Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: Such a Candle

For many Protestants, the main characters in the Reformation can sometimes be a little fuzzy. We know the names, we know a little bit about what they did, and perhaps a few of their words and writings. One such character is Bishop Hugh Latimer, he of the '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.' fame, as he was being burnt at the stake alongside Bishop Nicholas Ridley.

Beyond that famous line, I'm not sure I could have told you much more about him, to my shame. But all that has changed, having read the great little biography by Douglas C Wood, written in 1980.

Wood is an excellent guide as he surveys the scene of the slow and eventual Reformation in England, through the wranglings of Henry VIII's marriages, and the encouragement of reformers within and without the British Isles. Having carefully researched Latimer's life, he tells the story in a dynamic and gripping manner. From Latimer's childhood, through his studies and ordination as a priest, through to the conversion of his soul at the (human) leading of little Bilney by the pure word of God, and his discipleship on 'Heretic's Hill' in Cambridge.

At times the progress of the reformation seems slow, but at many of the key points both Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer are centre stage. The political process and ebb and flow of fortunes may show that humanly speaking, the reformation was in a dangerous situation, but overall, God's sovereignty and providence was on control as the day dawned on a superstitious Roman church.

Latimer was well-known in his day as the best preacher in the land, and Wood helps the reader understand why that was, as he quotes from some sermons, and analyses his style. Forsaking the learned style in vogue, Latimer preached down to earth sermons in sometimes rough language, with piercing application targetted at his hearers' hearts.

Little wonder that when Mary became Queen, she had it in for Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, leading to their martyrdom. The reformation period was a gruesome one, and this book doesn't shrink from the horrors on either side as many were killed by those in authority.

My one disappointment with the book was that Latimer's martyrdom and famous saying comes on the very last page. Perhaps it would have been useful to have a short epilogue showing how Latimer's dying prayer was fulfilled and the reformation again triumphed with the fall of Mary and the accession of Elizabeth. As it is, the book seems to end very abruptly.

All in all, this is a good book which helpfully sets out the story of the reformation and in particular the role of Hugh Latimer. It would be useful for anyone interested in learning something about the reformation and the issues involved, or for those wishing to explore the characters involved in more detail. Highly recommended.

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