Among the memorable experiences of this autumn’s mission to England was a visit to the historic city of Oxford. The BIWF Congress was held in a beautiful old nineteenth century hotel near the center of the city, and included an afternoon walking tour of important sites of interest to all of us. Our first stop was at the beautiful large monument, “The Martyrs Memorial,” dedicated to the “Marian martyrs”—those who suffered and died for their faith during the five-year (1553-58) reign of Queen Mary I, “bloody Mary,” the Roman Catholic queen of England in the sixteenth century. The historian John Foxe documented 312 people who died for the Protestant faith in those short years. Modern scholars list 284 Protestants burned at the stake, of which 56 were women, as well as a number of young couples and children. Thirty others died under deplorable conditions in prison before they could be executed.
The beautiful and imposing Martyrs Memorial includes busts of the Oxford victims of persecution and a plaque reading: “To the glory of God and in grateful commemoration of his servants Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Lattimer; prelates of the church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the church of Rome and believing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for his sake. This monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God 1841.”
The monument was erected so that the sacrifice of these Protestant martyrs would not be forgotten. Beginning in the 1830’s, a growing number of Oxford Protestant prelates apostatized and mounted a movement to take the Anglican Church back under the authority of Rome. This is known as “The Oxford Movement” and included most notably the Rev. John Henry Newman, who finally renounced Protestantism entirely and rejoined the Roman Church, for which he was rewarded with the office of Cardinal. He thus degraded the lives and legacy of the faithful martyrs who died for the truth of the Gospel. The Oxford Movement had its inception in 1833 and Newman renounced Protestantism a decade later in 1844. It was reported that Newman stated he left Anglicanism because he feared British-Israel belief was spreading so rapidly among the Anglican clergy that it would take over the denomination.
The three Oxford martyrs were tried for their faith at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street, which we also visited. This is the official church of the University of Oxford and is a beautiful imposing cathedral built of marble with many impressive large stain-glass windows. Still to be seen is a section cut out of one of the massive pillars in order to help support the platform upon which Cranmer was forced to stand during his trial. Under the physical and mental stress and deprivation suffered during his inhumane imprisonment, Cranmer had wearily signed a recantation of his Biblical Protestant beliefs. However, when asked to read his signed statement, he surprised the church audience by renouncing the recantations and declaring that the hand that had written them would be punished by being burnt first. He declared, “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.” He was then dragged to be executed at the place where Latimer and Ridley had been burnt six months earlier. As the flames were lit, he famously placed his hand into the heart of the fire. His dying words were recorded: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Cranmer’s death took place on 21 March 1556.
The preceding martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley is most renowned for the final remark that Latimer said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” This is quoted in “Acts and Monuments” by historian John Foxe.
The road to Protestantism in England had a rough series of step stones. At first, the reformers continued to hold closely to most of the Roman Catholic doctrines, but over the next few decades and many hours of discussion and Scripture study, they at last moved to most of the Protestant positions of today. The Ten Articles of 1536 showed only the slightest Protestant leanings, and included, (1) The binding authority of both the Bible and Roman Church human creeds, which were placed on the same level of authority. (2) The necessity of baptism for salvation, including of infants who “shall undoubtedly be saved thereby [i.e. by baptism], and else not”; (3) The substantial, real, corporal presence of Christ’s body and blood under the form of bread and wine in the Eucharist [Transubstantiation]; (4) Salvation by faith, but only if accompanied to obedience to Church rules and requirements. (5) The requirement to venerate images and statues. (6) Worship of saints and the Virgin Mary. (7) The requirement to observe [human] rites and ceremonies, although not constrained in the Bible. (8) The upholding of the doctrine of Purgatory and obligation to offer prayers for the dead in Purgatory. (9) Invocation of saints. (10) Requirement of the sacrament of penance. As you can see, there is little here that modern evangelical Protestants would support.
These positions were followed by the Six Articles of 1539, which also showed little evidence of later Protestant thought. These doctrinal positions were: (1) Transubstantiation, or the belief that the Communion bread and wine is transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. (2) Requirement of clerical celibacy (which contradicts the New Testament command that ministers be married; cf. 1 Tim. 3:2). (3) Vows of chastity. (4) Permission for private masses. (5) Requirement of auricular [i.e. by verbal hearing] confession of sins by the laity to a priest. (6) Withholding the cup from the laity during Communion. This last rule was imposed during the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and required that only the bread be given to the congregation during the Lord’s Supper, with the wine reserved only for the priests. Roman Catholic theologians refer to this as “Communion under one kind.” Among the reasons given was the time required to service a large number of worshippers, and the danger that the wine, considered to be our Lord’s actual blood, might be spilled while being given to the congregants. However, the Church had, since the first century, provided both bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper service, and this practice was reinstated by the Roman Church in 1970 under Vatican II.
Other doctrinal revisions followed, leading up to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion established in 1563 (finalized in 1571) and the establishment of the Church of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. These had a lasting influence on Christian worship in Great Britain and elsewhere through their incorporation into the Book of Common Prayer.
Although the Bible in its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text has remained unchangeable, it took many centuries before the Protestant Reformers finally broke the chains of human dogma and Scriptural misunderstanding that in many cases ran directly counter to the Word of God. This was not just an academic task, for hundreds of Bible-believing Christians gave their lives to give us the truth of Scripture and the freedom to worship that is once again eroding away. Let us value these truths and honor the sacrifices made by our forefathers who bequeathed them to us!