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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 4 — Tyndale's New Testament arrives in England

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Bilney's Labors at Cambridge – Hugh Latimer – His Education – Monkish Asceticism – Bilney's Device – Latimer's Conversion – Power of his Preaching – Wolsey's College – The Bishops try to Arrest the Evangelization – Prior Buckingham – Bishop of Ely and Latimer – Dr. Barnes and the Augustine Convent – Workers at Cambridge – Excitement at Cambridge and Oxford – Desire for the Word of God – Tyndale's New Testament Arrives in London – Distributed by Garret in the City – in Oxford – over the Kingdom – Its Reception by the English People.

WHILE the English New Testament was approaching the shores of Britain, preparations, all unsuspected by :men, were being made for its reception. The sower never goes forth till first the plough has opened the furrow. Bilney, as we have already said, was the first convert whom the Greek New Testament of Erasmus had drawn away from the Pope to sit at the feet of Christ. When Tyndale was compelled to seek a foreign shore, Bilney remained behind in England. His face was pale, for his constitution was sickly, and his fasts were frequent; but his eye sparkled, and his conversation was full of life, indicating, as Fox tells us, the vehement desire that burned within him to draw others to the Gospel. Soon we find him surrounded by a little company of converts from the students and Fellows of Cambridge. Among these was George Stafford, professor of divinity, whose pure life and deep learning made his conversion as great a loss to the supporters of the old religion as it was a strength to the disciples of the Protestant faith. But the man of all this little band destined to be hereafter the most conspicuous in the ranks of the Reformation was Hugh Latimer.

Latimer was the son of a yeoman, and was born at Thurcaston, in Leicestershire, about the year 1472. He entered Cambridge the same year (1505) that Luther entered the Augustine Convent; and he became a Fellow of Clare Hall in the year (1509) that Calvin was born. Of a serious turn of mind from his boyhood, he gave himself ardently to the study of the schoolmen, and he so drank in their spirit, that when he took orders he was noted for his gloomy asceticism. The outbreak of what he deemed heresy at Cambridge gave him intolerable pain; he railed spitefully against Stafford, who was giving lectures on the Scriptures, and he could hardly refrain from using violence to compel his companions to desist from reading the Greek New Testament. The clergy were delighted to. see such zeal for the Church, and they rewarded it by appointing him cross-bearer to the university. [1] The young priest strode on before the doctors, bearing aloft the sacred symbol, with an air that showed how proud he was of his office. He signalized the taking of his degree as Bachelor of Divinity, by delivering a violent Latin discourse against Philip Melancthon and his doctrines.

But there was one who had once been as great a zealot as himself, who was watching his career with deep anxiety, not unmingled with hope, and was even then searching in his quiver for the arrow that should bring down this strong man. This was Bilney. After repeated failures he found at last the shaft that, piercing Latimer's armor, made its way to his heart. "For the love of God," said Bilney to him one day, "be pleased to hear my confession." [2] It was a recantation of his Lutheranism, doubtless thought Latimer, that was to be poured into his ear. Bilney dropped on his knees before Latimer, and beginning his confession, he unfolded his former anguish, his long but fruitless efforts for relief, his peace at last, not in the works prescribed by the Church, but in the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world; in short, he detailed the whole history of his conversion. As he spoke, Latimer felt the darkness within breaking up. He saw a new world rising around him – he felt the hardness of his heart passing away – there came a sense of sin, and with it a feeling of horror, and anon a burst of tears; for now the despair was gone, the flee forgiveness of the Gospel had been suddenly revealed to him. Before rising up he had confessed, and was absolved by One who said to him, "Son, be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee." So has Latimer himself told us in his sermons. His conversion was instantaneous.

That ardor of temperament and energy of zeal, which Latimer had aforetime devoted to the mass, he now transferred to the Gospel. The black garment of asceticism he put off at once, and clothed himself with the bright robe of evangelical joy. He grasped the great idea of the Gospel's absolute freeness even better than Bilney, or indeed than any convert that the Protestantism of the sixteenth century had yet made in England; and he preached with a breadth and an eloquence which had never before been heard in an English pulpit. He was now a true cross-bearer, and the effects that followed gave no feeble presage of the glorious light with which the preaching of the Cross was one day to fill the realm.

