This year, 2017, marks an important year in the history of God’s providential dealings with man. This is the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, the Reformation cannot be reduced to a single event or to a single man. The Lord used many men over many years to prepare the way. John Wycliffe, John Hus, Girolamo Savonarola and many others were used in their day as witnesses to the truth. But it is not without reason that Martin Luther and the year 1517 are remembered as the dawn of the Reformation.
Centuries of scholasticism, rationalism, and man-made innovation had clouded the waters of truth. Religion had been gradually synthesized with paganism, and the Roman church was nothing like the church of the first century. The Roman pontiff, Leo X, was an ambitious and conniving man who had attained the papacy by a parade of sins. It was said of him that he would have been a wonderful pope “if, in addition to his other virtues, he would have only been religious.”
Rome was becoming more and more glorious outwardly, but more and more corrupt inwardly. Like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, the church appeared beautiful on the outside, but within it was “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, and all such man-made devices could not satisfy a holy God. When “the fullness of time was come,” God raised up a champion to confront the corruption of his day. J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, in his massive 7,000-page history of the Reformation, introduces Martin Luther with these stirring words:
All was ready. God who prepares his work through ages, accomplishes it by the weakest instruments, when his time is come. To effect great results by the smallest means—such is the law of God. God selected the reformers of the Church from the same class whence he had taken the apostles. He chose them from among the lower rank, which, although not the meanest, does not reach the level of the middle classes. Everything was thus intended to manifest to the world that the work was not of man but of God.
Martin Luther was born to a poor miner in the village of Eisleben. Providence directed his parents to send him to Magdeburg to obtain an education. His parents, aware of their own poverty, wanted their son to become a successful man. Young Martin became discontented with the study of law, and in a severe thunder storm, he vowed to St. Anne that he would become a monk if she would save him from the terror of God’s wrath.
Luther’s Parents, Hans and Margarethe
Luther labored many years under the chains of guilt and spiritual darkness. He tried every way he knew to obtain pardon and peace. Masses, vigils, penance, flagellation, and vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were devoutly followed—but in vain. D’Aubigne says:
To be able to deliver his age from the miserable superstitions under which it groaned, it was necessary for him first to feel their weight. To drain the cup, he must drink it to the very dregs.
In mercy, God eventually sent the young monk a kind and compassionate friend in the monastery, John Staupitz. Staupitz was used of God to point Martin away from his own guilt to the righteousness and mercy of the Redeemer.
Luther’s heart was not relieved in a single moment. But over the course of several weeks, he began to find comfort and peace in the very Scriptures which had once condemned him. It was in these months that Romans 1:17 became precious to Luther, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
Luther himself described his conversion thus:
Although I was a holy and blameless monk, my conscience was nevertheless full of trouble and anguish. I could not endure these words—the righteousness of God. I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood these words, when I learnt how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our Lord through faith, then I felt born again like a new man. I entered through the open doors into the very paradise of God. Henceforward also, I saw the beloved and Holy Scriptures with other eyes. As previously I had detested with all my heart these words—the righteousness of God—I began from that hour to value them and to love them, as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this language of St. Paul was to me the true gate of paradise.
The simplicity of justification by faith soon became the very theme of Luther’s preaching and writing. Luther was made a professor at the University of Wittenberg and was also consecrated as the priest of the Castle Church.
In 1517, great controversy erupted in Saxony. An ignorant and itinerant monk named Tetzel entered the area, peddling a Roman indulgence. This pompous monk travelled about in a splendid carriage and carried a large red cross with him. He urged people to buy a piece of paper that promised them pardon for all sins—past, present, and future. The proceeds would be used to build St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Of course, Tetzel also got his share. One bold knight, seeing an opportunity for a joke, asked Tetzel if the indulgence covered future sins. Teztel assured him that it did indeed. Several days later, Tetzel was ambushed on the roadside by this same knight—who emptied Tetzel’s chest of money. When Tetzel angrily brought suit in a local court of law, the knight produced his indulgence and reminded the irate monk that he had promised forgiveness for all future sins. The case was thrown out of court, and Tetzel did not recover the money.
The Door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg
Luther attacked Tetzel in a more direct way. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This event is recognized by many as the official date of the dawn of the Reformation. Here are a few of Luther’s most probing statements:
27. They preach mere human follies who maintain that as soon as the money rattles in the strong box, the soul flies out of purgatory.
