Keith Hunt - More Die for Truth - Page Two   Restitution of All Things

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Even to their Death!


By Ken Connolly

THE FIRST English Bibles

The pioneer

     Just as it is sometimes very difficult to find the source of
a mighty river, so it is not always easy to find the beginning of
a mighty movement. The German Reformation had its Luther;
Switzerland its Zwingli and Calvin; and Scotland its thundering
voice of Knox. But in the English Reformation there was no one
great human voice. The voice was simply the word of God in the
indestructible book. But as the movement progressed, individual
people had important roles to play. The man who may perhaps be
called the initiator in the translation of the Bible into English
was a man called Thomas Bilney.
     Bilney was born in Norfolk around 1495. In 1517, he was at
Trinity Hall in Cambridge, studying canon law, the subject
usually taken by aspiring priests such as Bilney. Canon law had
its beginning when Roman law and church policy were in
disagreement, and major church councils had to be held. Records
were kept of the decisions, and by the fifth century these were
collected into "canons." Later, the decrees of individual bishops
were added, and by AD 1140 they were compiled into Gratian's
Decretum, which became a major field of study and reference for
future priests.
     Bilney's religious life was barren. Fasting, vigils and
indulgences had left him with little money (forgiveness being
expensive), poor health (he was too frail physically for
additional penance), and an empty heart, because through it all
he found no peace.
     Afraid that every generation had its Judas and that he was
the one for his generation, he decided he might as well go to
hell for good reasons. One night he went out and bought a
blackmarket copy of the Erasmus New Testament, which had been
published the previous year and, though banned, was part of the
religious sub-culture in Cambridge. As he read it, Bilney was
thrilled and stunned. When he read Paul's words in 1 Timothy 1:15
they went like an arrow to his heart. On the spot, he trusted in
the Christ of those pages and his life turned upside down. Doubt
gave way to assurance, hostility was exchanged for peace, and an
effervescent joy dominated his heart. At once he wanted to share
his new-found faith with others.
     He picked the White Horse Inn for the field in which to sow
the seed. Nicknamed "Little Germany" because Luther's writings
were often discussed there, the White Horse was a meetingplace
for the scholars of Cambridge who gathered to talk about subjects
prohibited in the classroom. Bilney brought his New Testament to
these discussion tables and the result was cataclysmic.
     The news spread through Cambridge and began to attract
notable lecturers from the university. These men came to the
White Horse out of curiosity, and were converted as they read and
discussed Bilney's New Testament. They included Thomas Arthur, a
Fellow of St John's College, who became Bilney's traveling
companion; and the famous Hugh Latimer, though he was converted
in the confessional booth rather than in the pub. George
Stafford, an influential young Fellow of Pembroke Hall, also
joined their ranks. He was probably the most admired professor of
Cambridge, and his conversion shook the entire academic world.
Stafford tried to influence Robert Barnes, another Doctor of
Divinity, who was the prior of a monastery in Cambridge. What
Stafford failed to achieve, Bilney accomplished, and Robert
Barnes became a convert.
     The stir aroused all England, attracting other men, such as
Matthew Parker, the future Archbishop of Canterbury; William
Tyndale, the martyr who, as we will go on to see, was the man who
gave England its first English printed Bible; and John Frith, an
eighteen-year-old student of mathematics, the brains of the
     Bilney graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree and was
admitted to holy orders in 1519. In 1525 he was licenced to
preach by the Bishop of Ely, and started to proclaim the gospel
from the pulpit, denouncing the worship of saints and relics. In
1527 he was arrested while preaching in Ipswich, and taken to the
Tower of London. At his trial in the chapter house in
Westminster, his judges included Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop
of Canterbury, and several bishops and lawyers. Wolsey had to
depart on urgent business, leaving Tunstall, Bishop of London, in
charge. They played cat and mouse with Bilney. His friends were
allowed to talk to him, and, on the grounds that it would be "for
the benefit of the movement," they succeeded in undermining his
resolve. On December 7, 1527, he signed his recantation. The
following Sunday, with his head shaven and bare, he walked to St
Paul's where he heard a sermon denouncing his heresy, and was
forced to light a fire under a stack of Tyndale's Bibles. This
shattered his soul and left him almost demented. He resolved to
get arrested again so that he could make a stand for the truth.

