Hugh Latimer was born around 1491 in Thurcaston, a small town near Leicester, near where Wycliffe had lived and worked almost a century before. His father was a farmer and though poor had his eyes fixed on making sure his son gained a good education.
Latimer entered Cambridge University at the age of 14 and in February 1510 became a fellow of Clare Hall. He was an ardent Catholic who embraced the teachings of the church with a ferocity that permeated every aspect of his life. The oral defense he presented as a final step towards gaining his bachelor of theology was a violent polemic pitch against the doctrines of Philip Melancthon. He was the poster boy for Catholic apologetics in the Reformation riddled minefield that was 16th century England.
So what turned him around? What transformed him from a pillar of Papism to a pillar of Protestantism? It was an encounter with the famous Cambridge reformer Thomas Bilney in a confessional booth of all places, which admittedly was a rather unusual place for a confessor to be converted. But as was the case, Bilney came to confess his sins and it was Latimer that ended up being converted. Revelation 12:11 says “And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony and they loved not their lives unto the death”. It was the word of Bilney’s testimony, poured into Latimer’s ears in that confessional, that overcame the darkness of Romanism in Latimer’s mind. As Bilney shared the reality of his sinfulness and his struggle to gain acceptance with God through his own works, Latimer’s heart began to soften, perhaps (and we do not know for sure) because Bilney’s struggle mirrored his own. And when Bilney shared the hope and peace he had found in looking to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness and acceptance Latimer broke down and with tears streaming down his face, fell on his knees before God.
Latimer’s conversion was almost like the conversion of the apostle Paul. The zeal, passion, and intensity that had driven him to violently uphold the pillars of Catholic dogma now drove him to uphold the pillars of the Reformation with equal force.
Latimer went on to become Royal Chaplain and Bishop of Worcester, advocating Papal reform and denouncing a clergy who had no bibles and parishioners who were unable to recite even the Lord’s prayer. His clarion call to reform landed him in prison in 1539 and he was spared the stake by the intervention of Thomas Cromwell but remained in prison until the death of Henry VIII. He was released by Henry’s son Edward VI before whom Latimer preached one of his most powerful sermons declaring “ Let us not take any by walks, but let God’s word direct us: let us not walk after … our forefathers, nor seek not what they did, but what they should have done.”—
When Edward VI died in 1553 England was thrown into terrible religiopolitical strife. In a bid to keep the Pope from indirectly gaining control of the throne of England, Lady Jane Grey was made Queen but she only ruled for 9 days being deposed by Edward’s sister Mary Tudor. Despite her initial platitudes it soon became clear that Mary’s intentions were to make England a Catholic nation. Mary ordered Latimer’s arrest and when word reached him that his captors were on their way he chose to surrender himself peacefully rather than escape. While in prison he met Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.
In March of 1554 they were all tried for heresy at Oxford where Latimer and Ridley were both sentenced to death and on the 16th of October 1555 were led to the place of execution outside Balliol College Oxford, where Wycliffe, the harbinger of reform, had preached a century before.
Sharing an embrace before execution Ridley said to Latimer “‘Be of good cheer, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flames or else strengthen us to abide it.’ to which Latimer responded, ‘Be of good comfort Master Ridley and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light a candle in England as I trust in God shall never be put out.’
The impact of their martyrdom served to turn the tide of popular opinion against Catholicism in England. The country was appalled at a religion that would resort to such brutal methods to promulgate itself.
Ridley’s parting words to Latimer ring true in my ears. Whenever we face trials in our lives it’s good to remember that God will either assuage the fury of the flames or else strengthen us to abide them. May our affections be so firmly fixed in the right place and on the right Person that we may look the hardest trials squarely in the eyes and not be moved.