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.”
A Plaque Marking the Sport where Bilney Burned. Source.
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
Oliver Cromwell, general in the English Civil War and Lord Protector of England, was one of the great political leaders who took the Protestant Reformation into politics. Join us at the Reformation Wall in Geneva to the connection from Calvin to Cromwell
There are only one hundred and seventy of these books that exist today. That is all. Most publishers and authors would be disappointed at such meager results. These 170 books would never have made the “best-seller list.” But, without question, these books have had more impact on the history of civilization than all the books that have been at the top of the best seller list in the last hundred years put together. When you consider at what time in history these books were put into circulation and what were the circumstances at the time, the number one hundred and seventy is significant indeed.
These one hundred seventy books were never printed. They never rolled off any press. In fact, they were put into circulation two centuries before Johan Gutenburg ever invented moveable type. This means that each one of these one hundred and seventy books were painstakingly copied out by hand by a small group of dedicated men. They lived in the 13th century, and worked in a small chapel off to the side of a church in the Midlands of England. The church still stands today, a rough structure of gray stone that towers above the surrounding fields as a silent testimony to the activity of these men who lived and worked eight hundred years ago.
While these men worked and lived, they were considered outlaws. The work they were engaged in was considered highly illegal. These books were perhaps the most valuable books in the world. Men would give an entire month’s pay just to possess one single page of this treasure. The books were literally worth their weight in gold, that is, to the common peasants and widows of the English countryside. It was not so to the ruling religious power. These books were looked upon as a subversion of Church Authority. Wherever they were found they were seized and burned. The men who copied them out and carried them were ridiculed, mocked, and whenever they were found by the authorities, they were seized and put into custody. Many were burned to death at the stake, with their hated books chained about their necks to burn along with their flesh. Yet the truths of that book have outlasted all the fury of their enemies. Eight hundred years after they were penned, there are still one hundred seventy existing copies.
Who were these men? For what purpose did they painstakingly write out these books? Why were they so hated? Why did the bishops order the bones of their leader to be disinterred and burned to ashes and then scattered on the River Swift? Why were these books so hated? These men were called “Lollards.” There is much debate over what this name means. Some say it was a derogatory term that meant “idler,” “hoodlum,” or “vagabond.” Some say that it meant “babbler.” Others say it was not derogatory at all, but was a name proudly carried by these men, a name that meant “Psalm-singers.”
Wycliffe Sends the Lollards to Spread the Gospel
The books they so carefully copied out by hand were the first complete copies of the New Testament in the English language. Their leader was a remarkable man named John Wycliffe, called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” Two centuries before Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, he took the book of God and translated it into the language of the common people. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, so he translated from the Latin Vulgate, giving the English speaking people their very first copy of the Word of God.
A Pocket Wycliffe Translation of the Book of John
It is indeed a remarkable thing that one hundred and seventy of these hand-written English New Testaments still survive today, eight centuries after they were produced. Consider that everyone caught with one was burned at the stake and every copy found was also burned. So rare were these Bibles that for one page a peasant was willing to give a month’s wage. A whole New Testament was worth fourteen years of labor. Yet these faithful men copied them out by hand, a ten-month task, and gave them away at the cost of their very lives.
Truly, as Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The writer of the hymn, “The Bible Stands,” Haldor Lillenas (1885-1959), gives his testimony to the abiding truth of the Word of God, and the truth for which John Wycliffe spent his life’s work.
The Bible stands like a rock undaunted, ‘Mid the raging storms of time; Its pages burn with the truth eternal, And they glow with a light sublime.
The Bible stands like a mountain tow’ring, Far above the works of men; Its truth by none ever was refuted, And destroy it they never can.
The Bible stands, and it will forever, When the world has passed away; By inspiration it has been given, All its precepts I will obey.
The Bible stands every test we give it, For its Author is divine; By grace alone I expect to live it, And to prove it, and make it mine.
The Bible stands tho the hills may tumble, It will firmly stand when the earth shall crumble, I will plant my feet on its firm foundation, For the Bible stands.
In Genesis 17:7, God Almighty promised the patriarch Abraham, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been faithful to this promise throughout the ages of Christian history, for Galatians 3:9 says, “So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” In these paragraphs, we will consider how a faithful Scottish patriarch in the early 1600s trusted in this everlasting promise that God had made to him and to his believing seed.
