JOHN REES-EVANS (Wolverhampton)
A person's life may be looked at from an almost
infinite number of different angles. But when I look at Latimer's life, what I
see ahead of anything else is a life-story that seems to have been written to
prove, beyond question, that God is sovereign over all affairs of men; that
nothing can resist His will and that when the appointed time of blessing is
come to a nation, He acts decisively.
In order that we should see as great a transformation as it is possible to
imagine in a man's life, that it should be abundantly clear that the
Reformation was the work of God - an act of grace and nothing connected to
man's schemes and good intentions - it was God's will that Hugh Latimer should
begin his life with the most unpromising of prospects, spiritually speaking.
There is controversy about Latimer's birth date. Some estimates are as early as
1485, but it would seem that the most compelling arguments point to his being
born around 1490 or 1491, in Thurcaston in Leicester. His father was a yeoman
with a small farm. Despite his limited means, he was at the same time generous
and careful with what little he had. He was able to send Hugh to a local school
and then, at age 14, up to Cambridge. Latimer was an exceptional scholar; while
still an undergraduate he was chosen as a fellow of Clare Hall. A few months
later in January 1510 he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He took his
Master of Arts in July 1514; and some years after, obtained his Bachelor's
degree in Divinity, probably in 1521 around the age of 30. During his time in Cambridge, Latimer was
considered remarkable for his "sanctimony of life" [Strype: Eu. Mem.
III, p.368], his conscientiousness, and studious habits. However, in his own
words, he was "as obstinate a Papist as any in England". He was so
zealous and fervent, and such a bitter opponent of the Reformation that his
whole oration, when he was made Bachelor of Divinity, was against Philip
Melancthon and his ideas. Melancthon was an eminent continental Reformer, who
would later take the lead from Luther when he died in 1546.
Latimer thought the Reformation such an unprecedented evil that he declared
that the day of judgment and the end of the world must soon be approaching:
"What lengths might not men be expected to run," he asked, "when
they began to question even the infallibility of the Pope?"
The likeness between the Apostle Paul and Latimer prior to their conversions is
stark; neither were men who did things by half measures. The violence and vehemence
with which Paul opposed God's true elect, all the while thinking himself to be
acting in God's name, were mirrored by Latimer's public furious onslaughts of
those true believers who had come to see that the Church had so distinctly
departed from the knowledge of God and needed to be reformed.
A contemporary of Latimer's who had witnessed his attack on Melancthon had, two
years before, procured himself a copy of Erasmus's Latin New Testament. This
man was Thomas Bilney. He bought the book, not to meditate on the Word of God,
but was rather allured to it by the elegance of the Latin. That simple
purchase, however, was foreordained to be a vital link in the chain of
Reformation history in England.
While admiring the Latin, Bilney chanced upon 1 Timothy 1:15: "It is a
true saying and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into
the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief," as Bilney translated
it. By this verse Bilney's eyes were opened; he saw the futility of works: if
Paul, whose salvation even the most bigoted papist would not question, was
saved while a sinner and, moreover, the chief of sinners, then salvation could
only be something freely given, something to be received by faith alone. The
vanity of striving for salvation by the empty merit of one's works was made
plain to Bilney and from that moment he came to trust to Christ's merit alone
for his salvation.
Bilney saw in Latimer sincerity and honesty, and considered that his zeal for
popery might be attributed to a lack of knowledge. I imagine that Bilney saw in
Latimer the parallels with Paul and prayed that in like manner Latimer's zeal
might be turned, as Paul's was, to God's glory. Bilney approached Latimer after
his attack on Melancthon and humbly asked whether he might be allowed to make a
private confession to Latimer of his own new-found faith. Latimer agreed. He
"To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many
years. So from that time forward I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook
the school-doctors and such fooleries."
Those that understand nothing of grace would be surprised to learn that
following Latimer's conversion he did not cease doing good works but rather
increased. He spent his available time now going around with Bilney visiting
prisoners and the sick in Cambridge. He was kind and compassionate with those
he met, and sometimes involved himself deeply with their problems. On one
occasion he found a woman in gaol who had been accused by her husband of
murdering their baby. Latimer visited the poor woman many times with Bilney and
became convinced of her innocence. But, as with all the Reformers who paid for
our country's freedom from Rome so willingly with the service and sacrifice of
their lives, Latimer's compassion did not extend only to prayer; it drove him
to action also. Once, having just preached to King Henry VIII, he petitioned
for this woman's pardon directly to the King's face and was granted it.
