Hugh Latimer – lighting the candle that will never go out

Hugh Latimer:
lighting the candle that will never go out

A person’s life may be looked at from an almost infinite number of different angles. But when I look at Latimer’s life, what I see ahead of anything else is a life-story that seems to have been written to prove, beyond question, that God is sovereign over all affairs of men; that nothing can resist His will and that when the appointed time of blessing is come to a nation, He acts decisively.

In order that we should see as great a transformation as it is possible to imagine in a man’s life, that it should be abundantly clear that the Reformation was the work of God – an act of grace and nothing connected to man’s schemes and good intentions – it was God’s will that Hugh Latimer should begin his life with the most unpromising of prospects, spiritually speaking.

There is controversy about Latimer’s birth date. Some estimates are as early as 1485, but it would seem that the most compelling arguments point to his being born around 1490 or 1491, in Thurcaston in Leicester. His father was a yeoman with a small farm. Despite his limited means, he was at the same time generous and careful with what little he had. He was able to send Hugh to a local school and then, at age 14, up to Cambridge. Latimer was an exceptional scholar; while still an undergraduate he was chosen as a fellow of Clare Hall. A few months later in January 1510 he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He took his Master of Arts in July 1514; and some years after, obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Divinity, probably in 1521 around the age of 30.

During his time in Cambridge, Latimer was considered remarkable for his “sanctimony of life”, his conscientiousness, and studious habits. However, in his own words, he was “as obstinate a Papist as any in England”. He was so zealous and fervent, and such a bitter opponent of the Reformation that his whole oration, when he was made Bachelor of Divinity, was against Philip Melancthon and his ideas. Melancthon was an eminent continental Reformer, who would later take the lead from Luther when he died in 1546.

Latimer thought the Reformation such an unprecedented evil that he declared that the day of judgment and the end of the world must soon be approaching:

“What lengths might not men be expected to run” he asked “when they began to question even the infallibility of the Pope?”

The likeness between the Apostle Paul and Latimer prior to their conversions is stark; neither were men who did things by half measures. The violence and vehemence with which Paul opposed God’s true elect, all the while thinking himself to be acting in God’s name, were mirrored by Latimer’s public furious onslaughts of those true believers who had come to see that the Church had so distinctly departed from the knowledge of God and needed to be reformed.

A contemporary of Latimer’s who had witnessed his attack on Melancthon had, two years before, procured himself a copy of Erasmus’s Latin New Testament. This man was Thomas Bilney. He bought the book, not to meditate on the Word of God, but was rather allured to it by the elegance of the Latin. That simple purchase, however, was foreordained to be a vital link in the chain of Reformation history in England.

While admiring the Latin, Bilney chanced upon 1 Tim. 1:15:

“It is a true saying and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief”, as Bilney translated it. By this verse Bilney’s eyes were opened; he saw the futility of works: if Paul, whose salvation even the most bigoted papist would not question, was saved while a sinner and, moreover, the chief of sinners, then salvation could only be something freely given, something to be received by faith alone. The vanity of striving for salvation by the empty merit of one’s works was made plain to Bilney and from that moment he came to trust to Christ’s merit alone for his salvation.

Bilney saw in Latimer sincerity and honesty, and considered that his zeal for popery might be attributed to a lack of knowledge. I imagine that Bilney saw in Latimer the parallels with Paul and prayed that in like manner Latimer’s zeal might be turned, as Paul’s was, to God’s glory. Bilney approached Latimer after his attack on Melancthon and humbly asked whether he might be allowed to make a private confession to Latimer of his own new-found faith. Latimer agreed. He says:

“To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many years. So from that time forward I began to smell the word of God, and forsook the school-doctors and such fooleries.”

Those that understand nothing of grace would be surprised to learn that following Latimer’s conversion he did not cease doing good works but rather increased. He spent his available time now going around with Bilney visiting prisoners and the sick in Cambridge. He was kind and compassionate with those he met, and sometimes involved himself deeply with their problems. On one occasion he found a woman in gaol who had been accused by her husband of murdering their baby. Latimer visited the poor woman many times with Bilney and became convinced of her innocence. But, as with all the Reformers who paid for our country’s freedom from Rome so willingly with the service and sacrifice of their lives, Latimer’s compassion did not extend only to prayer; it drove him to action also. Once, having just preached to King Henry VIII, he petitioned for this woman’s pardon directly to the King’s face and was granted it.

As David’s loyal service in defending and protecting the flock he tended as a boy would foreshadow God’s entrusting him with His people; when he would be anointed king over Judah, so I see this matter of Latimer with this wronged and betrayed woman. I see it as a model of how Latimer would petition the King of kings for the liberty of the English elect from their bondage and spiritual captivity. Let us look at how Latimer would accompany his faith in God’s mercy, with faithful action.

As soon as Latimer gave up his zealous popery he became a more zealous Protestant. He began preaching in the University pulpits with such plainness, frankness, sincerity, honesty and openness that “None” according to Becon, Cranmer’s chaplain, who traced his own conversion to Latimer’s preaching, “None, except the stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, went away from it without being affected with high detestation of sin, and moved unto all godliness and virtue.”

Latimer preached in a completely new and unknown style. His sermons are striking in their simplicity, and powerful and challenging. He preached with equal sincerity whether he addressed the laity in English or the clergy in Latin. His method represented a revolution in preaching the Word, for no longer would he allow the Gospel to be shrouded in mysteries and riddles that could be deciphered only by the initiated élite; but he presented the Gospel at its face value, and expounded doctrines with simple illustrations that engaged the hearts and minds of even the least gifted of his listeners.

To give an example; with respect to original sin he illustrates it like this:

Suppose the king should, purely of his own good will and benevolence choose to favour a simple man who has no possessions of his own, with a thousand pounds of lands, to him and his heirs on this condition: that he should be the chief captain and faithful defender of the town of Calais, against our enemies the French.

The man accepts the charge, promising to be faithful. But, in time, he becomes closely acquainted and familiar with the French, and they offer him a great sum of money if he will agree to their coming in to occupy the town and possess it for the crown of France. The man agrees to neglect his duty to repel their agreed invasion, and Calais is taken.

Now the English king hears of this invasion and comes with a formidable force, and overcomes the French and regains hold of Calais. He then orders an inquiry to discover who was the traitor and finds it to be his very own captain that has betrayed him. So the king discharges the man of his office and takes back the thousand pounds of possessions from him and his heirs.

“Yes, truly:” Latimer argues, “the said captain cannot deny himself but that he had true justice, considering how unfaithfully he behaved him to his prince, contrary to his own fidelity and promise. So likewise it was of our first father Adam.”

As we might expect, Latimer’s uncompromised convictions attracted fierce persecution. The Bishop of Ely banned him from preaching in the university. But he was not silenced altogether: he obtained permission to preach in the Church of the Augustine Friars, for this was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. His enemies were not content with this, though. Charges of heresy were made against him and he was called up more than once to appear before Cardinal Wolsey and Tunstall, Bishop of London. Those accusing him in his trial, however, proved themselves comparatively ignorant of popish doctrine and appeared foolish against Latimer’s defence. Cardinal Wolsey judged that the allegations against him were merely personal and frivolous and, after gently admonishing him, restored Latimer’s licence and gave him authority to preach throughout England.

But this verdict may easily have been otherwise. Only months before, Bilney had been burnt for upholding an identical profession of faith to Latimer. Bilney’s role had been fulfilled however, his gift to our nation had been bestowed and God had decreed that nothing should delay his reward. For Latimer however the mission was just beginning.

In 1529 Cranmer, a hitherto unknown scholar, had come to the fore by suggesting to courtiers, who relayed the idea to the king, that the grave and public question of Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, should be referred to a commission of theologians at the universities. Although the Reformation was purely a merciful act of God’s grace toward us, it stands to reason that the changes that needed to be effected to bring about a climate in which we would have free access to God’s Word, and that that Word should be freely preached, necessitated the severance of Antichrist’s hold over our land. For the Pope claimed not only to be our spiritual head, but also temporally to have pre-eminence. Necessarily then, the Reformation must needs have a temporal or political element.

For many years England had been a high priority on Rome’s agenda for domination over Christendom. At times it had appeared that Rome was losing her grip: notably, in Wycliffe’s time when he successfully demonstrated, with the King’s and Parliament’s authority, that there cannot be two temporal rulers in England and proved that the annual tax England paid Rome should be dropped.

But Rome ever schemed to consolidate her hold over us. When Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII and heir to the throne, died without issue 6 months after marrying Catherine, the loyal papist, Rome’s designs looked like being frustrated. Catherine was an aunt to Emperor Charles V; her influence as wife to the English king would be a great victory for Rome. Now that the heir was dead the opportunity was lost – unless it could be engineered that she should marry the new heir Henry, her deceased husband’s brother. But the teaching of the Church was clear: such a union was unlawful. However, Rome has a means of rising above her own laws; the pope, being infallible, cannot decree anything false. It was a simple matter then for Pope Julius II to issue a bull to sanction the marriage. Thus Rome thereby regained this influence when Henry married Catherine and succeeded the throne in 1509.

But the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will (Proverbs 2:1). It transpired that by 1527 Henry wanted to be rid of his wife. It is not easy to judge why. Certainly he expressed fears that his repeated failure to beget a son from his brother’s wife may have been God’s judgment against the contentious union. It is more often felt, however, that his desire to annul this marriage stemmed from his passion for Anne Boleyn. Whatever the truth is, one thing is clear: the King’s caprice would be a very significant instrument of God’s gracious will for England.

It would be over this question that Cranmer, who supported the king’s position though not his motives or actions – these were not his to judge – but believed the king’s marriage to have been not legitimate from the start; it was in this that Cranmer would gain Henry’s favour and within four years would reluctantly accept the office of Archbishop.

Latimer had returned to Cambridge and continued steadfastly to preach uncompromisingly, thereby continuing to give offence to his enemies. However, that God’s irresistible will should be done, Latimer’s enemies were enervated and lacked a strong voice. Always he was vindicated from their malicious and spiteful charges.

In 1530 he was selected as one of twelve of “the best learned men in divinity within that university” to go up to London, by the king’s command, to judge whether certain books were heretical and should be prohibited. Following the consultation was a royal proclamation:

“… inhibiting all English books either containing or tending to any matters of scripture.”

of course, Latimer disagreed strongly with this verdict, and wrote to the king on 1st December, 1530, pleading: “for the restoring again of the free liberty of reading” the Word of God. Latimer tells the king that of the 24 members, 12 from each university, he was one of “three or four that would have had the scripture to go forth in English” had they not been overcome by the majority.

Latimer favoured the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine and despite his overt opposition to papistical falsehoods he gained the King’s favour while in London and was made a royal chaplain. It is interesting to note that while Latimer and Cranmer shared the view that the royal marriage should be annulled, Tyndale maintained the opposite view, voicing it very publicly in his “Practice of Prelates”. Interestingly, Tyndale’s work was, while he lived, all but opposed by the king, whereas Cranmer and Latimer’s advancement to ever-increasing influence was, humanly speaking, attributable to Henry VIII’s favour, under God.

Latimer, despite having opportunity to preach often in London, soon grew weary of court and the king offered him a benefice at West Kington, in Wiltshire. Needless to say, he again found himself much afflicted here for he could do no other than preach the Word diligently. Such men in all ages are targets. In his age, Latimer attracted an endless bombardment of fiery darts. Again he was called to trial, this time on charges serious enough to put him into the hands of Convocation. Guilty, he was imprisoned and excommunicated, but by the king’s intervention he was absolved. Yet again, he preached, offended and was pulled up before Convocation. But, by this time Thomas Cranmer had been crowned Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer found no fault with Latimer, but on the contrary recognised him to be allied to the very same cause of Reformation. They were confounded and put to shame that sought after Latimer’s soul: they were turned back and brought to confusion that devised his hurt. For, quite apart from punishing Latimer, Archbishop Cranmer orchestrated that Latimer should preach before the king on all the Wednesdays of the following Lent, 1534.

Time does not permit a detailed look at the remaining twenty-one years of Latimer’s life – each year of which, however, deserves close inspection. However, I hope to have demonstrated how convincingly God’s chosen man was clearly ordained to the calling by God – constant threat, persecution and formidable opposition could count for nothing then in such a context.

Knowing this, it is not surprising then that the following year Latimer would be advanced to the dignity and degree of a bishop, into the See of Worcester. The following year he was appointed to preach to the very bitterest and most powerful of his enemies, before Convocation.

This extraordinary opportunity was seized upon by Latimer to engage with the Gospel’s enemies head on. He confronted his old oppressors boldly, so publicly and unequivocally reproving their abuses and in no uncertain terms demanding Reformation.

He asked Convocation for an account of the good that they had done: what had they done to prosecute their great and august responsibilities toward the elect and the spiritual profit of the kingdom?

“What went you about?” he asks. “What would ye have brought to pass?” he demands. He answers the question himself, articulating their heinous neglects and itemising many of their crimes specifically. But this is no bitter recrimination: he is correcting them in order to exhort them to fulfil their rightful duties. His words are timeless:

“Go ye to, good brethren and fathers, for the love of God, go ye to; and seeing we are here assembled, let us do something whereby we may be known to be the children of light. Let us do somewhat, lest we, which hitherto have been judged children of the world, seem even still to be so… Now, it lieth in us, whether we will be called children of the world, or children of light.

“Wherefore lift up your heads, brethren, and look about with your eyes, spy what things are to be reformed in the church of England…”

On this occasion Latimer had the chance to address these leaders for only about an hour. He was of course limited in what could be said in so short a time. And yet his challenge had been made. Over the course of the next twenty years God would propel men to the fore who would take up this call. Tyndale, Coverdale, Rogers and such men would give England the written truth, God’s Word; Latimer and others would preach that Word; and God willing, next time we shall see how Cranmer would consolidate all these gains in the Articles, the Prayer Book and in licensing England’s first Authorised Bible.

There is much more to say of Latimer’s gift to his people; notably in the homilies he authored. But let us conclude with Latimer’s prescription for Reform. In a day when God’s ministers see fit to be entertainers, public relations officers, commentators and suchlike, it is fitting to heed Latimer’s exhortations to the minister. Likening a prelate to a ploughman, Latimer says:

“You will ask me, whom I call a prelate? A prelate is that man, whatsoever he be, that hath a flock to be taught of him; whosoever he be that hath cure of souls. And well may the preacher and the ploughman be likened together: first, for their labour of all seasons of the year; for there is no time of the year in which the ploughman hath not some special work to do… And then they also may be likened together for the diversity of works and variety of offices that they have to do… He hath first a busy work to bring his parishioners to a right faith… to a faith that embraceth Christ and trusteth to his merits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that maketh a man righteous without respect of works… He hath then a busy work, I say, to bring his flock to a right faith, and then to confirm them in the same faith: now casting them down with the law, and with threatenings of God for sin; now ridging them up again with the gospel, and with the promises of God’s favour: now weeding them, by telling them their faults, and making them forsake sin; now clotting them, by breaking their stony hearts, and by making them supplehearted… apt for doctrine to enter in: now teaching to know God rightly and to know their duty to God and their neighbours: now exhorting them, when they know their duty, that they do it, and be diligent in it… They have a continued work to do.”

This was the teaching by which the church in England was reformed. But it should not be mere history to us. Latimer’s words transcend the boundaries of time. These words, to us, were written in his blood, for he would pay for them with his life. On 16th October 1555 he lit such a candle, by God’s grace, as has never been put out. Therefore, we ought to hear him.