The Martyrdom of Richard Woodman image

The Martyrdom of Richard Woodman

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On 22 June 1557 ten very ordinary people from the villages around where I live were burnt at the stake because of their commitment to the Gospel. They were executed because Mary Tudor, who had succeeded her half brother the boy king Edward VI, was doing everything she possibly could to reverse the decision to turn England towards continental-style Protestantism. All in all there were nearly 300 martyrs for the Reformation.

Mary came to the throne in July 1553 and within a few months had begun to put Edward’s policies into reverse.  Church doctrine for example was restored to the Six Articles on Henry VIII (1539).  Many Protestants - about 800 in all, including John Foxe - fled the country to live out their evangelical faith in cities free from persecution (eg Geneva and Zurich).
 
The first executions began in February 1555, the best known being Nicholas Ridley (Bishop of London) and Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester), both burnt at the stake in Oxford on 16 October 1555. As the fire was about to be lit Latimer turned to his friend and uttered the now famous words.

Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.

 
Another friend of theirs, Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), initially recanted his “heresy” but, in a dramatic twist, repudiated his recantation just minutes before he too was martyred on 21 March 1556. As a sign of his final commitment to the cause of the Gospel, in a last dramatic gesture he plunged his right hand that had signed the recantation into the fire first.
 
The following year the pressure intensified in rural Sussex.  Deryk Carver, a brewer whose business was based in Black Lion Street, just a few yards from the present-day Brighton Centre, where we held our international leaders conference from for many years, was the first Sussex martyr.  Four other Sussex men were also executed in 1555.  Six men were executed in 1556, but on a single day (22 June 1557) 10 were martyred in the county town, Lewes. 
 
Richard Woodman, a church warden in the parish of Warbleton, first ran into trouble with the authorities by reproving his local vicar.  The vicar had apparently back-tracked on his Protestant inclinations during the reign of King Edward.
 
The various trials of Woodman are recorded in great detail by John Foxe in Acts and Monuments and so we are able to reconstruct much of Woodman’s evangelical theology, or at least those parts which got him into trouble with the Catholic authorities. Woodman came unstuck on six points: -
 
1. Assurance of salvation. His Catholic inquisitors found it impossible to accept Woodman’s conviction that the Holy Spirit lived within him and gave him assurance of adoption and sonship. His inquisitor dismissed this claim as “Bible babble, Bible babble”!
 
2. His love of Scripture and his commitment to the authority of Scripture over that of the church/the Pope. This was, of course, the central issue of the Reformation. It was possible, in the early part of the sixteenth century, at least to be a “good Catholic” and believe in justification by faith alone. It was not possible to be a good Catholic and believe that Scripture alone was the foundation of faith and doctrine.
 
3. His absolute commitment to justification by faith alone. As a good Anglican Woodman believed in the practice of infant baptism and saw this as a New Covenant equivalent of circumcision. However, he did not believe in baptismal regeneration. He was quick to point out at his trial that Abraham believed God and this was credited to him as righteousness long before he was circumcised.
 
4. Stemming from his commitment to justification by faith his understanding of Christian freedom.  Practically speaking this was manifested in a robust defence of clerical marriage. It was probably this issue that first got Woodman into trouble. His parish priest had moved in an evangelical direction during the reign of Edward VI and, as a result, had taken a wife – a normal sixteenth century demonstration of Christian freedom. Luther had done the same in Wittenberg in the 1520s. Now, in Mary’s reign, the parish priest had done something of a U-turn and Richard Woodman was not having any of it!
 
5. His assertion that there are but two (not seven) sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Luther had turned medieval Catholicism on its head in 1520 with the publication of his most radical work The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Sacraments were redefined. They were no longer considered to be ceremonies which conveyed grace but ordinances given specifically by Christ to his Church. Hence, Extreme Unction, Penance, Confirmation, Marriage and Holy Orders were rejected as sacraments. This teaching became standard amongst evangelicals although there were theological differences of opinion on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
 
6. His rejection of the doctrines of transubstantiation and the real presence. This was the normal position for English evangelicals. Luther had rejected transubstantiation as the Catholic Church’s explanation of the “miracle of the real presence” but had insisted that the bread and wine really did become Christ’s body and blood because he held to a very literal interpretation of the words “This is My body… this is My blood.” Woodman held to a “Zwinglian” position which was normal theological stance for English evangelicals. The bread and wine is a remembrance of Christ’s body and blood and Christ is received by faith and not literally in the elements.
 
As an evangelical living in rural Sussex today, I am not looking to relive and refight the battles fellow evangelicals fought hundreds of years ago. The issues we face today in post-modern Britain are radically different from those of the mid-Tudor period. Nevertheless, I am reminded that I am in a battle, that a commitment to Biblical truth is never easy and will often bring us into conflict with the political establishment, and that there is a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, some of whom, by faith, were stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword (Hebrews 11:37) or, in Richard Woodman’s case, burnt at the stake.

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