43. If the pope knew of the extortions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather the mother-church of St. Peter were burnt and reduced to ashes, than see it built up with the skin, the flesh, and the bones of his flock.
52. To hope to be saved by indulgences is a lying and empty hope although even the pope himself should pledge his own soul for them.
82. Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?
Martin Luther has sometimes been criticized for not going far enough. But this is a haughty and proud charge for all of us who benefit from Luther’s courageous stand. Rather than criticizing Luther for not going far enough, we should thank God for Luther’s courage to go as far as he did. Here are some of Luther’s famous and lasting achievements:
1. Luther was the first to successfully stand against papal power. Men before him had been burned to death for daring to resist the pope. Luther burned the papal bull, asserting that the pope was merely a man, subject to the authority of the Word of God, which is supreme in home, church, and state. As he said at Worms, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God . . . Here I stand.”
2. Luther translated the Bible into German. His skillful translation wove together the various dialects, creating what would later become the German literary language.
3. Luther restored congregational singing and worship. “Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott” – “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is only one of many hymns that he wrote and set to music to edify the people of God.
4. Luther set a pattern for what a pastor’s home ought to be. His marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525 was a source of joy to Luther. His happy home became a haven of peace, fellowship, and contentment. Other reformers would follow Luther’s example.
By the time that Luther died in 1546, the truth he had championed was triumphant not only in Germany, but also in England, France, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Others would come along and build on Luther’s work, but God had used him to prepare the way. He had shown the world the simple power of these words, “The just shall live by faith.”
The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
Gaspard de Coligny was an admiral in 16th century Catholic France. He converted to Protestantism and became a leader of the Reformation in France. But on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 he fell, a martyr.
A French warship drifted slowly along the coast of Scotland, ominously symbolizing the bondage of the Scottish people. It was a cold icy day, and fog hung closely around the ship so that the shoreline was barely visible through the mist. A prisoner was on board, a thin man who was already past the prime of life. His body was worn down from many months as a galley slave. His health was broken. His back was sore, and he had recently been very sick. It had been many months since he had seen his native land. But as the fog began to lift, a few of his fellow-prisoners lifted their companion up so that he could peer toward the shore. They asked him what he saw. The sunken eyes of the sick man looked up through the fog, squinting to make out the skyline of the coastal town of St. Andrews, with its frowning castle and massive cathedral spires, the stronghold of Roman Papal power in Scotland. Suddenly, his eyes gleamed with life. He sat erect at his oar, trembling with hope and triumph. “Yes,” said the prisoner, “I know it well. For I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth for His glory, and I am fully persuaded, how weak that ever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify His goodly name in that same place.”
It seemed merely the vain and delirious hope of a dying man. At this time, Scotland was in the complete grip of a foreign power. A French woman named Mary of Guise was Queen Regent of Scotland, and she sat on the throne in behalf of the princess, Mary Stuart, who was being reared across the channel in the opulent court of France, drinking deeply of French customs, French religion, and French morals as well. The French fleet had been called in to enforce French power, and it seemed that Scotland would never be free from darkness, tyranny, and oppression in church and state. The powerful bishops held complete sway in the land, and simony, adultery, nepotism, and various other sins were notorious among the clergy. St. Andrews was the stronghold of their power.
The few bold Reformers who had dared preach the truth, men like Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, had been burned to death at the stake. On that cold and foggy day, it seemed that light and truth were gone forever from Scotland. But the light of truth burned brightly in the heart of one man. If all despaired, he would not despair. Let Queen, Regent, Pope, and council rage as they will, Jesus Christ still sat on the Throne. Although he was weak, John Knox prayed with firm resolve, “Lord, give me Scotland, ere I die.”
The God of heaven can work a mighty change in a brief period of time. Sometimes, our Lord changes a culture, a nation, a civilization slowly over the course of many centuries. But the God who brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and stretched out arm can still work a mighty revolution in a few short years. So it was in Scotland. In only ten years, Scotland would be changed forever. Far away in London, a young king named Edward VI took the throne of England. He had a burning zeal for God’s truth. By his intervention, the galley slaves were released from French vessels.
