Chapter 41

Hugh Latimer: Reformer and Martyr

Reformation in England

God works in mysterious ways, and the wonders of His providence sometimes leave us gasping in surprise. The Reformation in England is illustrative of this truth. While in Germany and Geneva God brought about the Reformation through the work of mighty men of God such as Luther and Calvin, in England the Reformation turned on the lust and fornication of a king -- Henry VIII, known throughout history as the man of many wives, some of whom he murdered.

About the lust of Henry we must say a few words because the work of the noble Hugh Latimer cannot be understood without the background of a fornicating king.

Henry, a Tudor king, was married to Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted to be free of this marriage, partly because Catherine had not succeeded in giving him a male heir to sit on the throne, and partly because Henry had his lustful eyes upon Anne of Boleyn, a girl of the palace who would not sleep with Henry unless he married her.

The pope would not release Henry from his marriage to Catherine, and Henry, in a fury against the pope, cut all ties between England and Rome, rejected the ecclesiastical and civil authority of the pope in England, made himself head of the church in England, and refused to allow any money to leave England's shores to find its way into papal coffers.

Under these circumstances, Reformation came about in England. It was not as if Henry himself was interested in reforming doctrine; he hated it, remained all his life devoted to Romish heresy and superstition, persecuted and killed those who promoted Reformation truths, and determined to keep his church in England loyal to the doctrine of the Roman church. But his determination to get rid of papal rule in order to marry Anne Boleyn opened the door to Reformation efforts.

In Germany, Geneva, and other parts of Europe, reformation had come about through separation from the church of Rome. This was never to happen in England. In this country, reformation was attempted by efforts to change the church of Rome itself into a Protestant church. England still bears the effects of this today.

Latimer's Early Life And Conversion

The date of Hugh Latimer's birth is not known, but apparently took place somewhere between 1475 and 1490. He was born of a prosperous farmer in Thurscaton in Leicestershire. Recognizing his great abilities, Hugh's father gave him every educational opportunity, and when Hugh was 14, sent him to Cambridge. There he studied, became a fellow of Clare Hall, took a degree, entered into a study of theology with a view to devoting his life to the service of the church, and established ties with Cambridge which would last throughout much of his life.

Cambridge was in ferment, partly because the teachings of John Wycliffe had never been lost in England, partly because the writings of Luther had come into the country and were avidly read, studied, and discussed in Cambridge's halls, and partly because Erasmus had seen to it that his edition of the Greek New Testament was circulated in England's intellectual circles.

Although Latimer showed great intellectual abilities, profound insights into theology, and powerful oratorical gifts, he devoted his time and abilities to do all he could to combat anything that faintly resembled the Reformation. He was a bitter opponent of the Scriptures and ridiculed a colleague who expounded the Scriptures in his classroom. Latimer even used the opportunity of his dissertation for a divinity degree to attack the views and teachings of Philip Melanchthon.

But God brought Hugh Latimer to the service of the Reformation, though in a rather remarkable and even humorous way. A group of men, one of whom was Thomas Bilney, was accustomed to meet to discuss ways of promoting the Reformation to which they were deeply committed. Bilney had seen Latimer's great potential and had long pondered ways to persuade Latimer to join the movement for reform. Finally he hit upon a clever, though under God's blessing, successful way. Pretending to desire to make confession and be absolved from sin by Latimer, he used Latimer's naiveté and pride (Hugh Latimer thought Bilney was about to make confession for his devotion to the Reformation and ask for forgiveness) to describe for Latimer his own conversion from the comfortless doctrine of work righteousness which Rome taught to the blessed peace of faith in the perfect sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God. Latimer was moved as never before, and, humbled before God, he cast his lot with the Reformation movement.

Latimer the Reformer

Latimer's considerable gifts were now devoted to the cause of reform, and he became an ardent and eloquent preacher of reform. His life was, from that moment on, a life on an ecclesiastical roller coaster -- sometimes full of success, sometimes loaded with heartbreak, apparent defeat, and suffering.

As his preaching attracted more people, the bishop of Ely, Dr. West, began to take notice. While first rather tolerant of Hugh and inclined to be sympathetic, he was moved to anger when he heard Hugh preach against the great sins of bishops -- a sermon which Latimer preached on the spur of the moment when, about ready to preach on another passage of Scripture, he saw the bishop of Ely with his retinue enter the building. Bishop Ely did not take kindly to such open criticism and forbad Latimer to preach in his diocese.

A sympathetic prior from a local monastery of the Augustinian order, whose monastery was free from the supervision of the bishop, opened his pulpit to Latimer, and the crowds were larger than ever.

But greater triumphs awaited him -- and greater troubles. When Cardinal Wolsey looked favorably on Latimer, all the pulpits in England were opened to him. When Cardinal Wolsey, England's most powerful man under the king, fell from favor, Latimer's enemies smelled blood. When king Henry was favorably inclined toward Latimer (partly because Latimer, foolishly, approved the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon), he came under the king's protection, felt sufficiently free with the king to plead for some easing of the persecution of Protestants, and received from the king the benefice of West Kingston, where he preached Reformed doctrine. When the king had his back turned, occupied with other matters, Latimer was summoned before the bishop of London, harshly and incessantly questioned over many days, and finally excommunicated and condemned. He was restored to favor only by appealing to the king and agreeing to 14 points of Romish practice and worship which included approval of Lent and the lawfulness of crucifixes and images in the churches.

