Thomas Cranmer had the misfortune of being archbishop of Canterbury for King Henry VIII, but he survived by bending to the wind. He approved the king’s divorces. He condemned the king’s wives when necessary. He renounced the pope when expedient. He took no heroic stands.

But Thomas grew as the years passed. He composed and compiled The Book of Common Prayer and increasingly loved Reformation theology. When young King Edward died, Thomas sought to deny the throne to fiercely Catholic Mary.

Mary nevertheless assumed rule, and she forced the archbishop to watch as his two best friends, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake. Thomas was imprisoned and subjected to torture. After months of coercion, the old cleric broke down and signed a series of recantations. Queen Mary then planned a spectacle: Cranmer publicly reading his recantations and reaffirming loyalty to the pope and queen at the church of St. Mary’s.

On the eve of the spectacle, March 20, 1556, Thomas sat wearily at a small desk in an Oxford jail reading the speech planned for the next morning. His hand slowly gripped a pen, trembled, and started writing a second version.

The next day was cold and rainswept. Thomas was escorted to St. Mary’s with the two speeches secretly stowed in his shirt. He rose to speak, saying, I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I ever said or did in my life, and that is setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth.… He declared that his recantations had been signed under duress, and he boldly embraced the pure gospel.

Guards rushed through the aisles. Thomas was pulled from the pulpit and hustled to the stake. As the fire was lit, the old man thrust his arm into the flames, saying that the hand that had signed the recantations should be the first to burn.

Thomas Cranmer had waited till the last day of his life to be heroic. But it was the last day that counted.

When the council members heard Stephen’s speech, they were angry and furious. But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. He looked toward heaven, where he saw our glorious God and Jesus standing at his right side. (Acts 7:54,55)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.20.

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