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Memoirs of the Reformers - John Rogers (1505-1555)

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The Proto-martyr under Queen Mary

THIS intrepid warrior, under the Captain of our salvation, was the first, in the persecuting reign of Queen Mary, who led the way, by the cross, to the martyr’s crown of glory. He had his education at Cambridge, where he soon acquired an eminent proficiency in learning. He was chosen by a company of English merchants, at Antwerp, for their chaplain, to whom he preached for many years in that populous and flourishing city; and having become acquainted with William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, who had there taken shelter from the persecution in the boisterous reign of Henry VIII., was, by their means, brought to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus. Here he joined hands with these eminent individuals, in forwarding the translation of the Holy Scriptures, and was thereby so thoroughly convinced of the gross absurdity of the doctrines of the Roman church, that he renounced them for ever. At Antwerp he married, and removed to Wittemberg, still increasing in knowledge, and became such a proficient in the Dutch language, that he was chosen pastor of a congregation in that place; the duties of which office he faithfully discharged for some years, when he was called home by bishop Ridley, in the reign of Edward VI. He was appointed prebendary and divinity lecturer of St. Paul’s, where he continued to labor in his Master’s vineyard till the accession of Queen Mary. But having preached a sermon in the beginning of that persecuting reign, at Paul’s cross, wherein he exhorted his audience to an inflexible adherence to the doctrines they had been taught, and to beware of the idolatry, superstition, and pestilent doctrines of the church of Rome. It was impossible, that zeal so fervent, and at the same time so publicly manifested, could be either concealed or suffered to pass unopposed. Accordingly, he was called before the privy council, where he confirmed his answers by the scriptures, and defended his cause with so much good sense and propriety, that for the present he was dismissed. After the queen’s proclamation against preaching was promulgated, he was again called before the popish bishops, who thirsted for his blood, and ordered to remain a prisoner in his own house, where he continued under this sort of imprisonment for six months. From this confinement he might have easily escaped, and to this he had many inducements, having a wile and ten children, and many friends in Germany, with certain preferment awaiting him in that country; but being called upon to appear for the cause of his heavenly Master, he would not depart, though remaining at the hazard of his life. From his own house he was removed to Newgate, where he was closed up with thieves, robbers, and murderers. At length, on the twenty-second, and several succeeding days of January 1555, he was examined before Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, and others, where, after many things, the bishop asked him, “What sayest thou? make us a direct answer, whether thou wilt be one of this catholic church or not, with us, in the state in which we are now?” To this Mr. Rogers replied, “My lord, I cannot believe that ye yourselves do think in your hearts, that the pope is the supreme head in the forgiving of sin, etc. as you have now said, seeing you, and all the bishops of the realm, have now, for twenty years long, preached, and some of you also written to the contrary, and the parliament hath, so long ago, condescended unto it.” Here Mr. Rogers was interrupted; he was treading on the corns of the clergy, opening up their sores, and exposing that vile hypocrisy, and shameless villainy, that interest, honor, and royal favor, had induced the bishops of England to exercise against their steadfast brethren, for avowing and defending the doctrines which they had for so many years preached, and at last so meanly abandoned. But he was not permitted to make any farther defense, either for himself or the doctrines he held forth. Again, on the ninth of the same month, he was called before the bishops, where he was condemned for an heretic, and his sentence pronounced by Gardiner, in the following words:

“In the name of God, Amen. We, Stephen, by the permission of God, bishop of Winchester, etc. etc. do find, that thou hast taught, holden, and affirmed, and obstinately defended diverse errors, heresies, and damnable opinions, contrary to the doctrine and determination of the holy church; as namely these, ‘ That the catholic church of Rome is the church of antichrist; item, That in the sacrament of the altar there is not substantially, nor really, the natural body and blood of Christ.’ We do therefore judge thee, and condemn thee, John Rogers, otherwise called Matthews, thy demerits and faults being aggravated, through thy damnable obstinacy, as guilty of most detestable heresies, and as an obstinate impenitent sinner, refusing to return to the lap and unity of the holy mother church; and that thou hast been, and art, by law, excommunicate, and do pronounce and declare thee an excommunicate person. Also, we pronounce and declare, being an heretic, to be cast out from the church, and left unto the judgment of the secular power, by this our sentence definitive, which we here, lay upon, and against thee, with sorrow of heart.”

