Thomas Bilney, born around 1495 in Norfolk, was a Reformed preacher who was among the earliest martyrs of the English Protestant Reformation. He studied law at Cambridge, was ordained in 1519, and, while studying Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, was converted upon reading Paul’s confession in 1 Timothy 1:15:
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the chief.
Following his conversion, he gave himself up totally to the study of Scripture and led a group of Cambridge scholars in the same. After reading Hugh Latimer’s dissertation refuting Philip Melanchthon’s Reformed doctrines, he arranged to have Latimer hear his confession, using the opportunity to evangelise him. Latimer was converted and the two formed a close friendship. Bilney was licensed to preach in 1525, and by 1526 he had been summoned to appear before Cardinal Thomas Wolsey for preaching against Catholic doctrines and practices. Bilney took an oath that he did not adhere to and he would not spread Luther’s Reformed doctrines, but soon afterwards he diverged from his oath and was arrested, convicted of heresy, and held in the Tower of London until 1529. Under pressure to recant, he did so, and gained his release. For the following two years he was overwhelmed with guilt for his apostasy, and only found relief by resolving to preach more than ever the gospel of free grace. He was again arrested, tried, degraded from his holy orders, and sentenced to death by burning, which martyrdom he gladly embraced.