Pastor Andrew Duncan described himself this way in his last will and testament, “a sinful wight, Christ’s unworthy minister in His glorious gospel.” Andrew Duncan was a minister of the Kirk (Church) of Scotland in the little village of Crail, in the shire of Fife. Fife lies between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth on the west coast of Scotland. Born during the days of John Knox, Andrew Duncan faithfully carried on in his own generation the work of the Reformation. He was an uncompromising and bold preacher of the Gospel. Throughout his long ministry, he and his family suffered much for the sake of the Gospel.
In 1606 Pastor Duncan was tried and found guilty of High Treason for participating in the famous Assembly of Aberdeen. At this assembly, a few bold Scottish ministers had assembled in defiance of the will of King James I. By resisting the royal prerogative of the king to rule on ecclesiastical matters, they had brought down the wrath of James. For participating in the protest at Aberdeen, Andrew Duncan was sentenced to be confined in Blackness Castle, a bleak fortress on the shore of the Firth of Forth. After an imprisonment of 14 months, Andrew Duncan was banished to France. After a brief sojourn there, he boldly returned to this native Scotland to carry on the work.
For many years Andrew Duncan traveled from place to place, preaching the gospel of Christ. He was united in marriage to a Godly young Scottish lassie, and together the Duncans raised six children. On several occasions during these hard years Pastor Duncan was arrested and often escaped very narrowly with his life.
In 1619 Duncan joined with other faithful Scottish ministers in opposing the Five Articles of Perth, in which the Scottish church was required to conform to the forms and ceremonies of the English episcopal system. For his opposition, Duncan was summoned to appear before the High Commission Court at St. Andrews. At his trial, he boldly likened the prelates who accepted the English ceremonies to Esau who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, to Balaam, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, and to Judas, who betrayed the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. For this audacious speech, the Archbishop of St. Andrews deposed Duncan and commanded him on pain of death to leave Scotland forever.
Andrew Duncan dearly loved his wife and six children and could not bear the thought of separation. Boldly, he decided to take them with him across the river Tweed to Berwick, in the extreme northern tip of England. There, just across the river from his beloved Scotland, he was still under the rule of James, but outside the reach of the Archbishop of St. Andrews. Shortly after arriving in Berwick, Duncan’s wife was near the point of delivering another child. The labor was difficult, and the lonely father despaired for the life of his wife and her unborn child. The banished minister had no friends in Berwick, and to make himself known in a search for a midwife would be to fall under the eyes of those who sought his life.
St. Andrews Cathedral
Andrew Duncan had no other recourse than to call upon the Prince of Life to send deliverance in their hour of need. Slowly, reverently, the pastor knelt on the ground, took off his Scottish bonnet, and laid it on the bed. His wife, already in the pain of delivery, took hold of her husband’s hand as he bowed his head to pray. The older children stood in solemn order around the bed, joining in their father’s petition.
It was after midnight, and the streets of Berwick were silent. As the father finished his prayer, he encouraged his wife saying, “We serve a gracious Master.” His wife acknowledged God’s goodness, expressing the hope that the God who had never forsaken them before would stand by them now. Suddenly, the snort of a horse was heard in the yard. The family froze in momentary fear at the thought of discovery. But Andrew Duncan advanced to the door to find a woman, clad in the plain but neat garment of a country gentlewoman.
Not knowing what else to do, Duncan cautiously admitted the stranger to his wife’s chamber. The visitor sent the boys, John, William, and David, scurrying to stoke up the fire. The older daughters assisted as the visitor directed. Andrew Duncan sat by the side of his wife and prayed. After a few short minutes, the visiting lady delivered the baby with no complications. When the newborn infant was washed and nestled contentedly in the weary mother’s bosom, the lady produced a basket containing provisions and an abundance of fine linen. She then handed the grateful father five pieces of gold, telling him to be of good comfort, that he and his wife should not want for anything they needed.
The visiting lady then bade the Duncans farewell. The father and children accompanied her to the yard. At the door, Andrew Duncan took her hand and asked her what her name might be, that they might know how to thank their Heavenly Father for her kindness. The lady smiled, gently shook her head, and then turned and mounted her horse. Their eyes streaming with tears of gratitude for their heavenly deliverance, the Duncans watched her ride off into the night. They saw the visitor no more. Andrew Duncan assembled his family again, asking God’s blessings upon the new little life, and thanking Him for his manifold promise, “I will be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
Amazingly, the man who was willing to be a martyr was not destined to die a martyr’s death. He had rebuked both king and archbishop, but had, like Elijah of old, always eluded their grasp. He died in his bed, surrounded by his wife and family.
