Just before his death in the flames, Hugh Latimer encouraged his fellow martyr Nicholas Ridley with these justly famous words: ‘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’.
Latimer was indeed a great light, whose ministry shone out of the spiritual darkness covering England in the sixteenth century. But there was also another light; a lesser, almost forgotten light, whose name was Thomas Bilney.
While lacking the energy and eloquence of Latimer, and the scholarly dedication of Tyndale, Bilney nevertheless played a great role in God’s mighty reformation as his more illustrious contemporaries.
D’Aubigne regarded him as ‘the spiritual father of the Reformation in England’. Latimer owed much to Bilney and called him ‘that blessed martyr of God’. His inevitable martyrdom in 1531 became the inspiration for many to follow in his steps.
Very little is known of Bilney’s early years but he probably entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, about 1516 as a young graduate. Bilney was a shy, retiring student, with a serious disposition, but who suffered from a weak constitution. Anxious to know the truth and find peace with God, Bilney strove desperately to earn his salvation.
He looked up to the priests as the physicians of his soul, and followed to the letter every prescription they offered. However, it gradually dawned upon him that he would never obtain the peace he so desired in this way.
A notorious book
Bilney had heard much talk of a notorious new book. It was a new translation of the New Testament Greek into classical Latin, produced by the scholar Erasmus. Whispers around the halls told of its beauty of style and its hidden messages, but it remained a forbidden book.
Bilney wavered between respect for authority and longing to read the secret book. Eventually, overcoming both respect and fear, he purchased a copy and smuggled it into his private chambers. As he opened the precious book, Bilney’s eyes fell upon the words of 1 Timothy 1:15: ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst’.
A new light flooded Bilney’s fearful soul as the Holy Spirit applied the truth. While meditating on these words he exclaimed triumphantly: ‘I also am like Paul, and more than Paul, the greatest of sinners, but Christ saves sinners’.
Once liberated, he fed feverishly upon the Scriptures. Not long after being schooled in their teachings, Bilney, with unusual boldness, began to preach them in the colleges, to the absolute astonishment of his friends.
Bilney soon realised that the real need was for a mighty work of God’s Spirit and prayed for such, exclaiming prophetically: ‘A new time is beginning. The Christian assembly is about to be renewed’.
It was not long before, under Bilney’s influence, a small Bible study group started meeting within the walls of Cambridge. The most outstanding member of this group was Stafford, a professor of divinity. Stafford’s conversion startled Cambridge and his lectures became a major attraction to young students.
The priest and the penitent
Yet another man of learning, Hugh Latimer, viewed the change in Bilney and Stafford with great alarm. Being a priest and a zealot for the Catholic Church, he made it his duty publicly to attack and discredit the evangelical truths they had espoused.
Like Saul of Tarsus, he pursued the newly converted men, pitting all his intellectual powers against the truth. But he was soon to experience a ‘Damascus road conversion’ that would make him the ‘apostle of the Reformation’.
Bilney perceived Latimer’s potential and sought by all means to win him. Knowing that the ‘battle is the Lord’s’, he determined to challenge and defeat the intellectual Goliath of Cambridge with the ‘sword of the Spirit’.
Bilney sought out Latimer, asking if he, as his priest, might hear his confession. Believing Bilney to be a penitent returning to the fold, Latimer eagerly seized the opportunity.
Bilney, in his simple, candid way, ‘confessed’ to the zealous priest how, in anguish of soul, he had sought salvation and had found the blood of Christ as his only hope. As Latimer listened, the Holy Spirit applied Bilney’s simple testimony like a two-edged sword, piercing Latimer’s proud heart.
As the truth gripped his mind and soul, so the priest became the penitent, while the supposed penitent pointed to the Great High Priest. Transformed, Latimer’s natural abilities and character were heightened by divine unction. Years later he reflected on this encounter, saying, ‘I learnt more by this confession than in many years before’.
In Bilney’s company, Latimer quickly grew in grace. He began to preach the gospel with great boldness and authority. Bilney remained in the background, content to see the more able speaker take the public floor. While still shy before men, he was bold before God’s throne of grace.
Bilney did, however, take to open-air preaching when, in 1527, he commenced a preaching tour in East Anglia. With apostolic fervour, he boldly proclaimed the gospel. Such action soon attracted the attention of priests and friars, who took every opportunity to ridicule him and, on occasions, even drag him from his pulpit.
Each time Bilney challenged his opponents, and his comments were carefully noted and laid to his future reckoning with the church.
Recantation and restoration
While preaching in Ipswich on 28 May 1527, he was arrested, and the following November was brought before the Bishops’ Court at Westminster. Bilney was given a choice: to abjure what he had been preaching, or die at the stake.
Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, who had control of the proceedings, was most reluctant to find Bilney guilty, and endeavoured to persuade him to recant.
For two days, under intense pressure from Tunstall and well-meaning friends, Bilney stood resolute in his convictions. Then finally, in a confused and weary state of mind, he recanted, believing his friends to have the better judgement.
He reasoned that if he abjured and saved his life, he could still serve God. On 7 December, Bilney was paraded in humiliation before the Council of Bishops and led back to gaol to serve his penance.
Whilst languishing in prison, Bilney’s mind was filled with remorse over his action. His heart sank in darkness and despair as, like the writer of Psalm 51, he experienced a deeper imprisonment of the soul.
For two years Bilney dwelt in the dungeons of St Paul’s Cross, more a prisoner of his own conscience than of the church. It was not until one evening in 1531, almost a year after returning to Cambridge from prison, that, in Latimer’s words, he ‘came again like one rising from the dead’.
Bilney resolved to redeem the wasted years and, like his Master, told his friends that he was ‘going up to Jerusalem and should see them no more’. Arriving back in Norfolk, he preached with great unction proclaiming, ‘That doctrine which I once abjured is the truth. Let my example be a lesson to all who hear me’.
Fearing nothing, he preached the gospel, distributed New Testaments and exposed the errors of Rome. It was not long before Bilney was arrested, tried at Norwich, and sent to London for execution.
Attempts were made by his friends to secure his release, but to no avail. On the eve of his martyrdom, Bilney was composed and joyful. It is said that after eating his last meal, the prisoner rose and placed his finger in the flame of a lamp.
When questioned by his friends he replied: ‘I am only trying my flesh; tomorrow God’s rods shall burn my whole body in the fire’. He only withdrew his finger when the first joint had been burnt and then quietly recited the words of Isaiah 43:2: ‘When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee’.
The following day Bilney was led to ‘Lollards Pit’ and, after bidding farewell to his friends, became the first Reformer to be burnt on English soil. His conscience clear, his mind anticipating the joy of heaven, he repeatedly cried out ‘Jesus’ and ‘Credo’ (I believe), before finally expiring in the flames.
The light of dawn
What lessons can Thomas Bilney teach us? In the first place we must accept the man in all his strength and weakness. That he did recant has stained his character for many Christians. His knowledge was incomplete, and he still held to some of the errors of Rome. Yet in his humility, he recognised his folly, repented of it, and died a glorious death.
Secondly, his great strength lay in personal evangelism. He saw the potential in Latimer, and set about to win him for Christ. Bilney’s quiet influence on fellow students was immense. This should be a great encouragement to all believers, to be themselves in personal witness, for who knows how many Latimers may be won?
Above all, Bilney was a man of prayer. He prayed for Cambridge, for Latimer’s conversion, and for the reformation of the church. God honoured those prayers.
Finally, despite mistakes and failures, Thomas Bilney was used by God in his martyrdom. He became the first disciple and evangelist of Reformation times to shed his blood that England might be freed from idolatry and superstition. He was the light of dawn in England’s night of darkness.