JC Ryle was the first Bishop of Liverpool, and a leading evangelical churchman in his day. Throughout his writings there are warnings of the rise of ritualism in the Church of England and an appeal to return to the great martyr-reformers who died at the hands of Queen Mary for the truths of the gospel. This little book, Five English Reformers, collated and published by The Banner of Truth Trust turns the spotlight on the person, profile and legacy of John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Hugh Latimer, John Bradford and Nicholas Ridley.
The opening chapter presents a paper entitled 'Why Were Our Reformers Burned?' In what may be an early assault on postmodernism (so early, in fact that a hundred and some years ago it wasn't even imagined), Ryle declares that 'It is fashionable in some quarters to deny that there is any such thing as certainly about religious truth... Yet three hundred years ago, there were men who were certain they had found out truth, and were content to die for their opinions.' He goes on to present the broad facts of the persecution arising under Bloody Mary when she assumed the throne on her brother Edward VI's death: 'She began at once to pull down her brother's work in every possible way, and to restore Popery in its worst and most offensive forms.'
The facts are shocking - in the years 1555 - 1558 there were 288 martyrs in England, including an archbishop, four bishops, 21 clergy, 55 women and 4 children. Most died by fire at the stake. Horrifying. Of these, Ryle suggests that, 'Never, I believe, since Christ left the world, did Christian men ever meet a cruel death with such glorious faith, and hope, and patience, as these Marian martyrs.' Indeed, one 'went to death as if he was walking to his wedding.'
Why were they killed? Ryle is adamant that it was the refusal of one doctrine: 'the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord's Supper.'
In each of the remaining chapters, one of the reformers is in view, with an in-depth look at their person, ministry, martyrdom, and writings. There are some interesting insights into the time of the reformers, one instance of which relates the ignorance of the clergy in the diocese of Gloucester in 1551: 'Out of 311 clergy in his diocese, 168 were unable to repeat the Ten Commandments, 31 of the 168 could not state in what part of the Scripture they were to be found; 40 could not tell where the Lord's Prayer was written; and 31 of the 40 were ignorant who was the author of the Lord's Prayer!'
There was a very relevant reflection which has been borne out even more in these days of the internet and the celebrity pastor. Ryle is discussing the scarcity of Rowland Taylor's remains - his sermons and letters were not compiled or published or famous beyond his congregation: 'The causes of this absence of information are easily explained. For one thing, the good man lived, and laboured, and died, in a small country town, fifty miles from London. Such a position is fatal to a world-wide celebrity. It is the dwellers of large cities, and the occupiers of metropolitan pulpits, whose doings are chronicled by admirers, and whose lives are carefully handed down to posterity.' You'd wonder what Ryle would make of podcasting and real celebrity pastors these days...
Yet despite Taylor's insignificance on the world stage, his ministry was powerful in his parish: 'The whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making or labouring people; and what most is to be commended, they were for the most part followers of God's Word in their living.' What a testimony!
On examining Bishop Hugh Latimer's ministry, Ryle speaks of the power of his sermons. While they (extant sermons) may seem quaint, very familiar and rambling, Ryle declares that his contemporaries would be poor judges of sermons: 'A modern sermon is too often a dull, tame, pointless religious essay, full of measured, round sentences, Johnsonian English, bald platitudes, timid statements, and elaborately concocted milk and water. It is a leaden sword, without either point or edge: a heavy weapon, and little likely to do much execution.'
On the contrary, when Latimer was reminded he was preaching in the hearing of the King, Latimer would remind himself: 'remember also thou art about to speak before the King of Kings, and Lord of lords. Take heed that thou dost not displease Him.'
This was a good book to read to gain a general impression and introduction to the reformers in question, and also to be reminded of important reformation principles. The only problem is that it is a collection of papers and addresses delivered on separate occasions in magazines and/or meetings. As such, there is a lot of repetition, both on the individuals concerned - the opening chapter is like a summary of the stories of the later chapters), and also regarding the dangers of aggressive Romanism. If Banner were to re-publish this volume, it could profit from some editing to streamline the material.
Those wishing to learn a bit more about the leading reformers in England, those who compiled the Articles and Homilies at the centre of Anglicanism, will find this a useful book, and a prompt to commit to keeping the gospel flame burning brightly. Five English Reformers(Kindle)