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England—December 31, 1384
John Wycliffe was one of Oxford University’s last great medieval scholars, and because of the clarity and the popularity of his writings, he has been called “the father of English prose,” doing much to shape our language today. In addition to being a priest and theologian, he was an English statesman, once representing King Edward III on the continent in negotiations with the legate of the pope. But he is also called the “morning star of the Reformation” because nearly two hundred years before the Reformation he challenged papal authority and criticized the sale of indulgences and published a series of strong attacks on corruption in the church, where the clergy were often immoral and illiterate and high offices were often bought or given out as political rewards. He also questioned the biblical basis for the doctrines of purgatory and transubstantiation (the belief that after consecration, the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ during Communion).
In spite of the fact that Wycliffe declared himself a loyal Catholic, willing to submit his opinions to the judgment of the church, this was the time of the Great Schism (1378–1417) with two, and ultimately three, claimants to the papacy. Authority was uncertain, to say the least, and Wycliffe’s positions were too threatening. Finally, church authorities banished him from Oxford University.
But his release from his teaching responsibilities at Oxford enabled Wycliffe to undertake his most lasting contribution, translating (along with some associates) the Bible into English by 1382. He then organized the religious order of the Lollards, itinerant laypreachers, who traveled throughout the countryside reading the Scriptures in English and preaching to the common people—for most, it was their first hearing of the Scriptures.
For Wycliffe, getting the direct message of God’s Word into the language and hearts of the people held highest priority. He knew “God’s words [would] give men new life.” And it did. People thrilled at being able to hear the Scriptures in their own tongue and loved Wycliffe for it. Probably they also appreciated how he had challenged church corruption at a time when the common people often felt that the church had accumulated too much wealth.
Wycliffe’s popularity with the people, however, was not enough to restore ecclesiastical goodwill. In 1382, the church banned all of his writing, but his enemies did not physically harm him. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1384, Wycliffe suffered a fatal stroke.
Seed of the Church
Wycliffe’s influence was sufficient that forty-four years after his death his enemies succeeded in having him declared a heretic. His body was dug up from consecrated ground and burned, and its ashes were thrown into the Swift River . . . but not before John Hus, in Bohemia, had read Wycliffe’s work and was moved to raise some of the same questions and go to the Scriptures for the answers (see John Hus). In turn, John Hus’s writings profoundly influenced Martin Luther, known as the father of the German Reformation.
In 1942 a Cakchiquel Indian challenged missionary Cameron Townsend with this question: “If your God is so great, why doesn’t He speak in my language?” Townsend recalled how important it had been for John Wycliffe to translate God’s Word into English over five centuries earlier, and he the founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, which has since translated the Bible into four hundred languages.
In His Own Words
“God’s words will give men new life more than the other words that are for pleasure. O marvelous power of the Divine Seed, which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into divine men, those men who had been brutalized by sins, and departed infinitely from God.”
It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it (Isaiah 55:11).
Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth
China—July 8, 1900
Born on a Canadian farm in February 10, 1859, Jonathan Goforth wore shabby clothes and didn’t understand city ways when he arrived at Knox College in Toronto, Canada. But there he met and married Rosalind Bell Smith, an attractive and well-educated woman who had been raised in London, in a wealthy English family.
In 1888, the Goforths sailed for China where Jonathan found the Chinese language particularly difficult to learn as they attempted to adjust to a new culture. Over the years, they had eleven children only to suffer the sorrow of seeing five of them die very young.
A powerful evangelist, Jonathan became known as the “flaming preacher,” sometimes speaking to as many as twenty-five thousand at a time. But the Goforths also used what they called “open-house” evangelism, inviting the curious Chinese people into their home to view their Western ways and kitchen stove, sewing machine, and organ. But before they would take a group of fifty people through the house, Rosalind would preach to the woman, and Jonathan would preach to the men. In this way, they made many converts.
The Fist of Righteous Harmony
By 1900 an organized uprising known to the West as the Boxer Rebellion and in China as the “Fist of Righteous Harmony” had spread throughout China. Its purpose was to drive all foreigners from the country. Even the Chinese empress encouraged it because Japanese and Western outsiders seemed to be taking over the country.
In June of that year, the Goforths had no sooner buried their fourth child, seven-year-old Florence, when they received a message from the American Consul in Chefoo saying, “Flee south. Northern route cut off by Boxers.” The terrors and horrors of the infamous Boxer Rebellion were descending. The missionaries were in favor of staying at their post regardless of the consequences, but the Chinese Christians made it clear that their own chances of survival would be greatly reduced if the missionaries remained.
So the Goforths and other missionary families set out in ten heavily laden carts on the thousand-mile journey across China to safety. For a time they hooked up with a group of European engineers also fleeing the country, but when the missionaries couldn’t travel fast enough, the engineers left them in the walled town of Hsintien. A mob gathered outside the door of their inn and battered it with stones, threatening to break in. Threats of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” continued all night. In the morning (July 8), the crowd was even larger. Jonathan had to sign a contract promising to pay for any injuries or damage to the carts or mules before the drivers would travel.
