For the love of God, Bilney begged, be pleased to hear my confession. Hugh Latimer agreed. After all, he was a priest, and Bilney was a noted heretic who desperately needed the grace of the Church. So Bilney knelt before Latimer and began to unfold the tale of his defection from Roman orthodoxy and into the evangelical faith.
Thomas Bilney was known as a Lollard or a Lutheran. Strictly speaking, he was probably neither. But he had preached against the worship of images and the cult of the saints. He had preached that Christ’s all sufficient atonement made such things unnecessary. He had preached from Scripture and only Scripture.1 And it was his preaching that had made a name for him at Cambridge.
Hugh Latimer, on the other hand, was a fanatical defender of the papacy. He was known in and about Cambridge for his asceticism and his scrupulous observance of the traditions, rules, and superstitions of the Roman church. He would, for instance, fret terribly over the amount of holy water he had mingled with the sacramental wine. What if he had gotten it wrong? Such questions tormented him constantly.
As Bilney knelt before him, Latimer was no doubt elated. Not only was Bilney a brand plucked out of the burning, but such a brand! He had set Cambridge aflame with his preaching. What a blow Bilney’s reclamation would be to this new heretical movement! What a rebuke it would be to those young scholars who were bewitched by those heresies!
Bilney, however, was not quite playing fair. For the confession he gave was his own testimony, the story of his own pilgrimage to Christ. And as Bilney had planned, Latimer’s defenses were down. Expecting to hear remorse, Latimer listened instead to Bilney’s testimony of his own conversion. He heard the glories of God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ. He heard of the peace and happiness Bilney had found in simple faith. And hearing, Latimer believed.
Bilney rose to his feet, but Latimer remained in his seat, weeping bitterly. Bilney consoled him: “Brother,” he said, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Latimer would later write, “I learnt more by this confession than in many years before. From that time forward I began to smell the word of God, and forsook the doctors of the schools and such fooleries.”
Hugh Latimer was born in Thurcaston, Leicestershire, about 1490. His people were farmers. He was educated in the local country schools and then, being somewhat precocious, went on to Cambridge at age 14. He received his Master’s degree in 1514 and became a priest the following year. Then he pursued divinity—not the knowledge of Scripture, but the study of the scholastic theologians. He earned his degree in 1524 with a rousing attack on Philip Melanchthon. Later he would say,Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley martyred at the stake “I was then as obstinate a papist as any in England.” Yet that is where Bilney first took note of him and decided that he must win him to Christ. That decision would have profound repercussions for all of England.
After his conversion, Latimer spent long hours with Bilney. They “conversed together daily,” often taking walks into the countryside or meeting with other evangelicals at the White Horse Tavern. Their evangelical zeal took them into dark places as well: into lazar houses, insane asylums, and the Cambridge jail. They preached and ministered with their own hands to the physical needs of their hearers, and some believed.
Latimer preached in Latin to the clergy, and in English to the people. D’Aubigne writes, “He boldly placed the law with its curses before his hearers, and then conjured them to flee to the Savior of the world. The same zeal which he had employed in saying mass, he now employed in preaching the true sacrifice of Christ.”2 It would be his preaching that England would remember for centuries.
But Latimer’s lively preaching cost him access to the university pulpits and those of the local diocese. He took up instead the pulpit of an Augustinian monastery, but was soon called to answer before Cardinal Wolsey. The charge was Lutheranism. But Latimer’s knowledge of the scholastic writers outshone that of his examiners, and his sermon before Wolsey so full of practical righteousness that he won the Cardinal’s favor. In the end Wolsey gave him a special license to preach throughout the whole of England.
Latimer gained the King’s attention when he argued that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was illegal: it was contrary to Scripture, and it had been forced on Henry while he was still a minor. Of course, this pleased Henry greatly. So in 1530 Nicholas RidleyLatimer was invited to preach before the King during Lent, and soon he was made a royal chaplain. Though Latimer pulled no punches in his preaching, he did not lose the King’s favor.
But after some months, Latimer grew weary of the vanity and debauchery of the court and gladly accepted from the King the benefice of West Kington, a little village some fourteen miles from Bristol (1531). It was a more congenial setting and work dearer to his heart.
