History of the Reformation, vol. 5


Book 19—The English New Testament and the Court of Rome

Chapter 1

Church and State essentially distinct—Their fundamental Principles—What restores Life to the Church—Separation from Rome necessary—Reform and Liberty—The New Testament crosses the Sea—Is hidden in London—Garret’s Preaching and Zeal—Dissemination of Scripture—What the People find in it—The Effects it produces—Tyndale’s Explanations—Roper, More’s Son-in-law—Garret carries Tyndale’s Testament to Oxford—Henry and his Valet—The Supplication of the Beggars—Two Sorts of Beggars—Evils caused by Priests—More’s Supplications of the Souls in Purgatory

The Church and the State are essentially distinct. They both receive their task from God, but that task is different in each. The task of the church is to lead men to God; the task of the state is to secure the earthly development of a people in conformity with its peculiar character. There are certain bounds, traced by the particular spirit of each nation within which the state should confine itself; while the church, whose limits are co-extensive with the human race, has a universal character, which raises it above all national differences. These two distinctive features should be maintained. A state which aims at universality loses itself; a church whose mind and aim are sectarian falls away. Nevertheless, the church and the state, the two poles of social life, while they are in many respects opposed to one another, are far from excluding each other absolutely. The church has need of that justice, order, and liberty, which the state is bound to maintain; but the state has especial need of the church. If Jesus can do without kings to establish his kingdom, kings cannot do without Jesus, if they would have their kingdoms prosper. Justice, which is the fundamental principle of the state, is continually fettered in its progress by the internal power of sin; and as force can do nothing against this power, the state requires the gospel in order to overcome it. That country will always be the most prosperous where the church is the most evangelical. These two communities having thus need one of the other, we must be prepared, whenever a great religious manifestation takes place in the world, to witness the appearance on the scene not only of the little ones, but of the great ones also, of the state. We must not then be surprised to meet with Henry VIII, but let us endeavour to appreciate accurately the part he played. HRSCV5 770.1

If the Reformation, particularly in England, happened necessarily to be mixed up with the state, with the world even, it originated neither in the state nor in the world. There was much worldliness in the age of Henry VIII, passions, violence, festivities, a trial, a divorce; and some historians call that the history of the Reformation in England. We shall not pass by in silence these manifestations of the worldly life; opposed as they are to the Christian life, they are in history, and it is not our business to tear them out. But most assuredly they are not the Reformation. From a very different quarter proceeded the divine light which then rose upon the human race. HRSCV5 770.2

To say that Henry VIII was the reformer of his people is to betray our ignorance of history. The kingly power in England by turns opposed and favored the reform in the church; but it opposed before it favored, and much more than it favored. This great transformation was begun and extended by its own strength, by the Spirit from on high. HRSCV5 770.3

When the church has lost the life that is peculiar to it, it must again put itself in communication with its creative principle, that is, with the word of God. Just as the buckets of a wheel employed in irrigating the meadows have no sooner discharged their reviving waters, than they dip again into the stream to be re-filled, so every generation, void of the Spirit of Christ, must return to the divine source to be again filled up. The primitive words which created the church have been preserved for us in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles; and the humble reading of these divine writings will create in every age the communion of saints. God was the father of the Reformation, not Henry VIII. The visible world which then glittered with such brightness; those princes and sports, those noblemen, and trials and laws, far from effecting a reform, were calculated to stifle it. But the light and the warmth came from heaven, and the new creation was completed. HRSCV5 771.1

In the reign of Henry VIII a great number of citizens, priests, and noblemen possessed that degree of cultivation which favors the action of the holy books. It was sufficient for this divine seed to be scattered on the well-prepared soil for the work of germination to be accomplished. HRSCV5 771.2

