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Memoirs of the Reformers - Laurence Saunders (1519-1555)

The Magisterial Reformation - Post Tenebras Lux - Out of Darkness Light

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A resolute contender for the faith of the saints.

THIS distinguished individual was descended from an opulent family. He was educated at Eaton, and from thence chosen to king’s college in Cambridge, where he prosecuted his studies for three years with the greatest assiduity and success. But his mother, anxious to improve his already affluent fortune, had him engaged as an apprentice to a capital merchant in London. His master, who was a sensible and serious man, soon perceived that Saunders had no relish for mercantile transactions, but that the bias of his inclination leaned to the Schools; and presuming, from his apparent piety, and the moral propriety of his life, that God had more important work in reserve for him, freely gave him up his indenture. Upon this agreeable change in the manner of his life, Saunders returned to Cambridge, and proceeded with his studies. He was a man exercised with sore temptations and inward conflicts; but graciously supported by the grace of God under these heavy afflictions; which qualified him, by experience, how to minister comfort to others under similar cases of mental distress. He remained at Cambridge, after he had taken his degree of Master of Arts, for some considerable time; and in the reign of Edward VI. entered into holy orders. He was first appointed lecturer of Fathringhay, and married about the same period. He was afterward made reader in the cathedral of Litchfield, where his labors were blessed of God to the conversion of many to the Christian life and manners; while his exemplary conversation, and active exertions in his Master’s vineyard, gained him a good report even from his adversaries. After this he was removed to Churchlangton in Leicestershire; and, lastly, to Allhallows in Bread Street, London. He intended to resign his office in Churchlangton; but Mary coming to the throne, he was aware that his room would be filled up with a papist; to prevent which he continued to retain his office. In his way thither from London, he preached at Northampton where he boldly testified against the errors of the popish religion, which he could easily perceive were about to be restored to the church; warning his audience of the visitation of God that England was threatened with, for her lukewarm indifference in the cause of Christ, and the privileges of his glorious gospel, so plentifully administered amongst them. Foreseeing the evils that were approaching, he applied himself, with more than ordinary diligence, in confirming his people in the truth, and to arm them against the delusions of the Roman idolatry. But the queen’s proclamation, prohibiting all such preaching, had been emitted some time before this; be was accordingly opposed, and finally restrained by open violence. His friends, perceiving the danger to which his faithfulness had subjected him, seriously advised him to leave the kingdom; but to this he would by no means consent, but straightway set out for London to visit his flock in Bread Street. In his way to the metropolis, he was overtaken by the queen’s counselor, Mordaunt, who asked if it was him that preached in Bread Street at such a time? And being answered in the affirmative, was asked, Will you there preach so again? Yes, said Saunders, tomorrow you may hear me there, where I mean to confirm all that I then advanced. I would advise you, said Mordaunt, to forbear. If you forbid me by lawful authority, said Saunders, then I must forbear. Nay, said the other, I, shall not forbid thee; so they parted. The next day, being Sunday, he expounded the sixth chapter of the second Epistle to the Corinthians; designing, in the afternoon, to give his people another exhortation; but when he came to church, he was seized by the bishop of London’s officer, and carried before him, Mordaunt, and some of the bishop’s chaplains.

Bonner charged him with the unpardonable crime of heresy; and to put a better face on this unpopular cause, added to heresy the weighty crimes of sedition and treason; at the same time demanding his opinion, in writing, on the doctrine of transubstantiation; with which he was forced to comply. You seek my life, and you shall have it, said Saunders; and I pray God you may be so baptized in my blood, that you may for ever after loathe such cruel proceedings, and become a better man. Bonner sent him to bishop Gardiner, where he was kept standing at the door of the room, for the space of four hours, uncovered. At length the bishop, returning from court, ordered him into a proper place for examination, where he proceeded in the following manner:

How dare you to preach notwithstanding of the queen’s proclamation to the contrary? Mr. Saunders replied, because I am commanded by God; yea, woe unto me if I preach not the gospel, and obey the commandments of God in preference to those of men. A goodly conscience, to be sure, said the bishop. Is it not, Saunders, to make our queen a bastard or misbegotten? I deny the charge. It is not I who go about to make the queen base or misbegotten; but let them look after the matter, who, to their shame and disgrace, have published the same to the world. This was a sore thrust at the bishop, who had prefaced the book of True Obedience, in which Mary was openly declared to be a bastard. We only preach, said Saunders, the word of God, which, though now prohibited to do, I trust that our blood shall hereafter preach an abundantly more convincing and efficacious sermon. On which the bishop cried out, take away the frantic fool to prison. I thank my God, said Saunders, who has at last given me a place of rest and quietness, where I may pray for the conversion of your lordship.

