Protestant Reformers Martyrs and Heroes

John Wycliffe (1320-1384)

Wycliffe was highly educated. He was the master of Balliol College Oxford in 1361 and became a Doctor of Theology.

In 1366 Wycliffe supported Edward III and his refusal to pay tribute to the Pope. In 1374 Wycliffe denounced the sale of indulgences and verbally attacked the Pope. From this point on Wycliffe had severe opposition from Rome and from the church in England. The Pope issued five decrees (Bulls) against him and condemned him on nineteen different charges concerning his writings.

Four years later Wycliffe attacked the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and in the ensuing troubles he retired from public life.

Fortunately the greatest of all of his works was accomplished. Wycliffe translated the Bible into the first English translation thus making it available to ordinary people. Those who could read were able to tell other people what the Bible actually said.

Wycliffe had a group of followers who acted as unauthorized preachers. They went out amongst ordinary people and preached the gospel to them. These followers were known as Lollards. Wycliffe's influence thus continued after his death in 1384. And his writings spread to the European continent when they were adopted by John Huss who was at the Prague University.

Forty years after his death, John Wycliffes's bones were dug up and burnt by order of the Roman church.

John Huss (1369-1414)

Huss was the most important of the forerunners of the Reformation within Europe. He was born of peasant stock but he was a gifted scholar and received a good education and became the Rector of Prague University when he was 34 years old.

But Huss was stirred by his knowledge of the Bible. He read the works of John Wycliffe and he started preaching in a chapel in Prague known as the Bethlehem Chapel. This chapel was established to allow people to hear the Bible in their own tongue (very few people, even within the clergy, knew Latin which was the only language that the Roman church allowed the Word of God to be heard in).

The Archbishop of Prague opposed Huss. Then the Pope excommunicated Huss and forced him out of Prague. In 1414 Huss was summoned for trial before the General Council of Constance. He was promised a safe conduct so he went to defend himself.

What we now know the basic truth of the Bible, that God loves us all and sent His Son to take the penalty of our sin upon Himself, was contrary to the teaching of the Roman church at that time. And Huss was burnt at the stake because he revealed this truth to ordinary people!

The followers of Huss were known as Taborites and then Bohemian or Moravian Brethren and they strongly influenced the Reformation as it developed.


Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498)

Savonarola was born in the Italian city of Ferrara and, for a time, lived in a Dominican monastery. At the age of 38 he went to the city of Florence. He began to preach and lecture and drew large crowds.

However he was not a doctrinal reformer but he attacked the evil lives and immoral behaviour of many of the people at that time. In particular he exposed the corruption within the clergy and the laity. But he preached a message of repentance from sin and Florence became a centre of a great revival.

He tried to make the city a model of a Christian community. The Pope at that time was Alexander Borgia and was one of the most wicked men who ever occupied the papacy. He tried to 'buy' Savonarola by offering to make him a cardinal.

Savonarola refused this and the Pope used other tactics. He got the monks to speak out against Savonarola and then excommunicated him and arrested him. He was tortured and put to death by burning. Savonarola refused to renounce his beliefs unto death.

Martin Luther regarded Savonarola as a pioneer of the Reformation because of his work to reform public morals. The doctrinal reformation began about twenty years later.


Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

First he exposed the moral corruption in the church and in the monasteries and wrote a number of books on the subject.

His second contribution was his editing of the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516. This brought people's attention to the true gospel of Christ and taught that salvation is by grace and not by works. This was translated into several European languages and printed in large numbers at an reasonable price.

Martin Luther said of Erasmus 'He pointed out the evil but was unable to point out the good and to lead to the promised land'. In fact Erasmus had prepared the way for the Reformation as expressed in the saying 'Erasmus laid the egg but Luther hatched it'.


Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther was born in Eisleben in Saxony, Germany of a peasant family. He had a strict upbringing and entered the University of Erfurt where he greatly distinguished himself in study.

He did not seem to be aware of the role that God had planned for him, a role that would reveal Christ to Europe and shake the Roman church to it's foundations.

A series of events affected Luther. A friend died in a brawl, Luther himself nearly died after accidentally injuring himself with a rapier. Then he feared for his life during a thunderstorm so much that he promised God that if he survived then he would become a monk. Which he did!

Luther entered an Augustinian monastery. He wanted peace with God and he had realized that the world could not give it to him. As a monk he did his utmost to earn this peace with God. He was perhaps the most sincere, conscientious monk who ever tried in genuine earnestness to merit salvation by human effort. He even became proud of his own humility.

Luther struggled with the phrase 'the righteousness of God' (Romans 1:17). He could not understand how he could ever achieve this level of holiness. He did not understand that the gospel is the saving power of God to everyone who believes in God because it reveals the righteousness of God, which is Christ.

As the punishment due to the believing sinner is borne by Christ so the righteousness of Christ in the believer makes him acceptable to God. The scripture that the Holy Spirit used to bring life to Luther was 'The just shall live by faith' and this scripture became the fundamental truth of the Reformation.

Luther entered the Roman priesthood and took a post as professor of Theology at Wittenberg University.

In 1510 Luther went to Rome for four weeks on a mission for the Augustinian monastery. This was a turning point for Luther. As he approached the 'eternal' city he had proclaimed 'Hail holy Rome'. Four weeks later he proclaimed 'If there is a hell, Rome is built over it'.

Soon Luther was involved in a conflict with the church. St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome was to be rebuilt. The expense was to be met by contributions and special indulgences were to be sold. Luther preached vehemently against the sale of indulgences. He wrote his now famous 95 Theses, an attack against indulgences, and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg at noon on the 31st October 1517. Thus the Reformation had begun.

Copies of the document were distributed all over Europe and the rift between the Pope and this 'child of the devil' widened and Luther was excommunicated. A papal bull was issued to burn all of his writings. Instead, Luther burnt the papal bull!

Luther was summoned by the Emperor Charles V to the city of Worms to appear before an inquisition. He was given a safe conduct (remember what happened to John Huss). There were 206 people of rank, including the emperor, against Martin Luther. Luther held firm in his faith and was allowed to leave the city of Worms. Shortly after that he was declared an outlaw to be captured dead or alive. Anyone who assisted him at all would be charged with high treason against the emperor.

On his journey back to Wittenberg, Luther was captured by a group of horsemen and taken to castle Wartburg. However these were friends who kept him concealed for almost a year. In this time Luther started the work of translating the scriptures into German. Luther was ideally qualified for this work. He had studied Hebrew and Greek for many years and was gifted in the use of the German language.

The Greek New Testament translation by Erasmus was valuable to him. By 1522 the New Testament was openly on sale. By 1534 the Old Testament was also available. His main work was done. What Luther had started could not be stopped and the rest of Europe, England and Scotland were to catch the fire that he had kindled.

Luther married in 1525 and, until his death in 1546, he wrote prodigiously. His best known books are his Large and Small Catechisms. His greatest book was, arguably, The Bondage of the Will.

He was buried in the castle church at Wittenberg. The following summer Charles V stood at the grave. When asked if the bones of the arch-heretic should be dug up and burnt, he replied 'I make war against the living, not upon the dead. Let this man rest until the day of resurrection and of judgement'.


Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1528)

Zwingli led the Reformation movement in the northern part of Switzerland. He was well educated and went to the University of Vienna. Zwingli became convicted of the state of the Roman church. Because of his studies he was also aware of the discrepancies between the teaching of the Roman church and the Scriptures themselves.

He was strongly influenced by the writings of Wycliffe and Huss.

In 1519 Zwingli became a preacher in Zurich. He preached the true gospel of Christ and crowds flocked to hear him. The city was hit by the plague and there were many deaths. Zwingli himself caught the plague and was very ill for three months.

A new church, the Reformed Church, was set up and many of the regions within Switzerland adopted it. But those regions which remained Catholic and they persecuted the Protestants. In 1531 a civil war broke out and an army of Catholics invaded Zurich. Zwingli himself died. He was injured but he refused to allow a Catholic priest to hear a confession. Because of this he was killed by a sword and his body quartered and burnt. But the seed had been sown and the reformed faith made remarkable progress within Switzerland.


Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

Thomas Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire, England in 1489. He was educated in Cambridge and in 1533 appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

He was appointed to this position by King Henry VIII who approved of Cranmer's attitude to the divorce that he wanted. Cranmer was a man who arguably made a wrong choice in this support of the King, but such is the way of God that this put Cranmer in a position that accelerated the progress of the reformation.

In 1538 Cranmer advised the king to order that a copy of the Bible was placed in every church in England. Also the churches were required to stay open throughout the day. The significance of this was that the Bible was in English. Thus Tyndale had his last prayer answered. Two year earlier, at his martyrdom, Tyndale had prayed aloud that God would 'open the eyes of the King of England'.

Cranmer also replaced the Catholic Missal with the English Prayer book which, with revisions, has been in use to modern times.

Henry VIII was succeeded by his son Edward VI but he was soon dead and Mary became queen. She made a determined effort to re-impose Roman Catholicism and a period of persecution of the Protestant believers began.

Over three hundred people were burnt at the stake. This included Thomas Cranmer. Under pressure he recanted his Protestant faith but he was still sentenced to be burnt at the stake. But on the verge of glory Cranmer denounced the Pope as the Antichrist and held his right hand in the flames to atone for signing the recantation!


William Tyndale (1494-1536)

Tyndale was a scholar who was skilled in Hebrew and Greek. He became convinced that the clergy of the time knew very little about the Bible, many were unable to speak Latin which was the only language that the Roman church allowed.

Tyndale became determined to produce an English copy of the Bible that 'even a ploughboy could understand'. (It is strange that educated people in today's society find it so difficult to read!).

He was forced to Germany to work on the translation and by 1525 he had completed the New Testament. It was printed under the continual threat of discovery and persecution and had to be smuggled into England. The Roman church worked hard to stop the Bible being circulated. They burnt every copy they could and people found with them faced death.

The Roman church eventually managed to capture Tyndale and he was burnt at the stake in October 1536. He was one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. Through his English translation of the New Testament and the beautiful language which he used, his influence on modern day society is still very strong.


Patrick Hamilton (died 1528)

Patrick Hamilton studied at Wittenberg and he returned to Scotland preaching the Protestant doctrine. This was enough to upset the Catholic Church and Hamilton was arrested and brought to trial.

Hamilton was Scotland's first Reformation martyr, being burnt at the stake in an attempt to stop the Protestant teaching. But, as always, God succeeds. Hamilton's influence in Scotland was great; many people were converted by his testimony and Hamilton's teachings became a cornerstone of Protestant theology in Scotland and England.

Read the account of his faith in Foxes Book of Martyrs.


John Knox 1513-1572

John Knox was born in 1513 in Haddingham which is in Scotland. He went to Glasgow University. He was clearly influenced by the martyrdom of George Wishart and appears to have defended Wishart from the persecution by the Roman Church.

John Knox sought refuge from persecution in Europe but was captured by the French and imprisoned for 19 months. On his release, Knox went to England where there was religious freed (for the Protestants) under the reign of Edward VI. When Mary succeeded to the throne, Knox fled to Geneva where he spent time with John Calvin.

He was among a group of English and Scottish refugees who set about the task of producing a new English translation of the Bible known as the Geneva Bible. This was the first copy to have chapter and verse divisions. It was produced in 1560 and was the main Bible in use for many years.

Even the Authorized King James version, produced in 1611, had a difficult time being accepted by people and it was another thirty years before the Geneva Bible stopped being printed.

Knox returned to Scotland in 1559. He taught the plain truths of the Gospel and exposed idolatry within the Catholic Church. Although he did not promote the destruction of Roman churches and monasteries many of his supporters did just that.

It was under the influence of Knox that the Presbyterian system of church government was introduced into Scotland. Knox came into conflict with Mary Queen of Scots who tried to prevent the progress of Protestantism in Scotland.


Christian Heroes | People who changed the world

Previous PageHenry VIII (died 1547)

Henry VIII was the English king at the time that the Reformation was taking place in Europe. He was strongly opposed to the Protestant doctrine; he wrote a treatise against Luther for which the Pope rewarded him with the title 'Defender of the Faith'.

His motivation for the separation of the Church of England from Rome was political and personal in that he wanted a divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn. He persuaded Parliament to make this separation legal. Henry VIII appointed Thomas Cranmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury and an Act of Parliament was which included the dissolution of the monasteries.

In 1538 Henry ordered a copy of the Scriptures in English to be placed in every parish church and that the churches were to be open for people to have access to the Bible.

Henry VIII died in 1547 and the Reformation in England and Wales proceeded rapidly. Cranmer replaced the Roman Catholic Missal with the English Prayer Book.

When Edward VI died he was replaced by Mary, his half-sister, who attempted to re-establish Roman Catholicism in England. The persecution of Protestants commenced. Nearly 300 men and women were burnt at the stake. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs gives us many accounts of the people who were martyred for their faith in Christ. These people did not die for their principles, they went home willingly. There was no way that they could renounce the living witness of Christ within them.

