Happy Reformation Day 2014!

95ThesenOn this day in 1517 Martin Luther tacked the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was the initial blow in what eventually led to the Protestant Reformation.

During the Reformation, the Bablyonian captivity of the church was broken, the power of anti-christ was weakened, and the Word of God was given back to the people of God.

The Protestant Reformers fought for the following 5 ideals, referred to as the 5 Solas:

1) Scripture Alone
2) Faith Alone
3) Grace Alone
4) Christ Alone
5) Glory to God Alone

Each year on Reformation Day, I write up a short bio on one of the heroes of the Reformation. This year our annual Reformation Day series will focus on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – reformer of the English church. This history of the English reformation has particular interest for Baptists, as it is a distant part of our own history. During the 16th Century, those within the Church of England that were frustrated with the slow pace of reform were called Puritans. Those Puritans that separated from the CoE were called Separatists, Independants, and Congregationalists. It is from this Puritan-Separatist movement that our early Baptist forefathers sprang. In a certain sense then, the history of the English Reformation is the history of the Baptists.


Cranmer was born in 1489 in Nottinghamshire, England. He attended Cambridge University at 14 years of age and completed Bachelors and Masters degree classical studies. After his University studies he married, but his wife died in child birth. Cranmer returned to his studies at Cambridge and earned a Doctorate of Divinity in 1526, during the Lutheran reformation. Though Cranmer was well read on Lutheran reform ideals, he preferred the humanist teachings of Romanist Desiderius Erasmus. He entered priestly ministry after completing his studies and was called into the service of King Henry VIII in 1527.

King Henry VIII

Henry VIII was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, his dead brother’s widow, by his father (Henry VII) in 1502. The two married in 1509. The marriage was considered controversial due to the Levitical prohibition against marrying a brother’s wife (Lev. 18 and 20). When Catherine could not bear Henry VIII a son (she only bore a daughter Mary in 1516), it was believed that God’s judgement rested upon Henry for this sin and Henry appealed to the Pope to annul the marriage. In the Popes delays and hesitations to decide the matter, Cranmer was consulted to write a book on the matter in which his “declaration not only quoted the authority of the Scriptures, of general councils, and the ancient writers, but maintained that the bishop of Rome had no authority whatever to dispense with the Word of God. The king asked him if he would stand by this bold declaration, to which replying in the affirmative, he was deputed ambassador to Rome” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).

First Contact with Reformers

Cranmer had already come to the conclusion that the Word of God trumps the Pope’s power, but had not yet become a reformer himself. Living in the continent, however, afforded Cranmer the opportunity to travel and come into contact with several important German and Swiss reformers. Cranmer began, during this stage to appreciate some of the Lutheran reforms and even took a wife in Regensburg, Germany; instead of taking a mistress as was the priestly custom of the day.

Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1532 Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII. As Archbishop, he annulled the marriage of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and married the king to Anne Boleyn, who bore the king another daughter, Elizabeth. Later, he annulled the marriage of Henry and Anne, who, after several miscarriages, was falsely executed for adultery and treason.

Sadly, Cranmer also oversaw the death of an English reformer, John Frith, who denied the Roman doctrine of the real presence. However, over the next several years, Henry developed stronger and stronger sympathies with the reformed cause and eventually broke ties with Rome and began to replace his bishops with reformers. By 1539, English pulpits issued forth sermons featuring expositions of the English Bible (the Great Bible of 1539 translated by Myles Coverdale).

Also in 1538 (and again in 1539) Lutheran delegates were invited to England to explore the combination of the CoE and the Lutheran reformed churches. The alliance was very nearly complete but fell short and a handful of petty issues. After this failed effort, the English Parliament passed an act that enforced the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist, clerical celibacy, and confession. Alarmed at this and fearing for the future, Cranmer sent his family back to Lutheran Germany for safety. Later, in 1543, Parliament acted again to prevent reformation of religious materials and restrict Bible reading to the nobility.

In spite of actions of Parliament to the contrary, and conspiracies by his religious foes to have him executed for treason and heresy, Cranmer won the King’s implicit trust and began slowing pushing for reform. By 1544, services were conducted in English and the Roman mass was nearly abolished. Cranmer published a set of ‘official’ CoE homilies, required to be preached in every church. In them, Cranmer criticized Roman liturgy and monasticism and advocated justification through faith. In 1547, Cranmer preached reformed faith in Christ to a dying King Henry instead of performing last rites. Upon Henry’s death, Cranmer grew a long beard in solidarity with the continental reformers.

King Edward VI

Under the reign of the boy King, Cranmer pushed reform further, in spite of the threatenings and curses of the Roman Catholic council of Trent (1545-1563). He made England a safe haven for persecuted reformers on the continent, including Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, and others, who had a profound effect on the reform of English liturgy, law, and doctrine. He even attempted, but sadly in vain, to have a conference to unite the English reformation with those of the continent (Melancthon, Bullinger, and John Calvin). In 1549 Cranmer made his most famous reform, the publication of the CoE Book of Common Prayer, which contains the liturgy for the daily prayer and Communion services of the church.

Bloody Queen Mary

In 1553, King Edward VI started dying from tuberculosis and made his last will and testament in which he named Protestant Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. After his death, Mary, Henry VIIIs daughter asserted her right to the throne and raised support amongst those that supported a return to Catholicism and those the disregarded the King’s dying wish in favor of a natural line of succession. Mary took the throne and had those that supported Lady Jane and the protestant cause imprisoned. Peter Martyr was able to flee England, but other great heroes of the faith including: Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley decided to stay and continue to defend the truth – all three were sent to the Tower of London!

In November 1553, Cranmer and others were found guilty of heresy and condemned to die. In 1555, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer were re-tried under the authority of the Pope of Rome. Ridley and Latimer glorified the resurrected Christ by being burned to death by antichrist on 16 October of that year, with Cranmer being forced to watch.

Cranmer’s Death

In 1556 Cranmer, in a moment of weakness, assented to sign a letter recanting his reformed faith. The letter renounced Luther and Zwingli and embraced the authority of the Pope and Queen Mary, and accepted Roman theology including transubstantiation and the rest of the sacraments. Cranmer was told he must make a final public recantation in a sermon at University Church. Half way through the sermon, the Spirit roused Cranmer to deviate from his script. He recanted his recantation, repented of his sin of turning from the reformed faith. He stated that if he must be burned in the fire, that he wished his right arm to burn first – the arm that signed the antichrist’s false recantation. According to Foxe, Cranmer stated:

“And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”

Foxe continues:

Cranmer would have proceeded in the exposure of the popish doctrines, but the murmurs of the idolaters drowned his voice, and the preacher gave an order to “lead the heretic away!” The savage command was directly obeyed, and the lamb about to suffer was torn from his stand to the place of slaughter, insulted all the way by the revilings and taunts of the pestilent monks and friars.

…A chain was provided to bind him to the stake, and after it had tightly encircled him, fire was put to the fuel, and the flames began soon to ascend.

Then were the glorious sentiments of the martyr made manifest; then it was, that stretching out his right hand, he held it unshrinkingly in the fire until it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, “This unworthy right hand.”

…his eyes were lifted up to heaven, and he repeated “this unworthy right hand,” as long as his voice would suffer him; and using often the words of Stephen, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” in the greatness of the flame, he gave up the ghost.

Thomas Cranmer placing his right arm in the fire.

Prior Reformation Day Posts


One thought on “Happy Reformation Day 2014!

  1. Pingback: Happy Reformation Day 2015! | Abraham's Seed

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