On hearing this sentence, Mr. Rogers attempted to speak, but was not permitted. He requested that his wife, a poor stranger, might be permitted to see him before his death. This also was denied him, and she was peremptorily prohibited. When returned to prison, he wrote the questions put by the bishops, on this and the preceding days, with his answers, so far as he had been permitted to speak, and what he intended to have answered, if suffered to proceed. From the great length of this article, we can only admit a short specimen, referring the curious reader to Mr. Fox’s Martyrology, where it is given

at large.

“The bishops,” says he, “cry out, lo, these men will still be a John the Baptist, an apostle, a prophet, etc. I answer, we make not ourselves like unto them in the gifts and power of God, bestowed upon them to the working of miracles; but that we are like them in believing the same doctrine, and in suffering persecution and shame for the same. We preach their very doctrine, and none other: This we are able to prove from their writings, which I have preferred to do again and again by writing. And, for this cause, we suffer the like reproach, shame, and rebuke of the world; suffering the same persecution, to the loss of our goods, and even of our lives; and to the forsaking (as our master Christ commandeth) father, mother, sister, brethren, wives, children, etc. being assured of a joyful resurrection, and to be crowned in glory with them, according to the infallible promises made unto us in Christ, our only and all sufficient Mediator, Reconciler, Priest, and Sacrifice: Who, for us, as well as them, hath pleased the Father, quieted and pacified his wrath against our sins; and, by imputation, hath made us without spot or wrinkle in his sight; although we, of and in ourselves, are polluted with many filthy sins, which, if the measureless unspeakable mercy and love of God in Christ did not put away, by not imputing them to us, would have brought us to everlasting damnation, and death perpetual. In this, and in no other sense, do we affirm ourselves to be like Christ our head, his apostles, prophets, martyrs, and saints. And so far ought all Christians to be like them, according to the measure of faith, and the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit that God hath given unto them.

“But let us now consider, that if it be God’s goodwill and pleasure to give the members of his beloved church into the hands of their enemies, it is to chasten, try, and prove them, to bring them to an unfeigned acknowledgment of their natural perverseness and disobedience towards God and his commandments, as touching their love of God, their brethren and neighbors; and to shew them their natural inclination and readiness to seek their own ease and pleasure, and to desire that good from the creature which God has forbid, as only to be found in himself. And in order, that having fallen into gross outward sins, like David, Peter, and others, they may be brought to a true and earnest repentance, and to sigh and cry for the forgiveness of the same, and for the aid of the Spirit, daily to mortify and subdue all evil desires and affections in future. And many other wise and gracious purposes of the Lord concerning his people are answered by their being often put into the furnace of affliction. But let us also consider what he doth with those enemies into whose hands he giveth his tender darlings to be chastened and tried. In truth, he does but chasten and cross them for a little while, according to his fatherly love and good pleasure, as all fathers do their children (Heb. xii. and Prov. iii.); but he utterly destroyeth, yea, and everlastingly damneth, their impenitent enemies.

“ Let Herod tell me what he got by killing James, and by persecuting Peter, and Christ’s tender darlings and beloved spouse, his church? Verily God thought him not worthy to have death ministered by men or angels, or any other creature, than those small, filthy vermin, lice and worms, which were ordained to destroy his beastly tyrannous body. Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, with all their pride and might, must at length let God’s favorite people go freely out of their land, from their bands and cruelty: For when they could obtain nothing but counterfeit mercies, like those of our day , namely, extreme cruelties and death, then did God arise, as one awoke out of sleep, and destroyed those enemies of his flock with a mighty hand, and stretched out arm. When Pharaoh grievously oppressed the poor Israelites with intolerable labors and heavy burdens, his courtiers noised abroad his tender mercies towards them, in suffering them to live in the land, and in setting them to work, that they might get their livings; for, if he should thrust them out of his land, they must be no better than vagabonds and runagates. Have we not the like examples nowadays? O that I had now time to write certain things pertaining to the bishop of Winchester’s mercy! I have not time to speak how merciful he hath been to me and to my good brethren, and to the duke of Suffolk’s most innocent daughter, and her innocent husband: O that I had time to paint it in its proper colors! but there are many that can do it better than I, who shall live when I am dead. Pharaoh had his plagues; and his once most flourishing land utterly destroyed, on account of hypocrisy and counterfeit mercy, which was no other than cruelty and abominable tyranny. And think ye, that the bloody butcherly bishop of Winchester, and his bloody brethren, shall escape? Or that England, for their offences, and especially for the maintenance of their idolatry, and willful following of them in it, shall not abide as great brunts? Yes, undoubtedly.

