Standing With the Spirit of John Rogers
In the summer of 1553, John Rogers faced two options: Compromise, or flee.
He chose neither.
Born sometime between 1500 and 1505, John Rogers spent the majority of his life serving as a key player in the English Reformation. Rogers finished the job William Tyndale started, helping to publish the “Matthew's Bible,” the first direct translation of the entire Bible into English from the original biblical languages. Shipped to England from Germany in 1537, it received Henry VIII’s royal endorsement and finally gave the English people the Scriptures in their mother tongue.
Having spent over a decade teaching and preaching in Germany, Rogers returned to his native England in 1548, a year after the Protestant-friendly Edward VI took the throne. Eventually chosen as the divinity lecturer at St. Paul’s, Rogers devoted himself to furthering the work of the Gospel in the country he loved. Fellow reformer Nicholas Ridley held Rogers in high esteem, describing he and John Bradford as “men of excellent virtue … able, both with life and learning, to set forth God’s Word in London.” Rogers quickly made a name for himself, effectively preaching against the practice of indulgences, transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine literally becomes the flesh and blood of Christ during communion) and priestly celibacy. Unfortunately for Rogers, his popularity during Edward VI’ reign made him a marked man when the tide turned.
The real troubles for Rogers and the Reformation began when Edward VI died of tuberculosis on July 6, 1553. A few weeks later – after a failed Protestant attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne – the deeply Catholic Mary Tudor succeeded her half-brother to the English throne.
As Mary’s coronation bells rang and she rode triumphantly into London on August 3rd, 1553, Rogers and the Reformers knew the game had changed. In an effort to realign England with the Catholic Church, Mary would soon put the leaders of the English Reformation to the test.
Anticipating the coming persecution, many English Protestant leaders fled to mainland Europe. Most of them gathered in John Calvin’s Geneva, where a collection of scholars produced the groundbreaking Geneva Study Bible, complete with marginal notes, tables and italicized type set. It cannot be said that those who fled the Marian persecutions accomplished nothing in their exile.
John Rogers had many justifiable reasons to join his fellow reformers across the English Channel. He had a large family to support, and could have easily returned to his productive ministry in Germany. As a distinguished translator, Rogers likely would have been asked to help with work related to the Geneva Bible. He was not very old and had decades of ministry ahead of him.
However justifiable the reasons, Rogers knew he couldn’t run. Too much was at stake. If he ran, his Catholic opponents would point out his supposed unfaithfulness to the Protestant cause, which might in turn shake weaker members of the Protestant faith. For the sake of the English Reformation and the biblical principles he stood for, Rogers knew he needed to stay and face whatever the culture threw at him.
On August 6th, 1553, just three days after Mary arrived in London, John Rogers stood his ground. Knowing full well the consequences, John Rogers delivered his last sermon at St. Paul’s Preaching Cross, the traditional setting for any large public proclamations in London. With the English religious world watching, Rogers exhorted the congregation to hold fast to the truth of the Gospel, warning them against “all pestilent Popery, idolatry, and superstition.” With no wavering or timidity, he confirmed the doctrine taught during King Edward’s brief reign and condemned the hypocrisy of the Catholic priesthood.
Rogers’ had sealed his own earthly fate, and he knew it. Ten days after his sermon at St. Paul’s Cross, the queen’s Council ordered Rogers under house arrest. A few months thereafter, on January 27th, 1554, authorities placed him among thieves and murderers at the notorious Newgate prison.
It should be noted that throughout his ensuing trials, John Rogers was never (rightly) accused of speaking out against or attempting to undermine Queen Mary’s authority. He was no political insurrectionist. Rather, Bishop Stephen Gardiner accused him of two heresies that eventually led Rogers to the stake: asserting “that the Catholic Church of Rome is the church of antichrist” and “that, in the sacrament of the alter, there is not, substantially and really, the natural body and blood of Christ.”
After nearly a year in prison, an act of parliament assured John Rogers of his end. On January 16th, 1555, parliament reinstated the draconian Act of 1401, which allowed suspected heretics to be arrested and tried by their bishop in accordance with Church law. If found guilty, the heretic would be handed over to secular powers and burned to death.
Nineteen days later, the body of John Rogers went up in flames. Asked to recant of his beliefs mere hours before his death, Rogers replied, “that which I have preached, I will seal with my blood.”
When the time came to compromise or flee in the face of a hostile culture, John Rogers stood his ground. So it must be with us.
This is a call for the church of the 21st century to meet a rapidly changing culture in the same manner John Rogers met the Marian regime. Rogers did not compromise Biblical principles in the face of increasing persecution from the culture, nor did he cower from it. In a time of subtle but ever surer persecution, the church cannot in any respect compromise the truth revealed by Scripture.
At the same time, the church cannot shut itself off from the world and flee behind a wall of excuses. It cannot turn in on itself, pretending the outside world does not exist. Doing so would be a fearful, cowardly failure of the Great Commission, and directly contrary to the spirit that John Rogers walked with to his death.
John Rogers met his culture head on – without fear, without compromise. We must do the same.