The late fifteenth century was a desperately dark time of spiritual ignorance dominated by Roman Catholicism. There were probably only a few pockets of true Christian believers, in particular among the Lollards and those who followed John Wycliffe.
It was into this religious context that Hugh Latimer was born, around 1485, in the county of Leicester. Despite his family’s poverty he was able to receive a good education, ultimately graduating from Cambridge University.
J. C. Ryle tells us that, ‘up to the age of 30, he was a most violent and bigoted papist’ who regularly preached against such Reformers as Philip Melanchthon (Light from old times). In God’s grace, one day a young student, Thomas Bilney, approached Latimer after hearing such a sermon, asking to make a ‘private confession’ (see ET article, March 2014).
Latimer said of this occasion, ‘I learned more by his confession than before in many years. From that time forward, I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school doctors and such fooleries’. He became a zealous Protestant, on fire for the gospel of grace, and one of a noble band of English Reformers.
During his eventful life, Hugh Latimer witnessed the split of the Church of England from the Church of Rome in the reign of Henry VIII; took part in the growing Reformation under Edward VI; and finally suffered martyrdom when Queen Mary acceded to the throne, after the failed Protestant attempt to crown Lady Jane Grey (known today as the ‘Nine Day Queen of England’).
When Catholic ‘Bloody Mary’ came to power, Latimer and many contemporary Reformers were arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Although under much pressure, Latimer did not recant his Protestant beliefs and so was executed with Nicholas Ridley, on 16 October 1555. Both were burnt at the stake as heretics.
This was the occasion of Latimer’s famous comforting words to his suffering companion. He said, ‘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’.
During his life, Latimer preached boldly to anyone who would give him audience. He was ‘a man of daring who preached as his conscience directed, regardless of personal danger’ (S. E. Frost, The world’s great sermons). His hearers ranged from kings to common people; he feared God, and no other.
C. H. Spurgeon tells us that Latimer’s preaching was ‘exceedingly quaint, and [with] intermingled flashes of pleasantry with his earliest exhortations and serious arguments; but it was always with the view of confounding error and reaching the hearts of his hearers’ (Eccentric preachers; www.spurgeon.org/misc/ep04.htm).
His boldness was especially exemplified when, during the reign of Edward VI, he preached what many believe to be one of the greatest sermons ever preached (‘A notable sermon of the Reverend Father Master Hugh Latimer’, Luminarium: anthology of English literature; www.luminarium.org/renlit/latimersermon1.htm).
Latimer’s famous sermon was on Romans 15:4: ‘All things which are written, are written for our erudition and knowledge’. The sermon is now called The sermon of the plough.
It was preached to a large congregation, sheltering on a wet day in a chapel called ‘The Shrouds’, under the choir of St Paul’s Church, London. It was 18 January 1548, and Latimer was nearly 70 years old.
The message was typical of his preaching ministry. It had a compelling vigour, homely simplicity, fervour and, above all, reverence for Scripture, that equalled his courage. Such preaching was a rarity in his day and caused a sensation.
In the sermon we find a rallying call to action for England’s clergy, that ‘no preacher be negligent in doing his office’. Revealing his agricultural origins by his illustrations, Latimer reinforced the lesson using the homely metaphors of preachers as ploughmen, working hard in the field, sowing and cultivating the seed of the Word of God.
He raised such issues as, ‘What doctrine is to be taught in Christ’s church and congregation?’ and ‘What men should be the teachers and preachers of it?’
It was a passionate argument for the clergy and bishops to return to their true biblical role of preaching Jesus Christ and shepherding their flocks. Latimer urged the men in those positions to focus on scriptural truth and the responsibility of their calling; and, to that end, to refrain from every distracting priority.
It was a rebuke to the clergy of the time who were far too entrenched in worldly matters while ‘the people starve’. Latimer declared: ‘They hawk, they hunt, they card, they dice, they pastime in their prelacies with gallant gentlemen, with their dancing minions, and with their fresh companions, so that ploughing is set aside’.
In a blunt, devastating way he described them as ‘unpreaching prelates and lording loiterers’, and ‘mock-gospellers’ rather than faithful ploughmen. He asked them a teasing question, knowing full well that the answer was shocking. ‘Who is the most diligent prelate in all England, that passeth all the rest in doing his office?’ ‘I will tell you. It is the Devil!’
He proceeded to show just how active and unceasing Satan is in his ‘devilish ploughing’, and the clergy must therefore be equally as conscientious, urgent and zealous in using God’s plough, as there is important work to do, fields to sow, tend and harvest — with Scripture alone as their final authority.
Latimer preached Christ and God’s salvation based on grace rather than human merit. He insisted on justification by faith not by works, and that Christ offered his body once for all to sanctify those who would believe on him. This teaching was in stark contrast to that of the Roman Catholic Mass.
Latimer asserted: ‘But the devil, by the help of that Italian bishop yonder, his chaplain, hath laboured by all means that he might frustrate the death of Christ and the merits of his passion’.
Gratitude for salvation by faith should motivate us and be expressed in obedience and good works: ‘What other service have we to do to him? And what other sacrifice have we to offer, but the mortification of our flesh? What other oblation have we to make, but of obedience, of good living, of good works, and of helping our neighbors?
‘But as for our redemption, it is done already, it cannot be better. Christ hath done that thing so well, that it cannot be amended. It cannot be devised how to make that any better than he hath done it’.
Ultimately, the immense spiritual legacy left by Hugh Latimer is known only to God. J. C. Ryle said of Latimer, ‘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’, and, ‘If a combination of sound gospel doctrine, plain Saxon language, boldness, liveliness, directness, and simplicity, can make a preacher, few, I suspect, have ever equalled old Latimer’.
Sir Richard Morrison, Latimer’s contemporary, said, ‘Did there ever any man flourish, I say not in England only, but in any nation of the world, since the apostles, who preached the gospel more sincerely, purely and honestly, than Hugh Latimer, bishop of Worcester?’
He was the preeminent preacher of the English Reformation, believing that the power of preaching is indispensible for reformation. His courage in preaching the Sermon of the plough was evident and it was also exemplified in his daily living.
Nearly 600 years on, the devil is still actively ‘ploughing’ and spreading spiritual destruction. The lesson for today’s evangelicals, with so many false and diluted gospels abroad, is clear: true pastors must diligently plough in the seed of God’s Word. They must urgently focus on their God-given calling and boldly proclaim the truth, in full reliance on Scripture’s authority.
As J. C. Ryle put it: ‘God forbid that old Latimer’s candle should ever be put out!’ Latimer’s warnings are as necessary today as when he first uttered them.