England became a Protestant nation because of these martyrs and because English translations of the Bible became available to everyone. William Tyndale was paramount in this move of God.


William Hunter (1535-1555)

William Hunter was publicly burned in his home town of Brentwood in Essex because he was found reading the Bible in English for himself. He was 19 years old.

William was an apprentice silk weaver in London and he was a Protestant when Mary Tudor took the English throne. England had broken away from the Catholic Church under King Henry VIII. Edward VI had then become king but he died at a young age allowing his Catholic half-sister Mary to become queen. She was determined to return England to the Catholic Church and a period of persecution of the Protestant believers began.

William was singled out by the authorities because he refused to attend mass despite an order having been made that everyone in the City of London had to attend the Catholic mass. By refusing to obey, William lost his job and he returned to Brentwood.

It wasn't long before William was found reading the Bible for himself. The local priest became involved and soon established that William had a basic protestant belief which totally contradicted the Catholic doctrine. William was soon arrested and sent to be interrogated by the Bishop of London. Again William refused to deny his faith in Jesus. By his actions he was denying the validity of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

William was imprisoned for nine months but he refused to repent his beliefs despite physical punishment, threats and bribery. Eventually he was sent back to Brentwood to be executed.

William was burnt at the stake because of his beliefs and because he refused to deny his beliefs. It would also seem that the authorities were incensed by the spiritual maturity of someone so young. There is a monument to William Hunter in Brentwood with the following inscription:-

WILLIAM HUNTER. MARTYR.Committed to the Flames March 26th MDLV.


John Calvin (1509-1564)

Calvin was born in France; 'a man from among the common people' was his description of himself. He distinguished himself in school and the Roman church helped him to go to the University of Paris. He was destined for priesthood. His father, initially supporting Calvin to prepare for the priesthood, changed his mind and instructed him to become a lawyer.

But by this time Calvin had been strongly influenced by the German reformers and what he described as 'a sudden conversion' empowered him to continue the course of the Reformation within Europe. Calvin supported the persecuted Protestants within Paris and eventually he was forced to leave finding refuge in Basel in 1535. This was where he produced his book 'the Instruction in the Christian religion, also known as Calvin's Institutes. This is still a significantly important book on the subject of the Christian faith.

In Geneva, Calvin met up with William Farel, a French reformer. They were both powerful preachers and many people listened to them but their emphasis was on the hearers of the Word becoming doers of the Word. They introduced a strict discipline for their followers and this eventually led to them being banished from Geneva.

In 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva and started preaching again. The influence of Calvin's teachings and books quickly spread throughout western Europe. John Calvin became the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation, especially after Luther's death in 1546. Geneva became a haven of refuge to Protestants fleeing persecution. One such person was John Knox who, with others, produced the Geneva Bible translation. Calvin had a significant influence on this translation.

Calvin organized Geneva in a very regimented manner. Attendance at worship was mandatory with punishments for people who failed to go! Education was considered to be very important for both secular subjects and Christianity. There were laws regulating most of society including their clothing and their moral behaviour. Calvin did not institute these rules directly, they were freely adopted by the majority of the society and were welcomed by most of the people. There were problems caused by some people who did not want to live their lives in a decent manner but Calvin succeeded in leaving his influence in the Christian church even of today.

But Calvin and his supporters, as some church groups do today, missed a very simple but important point. People have a free will to accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No one can be forced to become a Christian. It is only a divine act of grace by God that changes the nature of people that makes a Christian. Thus all attempts to force a society to become Christians through laws and punishments is doomed to fail.

Even within a family, children cannot be forced into Christianity. But they can be brought up with a decent lifestyle and Christian teaching and protected from the influence of the world. Then God will honour His promise in Proverbs 22:6.


John Foxe (1516-1587)

He was born in Lincolnshire England and studied at Oxford where he held a fellowship for seven years. During this time Foxe embraced Protestantism and was soon forced to relinquish his University position.

For five years he worked for the Reformation and wrote many tracts. He also began his history of the persecutions and martyrdom in England and Scotland.

When Queen Mary took the throne in 1553 Foxe and his family were forced to flee from England to avoid being put to death. He was able to return to England three years later when Elizabeth gained the English throne and he eventually published his book 'The Book of Martyrs'.

He died at the age of seventy one having left a legacy of the inspiration, courage and sacrifice of those Christian heroes who chose to serve God during a vital time in our Christian history.


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