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Such a Candle


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The story of Hugh Latimer (c.1485–1555), Bishop of Worcester and chaplain to King Edward VI, is very much like that of the Apostle Paul.

Latimer was sent to Cambridge at the age of fourteen, and in 1509 was elected a fellow of Clare Hall. We know very little of his early history, except the remarkable fact, which he himself has told us, that up to the age of thirty he was a most violent and bigoted Papist. Just as St. Paul was not ashamed to tell men that at one time he was ‘a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious,’ so the old Protestant Bishop used often to tell how he too had once been the slave of Rome. He says in one of his sermons, ‘I was as obstinate a Papist as any was in England, insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration went against Philip Melancthon and his opinions.’ He says in another sermon, ‘All the Papists think themselves to be saved by the law, and I myself was of that dangerous, perilous, and damnable opinion till I was thirty years of age. So long had I walked in darkness and the shadow of death.’ He says in a letter to Sir Edward Baynton, ‘I have thought in times past that if I had been a friar and in a cowl, I could not have been damned nor afraid of death; and by reason of the same I have been minded many times to have been a friar, namely when I was sore sick or diseased. Now I abhor my superstitious foolishness.’

Latimer’s testimony about himself is confirmed by others. It is recorded that he used to think so ill of the Reformers, that he declared the last times, the day of judgment, and the end of the world must be approaching. ‘Impiety,’ he said, ‘was gaining ground apace, and what lengths might not men be expected to run, when they began to question even the infallibility of the Pope.’ Becon mentions that when Stafford, the divinity lecturer, delivered lectures in Cambridge, on the Bible, Latimer was sure to be present, in order to frighten and drive away the scholars. In fact his zeal for Popery was so notorious, that he was elected to the office of cross-bearer in the religious processions of the University, and discharged the duty with becoming solemnity for seven years. Such was the clay of which God formed a precious vessel meet for His work! Such were the first beginnings of one of the best and most useful of the English Reformers!

—J. C. Ryle, Light from Old Times (Banner of Truth, 2015), 130–131.

But then, he was converted.

Hugh Latimer was not a man to do anything by halves. As soon as he ceased to be a zealous Papist, he began at once to be a zealous Protestant, and gave himself up, body, soul, and mind, to the work of doing good. He visited, in Bilney’s company, the sick and prisoners. He commenced preaching in the University pulpits, in a style hitherto unknown in Cambridge, and soon became famous as one of the most striking and powerful preachers of the day. He stirred up hundreds of his hearers to search the Scriptures and inquire after the way of salvation. Becon, afterwards chaplain to Cranmer, and Bradford, afterwards chaplain to Ridley, both traced their conversion to his sermons. Becon has left us a remarkable description of the effects of his preaching. He says, ‘None, except the stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, went away from it without being affected with high detestation of sin, and moved unto all godliness and virtue.’

Ibid., 132.

Latimer’s life and ministry experienced many ups and down over the ensuing years, depending on the dispositions of kings that came and went. When Edward VI died in 1553, under whom the Reformers had ministered freely, he was succeeded by Queen Mary. Latimer was imprisoned and, on October 16th, 1555, burned at the stake along with Nicholas Ridley, to whom he spoke these prophetic words: “Be of good comfort, brother Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”

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Posted 2017·05·19 by David Kjos
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