In 1549, John Knox became a free man. God was answering Knox’s prayer. All across Scotland, the hearts of noblemen, farmers, merchants, seamen, fishermen, and soldiers were being opened. English Bibles from the south found their way into homes. In 1551, Knox was invited to London to become the chaplain for Edward VI. After Edward died, Mary Tudor took the throne and Knox was forced to flee to the continent. Again, it seemed his hopes were vain and empty. In 1553, John Knox became pastor of an English-speaking church in Geneva. Away from loved ones, hopes, plans, and ambitions, Knox prayed on: “Lord, give me Scotland, ere I die.” In 1555, Knox secretly returned to Scotland. He sought to urge the nobles of Scotland to do their duty, and throw off the yoke of idolatry. He preached and taught wherever he had a hearing, right under the noses of his enemies. While in Scotland, John Knox married Marjory Bowes and took his young wife to the safety of Geneva.
In 1558, from Geneva, Knox wrote a series of three blazing letters. The first he titled “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” In this treatise, he proclaimed that the rule of female monarchs was a judgment upon Scotland for her idolatry. At the same time, Knox also wrote his “Appellation to the Scottish Nobility,” in which he pleaded with the noblemen to abhor idolatry, renounce the authority of the Pope, bow to the supremacy of the Law of God, and purge the land of oppression in church and in state. The third letter was a “Letter to the Commonalty of Scotland,” urging upon fishermen, shepherds, and farmers their duty before God.
These three treatises had a remarkable effect upon the realm of Scotland. Psalm 110:3 declares, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power.” The Lord always makes his people willing to act when the day of His power comes. Soon after these letters were sent, several noblemen, soon to be called “the Lords of the Congregation,” wrote to Knox, asking him to return to Scotland and lead them in the work of Reform.
In 1559, John Knox returned in triumph to his native land. Only ten years before, he had been a galley slave on a French ship, peering through the fog at the Cathedral of St. Andrews. Now, he was back. It was a dramatic showdown of power. St. Andrews was the stronghold of Papal power in Scotland. The Queen Regent hated Knox for his “Blast of the Trumpet” and for his defiance of her tyranny and idolatry. Knox had been publicly burned in effigy, and he knew the enemy sought his life. Knowing of Knox’s intention to come to St. Andrews, the Bishop sent a message to the Lords of the Congregation, threatening to have 100 spearmen outside the church to prevent Knox from entering that pulpit.
Knox Preaching Before the Lords of the Congregation
Knox was not a man to quail before such threats. He said, “My life is in the hands of Him whose glory I seek, and therefore I fear not their threats.” The Lords of the Congregation backed Knox with their own men-at-arms, and Knox entered the pulpit of St. Andrews and boldly preached against the Queen and the Bishop, asserting that Jesus Christ is supreme in church and state. To the astonishment of all, the civil magistrates of St. Andrews agreed to rid the town of all monuments of idolatry. Altars of mass were overthrown, images were toppled, carvings were chiseled out of niches, artwork was removed from walls, candles were snuffed out, and the pulpit became the simple and central focus of public worship. Immediately, the Queen Regent launched her troops against the Reformers. The Lords of the Congregation would not back down, but banded together to defend with the sword of civil power the Gospel that Knox preached.
Knox Before Queen Mary
In 1560, the Queen Regent died, and the young Mary Queen of Scots came to rule the realm in her own right. John Knox became pastor of the Church of St. Giles in Edinborough where he preached the truth right down the street from the palace of the new Queen. Mary Queen of Scots was young, beautiful, and persuasive, but Knox could not be moved by tears, smiles, threats, or false promises. During one interview, Mary Queen of Scots said that her conscience was assured that the Roman religion was correct. Knox replied respectfully but boldly, “Conscience, Madam, requireth knowledge; and I fear that right knowledge ye have none.” He also told her, “If princes exceed their bounds, Madam, no doubt they may be resisted, even by power.”
On another occasion, when Mary wept bitterly over Knox’s rebuke of her immorality, he answered “I never delighted in the weeping of any of God’s creatures, but seeing I have spoken the truth as my vocation craves of me, I must sustain your Majesty’s tears rather than betray my Commonwealth through my silence.” Eventually, the young queen’s bad morals and secret plots became so outrageous that Mary was deposed and convicted of treason, adultery, and idolatry.
By the time of Knox’s death in 1572, Scotland was thoroughly Reformed. The pulpits were aflame with truth. The Lords of the Congregation were triumphant. Idolatry was outlawed throughout the land. The Scottish nobility had boldly united in covenant to uphold the Law of God throughout the realm. When Knox was dying, he asked his wife to read from John 17, the passage instrumental in his conversion many years earlier, saying, “there I cast my first anchor.” One of the Scottish earls said of Knox, “There lies one who in his life never feared the face of man.”
