Joan Waste was born blind sometime between 1532 and 1534 in Derby. She lived with her parents until their death, and later with her brother Roger during the reign of the Protestant teenage king Edward VI (1547-1553). Living in safety, Joan and Roger went daily to their church to hear the Bible read in English rather than in the usual Latin. During this time almighty God met with Joan and blessed her with spiritual life in the Lord Jesus Christ. Though very poor she saved enough money to buy a New Testament. Although she was uneducated and through blindness illiterate, the Lord led her to various people who read the Scriptures to her. In this way, she was enabled to grow in grace. Dangerous days In 1553 Edward died, and the fanatically Roman Catholic Mary Tudor came to the throne. Dark and dangerous days lay ahead, for during the new queen’s five-year reign 288 Protestant men, women and children were martyred. Joan Waste was one of them. This was due in part to the dreadful law of 1401, De Haeretico Comburendo, the first to legalize the burning of ‘heretics’. As a historian has stated, ‘a more disgraceful law never stood on the pages of the statute book of England’ (The Anglican Reformation, p.46, William Clark).
During the ‘reign’ of terror 150 years later, Joan Waste remained a stalwart of the gospel. So much so, her evangelical stand, which always included for these godly forebears of ours the refusal to attend and the condemnation of the mass, was brought to the attention of the bishop and his chancellor, a certain Dr Draicot. Together they interrogated her, in itself an experience which must have been extremely alarming for a blind person.
She was threatened with imprisonment, torture and death, but replied to the effect that unless the bishop and his interrogators could prove from Scripture the mass to be true, they would have to answer to God for what they did to her. Again, if they refused to allow her the right to exercise her conscience, God would hold the bishop and his henchmen personally responsible.
Despite further threats and entreaties to recant, Joan courageously held her ground. The bishop pronounced her a heretic, and handed her over to the bailiffs of Derby. She was imprisoned for five or six weeks, before being brought to the parish church of All Souls where she was obliged to hear the bishop’s customary sermon.
He showed no mercy. Indifferent to her youth and disability, he condemned her for denying the supposed sacrament of the altar, and thereby cutting herself off from ‘Holy Mother Church’. Consequently, as her body would that day enter the flames, so, he told her with relish, her soul would eternally lie in the flames of hell. Strong words from an unregenerate man!
Can we imagine Joan’s feelings, standing amid a large congregation (for such occasions were always popular events) with the hateful atmosphere highly charged against her and what she represented? Remember, too, she was only a youngster – and unable to see what was happening. The tenor instilled in her must have been profound, her courage due only to God’s remarkable and sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Flames in the Windmill Pit
The official indictment having been declared, Joan was taken to the Windmill Pit nearby, accompanied by the crowds. Her brother Roger, who appears not to have shared his sister’s faith, or perhaps her courage, held her hand. It was 1 August 1555 (John Foxe of the Book of Martyrs fame suggests it was the following year).
As was the custom, Joan was permitted to say a few words to the spectators. She asked them to pray for her. Then she committed herself to the Lord, asking him to show her mercy for what remained of her life. She died strong in faith, loving her unseen Lord in the spirit of 1 Peter 1:6-9, amid unseen flames watched by unseen people. Therein lies the measure of Joan Waste, and why we should praise God for her today. A memorial to her can be found in the church porch at Birchover, near Matlock, Derby.
Several strands of spiritual interest arise from this sad, yet glorious account. First is the amazing grace of God. What could the world do in those days for a blind, illiterate young woman? Had the Lord not reached out from heaven, Joan would have been a burden to herself and her brother throughout her life. In her day she would have been of little use to society, and there was no welfare state to assist her. Economically, she would have been utterly dependent upon Roger. Together, they would have lived in poverty. How hopeless is our situation without God, individuals seemingly tossed to and fro by the winds of mere ‘chance’!
How useless Joan’s life would have seemed to the world in any generation. What did she have to offer? She would not have provoked a single glance in her direction, and would have passed from this life having achieved nothing. Certainly, no one beyond her immediate locality deep within the sixteenth century would ever have heard of her.
Instead, God in his great mercy stepped into Joan’s life. Having written her name in the Lamb’s book of life before time began, he had always loved her throughout eternal ages past, and in time lifted her above the thoughts and ideas of men, into the glorious realm of usefulness to him. She had nothing to merit man’s attention, and certainly not God’s, but after only twenty or so years on this earth, she became an instrument used by God to encourage generations of his people through trials and troubles.
Unseen smoke, unseen fire
How amazing is the way God deals with his people, and what surprises he has in store even for the frailest of his saints. That day at Derby’s Windmill Pit, exactly 440 years ago, with the smell of smoke in her nostrils and the burning fire on her flesh, Joan Waste had no idea that fellow believers would be reading about her courageous martyrdom, and praising God for her life – towards the close of the twentieth century! Truly, the thoughts and ways of the Lord are ‘higher’ than ours (Isaiah 55: 9).