“O England, England, Repent!”
On the morning of July 15th 1555 at 9am, two men were led to their execution at London’s Smithfield in the reign of “bloody Queen Mary”. They were condemned to be burnt alive as heretics. One was a young man of 19 called John Leaf, the other was about 45 years old and his name was John Bradford.
Among Bradford’s final words at the stake were these “O England, England, repent!” Turning to the young man who was to suffer with him he said, “Be of good comfort, brother, for we shall have a happy supper with the Lord tonight”. Then, embracing the wood of his execution, he repeated our Saviour’s words, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life and few there be that find it”. “Thus”, says Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, “like two lambs, they both ended their mortal lives … being void of all fear”.
So long as Roman Catholic dogma exists, there remains a need to contend for the truths Bradford stood for, and in the same godly manner. But we live in a different age. England is essentially secular, materialistic and hedonistic. As a nation we are lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, a virtual Sodom ripening for God’s judgment. Though the days are different, the need of the hour is the same as in Bradford’s day. England must repent and we need men of Bradford’s calibre to say so; men who know that the way is narrow, not narrow-minded men – men as holy as John Bradford!
John Bradford has been described as one of the holiest men since the apostles, a wonder of his own age and among the most spiritual of the Reformers. When we consider how godly the Reformers were, this must make him a veritable giant among giants. And in an age of spiritual pigmies such as our own, we have much that we can learn from this colossal contender for The Faith.
John Bradford was born at Manchester about the year 1510. He received a good education and showed considerable ability in Latin and arithmetic. He put his accounting proficiency to good use when, later in life, he managed the financial affairs of a certain Sir John Harrington before training as a law student at the Temple in London in the days of the Protestant king, Edward VI. Precisely when Bradford was converted to Christ we do not know. But we do know that when God touched his heart, his former love of rings, chains and jewellery gave place to a fervent devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and His cause on earth. The transformation was so great that he gave up his study of law at the Temple and went to the University of Cambridge in 1548, to give himself entirely to the study of the Scriptures.
Bradford took Scripture earnestly to heart, as may be seen from his response to a sermon preached in London before young king Edward by the well-known Reformer, Hugh Latimer. When Bradford heard that God required the restitution of dishonest gain, he was profoundly troubled about a fraud respecting money owed to the king by Sir John Harrington whom he had served. Bradford hadn’t benefited from the fraud, but he had concealed it. Bradford’s spiritual convictions were such that he felt compelled to reveal the matter, and so forced Sir John to make restitution to the king!
Bradford is described as a ruddy, tall and slender man with an auburn beard. He slept four hours in the night, ate sparingly, and never felt an hour well spent unless he had done some good by writing, study, or instructing others. Indeed, he would reprove sin in such a sweet way, that those reproved knew he only did it for their good in order to draw them to God.
His personal walk with Christ was of a deep devotional nature. He was in the habit of writing down his faults, because he wanted to feel a “chest-beating” regret for sin, and to groan with true brokenness of heart when he came to private prayer. At the same time he would seek a fresh assurance of salvation in Christ through faith. Bradford also made a note of the virtues he saw in others that he might lament the lack of them in himself. In short, his life was one of daily repentance and heart-felt prayer – something very different to the “saying of prayers” which was so common in those days, and seems, somehow, never to have gone out of fashion.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations tells us that it was Bradford who originated the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Seeing a group of criminals led out to their execution he declared, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.”
Samson, his friend from law-student days, adds: “They which were familiar with him might see, how he, being in their company, used to fall often into sudden and deep meditation in which he would sit with fixed countenance and the spirit moved, yet speaking nothing a good space. And sometimes in this silent sitting, plenty of tears would trickle down his cheeks. Sometimes he would sit in it and come out of it with a smiling countenance. Oftentimes have I sat at dinner and supper with him when, either by occasion of talk or of some view of God’s benefits present, or some inward thought of his own he has fallen into these deep cogitations, and he would tell me in the end such discourses of them, that I did perceive that sometimes a tear trickled out of his eyes, as well for joy as for sorrow”.
While at Cambridge, Bradford became familiar with that other well-known Reformer, Nicholas Ridley. It was Ridley who ordained Bradford in 1550 and commended him to the young King Edward VI, who later made him a royal chaplain. When Bradford preached before Edward, in the last year of his reign, he spoke in what was described as a “mighty and prophetic spirit” of the nation’s contempt for the Gospel. He referred to the tokens of God’s wrath that were at hand – one of which was a dog at Ludgate carrying a piece of a dead child in its mouth. “I summon you all, even every mother’s child of you, to the judgment of God for it is at hand” he said. His old friend, Samson, and no doubt others, saw the young king’s death as a fulfilment of this prophecy.
Perhaps referring to this occasion, John Knox, that boldest of bold Reformers, says Bradford “spared not the proudest, but boldly declared that God’s vengeance shortly should strike those that then were in authority, because they loathed and abhorred the true Word of the everlasting God.” Knox tells us of how, in the same sermon, Bradford attributed the death of the Duke of Somerset to his neglect of the preached Word. “God punished him,” Bradford said, “and that suddenly: and shall He spare you that be double more wicked? No, He shall not. Will ye, or will ye not, ye shall drink the cup of the Lord’s wrath. The judgment of the Lord, the judgment of the Lord!” he cried with pathos and tears.
