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  • HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION -
    CHAPTER 5.


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    LIGHT FROM BOTH SIDES. (1534-1535.)

    IN England it was reserved for Catholics as well as for evangelicals to give the world, amid great misery, remarkable examples of Christian virtues.

    Latimer and others preached the truth courageously; martyrs like Bilney, Tewkesbury, and Fryth had laid down their lives for the Gospel. Now in the other party, laymen, monks, and priests, with unquestionably a less enlightened piety, were about to furnish proofs of their sincerity. There were Roman martyrs also. Two armies were in presence; many fell on both sides; but there was a sensible difference between this spiritual war and the wars of nations. Those who bit the dust did not fall under the weapons of a hostile army; there was a third power, the king-pope, who took his station between the two lines, and dealt his blows now to the right, now to the left. Leaders of the pontifical army were to be smitten in the struggle in which so many evangelicals had already fallen.

    Sir Thomas More, while in prison, strove to banish afflicting thoughts by writing a history of Christ’s passion. One day when he came to these words of the Gospel: Then came they and laid hands on Jesus, and took Him, the door opened, and Kingston, the governor of the Tower, accompanied by Rich, the attorney-general, appeared. ‘Sir Thomas,’ said Rich, ‘if an act of parliament ordered all Englishmen to acknowledge me as their king, would you acknowledge me?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ — ‘And if an act of parliament ordered all Englishmen to recognize me as pope?’ — ‘Parliament has no authority to do it,’ answered More. Sir Thomas held that an act of parliament was sufficient to dethrone a king of England: it is to a great grandson of More’s that we are indebted for this opinion, which a grand-nephew of Cromwell put in practice a hundred years later. Was Henry VIII. exasperated because More disposed so freely of his crown? It is possible, but be that as it may, the harshness of his imprisonment was increased. Suffering preceded martyrdom. The illustrious scholar was forced to pick up little scraps of paper on which to write a few scattered thoughts with a coal. This was not the worst. ‘I have neither shirt nor sute,’ he wrote to the chief secretary of state, ‘nor yet other clothes that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent too shamefully. Notwithstanding, I might easily suffer that if that would keep my body warm. And now in my age my stomach may not away but with a few kind of meats; which, if I want, I decay forthwith, and fall into erases and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health... I beseech you be a good master unto me in my necessity, and let me have such things as are necessary for me in mine age. Restore me to my liberty out of this cold and painful imprisonment. Let me have some priest to hear my confession against this holy time, and some books to say my devotions more effectually. The Lord send you a merry Christmas. ‘At the Tower, 23rd December.’

    It is a relief to hope that this scandalous neglect proceeded from heedlessness and not from cruelty. His requests were granted.

    While these sad scenes were enacted in the Tower, there was great confusion in all England, where the most opposite parties were in commotion. When the traditional yoke was broken, every man raised up his own banner. The friends of More and Fisher wished to restore the papacy of the Roman bishop; Henry VIII., Cromwell, and the court thought how to establish the supremacy of the king; finally, Cranmer and a few men of the same stamp, endeavored to steer between these quicksands, and aspired to introduce the reign of Holy Scripture under the banner of royalty. This contest between forces so different, complicated too by the passions of the sovereign, was a terrible drama destined to wind up not in a single catastrophe, but in many. Illustrious victims, taken indiscriminately from all parties, were to fall beneath the oft-repeated blows and be buried in one common grave.

    The prudent Cranmer lived in painful anxiety. Surrounded by enemies who watched every step, he feared to destroy the cause of truth, by undertaking reforms as extensive as those on the continent. The natural timidity of his character, the compromises he thought it his duty to make with regard to the hierarchy, his fear of Henry VIII., his moderation, gentleness, and plasticity of character and in some respects of principle, prevented his applying to the work with the decision of a Luther, a Calvin, or a Knox. Tyndale, if he had possessed the influence that was his due, would have accomplished a reform similar to that of those great leaders.

    To have had him for a reformer would, in Wickliffe’s native land, have been the source of great prosperity; but such a thing was impossible: his country gave him not a professor’s chair but exile. Cranmer moved forward slowly: he modified an evangelical movement by a clerical concession. When he had taken a step forward, he stopped suddenly, and apparently drew back; not from cowardice, but because his extreme prudence so urged him. The boldness of a Farel or a Knox is in our opinion far more noble; and yet this extreme moderation saved Cranmer and protestantism with him. Near a throne like that of Henry’s, it was only a man of extreme precaution who could have retained his position in the see of Canterbury. If Cranmer should come into collision with the Tudor’s scepter, he will find that it is a sword. God gives to every people and to every epoch the man necessary to it. Cranmer was this man for England, at the time of her separation from the papacy. Notwithstanding his compromises, he never abandoned the great principles of the Reformation; notwithstanding his concessions, he took advantage of every opportunity to encourage those who shared his faith to march towards a better future.

