I love the Protestant Reformation and the return to biblical truths that came with it. Some of my heroes were men like Martin Luther and John Calvin, whom God used in mighty ways. I’m encouraged by the bravery of hundreds of English men and women like Anne Askew, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer, who were burned at the stake for their faith. But I’m also reminded that not all of the executions and religious wars that followed the Reformation were by the hands of corrupt Church leaders or “secular” authorities. One cannot ignore that, to greater and lesser extents, many of the reformers had blood and guilt on their own hands.
With that said, and despite what some historians suggest, I firmly believe that the Reformation wasn’t the reason for all the religious wars and executions that followed, just as the capture of Fort Sumpter wasn’t the reason for the Civil War in America. Not only is that an over-simplification, but it disconnects a single event from the rest of history. In studying the causes of the Civil War, no one would ignore the growing tensions that developed from over two hundred years of slavery, political divisions, and economic strife. And neither should we do that with the Reformation.
Like Fort Sumpter, the Reformation was the spark that ignited the wood that had been smoldering for generations. Corrupt Church leadership, inquisitions, moral disintegration, and a devastating departure from biblical truths had long saturated every corner of the European continent. Not to mention the Reformation came out of a medieval world which had blurred the lines between Church and State, making tragedies like religious wars and burnings for heresies an all too easy consequence. In many cases, to be loyal to a specific denomination was to be loyal to a specific crown (or against a specific crown) — hence the reason why picking one denomination over another was often seen as treason.
Therefore, as a result of these growing tensions and issues, countless men and women from Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, and many other backgrounds were persecuted, tortured, and executed. Many of the heroes we hold dear were not innocent in this. Despite certain hesitancies, Calvin ultimately approved of the execution of Michael Servetus, Luther affirmed that the state should use lethal violence against revolting peasants which resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths, and none of us need to be reminded of Luther’s later opinion of Jews. John Foxe once pleaded with John Rogers (the first martyr to be burned under the reign of Mary I) to intervene and save an Anabaptist, Joan of Kent, from being burned at the stake. Rogers apparently replied that burning for heresy was a “sufficiently mild” punishment for her crime.
Now, my aim is not to discuss all the reasons behind their motives, the cultural context which helped shaped their decisions, or even ways these tragedies could have been avoided. Those are all good discussions which should be had. What I am saying is that we as Protestants should never forget this part of our history, nor should we ever attempt to gloss over it. When we remember the sacrifices of the Reformers who bravely endured the flames because of their commitment to the truths of Scripture, we should also remember those who died with their approval, or even by their own hands.
I’ll give you one example: Margaret Clitherow.
Born in 1556, Margaret Clitherow was originally a Protestant, but later converted to the Roman Catholic Church (although her husband, John Clitherow, remained a part of the official Church of England). Under the reign of Elizabeth I, the Catholic Church was seen as a political threat to the English crown, so the Jesuit’s Act of 1584 was enforced, which made it illegal to house Catholic priests. Of course, many had long fled the country, but some remained in hiding.
Even though the Jesuit’s Act was punishable by death, Margaret provided a hidden chamber in her home for fugitive priests, where they could live and provide mass for herself and others. Due to ongoing persecutions, it didn’t take long for a frightened young boy to give up the location of the priests she was hiding.
Margaret was arrested, and when they questioned her, she refused to plead because she knew her servants and three children would have to testify, thus putting them in danger. When they ultimately tortured her, she remained steadfast and said, “No, no, Mr. Sheriff, I die for the love of my Lord Jesu."
Despite being pregnant with her fourth child, she was stripped of her clothing and laid on the ground with a sharp rock beneath her back. A door was laid upon her and they slowly crushed her to death beneath 800 pounds of weight. It has been said that her last words were, “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! Have mercy on me!”
Although Queen Elizabeth was apparently dismayed when she heard about the execution, it still stands that Margaret and her unborn child were cruelly put to death for the cause of Protestant reform.
I’ll also add that, as with anyone else, if her last words were uttered from her heart and she truly believed in Christ and called on his mercy, I have no reason to think that she is not with her Lord right now (Acts 16:30-31; Rom. 10:9-13).
Why We Should Remember Her
When I look at the history of the Church, I am reminded that God often works wonders through deeply broken people, and through some of the darkest atrocities imaginable. My faith is not in Christians, but in Christ — a holy, good, and just God. The Protestant reformers, like all of us, were guilty of sins which we should be ashamed of. One only needs to think of men like David and Peter to realize that even the best of biblical men were the same way. As the Reformers themselves taught, this is all a testimony to the fact that we are entirely saved by grace alone.
As a teacher, I will continue to teach about the bravery of men and women who brought forth and died for the cause of the Reformation, but I will also teach about their failures, their need for grace, and the courage and tragedy of those like Margaret Clitherow. So should the rest of us. May God be gracious and merciful.