As David's loyal service in defending and protecting the flock he tended as a
boy would foreshadow God's entrusting him with His people; when he would be
anointed king over Judah, so I see this matter of Latimer with this wronged and
betrayed woman. I see it as a model of how Latimer would petition the King of
kings for the liberty of the English elect from their bondage and spiritual
captivity. Let us look at how Latimer would accompany his faith in God's mercy,
with faithful action.
As soon as Latimer gave up his zealous popery he became a more zealous
Protestant. He began preaching in the University pulpits with such plainness,
frankness, sincerity, honesty and openness that "None" according to
Becon, Cranmer's chaplain, who traced his own conversion to Latimer's
preaching, "None, except the stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, went
away from it without being affected with high detestation of sin, and moved
unto all godliness and virtue."
Latimer preached in a completely new and unknown style. His sermons are
striking in their simplicity, and powerful and challenging. He preached with
equal sincerity whether he addressed the laity in English or the clergy in
Latin. His method represented a revolution in preaching the Word, for no longer
would he allow the Gospel to be shrouded in mysteries and riddles that could be
deciphered only by the initiated elite; but he presented the Gospel at its face
value, and expounded doctrines with simple illustrations that engaged the
hearts and minds of even the least gifted of his listeners.
To give an example; with respect to original sin he illustrates it like this:
"Suppose the king should, purely of his own good will and benevolence
choose to favour a simple man who has no possessions of his own, with a
thousand pounds of lands, to him and his heirs on this condition: that he
should be the chief captain and faithful defender of the town of Calais,
against our enemies the French.
"The man accepts the charge, promising to be faithful. But, in time, he
becomes closely acquainted and familiar with the French, and they offer him a
great sum of money if he will agree to their coming in to occupy the town and
possess it for the crown of France. The man agrees to neglect his duty to repel
their agreed invasion, and Calais is taken.
"Now the English king hears of this invasion and comes with a formidable
force, and overcomes the French and regains hold of Calais. He then orders an
inquiry to discover who was the traitor and finds it to be his very own captain
that has betrayed him. So the king discharges the man of his office and takes
back the thousand pounds of possessions from him and his heirs."
"Yes, truly," Latimer argues, "the said captain cannot deny
himself but that he had true justice, considering how unfaithfully he behaved
him to his prince, contrary to his own fidelity and promise. So likewise it was
of our first father Adam."
As we might expect, Latimer's uncompromised convictions attracted fierce
persecution. The Bishop of Ely banned him from preaching in the university. But
he was not silenced altogether: he obtained permission to preach in the Church
of the Augustine Friars, for this was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. His
enemies were not content with this, though. Charges of heresy were made against
him and he was called up more than once to appear before Cardinal Wolsey and
Tunstall, Bishop of London. Those accusing him in his trial, however, proved
themselves comparatively ignorant of popish doctrine and appeared foolish
against Latimer's defence. Cardinal Wolsey judged that the allegations against
him were merely personal and frivolous and, after gently admonishing him,
restored Latimer's licence and gave him authority to preach throughout England.
But this verdict may easily have been otherwise. Only months before, Bilney had
been burnt for upholding an identical profession of faith to Latimer. Bilney's
role had been fulfilled however, his gift to our nation had been bestowed and
God had decreed that nothing should delay his reward. For Latimer however the
mission was just beginning.
In 1529 Cranmer, a hitherto unknown scholar, had come to the fore by suggesting
to courtiers, who relayed the idea to the king, that the grave and public
question of Henry VIII's desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon,
should be referred to a commission of theologians at the universities. Although
the Reformation was purely a merciful act of God's grace toward us, it stands
to reason that the changes that needed to be effected to bring about a climate
in which we would have free access to God's Word, and that that Word should be
freely preached, necessitated the severance of Antichrist's hold over our land.