A time not less important also was approaching—that in which the action of the popedom was to come to an end. The hour had not yet struck. God was first creating within by his word a spiritual church, before he broke without by his dispensations the bonds which had so long fastened England to the power of Rome. It was his good pleasure first to give truth and life, and then liberty. It has been said that if the pope had consented to a reform of abuses and doctrines, on condition of his keeping his position, the religious revolution would not have been satisfied at that price, and that after demanding reform, the next demand would have been for liberty. The only reproach that can be made to this assertion is, that it is superabundantly true. Liberty was an integral part of the Reformation, and one of the changes imperatively required was to withdraw religious authority from the pope, and restore it to the word of God. In the sixteenth century there was a great outpouring of the Christian life in France, Italy, and Spain; it is attested by martyrs without number, and history shows that to transform these three great nations, all that the gospel wanted was liberty. “If we had set to work two months later,” said a grand inquisitor of Spain who had dyed himself in the blood of the saints, “it would have been too late: Spain would have been lost to the Roman church.” We may therefore believe that if Italy, France, and Spain had had some generous king to check the myrmidons of the pope, those three countries, carried along by the renovating power of the gospel, would have entered upon an era of liberty and faith. HRSCV5 771.3

The struggles of England with the popedom began shortly after the dissemination of the English New Testament by Tyndale. The epoch at which we are arrived accordingly brings in one view before our eyes both the Testament of Jesus Christ and the court of Rome. We can thus study the men (the reformers and the Romanists) and the works they produce, and arrive at a just valuation of the two great principles which dispute the possession of authority in the church. HRSCV5 771.4

It was about the close of the year 1525; the English New Testament was crossing the sea; five pious Hanseatic merchants had taken charge of the books. Captivated by the Holy Scriptures they had taken them on board their ships, hidden them among their merchandise; and then made sail from Antwerp for London. HRSCV5 771.5

Thus those precious pages were approaching England, which were to become its light and the source of its greatness. The merchants, whose zeal unhappily cost them dear, were not without alarm. Had not Cochlaeus caused orders to be sent to every port to prevent the entrance of the precious cargo they were bringing to England? They arrived and cast anchor; they lowered the boat to reach the shore; what were they likely to meet there? Tonstall’s agents, no doubt, and Wolsey’s, and Henry’s, ready to take away their New Testaments! They landed and soon again returned to the ship; boats passed to and fro, and the vessel was unloaded. No enemy appeared; and no one seemed to imagine that these ships contained so great a treasure. HRSCV5 771.6

Just at the time this invaluable cargo was ascending the river, an invisible hand had dispersed the preventive guard. Tonstall, bishop of London, had been sent to Spain; Wolsey was occupied in political combinations with Scotland, France, and the Empire; Henry VIII, driven from his capital by an unhealthy winter, was passing the Christmas holidays at Eltham; and even the courts of justice, alarmed by an extraordinary mortality, had suspended their sittings. God if we may so speak, had sent his angel to remove the guards. HRSCV5 771.7

Seeing nothing that could stop them, the five merchants, whose establishment was at the Steelyard in Thames Street, hastened to conceal their precious charge in their warehouses. But who will receive them? Who will undertake to distribute these Holy Scriptures in London, Oxford, Cambridge, and all England? It is a little matter that they have crossed the sea. The principal instrument God was about to use for their dissemination was an humble servant of Christ. HRSCV5 771.8