He left a last will and testimony that is still treasured by the grateful descendants of this Scottish patriarch. In his testimony, he said:
I, Andrew Duncan, a sinful wight, Christ’s unworthy minister in His glorious Gospel . . . set down the declaration of my will: First, as touching myself, I leave my soul to Christ Jesus who gave it, and when it was lost, redeemed it, that He may send his holy angels to transport it to the bosom of Abraham. As for the children whom God hath given me, I leave them to His providence, beseeching Him to lead them by His gracious spirit through this evil world and make them profitable instruments, both in kirk and commonwealth, beseeching them on the other part to set God before their eyes, to walk in His ways, holding their course to that glorious and fair-to-look-on heritage, which Christ hath conquered for them, and all them that love him.
The children and grandchildren of Andrew Duncan did indeed “hold their course.” One of his sons, William Duncan, was privileged to shed his blood as a martyr as a Covenanter. Others of the Duncan children and grandchildren were banished to Virginia during the Covenanter era. From Virginia, the Duncans went over the mountains into Kentucky. To this day, Andrew Duncan has descendants who give thanks for the noble heritage of their patriarch.
There is a quiet graveyard in the hills of rural Kentucky where five generations of direct Duncan descendants lie together, awaiting the dawn of Resurrection Day, when they will rise to enjoy that “glorious and fair-to-look-on heritage” of which their noble patriarch, Andrew Duncan, spoke long ago. God does indeed stand by His ancient promise, “I will be a God to thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
The Scots Worthies by John Howie
The Story of the Scottish Church by Thomas McCrie
A Cloud of Witnesses by John Thomson
The accumulated family records of the Duncans
The snowy peaks of the rugged mountains stood out in bold relief against the black sky of the Alpine night. Even though it was summer, the cold wind whipped through the valley of the Dora River, and the tumbling cascade of water could be heard as it sped its way down the mountain gorge.
In this gorge of the Dora were camped eight hundred men. Roughly the size of David’s band of mighty men in the wilderness of Judea, these mighty men faced a daunting task. The men were Waldenses, or Vaudois. For many generations, their ancestors had raised their sheep in these Alpine meadows, cut off from the rest of the world by the rugged and inhospitable terrain of their native valleys. In these valleys their fathers and grandfathers had worshipped God in Spirit and in truth, not after the manner of Rome. They read their Bibles in their native language, sang the psalms of Zion, preached the pure Gospel, tended their farms, and raised their children to love and serve Christ. For rejecting the mass and spurning the shrines of Rome, these people of the mountain valleys had been persecuted, reviled, and scorned by most of the world for many long centuries. But no persecution had as yet been able to make them abjure their faith. The motto of the Waldense people had been this phrase, “Lux lucet in tenebris” – “the light shineth in darkness.”
But in the summer of 1689, the darkness had never been blacker. The valleys of the Waldenses lay in smoking ruins. The worst persecution in recorded Waldense history had been launched upon them by the Duke of Savoy.
Ever since 1655, their native valleys had been in the hands of the enemy. In that terrifying year, bands of brigands had been unleashed by the Savoyards upon the Waldenses. Roman Catholic Irishmen had been imported to kill and loot in the Waldense valleys. On pain of death, they had been ordered to abjure their faith and return to the Roman church. Churches had been razed to the ground or else filled with idolatrous images. Waldense pastors had been tortured to death by horrid mutilations. Nursing infants had been torn from their mothers arms and tossed into deep gorges. Wives and daughters had been savagely assaulted by brutal invaders. Though these events stand recorded, the modest pen refused to recount the awful details of these barbarities.
After several years of the most intense persecution, the Waldenses were forced out of their native valleys. They took refuge in the cantons of Protestant Switzerland. In cities like Lucerne and Geneva, these homeless pilgrims found refuge. They had lost all because they would not deny or forsake the truth.
Thirty long years of exile crawled slowly by. The Duke of Savoy invited loyal Romanists into his domain to repopulate the valleys. Irishmen from the British Isles and Italians from crowded cities to the south flocked in to inherit the well-ordered Waldense farms. Waldense churches had been reoccupied and decorated with candles, images, and altars for the mass.
Psalm 74:3-4 describes their case:
Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt. Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary. Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their ensigns for signs.
These eight hundred mighty men, encamped tonight in the gorge of the Dora, had come back to their native valleys to reclaim them for Christ.
A blazing fire illuminated the thoughtful face of the commander. He was a courageous Waldense pastor, a man named Henri Arnaud. It was he whose courage had revived the hopes of his fellow countrymen in Geneva. Arnaud saw no contradiction between his role as pastor of his flock and as military commander of this expedition. Arnaud said, “I preach and I fight: I have a double commission and these two contests occupy my soul. Zion is to be rebuilt, and the sword is needed as well as the trowel.”