Mr. Saunders was accordingly sent to prison, where he wrote a letter to the bishop of Winchester, in answer to several particulars with which he had charged him. The following is all that has been preserved of said letter.

“Respecting the cause of my imprisonment, I am not aware of having violated any law or proclamation. In my doctrine I have not, inasmuch as by the proclamation we were permitted to preach according to our consciences, and officiate in such services as were then established. My doctrine was according to my conscience, and the services were such as were then used in the church. Nor could my expounding the scriptures, in my own church at Bread Street, impartially considered, amount to the least breach; but, at all events, not to a wilful breach of said proclamation, seeing I caused no bells to be rung, occupied no place in the pulpit after the order of the regular service. But granting that the proclamation had been violated to the full amount of the charge made against me, the long imprisonment I have suffered is surely more than adequate to the offence. Touching the heresies with which I am charged, I answer, with Paul, this I confess, that after the way which you call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers; and herein I endeavor to keep a conscience void of offence, both towards God and man. Yes, my lord, I have a conscience, and that conscience is not satisfied with illusive fantasies, or my faith founded on the ordinances of men, but on the verity of the written word of God, who cannot lie, and the testimony of his church built on the same foundation.

“The sheep of Christ’s pasture can readily distinguish the voice of their shepherd from that of wolves, hirelings, and strangers; and knowing their Shepherd by his voice, him only will they follow, and that wherever he chooses to lead them. The wolf may appear in masquerade, he may dress himself in sheep’s clothing; but his very voice betrays him to be a wolf in spite of all his hypocrisy. That the Romish religion is ravenous and wolfish, appears from a number of considerations; but especially from their idolatrous worshipping of beings that be no gods, their tyrannical assumptions over the rights of conscience, and their masses for the souls of the quick and the dead, whereby they crucify the Son of God afresh, and, in place of honoring, put him to an open shame. Having therefore weighed the Romish religion in the balance of God’s verity, and found it wanting in its most essential points, and in others superfluous, the foundation false, and the superstructure vain; I adhere to that church, the foundation stone of which is Christ, whose only head, lord, and lawgiver is Christ, who feeds his flock like a shepherd, and, as Captain of their salvation, protects them from the secret frauds and open violence of all their enemies. And having thus cast in my lot amongst the humble followers of the Lamb, and joined the standard of my adorable Lord, I may not, and, by the help of his grace, / will not relinquish my place, nor betray my Commander, be the cost and consequences what they may.”

Mr. Saunders could not be admitted to see her husband while in prison. The jailor, however, on one occasion carried her child into his father. Some who were standing by, admiring the child, Mr. Saunders said, he had rather have such a boy than be master of two thousand pounds. They urge me to recant, said he; and by so doing I must bastardize my son, make my wife a whore, and myself a whoremonger! What man, that fears God, would not rather suffer death? If there were no more cogent reasons for a man of my estate losing his life, yet who would not give it to avouch the legitimacy of this child, and the honor of holy matrimony? After having remained in prison fifteen months, Mr. Saunders was brought before the queen’s council, and examined by bishop Gardiner, Bonner, and others, in the following manner:

Gardiner: It is well known, that the abominable heresies, and false doctrines you have disseminated, was the only cause of your imprisonment, and it is now thought expedient that mercy be extended to such as seek mercy; wherefore, if you will now conform to the established rule, mercy is at hand. We . must acknowledge we have all of us fallen; but now we are risen again, and received into the holy catholic church. You must therefore rise with us, and come home from your unhappy wanderings. Give us your answer explicitly?

Saunders: My lord, if it please your honor, give me leave to speak with deliberation.

Gard. Leave off your painting and rhetorical flourishes; you are all of you smite with the humor of pleasing yourselves with lofty words and high sounding epithets. Answer yea or nay.

Saund. My lord, the present is no time for me to paint and polish my discourse, nor have I any cause to be proud. My learning, I confess, is but small, and my wealth is reduced to nothing; nevertheless, it behoves me to answer your queries with caution, exposed, as I am, to the danger of either losing my life, or sacrificing the peace and purity of my conscience; and, to tell you the truth, I am in love with both life and liberty, if these can be obtained without violating my conscience.

Gard. Conscience! you have no conscience but pride and arrogance. Your schism from the church is merely the effect of your ambition, for being distinguished by a hypocritical


Saund. God knows the consciences of all men, and in place of being a separatist to gratify my ambition, I deny the charge of at all separating from the church. I hold the same principles, preach the same doctrines, and govern my life by the same maxims, acknowledged in the church of England. When I was fourteen years of age, I was taught that the pope of Rome was an usurper, and the Roman church a mass of corruption and errors; which doctrines I have even received from your hands now present, as a matter agreed upon by the church, and confirmed by public authority.

Gard. Yea, marry. But pray, have you also received your heretical sentiments, concerning the blessed sacrament of the altar, from consent and authority of the church and the state?

Saund. My lord, it is assuredly less offensive to cut off an hand, arm, or joint of a man, than to cut off his head, seeing he may live without one of these; but what man can live without his head? But you formerly agreed, all of you, to cut off the head of the Roman church, and now. again you are for restoring it.

Bishop of London. My lord, I have his own handwriting against the blessed sacrament. What say you to that Saunders?

Saund. What I have written, I have written, and further I will not accuse myself. You cannot charge me with the breach of any of your laws since they were in force.

Gard. Well, you are obstinate, and refuse liberty.

Saund. I may not purchase liberty at such a price. But I beseech your honor to obtain such a pardon for us from the queen, as will enable us to live without having our consciences clogged, and we will live as most obedient subjects. If this cannot be granted, I must say for myself, that by God’s grace I will abide the extremity of your resentment, rather than act against the light of my conscience.

Gard. Ah, sir! you will live as you list. The Donatists affected a singularity of life; but indeed they were not fit to live upon the earth, neither are you, and that you shall know within these seven days. Away with him!

Saund. Welcome the will of God, be it life or death. I can tell you, with confidence, that I have learned to die. I would nevertheless exhort you to beware of shedding innocent blood. Truly it will cry aloud to heaven for vengeance against you.

Mr. Saunders was now removed to another apartment, to wait till some others were examined. Here finding a great number of people, he upbraided them with their defection from the cause of Christ, and earnestly entreated them to return to the Shepherd nd Bishop of their souls; and in defiance of antichrist, sin, death, and the devil, to confess him before a perverse generation, and so live in the love, fear, and favor of God, and at peace with their own consciences. He was taken to the prison in Bread Street, out of which he preached to his parishioners, as he had formerly done out of his pulpit.

On the 4th of February the bishop of London went to his prison and degraded him. On being stripped of his clerical habiliments, he said, I thank God I am none of your church. Next morning the sheriff of London delivered him up to a party of the queen’s guard, who had been appointed to conduct him to Coventry, where he was ordered to be burned. The first night they halted at St. Albans, where they were met by Mr. Grimoald, a man of greater learning than fortitude or steadfastness; to whom, after reproving his unfaithfulness in the cause of Christ, he said, Will you pledge me out of this cup which I am about to drink? Grimoald, shrugging up his shoulders, replied, Out of that cup in your hand I will pledge you with all my heart; but out of that other which you mean, I will not promise you. Well, said Saunders, my dear Lord and Redeemer drank for me an exceedingly more bitter cup, And shall I not pledge my gracious Saviour? Yes, I hope I shall. At Coventry he was lodged among the common prisoners, where he spent the greater part of the night in prayer, and in instructing or exhorting those about him. Here he said to a friend, I am the most unfit person that ever was called to perform the duties of this exalted office; but I trust my dear Father and tenderhearted Redeemer, who knows my weakness, will vouchsafe to afford me all necessary strength and resolution.

The next day, being the 8th of February 1555, he was led to the place of execution, which was without the city. On his way, and within sight of the dreadful apparatus, the officer commanding told him, that notwithstanding the errors he had disseminated, and all he had done to disturb the realm, and mar the queen’s government, he had a pardon for him in his pocket, which, upon his recantation, would be granted him with much pleasure. To this Saunders replied, It is not I, nor my fellow laborers in the work of the gospel, but yourself, and such as you are, that disturb the realm, and mar the queen’s government. I hold no heresies, but preach the ever blessed gospel of Jesus Christ. It is that I hold, it is that I believe, it is that I have taught, and that, be assured, I will never renounce.