In Honey Lane, a narrow thoroughfare adjoining Cheapside, stood the old church of All Hallows, of which Robert Forman was rector. His curate was a plain man, of lively imagination, delicate conscience, and timid disposition, but rendered bold by his faith, to which he was to become a martyr. Thomas Garret, for that was his name, having believed in the gospel, earnestly called his hearers to repentance; he urged upon them that works, however good they might be in appearance, were by no means capable of justifying the sinner, and that faith alone could save him. He maintained that every man had the right to preach the word of God; and called those bishops pharisees who persecuted Christian men. Garret’s discourses, at once so quickening and so gentle, attracted great crowds; and to many of his hearers, the street in which he preached was rightly named Honey Lane, for there they found the honey out of the rock. But Garret was about to commit a fault still more heinous in the eyes of the priests than preaching faith. The Hanse merchants were seeking some sure place where they might store up the New Testaments and other books sent from Germany; the curate offered his house, stealthily transported the holy deposit thither, hid them in the most secret corners, and kept a faithful watch over this sacred library. He did not confine himself to this. Night and day he studied the holy books, he held gospel meetings, read the word and explained its doctrines to the citizens of London. At last, not satisfied with being at once student, librarian, and preacher, he became a trader, and sold the New Testament to laymen, and even to priests and monks, so that the Holy Scriptures were dispersed over the whole realm. This humble and timid priest was then performing alone the biblical work of England. HRSCV5 771.9

And thus the word of God, presented by Erasmus to the learned in 1517, was given to the people by Tyndale in 1526. In the parsonages and in the convent cells, but particularly in shops and cottages, a crowd of persons were studying the New Testament. The clearness of the Holy Scriptures struck each reader. None of the systematic or aphoristic forms of the school were to be found there: it was the language of human life which they discovered in those divine writings: here a conversation, there a discourse; here a narrative, and there a comparison; here a command, and there an argument; here a parable and there a prayer. It was not all doctrine or all history; but these two elements mingled together made an admirable whole. Above all, the life of our Saviour, so divine and so human, had an inexpressible charm which captivated the simple. One work of Jesus Christ explained another, and the great facts of the redemption, birth, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, and the sending of the Holy Ghost, followed and completed each other. The authority of Christ’s teaching, so strongly contrasting with the doubts of the schools, increased the clearness of his discourses to his readers; for the more certain a truth is, the more distinctly it strikes the mind. Academical explanations were not necessary to those noblemen, farmers, and citizens. It is to me, for me, and of me that this book speaks, said each one. It is I whom all these promises and teachings concern. This fall and this restoration they are mine. That old death and this new life I have passed through them. That flesh and that spirit I know them. This law and this grace, this faith, these works, this slavery, this glory, this Christ and this Belial all are familiar to me. It is my own history that I find in this book. Thus by the aid of the Holy Ghost each one had in his own experience a key to the mysteries of the Bible. To understand certain authors and certain philosophers, the intellectual life of the reader must be in harmony with theirs; so must there be an intimate affinity with the holy books to penetrate their mysteries. “The man that has not the Spirit of God,” said a reformer, “does not understand one jot or tittle of the Scripture.” Now that this condition was fulfilled, the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. HRSCV5 772.1

Such at that period were the hermeneutics of England. Tyndale had set the example himself by explaining many of the words which might stop the reader. “The New Testament!” we may suppose some farmer saying, as he took up the book; “what Testament is that?”—“Christ,” replied Tyndale in his prologue, “commanded his disciples before his death to publish over all the world his last will, which is to give all his goods unto all that repent and believe. He bequeaths them his righteousness to blot out their sins—his salvation to overcome their condemnation; and this is why that document is called the Testament of Jesus Christ.” HRSCV5 772.2

“The law and the gospel,” said a citizen of London, in his shop; “what is that?” “They are two keys,” answered Tyndale. “The law is the key which shuts up all men under condemnation, and the gospel is the key which opens the door and lets them out. Or, if you like it, they are two salves. The law, sharp and biting, driveth out the disease and killeth it; while the gospel, soothing and soft, softens the wound and brings life.” Every one understood and read, or rather devoured the inspired pages; and the hearts of the elect (to use Tyndale’s words), warmed by the love of Jesus Christ, began to melt like wax. HRSCV5 772.3

This transformation was observed to take place even in the most catholic families. Roper, More’s son-in-law, having read the New Testament, received the truth. “I have no more need,” said he, “of auricular confession, of vigils, or of the invocation of saints. The ears of God are always open to hear us. Faith alone is necessary to salvation. I believe and I am saved Nothing can deprive me of God’s favor.” HRSCV5 773.1