Leaving their wives and children in the care of friends in Switzerland, eight hundred mighty men had set out to reconquer their valleys. The march had led them over narrow mountain trails, across dangerous precipices, and through narrow defiles. Avoiding the main roads, they sought to catch their enemies by surprise. So far, they had encountered no major force.
But on this night in the Dora Valley, Arnaud knew that on the morrow they would be forced to do battle for the Lord. Over 3,000 Savoyard troops held the high ground, blocking the Waldense path of advance. Only one bridge spanned the torrential river, and that bridge must be crossed. Though they were outnumbered over 3 to 1, Henri Arnaud sought to give courage to his men from Psalm 74. “O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever? Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? pluck it out of thy bosom.” As the morning sun painted the snowy Alpine peaks with gold, the Waldense warriors put their trust in Jehovah and committed themselves to the battle.
The resulting battle was a dramatic display of the power of God to defend His people. At the climax of the battle, the Savoyard troops had surrounded the Waldenses, and the Waldenses were taking fire from two sides. At this point, someone shouted out, “The bridge is carried.” No one knows who gave this cry of triumph. At this point, the bridge was still firmly in the hands of the enemy. Some speculated that it could have been a heavenly voice who gave the cry to cheer the hearts of the Waldense warriors. At the news, a great shout went forth from 800 manly voices. They rushed for the bridge and carried it instantly. In the confusion, the Savoyards became intermingled with Waldense warriors. Some began to cut down one another. The battle raged for two long hours. At the end of the slaughter, only 15 Waldense soldiers were killed and 12 wounded. Over 600 Savoyards had been slain, and the rest were scattered in confusion.
Captain Henri Arnaud led his men to the top of the next mountain, Mount Sci, from whose heights they could look down into their own valleys. The first town that was recaptured was the village of Prali. Arnaud led his victorious men into the church where they destroyed graven images, overthrew idolatrous altars, and removed the Roman tapestries.
A Waldensian Valley
Captain Arnaud then ascended the pulpit. In one hand was his French Bible. In the other hand was his massive sword. Laying both upon the pulpit, he opened his Bible to Psalm 74 and read the words of Scripture:
Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O LORD, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy name. O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked: forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever. Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty. O let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name. Arise, O God, plead thine own cause.” (Psalm 74:18-22)
Arnaud’s men then made the ancient church resound with the voice of psalm as the warriors sang Psalm 74 together.
God had indeed pled his cause and given rest to His children. In a few short weeks, the mighty men of Henri Arnaud had driven the enemy from the Waldense valleys, purified the churches, and restored true worship. Soon, wives and children were able to safely return and inhabit the Valleys of the Piedmont again.
Foreign courts heard of the exploits of Henri Arnaud, and numerous offers of command reached him. For a time, Arnaud was appointed a commander in the army of William III, and Arnaud’s confident leadership led the Protestant forces to an important victory at Blenheim. But after the peace of the Protestant people was assured, Arnaud turned down lucrative and important military posts to return to his own people. He lived the last portion of his life in a quiet village, serving his people as their pastor.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe The Glorious Recovery by the Vaudois of Their Valleys by Henri Arnaud The Waldenses, Sketches of Evangelical Christians of the Valleys of the Piedmont by Alexander Mitchell
The condemned prisoner could not sleep—for two reasons. The first reason he could not sleep was that it was his last night on earth, and he did not want to waste his final hours in needless slumbers. The next sunrise would be his last. The second reason he could not sleep was that his cell in the Palazzo dell’ Inquisizone was filled with chest-high water. The Tiber River had been flooded for the last twelve hours and he had no place to lie down even if he wanted to. So he stood and waited for the light of his last dawn, listening to the many church bells of the city of Rome.
The bells tolled deeply and solemnly, ringing out over the city of seven hills. During the long night, one bell reminded the Reformer of his native home far, far away. The sound brought back a rush of memories. He remembered his wee home in a Scottish glen near Aberdeen, his father and mother, his brothers and sisters. He remembered his joyful boyhood days, the bluebells and heather that adorned his native hills. He remembered his days at the University at St. Andrews, and his days as a tutor to a noble family. He remembered the day that he had devoted his life to the service of the Church, the day that he yielded his life up to the Dominican Order. He remembered his first journey to the Holy City of Rome, his interview with Cardinal Reginald Pole, and his appointment to the monastery at Bologna.
