Matt Felton's Reviews > The Reformation in England, Volume 2 of 2

The Reformation in England, Volume 2 of 2 by Jean-Henri Merle d'Aubigné
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it was amazing

When you think Reformation, to where does your mind turn? Germany no doubt comes first, and well it should. Ground Zero for the Reformation, and home to that Renegade monk who singlehandedly unleashed the Earthquake that shook up Western Civilization. To France and Switzerland we then travel, for there the seismic waves hit next, and there we find the other members of the Reformation’s Mount Rushmore: Zwingli and Calvin.

After that, perhaps the tour ends for most of us. But we ought to turn to England! England’s Reformation story begins a bit later, but becomes every bit as important to the World’s stage of religion. Oh, and it contains 10x the drama and charm! Consider a few of the reasons:

-The religious struggle in England was more closely tied to the Crown.
-The Crown was worn by a man – King Henry VIII – who took 6 successive wives, and then 2 of those wives’ heads.
-The Crown of England ultimately seesawed the entire nation back and forth between Medieval Roman Catholicism, and this radical new movement called Protestantism, sometimes getting awkwardly stuck in between.

It’s no coincidence that this era of this nation is common fodder for television and film series to this day (even when historical accuracy is often questionable). The English version is the Reformation’s Soap Opera.

And so we come to perhaps the most exhaustive treatment of the English Reformation, in J.H. Merle d’Aubigne’s (henceforth, JHMd’A) two volume “The Reformation in England,” recently reprinted and republished by Banner of Truth. JHMd’A was a Swiss Evangelical Protestant, and Historian extraordinaire of the Reformation (though not exclusively the English iteration). A contemporary of Spurgeon (in fact, he once spoke as a guest to Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, and later returned the favor in hosting Spurgeon to preach from Calvin’s pulpit in Geneva), JHMd’A wrote on the English Reformation more than 3 Centuries removed from the events themselves (but still 1.5 centuries ago for us today).

The chronological flow of the narrative is a bit like the Pentateuch, sweeping across hundreds and thousands of years in mere pages, before zooming in on a particular era & set of characters and staying there. In the Pentateuch, the panorama stops and stays on the Exodus and subsequent movement to Canaan (the “Age of Moses”). In JHMd’A, the panorama is fast moving from the start: pp.1-90v1 cover all of the 2nd-15th Centuries (Here we meet ancient British characters like Succat, more commonly known as St Patrick!). But then on p.94v1, we meet the young Prince Henry, whose era becomes the focal point of the rest of this substantial 2-volume work, which ends at his deathbed. Approximately 900 pages, then, follow the “Age of Henry”!

What follows isn’t a proper review, or even really a summary. Rather, a simple tracing of some of the major patterns and themes that struck me over the course of reading, with some corresponding reflections for Christian life and ministry today.


If you only know the Reformation from a distance, you’ll probably be surprised at how often the “good guys” fall and fail throughout this Reformation story. There’s a striking pattern repeating itself across these volumes, of men and women who: stood strong for the gospel → shockingly stumbled in fear → regained their courage, and finished well. Consider but a few of the many examples:

-Thomas Bilney and Hugh Latimer – the “Cambridge Evangelicals” – both preached forth an Evangelical storm, fearlessly combatting Roman errors and superstitions, and holding forth the true Gospel. Bilney eventually found himself in the London Tower 1527, and opted to prolong his life by recanting his (Evangelical) “errors.” Latimer similarly delighted the Catholic world by signing documents upholding doctrines he’d long condemned (p.98v2). Both Bilney and Latimer would later stand firm, even to the death, Latimer uttering his famous “Play the Man!” line to his friend Nicholas Ridley before both were burned at the stake.
-James Bainham, ardent Evangelical lawyer, after standing firm even to the breaking of his limbs, inexplicably later caved beneath further Catholic pressures (p.103v2).
-And then there’s the great Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and a crucial figure throughout the story, who seemed to waiver and compromise a thousand times over throughout the course of his life. [But see JHMd’A’s insightful commentary: “So long as Henry VIII was on the throne of England, Cranmer was the only possible reformer. A John the Baptist, a Knox would have been dashed to pieces at the first Shock.” (p.352v2) And, “God gives to every people and to every epoch the man necessary to it. Cranmer was this man for England, at the time of her separation from the papacy.” (p.217v2)]

The good guys kept stumbling! The Reformation of England is filled with men playing the part of Stephen: eyes to the heavens, praying for enemies, even as they receive the blow of death. But before those final moments, so many of these men played the part of Peter: denying their Lord in a moment of weakness.

Watching this pattern repeatedly unfold, the reader ought to simultaneously take heart, but also beware. Take heart, because God really does use crooked sticks to draw straight lines. Heroes of yesterday are beset with sin and weakness just like we are today. God can work through our frailty, just as He worked mightily through theirs. But beware. If these giants fell under the fires of persecution, how much more ought we to fear and distrust ourselves? The fall of the mighty should caution us far more than it should license us. God help us, by His Spirit to endure.

One of the more tragic stories of this entire narrative is that of Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of York and close associate to the King. And not simply because Wolsey, to his death, opposed the work of the Gospel; but also because of his agonizing and frustrated pursuit of power that ultimately left Wolsey a frustrated and embittered dying man. Wolsey desired the Papacy, and at different times thought it to be within his grasp, but always wound up falling short. And above all, Wolsey desired to ingratiate himself to the King - but wound up accused of treason by the man he gave his life to please.