The amiable and zealous young man desired to do more. “Father,” said he one day to Sir Thomas, “procure for me from the king, who is very fond of you, a license to preach. God hath sent me to instruct the world.” More was uneasy. Must this new doctrine, which he detests, spread even to his children? He exerted all his authority to destroy the work begun in Roper’s heart. “What,” said he with a smile, “is it not sufficient that we that are your friends should know that you are a fool, but you would proclaim your folly to the world? Hold your tongue: I will debate with you no longer.” The young man’s imagination was struck, but his heart had not been changed. The discussions having ceased, the father’s authority being restored, Roper became less fervent in his faith, and gradually he returned to popery, of which he was afterwards a zealous champion. HRSCV5 773.2

The humble curate of All Hallows having sold the New Testament to persons living in London and its neighborhood, and to many pious men who would carry it to the farthest parts of England, formed the resolution to introduce it into the University of Oxford, that citadel of traditional catholicism. It was there he had studied, and he felt towards that school the affection which a son bears to his mother: he set out with his books. Terror occasionally seized him, for he knew that the word of God had many deadly enemies at Oxford; but his inexhaustible zeal overcame his timidity. In concert with Dalaber, he stealthily offered the mysterious book for sale; many students bought it, and Garret carefully entered their names in his register. This was in January 1526; an incident disturbed this Christian activity. HRSCV5 773.3

One morning when Edmund Moddis, one of Henry’s valets-de-chambre, was in attendance on his master, the prince, who was much attached to him, spoke to him of the new books come from beyond the sea. “If your grace,” said Moddis, “would promise to pardon me and certain individuals, I would present you a wonderful book which is dedicated to your majesty.”—“Who is the author?”—“A lawyer of Gray’s Inn named Simon Fish, at present on the continent.”—“What is he doing there?”—“About three years ago, Mr Row, a fellow-student of Gray’s Inn, composed for a private theatre a drama against my lord the cardinal.” The king smiled; when his minister was attacked, his own yoke seemed lighter. “As no one was willing to represent the character employed to give the cardinal his lesson,” continued the valet, “Master Fish boldly accepted it. The piece produced a great effect; and my lord being informed of this impertinence, sent the police one night to arrest Fish. The latter managed to escape, crossed the sea, joined one Tyndale, the author of some of the books so much talked of; and, carried away by his friend’s example, he composed the book of which I was speaking to your grace.”—“What’s the name of it?”—“The Supplication of the Beggars.”—“Where did you see it?”—“At two of your tradespeople’s, George Elyot and George Robinson; if your grace desires it, they shall bring it you.” The king appointed the day and the hour. HRSCV5 773.4

The book was written for the king, and everybody read it but the king himself. At the appointed day, Moddis appeared with Elyot and Robinson, who were not entirely without fear, as they might be accused of proselytism even in the royal palace. The king received them in his private apartments. “What do you want?” he said to them. “Sir,” replied one of the merchants, “we are come about an extraordinary book that is addressed to you.”—“Can one of you read it to me?”—“Yes, if it so please your grace,” replied Elyot. “You may repeat the contents from memory,” rejoined the king “but, no, read it all; that will be better. I am ready.” Elyot began, HRSCV5 773.5

“The Supplication of the Beggars.” HRSCV5 773.6

“To the king our sovereign lord,— HRSCV5 773.7

“Most lamentably complaineth of their woeful misery, unto your highness, your poor daily bedesmen, the wretched hideous monsters, on whom scarcely, for horror, any eye dare look; the foul unhappy sort of lepers and other sore people, needy, impotent, blind, lame, and sick, that live only by alms; how that their number is daily sore increased, that all the alms of all the well-disposed people of this your realm are not half enough to sustain them, but that for very constraint they die for hunger. HRSCV5 773.8

