This year marks 500 years since the Reformation began in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. In this article, Sheila Stephen, visiting lecturer at The Wales Campus, Union School of Theology, writes on a heroic, though largely overlooked, person from the Reformation.
Church history isn’t tidy, and events don’t always fall into neat categories. If we were making a film about the Day of Pentecost and the events in Jerusalem then, I am sure we would have filmed a mêlée. There were crowds everywhere: noise, bustle and a cacophony of languages. When the apostles joined in with their bold proclamation of the gospel in a variety of dialects and languages, the noise and confusion must have been palpable. It wasn’t tidy.
So it was during the heady days of the Reformation — nothing was tidy, and spiritual progress often meant danger. The Bible reminds us that God uses whom he chooses for his purposes, like King Cyrus of old (Isaiah 45).
And so it was with King Henry VIII and his court, as the effects of the Reformation began to be felt on our shores. William Tyndale’s dying prayer, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!’ was answered when, two years later, the king decreed that the English Bible be placed in every church in England.
As soon as people began to read these Bibles, the excitement spread, as did the message of the Scriptures: justification by faith alone.
A noble woman
Henry VIII was a capricious political ruler. His interest in the Bible was as a weapon against the pope, rather than any real desire for the Word of God. He blew one way and then another, like a reed in the wind; and some who loved the doctrines of the Reformation were martyred during the end years of his reign.
In Henry’s court, there were several high-ranking women who loved the gospel, including Anne Boleyn and Katherine Parr. Among these influential women was a highly intelligent, beautiful and gifted noblewoman, Anne Askew.
Anne’s brother was one of the king’s bodyguards, and Anne was married at 15 to a local Catholic landowner, Thomas Kyme, with whom she had two children. Queen Katherine was a friend to the Reformation, and Anne Askew was one of many women who were received in the queen’s private apartments for a time of prayer and exposition of the Word of God by an evangelical minister.
Apparently, Henry turned a blind eye to these activities. Anne was highly attracted to the Scriptures and, like the early Christians in Acts 2, she became so attached to the apostles’ doctrine that she meditated on the Word of God day and night. It was through the reading of Scripture that she came to a living faith in Christ.
A noble faith
It wasn’t long before Anne, through her searching of the Scriptures, began to wonder about some of the Roman Catholic teachings. Where were the biblical references to transubstantiation and purgatory? She couldn’t find them.
Anne didn’t keep her views secret. At some point her husband disowned her and she left home, heading for London. She was a keen evangelist, sharing the gospel and distributing tracts, religious books and the Bible.
Her reputation went before her, and she was barely 25 years of age when she was arrested for being a Protestant. During the long trial that ensued, her Protestant views were questioned. One question read: ‘Do you admit that you said you would rather read five lines of the Bible than hear five masses said?’
Anne was discharged to the safe-keeping of friends, but about a year later she was summoned once again to the Privy Council to answer the charge, that she refused to believe that the bread and wine of the Mass were the actual body and blood of the Lord.
Every attempt was made to get her to recant her beliefs. But, when questioned, Anne defended herself with Scripture. Anne was sent to the Tower of London, where she faced the rack. After that, she never walked again.
The Lord Chancellor threatened her with being burned at the stake unless she embraced Roman Catholic doctrine. Before her death, Anne was questioned under torture, but she refused to implicate other noblewomen. ‘I would sooner die than break my faith’, were her words.
A noble death
Plans were made to burn Anne at the stake, together with three other evangelicals, in front of St Bartholomew’s Church. Anne was so weak after torture that she was tied to a chair to be burned, as she could no longer stand.
The four were given another opportunity to recant their biblical beliefs, but all resolutely refused. ‘I am not come hither to deny my Lord and Master’, was Anne’s testimony. A blazing torch was set to the fire and it consumed all four.
In dying, it could be said that Anne safeguarded Queen Katherine, who was soon accused of holding private meetings about the Scriptures. Katherine boldly supported the Reformation to her husband. Henry not only liked his wife, but he also enjoyed their theological debates, so he did nothing to support her enemies.
However, she and some of her ladies were later accused of harbouring Anne Askew and her Protestant ideas. The accusers prevailed and King Henry VIII set up an enquiry. Katherine’s arrest was imminent. However, on the very eve of her confinement to the tower, Katherine made various submissive statements to her husband and the conspiracy against her and the Reformation failed.
She lived on to have a godly influence on Lady Jane Grey, Prince Edward (later Edward VI) and the Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I).
A noble lesson
The story of Anne Askew makes exciting reading, but also prompts some important questions for Christians today. The first question is, ‘How much access do we give our young women to the Scriptures?’
In contemporary church life, it is all too easy to label BBQs, picnics, craft evenings, bake-offs and the like as ‘fellowship’, when there is scant attention paid to a serious and relevant study of the Word of God. These other things may have a place in getting women together in a non-threatening environment, but I seriously doubt whether they will encourage women to have the knowledge of sound doctrine and theology that led Anne Askew to be a defender of her faith.
According to a study published in the Spring 2017 edition of the London City Mission’s magazine: 48 per cent of evangelical Christians are too scared to talk about their faith; 42 per cent don’t feel equipped or trained enough to do so; and 87 per cent believe that Christians lack confidence in talking about their faith. We don’t seem to be encouraging a courageous generation of women (or men). Do our women’s church programmes include training in these things?
The second question is about our low spiritual expectations these days. Does the content of sermons, Bible study programmes and the like, provide the material and help to encourage and grow bold witnesses for Christ, for the 21st century?
Lastly, when Christians pray, as the Word of God encourages us to do, for the Queen, the government and those authorities God has set over us, do we pray for those ‘noble women’ who have significant positions of influence in our society, as Anne did?
This article first appeared in the September 2017 edition of The Evangelical Magazine published by the Evangelical Movement of Wales, and is used here by kind permission.