Hugh Latimer (c. 1485–1555), the “Preacher of the English Reformation,” owed much to his mentor, Thomas Bilney.
Bilney, a quiet scholar at Cambridge University, acquired a Greek New Testament from the famous Erasmus. As he pored over it, one verse of Scripture seemed to be written in letters of light: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!
“This one sentence,” he later wrote, “through God’s instruction and inward working, did so exhilarate my heart, which before was wounded with the guilt of my sins, that immediately I found wonderful comfort and quietness in my soul. My bruised bones leaped for joy.”
Bilney wanted to share his conversion with others, but this was Reformation truth, and the Reformation had not yet reached England. Teachers such as Luther—and teachings like justification by grace through faith—were being fiercely attacked by English churchmen like Hugh Latimer.
But as Bilney listened to young Latimer rail against the Reformation, he prayed this unusual prayer: “O God, I am but ‘little Bilney,’ and shall never do any great thing for Thee. But give me the soul of that man, Hugh Latimer, and what wonders he shall do in Thy most holy name.”
One day Bilney pulled Latimer aside, saying, “Oh, sir, for God’s sake, hear my confession.” Latimer sat and listened as Bilney spoke about Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and shared what had happened to him through it. Reaching into his sleeve, he drew out the precious book, and it opened to a passage heavily underlined—1 Timothy 1:15.
As Latimer read those words, he himself saw the pure and simple truth of the gospel, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The effect on Latimer was reminiscent of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Tears poured down his cheeks, and in that moment he, too, was born again.
Both men later perished at the stake, but their flames lit a candle in the English-speaking world that has never gone out.
Robert J. Morgan