Basilica of San Domenico
He remembered especially that fateful day when he had been perusing the well-stocked library at the Dominican monastery in Bologna and his eyes fell upon a forbidden book, written by a Frenchman, titled “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” With much trepidation, he had opened the pages of this book and had begun to read. That book changed his life. He found in those pages the simple truth of the Gospel, the errors of the papacy, the emptiness of the mass, and the sufficiency of the Savior’s finished work. Soon, he had embraced the doctrines of the Reformation and had begun to speak, first in private and then in public, in favor of the new reform. Some of his brother monks at Bologna had listened. But others had reported him to the Inquisition. He had been quickly tried, defrocked, and sentenced to be burned to death at the stake.
This is what had brought him to Rome, to the Palazzo dell’ Inquisizone. As he stood, reminiscing on his past, he heard a new and growing intensity in the ring of the church bells. No longer were they merely sounding the hours. There was some great occasion, some notable event that had occurred. He waded through the water over to the window and looked out. The lurid glare of flames reflected on the floodwaters of the Tiber, giving the scene an eerie glow. In the distance, he could hear shouts.
Pope Paul IV
Unbeknownst to the imprisoned Reformer, the sitting pope, Paul IV, had died the evening before. Now the people of Rome were in an uproar. Paul IV had been a very unpopular pope. The people of Rome were in the streets giving vent to their joy. They took the marble statue of Pope Paul IV from its place in the Piazza del Campidoglio, gave it a mock trial, dragged it through the streets, and decapitated it before casting it into the Tiber.
The imprisoned Reformer heard the shouts getting nearer and nearer, not knowing what it all meant. As part of the celebration, the people stormed and sacked the Palazzo dell’ Inquisizone. The people of Rome thus released the Reformer on the very day that he would have died a martyr’s death at the stake. Thus freed unexpectedly, he slipped out of the tumultuous city before the fickle crowds could be subdued by the forces of order. The Reformer headed toward the Alps, hoping to make it to Protestant territory before he was overtaken.
The first dramatic event of his flight occurred in the outskirts of Rome. An Italian soldier searching for the escaped prisoners found a group of them in an old abandoned building, resting for the night. Our hero was among them. In the providence of God, this particular soldier had once been in need and had come to the imprisoned Reformer for help. Remembering this kindness, the soldier intentionally ignored the refugees for the sake of our hero.
A few weeks later, on a lonely mountain road in the Italian Alps, an even more remarkable event took place. As the traveler was resting by a pond, wondering how he was to continue his journey without provisions, he was approached by a large black dog. The dog walked deliberately up to the Reformer. The traveler noticed that the dog carried a bag in his mouth. The dog deposited the bag into the Reformer’s hand and walked on, his mission accomplished. As the trembling hands of the Reformer opened the bag, he found that it was a purse full of gold.
The Reformer never saw the dog again. The Jesuits who later heard the incredible story of their enemy’s deliverance claimed that, since the beast was black, the dog must have been the Devil in canine form. The Protestants all united in ascribing the deliverance to the Lord who says, “every beast of the forest is mine.” The Lord who opened the mouth of the donkey, who summoned the ravens to feed Elijah in the dry wadi, who rode the unbroken colt into Jerusalem, is the same Lord who sent the dog to the assistance of His servant.
The Lord of dogs, and men too, had more work for our hero to perform. The Reformer safely crossed the Alps, using the purse of gold to defray expenses along the way. He went to Germany and eventually made his way back to his native Scotland.
He reached Scotland in 1561 just as his native land was openly embracing the Reformed faith. The returning exile was joyfully welcomed by John Knox, who made him his colleague in Edinborough. He was appointed minister at Holyrood Palace and assisted John Knox in opposing the popery of Mary Queen of Scots. During this time, our hero became a great enemy of the Earl of Bothwell. He also served as the assistant to John Knox at the Kirk of St. Giles, standing shoulder to shoulder with Knox for a decade. The author of the Scot’s Worthies said of our hero that he was “a bold opposer of every encroachment made upon the crown and dignity of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
On one occasion, the Earl of Arran, a great enemy of the Reformation, mocked our hero, calling him a “false friar.” Our hero replied calmly, “Mock the servants of God as thou wilt, God will not be mocked, but shall make thee find it in earnest, when thou shall be cast down from the high horse of thy pride, and humbled.” A few short years after this bold prediction, the Earl of Arran was thrown from his horse in battle. His corpse was eaten by dogs and swine before it could be buried. God thus vindicated His faithful servant. For the rest of his long and active life, our hero preached truth, rebuked error, taught children, and wrote a very popular catechism.