For the Pope claimed not only to be our spiritual head, but also temporally to
have pre-eminence. Necessarily then, the Reformation must needs have a temporal
or political element.
For many years England had been a high priority on Rome's agenda for domination
over Christendom. At times it had appeared that Rome was losing her grip:
notably, in Wycliffe's time when he successfully demonstrated, with the King's
and Parliament's authority, that there cannot be two temporal rulers in England
and proved that the annual tax England paid Rome should be dropped.
But Rome ever schemed to consolidate her hold over us. When Arthur, eldest son
of Henry VII and heir to the throne, died without issue 6 months after marrying
Catherine, the loyal papist, Rome's designs looked like being frustrated.
Catherine was an aunt to Emperor Charles V; her influence as wife to the
English king would be a great victory for Rome. Now that the heir was dead the
opportunity was lost - unless it could be engineered that she should marry the
new heir Henry, her deceased husband's brother. But the teaching of the Church
was clear: such a union was unlawful. However, Rome has a means of rising above
her own laws; the pope, being infallible, cannot decree anything false. It was
a simple matter then for Pope Julius II to issue a bull to sanction the
marriage. Thus Rome thereby regained this influence when Henry married
Catherine and succeeded the throne in 1509.
But the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he
turneth it whithersoever He will (Proverbs 2:1). It transpired that by 1527
Henry wanted to be rid of his wife. It is not easy to judge why. Certainly he
expressed fears that his repeated failure to beget a son from his brother's
wife may have been God's judgment against the contentious union. It is more
often felt, however, that his desire to annul this marriage stemmed from his
passion for Anne Boleyn. Whatever the truth is, one thing is clear: the King's
caprice would be a very significant instrument of God's gracious will for
It would be over this question that Cranmer, who supported the king's position,
though not his motives or actions - these were not his to judge - but believed
the king's marriage to have been not legitimate from the start; it was in this
that Cranmer would gain Henry's favour and within four years would reluctantly
accept the office of Archbishop.
Latimer had returned to Cambridge and continued steadfastly to preach
uncompromisingly, thereby continuing to give offence to his enemies. However,
that God's irresistible will should be done, Latimer's enemies were enervated
and lacked a strong voice. Always he was vindicated from their malicious and
In 1530 he was selected as one of twelve of "the best learned men in
divinity within that university" to go up to London, by the king's
command, to judge whether certain books were heretical and should be
prohibited. Following the consultation was a royal proclamationK
. . . inhibiting all English books
either containing or tending to any matters of scripture."
Of course, Latimer disagreed strongly with this
verdict, and wrote to the king on 1st December, 1530, pleading: "for the restoring
again of the free liberty of reading" the Word of God. Latimer tells the
king that of the 24 members, 12 from each university, he was one of "three
or four that would have had the scripture to go forth in English" had they
not been overcome by the majority.
Latimer favoured the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine and
despite his overt opposition to papistical falsehoods he gained the King's
favour while in London and was made a royal chaplain. It is interesting to note
that while Latimer and Cranmer shared the view that the royal marriage should
be annulled, Tyndale maintained the opposite view, voicing it very publicly in
his Practice of Prelates. Interestingly, Tyndale's work was, while he lived,
all but opposed by the king, whereas Cranmer and Latimer's advancement to
ever-increasing influence was, humanly speaking, attributable to Henry VIII's
favour, under God.
Latimer, despite having opportunity to preach often in London, soon grew weary
of court and the king offered him a benefice at West Kington, in Wiltshire.
Needless to say, he again found himself much afflicted here for he could do no
other than preach the Word diligently. Such men in all ages are targets. In his
age, Latimer attracted an endless bombardment of fiery darts. Again he was
called to trial, this time on charges serious enough to put him into the hands
of Convocation. Guilty, he was imprisoned and excommunicated, but by the king's
intervention he was absolved. Yet again, he preached, offended and was pulled
up before Convocation. But, by this time Thomas Cranmer had been consecrated
Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer found no fault with Latimer, but on the
contrary recognised him to be allied to the very same cause of Reformation.