In our current crisis, we need the confident hope of Knox. America cannot be made great by a political party or a conservative candidate. A nation will only prosper when it will unite in covenant to acknowledge Christ as King and His Word as Law.
Knox’s Native Scotland
The Reformation in Scotland by John Knox John Knox: A Biography by Peter Brown Knox and the Reformation Times in Scotland by Jean L. Watson The Scots Worthies by John Howie
A solitary medical doctor urged his horse forward into the cold and foggy November night. Behind him lay the safety, warmth, and comfort of a fort. Ahead lay danger, mystery, and a long ride back to his isolated Presbyterian mission station called “Waiilatpu” – the place of rye grass. In the wee hours of the morning, Marcus Whitman rode into the mission compound at Waiilatpu. Ten years earlier, this had been a wilderness, inhabited only by wild beasts and wild men. Now there were cultivated fields, orchards, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and a gristmill. This clearing had come to represent a clash between two cultures. On one side of the clearing were the lodges of the Cayuse, where even now could be heard the muffled death wail of a bereaved Indian family. On the other side of the clearing were five covered wagons, a vivid picture of Westward expansion.
In the middle of these two cultures stood Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Ten years ago, they had left their homes in rural New York to come into this wilderness with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some Cayuse had welcomed their influence, had abandoned their pagan ways, and had come to embrace Christianity. They had ceased their witchcraft, their murder, and the horrid practice of burying alive their unwanted children. These Cayuse had learned to cultivate the ground, to raise cattle, and to love their children. But some Cayuse had not appreciated the Whitmans’ sacrifice. Fear, resentment, and suspicion ran deep. In the last few weeks, muttered threats and secret pow-wows had broken out into open resentment. Indians were dying of a measles epidemic despite the best efforts of Marcus. It was a Cayuse custom to kill a “tewat” – medicine man, if his patient died. Marcus knew that the Indians also resented the growing influx of white men from the east. But Marcus could not change history. He could only do what he could to help the Indians adapt to a changing world.
Marcus dismounted at the T-shaped mission house. It was late, and Marcus was tired. But he sent his wife, Narcissa, to bed so that she could get some needed rest, her last on earth. Marcus took her place attending the sick children, white and red alike, who needed his aid through the rest of the night.
Perhaps a great flood of memories swept over Marcus that night. He recalled the day when he, as a young medical doctor sitting in a church in rural New York, first heard the missionary Samuel Parker tell of the tribes beyond the distant Rockies. He remembered the day that Narcissa Prentiss had agreed to become his wife. He remembered how, at their wedding, Narcissa had requested that the congregation sing the great missionary hymn, “Can I Leave You?” He remembered that, by the fifth verse, the song was stifled by sobs as his courageous bride sang alone this stanza:
In the deserts let me labor,
On the mountains let me tell,
How he died—the blessed Saviour
To redeem a world from hell!
Let me hasten, let me hasten,
Far in heathen lands to dwell.
They had already given so much. Narcissa, so young and eager, was already broken in health. Marcus too was worn with care and toil. And not far away, Alice Clarissa, their only child, rested in a shallow grave—drowned in the Walla Walla river at the tender age of two. The Whitmans had sacrificed wealth, home, family, friends, society, and their own health to come and labor here. But they still had one thing more they could give. The supreme test of their loyalty would come with the dawn of a new day.
The Whitman’s Mission
On November 29, 1847, a band of hostile Cayuse came to the main mission house, demanding medicine. Marcus had dealt with angry men before, and he hoped for the best. He could not deny their request and reached for his bag. One of the Cayuse warriors stepped behind Doctor Whitman, drew a concealed tomahawk from his belt, and slammed the blade into the base of the doctor’s skull. A shot was fired, and instantly all was confusion. Narcissa must have known what the gunshot meant. But she did not panic. Her first thought was not for herself, but for the little orphan girls of the Sager family who depended upon her. Bolting the door to her room, she gathered the children about her as a general massacre began outside. The fury of the murderers would not be restrained even by the sight of women and children. A gun was thrust into the window, and a bullet tore through Narcissa’s shoulder, wounding her severely.
