Thomas Bilney (1531)
Thomas Bilney was born around 1495 near Norwich, and he might be called the father of the Reformation. While at Trinity Hall, Cambridge reading canon law, his soul was very distressed and he tried to get relief from taking the advice of the priests. He was advised to fast, do prolonged vigils, go to mass, pay indulgences, but none of these worked. One day he heard that someone was selling Erasmus? New Testament and he thought about buying it, but he was afraid because it was banned. He eventually got up enough courage to visit the house where it was being sold, and he purchased a copy. He hoped that these words of God would bring him some relief from his torment. The verse that converted him was 1 Timothy 1:15 ?Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst.?
Bilney would invite his friends to read the precious new book with him and many were touched. At this point William Tyndale arrived in Cambridge and John Fryth became ?born again? and the three of them would meet together. These three young scholars set to work with enthusiasm. They declared that neither priestly absolution nor any other religious rite could give remission of sins; that the assurance of pardon is obtained by faith alone; and that faith purifies the heart. Then they addressed to all men that saying of Christ?s at which the monks were so offended: Repent and be converted!
Bilney, who longed for an outpouring of the Holy Ghost, shut himself up in his room, fell on his knees, and called upon God to come to the assistance of his church. Then rising up, he exclaimed, as if animated by a prophetic spirit: ?A new time is beginning. The Christian assembly is about to be renewed...... Some one is coming unto us, I see him, I hear him ? it is Jesus Christ...... He is the king, and it is he who will call the true ministers commissioned to evangelize his people.? Tyndale, full of the same hopes as Bilney, left Cambridge in the course of the year 1519. Thus the English Reformation began independently of those of Luther and Zwingle ? deriving its origin from God alone.
Through the work of Bilney several influential men in Cambridge came to know Jesus. The most important of these was Hugh Latimer, the future Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester (see this website). Latimer was a priest known for his ardent fanaticism. Bilney watched him for some time and was impressed with his zeal, even though it was misplaced. He had a great gift for discerning character which enabled him to distinguish error, and to select the fittest method for combating it. Bilney prayed and made a plan to get close to Latimer. This was on the face of it quite a job as Latimer would not have anything to do with an evangelical. He went to the college where Latimer resided. ?For the love of God,? he said to him, ?be pleased to hear my confession.? What an inspired strategy! Latimer was only too happy to hear Bilney?s confession as he envisaged persuading him to turn back to the Church, and if Bilney turned back, everyone else in Cambridge would.. Bilney told Latimer all about the pain he had experienced before his salvation and he explained what happened to him on reading the New Testament. Bilney?s words were simple, but they cut into Latimer. Latimer said later, ?I learned more by this confession,? he said afterwards, ?than by much reading and in many years before ......I now tasted the word of God, and forsook the doctors of the school and all their fooleries.? Latimer was horrified at the war he had been waging against God; he wept profusely with Bilney consoling him.
The conversion of Latimer was not lost on the University; many young men came to hear Bilney preach. He would spend much of his time in prayer and reading the Word. In body he was weak; he kept a strict diet, normally only having one meal a day, and he would sleep just four hours a day. He and Latimer would spend a lot of time visiting the mad houses, the jails and the leper hospitals.
Another person whom Bilney targeted was Dr Robert Barnes (see this website). He spent a lot of time in prayer and after many conversations with Barnes, Holy Spirit did His work and Barnes was converted.
In 1526 Bilney was called to London and ordered not to preach Martin Luther?s doctrines. In 1527 Bilney, with his friend Thomas Arthur, preached powerfully around the country. In Ipswich he maddened the monks so much that twice, two of them pulled him out of the pulpit. He was arrested and taken to London. Arthur continued to preach the same message and was also arrested; ending up with Bilney in the same dungeon. They were brought before Cardinal Wolsey in the chapter house at Westminster and they were told to abjure or die.
Cardinal Wolsey left and the verdict was left to Tunstall, Bishop of London. From his cell Bilney thought that Tunstall, who was a friend of Erasmus, might be influenced when he heard that it was Erasmus? New Testament that converted him. He therefore wrote a series of eloquent letters to Tunstall, trying to influence him. The bishop was touched and did not want Bilney?s death, so he gave him every chance to abjure. He kept threatening Bilney with death and then giving him time to reflect. Each time Bilney remained steadfast until he was given a couple of days to reflect. Many of his friends came to him see him and would not leave him day or night. Slowly the idea of a compromise came to Bilney, so that he would be allowed to live to further carry out God?s work on the earth. Following his friend Arthur he abjured before the bishops. Latimer commented that if ever one was in prison that one should not see ones friends as they would do more harm than ones enemies.
Bilney did penance at St Paul?s Cross and was then put in prison. Realising what he had done he was in torment; his friends were unable to console him. He was in the Tower of London for over a year, but was released in 1529. Back in Cambridge it seemed as if even the Scriptures condemned him. Fear made him tremble constantly, and he could scarcely eat or drink. Then in 1531 Holy Spirit spoke to his heart, and he fell at the foot of the cross, shedding floods of tears, and there he found peace. The more God comforted him the greater seemed to be his crime, so he determined to take up the martyr?s crown. At ten o?clock one night, when every person in Trinity Hall was retiring to rest, Bilney called his friends round him, reminded them of his fall, and added: ?You shall see me no more...... Do not stay me: my decision is formed, and I shall carry it out. My face is set to go to Jerusalem.? He shook hands with each of them and left Cambridge for Norfolk where he encouraged believers and preached to the unbelievers.
He preached near Norwich, openly in fields, to great crowds. His voice was heard in all the county; weeping over his former fall, he said: ?That doctrine which I once abjured is the truth. Let my example be a lesson to all who hear me.? He stopped off in Ipswich on the way to London. He preached there, violently attacking the errors of Rome. A friar was listening and noted down what he said. Back in London he bought some New Testaments, one of which he gave to a lady in Norfolk who lent to those who visited her. The local bishop heard of this, reported it to Sir Thomas More who had Bilney arrested and brought to the Tower of London.
The blind octogenarian bishop of Norwich wanted to make an example in his diocese, so Bilney was taken to Norwich for trial. Many priests came to his cell to persuade him to recant. The trial began and the witness gave their testimony, there was no question as to what the result would be. Latimer tried to help his friend by urging the judges to decide according to justice. This was a very brave thing to do, but at this time he had a lot of favour with the king and this protected him from any repercussions.
Bilney was condemned, degraded and handed over to the sheriffs. A few of his friends went to Norwich to say goodbye, including Matthew Parker, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. His friends found him full of joy. During their last talk with him, Bilney put his finger in the flame of the lamp and said, ?When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned.? He was quoting Isaiah 43:2, and this passage is marked in Bilney?s Bible.
Biney?s execution took place beyond the city gate known as Bishop?s Gate in a valley called Lollard?s Pit in a form of amphitheatre. He died repeating the word ?Credo? (I believe). Even Bilney?s enemies recognised the sort of man he was. The bishop of Norwich exclaimed, ?I fear I have burned Abel and let Cain go.? Latimer was inconsolable and twenty years later he said that his friend was always doing good, even to his enemies.
This is taken from ?The Reformation in England? by Merle d?Aubigne.
Thomas Bilney, professor of civil law at Cambridge, was brought before the bishop of London, and several other bishops, in the Chapter house, Westminster, and being several times threatened with the stake and flames, he was weak enough to recant; but he repented severely afterward.
For this he was brought before the bishop a second time, and condemned to death. Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, "I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven." He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, "Jesus, I believe"; and these were the last words he was heard to utter. This is taken from ?Foxe?s Book of Martyrs.?