    The primate of England held a torch in his hand which had not the brilliancy of that borne by Luther and Calvin, but the tempest that blew upon it for fifteen or twenty years could not extinguish it. Sometimes he was seized with terror: as he heard the lion roar, he bent his head, kept in the background, and concealed the truth in his bosom; but again he rose and again held out to the Church the light he had saved from the fury of the tyrant. He was a reed and not an oak — a reed that bent too easily, but through this very weakness he was able to do what an oak with all its strength would never have accomplished. The truth triumphed.

    At this time Cranmer thought himself in a position to take a step the most important step of all: he undertook to give the Bible to the laity. When the convocation of clergy and parliament had assembled, he made a proposition that the Holy Scriptures should be translated into English by certain honorable and learned men, and be circulated among the people. To present Holy Scripture as the supreme rule instead of the pope, was a bold act that decided the evangelical reformation. Stokesley, Gardiner, and the other bishops of the catholic party cried out against such a monstrous design: ‘The teaching of the Church is sufficient,’ they said; ‘we must prohibit Tyndale’s Testament and the heretical books which come to us from beyond the sea.’ The archbishop saw that he could only carry his point by giving up something: he consented to a compromise.

    Convocation resolved on the 19th of December, 1534, to lay Cranmer’s proposal before the king, but with the addition that the Scriptures translated into the vulgar tongue should only be circulated among the king’s subjects in proportion to their knowledge, and that all who possessed suspected books should be bound to give them up to the royal commissioners: others might have called this resolution a defeat, Cranmer looked upon it as a victory. The Scriptures would no longer be admitted stealthily into the kingdom, like contraband goods: they would appear in broad daylight with the royal sanction. This was something.

    Henry granted the petition of Convocation, but hastened to profit by it.

    His great fixed idea was to destroy the Roman papacy in England, not because of its errors, but because he felt that it robbed princes of the affection and often of the obedience of their subjects. ‘If I grant my bishops what they ask for,’ he said, ‘in my turn I ask them to make oath never to permit any jurisdiction to be restored to the Roman bishop in my kingdom; never to call him pope, universal bishop, or most holy lord, but only bishop of Rome, colleague and brother, according to the ancient custom of the oldest bishops.’ All the prelates were eager to obey the king; but the archbishop of York, secretly devoted to the Roman Church, added, to acquit his conscience, ‘that he took the oath in order to preserve the unity of the faith and of the Catholic Church.’ Cranmer was filled with joy by the victory he had won. ‘If we possess the Holy Scriptures,’ he said, ‘we have at hand a remedy for every disease.

    Beset as we are with tribulations and temptations, where can we find arms to overcome them? In Scripture. It is the balm that will heal our wounds, and will be a more precious jewel in our houses than either gold or silver.’ He therefore turned his mind at once to the realization of the plan he had so much at heart. Taking for groundwork an existing translation (doubtless that by Tyndale), he divided the New Testament into ten portions, had each transcribed separately, and transmitted them to the most learned of the bishops, praying that they might be returned to him with their remarks. He even thought it his duty not to omit such decided catholics as Stokesley and Gardiner.

    The day appointed for the return and examination of these various portions having arrived (June 1553), Cranmer set to work, and found that the Acts of the Apostles were wanting: they had fallen to the lot of the bishop of London. When the primate’s secretary went to ask for the manuscript, Stokesley replied in a very bad humor: ‘I do not understand my lord of Canterbury. By giving the people the Holy Scriptures, he will plunge them into heresy. I certainly will not give an hour to such a task.

    Here, take the book back to my lord: When the secretary delivered his message, Thomas Lawness, one of Cranmer’s friends, said with a smile: ‘My lord of London will not take the trouble to examine the Scriptures, persuaded that there is nothing for him in the Testament of Jesus Christ.’

    Many of the portions returned by the other bishops were pitiable. The archbishop saw that he must find colleagues better disposed.