King James as a boy
The most enduring service ever rendered by our hero was performed in 1580, when he authored a short declaration of the Reformed Faith for the young prince James. It was called “The King’s Confession.” King James lived to repudiate and despise it, but this short and bold document became the core of one of the most important documents in Scottish history, the “National Covenant,” expanded and embraced by the following generation in 1638. Our hero never lived to see the days of the Covenanters, but he was their forerunner, a man loved and honored by the mighty men of his day. Sadly, the name John Craig is today almost entirely forgotten.
In the year 1595, at the ripe age of 83, John Craig heard again the summons of death. It had been many years since he had faced death on the banks of the Tiber River. John Craig had lived to see his native land submit to the Law of God. He had authored the document that would give courage and resolve to a new generation of Reformed Scots. The God that had sent a dog to assist him in the Italian Alps now sent His messenger again, this time not in the form of a black dog but in the resplendent garments of celestial glory, to welcome His servant into eternal rest. Bibliography
The Scots Worthies by John Howie The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne The Story of the Scottish Church by Thomas McCrie
A thin, awkward, and nervous young man ascended the steps to the high pulpit. The crowd looked at their new preacher. In appearance, he was not much to see. He was of medium height, had brown hair, and was noticeably thin. His prominent nose stuck out from his face and caused some people to hide their smiles. Was this the best that Florence, Italy, could produce?
Florence was the center of art and culture. Here lived Michelangelo and other famous artists of the Renaissance. The powerful Medici family ruled this opulent city, and their palace was stunningly adorned with all that money could buy. Silks, jewels, paintings, art, theatre, and literature made this one of the preeminent cities in all of Europe.
Into this city had come a young man in the plain black robe of a Dominican friar. The young man announced his text. He was awkward in his delivery. His eyes were riveted upon his manuscript. His voice faltered. But he preached the Word of God.
The city of Florence was used to oratory, to fine metaphysical discussions on the writings of the ancients. Here, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages were revered. Humanists studied Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, and the gay and pleasure-loving populace loved oratory.
Instead they got the Bible, for beneath the black robe lay a heart that beat warmly for God’s truth. The young monk was weary of sophistry that cloaked iniquity. He had seen what went on in the monasteries, and his tender conscience trembled at the abominations that went on behind closed doors. His father’s family had disowned him, and he had given his life up to the service of God and His truth.
Slowly, steadily, the little friar in the black robe preached. Week after week, he opened his Bible and preached, not in the Latin of the ecclesiastical liturgy, but in the vernacular Italian of the streets. At first, the crowds dwindled. One Sunday, there were but 25 faithful souls that attended his preaching.
Gradually people began to come back. It was as though all of Europe was awakening. While the powerful families like the Medicis regaled themselves in their splendor, the middle classes were thirsty for truth. The reigning pope had come to the triple crown by a parade of sins: fornication, simony, and nepotism. Harlots were as common in Rome as were priests. Billowing clouds of sweet incense disguised the reeking stench of moral corruption. Rich vestments covered lustful hearts and gluttonous appetites. Candles were lit in vain to hide the thickening darkness. The common people were growing weary of the hypocrisy and corruption all around them.
The preaching of the black-clad friar gradually became more and more pointed, more and more keen. In his Bible he found that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He found that his Lord had rebuked the ungodly religious leaders of His day who had turned the Temple of God into a den of thieves.
Like Christ, this young friar saw whited sepulchers, but he knew that within were dead men’s bones. Wherever he saw error, he preached against it. Some of his statements were so pointed that they became startling. One day, looking out at the fancy dresses, plaited hair, and painted faces of the ladies of his congregation, he said, “Ye women, who glory in your ornaments, your hair, your hands, I tell you, you are all ugly.” To the astonished ladies, the ugly monk with the prominent nose described true inner beauty, the “meek and quiet spirit” which is in the sight of God of great price.
Fixing his eyes upon the humanists who boasted of their learning, he said, “A simple old woman knows more of the truth than Plato.” Of the Renaissance paintings, he said, “your art is an idolatry of heathen gods, or a shameless display of naked men and women.” Of bishops and cardinals, he cried, “O Lord! Arise and deliver us from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates.”
The results were astounding. In their secret chambers, young ladies with tear-streaked faces and pounding hearts discarded their fashionable garb and wore simple and modest dresses. Learned men gathered their books of Platonic philosophy and exchanged them for Bibles. The crowds swelled. As with Jesus of Nazareth, the common people heard him gladly. This young friar was saying truthful things that they had long suspected, but were too timid to say.