But Latimer had already made enemies in high places. In 1532 he was summoned to answer before a Consistory Court for having earlier preached in a London church without the Bishop’s permission. The trial went on for months and shifted character. Fourteen articles favoring Roman traditions were set before him. He was told he must subscribe to them all. At first he refused, not because he necessarily believed them to be utterly false, but because he knew how easily they could be turned into superstition and idolatry.3 In the end, he signed first two, then all fourteen of the articles. Still he was not released. According to George Ella, Latimer finally appealed to the king, who now claimed to be head of the Church of England: “The monarch made short work of the affair. He told Latimer to appear before Convocation, beg forgiveness for offending his superiors, tell them that they had just cause to be suspicious of him, and, thinking of Latimer’s poverty, he told him to declare before Convocation that as he could not recompense them in any way for their troubles he would pray for them! After a trying ordeal of four months, Latimer was free to return to his beloved flock and carry on the duties of a pastor.”4
In 1533 Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury, and Anne Boleyn became Henry’s queen. Both had taken a liking to Latimer. So Latimer was invited to preach before the King every Wednesday in Lent. Cranmer went further and gave Latimer a special license to preach throughout the south of England. Soon Latimer was preaching from the leading pulpits in Bristol—to the dismay of the papal party, who could only complain in frustration that he was “the king’s favorite.” Cranmer went on to give Latimer the task of supplying the West of England with sound gospel preachers. And then, at Anne’s suggestion, Latimer was made Bishop of Worcester, where he served the cause of reform with his powerful preaching and practical wisdom.
Reversals and Respite
The King was not ready for full fledged reformation, however. In 1539 the backlash began. Parliament passed Henry’s Six Articles, a reactionary document that defended transubstantiation, the celibacy of priests, and the necessity of auricular confession. Latimer could not support it. On Chancellor Cromwell’s advice, he resigned his office (“with a skip of joy.” says Foxe) rather than oppose the King—only to find that that was not at all what Henry wanted. An angry Henry ordered Latimer placed in the custody of Sampson, bishop of Chichester; but after a year the bishop himself was sent to the Tower, and a short time late Latimer was released by a general pardon.
For the next few years Latimer stayed undercover and preached secretly. We hear little of him from this time. In 1546 the church courts caught up with him again, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. But the King died before Latimer came to his final trial (1547), and Edward’s accession brought a general pardon. Latimer was set free and soon became a regular preacher at the young King’s court. Latimer’s preaching was as fiery as ever. Multitudes flocked to hear him.
Latimer spent the last few years of Edward’s reign “under the hospitable roof of the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk,”5 a strong friend of the Reformation. When Mary came to the throne, Latimer was summoned to appear before the council at Westminster. Rather than flee, he joyfully obeyed. He hoped to preach to yet another English monarch, “either to her comfort or discomfort, eternally.”6 The papists focused their attention on Latimer. If he would recant his defection from Rome, England as a whole might recant hers. But Latimer wouldn’t budge. He was sent to the stake outside Balliol College in Oxford in October 16, 1555. He suffered martyrdom with his friend Nicholas Ridley, the bishop of London. As the flames were set, he spoke words that England has yet to forget: “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.”
Latimer’s fiery death underscored his fiery preaching. Even a Britannica writer observes:
It was, however, the preaching of Latimer more than the edicts of Henry that established the principles of the Reformation in the minds and hearts of the people; and from his preaching the movement received its chief colour and complexion. … The homely terseness of his style, his abounding humour—rough, cheery and playful, but irresistible in its simplicity, and occasionally displaying sudden and dangerous barbs of satire—his avoidance of dogmatic subtleties, his noble advocacy of practical righteousness, his bold and open denunciation of the oppression practised by the powerful, his scathing diatribes against ecclesiastical hypocrisy, the transparent honesty of his fervent zeal, tempered by sagacious moderation—these are the qualities which not only rendered his influence so paramount in his lifetime, but have transmitted his memory to posterity as perhaps that of the one among his contemporaries most worthy of our interest and admiration.7
D’Aubigne says more simply: “What Tyndale was to be for England by his writings, Latimer was to be by his discourses. The tenderness of his conscience, the warmth of his zeal, and the vivacity of his understanding, were enlisted in the service of Jesus Christ, and, if at times he was carried too far by the liveliness of his wit, it only shows that the reformers were not saints, but sanctified men.”8
1Korey Maas, “Thomas Bilney: ‘Simple, good soul?’,” an address to the Tyndale Society (Norfolk: 2004): http://www.tyndale.org/TSJ/27/maas.html.
2 J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Vol. I (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 207.
3 Robert Demaus, Hugh Latimer, A Biography (London: Religious Tract Society, 1904), 146-149.
4 Dr. George M. Ella, “Hugh Latimer, Apostle of England” (Mülheim, Germany): http://www.the-highway.com/articleApr08.html.
5 Demaus, 469.
6 Ibid., 485.
7 Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XVI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 243.
8 D’Aubigne, 207.