“ If God look not mercifully upon England, the seeds of utter destruction are already sown in it by these hypocritical tyrants and antichristian prelates, papists, and double traitors to their country: And yet they speak of mercy, of blessing, of the catholic church, of unity, of power, and of strengthening the realm! This double dissimulation will appear in the day of the Lord’s visitation, when those crowns horn captains, who have shewn no mercy to the poor godly sufferers of this realm, shall have judgment without mercy.”

On Monday morning, the 4th of February, Mr. Rogers was awakened from a sound sleep by the keeper’s wife, who warned him to make haste in preparing himself for his latter end. If it be so, said he, I need not tie my points. He was then taken before bishop Bonner, who degraded him. Here he requested the bishop that his wife might be allowed to speak with him before he suffered. This small favor being also denied him, he added, you thus evidence the extent of your charity! The ‘hour arrived, Rogers was brought out of Newgate, and delivered up to the sheriffs of London. One of them said, Mr. Rogers, Will you revoke your abominable doctrine, and your evil opinion of the sacrament of the altar? What I have preached, said Mr. Rogers, I am ready to seal with my blood. Then thou art an heretic, said the sheriff. That will be known, said Rogers, at the last judgment. Well, said the sheriff, I will not pray for thee. But I will pray for thee, said Mr. Rogers; and so proceeded towards Smithfield, reciting the 51st Psalm; while the people, rejoicing at his steadfastness, gave thanks to God for the fortitude with which he inspired him. His wife, with ten children by her side, and one at her breast, met him by the way, being the only opportunity left of ever seeing one another in this life; and though it is difficult even to imagine any thing more tender and affecting than this parting scene, this last adieu to a beloved wife, and so numerous an offspring, all in tears; he stood the shock with the feelings of a father and husband, but with the unshaken confidence of a Christian hero. When he came to the stake, having been indulged to speak only a few words, he very briefly admonished the people to hold fast the doctrines he had taught them, and for which he was now about to deliver up his body to the flames, as an evidence of his belief of their truth and infinite importance. He was again offered a pardon on condition of recanting. This he again rejected with Christian magnanimity, and suffered with the most astonishing patience, washing his hands, as it were, in the flames, and ejaculating with his last breath, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

During the eighteen months that Mr. Rogers was held prisoner, he was always cheerful, but intent on pushing forward every thing he undertook. He wrote much, especially his examinations; which were wonderfully preserved, in spite of all the watchful care of his enemies to prevent any of his papers from finding the way from his cell. This is supposed to be one reason for prohibiting his wife or his friends from visiting him in prison. Moreover, they searched his room frequently; and so soon as he left it for Smithfield, it was again subjected to a thorough investigation; but nothing found. They therefore readily permitted his wife and son Daniel to enter the apartment on their return from Smithfield, who looked into every corner; but found nothing, and were coming away, when Daniel observed something in a dark nook, under a pair of stairs, that attracted his attention; and on exploring it, found his examinations and his other writings, to which the reader has been referred.

Mr. Rogers was a man of singular charity to the poor and needy. He agreed with Mr. Hooper, and others in prison, to confine themselves to one meal a day, that the rest might be given to the prisoners on the debtor’s side, who were literally starving; but the cruel keeper, it was afterwards discovered, withheld it from them. It was supposed that Hooper and Rogers would be burned together; and with this opinion, Rogers, the Sunday before he suffered, drank to Hooper, whose room was just below, and desired the keeper to tell him, “there never was a little fellow would better stick to a man than he would to Mr. Hooper.”

Thus died, triumphant in the faith of the blessed gospel, John Rogers, the first martyr who suffered under the tyrannical, but short reign of the bigoted Queen Mary; and by his death demonstrated the reality of the ancient observation, that the blood of the saints is the seed of the church; for instead of being intimidated by the severity of his sufferings, multitudes were encouraged by his magnanimous example; and many, who had no religion, were led to inquire into the cause for which pious, learned, and benevolent men, were so contented to lay down their lives; and thus changed from atheists or catholics, by the grace of God, to the profession of that gospel, which, as it discovered the felicity of the Romish superstition, so it drew down the most inveterate and merciless resentment of her voluptuous ecclesiastics.

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