Thomas Cranmer: The English Reformer
by Tim Scott
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Thomas Cranmer was born on July 2, 1489, in Nottinghamshire, England. Little is known about his early childhood but he enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge, at age 14. He went on to spend approximately 30 years at Cambridge, earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees along the way. His writings from this period reveal a man who was more sympathetic to Erasmus’s humanism than he was to Martin Luther’s doctrinal reforms; and sometime around the year 1520, he became a Roman Catholic priest.
Cranmer eventually left Cambridge to become a diplomat for King Henry VIII; and before long, the king had him negotiating with the pope in hopes of obtaining a divorce between the king and Catherine of Aragon. Ironically, while traveling on a mission to Charles V in Germany in the year 1532, Cranmer not only came in contact with the Protestant Reformer Andreas Osiander, he also made the startling decision to marry Osiander’s niece, Margaret, who was a devoted Lutheran. His marriage was a blatant violation of the vows of celibacy he had taken to become a priest, and Cranmer would have to keep the marriage secret until Henry VIII died in 1547, some 15 years later! These conversations with Continental Reformers (and his own wife!) very likely watered, if not planted, the seeds of Cranmer’s future Protestant theology.
Though Henry VIII never knew about this secret marriage, the king did take notice of Cranmer’s work as a diplomat; and when William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, died that same year, Henry appointed Cranmer as his successor. At the time, Cranmer was still a Roman Catholic, albeit one who was married to a Protestant, but it would not be long until he, together with Henry VIII, would withdraw the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church in order to facilitate Henry’s divorce.
Once the Church of England was detached from the auspices of Rome, Cranmer’s Protestantism could develop more stridently. He maintained correspondence with several Continental Reformers, and did what he could to facilitate reform in England. However, the king was mostly of a conservative bent theologically, and the king’s conservatism retarded most of Cranmer’s reform efforts. Nevertheless, he was able, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, to get the king to authorize the publication of the Bible in English for widespread placement in churches.
Cranmer’s greatest contributions to the English Reformation came during the years 1547–1553, when Edward VI was king. Edward was sympathetic to the Protestant Reformation, and the king allowed Cranmer to move the Church of England on a decidedly Protestant path. Doctrinally, his Forty-Two Articles provided the Church of England with a sound confession of faith. Also, central to Cranmer’s reform plans were the composition and distribution of The Book of Common Prayer and The Book of Homilies. These two books are not only literary masterpieces, they also articulated important Protestant truths such as the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For example, Cranmer’s homily on salvation says:
Justification is the office of God only, and is not a thing which we render unto him, but which we receive of him; not which we give to him, but which we take of him, by his free mercy, and by the only merits of his most dearly beloved Son, our only Redeemer, Saviour, and Justifier, Jesus Christ (T. H. L. Parker, English Reformers [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1966], 267).
Likewise, The Book of Common Prayer, in typical Protestant fashion, placed great emphasis on Scripture:
Blessed Lord, which has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ (John Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer [Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005], 79).
Cranmer’s work as an English Reformer came to a grinding halt, however, when King Edward died at a young age and was replaced by Queen “Bloody” Mary, who was staunchly Roman Catholic. Cranmer was arrested and tried first for treason, of which he was convicted and sentenced to death in late 1553. Not satisfied with a guilty verdict for treason, Mary ordered Cranmer to be tried for heresy as well. After his inevitable conviction, Cranmer’s captors made a protracted effort to convince Cranmer to recant of his Protestant beliefs. Suffering from poor health and relentless debates over the course of a three year imprisonment, Cranmer ingloriously gave into the Catholic authorities and recanted his Protestant theology.
However, on the day of his execution, Cranmer regained his courage. When asked by the authorities to state the true nature of his faith one last time, he declared concerning his prior recantations:
And now I come to the great thing, which so much troubleth my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to truth; which now here I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I though in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life. . . . And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrine (W. Grinton Berry, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs [Grand Rapids: Revell, 2000], 384–85).
As he was saying these things, the Catholic authorities seized him and led him away to be burned at the stake as a heretic; and as the flames rose up around his body, Cranmer put his right hand, the hand that had signed his recantations, directly into the flames to be burned first, as an act of repentance. According to bystanders, he was heard to say repeatedly thereafter, “his unworthy right hand” and “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” until he passed away.
Firm in Faith 1.3: Firm in Faith 1.3.