The cathedral of San Marco was, before long, filled with 12,000 men, women, and children hanging upon every word spoken by their earnest preacher. Large fires were kindled in the streets of Florence called “Bonfires of Vanities.” Into these blazing fires were thrown lewd and idolatrous paintings, immodest garments, gambling dice, lascivious poetry, humanistic literature, and Platonic books.
The powerful preaching of the black friar had not gone unnoticed, and the priests and powerful nobles resented the insolent monk who rebuked their sins. Lorenzo de Medici, one of the most wealthy men in Europe, sent the earnest preacher a large gift of money and fine flatteries for his oratory, with a request that he dull the sharp edge of his preaching. The little man in the black robe replied, “A faithful dog does not leave off barking in his master’s defense because a bone is thrown to him.”
Gifts would not silence him. Threats would not silence him. Excommunication would not silence him. All Europe took notice when the worst pope in history issued a papal bull to silence the best monk. Scorning the papal bull, the black friar announced to his astonished congregation,
I hereby testify that this Alexander is no pope, nor can he be held as one; inasmuch as leaving aside the mortal sin of simony, by which he purchased the papal chair, and daily sells benefices of the Church to the highest bidder, and likewise putting aside his other manifest vices, I declare that he is no Christian, and believes in no God.
All of Europe trembled to its foundation when a friar announced that the pope of Rome was no Christian. Like John the Baptist, this friar clad in a black garment had spoken the truth. Also, like John, this friar would seal the truth with his blood.
In 1498, on the brink of the Reformation, the friar ascended a rough scaffold. In a solemn voice, the prelate read the sentence of excommunication and the defrocking of the heretic. The little man with the prominent nose was shaved and defrocked, and stood now clad in only a simple white tunic.
As the hooded executioner advanced to perform his office, the pope’s man slowly said, “I separate thee from the church militant and triumphant.” The little friar said his last words on earth, “You have no power to separate me from the church triumphant to which I go.” The order was given. The little man was shoved from the platform, and his neck broke with an audible crack. The worst pope had just killed the best monk.
But the church triumphant had gained another martyr to the truth. Within one generation, the truth preached by this friar would be embraced by half of Europe. In Germany, a young man named Martin Luther was studying law. In France, a princess named Marguerite had recently been born. In Switzerland, a young shepherd boy named Ulrich Zwingli was memorizing the New Testament. The little man in a black robe had ignited a spark that would never go out.
Let it not be said that succeeding generations of Protestant Christians forget the noble courage of the Italian friar with the prominent nose. He was willing to say what no one would: that fashion was ugly, that Plato was a fool, that art was lewd, that prelates were liars, and that the pope was no Christian.
The faithful dog had indeed barked in his Master’s defense. Wherever truth is preached, wherever boldness is honored, wherever Christ is worshiped in purity, the name of Girolamo Savonarola should be remembered and loved.
Girolamo Savonarola by Douglas Bond and Douglas McComas
The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
A slender young boy slipped out of his bed to prepare himself for the biggest event of his life. He was a small, sickly-looking boy, but his eyes shone with a radiant luster that seemed to glow with an inner light. Some remarked of him that he was an “angel in the body of a boy.” But this boy, a humble Christian, would have been the last to call himself an angel
Before getting dressed, he slipped to his knees to pray. This was a habit he carried all through his life. Kneeling beside his bed, he prayed a prayer that his tutor had taught him and he had memorized,
Almighty and most merciful Father, I have erred and strayed from Thy ways like a lost sheep. I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart. I have offended against Thy holy laws. I have left undone those things which I ought to have done; and I have done those things which I ought not to have done; and there is no health in me. But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon me a miserable offender. Spare Thou me, O God, which confess my faults, restore Thou me, that am penitent; according to Thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for His sake, that I may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of Thy holy name. Amen.
These words are now famous as one of the important prayers in the English Book of Common Prayer. But in this day, they were the words composed by a Godly preacher named Thomas Cranmer for the personal use of his young charge, a prince named Edward. The boy prayed this prayer, not as liturgy, but as the fervent prayer of a humble heart.
Finishing his prayer, Edward allowed his servants to enter his private chamber in the Tower of London. They were already waiting to attend him. For three full weeks, they had been preparing for this event. They dressed their young master in a long gown of crimson velvet. The outer garments were embroidered with silver and gold. Rubies were set in his belt. Upon his head was placed a white cap set with diamonds and pearls. As the boy emerged onto the street, he was greeted by a shout of triumph from crowds assembled in the streets, “God save the King!”
