When the strong and holy winds of the Protestant Reformation swept into England in the 1520’s, one of the Englishmen who was converted by the gospel of Jesus Christ was a priest named Hugh Latimer.
Latimer was soon meeting with men like Thomas Bilney, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale and Thomas Cranmer. The gang met regularly at the White Horse Tavern in Cambridge, England to discuss reformed theology - or stated another way, they met to discuss back-to-the-Bible doctrine and life.
Latimer would eventually become one of the many martyrs of the English Reformation. Roman Catholic, Queen Mary I, known without affection as Bloody Mary, had Latimer burned at the stake in October of 1555 for his refusal to recant biblical Christianity.
But several years before his death by queen, Latimer found himself on the wrong side of a king, King Henry VIII.
In those days it was common for a company of court chaplains to regularly rotate before the King in the delivery of Lord's Day sermons. On one occasion King Henry took exception to the preaching of Latimer. He did not like it, not one bit. What bothered him was Latimer’s boldness. King Henry ordered Latimer to preach again the very next Sunday and apologize for being so offensive. If you know anything about the reformers, you can guess how this ended.
Upon the next Sunday Hugh Latimer ascended the pulpit. The King was settled before him in his own seat. Latimer read his text and began his message but surprisingly the preacher addressed himself first:
Hugh Lattimer, dost thou know before whom thou are this day to speak? To the high and mighty monarch, the king’s most excellent majesty, who can take away thy life, if thou offendest. Therefore, take heed that thou speakest not a word that may displease. But then consider well, Hugh, dost thou not know from whence thou comest—upon Whose message thou are sent? Even by the great and mighty God, Who is all-present and Who beholdeth all thy ways and Who is able to cast thy soul into hell! Therefore, take care that thou deliverest thy message faithfully.
After that very unusual beginning, Latimer went on to preach the exact same sermon he had preached the previous Sunday—and with even more zeal.
In his brief biography on Latimer, Arthur Lindsey notes that Latimer had developed a rich theology of preaching from his study of scripture. Latimer had written:
Take away preaching and take away salvation.... It is declared in many places in Scripture how necessary preaching is…. This is the thing that the devil wrestleth most against: it hath been all his study to decay this office. He worketh against it as much as he can: he hath prevailed too much, too much in it. He hath set up a state of unpreaching prelacy in this realm this seven hundred years.
Bolstering his biblically informed boldness were two church fathers who enjoined courage in preaching and whose words Latimer carried with him. Augustine had said: "He who for fear of any power hides the truth, provokes the wrath of God to come upon him, for he fears men more than God." John Chrysostom, the other, had said: "He is not only a traitor to the truth who openly for truth teaches a lie; but he also who does not pronounce and show the truth that he knoweth."
As a herald of the highest King, Latimer would carry this zeal for Christ in his bosom until his fiery death at the hands of Bloody Mary. On October 16, 1555, Hugh Latimer was burned alive along with Bishop Nicholas Ridley. They were chained to a wooden stake and set ablaze. When the fire was lit, Latimer said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light a candle by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
What lesson may we take from this Reformer's life? It is a lesson to lift the weight again and again when it is light so we are more fit to lift it when heavy. If we acknowledge Christ before men when the danger is light (Latimer before Henry VIII), we will have more courage to confess Christ before men when the danger is heavy (Latimer before Bloody Mary). Faith will increase where faith has been exercised. This lesson is not only for preachers, but it is also for those who attend preaching.