The deaths of some martyrs are understandable. By their bravery and firm disagreement with established authority, persecution seems inevitable. Not so the death of Thomas Bilney. Bilney was a meek man, very scrupulous, tender minded. He posed no threat to anyone. His doctrines differed hardly a whit from those of the authorities who put him to death. Two years after his death they were adopted in England. Bilney even considered Luther a heretic.
He was ordained a priest in 1519. Like many others, he sought to win God's approval by fasts, penance, masses, and vigils. He found that these were powerless to relieve his conscience. Reading Erasmus on Paul, he felt "a marvelous comfort and quietness, inasmuch as my bruised bones leapt for joy." His Bible shows that he saturated himself in scripture thereafter, marking it up with notes and underlining.
Salvation was through Christ alone. Rites, rituals, works--he declared all mere emptiness unless done in Christ. His sweetness of character and devotion to scripture soon won Hugh Latimer, John Lambert, Matthew Parker and Robert Barnes to Christ. Freed from the need to work to attain salvation, Bilney worked even harder. He slept seldom, ate little, prayed much, and obtained a license to preach throughout the countryside. After he won Latimer to Christ, by "confessing" to him, the two became almost inseparable, visiting the lepers and prisoners of Cambridge. Latimer called him "a simple good soul not fit for this world."
What got him into trouble was denunciation of the worship of relics and saints. Pilgrimages to Canterbury could do nothing for the soul, he said. The idolatry of Christendom had kept the Jews from Christ. Cardinal Wolsey became alarmed and had Bilney arrested. Confronted by the weight of church authorities against him and dreading his fate, Bilney recanted. He did not differ from the church over Eucharist, confession, the mass or any substantial doctrine, only on specific emphases and on the matter of relics and pilgrimages. The church itself sometimes taught faith. After a year in prison Bilney was freed.
He was, however, so scrupulous that he could scarcely bear to open the scripture, feeling the whole Bible condemned his betrayal of his principles. Salvation is by faith, not works. Relics are helpless to save. After two years of deep despondency, he began to preach again, gathering boldness and openly displaying a forbidden Bible translation.
He was seized and tried. He readily accepted confession and a final mass since he had never challenged those things. As a lapsed "heretic" the law allowed him to be burned and that was his fate. To prepare his mind for the ordeal he burnt his finger in a fire. Cheerfully he went to his death. After he had urged a large crowd to godliness and admitted error in preaching against fasts (which he had always practiced), the fire was lit beneath him. He died cruelly on this day, August 19, 1531 crying "Jesus" and "I believe!"
- Boreham, F. W. "Hugh Latimer's Text" in Life Verses Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1994.
- Daniell. William Tyndale. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
- "Bilney, Thomas." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
- Foxe, John. Book of Martyrs. Various editions.
- Stuart, Clara. Latimer, apostle to the English. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Books, 1986.
Last updated April, 2007.