They were confounded and put to shame that sought after Latimer's soul: they
were turned back and brought to confusion that devised his hurt. For, quite
apart from punishing Latimer, Archbishop Cranmer orchestrated that Latimer
should preach before the king on all the Wednesdays of the following Lent,
Time does not permit a detailed look at the remaining twenty-one years of
Latimer's life - each year of which, however, deserves close inspection.
However, I hope to have demonstrated how convincingly God's chosen man was
clearly ordained to the calling by God - constant threat, persecution and
formidable opposition could count for nothing then in such a context.
Knowing this, it is not surprising then that the following year Latimer would
be advanced to the dignity and degree of a bishop, into the See of Worcester.
The following year he was appointed to preach to the very bitterest and most
powerful of his enemies, before Convocation.
This extraordinary opportunity was seized upon by Latimer to engage with the
Gospel's enemies head on. He confronted his old oppressors boldly, so publicly
and unequivocally reproving their abuses and in no uncertain terms demanding
He asked Convocation for an account of the good that they had done: what had
they done to prosecute their great and august responsibilities toward the elect
and the spiritual profit of the kingdom?
"What went you about?" he asks. "What would ye have brought to
pass?" he demands. He answers the question himself, articulating their
heinous neglects and itemising many of their crimes specifically. But this is
no bitter recrimination: he is correcting them in order to exhort them to
fulfil their rightful duties. His words are timeless:
"Go ye to, good brethren and fathers, for the love of God, go ye to; and
seeing we are here assembled, let us do something whereby we may be known to be
the children of light. Let us do somewhat, lest we, which hitherto have been
judged children of the world, seem even still to be so. . . . Now, it lieth in
us, whether we will be called children of the world, or children of light.
"Wherefore lift up your heads, brethren, and look about with your eyes,
spy what things are to be reformed in the church of England. . .
On this occasion Latimer had the chance to address these leaders for only about
an hour. He was of course limited in what could be said in so short a time. And
yet his challenge had been made. Over the course of the next twenty years God
would propel men to the fore who would take up this call. Tyndale, Coverdale,
Rogers and such men would give England the written truth, God's Word; Latimer
and others would preach that Word; and God willing, next time we shall see how
Cranmer would consolidate all these gains in the Articles, the Prayer Book and
in licensing England's first Authorised Bible.
There is much more to say of Latimer's gift to his people; notably in the
homilies he authored. But let us conclude with Latimer's prescription for
Reform. In a day when God's ministers see fit to be entertainers, public
relations officers, commentators and suchlike, it is fitting to heed Latimer's
exhortations to the minister. Likening a prelate to a ploughman, Latimer says:
"You will ask me, whom I call a prelate? A prelate is that man, whatsoever
he be, that hath a flock to be taught of him; whosoever he be that hath cure of
souls. And well may the preacher and the ploughman be likened together: first,
for their labour of all seasons of the year; for there is no time of the year
in which the ploughman hath not some special work to do. . . . And then they
also may be likened together for the diversity of works and variety of offices
that they have to do.... He hath first a busy work to bring his parishioners to
a right faith . . . to a faith that embraceth Christ and trusteth to His
merits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that maketh a man righteous
without respect of works. . . . He hath then a busy work, I say, to bring his
flock to a right faith, and then to confirm them in the same faith: now casting
them down with the law, and with threatenings of God for sin; now ridging them
up again with the gospel, and with the promises of God's favour: now weeding
them, by telling them their faults, and making them forsake sin; now clotting
them, by breaking their stony hearts, and by making them supplehearted . . .
apt for doctrine to enter in: now teaching to know God rightly and to know
their duty to God and their neighbours: now exhorting them, when they know
their duty, that they do it, and be diligent in it.... They have a continued work
This was the teaching by which the church in England was reformed. But it
should not be mere history to us. Latimer's words transcend the boundaries of
time. These words, to us, were written in his blood, for he would pay for them
with his life. On 16th October 1555 he lit such a candle, by God's grace, as
has never been put out. Therefore, we ought to hear him. Amen.
The Gospel Magazine, September October 2003. Editor, Edward Malcolm
"Five English Reformers," J.C.Ryle,
(Banner of Truth), contains a fine brief biography of Hugh Latimer.