While the day was opening on Cambridge, its sister Oxford was still sitting in the night, but now the Protestant doctrines began to be heard in those halls around which there still lingered, like a halo, the memories of Wicliffe. Wolsey unwittingly found entrance here for the light. Intending to rear a monument which should perpetuate his name to after-ages, the cardinal projected a new college at this university, and began to build in a style of most unexampled magnificence. The work was so costly that the funds soon fell short. Wolsey obtained a supply by the dissolution of the monastery of St. Fridewide, which, having been

surrendered to the Crown, was bestowed by Henry on the cardinal. A Papal bull was needed, and procured, to sanction the transfer. Wolsey, protected by this precedent, as he thought, proceeded to confiscate a few smaller monasteries; but a clamor arose against him as assailing the Church; he was compelled to stop, and it was said of him that he began to build a college and ended by building a kitchen. But the more vital part of the college went forward: six public lectureships were established – one of theology, one of civil law, one of medicine, one of philosophy, one of mathematics, and one of the Greek language. Soon after Wolsey added to these a chair of humanity and rhetoric. [3] He sought all through Europe for learned men to fill its chairs, and one of the, first to be invited was John Clark, a Cambridge Master of Arts, learned, conscientious, and enlightened by the Word of God; and no sooner had he taken his place at that famous school than he began to expound the Scriptures and make converts. Are both universities to become fountains of heresy? asked the clergy in alarm. The bishops sent down a commission to Cambridge to make an investigation, and apprehend such as might appear to be the leaders of this movement. The court sat down, and the result might have been what indeed took place later, the planting of a few stakes, had not an order suddenly arrived from Wolsey to stop proceedings. The Papal chair had again become vacant, and Wolsey was of opinion, perhaps, that to light martyr-fires at that moment in England would not tend to further his election: as a consequence, the disciples had a breathing-space. This tranquil period was diligently improved. Bilney visited the poor at their own homes, Stafford redoubled his zeal in teaching, and Latimer waxed every day more bold and eloquent in the pulpit. Knowing on what task Tyndale was at this time engaged, Latimer took care to insist with special emphasis on the duty of reading the Word of God in one's mother tongue, if one would avoid the snares of the false teacher.

Larger congregations gathered round Latimer's pulpit every day. The audience was not an unmixed one; all in it did not listen with the same feelings. The majority hung upon the lips of the preacher, and drank in his words, as men athirst do the cup of cold water; but here and there dark faces, and eyes burning with anger, showed that all did not relish the doctrine. The dullest among the priesthood could see that the Gospel of a free forgiveness could establish itself not otherwise than upon the ruins of their system, and felt the necessity of taking some remedial steps before the evil should be consummated. For this they chose one of themselves, Prior Buckingham, a man of slender learning, but of adventurous courage.

Latimer, passing over Popes and Councils, had made his appeal to the Word of God; the prior was charged, therefore, to show the people the danger of reading that book. Buckingham knew hardly anything of the Bible, but setting to work he found, after some search, a passage which he thought had a very decidedly dangerous tendency. Confident of success he mounted the pulpit, and opening the New Testament he read out, with much solemnity, "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee." This, said he, is what the Bible bids us do. Alas! if we follow it, England in a few years will be a "nation full of blind beggars." Latimer was one of those who can answer a fool according to his folly, and he announced that next Sunday he would reply to the Grey Friar. The church was crowded, and in the midst of the audience, planted right before the pulpit, in the frock of St. Francis, sat Prior Buckingham. this fancied triumph could yet be read on his brow, for his pride was as great as his ignorance.