Away with him, was the only reply; and Mr. Saunders proceeded with much apparent comfort and resolution. On reaching the fatal place, he kneeled down and prayed; after which, taking the stake to which he was to be chained in his arms, he kissed it, saying, Welcome the cross of Christ, Welcome ye faggots and ye flames destined to consume my mortal body; but which, in place of hurting, shall only serve to raise this immortal spirit to the mansions of glory and life everlasting. He was fastened to the stake, and the fire kindled; but the wood was green, which cruelly prolonged his torments, but at the same time verified the promise of God, that his grace shall be sufficient for his people, and his strength made perfect in their weakness. And this holy man, after enduring these lingering torments with more than human fortitude and resignation, sweetly fell asleep in Jesus.

In the beginning of Mary’s reign, Mr. Saunders and Dr. Pendleton meeting one day, the conversation turned on the aspect of the times, and the great probability of a cruel persecution. Saunders seemed timid and fearful that he might not have fortitude to stand the severe trial to which their faithfulness were likely to be exposed. What, man! said Pendleton, I have much more reason to be afraid than you, I have a large fat body, yet will I see the last drop of this grease of mine melted away, and the last particle of this my flesh consumed to ashes, before I forsake Jesus Christ and his truth, which I have professed and preached. It was not long, however, till both were put to the trial, when the fearful and doubting Saunders, by the grace of God, sealed his testimony with his blood; while the self-sufficient Pendleton fell away and turned papist. So true it is, that the most confident in themselves are generally the first to shrink from a suffering lot, and make shipwreck of their faith and profession.

The letters written by this faithful martyr are numerous. The following extract will serve to show the temper and mind of this resolute contender for the faith of the saints.

Extract from one of Mr. Saunders Letters.

“MY dear wife, and ye the rest of my friends, rejoice with me, I say rejoice, and be exceeding thankful for this my present promotion; that I, a most unworthy creature, should have been honored to bear witness for the truths of my God, not only with these slow and uncircumcised lips, in proclaiming his message of mercy to perishing men, but also and especially that I have been accounted worthy to seal his testimony with my blood, to the honor of my Redeemer, and the confirmation of his true church. I am a prisoner, but enjoy the liberty of the sons of God. I am alone, but Christ is my companion in tribulation, my friend that sticketh closser than a brother; his presence fills my cup of consolation, that it runs over, insomuch, that I testify unto you, that my present comforts, and glorious anticipations, have driven from my mind and imagination all the terrors of death and the grave. Were Christ to hide his countenance from me, alas! I know what would be my poor condition; but should he thus, to try me, hide himself, I am assured he will not be long, or far away. Though he stand behind the wall, as Solomon says in his mystical song, yet will he peep in by the hole in the door to see how I do. Like Joseph, though he should speak roughly to his brethren, and handle them hardly; yea, should he even threaten his best beloved brother Benjamin with grievous bondage, yet can he not contain himself from weeping with us, and upon us; from falling on our necks, and sweetly kissing us. Such, such a brother is Christ; wherefore come unto him, as Jacob did with his family; for Christ has so ordered matters, that Pharaoh, the blaspheming infidel, shall afford chariots to transport us to his heavenly kingdom. Witness how our very persecutors help us to a premature felicity, by the bloodthirsty dispatch they make in executing their inveterate malice.

“Be not afraid of the dangers that crowd the path of holiness. Fear God, tremble at the thought of everlasting burnings. Fear sin, the sting of death, terrible to all who are unacquainted with Christ, the destroyer of death, and him that has the power of it. And, oh, my dear wife and friends, we, we whom God hath delivered from the power and prison of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of his dear Son, poor, despised, insulted, and persecuted as we are, even we have a glorious triumph yet in reserve, when the God of peace shall bruise satan, sin, death, hell, and damnation, under our feet, when we shall join with all those whom he has ransomed from the power of the grave, and redeemed from death, in the triumphant exclamation of the apostle, ‘ Death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory?’

“Wherefore, be merry, my dear wife, be merry, and all my dear fellow heirs of the everlasting kingdom. Remember the Lord always; rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, continue in prayer, and pray for us now appointed to the slaughter, that we may be, unto our heavenly Father, an acceptable sacrifice. I can hardly find opportunity to write you; wherefore, let these few words be witness of my commendations to you, and all them that love us in the faith of the gospel, particularly my poor flock. Be not careful, good wife, but cast all your cares on God, and commend me to him in your prayers; and in the end, Pray, pray.

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