A reflection given on the life, work and martyrdom of Bishop Hugh Latimer and Bishop Nicholas Ridley (commemorated in the Anglican liturgical calendar on October 16) by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on October 25, the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost.
I. Lighting the Candle
On October the 16th, 1555, 465 years ago in Oxford, England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, bishops in the English Church, both died a martyr’s death. They were burned at the stake, tied back-to-back. Hugh Latimer, being over eighty years old, died quickly. Nicholas Ridley, who was much younger, did not. He suffered much on his way to the arms of Christ.
On their way to the stake, Nicholas Ridley moved a bit faster than Latimer did. He looked back at Bishop Latimer and said, in so many words, “Come on, slowpoke!” They encouraged each other greatly, both in their imprisonment, and on the way to the stake. Just before Latimer died, it was he who offered up one last bit of encouragement – words that have echoed down the chambers of history, and come to be, yet again, by us this morning: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” And it never has.
What were these two fighting for? And why were they willing to die for it?
Simply this: The sufficiency of the shed blood of Jesus Christ to save sinners. They died for the promotion and advancement of the Gospel in England. As one writer puts it:
“The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred-proof grace – of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly.” (Between Noon and Three by Robert Capon, pgs. 114-115)
Takeaway: Are we praying for faithful men like these to be raised up in Christ’s church? Men who will give themselves to spent for the sake of the Gospel? It’s my prayer that in the years to come, we see faithful leaders like these raised up all over this region!
So, I’ve told you of their martyrdom, but now I want to share with you a little more of their stories. A little more of what led them to such a place. So, in our time today, I want to cover their conversion and their work as reformers in the Church of Christ.
II. Telling Their Story: Conversion and Ministry
Hugh Latimer was ordained a priest in 1515. He was thoroughly against the work of the Reformation. He described himself as “obstinate a papist as any was in England.”
So how did his conversion come about? The power of personal witness.
A student named Bilney, who was a contemporary of his at Cambridge University, approached Latimer and asked that he be able to speak to him privately about his faith. Latimer later said, “I learned more by his confession than before in many years. From that time forward I began to smell the Word of God.” (Quoted by J.C Ryle in Five English Reformers, pgs.95-96)
What was the shape of his conversion to Christ? Here’s how he put it: “Let us put all our hope, trust, and confidence only in [Christ]. Let us patch him with nothing, for … our merits are not able to deserve everlasting life. It is too precious a thing to be merited by man. It is His doing only. God hath given Him to us to be our Deliverer, and to give us everlasting life.” (Quoted by J.C Ryle in Five English Reformers, pg. 110). His conversion was all about returning to the pure and unadulterated fountain of the Gospel.
Takeaway: How important and central is justification by faith alone to your faith? Is it on the fringe? Is it tucked away somewhere in the past? Or is it the center you live and breathe out of every moment of every day? For the Reformers, it was the thing that exalted the Church and made clear the way for sinners to know and receive Jesus.
Ministry & Work
In his preaching, Hugh Latimer was known as one of the most famous and powerful preachers of the Reformation in England. One writer says, “None, except the stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, went away from it without being affected.” (Becon’s Works, vol. ii. Pg. 224)
He was appointed Bishop of Worcester (Wu-str) in 1535, and J.C. Ryle describes his ministry like this:
“He was the same man in a bishop’s palace that he had been in a country parsonage, or a Cambridge pulpit. Promotion did not spoil him. The mitre [of a Bishop] did not prove an extinguisher to his zeal for the Gospel. He was always faithful – always simple-minded – always about his Father’s business – always labouring to do good to souls.” (Five English Reformers, pg. 98)
It’s here that we see the immense difficulty and challenge that he and Ridley were up against. As a reforming bishop, Latimer had to see to things like, making sure that clergy had a Bible and that regular preaching from the Scriptures was actually happening in churches.
Takeaway: We need to ask ourselves – do we take our free and virtually unlimited access to the Gospel for granted? Of course we do. We must not let familiarity with the Good News breed indifference or apathy our hearts.
Because of shifting winds in England, he was later forced to resign his episcopate and never took it back up again. He was imprisoned, but later freed under the reign of Edward VI. As he was able, “[H]e went to and fro in the midland counties of England, preaching wherever his services seemed to be most wanted. … No one of the Reformers probably sowed the seeds of sound Protestant doctrine so widely and effectually among the middle and lower classes as Latimer.” (Five English Reformers, pgs. 101-102)
J.C. Ryle wrote that Nicholas Ridley, “is a man whose name ought to be a household word among all true-hearted English Churchmen. In the noble army of English Reformers, no one deserves a higher place than Ridley.” (Five English Reformers, pg. 139)
To give you a sense of the kind of man he was, I’ll give an anecdote from his life. On one occasion, he was caught in a bad storm on a boat, and to cheer up his companions he said to them, “Be of good cheer, and bend to your oars; this boat carries a Bishop who is not to be drowned, but burned.” (Quoted in Five English Reformers, pg. 142) Pretty bold guy.
He did not have night and day conversion to Christ and the cause of the Reformation, but rather it seems that he gradually thought and prayed his way to “faith alone” and “Christ alone,” so to speak, in the light of Scriptures.
Ministry & Work
In his work as a Bishop, Nicholas Ridley helped to form the biblical and faithful confession of Anglicanism that we now know of as the Thirty-Nine Articles. Although he never got to see the completion of the work he started, others picked it back up after Queen Mary’s reign and completed it under Queen Elizabeth. So, we owe the enduring and wise articulation of our faith, in part, to Ridley.
Nicholas was known to be a man of magnetic preaching, uncommon kindness (even to his enemies), and deep care for the poor. In fact, Edward VI sought his advice on how to best care for the poor of the realm, and Ridley’s counsels deeply influenced advancements in that area. This deep care for people was evident even at his martyrdom: before he was burned at the stake, he gave away some of his belongings and even the clothes he wore to those who were in the crowd.
We do not have much from his writings. J.C. Ryle tells us, “The worthy Bishop had little time for writing. To work, and preach, and advise, and witness, and suffer, and die for God’s truth, was his appointed lot. And who shall dare to say that his short life and glorious death have not done more for Christ’s truth in England than fifty…volumes of writings?” (Five English Reformers, pg. 151)
III. Answered Prayers
As we wrap up this far-too-brief sketch of their lives, let’s talk for a moment about their prayer lives.
When he was alive, Hugh Latimer prayed for three things (and Ridley certainly prayed for the same). Augustine Bernher, who served Latimer, tells us that Latimer would pray so long that he eventually could not get up off his knees without help. Here’s what he prayed for:
- That he would faithfully preach the Gospel of Christ unto death.
- That God would restore the work of the Reformation in England.
- That God would raise up Elizabeth for that same work.
Here we just have to note: every one of these prayers was answered by God, but not without great cost. St. Paul told us today that “Jesus died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:15). How thorough and good was Jesus’ work in these two saints.
And for that, we give all thanks and praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prayer for Mission
Lord Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd who cares for his flock: We ask you to bestow upon your Church the gifts of the Holy Spirit in abundance, and to raise up from among us faithful and able persons called to the ministries of Deacon, Priest, and Bishop. Inspire them to spend and be spent for the sake of the Gospel, and make them holy and loving servants and shepherds of the flock for whom you shed your most precious blood. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.