     His second trial took place in 1531 at Norwich, where he had
ministered. His public burning there was intended to put an end
to his influence. The night before his death, he was eating a
hearty meal when Matthew Parker and some friends came to visit
him. They tried to comfort him before the horrible ordeal of the
following day, but Bilney said nothing. When he had finished
eating his meal, he slipped down the bench to where they were
sitting, put his open Bible on the table beside him, held his
index finger over the flame of the candle and burned it to the
bone. He looked at his stunned friends and pointed to Isaiah
43:2: "When thou walkest through fire, thou shalt not be burned."
His captors took Bilney from his cell on the morning of August
19, 1531. As they crossed the Bishop's Bridge he ran forward to
embrace the stake and thank God for the privilege of having a
second opportunity to die for Christ. He was a noble example to
his contemporaries. First, he taught the reformers how to live
for Christ, and then he taught them how to die for Him.

(So was the light of truth and God's word held in such high
esteem. It is our debt that we own our English Bible to such men,
who would freely die to make sure the words of the Bible could be
read by the everyday person in the English language. May we be as
strong as they, when our faith is tested - may we be willing to
die for the faith once delivered to the saints - Keith Hunt)

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

     Thomas Cranmer was very different from most heroes of the
Reformation; in fact, he was more of a coward than a hero. But
his very ability to bend under pressure enabled him to play a
vital role among the promoters of the "Indestructible Book."
He was born in Nottinghamshire on July 2, 1489. Recalling his
schooldays, he later said that he attended school under a very
severe master, but became quite skilled as a hawker and a horse
     His father died in 1501 and his mother sent him to
Cambridge, where, in 1510, he became a Fellow of Jesus College.
He had to forfeit his privileges as a Fellow when he married
"Black Joan," a relative of the landlady of the Dolphin Inn, but
he was reinstated after his wife died in childbirth. He was
ordained in 1523, and graduated the following year.

     He was given a position teaching divinity at Magdalen
College, and also became an examiner for the University.
When the "sweating sickness" broke out in the summer of 1529,
Cranmer determined to take two boys who were under his
supervision back home to their parents in the county of Essex. By
happenstance, he arrived in the town of Waltham, Essex, when
Henry VIII was also there. While Cranmer was eating, he
recognized Gardiner, the king's secretary, who was traveling with
the king, and they began to talk. During the conversation he
commented that if the university theologians decided that the
king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been illegal in the
first place, any ecclesiastical court would grant him a divorce.
When the King heard this, he is reported as saying: "This man I
trow, has got the right sow by the ear."

     After an interview with the king at Greenwich, Cranmer was
asked to write down his opinions, quoting the church fathers,
scriptures and general councils which supported the argument. He
was then promoted to the position of an archdeacon and
subsequently was made one of the king's chaplains. He defended
his views before the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and in
1530 was dispatched to Rome to plead the king's case.
     Failing at Rome, Cranmer was sent to Germany to air his
views before the Lutheran princes. Also, and significantly, he
was given political authority to lift certain trade embargoes, if
he felt that would strengthen his cause. While he was there, he
stayed with a gifted minister named Osiander, and in 1532 was
secretly married to his niece. The marriage, though difficult to
conceal, was dangerous to reveal, and was kept a secret for many
years. On March 30 the following year, he was consecrated
Archbishop of Canterbury.