    Cranmer had soon to discharge another function. As popery and rebellion were openly preached in the dioceses of Winchester and London, the metropolitan announced his intention to visit them. The two bishops cried out vehemently, and Gardiner hurried to the king: ‘Your Grace,’ he said, ‘here is a new pope!’ All who had anything to fear began to reproach the primate with aspiring to honors and dominion. ‘God forgive me,’ he said with simplicity,’ if there is any title in the world I care for more than the paring of an apple . Neither paper, parchment, lead, nor wax, but the very Christian conversation of the people, are the letters and seals of our office.’ The king supported Cranmer, knowing that certain of the clergy preached submission to the pope. The visitation took place. Even in London priests were found who had taken the oath prescribed by Henry VIII., and who yet ‘made a god of the Roman pontiff, setting his power and his laws above those of our Lord.’ ‘I command you,’ said the king, ‘to lay hold of all who circulate those pernicious doctrines.’

    Francis I. watched these severities from afar. He feared they would render an alliance between France and England impossible. He therefore sent Bryon, high-admiral of France, to London, to reconcile the king with the pope, to strengthen the bonds that united the two countries, and at the same time, he prevailed upon Paul III. to withdraw the decree of Clement VII. against Henry VIII. But success did not crown his efforts: the king of England had no great confidence in the sincerity of the pope or of the French king. He was well pleased to be no longer confronted by a foreign authority in his own dominions, and thought that his people would never give up the Reformation. Instead of being reconciled with the Roman pontiff, he found it more convenient to imitate the pope, and to break out against those subjects who refused to recognize him, the king, as head of the Church.

    He first attacked the Carthusians, the most respectable of the religious orders in England, and whom he considered as the most dangerous. Where there was the most goodness, there was also the most strength; and that strength gave umbrage to the despotic Tudor king.

    Monastic life, abominable in its abuses, was, even in principle, contrary to the Gospel. But we must confess that there was a certain harmony between the wants of society in the Middle Ages and conventual establishments, Many and various motives drove into the cloisters the men that filled them; and if some were condemnable, there were others whose value deserves to be appreciated. It was these earnest monks who, even while defending the royalty of the pope, rejected most energetically the papacy of the king-this was enough to draw down upon them the royal vengeance. One day a messenger from the court brought to the Charter-House of London an order to reject the Roman authority. The monks, summoned by their prior, remained silent when they heard the message, and their features alone betrayed the trouble of their minds. ‘My heart is full of sorrow,’ said Prior Haughton. ‘What are we to do? If we resist the king, our house will be shut up, and you young men will be cast into the midst of the world, so that after commencing here in the spirit you will end there in the flesh. But, on the other hand, how can we obey?

    Alas! I am helpless to save those whom God has entrusted to my care!’

    At these words the Carthusians ‘fell all a-weeping;’ and then taking courage from the presence of danger they said: ‘We will perish together in our integrity; and heaven and earth shall cry out against the injustice that oppresses us.’ — ‘Would to God it might be so,’ exclaimed the Superior; ‘but this is what they will do. They will put me to death — me and the oldest of us and they will turn the younger ones into the world, which will teach them its wicked works. I am ready to give up my life to save you; but if one death does not satisfy the king, then let us all die!’ — ‘Yes, we will all die,’ answered the brethren. — ‘And now let us make preparation by a general confession,’ said the prior, ‘so that the Lord may find us ready.’

    Next morning the chapel-doors opened and all the monks marched in.

    Their serious looks, their pale countenances, their fixed eyes seemed to betoken men who were awaiting their last moments. The prior went into the pulpit and read the sixtieth Psalm ( Psalm 60): ‘O God, thou hast cast us off.’

    On coming to the end, he said: ‘My brethren, we must die in charity. Let us pardon another.’ At these words Haughton came down from the pulpit, and knelt in succession before every brother, saying: ‘O my brother, I beg your forgiveness of all my offenses!’ The other monks, each in his turn, made this last confession.

    Two days afterwards they celebrated the mass of the Holy Ghost.

    Immediately after the elevation, the monks fancied they heard ‘a small hissing wind.’ Their hearts were filled with a tender affection: they believed that the Holy Ghost was descending upon them, and the prior, touched by this surprising grace, burst into tears. Enthusiasm mingled extraordinary fantasies with their pious emotions.