This moment of weakness was, by his own admission, the low point in Hugh's life, a black day indeed, a sin which he confessed before his God, but a crucial point in his life: he resolved that, come what may, he would never do such foolishness again. It was a resolution which would be sorely tested.

His life of ups and downs continued. Through the favor of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, Latimer received the bishopric of Worchester where he spent several happy and fruitful years preaching reform, but sufficiently far from the public eye that he attracted little unfavorable attention. But the Lord was not ready to leave Hugh in obscurity and, as his fame spread, he was summoned to preach at the opening of Parliament in 1536, and in the same year at a Convocation called to confirm Henry VIII as head of the church of England. In both sermons, Latimer preached strongly in favor of reform and pleaded with the assembled dignitaries to bring about reform as swiftly as possible.

While it seemed as if his pleas were well-received, an event of another kind spoiled it all. Lutheran theologians came from Germany to discuss union between the two countries and cooperation in the Reformation. When the Lutheran theologians were understandably unwilling to accept the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation, Henry became increasingly stubborn and not only insisted on the doctrine, but threatened any who denied it with the direst punishments.

Latimer, fully aware that he could never teach such doctrine, resigned his bishopric. He would probably have escaped punishment if it were not for the fact that a tree fell on him and caused injuries which brought him to London for medical help. He was immediately imprisoned, thrown into the Tower of London, and remained there for six years until Henry, having exhausted himself with all his wives, died.

Edward VI, the son of Anne Boleyn and the only male heir, took the throne. Edward was strongly in favor of the Reformation and offered Latimer his bishopric once again, which offer Latimer refused on the grounds of his advanced age. But he did continue to preach, for he had always been and continued above all to be, a preacher of the gospel.

Latimer's Martyrdom

But Edward soon died and Mary came to the throne. This is the Mary who has rightly earned the name by which she has been known since her death: "Bloody Mary."

Arrested and thrown again into the tower, Latimer was deprived of even a semblance of creaturely comforts. He was tormented and questioned, threatened and mocked, while every effort was made to get him to recant. Though now past 80 years old, he remembered the shame and confusion of his earlier weakness and steadfastly maintained his confession of faith in his Savior Jesus Christ. His response to the taunts and ridicule of his tormentors was: "I thank God most heartily that he hath prolonged my life to this end, that I may in this case glorify God with this kind of death."

Hugh Latimer with Ridley and Cranmer, fellow Reformers, were transferred to Oxford for trial and sentencing. All were found guilty of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On October 16, 1555 Ridley and Latimer were led from the Tower outside the north wall of the town, a stone's throw from Baliol College, with Latimer lagging a bit because of his feebleness. Kneeling together before the pile of faggots, they both prayed and, rising, submitted themselves to the will of God and their captors. They were tied to the same stake with a chain around their waists, leaving their hands and arms free. The

faggots were piled around them, but, prior to their being lit, a sympathetic onlooker tied bags of gun powder about their necks to speed their death. The faggots were lit and the pain began. It was then that Latimer uttered those immortal words which have rung down the centuries of time: "Be of good comfort, master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

The flames quickly reached the gunpowder tied about Latimer's neck and he died with little suffering. But the case was not so with Ridley. The wood was wet and burned only around his legs. His agony was great and all but unbearable. His legs were completely burned away before an onlooker removed some of the higher faggots to permit the flames to rise higher and explode the gunpowder which ended his life as well.

The triumph was the victory of faith; the everlasting shame and reproach remains Rome's.

Latimer's Place in Church History

All Latimer's contemporaries spoke highly of him. He was eloquent in speech, perhaps England's most powerful preacher. He was a man of impeccable moral conduct. He was kind, honest, enthusiastic about the work, given to many works of mercy, and wholly devoted to the cause of the spread of the gospel.

One writer says this of his sermons:

... The sermons of Hugh Latimer ... although in style essentially medieval, belong in thought and intention to the days of reform. Racy, full of anecdote, reminiscence and humour, rich in homely English words like "ugsomeness," "dodipoles" and "belly-cheer," these sermons are an indication of the vigour and courage and outspokenness which belonged to the New Age. Latimer has hard words to say about the pope--"that Italian bishop yonder, the devil's chaplain"-- and about the falseness of images and relics, of the Roman doctrine of the Mass, and about the contemporaries, especially bishops and others who neglect the ministry of the Word and become "unpreaching prelates." Bishops, he says, "are so taken up with ruffling in their rents, dancing in their dominions ... munching in their mangers and moiling in their gay manors and mansions" that they have no time for preaching, while the devil "the most diligent prelate and preacher in all England" is busy poisoning the hearts of men.

Hugh Latimer was "one of the most distinguished prelates of the Church of England, undoubtedly one of the ablest, if not the ablest ecclesiastic among the English reformers of the 16th century ... the John Knox of England, the bearer of a name that `now shines over two hemispheres, and will blaze more and more till the last day."

Latimer, while dying, spoke of a light in England that would never go out. If today it has indeed not gone out, sadness fills the souls of those who must admit that it is now little more than a small and flickering flame.