Edward was only nine years old, but today was the procession to his coronation ceremony as King Edward VI, ruler of one of the most mighty and respected kingdoms on the face of the earth. In spite of the warmth of his long velvet robe, he trembled at the weight of responsibility he now carried. A pang of sadness also passed over him as he thought upon the event that made this day so important. Only recently he and his two sisters had wept together over the death of their father. The crown had passed by dynastic law to the head of Edward, the only son.
Edward VI around 1550
Finally, the young king was ready. First there would be a royal procession from the Tower of London through the streets of the city to Westminster Abbey, where the coronation ceremony was to take place on the following day. A magnificent horse was brought forward, and the young king had to be lifted onto the back of the noble steed. Bishops, dukes, lords, and officers took their places in the royal train.
Three swords were brought forward, emblematic of the three kingdoms under his dominion. These swords were to be carried in the procession. Edward now spoke up with a remark that surprised his attendants, “One sword is yet wanting.”
For a moment, the attendants thought they had omitted something in the royal ceremony. Had a treaty been made, a kingdom added, that they were unaware of? No. The youthful king had in mind a different sword. When the nobles and attendants inquired what the king meant, Edward replied,
The Bible. That book is the Sword of the Spirit, and to be preferred before these swords. That ought in all right to govern us, who use them for the people’s safety by God’s appointment. Without that sword we are nothing, we can do nothing, we have not power. From the Bible we are what we are this day. From it we receive whatsoever it is that we at present do assume. He that rules without it is not to be called God’s minister or king. Under the Bible, the word of God, we ought to live, to fight, to govern the people and to perform all our affairs. From it alone we obtain all power, virtue, grace, salvation, and whatsoever we have of divine strength.
At these words, a Bible was brought and carried in the royal procession in front of young King Edward. At Westminster, the king was prepared for the official coronation, which was to take place the following day.
On this next day, at Westminster Abbey, the King was brought before the people. The King of England lay prostrate before the Throne of God as Thomas Cranmer prayed for Divine Blessing upon the new king. Edward was anointed with oil, and then the Crown Imperial was placed upon his head. The crown he wore was actually a reproduction, specially made to fit his small head. Trumpets sounded in the hall as the people cried, “God save the King.”
Thomas Cranmer, the minister of God, now gave a charge to the king. For the first time in many long years, a King of England was crowned, not by the authority of the Roman Pope, but by the authority of Jesus Christ. Cranmer announced,
Not from the bishop of Rome, but as a messenger from my Saviour Jesus Christ, I shall most humbly admonish your Royal Majesty what things your highness is to perform.
Cranmer then proceeded to give the king a charge from the Bible. He quoted the duties of a king from the Book of Deuteronomy. He admonished King Edward to see that Jehovah be worshipped in truth, to destroy idolatry, and to banish the tyranny of Roman bishops from his dominions. He commanded him “to reward virtue, to avenge sin, to justify the innocent, to relieve the poor, to procure peace, to repress violence, and to execute justice” in his dominions.
Cranmer then compared the young king to Josiah, the eight year old king of Judah of whom it was written “while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father: and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images” (II Chronicles 34:3).
Concluding his address, Cranmer invoked the blessing of the God of David, Solomon, and Josiah upon the head of the new English monarch, “The Almighty God in His mercy let the light of His countenance shine upon your majesty, grant you a prosperous and happy reign, defend you, and save you; and let your subjects say, ‘Amen, God save the King.’”
Edward VI reigned only six short years. But his brief reign was a model of Godliness. Cranmer once said of the young king that he had “more divinity in his little finger than we have in our whole bodies.” Edward wrote a scholarly treatise “Against the Primacy of the Pope” when he was only 12 years old. He outlawed the idolatrous mass in England, enforcing the prohibition even against his own sister, Mary. His tender letters to his older sisters are a model of gracious but firm Christian witness. He elevated Godly preachers such as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to places of influence. He also secured the release of John Knox from the French galleys, paving the way for the Scottish Reformation. On the practical side, Edward founded schools for the poor and hospitals for the needy. Under his reign thirty-four editions of the English Bible were printed and disseminated over the land. This was all less than a decade after William Tyndale, the translator, had been burned at the stake.
Edward VI died at the age of fifteen. Bishop Hopper wrote of his life and death, “He died young but lived long, if life be action.” Edward VI has been called, and rightly so, the “British Josiah.” His example serves as an enduring model of what a Christian ruler over a Christian people ought to be. The “Sword of the Spirit” was the guiding rule of his life and reign, and God’s Word did not return void.
The British Josiah by N. A. Woychuk The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne