A Summary of Hugh Latimer's Life

Monday, July 25, 2011

In preparation for writing the letter to our son, Stephen Latimer Lionheart, we read an old biography of the English reformer, Hugh Latimer. Here are our notes from the book. We hope to polish this up into an informative aritcle summarizing this venerable man's life.

Hugh Latimer was born at the end of the 15th century as the War of the Roses was ending. He grew up in the home of a sturdy yeoman farmer near a small country village. As a young lad he would have helped around the farm, attended fairs and festivals, and learned how to shoot the English longbow. Intelligent even as a child and too delicate of health to follow in his father’s footsteps, his parents sought a good education for him. Zealous for religion, he went to Cambridge and entered the church. He was ordained in 1514.

Latimer spent 18 years in a quiet, academic career as his character and intellect developed.

Meanwhile Henry VIII ascended to the throne. England loved this handsome, wealthy, intelligent, well-educated, shrewd, jovial monarch. Though he was a staunch Catholic, God used him and the politics surrounding his reign to nurture the budding reformation.

Much like the famous Martin Luther, Latimer sought peace for his soul in ardent devotion to the church and her traditions and customs. Instead of studying the Bible, as many were beginning to do, he preferred to learn from the old scholars. He was 40 years old by now and no one expected him to change. Then a man named Thomas Bilney, “the first English Reformer”, shared with Latimer his own story of finding peace in the Word of God. When faced with this man’s simple faith, Latimer’s objections to the reformation began to crumble and he began to seek such solace for himself in the actual words of God. At last he found the peace he was looking for—not in appeasing an austere deity with penance and ceremonial devotion, but in free forgiveness by the blood of Christ. Instead of sighing after a life of sanctity and solitude in a monastery, he felt called to a nobler life of energy and action in the world.

Latimer’s openness and frank impetuosity of character could not long hide his change of opinions and he went on to become one of the most eloquent and forthright preachers of the English Reformation. Passionate and earnest, he could speak straight to the heart of his audience. He had a ready humor and a keen wit that endeared him to ordinary British people everywhere. He was not a scholar of theology—in fact, it was many years before he embraced what many have now come to consider the basic doctrines of the reformation. But he was filled with a love of the word of God and a desire to preach that word, simple and untainted, to all who would hear, whether they be gathered around a cozy hearth or filling up the grandest cathedral. Latimer’s day was one of ignorance and superstition and the church took advantage of this to become wealthy and immoral. To him, the reformation was not so much the revival of old spiritual truths long concealed as the restoration of an old spiritual life that had almost totally been obscured by the ceremonies and ecclesiastical superstitions of the papal church. Latimer urged people to turn away from elaborate exhibitions of religious zeal and return to the plain commands of God.

Latimer was not one to be intimidated by his audience. If a bishop hostile to the reformation descended upon his congregation, he would rise to the occasion and preach with greater boldness and perfect eloquence exactly what the bishop needed to hear—though it was rarely what such a one would want to hear. No one could preach with happier irony and more unsparing severity than he. He refrained from subtle discussions of theological questions—to him, as to the people at large, it was a question not of belief, but of life. His plainness evoked a loud response from the common people. Straightforward and practical, his preaching was exactly suited to the British mind. By 1538, his name was on everyone’s tongue and everyone discussed his doctrine.

That year was a peak for the Reformation. But it also saw the beginning of a reaction by the Papists. The progress made by men like Latimer, Cranmer, and Cromwell was checked, but only for a time. Perhaps the trial and persecution that followed was needed to give a depth and solidity to the reformation.

In 1539 Latimer was put under house arrest and banned from preaching. The voice of the most eloquent preacher in England was silenced for 8 years. Eventually he was released, though still banned from preaching. During this time he traveled from house to house among his hospitable country friends sowing seed with his conversation that would ripen into a glorious harvest. His health, which had always been delicate, and his mind needed the rest and he used this time to study and refine his views.

God had specially endowed Latimer as a preacher of the gospel rather than a scholar of theology or an administrative role. He did more for the reformation from the pulpit than his did in his years as a bishop.

When Henry died and Edward became king, reformed ideals became popular. Vices and sins grew rampant, but Latimer preached against those just as strongly as he ever had against any Papal abuses.

By 1551, Latimer’s health was failing and he left London to pour his eloquence out in the country.

Then Edward died and Mary ascended to the throne, determined to undo, through persecution, all that had been done in the past 24 years to further the cause of the reformation.

Latimer was among the first to be summoned. He could have escaped, but he knew the time had come to “play the man.” He praised God for making him worthy to preach before two princes and trusted Him to make him able to preach before a third, “either to her comfort or discomfort eternally.” Latimer was confined to the Tower along with Cranmer and Ridley. The three spent much time in prayer and studying the New Testament, knowing they would soon have to defend their beliefs before an unfriendly audience. Even in such hopeless circumstances, Latimer remained calm and self-possessed. Even the damp, the cold, his weakening body, and the knowledge of what lay ahead could not repress his pleasant tendency to an occasional joke.

His duty was clear and he trusted God to see him through.

Saturday, April 14, 1554 was the beginning of the trial of the three great reformers. All three were given a chance to defend themselves, but the audience—learned scholars though they were—rudely and shamelessly interrupted with hissings and scornful jeers. Latimer went to great pains to write out his responses to the accusations, but in the end he was not allowed to use his notes. As a result, he abandoned his citations to other theologians and his systematic reasonings and returned as he always had to the Word of God for one final address.

It was 18 months before their sentences of condemnation could be carried out, but even from prison—stripped of rank—they were considered leaders of the reformation. Had they faltered in their resolve or sought safety in escape, the cause of the reformation would have been sorely shaken. But their unshaken courage was an inspiration to all sympathizers of their beliefs.

Queen Mary restored the Pope’s authority and the eyes of England became all too familiar with the tragic sight of men of learning and piety dying a cruel death for their faith.

After a final confrontation at which Latimer once again firmly maintained his beliefs and after one last two week wait, October 16, 1555, the day of execution arrived.

Latimer and Ridley were burned side by side; both remained true to the very end. Latimer’s last words have become famous:

“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”

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