     We have already seen that it was Cranmer who declared
Henry's marriage to Catherine to be "null and void," Cranmer who
crowned Anne Queen - and Cranmer who, less than three years
later, signed the papers for Henry's divorce from Anne. But above
all, it was Cranmer who supervised the events of the Reformation.
This was his most significant role. In 1538 the king commanded
every parish church to buy an English Bible, and under Cranmer's
influence the order was renewed in 1541. He stood almost alone in
his opposition to Henry's Six Articles of 1539, which spelt out
England's anti-Lutheran position, upholding the Roman doctrine of
transubstantiation, and the celibacy of the priesthood. Though
they were passed, despite his objections, and set Protestantism
back, compliance with them was not rigidly enforced and the
defeat proved to be temporary.
     Cranmer was at Henry's bedside when he died. Henry VIII was
never a Protestant at heart and he left a sum of 600 pounds to
pay for prayers to be said to shorten his time in purgatory.
Cranmer crowned Edward VI, shortening the ceremony because of
the young king's frail health, and was at his bedside when he
went out into eternity six years later. Others, seeing the
dangers about to fall on Protestantism in England, fled to the
continent, but Cranmer stayed beside Lady Jane Grey during her
nine days on the throne.
     Mary, who, as we have seen, seized the throne from Lady Jane
Grey, was crowned in 1553. She vowed vengeance on Cranmer, whose
views on Henry's divorce from her mother had made Mary
illegitimate and who had helped to turn England towards the
Protestant faith. Later that year he was taken to the Tower of
London on the charge of treason. In September 1555, along with
Ridley and Latimer, he was ordered to be tried, in his absence,
by a papal commission sitting in Rome. In February 1556, when he
was sixty-seven years old, he was stripped of his office by a
special commission sent from Rome. It was at this time that he
signed two recantations.
     Because his position was second only to that of the monarch,
and he had served as Archbishop of Canterbury for twenty-three
years, Cranmer was given a specific day to make his recantation
public. At St Mary's church, on March 21, 1556, to the shocked
horror of his judges, he recanted his recantation. He held his
right hand to the crowd and condemned it, promising that it would
be the first part of his body to burn. With quiet confidence, he
submitted himself to his fate. That day he held a meeting with
Ridley, Latimer, Bilney and several other martyrs on the other
side of Jordan.

The brain

     John Frith was born in 1503 in Westerham, Kent, the son of
Richard Frith, an inn-keeper. When he was a young man, he was
sent to Cambridge, where he enrolled at the impressive King's
College. It was there that he met Tyndale, who showed him how to
find peace with God. He was a student of the classics, and was
gifted with a brilliant mind and a photographic memory. He
received his degree from Cambridge on December 7, 1525.
At that time Cardinal Wolsey was in the process of founding
Cardinal College in Oxford (later to become Christ Church), and
came to Cambridge in search of men qualified to become its
foundation members. Cranmer, the future Archbishop of Canterbury,
declined his offer, but Frith, with many others, accepted. He
moved to Oxford and became a junior canon when the college opened
in 1526.
     It was in November 1527 that Bilney was arrested. At his
trial in London, it came out that Thomas Garret had sold 350
books of Reformed theology on the black market. All of Bilney's
known friends in Cambridge came under suspicion and were
arrested. Frith's position was made more perilous when John
Clark, an ex-Cambridge student and one of Frith's companions in
Oxford, was found in his bedroom in Oxford reading his Bible to
several other students. This led to the arrest of all Bilney's
friends in Oxford, including Frith.
     The group were imprisoned in a cave beneath the college,
where salted fish was stored, and the experience killed three of
them, including John Clark. At this point, Wolsey demanded the
release of the rest. Some were made to carry faggots to the top
of the Carfax intersection in Oxford, and burn a collection of
forbidden books, but Frith managed to evade that punishment.
Frith escaped and fled across the Channel to Antwerp, where he
met Tyndale, and a close friendship sprang up between the two
men. Tyndale was one of Wolsey's intended victims, and Frith was
able to strengthen Tyndale's resolve to stand firm. Stephen
Vaughan, an English agent in Antwerp who had attempted to
separate the two reformers, reported that John Frith had married,
but nothing else is known about this.

