John Bradford – the martyr who dared to die for doctrine
2010 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Bradford. The reading of Five English reformers by J. C. Ryle about 45 years ago created in me a saving conviction of sin and repentance. The fourth martyr described in that book was John Bradford.
John Bradford was born in 1510 at Manchester and attended Manchester Grammar School. Little other information is available about him until he was about 34 years of age, when he undertook administrative duties for Sir John Harington, vice-treasurer of King Henry VIII’s army in France, and was appointed paymaster at the siege of Montreuil.
Henry VIII died in January 1547, and in April Bradford left Boulogne and commenced legal studies at the Inner Temple. This was a momentous period in his life. His friend and fellow-student Thomas Sampson (c. 1517-1589) was a means of leading him to Christ.
Bradford experienced conviction of sin following the fiery preaching of Hugh Latimer, and evidenced repentance by selling his valuables (he loved rings, chains, brooches and jewellery) to relieve the poor and sick.
Foxe records that from then on ‘he gave himself wholly to the study of the Holy Scriptures’. To further this aim, Bradford applied to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, gaining admission in 1548.
Sampson also became a Fellow of Pembroke College that year, then Dean of Chichester (1552) and later Dean of Christchurch, Oxford (1561). Remarkably, Bradford was awarded an MA the following year in 1549, and next month became a Fellow of Pembroke College and tutor to John Whitgift, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583.
During this period Bradford kept a journal, daily recording sins noted in others and mourning the same faults in himself. Seeing any good in others which he personally lacked, he would crave God’s mercy to amend.
Bradford thought he needed further study, but Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, ordained him deacon on 10 August 1550, also making him one of his own chaplains.
The following August Bradford was made prebend in St Paul’s Cathedral, and in December became one of six chaplains to the Protestant King Edward VI. They were Bill, Bradford, Grindal, Harley, Knox and Perne.
These were to itinerate, preaching in the remotest parts of the kingdom for the instruction of the ignorant in right religion to God and obedience to the king. Two chaplains remained with the king while the other four itinerated.
Bradford covered Lancashire and Cheshire, where crowds flocked to hear him. He preached against sin and proclaimed the imminent judgement of God. Sampson records: ‘He used in the morning to go to the common prayer in the college where he was, and after that he used to make some prayer with his pupils in his chamber … he then repaired to his own exercise in prayer by himself, as one that had not yet prayed to his own mind’.
When in company, he ‘used to fall often into a sudden and deep meditation, in which he would sit with fixed countenance and spirit moved, yet speaking nothing a good space. And sometimes in this silent sitting, plenty of tears would trickle down his cheeks. Sometimes he would sit in it, and come out of it, with a smiling countenance’.
Thus he communed with his God, either repenting of some perceived inward sin, or rejoicing in some grace.
This holy walk gave Bradford a boldness in rebuking blatant sin in others. ‘For, in all companies where he did come, he would freely reprove any sin and misbehaviour which appeared in any person, especially swearers, filthy talkers, and popish praters.
‘Such never departed out of his company unreproved. And this he did with such a divine grace and Christian majesty, that ever he stopped the mouths of the gainsayers. For he spake with power, and yet so sweetly, that they might see their evil to be evil, and hurtful to them, and understand that it was good indeed to the which he laboured to draw them in God’.
On 19 July 1553, the Catholic half-sister of Edward VI became Queen Mary I, and soon was well earning her later sobriquet of ‘Bloody Mary’ sending almost 300 Protestants to be burned at the stake. She reigned until 17 November 1558, when she was replaced by her half-sister Elizabeth I. Sampson fled for his life to Strasbourg in 1554, but Bradford chose to remain in England.
On 13 August 1553, the Catholic Gilbert Bourne was preaching at London’s St Paul’s Cross against the late Edward VI’s reformations, when the crowd became angry at his attack on the dead king. He had no sooner called for Bradford to protect him, when a man threw a dagger at Bourne, grazing Bradford’s sleeve.
