The Reformation in England was in many ways a series of bonfires. While Hitler burned books, 16th century religious authorities and magistrates burned their writers and those who read them. One such reader was “little” Thomas Bilney (c. 1495-1531). Bilney was burned at the stake in 1531, but his influence survived into the reign of Queen Mary. Some of the most famous English martyrs were converted under his ministry.
Bilney, like Luther, was converted by reading Paul’s epistles. He had acquired a copy of Erasmus’ Latin New Testament, more for the Latin than a desire to read a new translation of the scriptures. But as he read, he was struck by the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In a letter to Bishop Tunstall of London, in 1527, referring to 1 Timothy 1:15 he wrote:
. . . at the first reading (as I well remember) I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) . . . ‘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 and principal.’ This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that immediately I felt a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.1
Although Luther was beginning to have some influence in England at the time, Bilney was never a Lutheran himself. In fact there were many Roman doctrines such as transubstantiation that he continued to believe. He was, however, a fierce opponent of the prevailing kind of religion in which the sinner tried to work a passage to heaven. His fury was particularly directed at avaricious clergy and friars whose concern was to enrich themselves (and not to feed the sheep). He was therefore on a collision course with the establishment, and, having begun preaching in 1525, was summoned before Cardinal Wolsey in 1526 for denouncing saint worship.
In 1527, he was summoned again. During this time he demonstrated his distaste for Luther, describing him as a “vile heretic.” However, his own views were also considered heretical. Under great pressure he finally recanted his teachings and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a year. After that time, he repeated his recantation and was freed.
Bilney was devastated. For two years he struggled with his conscience, until he eventually told his friends that he was “going up to Jerusalem.” He began preaching openly once more in the fields of Norfolk and gave out a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament. He was again apprehended, and in August 1531 he was burned at the stake.
By later standards, Bilney was not a consistent Protestant nor great theologian: he maintained certain doctrines which later Reformers died for denying. But, having bought a Bible for the sake of its Latin, he was converted to Christ, and spent the rest of his life evangelizing. Among those converted under Bilney were Reformation martyrs Robert Barnes, Rowland Taylor, and Hugh Latimer. In the sovereignty of God, little Thomas Bilney had a big impact on England.
It is tempting for the pastor to despise the day of small things. There are always others more learned. There are always bigger and more vibrant works of God happening elsewhere. It is easy to forget that what God values is faithfulness to him. As he was consumed by the bonfire, Thomas Bilney cannot have imagined the blaze that would soon be lit in England. In human terms he was not a great man. He never held high office or wrote a book. But he did love the Lord Jesus Christ, he did teach the Bible to those around him, and he was willing to die rather than deny his Lord. Latimer’s description of him would be a fitting epitaph for any pastor to seek, “he was meek and charitable, a simple good soul, not fit for this world.”2
1 Dickens and Carr, The Reformation in England (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), 28-29. See also John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe: A New and Complete Edition, vol. 4 (London: R.B. Selley and W. Brunside, 1837), 635.
2 Hugh Latimer quoted in A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1984), 102.