simply note Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all shared the common ground of the construct of the "state of nature/social contract and rights," and each had his own particular spin on that construct. It was, for lack of a better term, the "common parlance" among them. This construct was, however, first initiated by Hobbes.

*Meaning the traditional or orthodox practice of the faith.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Meyerson Deconstructs Washington's Presidential Oath Story

On June 30th Steven Green took his turn at the current round of discussions at the Cato Institute, and opined that a “religionist interpretation of the foundingfrom those like Mark Hall and his colleagues (namely Daniel Dreisbach) offer conclusions with which he disagrees.

I fully agree. By way of explanation, let’s start off where Michael Meyerson, in his book, Endowed by Our Creator, deconstructs Washington's Presidential "So help me God" oath story:

Given this evidence of [Washington’s inaugural address that fully illustrates his] religious conviction, it is curious that so much emphasis has been placed on the uncertain story of Washington’s oath. It is discomforting to hear Justice Scalia treat a story of uncertain validity as historical fact. In an attempt to prove religion has never been “strictly excluded from the public forum,” Scalia asserted: “George Washington added to the form of Presidential oath prescribed by Art. II, par 1, cl.7, of the Constitution, the concluding words, ‘so help me God.’” Such an assertion weakens the largely accurate point he is trying to prove; if the factual predicate of his argument is doubtful, the persuasiveness of his reasoning is weakened.

Part of the appeal of Washington’s oath story is that it permits advocates to quote Washington using the word “God.” In most of his public addresses as president, Washington, instead used expressions as “Providence,” “Heaven,” “Director of Human Events,” and the “Grand Architect.” Any argument based on Washington’s use of religious language becomes more persuasive to modern ears if  the more familiar word “God” can be attributed to him.

The oath story also permits partisans to link religious statements made by modern presidents with the utterance made by Washington. One commentator has written: “The hand of the past is palpable on every occasion of the taking of the presidential oath; every president has followed the lead of George Washington in adding the words, ‘so help me God’ after the formal, prescribed constitutional oath.” This statement is entirely without factual foundation; neither John Adams, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison uttered the phrase. The first eyewitness documentation of any president saying “so help me God" is Chester Arthur in 1881. The power of [religionist] history, however, would be considerably diminished if one were reduced to claiming the tradition dates to Chester Arthur.

Now, when it comes to Mark Hall & Daniel Dreisbach, Washington’s presidential oath story illustrates Meyerson’s point.

When Hall says “it is eminently reasonable to infer from the lack of records that he [Washington] added those words [SHMG].” I ask, who, but a religious enthusiast is listening to that claim?

Dreisbach, in concert with Hall, observes that “these additional words [SHMG] have become so engrafted into presidential tradition that one commentator has argued, somewhat fancifully, that “in a real sense, then we have a religious oath of office as a result of a constitutional amendment adopted through the precedent-setting action of the first chief executive.” (See James E. Pfander, 1999, pg 551; also Espinosa, 2009, pg 57.)

The difference between Pfander and Dreisbach is that Pfander, back in 1999, could unwittingly claim “'So help me God' has become a regular feature of the event ever since” [Washington’s first inauguration], and Pfander, therefore, had no qualms about introducing the notion that this supposed regular occurrence had, in effect, produced a “constitutional amendment.”

In contrast, Dreisbach (2017) is quite aware that “in recent years, commentators have questioned whether Washington, in fact, uttered the phrase So help me God, or whether the words are erroneously attributed to the first president long after the event,” [since] “ this part of the narrative lacks contemporaneous confirmation.” Nonetheless, Dreisbach, even if somewhat fancifully, has no problem giving bandwidth to a religiously framed "So  help me God" constitutional amendment.

Addendum: Mark Hall in the Conclusion section (page 152) of his myth busting book (hard bound edition), goes even further than Pfander’s understanding of SHMG having been a “regular feature” during the presidential oath, where he plugs the fanciful notion that “from an originalist perspective, the Establishment Clause provides no bar to exempting religious minorities from general laws, including “so help me God[my italics] in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mark David Hall has a new installment at this month's Cato Unbound. Check it out. A taste:

Mark David Hall has a new installment at this month's Cato Unbound. Check it out. A taste:
Professor Allen writes: “Dr. Hall points out that 50-75% of Americans during the founding era were Calvinists … [b]ut once again, ‘the founders’ and ‘the American people’ are not at all the same thing.” It is certainly true that not all founders were Calvinists, but many of them were, and they drew from a tradition of political reflection that encouraged them to actively resist tyrants. 
Let’s begin by considering just one Reformed founder, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman. Sherman was the only statesman to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the Constitution (1787). He served longer in the Continental and Confederation Congresses than all but four men, and he was regularly appointed to key committees, including those charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, Sherman often outmaneuvered Madison and, according to David Brian Robertson, the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman … may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.”[i] He was also a representative and senator in the new republic where he played a major role in drafting the Bill of Rights. And unlike many of the more “Enlightened” founders favored by Professor Allen, Sherman never owned a slave, and he co-authored a law that put slavery in Connecticut on the path to extinction.[ii]
American patriots drew from a rich and deep tradition of Calvinist thought concerning when tyrants may be justly resisted. ...

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Green: More Than an Academic Debate

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Steven Green's follow up entitled "More Than an Academic Debate" after his initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Green's latest:
I want to step back from this discussion to ask the more fundamental question of why this debate is so important to a segment of the U.S. population. A common response is that professional historians, many of whom have secularist leanings, have given Christianity, and its impact on our nation’s history, a short shrift, either marginalizing it or portraying it in negative terms. As a result, there is a desire to “set the record straight”—as if there is an identifiably “correct” interpretation of history that should then be embedded in perpetuity. That said, Professor Hall and his cohort of like-minded scholars have contributed to the discipline by expanding our understanding of our past and by challenging oversimplified assumptions about the nation’s founders. I chiefly disagree with the conclusions he draws.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A New Book-oath on ‘A People’s History’ Has Come to Town

Thanks to a January 6, 2020, The American Spectator article, The Zinn Education Project: Teaching Trump-Hate and Other Dogma - A decade after his death Howard Zinn lives on, propagandizing America’s youth, by Mary Grabar, I’ve learned that two recently elected officials at the very local level have had the audacity to replace the customary Bible with Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of theUnited States.

Here’s the scoop:

Zinn’s book has attained the status of a holy book. In April [9, 2019] JoBeth Hamon used it in place of the customary Bible in her swearing-in to the Oklahoma City Council. 

In Fairfax County, Virginia, a wealthy D.C. suburb and one of the largest school districts in the nation, “Rachna Sizemore Heizer … swore the oath of office while holding a copy of . . . Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States,” according to a December 20 [2019 Fairfax County Times] article celebrating the new “historically diverse” school board, part of the transformation of this community and 32 others toward racial “equitythrough groups funded by Soros, and others.

Not surprisingly, Fairfax County students will soon have one day off for protesting. The Zinn Education Project will provide plenty of resources, from abolishing Columbus Day to protesting climate change.

Mary Grabar made a special effort to scold JoBeth Hamon in the 9/17/20119 Epoch Times article, Bible Replaced by Marxist Book in Taking Oath of Office. Here’s a snippet from the beginning of her commentary:

When Oklahoma City Council member Jobeth Hamon was sworn in early this year [April 9,2019 to take her seat], she chose to use a copy of Howard Zinn’s “A People’ History of the United States,”

While there’s no law or  policy that requires the use of a Bible for swearing-in ceremonies, Hamon upset traditions going back to ninth-century England.

Mary Grabar is right about mandatory Bible (loyalty test) oaths having a long tradition going back to ninth-century England, but she should take into consideration what Tucker Lieberman explained in his 1/11/2017 blog post, The long and misguided history of swearing in on Bibles:

When England was a Catholic country, swearing oaths on physical copies of the Bible held a prominent place in the culture. A religious movement whose adherents were known as Lollards opposed this practice in the early 15th century, as did Quakers in the 17th century. Lollards were willing to swear verbally by God, but were burned at the stake for being unwilling to swear on the Bible. Quakers would not swear at all, which meant that they couldn't take oaths of allegiance and couldn't testify in court. [Melissa] Mohr writes, "A good technique for getting rid of a Quaker you didn't like was to accuse him of doing something illegal. Whether or not he was guilty, when he refused to take an oath his property would be confiscated and he would be thrown in jail for contempt of court."