     Frith was out of England from 1528 to 1532, and during this
time he wrote a number of books which were published in Antwerp.
He became known for his forceful logic, his knowledge of the
church fathers, and his forthright attack on Roman doctrines
which needed reforming. The leaders of the opposition marked him
down as a dangerous reformer and put a price on his head.
We are never told why, but Frith crossed the Channel back to
England like a lamb wandering into a lion's lair. He made for the
town of Reading, where the Prior was a friend of the reformers,
holding Protestant services privately in his own home. But Frith
was arrested for loitering before he could reach the prior's
house. When he refused to give his name, he was put into stocks
and held as a rogue and vagabond. Almost starving, he asked to
see a schoolmaster named Cox, who managed to secure his release.
     Frith then found that it was easier to get into England than
to get out. He was again arrested at Southend, identified as a
reformer, and sent to the Tower. Two secret reformers, Cromwell
and Cranmer, held him as "a prisoner of the Crown," depriving his
enemies of any opportunity to vent their hatred on him. This
ensured his safety, within his captivity. Five uneventful months
elapsed. During this time Frith endeared himself to the jailor,
and secured some privileges and liberties. A few people were
permitted to visit him in prison, and on more than one occasion
he was even given permission to leave his cell for a night. The
jailor also allowed his friends to smuggle paper into and out of
his cell. Those amenities secured for England the richest
literature produced during the Reformation period. With the aid
of the printing press, Frith was able to conduct a debate from
his cell with no less an enemy of the Reformation than Sir Thomas
More himself, the Chancellor of England. The papers were smuggled
out of prison, published on the continent, and then circulated
throughout England. Frith would write a challenge to More, and
then reply to More's response. He quoted Ambrose, Chrysostom,
Jerome, Tertullian, Origen and Athanasius - yet in his prison he
did not have a single book. It was all entirely from memory. He
was a controversialist par excellence.
     Frith's writings on the Lord's Supper were powerful, clear,
and effective. He was able to bring about the conversion of one
of his opponents, and persuade other reformers that the subject
of the Lord's Sup per was serious - so serious that they should
be willing to burn for what they believed. His arguments were
later enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer of 1552.

     Refusing many opportunities and encouragements to escape,
Frith was tried at St Paul's on June 20, 1533, found guilty and
imprisoned in Newgate to await execution. On July 4, 1533, he was
taken to Smithfield and tied at the stake, back to back with a
twenty-four-year-old tailor named Andrew Hewet. Though the wind
blew the flames away from Frith, he smiled, knowing that, though
it would prolong his suffering, it would quicken his friend's
death. Frith had just turned thirty years of age when his spirit
left his body at Smithfield.

(Again, what a testimony for us, to hold fast to the faith once
delivered to the saints, even if it means our death at the hands
of those who think they do God a service. Jesus said, at the end
time, once more there would come a great tribulation on the true
Church of God, and some would be called upon by the Lord to die
for the truth of God's word. Such it has been through the ages,
from righteous Abel to those you are now reading about, to whom
truth was being revealed which they could not deny, and would
defend even to their death. May we be of their same mind -
defenders of THE faith - Keith Hunt)

The orator

     John Frith debated the teaching of the Bible, Queen Anne
Boleyn encouraged its circulation, and Hugh Latimer preached its
message. He was probably born in 1485 at Thurcaston, only twelve
miles from Lutterworth, where John Wycliffe had ministered. His
father was a yeoman who rented his farm, and was earning "three
or four pounds a year at the uttermost." To help his father, he
looked after the five sheep and milked the thirty cows.
     Latimer was enrolled as a student at Clare College,
Cambridge, where he earned his B.A. degree in 1510, and his M.A.
degree four years later. After that, he decided to study
divinity. He worked hard and


To be continued

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