John Penry Pleaded for Welsh Soulwinners

Dan Graves, MSL

John Penry Pleaded for Welsh Soulwinners

John Penry wept for Wales. In Elizabeth's England, there were far too few pastors assigned to teach the Welsh, and of those, many were absentees from their flocks or little better than rogues. Penry wrote Equity of a Humble Supplication in Behalf of the Country of Wales that Some Order May Be Taken for the Preaching of the Gospel Among Those People. He complained that thousands in Wales had almost never heard of Christ. "O destitute and forlorn condition! Preaching itself in many parts is unknown. In some places a sermon is read once in three months." He proposed a system of lay pastors supported in part with voluntary gifts from the people. His attack on the neglectful practices of the Church of England won Penry the undying enmity of John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Having become a Puritan separatist in his thinking, Penry could not accept a state-run system, because, as he phrased it, "The truth of Christ and ministry of Christ as it is his will be in bondage unto no antichristian power. If it be, it is antichrist's truth and ministry." Because of such outspoken views, and his stern warnings to the queen and her bishops, Penry had to flee at times. Eventually he would be hanged, making him a hero and martyr in Wales.

What sealed his doom was The Marprelate Tracts. These were satirical exposés larded with heavy-handed taunts at English bishops ("petty popes"), coarse talk ("Printed overseas, in Europe, within two furlongs of a bouncing priest") and silly sneers ("Ha, ha, Dr. Copycat!"). Their theme can be summed up in the words of the first tract: "Leave you your wickedness and I'll leave the revealing of your knaveries." An example of the knavery was confiscation of stolen cloth by one bishop for his own use. "Well, one or two of the thieves were executed and at their deaths confessed that to be the cloth which the bishop had, but the dyers could not get their cloth, nor cannot unto this day..." Penry was thought to have a hand in preparing the popular pamphlets although he denied it. While it is true that they were printed on the same press as his books, the general consensus today is that he did not write them. They weren't his style.

Captured, he was treated to a travesty of justice. Some strong words of warning against Elizabeth in his notebook were interpreted as treason. Archbishop Whitgift was the first to sign his death warrant. Penry was hauled off to be hanged on this day, May 29, 1593. A thin scattering of bystanders, none of them his friends, watched as the 34-year old departed this world at the end of a rope about four in the afternoon. He was not allowed to preach a final sermon.

He had, however, written a lengthy letter to his four daughters (Deliverance, Comfort, Safety and Sure Hope), none of whom was old enough to really understand yet what was going on; the eldest was four years, the youngest four months. In it he showed his deep affection for them: "Wherefore, again, my daughters, even my tenderly beloved daughters, regard not the world or anything that is therein..." He implored them to follow true faith: "And I, your father, now ready to give my life for the former testimony do charge you, as you shall answer in the day of the Lord, to embrace this my counsel given unto you in His name, and to bring up your posterity after you (if the Lord vouchsafe you any) in this same true faith and way to the Kingdom of Heaven."

Bibliography:

  1. "Great Non-Conformist Preachers of Wales." V Wales. http://www.red4.co.uk/Folklore/trevelyan/glimpse/ noncomformists.htm
  2. Marprelate Tracts. Modernised spelling and punctuation by J. D. Lewis. http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/ marprelate/Tract1m.htm
  3. Peel, Albert. The Notebook of John Penry, 1593. London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1944.
  4. "Penry, John." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  5. Pierce, William. John Penry; His life times and writings. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923.
  6. Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge, 1961; especially "The Marprelate Controversy," pp. 164 - 166.
  7. Various internet and encyclopedia articles.
Last updated May, 2007.
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