Pastors don’t play well with power. And they weren’t meant to! The way of the ministry is always the way of the Cross: servanthood, suffering, and even “foolishness” (1 Cor.1:26-31; “The purest church is the church under the cross.” p.476v1). When that becomes reversed – when Ministries become platforms for the pursuit of power – the Gospel is turned on its head. That lesson is etched across these pages again and again.

Granted, this lesson is in some ways uniquely tied to the historical context, where Religion and the State were so entwined. Nevertheless, it is a lesson most urgent for today, even where Church and State are separated. For instance, there is currently a culture of celebrity pervading the pastorate. There may be but a few true “celebrities” in the pastorate, but the depth and reach of the problem can easily be seen by how many more desire and pursue celebrity, whether outright or through an aesthetic. That is the new norm, at least in America, and that culture desperately needs to heed this lesson.

NOTE: This also works in the reverse. Pastors don't play well with power, and nor does power play well with the pastorate. This can be seen most obviously through Henry himself, who basically attempted to assert himself as England’s “Pope-King,” going so far at one point as to actually try a man named Lambert over the doctrine of the Real Presence (see p.377v2). King becomes ecclesiastical Judge, “heresy” becomes treason, and heretics lose their heads!

It is by now an ancient debate whether the Reformation was itself first a religiously or politically inspired movement. JHMd’A is very concerned with that debate, but from a specific angle: one of the central theses of the entire work is to prove that Henry (and Henry’s political regime) was not the primary cause of the Reformation (see for instance, pp.456v1, 476v1, 325-326v2, 451v2).

JHMd’A’s portrait of Henry is complex, and finally negative. Henry was an impulsive tyrant, for whom friend could become foe in an instant. Henry executed Protestants, Catholics, friends and wives all by the throngs. But all that serves to make a powerful point: it was under and through this man that God changed the course of English history for His glory. It was in spite of this man’s tyranny that the Gospel permeated England.

Again, this is an urgent lesson for us today, and especially in America given the political climate at present. Through Cyrus God decreed the rebuilding of His temple, and through Henry (or, in spite of Henry) England ultimately became Protestant. God can and does use (even wicked) rulers to accomplish His purposes. He is the King of Kings, and loves to display His sovereign rule in the most unexpected of ways.

One of my favorite stories of the Reformation is Zwingli’s scorn towards those accusing him of being “Lutheran.” Zwingli was either a plagiarist in denial, or he and Luther were simply arriving at the same (Gospel) doctrines because it really was in the well of Scripture from which they were plumbing. It was the Word doing its work, in totally separate places!

So what about in England? JHMd’A’S summary answer: “Thus the English reformation began independently of those of Luther and Zwingli – deriving its origin from God alone. In every province of Christendom there was a simultaneous action of the Divine word. The principle of the reformation at Oxford, Cambridge, and London was the Greek New Testament, published by Erasmus.” (p.145v1) It’s the same story, sweeping across Europe: the Word did it, the Word did it!

One of the more climactic moments of the entire work – and a personal favorite along the journey – is when Henry sanctions the distribution of the English Bible. The Word of God was finally unleashed to the masses. I cannot but quote at length here:

“Aged persons learnt their letters in order to study the Holy Scriptures of God. In many places there were meetings for reading; poor people clubbed their savings together and purchased a Bible, and then in some remote corner of the church, they modestly formed a circle, and read the holy book between them. A crowd of men, women, and young folks, disgusted with the barren pomp of the altars, and with the worship of dumb images, would gather round them to taste the precious promises of the gospel. God himself spoke under the arched roofs of those old chapels or time-worn cathedrals, where for generations nothing had been heard but masses and litanies. The people wished, instead of the noisy chants of the priests, to hear the voice of Jesus Christ, of Paul and of John, of Peter and James. The Christianity of the apostles reappeared in the church.” (p.353v2)

God’s Word contains God’s Gospel, which is God’s power (Romans 1:16). That is the power that changed England – and all of Europe – and it’s the same power we have to unleash today. We ought to beg God’s forgiveness for taking His precious Word – lost for so long to Europe and so available to us today – for granted.


This hefty 2-volumes, sadly, represents an unfinished work, as d’Aubigne unexpectedly died before finishing. We are left to wonder – and lament not knowing – where and how JHMd’A might’ve concluded his masterpiece. And yet, in God’s providence, perhaps there’s something strangely fitting about the ending as we have it. So much of JHMd’A’s story revolves around Henry, analyzing him backwards and forwards to show that he was not, finally, the cause of the Reformation in England. The story ends with his death – but not before, one last time, striking the same chord (see p.501v2). With this providential ending, JHMd’A reiterates one of his central themes: Henry wasn’t the author of the English Reformation. We are left, as it were, with one implied conclusion: the English Reformation was God’s, and God’s alone.
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Reading Progress

June 4, 2016 – Started Reading
June 4, 2016 – Shelved
June 14, 2016 –
page 83
June 14, 2016 –
page 99
June 15, 2016 –
page 119
June 19, 2016 –
page 136
June 19, 2016 –
page 136
June 19, 2016 –
page 136
June 20, 2016 –
page 152
June 20, 2016 –
page 168
July 14, 2016 –
page 187
July 24, 2016 –
page 205
August 4, 2016 –
page 212
August 13, 2016 –
page 237
August 14, 2016 –
page 257
August 25, 2016 –
page 307
August 26, 2016 –
page 330
August 28, 2016 –
page 370
August 31, 2016 –
page 399
September 1, 2016 –
page 411
September 2, 2016 –
page 427
September 2, 2016 –
page 435
September 3, 2016 –
page 460
September 3, 2016 –
page 466
September 4, 2016 –
page 479
September 9, 2016 – Finished Reading

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