On a visit to Oxford, I saw in the middle of the street, close by where C.S. Lewis met with J.R.R. Tolkien and the other “Inklings,” a church spire with no church beneath it. It was a monument to the English Reformers Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, who were burned to death for denying transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass. This took place under Queen Mary Tudor, who was known as “Bloody Mary.”
The words of Bishop Latimer to Bishop Ridley as they faced the flames on Oct. 16, 1555, were prophetic: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day, by God’s grace, light such a torch in England as will never be put out.”
And that speech in whispers was echoed about—
Latimer’s Light shall never go out,
However the winds may blow it about.
Latimer’s Light has come to stay
Till the trump at a coming judgment day.
Archbishop Cranmer’s fiery ordeal in Oxford was delayed until March 21, 1556, for he had recanted his views. On the morning of his execution, he recanted his recantation, and at the stake he threw into the flames the document he had signed, pleaded forgiveness of God and the people, and held the hand and arm that had signed the document in the fire before he himself succumbed to the flames.
The Marian persecution is one of the best-known, but church history is crowded with other instances that fulfill our Lord’s prophecy given in the shadow of the cross: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20b). Early in His ministry, He had laid down the eternal perspective in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'” (Matt. 5:10). Many have experienced the fulfillment of His words.
While the New Testament was still being written, the Emperor Nero accused Christians of setting fire to Rome (a.d.64). Some were crucified, while others were wrapped in animal skins to be more fiercely attacked by dogs. Still others were put in barrels of pitch or smeared with pitch and burnt to illuminate Nero’s gardens at night as he drove about in his chariot.
In the second century, Polycarp, a follower of the apostle John, chose to die in the flame rather than renounce his faith. He told the Roman governor: “For eighty-six years I have served Him. And He has never let me down. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” At about the same time in Rome, Justin Martyr was beheaded. The judge had given him the same option and asked, “If you are scourged and beheaded, do you suppose you will go to heaven?” Justin replied, “I not only suppose it, I know.”
In 303, Emperor Diocletian ordered the suppression of Christianity. Historian Eusebius of Caesarea describes the horrors of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt: a church congregation shut into a building that was burnt down around them; Christians forced onto a ship that was then sunk; and believers forced to work in mines with their eyes blinded and leg tendons cut to prevent escape. Eusebius keeps saying, “I was there and saw it.”
When Augustine died in 430, Vandals were besieging the walls of Hippo. The witness of the church then lost its vigor, and in the seventh century the Muslim Arabs swept across North Africa with a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other. The lights went out, and the church there became known as “the vanished church.”
About six centuries later, Ramon Lull from Majorca would cross the Mediterranean to North Africa four times to take the Gospel to the Muslims. On the fourth trip, he was stoned in Algeria and died from his injuries (1315). Samuel Zwemer, the twentieth-century “apostle to Islam,” would name a son for him.
About five centuries later, on the same continent but farther south, Anglican Bishop Harrington in 1885 told his killers, who had been sent by an African chieftain, “Tell the king that I open up the road to Uganda with my life.” He marched to his death singing, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”
In the fourteenth century, Oxford’s John Wycliffe escaped martyrdom for his incipient Protestant views, but his body was exhumed a half-century later and burnt. His ashes were thrown into the Swift River, whence—it has been picturesquely said—they flowed eventually to the sea and around the ocean currents of the world, symbolic of his great influence. He has been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” His writings greatly influenced Bohemia’s John Hus, who was condemned by the Council of Constance. Today, on the outskirts of the town, you can observe a huge boulder marking the spot where he was burned in 1415.
English followers of Wycliffe, the Lollards, preached the Bible and were a major cause of the English Reformation. In 1521, five hundred of them were arrested by the bishop of London. The Latin secretary of Henry VIII wrote to Desiderius Erasmus that there was a scarcity of wood because so much had been used to burn heretics.
On his way to the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther was warned about his fate. His response: “I shall go to Worms, though there were as many devils there as tiles on the roofs.” His protective “imprisonment” afterward produced his immensely influential German translation of the New Testament. Ulrich Zwingli’s last words on the battlefield of Cappel were, “They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.” John Calvin was a Frenchman living in Geneva, and for a time was an exile from his place of exile. One night his enemies fired 50 shots at his bedroom. In Scotland, John Knox was shot at through his window and wrote: “I have need of a good and an assured horse, for great watch is laid for my apprehension, and large money promised to any that shall kill me.” Knox died a natural death in 1572, two months after the infamous Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, which wiped out two thousand Huguenots (French Calvinists) in Paris and twenty thousand in the rest of France. In the century and more that followed, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots left France to enrich other lands.
In early seventeenth-century England, religious persecution would play a major role in the founding of America. In 1604, King James I told the Puritans that he would make them conform to Anglican worship or “harry them out of the land or worse.” In 1620, the Mayflower sailed for America, with the Pilgrims settling at Plymouth Bay. A decade later, under persecution from King Charles I and Archbishop William Laud, came “the swarming of the Puritans,” more than one thousand of them embarking for Massachusetts Bay in 1630.
The Scots also were persecuted by Charles and Laud, who injudiciously tried to press down Anglicanism upon a Presbyterian land. The Scots responded by rallying behind a National Covenant upholding the freedom of the church (1638) and by joining the English Parliamentary forces by the Solemn League and Covenant (1643). The king was overthrown, and the English Puritans and Scots Covenanters produced the Westminster Confession of Faith. But with the restoration of Charles II, there was great persecution of non-Anglicans in England and Scotland. In England, two thousand ministers lost their churches. In Scotland, seventeen thousand Covenanters suffered in one way or another for conscience sake.
However, in England, Puritan John Bunyan’s imprisonment gave us The Pilgrim’s Progress. And in Scotland, Covenanter Samuel Rutherford’s confinement in Aberdeen gave us his Letters, which Spurgeon called the “nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in the writings of mere men.”
Because of Rutherford’s fatal illness, he could not answer the summons to be tried for treason. He regretted being denied a martyr’s death, as many of his fellow Covenanters were being executed at the Mercat Cross and in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Among them was 26-year-old preacher Hugh Mackail. He told the onlooking women, that they should dry their tears, for he was within a few days of seeing the face of Jesus Christ. Mack
ail is remembered for his “Seraphic Song on the Scaffold”:
“I leave off to speak any more to creatures, and begin my intercourse with God, which shall never be broken off.”
Etched forever in my memory is a January day in 1956 when I was traveling on the Oregon coast. I was shocked by newspaper headlines telling of the death of the five Auca martyrs in Ecuador. Two of the five, Jim Elliot and Ed McCully, had been college friends of mine. On that day, I was in need of the balanced, Biblical perspective of Augustine:
“Martyrs are holy men of God who fought or stood for truth, even unto death, so that the Word of God may be made known and falsehood and fictions be overcome. Such a sacrifice is offered to God alone, thus the martyr is received in heavenly honor. This means that God has rewarded the faith of the martyr with so much grace that death, which seems to be the enemy of life, becomes in reality an ally that helps man enter into life.”