In the years leading up to the turn of the century (1996-1999), several publications ran “Man of the Millennium” features, presenting various candidates for the title. TIME Magazine featured extensive reports on various candidates, Einstein, Newton, etc. Theirs was perhaps the most closely watched process, and when the winner was revealed (as “Person of the Millennium”), the TIME Magazine laureate was Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1400-1468), inventor of the moveable-type printing press. It was to be expected, I suppose, that media people would choose someone who enabled their craft in a remarkable way. And truly, modern literature, scholarship, reporting, propaganda, advertising, and spam all owe a great debt to Gutenberg’s invention.
The trouble is, Gutenberg had nothing to say.
The purpose of printing, after all, is to utter something of value (to someone) in an inexpensive and easily distributable way. Luther took great advantage of the printing press: at his death (1546), according to some estimates, over 700,000 copies of various of Luther’s writings were in circulation, having a profound effect on the Protestant Reformation. Since then, the printing press has accelerated literacy, scholarship, and cultural cohesion everywhere, and the story has not yet ended.
But from Gutenberg himself—silence.
And from the printing press itself, also—silence. The printing press only has meaning if someone uses it to say something. Such inventions, no matter how clever, do not change societies—ideas do. So, it seems to me that the Man of the Millennium should be someone who proposed ideas that changed the society of the second millennium. Of course, you know all the popular candidates—Luther, Newton, Jefferson, Nietzsche, Einstein, etc. Let me propose one from a little earlier, one whose influence still resounds above all the others today: John Wycliffe (1320?-1384).
The Oxford-educated and -employed Wycliffe,
having discovered the doctrine of grace in the Scriptures, first attacked the corruption of the medieval church, pointing to disgraceful conduct of monks, the church’s enormous landholdings in England, and the great outflow of treasure to Rome through the church. The result was his first widely known publication, “On Civil Dominion,” in which Wycliffe claimed that the church had usurped the kings that God Himself had placed on their thrones. A formidable debater, Wycliffe stoutly defended his views from Scripture, which he insisted was the final authority.
Wycliffe also found fault with many poorly supported doctrines of the church: the role of the papacy, transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, praying to saints, purgatory, and in particular, the church’s monopoly on the interpretation of the Bible. He preached that each man should read and understand the Bible and is, without intermediaries, directly responsible to God for conforming his life to it, a powerful and revolutionary idea that has changed the world. The trouble was, there were no Bibles in the English language of the time.
Wycliffe retired from Oxford and undertook the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, for the first time in almost a thousand years. From those initial efforts, approximately 120 Wycliffe Bibles, painstakingly copied by hand, are extant today. Thirty years after Wycliffe’s death in 1384, the church declared Wycliffe a heretic and commanded that Wycliffe’s bones be dug up and burned along with all his writings that could be found.
But it was too late. Wycliffe, the “Morningstar of the Reformation,” had sent his doctrine into the world, and the world would never be the same again.
That is why John Wycliffe is my choice for “Man of the Millennium.”
Robert McAnally Adams is a retired mathematician and curator of The Christian Quotation of the Day. See cqod.com