“And this most pestilent mischief is come upon your said poor bedesmen, by the reason that there hath, in the time of your noble predecessors, craftily crept into this your realm, another sort, not of impotent, but of strong, puissant, and counterfeit, holy and idle beggars and vagabonds, who by all the craft and wiliness of Satan are now increased not only into a great number, but also into a kingdom.” HRSCV5 773.9

Henry was very attentive. Elyot continued: HRSCV5 774.1

“These are not the shepherds, but the ravenous wolves going in shepherds’ clothing, devouring the flock: bishops, abbots, priors, deacons, archdeacons, suffragans, priests, monks, canons, friars, pardoners, and sumners The goodliest lordships, manors, lands, and territories are theirs. Besides this, they have the tenth part of all the corn, meadow, pasture, grass, wood, colts, calves, lambs, pigs, geese, and chickens. Over and besides, the tenth part of every servant’s wages, the tenth part of wool, milk, honey, wax, cheese, and butter. The poor wives must be accountable to them for every tenth egg, or else she getteth not her rights [i.e. absolution] at Easter Finally, what get they in a year? Summa totalis: L430,333, 6s. 8d. sterling, whereof not four hundred years past they had not a penny HRSCV5 774.2

“What subjects shall be able to help their prince, that be after this fashion yearly polled? What good Christian people can be able to succour us poor lepers, blind, sore, and lame, that be thus yearly oppressed? The ancient Romans had never been able to have put all the whole world under their obeisance, if they had had at home such an idle sort of cormorants.” HRSCV5 774.3

No subject could have been found more likely to captivate the king’s attention. “And what doth all this greedy sort of sturdy idle holy thieves with their yearly exactions that they take of the people? Truly nothing, but translate all rule, power, lordship, authority, obedience, and dignity from your grace unto them. Nothing, but that all your subjects should fall into disobedience and rebellion Priests and doves make foul houses; and if you will ruin a state, set up in it the pope with his monks and clergy… Send these sturdy loobies abroad in the world to take them wives of their own, and to get their living with their labor in the sweat of their faces Then shall your commons increase in riches; then shall matrimony be much better kept; then shall not your sword, power, crown, dignity, and obedience of your people be translated from you.” HRSCV5 774.4

When Elyot had finished reading, the king was silent, sunk in thought. The true cause of the ruin of the state had been laid before him; but Henry’s mind was not ripe for these important truths. At last he said, with an uneasy manner: “If a man who desires to pull down an old wall, begins at the bottom, I fear the upper part may chance to fall on his head.” Thus then, in the king’s eyes, Fish by attacking the priests was disturbing the foundations of religion and society. After this royal verdict, Henry rose, took the book, locked it up in his desk, and forbade the two merchants to reveal to any one the fact of their having read it to him. HRSCV5 774.5

Shortly after the king had received this copy, on Wednesday the 2nd of February, the feast of Candlemas, a number of persons, including the king himself, were to take part in the procession, bearing wax tapers in their hands. During the night this famous invective was scattered about all the streets through which the procession had to pass. The cardinal ordered the pamphlet to be seized, and immediately waited upon the king. The latter put his hand under his robe, and with a smile took out the so much dreaded work, and then, as if satisfied with this proof of independence, he gave it up to the cardinal. HRSCV5 774.6

While Wolsey replied to Fish by confiscation, Sir Thomas More with greater liberality, desiring that press should reply to press, published The Supplications of the Souls in Purgatory. “Suppress,” said they, “the pious stipends paid to the monks, and then Luther’s gospel will come in, Tyndale’s Testament will be read, heresy will preach, fasts will be neglected, the saints will be blasphemed, God will be offended, virtue will be mocked of, vice will run riot, and England will be peopled with beggars and thieves.” The Souls in Purgatory then call the author of the Beggars’ Supplication “a goose, an ass, a mad dog.” Thus did superstition degrade More’s noble genius. Notwithstanding the abuse of the souls in purgatory, the New Testament was daily read more and more in England. HRSCV5 774.7