Several of the immigrants from the east were slain in the yard. A ministerial student named Andrew Rogers, a descendant of Scottish Covenanters, could have escaped, but instead he ran toward the compound to defend the women and children and was mortally wounded in the process. With his life’s blood ebbing away, Andrew Rogers fought on. Getting Narcissa and the orphan girls upstairs into a loft, he kept the murderers at bay for over an hour with the broken end of a gun barrel. At last, the wounded Narcissa was lured out of the house by promises of safety. On the way out, she passed her husband lying in a pool of blood. Amazingly, he was yet alive. Their conversation was brief, but he assured her of his love for her and his confidence in God’s eternal purposes. As Narcissa came trustingly outside, a volley rang out and she was instantly pierced by several balls. She had given her all for the Cayuse. She had nursed the Indian children, taught them to read the Bible, taught them to pray, and to sing the name of Jesus. She had been faithful unto death, and now was to receive the crown of life.
The Death of Marcus Whitman
The massacre did not end with the killing of the Whitmans. All the able-bodied men the Indians were able to find were massacred. Helpless women and children were savagely abused and held ransom for almost a month. Finally, the women and children were saved after a thrilling rescue. After a search that took several years, justice was eventually served upon all of the murderers. Some of the murderers were tracked into the Blue Mountains by a Christian Nez Perce chief, and some of the guilty Cayuse were slain in battle. Five of the murderers, including the two men who personally slew Marcus and Narcissa, were brought to trial and convicted of capital murder by a jury that included converted Indians.
What became of the martyrdom of Doctor and Mrs. Whitman? Was their sacrifice in vain? Did a young doctor and his bride waste their potential when they went “far in heathen lands to dwell”?
The obscure mission station called Waiilatpu was obscure no more. Newspapers in the east were soon ablaze with the stirring account. In those days of slow mail, the newspaper was the way that relatives in New York first learned of the martyrdom. Judge Prentiss, as he read the headlines handed him by his grieving wife, must have remembered the image of his daughter, an eager young bride, singing:
In the deserts let me labor,
On the mountains let me tell,
How he died—the blessed Saviour
To redeem a world from hell!
A great wave of interest in missions swept across the United States in the coming years. Boys and girls, inspired by the courage of the Whitmans, took up the banner of Christ. Henry Spalding, a steadfast friend of the Whitmans who labored at Lapwai, a mission station east of Waiilatpu, returned to the field after the tragedy, reaping a great harvest that had been sown among the Cayuse and Nez Perce. A converted chief named Timothy became an earnest and dedicated Christian. Spalding’s church in Idaho still exists to this day as a testimony to the martyred missionaries.
In the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. stands a statue of Marcus Whitman, clad in buckskins. He holds a Bible in one hand, and saddlebags full of medical supplies in the other. His life and influence have not been in vain for Marcus and Narcissa served a God who has promised, “My word shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)
Drawn from Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford Drury
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
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.
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
The church was yet young. The day had come of which Jesus had spoken in Matthew 10:
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. (Matthew 10:16-20).
That time had come. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was on the throne. These were the days when Christians were fed to the lions in the Arena at Rome, the days when the catacombs were full of earnest believers who met together to strengthen and encourage one another for the trials of life. Throughout the Empire, Christianity was spreading at an alarming rate for the Roman emperors. In spite of fire, sword, and beastly fury, Roman officers and even high government officials were being converted from paganism to serve the true and living God of Heaven.
In a somewhat obscure city in Asia Minor, in present day Turkey, far from the seat of Imperial power in Rome, there lived an elderly pastor who had long escaped the fury of the power of Rome. He was well into his eighties, and for many years he had pastored his church. In fact, he was so old, that as a young boy he could have been a contemporary of the Apostle John.
The year was 162 A.D. The place was none other than the city of Smyrna, for that is where this elderly pastor shepherded his congregation. Christ himself had written a letter to this church. The words of our Lord to the church of Smyrna contained not a single rebuke, and they glow with warmth.
And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death. (Revelation 2:8-11)
Perhaps our elderly hero, as the pastor of this church, treasured these words in his bosom, and carried them with him wherever he went. For over 80 years, he lived in relative peace. Persecution did rage in the city, and the enemies of the gospel had sought his life, but he himself had always been able to escape martyrdom.
But one day, he was betrayed and the place of his residence was discovered. The soldiers rushed into his chamber and demanded that he follow them. The venerable old man asked the young soldiers to give him a season of prayer before he left. Stunned and bewildered by this strange request, the young soldiers saw no reason to deny the man this simple request. Many of these young soldiers were so touched by the fervency and tenderness of his prayers that they later repented.
The elderly man was brought before the Roman proconsul of the province and was condemned to be burned alive in the market place. Perhaps the words of Christ came back to him, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer . . . be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
The appointed day arrived. The old man was led to his place in the open agora, the market place where public executions were held. A stake awaited him. It was usual practice in Roman times to nail victims to the stake. But the old man had given his word of honor that he would not require the nails. He would stand immovable.
As the elderly hero took his position at the stake, the proconsul, knowing the frailty of the old man’s frame, took pity upon his victim and gave him an opportunity to recant. “Swear, and I will release thee – reproach Christ.”
The answer of the venerable man has gone down in history as among the most famous “last words” of a dying martyr. A hushed silence from the assembled throng awaited his reply. Fixing his aged eyes upon the proconsul, the old man gave his answer, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who has saved me?”
The order was given. The torch was applied to the fagots, and the flames leaped upward. But to the astonishment of the crowd, the flames curled upward and around the elderly martyr, leaving him in the middle of the flames, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, untouched by the flames. It was as if the flames themselves were protesting the execution and refusing to touch this elderly servant of God.
A dramatization of the death of Polycarp
The entire assembly had the opportunity to observe this singular miracle. Finally, the executioner was ordered to run the old man through with a sword, which he did. But upon this act, such a quantity of blood flowed out, that the fire was extinguished. The old man soon died, and his dead body was burned to ashes, but his spirit had long risen to the God who gave it, and we can be sure that the Lord Jesus Christ advanced to the portals of heaven to welcome His faithful servant into His presence, and to give him the promised reward, “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
The man’s name was Polycarp of Smyrna. Many have at least heard the name, but few know the details of his martyrdom. His life and testimony set the pattern for the long train of men, boys, matrons, and maids that would follow his example and lay down their lives for the sake of the Gospel throughout Christian history.
This article was drawn from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
It was a disgusting scene. What had begun as a sober and important council of war to discuss the affairs of a besieged American city had become a drunken party. Officers were behaving like drunken privates. Lucid statements of military defense had become boisterous shouts of confidence, confidence inspired by the illusions of liquor rather than by concrete plans of sound strategy.
The successful defense of Charleston, South Carolina, was vital to the Patriot cause. This proud seacoast city, having already resisted several attacks by the British navy, was now assaulted by a combined land and naval force that was quickly cutting off all hope of escape or of help from friendly armies.
The American officers charged with Charleston’s defense had met to discuss affairs even as the British tightened their hold on the harbor. The tavern keeper, in whose tavern the meeting was held, was a selfish man who desired to profit from his customers’ fondness for drink. He kept the liquid flowing, and the conversation became more and more boisterous as the night crept into the wee hours of the morning.
In the middle of this wild hubbub of drunken officers sat a slim, athletic figure of medium height. He was a good officer of French Huguenot descent who had played a leading role in the defense of the city in the past. He was resolved again to do his best or perish in the attempt. But he was becoming disgusted with the conduct of his drunken comrades.
Knowing that meaningful statements were now rare and that any clear remarks he could make would be lost upon the drunken ears of his comrades, he decided to leave the meeting and return to his post of duty. But when he tried to leave the upper room of the tavern, he found it locked. The tavern keeper had locked the officers in the room so they could have their fill of rum and give him a good profit.
Now the only sober man in the place, the Christian officer looked for a way out of his dilemma. He was a very abstemious man who, in the hard days of active field campaigns, often subsisted on sweet potatoes and water. He would not become drunk, and he sought a way out of the room.
There was only one way of escape, a window. He opened the window and looked out. The ground was a long way off, but he was an athletic man, and he thought he could make the jump and get out of the drunken company he was in. Deciding to try, he made the leap. But in falling, his ankle turned the wrong way, and his ankle was broken badly.
To his deep chagrin, he had to be taken out of the city on a litter. He had longed to play his part in the defense of Charleston, but now he would be able to play no role in her defense. He was disappointed, frustrated, and dismayed by the lack of military preparedness among his comrades. But he was advised that he should leave the city and head into the interior of South Carolina to recover from his broken ankle. There was but one safe way out of the city, and on this route he was removed to a place of safety.
In only a few days, the city was environed by the enemy, and General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered the city of Charleston to the British forces. The vast majority of commissioned officers in the Southern Department had all become prisoners of war. But our hero’s noble resolution not to become drunk had, in the providence of God, preserved him at a crucial period of South Carolina history.
Now one of only a handful of officers in the State of South Carolina who held a commission from the Continental Congress, our hero began to plot how to field a viable force that would oppose the advances of the enemy. After his recovery, he gathered a small band of men that would become famous in the history of South Carolina’s struggle for liberty.
Today, every South Carolinian knows the name, or at least should know the name, of General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” as he was called by the British. But few know the story of how his resolution not to get drunk preserved him from becoming a prisoner of war in the fall of Charleston.
For three long and grueling years, Francis Marion harassed the British forces in South Carolina. With a fluctuating force of mounted men and boys, General Marion succeeded in baffling the most determined efforts of the British to destroy his command. Emerging from the dismal swamps, he would strike the British column, disperse pickets, raid supplies, cut communications, and capture isolated posts.
Marion Shares a Meal with a British Officer
“Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee and comrade in arms of General Marion, said of his friend,
Fertile in stratagem, he struck unperceived, and retiring to those hidden retreats selected by himself in the morasses of the Pee Dee and Black rivers, he placed his corps, not only out of reach of his foe, but often out of the discovery of his friends—never elated by prosperity, nor depressed by adversity, he preserved an equanimity which won the admiration of his friends and exalted the respect of his enemies.
Finally, a real army was sent south to his assistance, and the British were slowly and gradually drawn out of the state by such able generals as Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan. Francis Marion continued to render assistance, raiding British posts in concert with the efforts of Greene and Morgan.
The supreme American commander in the South, General Nathanael Green, gave this glowing tribute to the labors of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” in a personal letter,
Certain it is, no man has a better claim to the public thanks than you. History affords no instance wherein an officer has kept possession of a country under so many disadvantages as you have. Surrounded on every side with a superior force, hunted from every quarter with veteran troops, you have found means to elude their attempts, and to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia, when all succor seemed to be cut off. To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory is nothing, but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and to inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.
After the war, Francis Marion went on to a useful life of agriculture and service in the South Carolina Senate. He married a Godly lady of Huguenot ancestry like himself, but they never had children. Marion had a bright Christian testimony and once gave this testimony of the power of the Gospel, “The religion of Jesus Christ is the only sure and controlling power over sin.” Marion died peacefully in February of 1795 beloved by the grateful people whom he had served so well. His tombstone reads:
History will record his worth,
and rising generations embalm his memory,
as one of the most distinguished patriots and heroes
of the American Revolution;
which elevated his native country
to honor and Independence,
and secured to her the blessings of liberty and peace.
This tribute of veneration and gratitude
is erected in commemoration
of the noble and disinterested virtues of the citizen,
and the gallant exploits of the soldier,
who lived without fear, and died without reproach.
The bold deeds of the “Swamp Fox” have stirred the hearts of each generation. Young Thomas Jackson held Marion as his foremost boyhood hero, and the subsequent campaigns of Jackson, Stuart, and Mosby reflect Marion’s exploits in South Carolina.
But were it not for his resolute decision to jump from a window to avoid drunkenness, Marion would have been captured along with the rest of the officers defending Charleston and would never have been able to liberate his native state from the clutches of the enemy. A man’s resolution to do right may seem insignificant, but the God of providence can do great things with such resolute and obedient men.
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to announce a new series brought to us by John Huffman recounting the stories of the great mighty men of the past. You can expect new posts several times a month over the coming year.
The Bible presents us with the historical records of the “mighty men” of Scripture. The lives of Abraham, Joshua, Gideon, David, Benaiah, Jehoiada, Josiah, Isaiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and Tychicus are described and held up to us as noble examples. Following these Biblical narratives, the “Tales of Mighty Men” seeks to preserve the record of the “mighty men” of Christian history. Each issue in this series gives a brief biographical sketch of the life and character of a specific “mighty man.” Some of these men were warriors. Some were pastors. Some were civil magistrates. Some were merchants or farmers. Some were famous. Others were unknown in their generation. These stories range in time from the earliest days of the Roman persecutions all the way up to our modern era. Reformation martyrs, Waldense soldiers, Scottish Covenanters, Hawaiian princes, English Puritans, American patriots, French Huguenots, and bold missionaries traversing the interior regions of Africa are presented here. It is my prayer that these sketches will encourage, inspire, and edify a new generation of “mighty men” and “virtuous women.” Each biographical sketch ends with book recommendations so that the interested reader can learn more about the heroes presented.