One man called out, ‘You save him that will help to burn you!’ Bradford later risked his life preaching to the people against seditious uprisings. But instead of being thanked by the authorities, was accused of preaching without authority!
Even though Bradford saved Bourne’s life, Bourne did not support Bradford after the latter’s arrest. Bradford appeared before the Council in the Tower of London charged with preaching seditious sermons.
While there, he shared a cell with Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley (there was overcrowding due to Wyatt’s rebellion). They prayed and read Scripture together, but found no evidence of more than a spiritual presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, nor that the mass was a sacrifice for sins.
In March 1554 Bradford was moved for ten months to the King’s Bench prison at Southwark. Inmates there included Robert Ferrar (Bishop of St David’s), Rowland Taylor (Vicar of Hadleigh, who considered the mass ‘spiritual whoredom’), and John Philpot (Archdeacon of Winchester, who denied the ‘real presence’ in the mass). Bradford’s testimony on arrival at the King’s Bench caused Ferrar to retract a recent capitulation to taking the mass.
Like Paul at Rome, Bradford was allowed some freedom, writing many letters and articles. He sought to unite Calvinistic theologians against the Arminians. He commented, ‘The effects of salvation they so mingle and confound with the cause … more hurt will come by them, than ever came by the papists, inasmuch as their life commendeth them to the world more than the papists’.
Bradford stressed sound scriptural doctrine, which could refute the claims of papal supremacy and the mass – ‘the horriblest and most detestable device that ever the devil brought out by man’.
‘I trust you … will see that our doctrine is true, and therefore dare and desire to abide the light and all men’s looking on.
‘Us … they may burn … but our cause, religion and doctrine, which we confess, they shall never be able to vanquish, and put away’.
Bradford wrote tracts to correct those Calvinists who thought people predestined to sin. He wrote in support of the persecuted A very godly prayer of one standing at the stake ready to be burnt for Christ’s gospel’s sake.
Most of his time was spent praying and studying on his knees, visiting and exhorting the common thieves, and distributing alms. He was allowed out to visit the sick.
Refusing to recant, Bradford was committed to Newgate on 30 June 1555 for execution by burning at Smithfield the following day. He divided his remaining clothes between a friend and a servant, and asked his brother-in-law to commend him to his mother.
Shortly before his burning he wrote to his mother: ‘Never so merry and glad was I, as I now should be, if I could get you to be merry with me…’ His final prayer was: ‘O England, England, repent thee of thy sins! Beware of idolatry, beware of the false antichrists, take heed they do not deceive you’.
Turning to John Leaf, a young man who suffered with him, he said: ‘Be of good comfort, brother, for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night’. Then, embracing the reeds used for burning, he quoted: ‘Strait is the way, and narrow is the gate that leads to eternal salvation, and few there be that find it’.
This tall, slender man with an auburn beard left the world a far poorer place than when he ministered in it, yet he bequeathed a memorable legacy. We earnestly need to give the same bold witness to God’s truth as John Bradford did in his day.
Bradford, John, Sermons and Tracts by that Worthy Martyr of Christ, John Bradford.
Bradford, John, The Writings of John Bradford, Vols. I & II, Banner of Truth, Reprinted 1979.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Ed. W. B. Forbush, John C. Winston Co., c. 1926, pp. 223-225, http://www.gutenberg.org
Mayhew, R.A., John Bradford (1510-1555).
Penny, D.A. John Bradford, (c.1510–1555), Evangelical preacher and martyr, Oxford Dictonary of National Biography (ODNB).
Ryle, J.C., Five English Reformers, Banner of Truth, 1994, pp. 120-138.
Ryrie, A., Sampson, Thomas (c.1517–1589) Church of England clergyman and reformer, ODNB.
Theology Network, The Life of Master John Bradford.
Nigel T. Faithfull