Latimer began; he took up one by one the arguments of the prior, and not deeming them worthy of grave refutation, he exposed their absurdity, and castigated their author in a fine vein of irony and ridicule. Only children, he said, fail to distinguish between the popular forms of speech and their deeper meanings – between the image and the thing which the image represents. "For instance," he continued, fixing his eye on Buckingham, "if we see a fox painted preaching in a friar's hood, nobody imagines that a fox is meant, but that craft and hypocrisy are described, which are so often found disguised in that garb." [4] The blush of shame had replaced the pride on Buckingham's brow, and rising up, he hastily quitted the church, and sought his convent, there to hide his confusion.

When the prior retired in discomfiture, a greater functionary came forward to continue the battle. The Bishop of Ely, as Ordinary of Cambridge, forbade Latimer to preach either in the university or in the diocese. The work must be stopped, and this could be done only by silencing its preacher. But if the bishop closed one door, the providence of God opened another. Robert Barnes, an Englishman, had just returned from Louvain, with a great reputation for learning, and was assembling daily crowds around him by his lectures on the great writers of antiquity, in the Augustine Convent, of which he had been appointed prior. From the classics he passed to the New Testament, carrying with him his audience.

In instructing his hearers he instructed himself also in the Divine mysteries of the Pauline Epistles. About the time that the eloquent voice of Latimer was silenced by the Bishop of Ely, Barnes had come to a fuller knowledge of the Gospel; and, tenderly loving its great preacher, he said to Latimer one day, "The bishop has forbidden you to preach, but my monastery is not under

his jurisdiction; come and preach in my pulpit." The brief period of Latimer's enforced silence had but quickened the public interest in the Gospel. He entered the pulpit of the Augustine Convent; the crowds that gathered round him were greater than ever, and the preacher, refreshed in soul by the growing interest that was taken in Divine things by doctors, students, and townspeople, preached with even greater warmth and power. The kingdom of the Gospel was being established in the hearts of men, and a constellation of lights ]had risen in the sky of Cambridge – Bilney, the man of prayer; Barnes, the scholar; Stafford, whose speech dropped as the dew; and Latimer, who thundered in the pulpit, addressing the doctors in Latin, and the common people in their own mother tongue – true yokefellows all of them; their gifts and modes of acting, which were wonderfully varied, yet most happily harmonized, were put forth in one blessed work, on which God the Spirit was setting his seal, in the converts which, by their labors, were being daily added to the Gospel.

This was not as yet the day, but it was the morning – a sweet and gracious morning, which was long remembered, and often afterwards spoken about in terms which have found their record in the works of one of the converts of those times -

"When Master Stafford read,
And Master Latimer preached,
Then was Cambridge blessed." [5]

Similar scenes, though not on a scale quite so marked, were at this hour taking place in Oxford. Almost all the scholars whom Wolsey had brought to fill his new chairs evinced a favor for the new opinions, or openly ranged themselves on their side. Wolsey, in selecting the most learned, had unwittingly selected those most friendly to Reform. Besides Clark, whom we have already mentioned, and the new men, there was John Fryth, the modest but stable-minded Christian, who had been Tyndale's associate in preparing an instrumentality which was destined soon and powerfully to dispel the darkness that still rested above England, and which was only feebly relieved by the partial illumination that was breaking out at the two university seats of Cambridge and Oxford.

A desire had now been awakened in the nation at large for the Word of God, and that desire could be gratified not otherwise than by having the Scriptures in its own tongue. The learned men of England had been these nine years in possession of Erasmus' Greek and Latin New Testament, and in it they had access to the fountain-heads of Divine knowledge, but the common people must receive the Gospel at second hand, through preachers like Latimer. This was a method of communication slow and unsatisfactory; something more direct, full, and rapid could alone satisfy the popular desire. That wish was about to be gratified. The fullness of the time for the Bible being given to England in her own tongue, and through England to the world in all the tongues of earth, had now come. He who brings forth the sun from the chambers Of the sky at his appointed hour, now gave commandment that this greater light should come forth from the darkness in which it had been so long hidden. William Tyndale, the man chosen of God for this labor, had, as we have seen, finished his task. The precious treasure he had put on board ship, and the waves of the North Sea were at this hour bearing it to the shores of England.

