Martyr Thomas Bilney: Before Protestant England
Though England has long been known as a Protestant country, in the 1520s that was not yet the case. The newness of Protestant thought --- the emergence of Reformation doctrine --- flooded into a country that had seldom dared to think outside the box. Many were affected by this spreading faith. One such man was Thomas Bilney. Only thirty-two years old when his trials began, he had become a priest in 1519 at age twenty-four. In his personal writings he described the moment when his Scripture studies yielded unexpected fruit. “Immediately I felt a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch as my bruised bones lept for joy . . .” he admitted.
Suddenly on fire for such revolutionary concepts, he began teaching others, and many likeminded young men followed suit. Yet Bilney was about to be thoroughly tested by the Refiner’s fire. He used the priesthood to garner important positions of authority, then vehemently spoke against what he saw as error. As he did not break from the Catholic Church on every point, he was unbothered . . . at first. Eventually, though, Bilney was taken from St. George’s in Ipswich, England, forcibly removed from preaching. The dank old Tower of London became his home.
At this point Bilney’s story deviates a bit from the norm. He agreed to return to orthodox Catholicism, but in 1531 he became convinced that the doctrines of the Reformation were too powerful to deny. He again took up the Protestant banner --- in part. Bilney is an unusual martyr in that, despite loving many of the new doctrines, he never broke with Catholicism. Yet he appreciated Lutheranism and took up many Protestant nuances. He held sermons wherever and whenever he could find the time, risking life and limb to teach his followers of liberating grace. His actions, of course, did not go unnoticed. After a second arrest, his captors decreed that he should be burned. This took place at Lollards Pit in Norwich in summer 1531. He was thirty-six . . . yet his story is eternal.
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