Aware of this religious history in England, the American founding fathers aimed for a more secular start to the nation in the 18th century. The U.S. Constitution prescribes this presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This secular statement avoids the difficulties that presented themselves in England. Article VI of the Constitution additionally clarifies: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

So despite Mary Grabar's lamentations, and by virtue of the Constitution, there's apparently no guarantee that the long established tradition built on the Bible will be sufficient to discourage further encounters with a Marxist book, "A People's History of the United States."

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Brooke Allen: "The Founders Read the Bible. But They Also Read David Hume"

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Brooke Allen's response after Mark David Hall's initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Allen:
Steven Green writes with great common sense and a refreshing absence of ideology. He makes a very important point: that the founders, like the rest of the American public, were “religiously literate,” steeped in biblical lore and language. The Bible and the stories in it were the common possession of pretty much the entire American public to a degree that is hardly comprehensible today. Biblical analogy was the most obvious method for eighteenth-century politicians to communicate with the people, and as Dr. Green points out, they all did it, even those who had private doubts: thus, George Washington’s fondness for Micah’s image of the vine and the fig tree tells us nothing about Washington’s personal beliefs but a great deal about his ability to communicate in a manner that would move his audience. In today’s culture such a rhetorical reliance on scripture would be impossible, not only because secularists would take exception but because large swathes of the public, including (especially?) highly educated people, have little to no knowledge of the Bible. A modern politician is far more likely to draw analogies from football or baseball, or from some very familiar cultural product like Star Wars or Harry Potter, than from scripture. Insofar as we have a common culture anymore, sports and entertainment are the things that constitute it. 
Dr. Green is also right, I think, when he states that the fact that “religion influenced the founders’ thinking, or that they used common religious terms in their writings, indicates little about their personal devotion or the degree to which they intended to incorporate Christian principles into the organs of government they helped create,” and that “Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas” were also highly significant to the founders and their theories of government. And he does well to remind us that it is very, very difficult to “fit” individual founders into any modern religious category, and probably pointless to try.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Steven Green: "The Religious Beliefs of the Founders Don’t Always Fit in Present-Day Categories"

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Steven Green's response after Mark David Hall's initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Green:
I agree with most of Professor Kidd’s observations. As I suggested in my essay, we should resist forcing twenty-first century categorizations about belief onto those leaders of the founding generation who were, by all accounts, complex individuals. The presence of Christianity (Protestantism) in the founding culture was ubiquitous, so commentators should resist attempts to segregate its religious aspects from its secular ones. All of the founders were religiously literate—something that stands in stark contrast to many political leaders today—and were comfortable discussing religious ideas. But they were also synthesizers of Enlightenment rationalism and Whig political theories. Professor Kidd and I agree that “deism” was a broad and ill-defined perspective, at least its American variant. That’s why I prefer—like Professor Kidd—to consider figures like Washington and Jefferson theistic rationalists. But they were not conventional Christians.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Mark Hall Singles Out Michael Meyerson as a Separationist

Earlier this year Jon Rowe told American Creation readers that Mark Hall has written a new book,  "Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth." After some delay, I have started reading Mark’s book that attempts to separate “modern myth from historical truth.”

When reading page 111, I found this line, “ Separationaists often think it significant that there is no contemporary account of Washington saying ‘So help me God’ when he took the oath of office. <71>  
By flipping to page 199 I learned that Mark has singled out Michael Meyerson as a separationist:  <71> See, for instance, Michael I. Meyerson, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Liberty in America . . . , 181-82.

I went ahead and tried to find out why Mark Hall has thought it necessary to single out Meyerson as a “separationist.” When I read the designated pages the only answer I could come up with is that Meyerson is similarly trying to separate modern myth from historical truth, much like Peter Henriques has done in his 1/11/2009 HNN article, So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded.

I don’t know why Meyerson is being identified as a separationist by Mark Hall, but the following snippet taken from a 4/14/2014 Baptist Standard article, Revisionists get church & state wrong, law professor (Michael Meyerson) says, by Ken Camp & Daniel Wallace, should shed some light on the issue:

Equilibrium to avoid partisanship

The founders sought to strike equilibrium on the issue and compromised to produce a solution that avoided partisanship.
“They understood the complexity of this issue better than we do,” Meyerson said. “They understood the solution had to be nuanced and had to be complicated—not beyond understanding, but not a simple ‘never or always.’ And that’s what they worked on—that compromise.”
Founders of the nation agreed on a respectful vision that religion is scarred with unbelievable evil, yet also graced with equally unbelievable good, he noted. Their goal was to formulate a standard on the issue of church and state relations that united the nation, rather than creating a mandate that brought division.
“They wanted to separate church and state but not necessarily God and state,” he said. “They were most afraid of sectarianism, but they never intended to eliminate all discussion of God and religion from the public sphere.”

