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Lewes Martyrs Suffering - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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Adapted by Professor Arthur Noble from Rev. F.J. Hamilton, D.D.: “Why the Lewes Martyrs suffered”

During the Marian persecutions in England no fewer than 288 persons were burned at the stake, the county of Sussex being honoured with the third place among the counties of England in the number of its sons and daughters who “counted not their lives too dear” to yield up for God’s Truth. Kent stands first with a record of 54 martyrs, Essex next with 51, while Sussex furnished 41, of whom 17 were committed to the flames in the historic town of Lewes.

For the full account of the faithful testimony borne by these noble confessors of old we are of necessity indebted to Foxe’s Acts and Monuments.

“Because that I will not here deny God’s Gospel, and be obedient to man’s laws, I am condemned to die.” Such were the words of Dirick Carver as the flames were kindling around him, and his soul was about to pass into the joy of his Lord; and these words tell briefly why all the martyrs of Queen Mary’s reign suffered. The alternative was placed before them of denying God’s Gospel or dying at the stake; and in the power of the Holy Spirit they chose the latter. They could endure privation, imprisonment, torment, burning; but they could not forsake their Saviour. For them it was not a question of conflicting opinions in both of which there might be elements of truth and neither of which might be really important. It was, rather, a matter of fundamental principles; it was a choice between essential right and wrong.

They had learned from their Bibles that the true Church of Christ on earth was composed of all His believing and Spirit-taught children, that it was His “mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people” [Communion Service, Church of England] and that He was its real Head. How could they, then, admit the claim of the Roman system to be the only true Church out of which is no salvation, and acknowledge the supreme headship of the Pope? In the boasted Church they saw the teacher of errors, the maintainer of gross superstitions, the fomenter of vile corruptions, the seducer of souls, and the relentless persecutor of God’s saints; in the so-called Head of the Church they saw not merely a foreign usurper and a foe to England’s liberties, but Antichrist, the false intruder upon the divine prerogatives of the Lord of all. Hence fidelity to the Gospel compelled them to hazard comfort, home, and even life itself in rejecting those arrogant, baseless, and blasphemous claims.

From the inspired Word also they had received the truth respecting the Lord’s Supper; and they could not admit that when the priest pronounced the words of consecration, “This is My Body” (“Hoc est corpus meum”), then the whole substance of that wafer was changed into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. They could not localise Him, Who is God over all blessed for ever, in that wafer and adore Him there. They could not believe in the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which it was said that the priest did offer Christ to God the Father for the sins of the living and the dead to obtain remission of pain or guilt. They could not consent to the fiction of Purgatory, with all the gross superstitions belonging to it; and to the degrading traffic in masses and indulgences for the relief of souls from its tormenting flames. To allow that the actual Body of Christ was present everywhere would be to deny the reality of His perfect humanity; to allow that He was brought down to the altar by the words of consecration would make Him subject to a sinful mortal; to adore Him in the elements (as the heathen adores his god in an image) would be abominable idolatry; to agree that the priest could offer Him as a propitiatory sacrifice to God would mean the denial of His complete atonement, that “one offering by which He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” [Heb. 10:14]; and to consent to the figment of Purgatory – would be the contradiction of the Christian’s inalienable blessing, absent from the body, present with the Lord, as well as of perfect purgation through the cleansing Blood of the Son of God [Cor. 5:8; John 1:7]

Can we wonder at the righteous indignation of Carver, the first of the Lewes Martyrs, when inveighing against this shameful travesty of the Gospel he said: “Your doctrine is poison and sorcery. If Christ were here you would put Him to a worse death than He was put to before. You say you can make a god; you can make a pudding as well. Your ceremonies in the church are beggary and poison.” Accordingly, when the tremendous alternative was put before them, “Turn or burn”, “Join in the service of the mass or die in the flames“, they could look only to God for grace to be faithful, and taking the bitter cup of suffering drain it to the dregs.

As they read the Gospel over, they did not hear the voice of Jesus saying: “Go for pardon to the priest.” They heard Him tenderly inviting the weary and heavy laden to come to Himself. The Bible taught confession to God and not to man; it pointed not to the human pretender, but to the Divine Absolver; it led them not to the confessional box, but to the Throne of Grace. “Your auricular confession,” said Carver, “is contrary to the Word of God.” Consequently truth compelled them to reject the so-called “Sacrament of Penance” with all its evil and all its shame.

Still further, the Holy Scriptures revealed to them the great and glorious doctrine for which the Apostle Paul contended, of justification by faith only; and therefore they could never agree with the notion of salvation by human works and merits which lay at the foot of the whole false Romanist system. “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” [Thirty-Nine Articles, Art. XI.] This was their comfort, this was their peace, this was their joy, this was their hope; and this was the charter of their eternal bliss. As Rev. John Irvine Dunlop put it in his sermon of July 22, 1855, at Lewes, on the third centenary of the martyrdom of Dirick Carver:


When Carver, Woodman and their other companions were questioned respecting the dogmas of Popery, they invariably referred to the finished work of the Cross. ‘Jehovah our Righteousness’ was the watchword of all the Reformers. ‘None but Christ – none but Christ’ was their cry in the flames. The doctrine of a sinner’s justification in the sight of God, through the perfect righteousness of Emmanuel imputed and received by faith alone, is the great keystone of Protestantism. Luther was accustomed to call it the mark of a standing or falling Church. As long as that great cardinal doctrine was held by any particular church, so long, in the estimation of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, she was to be considered a Church of Christ; but, give up that point, and she became a synagogue of Satan. The finished work of the Redeemer, justification by faith only, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, did for the Reformers instead of all the paraphernalia of Popery. It was just the thing and the only thing for them – nothing else would do. It laid the axe at the root of all human merit, the basis on which the whole fabric of the Papal Babylon is grounded; and the Dragon of Popery fell before the Ark of God.

When we compare the tenets against which the noble martyrs of Lewes protested with the teaching of modern Ritualism, we find that the two are, in most respects, practically identical. The change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ by the words of consecration; the adoration of the elements; the offering up of our Lord Jesus for the living and the dead in the sacrifice of the Mass; the reservation of the host; the crucifixes and vestments; the lights and incense; the posturings and prostrations; the confessional, with all its possibilities of wickedness; the neglect and even fierce denunciation of the doctrine of justification by faith only; the substitution of the so-called Catholic teaching for the pure Word of God; the arrogant claims of the clergy to be the sole dispensers of truth, directors of consciences, and priestly mediators between God and man; all these, and more than these, mediaeval assumptions, superstitions, and blasphemies have been brought back and proclaimed in thousands of English parishes by the very men who had solemnly abjured them. The rights of the laity have been trampled upon with amazing effrontery. The feelings of pious worshipers in our Churches have been shocked and outraged by idolatrous innovations. Families have been invaded by tyrannical confessors, homes have been marred, and parents and children have been ruthlessly severed. The Protestant standards of the Church of England have been flouted by its paid ministers, and the Gospel of the grace of God has, too often, been disestablished within the National Establishment. Conjointly with all this, the noble men and women who loved not their lives unto death that they might hand down to us a lasting heritage of truth and freedom have been aspersed and vilified. Great names enshrined in the hallowed memories of British Christians have been held up to scorn and derision; their aims have been misrepresented and their glorious work maligned; while the cruel system which haunted, imprisoned, tortured and burned them, and which has never repented of her sins, has been persistently excused and extolled, and even been made the object of that imitation which is the sincerest flattery. There is plenty of evidence to show that the Ritualists (though retaining outward connection with the reformed church) are not on the side of the Reformation, but of its adversaries; and the danger is real that Romanism, Papal and Anglican, may become strong enough to persecute the Gospel of God again as bitterly and remorselessly as in the days of yore.

That several Roman Catholics suffered in the reign of Queen Elizabeth we know, but they were executed for treason against their lawful sovereign, and not burned for the de fide opinions which they held. Doubtlessly they thought they were doing God service in conspiring to dethrone a Protestant ruler; yet such fanatical notions can never save conspirators from the due penalty when they fall into the clutches of the law. Had any reformed ministers been discovered plotting against the life or crown of Queen Mary, and suffered accordingly, however sorry we might be for their misguided zeal, we could not deny the justice of their punishment. In truth, the Inquisition, the tortures, the massacres, the burnings of which Rome is guilty can never be excised from the pages of history, nor be balanced by a ridiculously unequal comparison; they will remain till the end of time as warning beacons against ever trusting her, and as lurid prophecies of her inevitable doom.

Let us, in conclusion, gather a few lessons from the examples of the Lewes heroes and heroines. In them we see the importance of having clear and definite views of truth, drawn from the infallible Word of God, which saves from the peril of superstition and idolatry on the one hand, and on the other hand from drifting before every wind of doctrine into dark and cheerless infidelity. In the Lewes martyrs we see that Christian charity required earnest contention for the faith once delivered to the saints. Compromise with error, for fear of giving offence, is nothing better than moral weakness and self-pleasing; it does not, and never can, spring from genuine love for souls. Here we are also reminded of the duty of firm, unswerving consistency in the cause of right. There were many who professed Reformation principles in the reign of Edward VI, and then veered round and loudly abjured their principles when Mary was established on the throne, and who even tried to demonstrate the reality of their rapid conversion by helping the heresy hunters to bring Protestants to prison and the stake; but noble martyrs like Woodman and Carver could not defile their consciences by such shifting professions and varying conduct. The truth of Christ remained the same, no matter what a brilliant example of courageous consistency for subsequent ages, to which we would do well to take heed at the present time. Here, moreover, in this sublime record, we behold grand devotion and love for the Saviour, which no doubt could dim and no trial could destroy; which shone out the more brightly the more severely it was tested.

One thing more: this record shows us how the Gospel sheds light upon life and immortality. The home beyond was not with them a subject of vague speculation and uncertain hope; it was a solid and assured reality. At the stake they committed their souls to God with calm confidence, and even with holy joy. The vision which sustained dying Stephen seemed to be granted to them also, and their frequent prayer was that of the proto-martyr: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” [Rev. 14:13]

The former witness must still be borne, the old conflict must still be carried on, the old foes must still be encountered, and the old standard must still be upheld, while over the battle-field still ring the words of the Great Commander: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” [Rev. 2:10] . . European Institute of Protestant Studies


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