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Learning from Church History: Thomas Cranmer

(This was originally posted on September 26, 2019)

Here is a brief, yet inspiring story from Church History. It’s about a man named Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).

Cranmer was at one time the Archbishop of Canterbury and lived during the reign of Mary Tudor, also known as “Bloody Mary” because of her persecution of Protestants. There are two things you need to know about Cranmer to help understand the story of his death:

1. He was committed to his country.

2. He was firmly allegiant to the Protestant cause.

Mary Tudor eventually imprisoned Cranmer and pressured him to recant his Protestant allegiance. After much internal struggle, Cranmer does write a letter of recantation. Historians disagree whether he did this out of fear or because he had always declared he would obey his sovereigns. Either way, Cranmer recanted.

Mary Tudor, wanting to make a public example out of Cranmer to discourage other Protestants, condemned Cranmer to death in spite of his recantation.

A time for public recantation was schedule for Cranmer so all could hear him reverse his previous support of Protestantism. After all, Protestant supporters could accuse Mary Tudor of forging the letter of recantation.

Cranmer began by speaking of his sins and weaknesses, and all expected him to conclude by declaring that he had sinned in leaving the Church of Rome. But Cranmer had other plans. He surprised everyone by recanting his recantation!

In speaking of the words, he wrote in his letter,

“They were written contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, to save my life if it might be….As for the Pope, I refuse him, for Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”

As you can imagine, this did not please Mary Tudor. Consequently, Cranmer is immediately led out to be burned at the stake.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs picks up the story, 

“And when the wood was kindled and the fire began to burn near him, stretching out his arm, he put his right hand into the flame, which he held so steadfast and unmovable that all men might see his hand burned before his body was touched.”

As an act of repentance, Cranmer wanted the hand that wrote his letter of recantation to be burned first. He wanted all present to see that he genuinely did believe in justification by faith alone and the authority of the Scriptures above the papacy — both crucial points of difference between the Church of Rome and the Protestant cause.

I share this story for three main reasons:

1. Cranmer caved under pressure. Sometimes you will as well, as I do too.

2. Cranmer repented of his failure. Heroes are not perfect people. Heroes are people who repent. Daily.

3. Cranmer stood for something and was willing to die for it. What are you ready to die for? As you ponder that question, remember there is Someone who died for you. Worship him today. Be willing to die for him.

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