Tyndale had entrusted the copies of his New Testament, not to one, but to several merchants. Carrying it on board, and hiding it among their merchandise, they set sail with the precious volume from Antwerp. As they ascended the Thames they began to be uneasy touching their venture. Cochlaeus had sent information that the Bible translated by Tyndale was about to be sent into England, and had advised that the ports should be watched, and all vessels coming from Germany examined; and the merchants were likely to find, on stepping ashore, the king's guards waiting to seize their books, and to commit themselves to prison. Their fears were disappointed. They were allowed to unload their vessels without molestation. The men whom the five pious merchants had imagined standing over the Word of God, ready to destroy it the moment it was landed on English soil, had been dispersed. The king was at Eltham keeping his Christmas; Tonstall had gone to Spain; Cardinal Wolsey had some pressing political matters on hand; and so the portentous arrival of which they had been advertised was overlooked. The merchants conveyed the precious treasure they had carried across the sea to their establishments in Thames Street. The Word of God in the mother tongue of the people was at last in England.

But the books must be put into circulation. The merchants knew a pious curate, timid in things of this world, bold in matters of the faith, who they thought might be willing to undertake the dangerous work. The person in question was Thomas Garret, of All Hallows, Honey Lane. Garret had the books conveyed to his own house, and hid them there till he should be able to arrange for their distribution. Having meanwhile read them, and felt how full of light were these holy books, he but the more ardently longed to disseminate them. He began to circulate them in London, by selling copies to his friends. He next started off for Oxford, carrying with him a large supply. Students, doctors, monks, townspeople began to purchase and read. [6] The English New Testament soon found its way to Cambridge; and from the two universities it was in no long time diffused over the whole kingdom. This was in the end of 1525, and the beginning of 1526. The day had broken in England with the Greek and

Latin New Testament of Erasmus; now it was approaching noontide splendor with Tyndale's English New Testament.

We in this age find it impossible to realize the transition that was now accomplished by the people of England. To them the publication of the Word of God in their own tongue was the lifting up of a veil from a world of which before they had heard tell, but which now they saw. The wonder and ravishment with which they gazed for the first time on objects so pure, so beautiful, and so transcendently majestic, and the delight with which they were filled, we cannot at all conceive. There were narratives and doctrines; there were sermons and epistles; there were incidents and prayers; there were miracles and apocalyptic visions; and in the center of all these glories, a majestic Personage, so human and yet so Divine; not the terrible Judge which Rome had painted him; but the Brother: very accessible to men, "receiving sinners and eating with them." And what a burden was taken from the conscience by the announcement that the forgiveness of the Cross was altogether free! How different was the Gospel of the New Testament from the Gospel of Rome! In the latter all was mystery, in the former all was plain; the one addressed men only in the language of the schools, the other spoke to them in the terms of every day. In the one there was a work to be done, painful, laborious; and he that came short, though but in one iota, exposed himself to all the curses of the law; in the other there was simply a gift to be received, for the work had been done for the poor sinner by Another, and he found himself at the open gates of Paradise. It needed no one but his own heart, now unburdened of a mighty load, and filled with a joy never tasted before, to tell the man that this was not the Gospel of the priest, but the Gospel of God; and that it had come, not from Rome, but from Heaven.

Another advantage resulting from what Tyndale had done was that the Scriptures had been brought greatly more within reach of all classes than they ever were before. Wicliffe's Bible existed only in manuscript, and its cost was so great that only noblemen or wealthy persons could buy it. Tyndale's New Testament was not much more than a twentieth part the cost of Wicliffe's version. A hundred years before, the price of Wicliffe's New Testament was nearly three pounds sterling; but now the printed copies of Tyndale's were sold for three shillings and sixpence. If we compare these prices with the value of money and the wages of labor at the two eras, we shall find that the cost of the one was nearly forty times greater than that of the other; in other words, the wages of a whole year would have done little more than buy a New Testament of Wicliffe's, whereas the wages of a fortnight would suffice for the laborer to possess himself of a copy of Tyndale's.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 19th, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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