Outside the city, the crowd of thousands parted for their advance until they were in its middle. Then, led by the Boxers, they attacked the missionary caravan. Jonathan jumped out yelling, “Take everything, but don’t kill! Take everything, but don’t kill! Take everything, but—” He didn’t get the last words out of his mouth before someone hit him on the head with a stick. A huge Boxer waded through the brawl swinging his two-handed sword from side to side. He didn’t seem to have any particular target until the broad edge of his sword struck Jonathan on the side of his neck. Had it been the sharp edge, it would have cut off his head. Instead, it knocked the missionary to the ground. The next swing caught the brim of Jonathan’s pith helmet, slicing right through it but not touching his head. Jonathan staggered to his feet and tried to lunge out of range, but the sword caught him on the back of the head, knocking him to the ground in a great cloud of dust.
As the attackers turned attention to raiding the wagons, the missionaries worked their way through the crowd—with Jonathan being the last one to crawl out of the melee—and made their way to a near-by Muslim village that finally took them in because, as the villagers reluctantly conceded, “Our God is your God.”
Seed of the Church
When the Goforths returned to China about a year later, they changed their approach to a traveling evangelistic ministry that produced more than thirteen thousand converts by 1913. They remained in China until 1934 when poor health forced them to return to Canada. In addition to their many converts, they trained sixty-one full-time Chinese evangelists and Bible teachers and established thirty mission stations.
The Lord is my strength and my shield (Psalm 28:7, NIV; recited by Jonathan to encourage his family the night before the attack).
Chicago—July 3, 1999
On the day Ricky Byrdsong was shot, he was in a spiritual zone of total dedication to God and willingness to die as a martyr if it came to that . . . and it did! July 4 weekend 1999, Benjamin Smith went on a three-day rampage across two states, shot at twenty-six people, hit twelve, and killed two before fatally turning his guns on himself.
Ricky Byrdsong, former head coach for the Northwestern University Basketball team and Won-Joon Yoon, a Korean Christian coming out of his church in Bloomington, Indiana, both died.
Some would say that Byrdsong was tragically in the wrong place (a block from his quiet suburban home) at the wrong time (walking with his kids) when a deranged person “went off.” But most recognize that the shooting spree was more intentional than that—all the victims were either Jews or people of color, and Smith was an avowed white supremacist associated with the anti-Christian World Church of the Creator, a group linked to several other murders around the country.
While Byrdsong was absolutely dedicated to God, the WCOTC is just as dedicated to stamping out Christianity and all but the white race. (They hate Christianity because they think loving one’s enemies weakens the white race.) This set the stage for a spiritual battle with physical consequences. So, while Ben Smith may have thought he was shooting Byrdsong because he was black (and others because of their race), the Evil One—through willing, though possibly ignorant agents—launched an attack on Good in the form of God’s servant, Ricky Byrdsong. In the spiritual realm, this also was no random act.
His wife, Sherialyn, left with three children to raise, could barely think about why Ricky had been shot. Just because he was black? It didn’t make sense! Her husband was working at a job he loved, motivating kids to become all God meant for them to be. His kids needed their dad. They lived in a quiet, affluent suburban neighborhood. And just two weeks earlier a publisher had agreed to accept Ricky’s book on parenting.
At the same time, she knew why. The stronghold of evil was in a spiritual war with the kingdom of God, and the Evil One had scored a victory by eliminating a man who was influencing others for good, who had gotten to the place in his life where “nothing else mattered” other than living for God. “In the twenty years I’ve been a Christian,” Sherialyn Byrdsong said later, “all the Scripture I’ve studied and all the worship songs I’ve ever learned were like deposits into my heart. Now I’m making withdrawals big time.”
An emotional and heartbroken congregation listened the following Sunday morning as the Byrdsongs’ pastor said, “We’re all asking, ‘Why Coach?’ I’ll tell you why. Because Coach was ready.” It was a reminder of the sermon Byrdsong had been asked to preach as a guest speaker . . . not that long before his death.
In His Own Words
“Don’t you know that I had to come to that in my own life? Don’t you know that they didn’t want me talking about God to the basketball team? Don’t you know that I had to say, ‘But it doesn’t matter now’? Don’t you know that they didn’t want me having Bible study in my own office with my own staff? But I said, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’ Don’t you know that they’d rather that I not quote any Scriptures to the newspaper? I was a coach of a major institution, and my words were going everywhere. They wanted me to keep that kind of talk in the church. But I had to get to the point where I said, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’”
—Ricky Byrdsong, September 21, 1998
Are you that ready?
When our perishable earthly bodies have been transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die—then at last the Scriptures will come true: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. How we thank God, who gives us victory over sin and death through Jesus Christ our Lord! (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
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© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson