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Why were our Reformers burned?

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 2 Nov 2017

J.C.Ryle's Church Association Lecture from 1867.

“It is fashionable in some quarters to deny that there is any such thing as certainty about religious truth, or any opinions for which it is worth while to be burned. Yet, 300 years ago, there were men who were certain they had found out truth, and content to die for their opinions.”

So begins J.C. Ryle’s Church Association lecture, given 150 years ago. If it were true then, how much more it is true of our society today. And so it is still instructive for us to consider the stories of those men (and indeed, 55 women and 4 children), who held fast to their trust in the true gospel, even though it cost them their lives in the most painful and humiliating ways. He sketches the history of several martyrs, including John Rogers, John Philpot, John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Robert Farrar, John Bradford, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer, lamenting that he has not space to tell their whole stories, nor many more similar ones.

He concludes this section of the lecture,
“But I will say boldly that the men who were burned in this way were not men whose memories ought to be lightly passed over, or whose opinions ought to be lightly esteemed. Opinions for which ‘an army of martyrs’ died ought not to be dismissed with scorn. To their faithfulness we owe the existence of the Reformed Church of England. Her foundations were cemented with their blood. To their courage we owe, in a great measure, our English liberty. They taught the land that it was worth while to die for free thought. Happy is the land which has had such citizens! Happy is the Church which has had such Reformers!”

Ryle continues with an exploration of the specific doctrinal point for which these Reformers died: the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Was the body and blood of Christ truly present in the bread and the wine, as the Roman Catholic church asserted? Hear what John Bradford said on the matter:

“The chief thing which I am condemned for as an heretic is because I deny in the sacrament of the altar (which is not Christ’s Supper, but a plain perversion as the Papists now use it) to be a real, natural, and corporal presence of Christ’s body and blood under the forms and accidents of bread and wine; that is, because I deny transubstantiation, which is the darling of the devil, and daughter and heir to Antichrist’s religion.”

He explains exactly why the doctrine of transubstantion is opposed to the true gospel, and then identifies the particular threats of his day, in the form of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford movement. But the rallying cry with which he ends his lecture is one for every age:

“In the name of the Lord let us set up our banners. If ever we would meet Ridley and Latimer and Hooper in another world without shame, let us contend earnestly for the truths which they died to preserve. The Church of England expects every Protestant Churchman to do his duty. Let us not talk only, but act. Let us not act only, but pray.

Men and brethren, there is a voice in the blood of the martyrs. What does that voice say? It cries aloud from Oxford, Smithfield, and Gloucester, “Resist to the death the Popish doctrine of the Real Presence, under the forms of the consecrated bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper!”

Read the whole lecture here.

Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society

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