    The king had evidently not much to fear in this quarter. His crown was threatened by more formidable enemies. In various parts, especially in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, there were daring partisans of the papacy to be found who endeavored to stir up the people to revolt; and thousands of Englishmen in the North were ready to help them by force of arms. At the same time Ireland wished to transport her soldiers across St. George’s Channel and hurl the king from his throne. The decision with which Fisher, Sir Thomas More, and the Carthusians resisted Henry had not immediate insurrection for its object, but it encouraged the multitude to revolt. The government thinking, therefore, that it was time to strike, sent the Carthusians an absolute order to acknowledge the royal supremacy.

    At this time there was in reality no liberty on one side or the other. Rome, by not granting it, was consistent with herself; but not so the protestantism that denies it. The Reformation, acknowledging no other sovereign Lord and Teacher than God, must of necessity leave the conscience to that Supreme Master, man having nothing to do with it. But the Roman Church, acknowledging a man as its head, and honoring the pope as the representative of God on earth, claims authority over the soul.

    Men may say in vain that they are in harmony with God and His Word: that is not the question. The great business is to be in accord with the pope. That old man, throned in the Vatican on the traditions of the School and the bulls of his predecessors, is their judge: they are bound to follow exactly his line, without wavering either to the right or the left. If they reject an article, a jot of a papal constitution, they must be cast away.

    Such a system, the enemy of every liberty, even of the most legitimate, rose in the sixteenth century like a high wall to separate Rome and the new generation. It threatened to destroy in the future that power which had triumphed in the paSt. After the festival of Easter 1535, the heads of two other Carthusian houses — Robert Laurence, prior of Belleval, and Augustine Webster, prior of Axholm — arrived in London in obedience to an order they had received, and, in company with Prior Haughton, waited upon Cromwell.

    As they refused to acknowledge the royal supremacy, they were sent to the Tower. A week later, they consented to take the oath, adding: ‘So far as God’s law permits.’ — ‘No restrictions,’ answered Cromwell. On the 29th of April they were placed on their trial, when they said: ‘We will never believe anything contrary to the law of God and the teaching of our holy mother Church.’ At first the jury expressed sortie interest in their behalf; but Haughton uselessly embittered his position. ‘You can only produce in favor of your opinion,’ he said, ‘the parliament of one single kingdom; for mine, I can produce all Christendom.’ The jury found the three prisoners guilty of high-treason. Thence the government proceeded to more eminent victims.

    Fisher and More, confined in the same prison, were now treated with more consideration. It was said, however, that these illustrious captives were endeavoring, even in the Tower, to excite the people to revolt. The king and Cromwell could hardly have believed it, but they imagined that if these two leading men gave way, their example would carry the recalcitrants with them: they were therefore exposed to a new examination.

    But they proved as obstinate as their adversaries, and perhaps more skillful. ‘I have no more to do with the titles to be given to popes and princes,’ said Sir Thomas; ‘my thoughts are with God alone.’ The court hoped to intimidate these eminent personages by the execution of the three priors, which took place on the 4th May, 1535. Margaret hurried to her father’s side. Before long the procession passed under his window, and the affectionate young woman used every means to draw Sir Thomas away from the sight; but he would not avert his eyes. When all was over, he turned to his daughter: ‘Meg,’ he said, ‘you saw those saintly fathers; they went as cheerfully to death as if they were bridegrooms going to be married.’ The prisoners walked calmly along: they wore their clerical robes, the ceremony of degradation not having been performed, no doubt to show that a papal consecration could not protect offenders. Haughton, prior of the London Charter-House, mounted the ladder first. ‘I pray all who hear me,’ he said, ‘to bear witness for me in the terrible day of judgment, that it is not out of obstinate malice or rebellion that I disobey the king, but only for the fear of God.’ The rope was now placed round his neck. ‘Holy Jesus!’ he exclaimed, ‘have mercy on me,’ and he gave up the ghost. The other priors then stepped forward. ‘God has manifested great grace to us,’ they said, ‘by calling us to die in defense of the catholic faith. No, the king is not head of the Church of England.’ A few minutes later and these monks, dressed in the robes of their order, were swinging in the air. This was one of the crimes committed when the unlawful tiara of the pontiffs was placed unlawfully on the head of a king of England. Other Carthusians were put to death somewhat later.

    Meanwhile Henry VIII. desired to preserve a balance between papists and heretics. The Roman tribunals struck one side only, but this strange prince gloried in striking both sides at once. An opportunity of doing so occurred.

    Some anabaptists from the Low Countries were convicted on the 25th of May: two of them were taken to Smithfield and twelve others sent to different cities, where they suffered the punishment by fire. All of them went to death with cheerful hearts. The turn of the illustrious captives was at hand.

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