Sometimes of late sorrow and foreboding have washed over me as I watch powerful men, even leaders of our country, mock truth and profane the great offices they hold.
I have been filled with shame as a selfish, hedonistic people—and church of Jesus Christ—of which I am a part wink at and accept it, as long as their material and sensual desires are met.
And then I have drawn solace and consolation that others in different ages, more faithful and devout than I, and oft-times facing far worse evil, have found themselves aliens in the lands they loved, lands which proved, after all, to be hostile and strange to them.
But also that God, whose eternal and providential plan of history marches inexorably onward, was pleased not to stay forever His wrath against evildoers, but to nourish and bless the sacrifices, even in blood, offered by those who would remain faithful to Him even unto death.
In the mid-16th Century, Queen Mary of England, “Bloody Mary,” launched a terrible persecution against those who remained true to the principles of the great Protestant Reformation. Specifically, these English Reformers refused to acknowledge Christ’s actual physical presence in the elements of wine and bread when served at the Communion Table.
Why would these respected men die unspeakable deaths, leaving their wives widowed and their children fatherless? Because they believed the afore-mentioned teaching spoils the blessed doctrine of Christ’s finished work when He died on the cross. As the great 19th-Century Anglican Bishop of England J. C. Ryle writes in the classic book Five English Reformers, a sacrifice that needs to be repeated is not a perfect and complete thing. Spoiled is the priestly office of Christ, our High Priest. Exalted are sinful men into the position of mediators between God and man.
And thwarted is the doctrine of Christ’s human nature; for if He is able to be in more places than one at the same time, then His is not a body like ours at all, and unable to provide the human sacrifice as “the second Adam” able to die in the place of God’s elect, to atone for our sin, and to purchase us from eternal death.
And so these men whose names we know not, walked knowingly to hellish deaths. As Vicar John Rogers was forced to walk past his wife and ten children (one a baby), he repeated the 51st Psalm, “as if he was walking to his wedding,” instead of to be burned whole at the stake.
Bishop John Hooper told a close friend who urged him to remember that “Life was sweet, and death was bitter,” that “Eternal life was more sweet, and eternal death was more bitter.” Rector Rowland Taylor told his grieving parishioners, “I have preached to you God’s Word and truth, and am come this day to seal it with my blood.” Chaplain John Bradford “endured the flames as a fresh gale of wind in a hot summer day.”
And then came, to be burned back-to-back at the same stake, Bishop Nicholas Ridley and Bishop Hugh Latimer. “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley,” Latimer said, “and play the man; we shall this day by God’s grace, light such a candle in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
And finally, at the last it was Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the most beautiful prayer in the English language, the Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Shockingly, he—along among the English Reformers—at first recanted. Then the Lord strengthened him, and he preached powerfully to the gathered host until the flames rose about him and he could be seen lifting one hand toward heaven, and the other, that which had signed his recantation, he held steady in the fire, repeating again and again, “This unworthy right hand.”
Out of these ashes was the gospel saved in England, and did come the Westminster divines and Confession, the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and then, when it pleased God, our beloved America.