Ridley lists Bradford, among others, as one who preached in the strongest possible terms to the nobility of Edward’s court. He rebuked them for their “insatiable covetousness”, “filthy carnality”, “intolerable ambition and pride”, as well as their unwillingness to attend to “poor men’s causes and to hear God’s Word”. Needless to say Bradford was hated by many. When the young king died, Queen Mary came to the throne and Bradford was immediately arrested and tried for heresy, along with Latimer, Ridley and Archbishop Cranmer. In fact, for a brief time, they shared the same cell together in the Tower. After many months in various prisons, in which he did much good by his letters and writings, Bradford was condemned to death on January 3lst 1555. But it wasn’t until the afternoon of June 30th, of that year, that he knew just when his execution would take place, although he seems to have had a premonition of it in his dreams.
Foxe records how abruptly the news was brought to “… suddenly the keeper’s wife came up, as one half amazed, and seeming much troubled being almost breathless, said, ‘Oh Master Bradford, I come to bring you heavy news.’ ‘What is that’ said he. ‘Marry’, said she, ‘tomorrow you must be burned, and your chain is now a buying, and soon you must go to Newgate.’ With that Master Bradford put off his cap and lifting up his eyes to heaven, said ‘I thank God for it. I have looked for the same a long time, and therefore it comes not to me suddenly, but as a thing waited for every day and hour. The Lord make me worthy thereof.’ And so thanking her for her gentleness, he departed up into his chamber, and called his friend with him, and when he came hither, went secretly himself alone a long time and prayed.”
Bradford had a great reputation as both a preacher and an exceptionally holy man. He was well known in Lancashire and was much loved in the city of London, where he had so fervently laboured. Because of his popularity, great attempts were made to dissuade him from the Protestant Faith. Indeed we are told that his opponents took more pains to bring him to their way of thinking regarding the pope’s supremacy and the mass, than any of the other Reformers. Being so well known, and so appreciated at large, it is not surprising to find that a vast crowd came to his execution on the morning of July lst 1555. He was led out by a surprisingly large number of armed men. It was 9 am, but many had gathered much earlier. It was the biggest crowd ever experienced at a public burning. A certain Mrs Honywood, who died in 1620 having lived to be 92, often told of how she was present at the time, and had her shoes trodden off by the crowd.
When Bradford and his fellow martyr, John Leaf, arrived at the stake they prostrated themselves in prayer. Annoyed by the press of the crowd the Sheriff ordered Bradford to conclude his prayer. Standing at the stake, Bradford looked towards heaven and said “O England, England, repent thee of thy sins, repent thee of thy sins. Beware of idolatry, beware of false antichrists.” With these, and other words Bradford preached to the crowd, and comforted the goodly young man who suffered with him. In the mercy of God, both were given strength to endure the torments of the flame, through which they passed to live, as they now do, with Christ.
J.C. Ryle says, “there seems to have been something peculiarly beautiful and attractive in Bradford’s character, exceeding that of the other Reformers”. He quotes another as saying “Indeed he was a most holy and mortified man, who secretly in his closet would so weep for his sins, one would have thought he would never have smiled again; and then appearing in public, he would be so harmlessly pleasant, one would think he had never wept before.” Bradford only bore ministerial office for 5 years, of which two were passed in prison. He is said to have been neither the least able nor the least learned of the Reformers. Had King Edward lived, he would undoubtedly have become a bishop alongside men like Latimer and Ridley. His writings are deeply devotional and profound. “To my mind”, says Ryle, “there is not only Scriptural soundness in all that Bradford writes, but a peculiar fire, unction, warmth, and directness, which entitle him to a very high rank among Christian authors.”
But what kind of impact does Bradford make on us in this present day? I can only speak for myself when I say that I acquired the Parker Society’s book of his writings many years ago, and ever since they have been my bedtime reading. Not that I read them every night, but the book remains at my bedside as a constant reminder of what constitutes true apostolic Christianity, at a time when many versions of Christianity are masquerading as the real thing. When I read Bradford I feel as though I am touching the New Testament age. I cannot put his works back in my bookcase for fear of forgetting the standard to which I aspire, or should aspire.
Bradford, in his final moments at the stake, spoke of the narrowness of the gate. He was reminding himself and others of the cost of following Christ. No one can doubt that it really was narrow for him and others in those days. But is it any broader for us today? Let us not make the Christian path any wider than Christ intended it to be.
Of these men it may be said, “They loved not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11). They were the willing slaves of God to do and to suffer according to His will. Like Paul, they were prepared to spend and be spent for the One who loved them and gave Himself for them. Today we have made God our slave. I may be wrong, but we seem to make demands of God, as if He were obliged to do what we ask. Our prayer petitions appear like endless shopping lists. They speak more of what God owes us, than of what we owe Him in thanksgiving and selfless service.
Finally then, Bradford and the other Reformers never “played at church”; they were serious about their faith. Adhering to biblical Christianity cost them dear, just as it did the Early Church. Academic brilliance didn’t go to their heads as it does with some today, for their feet were kept firmly on the ground by the threat of death. It seems so different with us. Our tolerant society ensures that we can be Reformed Christians at no personal cost. But if we are proud of our intellectual grasp of doctrine, and allow ourselves the luxury of personal conceit, we are not walking in the tradition of these godly and devout men; we are not like John Bradford, we are not truly Reformed.
Richard A Mayhew
I gratefully acknowledge our thanks for the kind permission in allowing me to reproduce this article.