Sunday, June 28, 2020

John Wycliffe: Founding Father of Resistance Theory

To study Western culture and history is to witness the evolution of the concept of liberty as it shifted from the hands of a few elite into the public domain.  Of all the contributing influences that helped to steer the idea of liberty from the few to the many, Christianity is, without question, the predominant fuel that sustained the fires of change over the centuries.  This progression was not without its difficulties, since Christianity was also wielded as a weapon of mass distraction by the nobility ranks of Medieval Europe who meant to twist the message of Christ to bend the knee of all subjects to their will.  One predominant example of this subjugation was the way in which Paul’s admonition to the Romans was afforded significant (or even histrionic) significance in what the Medieval world would call the Divine Right of Kings.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation...For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.[1]

One would be hard pressed to find a set of verses in all Christian scripture that have caused more anxiety and debate than these few words from Paul.  For centuries they came to dominate much of the public discourse on the question of how a “good Christian” should submit to authority, and when “righteous rebellion” to God’s chosen leaders was warranted.  In modern times, historians have attempted to explain when and how the earliest advocates for what is sometimes called “resistance theory” (the justification needed to oppose God’s chosen leaders on earth) burst onto the scene.  Some scholars have posited that Protestant reformers of the 16th century deserve credit for the creation of resistance theory.[2]  And while it is true that the generation of the Reformation merits recognition for their contributions to the development of resistance theory, the seeds of opposition, which quickly grew in the rich soil of earlier centuries, is where the birth of opposition to authority, and the beginnings of popular liberty, had their inception.  Arguably the most vocal, persuasive, and intelligent voice of this opposition was that of John Wycliffe, a 14th century theologian and Oxford professor, whose teachings became well known throughout much of Europe.  As a spokesman of opposition, Wycliffe served to be more than a mere foreshadowing of later Protestant expressions of resistance to authority, but instead became the founding father of resistance theory itself, creating the very road map by which subsequent generations would also construct their justification for dissent to God’s supposed leaders on earth.   
To better appreciate the magnitude of Wycliffe’s contributions to resistance theory one must first understand the tremendous authority enjoyed by kings and popes of the Medieval world.  Divine Right Kingship was not some passing fad that simply faded with time but rather was the bedrock for organizing the whole of society.  As one historian of Divine Right Kingship put it:

That the ideal State is the kingdom of God upon earth, and that no other can be an object of veneration to a Christian, is the notion that lies at the heart of Medieval Europe…the Pope, as most plainly the depositary of Divine Authority, afterwards the Emperor, as called to his office by God’s election and appointment, claims to be the true and supreme head of the Christian commonwealth, by Divine Right of the Lord of the world.[3]    

God’s division of responsibility between Pope and King meant that matters both spiritual and temporal had been given their divine sanction.  For the common Christian, this meant that both religious and governmental superiors exercised substantial influence on a laity now made fully dependent upon their will and pleasure.[4]
It does not come as a surprise to discover that this system of government was not without its flaws.  On an almost regular basis, kings attempted to subvert the authority of popes, while popes “were driven to minimize the prerogatives of the Emperor and to recognize in his less instead of more authority.”[5]  These blemishes did not go unnoticed by those with eyes to see.  Giles of Rome, an influential 13th century friar and philosopher, took note of the natural conflict that arose between popes and kings in the many inevitable battles for supremacy that were common in the Middle Ages when he wrote, “For we can clearly show from the order of the universe that the Church is placed above the nations and kingdoms.”  Giles then references the ever-present Romans 13 to demonstrate the church’s superiority to kings: “it is clear from what the Apostle says at Romans 13, who, when he had first said there is no power except of God, immediately afterwards added, ‘and the powers that be are ordained of God.’”[6]  Another 13th century theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham (famous for his methodological principle known as Occam’s Razor), suggested that it was the right and the duty of both popes and parishioners to know where their authority (or submission to authority) ended:

Subjects also should know what and how much power the pope has over them, because, as Gregory says, “subjects should be urged not to be more subject than is useful.”  But they cannot be on guard against excessive subjection unless they know what and how much power their superior has over them.  Further, to neglect the right of the community counts as a vice: for if to neglect a common possession is a natural vise, then it is certain that to neglect common rights is a vice, since a natural vice must be regarded as a vice.  But what is not known is neglected.  The pope’s subjects must therefore know the common rights of subjects.  But they cannot know this unless they know how much power the pope has, and how much he does not have, over them.[7]  

What these, and many other, references clearly demonstrate is that an active, vocal voice of opposition was expressing legitimate concerns on matters of authority.  These early seeds of resistance theory found fertile ground, but still needed the watering and nourishing that was soon to come. 
                The world into which John Wycliffe emerged is often misunderstood and underappreciated by scholars.  As Wycliffe Biographer Stephen Lahey put it, “What looked like a degenerate, inbred version of high medieval theology to scholars as recently as the mid-twentieth century now seems a century rich in innovation, particularly the theological arguments that raged before the Reformation.”[8]  Wycliffe is of particular significance because he took the already existing concerns regarding authority of his day, and turned them into a movement bent on opposition to that authority (the birth of resistance theory).  Wycliffe’s studies of the Christian scriptures, along with his assessment of the church in his day, convinced him that the “powerful and wealthy Church over which the bishops and Pope presided” was a flawed institution, undeserving of allegiance but rather a mere “institution that should be tested rigorously against the record of God’s purposes in the scriptures.”[9]
Wycliffe’s attack on the Church was not merely a critique of its institutions or practices but was a direct assault at the authority figures who dominated its ranks.  In Wycliffe’s mind, these bishops, priests, monks and even popes performed all their works “merely for outward show; and because of the hidden malice within their hearts, they not only hurt themselves to a considerable extent, bit also other people.”[10]  Wycliffe pulled no punches, labeling church leaders as “heretics” who “sacrifice into idols…even more than the sacrifices of the priests of Baal” whose form of worship “give their attention to ritual, flattery, detraction and falsehood, rejecting scripture and neglecting to rebuke sin.”[11]
Wycliffe’s critique of authority was not reserved exclusively for the church.  In his letter to King Richard, II, Wycliffe asserted the rights of all Christians to follow the dictates of their conscience on matters of religion, even if it meant leaving the Church “without hinderance or bodily pain” because “The rule of Christ…is most perfect, to be kept for state of living in this world; and each rule, of what kin, private sect, or singular religion, made of sinful men, is less perfect, than the rule of Christ, of his endless wisdom, and his endless charity, to mankind; therefore, it is lawful to each man or person of this singular religion and profession, to leave it cleave fast to the rule of Jesus Christ, as more perfect.”[12]  It is worthy to note that instead of supporting the Apostle Paul’s command to “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” Wycliffe suggests that it is a Christian’s first duty to shake off “sinful” and “less perfect” men and institutions in favor of allegiance to Jesus Christ’s “more perfect” way.  Or as Wycliffe himself put it:

Also friars say, that if a man be once professed to their religion, he may never leave it, and be saved; though he be never so unable thereto, for all the time of his life; and they will need him to live in such a state ever more, to which God makes him ever unable; and so need him to be damned. Alas! out on such heresy, that man’s ordinance is holden to be stronger than is the ordinance of God. For if a man enter into the new religion against man’s ordinance, he may lawfully forsake it; but if he enter against God’s ordinance, when God makes him unable thereto, he shall not be suffered by Antichrist’s power to leave it.[13] 

In Wycliffe’s mind, a Christian’s first devotion was to his own conscience, linked to God, therein creating a new soul, saved by God’s grace and fully capable of making his own way in life, free from the weapons of mass distraction that were the church, its practices and its priests. 
Wycliffe’s message resonated deeply and spread quickly.  His followers, known as Lollards, became every bit as convinced as Wycliffe himself, effectively becoming missionaries for the new gospel of liberation.  The message became increasingly popular and eventually “brought a new and dangerous edges to this sort of charismatic religious culture” that was sweeping across England.[14]  The message carried by Lollards presented a clear opposition to the authority of the Church, which quickly sought to suppress the heresy.  The result was the trial and execution of Lollard sympathizers who left valuable accounts of their fierce opposition to the church and its leadership.[15] 
Contrary to what many notable historians have suggested, the Lollard movement and message did not die off with the death of Wycliffe or the many executions for heresy.  Dr. Fiona Somerset’s excellent work on the matter of Lollard influence post-Wycliffe demonstrates that the movement continued far into the decades leading up to the Protestant Reformation.  She writes:

The corpus of extant manuscripts produced somewhere between roughly 1375 and 1530 and containing materials translated, composed, or adapted by Lollard writers is very large.  After an initial phase of rapid and apparently highly coordinated production, Lollard writings continued to be copied, recopied, adapted, and further developed in a wide range of manuscript contexts, and for a variety of readers, across the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries…No religious movement persecuted as a heresy anywhere else in the history of Christianity has left behind a textual recording of anything like this in order of magnitude.[16] 

In addition, the fact that England already seemed to embrace a spirit of reform before the Reformation indicates that the fires of popular dissent were already spreading before Luther or Calvin ever came on the scene.  As one historian has noted, “The ingredients of early Protestantism proved already numerous in the reign of Henry VIII, yet among them Lutheranism may scarcely be regarded as predominant and Calvinism as yet remained almost negligible…we may now confidently ascribe a role of some importance on the popular level to the still vital force of Lollardy.”[17] 
The life and works of John Wycliffe are too often limited by modern historians.  He may receive praise for his work in translating the Bible into Middle English or given kudos for being a foreshadowing of Luther and other Reformers, but rarely is he given credit for his greatest accomplishment: father of resistance theory.  Wycliffe and his fellow Lollards were not some opening act for the later Protestant Reformer’s main stage show, nor did they simply plant seeds that Calvin and others would later grow and harvest.  Wycliffe and the Lollards literally built the foundations, walls, and roof of the resistance theory house.  Calvin and his followers certainly deserve recognition for adding drapes and interior decorating, but they did not construct the house that so many wish to deed to the Reformers.  Through his bold and vocal opposition to the authority figures of his day, John Wycliffe provided the very first template for resistance theory, which gave succeeding generations all the guidance needed to help place the idea of liberty into the hands of the people instead of the hands of the elite. 


[1] Romans 13:1-2.  The Holy Bible: The King James Version (World Wide Bible Assoc.: 2019).

[2] Mark David Hall and Sarah Morgan Smith.  “Whose Rebellion?: Reformed Resistance Theory in   America” (Parts I and II). Faculty Publications - Department of History, Politics, and International Studies. 85.  Hall and Smith argue that the Reformed Calvinist tradition is where the nucleus of resistance theory is to be found, and that the teachings of Calvinism granted Christianity with all the authority they would need to justify opposition to their rulers.  Hall and Smith take this argument all the way to the American Revolution, suggesting that some of America’s earliest founders were both influenced by Calvinist teachings and found in the Reformed tradition all the needed ammunition to oppose King George, III.

[3] J.N. Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (Cambridge, 1914).  Pp. 40.

[4] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale University Press, 2005).  Pp. 53-55.

[5] J.N. Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, 44.

[6] Giles of Rome, On Ecclesiastical Power: A Medieval Theory of World Government.  Trans. By R.W. Dyson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).  Pp.19. 

[7] William of Ockham, A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government.  Ed. Arthur Stephen McGrade, trans. John Kilcullen (Cambridge University Press, 1992).  Pp. 9.

[8] Stephen E. Lahey, John Wycliffe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 42.

[9] Diarmaid MacCullough, The Reformation (New York: Penguin Books, 2005). Pp. 35.

[10] John Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises of John de Wycliffe, Book III.  Trans. Rev. Robert Vaughan (London: Blackburn and Pardon Hatton Garden, 1845).  Online Library of Liberty.  Pp. 202.

[11] Ibid, 202-203.

[12] Ibid, 259-260.

[13] Ibid, 222.

[14] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 376.

[15] John A. Arnold, “Voicing Dissent: Heresy Trials in Later Medieval England.”  Past & Present, Volume 245, Issue 1, November 2019, Pages 3–37,  Arnold’s work “examines the evidence from the entire range of surviving Lollard trials, and argues that we can see consciously ‘dissenting’ speech alongside the standard theological positions associated with (and perhaps imposed upon) Lollardy.”

[16] Fiona Somerset, Feeling Like Saints: Lollard Writings After Wyclif (Cornell University Press, 2014).  Pp. 2.

[17] Dickens, A.G., ed. Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1982).  Pp. 8.