John Hooper awoke on the morning of February 9th, 1555 knowing that he would be burned to death. At 9:00 AM, soldiers showed up at his door, fully ready with weapons to escort him to his execution. When Hooper saw these weapons, he assured them they would not be needed, calmly saying “I am no traitor … I would have gone alone to the stake, and have troubled none of you.”
Strictly told not to speak, Hooper looked upon the nearly 7,000 people gathered to watch his execution – many of them a part of his former congregation – with cheerful eyes, occasionally glancing towards heaven. When he came to the place appointed where he would die, he knelt down to pray until a soldier laid a stool before him. On top of it rested Hooper’s pardon from Queen Mary herself. Accept it, and live; reject it, and die. At the sight of it, Hooper cried, “If you love my soul, away with it!” Soldiers fastened Hooper to the stake.
Not much is known about John Hooper’s early years, aside from him being born in the county of Somerset in 1495, likely to parents with a significant amount of money. At the age of 19, he entered into Oxford, earning his four year bachelor’s degree by 1518. Tradition says that soon after leaving Oxford, Hooper became a monk at the Cistercian Monastery of Old Clave, and afterwards in another Cistercian house at Gloucester. He became weary and disgusted with monastic life, and withdrew from it to reside at Oxford.
Somewhere between 1518 and 1539, the writings of the Swiss reformers Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger on Paul’s Epistles opened Hooper’s eyes to the false doctrines of the Popery. Around the time of the passing of the Six Articles – an act giving legal and penal authority to issues including the catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the obligation of priests to remain celibate – Hooper’s Protestant principles attracted the negative attention of Oxford officials, who promptly compelled him to retire from the university. He became chaplain to the household of Sir Thomas Arundel, who liked him at first, but soon became frustrated with Hooper’s steadfastness in the ideas of the Reformation. Hooper, realizing his life wasn’t safe in England, escaped to the European mainland and eventually made his way to the reformer friendly Switzerland.
After spending nine years in continental Europe, most of it in Zurich where he married Anna de Tzerclas and developed a friendship with Bullinger, Hooper began to feel it “his bounden duty” to return and assist the Protestant reformation in his home country. When Hooper’s friends asked him to write to them, Hooper assured them he would, but also added this painfully prophetic phrase, saying “the last news of all, Master Bullinger, I shall not be able to write … but you shall hear it of me.”
Hooper arrived in London in May 1549, two years into King Edward’s Protestant friendly reign. He quickly developed an outstanding reputation as a man of “soundness” and “charismatic zeal,” and within a year of his landing in England, the King appointed him as the Bishop of Gloucester.
Once officially consecrated as the Bishop of Gloucester in 1550, Hooper enthusiastically whipped his ignorant clergy and congregation into shape, enacting discipline when necessary. When Hooper cited Sir Anthony Kingston, a man of great power and influence, to appear before him on charges of adultery, an outraged Kingston threatened to strike Hooper. Unmoved, Hooper reported the case to the Privy Council in London, which fined Kingston 500 Euro.
Hooper soon became known as one of the “boldest champions” of the Reformation in England, preaching three to four times a day and never wavering on his principles. He made sure that every minister below him preached only from scripture and taught that the “justification of man to come only from faith in Jesus Christ.” He condemned every unscriptural practice in the church, whether it was purgatory, image worship or transubstantiation. British historian J.C. Ryle proposed that perhaps no other English Bishop “left so deep a mark on men’s minds in such a short time period as John Hooper.”
Hooper’s troubles began in July 1553, when King Edward VI died and his half-sister, Mary Tudor, ascended the English throne. Almost immediately, the Catholic Queen Mary reversed all of Edward’s Protestant reforms and made it known that the famous Bishop of Gloucester topped her list of people she wanted removed. Upon hearing this, Hooper’s friends urged him to escape back to Switzerland, but Hooper wouldn’t have any of it. He calmly replied, “Once I did flee and took me to my feet. But now, because I am called to this place and vocation, I am thoroughly persuaded to tarry, and to live and die with my sheep.”
On August 29th, 1553, Hooper appeared before Queen Mary’s Council. The Council sent him as a prisoner to the Fleet, a notorious prison known for housing people without the due process of law. Throughout his 17 month stay in the prison, judges begged Hooper to recant and subsequently set himself free, but time and time again, John Hooper refused to give up a sliver of Christ’s truth. On the 4th of February, 1555, the Council finally condemned Hooper to death by flame for supporting the rights of priests to marry and for defying the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Sir Anthony Kingston – whom he had once offended for rebuking his sins – came to see Hooper just days before his death, telling him to consider his safety and ask him to recant. “Consider,” Kingston said, “that life is sweet, and death is bitter. Life hereafter may do good.” To that, Hooper memorably replied, “The life to come is more sweet, and the death to come is more bitter.”
Once bound to his wooden stake, Hooper began to pray. “Lord,” he said, “I am hell, but Thou art heaven; I am swill and a sink of sin, but Thou art a gracious God and a merciful redeemer. Have mercy, therefore, upon me … according to Thine inestimable goodness.”
Hooper continued to pray until soldiers began to fasten three iron hoops to him, in order so that he may not escape. Hooper refused them, saying “I doubt not but God will give me strength sufficient to abide the extremity of the fire, without bands.” Nonetheless, the soldiers prepared a hoop around his torso.
After a short period of time, the man appointed to prepare the fire walked up to Hooper. While laying the kindling, the man asked Hooper for forgiveness, as he did not know of any offences Hooper committed. In reply, Hooper said “thou dost nothing offend me: God forgive thee of thy sins, and do thine office, I pray thee.” The man stepped off the platform.
Initially, the fire struggled to fully ignite due to a lack of wood, with a strong wind blowing the weak flame away from Hooper. After a while, the fire died.
With more wood to fuel it, the second fire scorched Hooper’s hair and burned his groin area. However, this fire also died, at which Hooper exclaimed, “For God’s love, good people, let me have more fire!”
Fueled by even more wood, the third fire did not stop. Before his mouth turned black, before his tongue became too swollen to move, before his lips shriveled to his gums, Hooper exclaimed, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me! Lord Jesus, have mercy on me! Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” With the blood and fat dripping from his fingers, the Bishop of Gloucester beat his arm against his chest until it fell off, and continued to do so until his other arm fell off. Moments later, after 45 minutes in the fire, John Hooper’s body bowed forward, giving up his spirit.
Let John Hooper’s unwavering stance and bravery in the face of persecution inspire us to not back down when powerful people challenge our faith. For even while being consumed by flames, Hooper never gave in. We must do the same.