Thomas Bilney: The Flame Shall Not Kindle Upon Thee
A thin and frail man sat huddled over an open book as a candle shed its feeble light upon the open page. The book was opened to Isaiah 43:1-2:
Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
Looking up from the passage, Thomas Bilney looked long and hard into the yellow flame on the top of his candle. He cautiously reached out his finger toward the flame, but the hot fire defied his approach and he pulled back in alarm and dismay. If he could not touch the candle, how would he have the courage to face the flames of the stake tomorrow morning?
This question plagued the soul of Thomas Bilney, for he had always been a shy man, hardly the man to be considered a “mighty man of valor.” In fact, he had been just the opposite. He had even faced the stake before and had renounced the truth in order to spare his life. He shuddered as he remembered the awful guilt that had crushed his heart since that day of denial. He leaned back and closed his eyes, remembering the steps that had brought him a second time to the fire.
Thomas Bilney had been born in Norwich, the very city in which he now sat awaiting the dawn of his final morning on earth. During those days of boyhood and early manhood, Thomas Bilney had groped in the darkness of human reason. A bright lad, Thomas was sent off to the University of Cambridge. There, he filled his mind with knowledge, but his heart was empty of any real truth. He made splendid advancement in the arts and sciences, but could not satisfy his hunger for truth. Thomas wrote of these days, “I spent all that I had upon these ignorant physicians.” Confessions, vigils, fastings, and penance could bring but temporary relief to his troubled heart.
One spring day in 1519, the scholar heard of a new book edited by a man named Erasmus. It was a Greek text of the New Testament set side by side with a new Latin translation done by Erasmus. Thomas Bilney was drawn to the new book out of his scholastic love for the ancient languages, for Greek was fast becoming the talk of all Europe. Bilney went into the streets and finally found a copy. But just as he reached out for it, he drew back in fear. He was well aware that the authorities at Cambridge forbade any Greek and Hebrew Bibles, calling them “the sources of all heresies.” But Bilney’s curiosity overcame his fear, and he purchased the volume of the Greek New Testament and tucked it under his scholastic gown.
Back in his room, Bilney drew out the volume and began to read. Hour after hour came and went as he poured over the words of Holy Scripture. In the pages of that book he found what he had long sought. He was particularly struck by a passage from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy,
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (I Timothy 1:15)
That night, Thomas Bilney was converted to Christ. Fasts, vigils, pilgrimages, purchases of indulgence all had failed. Christ had done on the cross of Calvary what Thomas Bilney could not do for himself. No longer did Bilney seek the chambers of the prelates. He had heard the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Soon, the eager young disciple found kindred spirits at Cambridge. Over a period of several years, a few young men began to meet and discuss the Scriptures at a place in Cambridge called the White Horse Inn. Here were gathered men such as John Lambert, Matthew Parker, John Rogers, Miles Coverdale, John Frith, and William Tyndale. They were men of various interests and backgrounds, but all were united in their love for the Novum Testamentum, and they became known as “the Scripture men.” They were not all at Cambridge at the same time, but Bilney was an important friend to all of them, and his influence and example impacted their lives. Bilney was personally responsible for the conversion of Hugh Latimer, a splendid scholar who joined the little group at White Horse Inn in 1524. All these men knew and loved Bilney as their friend. He was kind, gentle, quiet, unassuming, and patient. The more rugged spirits of bold men like Parker, Rogers, and Tyndale were strongly drawn to the gentle Bilney, and they called him by the affectionate name “Little Bilney.” His short stature and frail body matched this name well.
In 1527 “Little Bilney” was arrested and threatened with death if he would not recant. A stronger man like Luther or Knox would have stood firm, but “Little Bilney” had wilted under the fierce threatenings and had renounced his errors. Immediately after his recantation, Bilney was oppressed with a deep sense of guilt and unworthiness. Like Peter, Bilney had denied his Lord and had gone out and wept bitterly.
For over a year, Bilney languished under these doubts and fears. He doubted whether or not God had accepted him. He feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He was overwhelmed with the thought that, as he had been ashamed of Jesus, so the Son of Man would one day denounce him before the Father. By degrees, Bilney recovered and resolved that he would intentionally get arrested again. This occurred in Norwich in 1531.
Now, he faced the fire a second time. What would the morrow bring? Would his courage fail again? Would “Little Bilney” again deny his Lord? His mind was filled with doubt as he considered his own frailty, but filled with encouragement as he thought of the Lord visiting Peter on the shore of Galilee. Like Peter, perhaps the Lord had given him another opportunity to seal with his blood the testimony of Christ.
As Bilney thought on these things, he heard the sound of steps outside his cell. He looked up to find his friend from the White Horse Inn, Matthew Parker, future Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I. Parker, knowing the frailty and timidity of “Little Bilney,” had come to strengthen him. But Parker found that his words were unnecessary.
The man who had failed once would not fail a second time. Pointing to the open Bible before him, Thomas Bilney slowly recited these words to his friend, “when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Then, with a steady hand, Bilney stretched out his finger again into his small candle. Matthew Parker watched in amazement as his timid friend resolutely held his finger perfectly still as the flame burned the flesh from the finger. This was not a presumptuous test of God, but a firm act of reliance upon the truth of Scripture. We do not know whether Bilney felt the searing heat of that flame, but we do know that God gave him in that moment the grace to bear it.
On the morrow, “Little Bilney” did not waver from his purpose. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, “Little Bilney” raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake.
As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt was bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.”
With that dying prayer of faith, “Little Bilney” sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal. But in that fire was One like unto the Son of Man, the Christ who had promised “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe
Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane
The Psalms in History and Biography by John Ker
History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne