Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of the Welsh martyr and controversialist John Penry.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 22nd of March 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Today we head back to Early Modern England to look at the life and death of 30-year-old John Penry. It’s an interesting story that involves a secret printing press, charges of sedition, a tract war, and the religious settlement in Elizabethan England.

With the ascension and long reign of Elizabeth I, it seemed that the tumult caused by Henry VIII and the Reformation would subside. The first half of the 16th century saw five monarchs rule England while the second half saw 1, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.

But there were new problems- stop me if you’ve heard this one before: amongst those who had accepted the Reformation, there was a debate between who accepted it the most, or the best… The Anglican establishment “looked too Catholic” to some- primarily because the priests wore vestments (and they were called priests), and the hierarchy of bishops was still in place.

John Penry was born in 1563 in Wales- he was educated at Cambridge and Oxford. Still, in Northampton, he spent some time communing with radical Presbyterians (those folks only had Presbyters or “elders” and no national hierarchy). When John graduated from Oxford in 1586, he refused to take the usual route of ordination- he instead became a licensed university preacher.

His first book was an attack on the episcopacy (that’s the word for the bishops) and blamed the sorry state of the church in Wales on those bishops. For this, he was arrested and spent a month in jail. Upon his release, he returned to Northampton, was married, and began an association with Robert Waldegrave and his secret printing press.

The underground printing press would be disassembled, moved to new towns, assembled, print, and moved again. The Waldegrave printing press would publish the first of the Martin Marpelate tracts. These were letters from a pseudonymous Puritan called “Martin Marpelate,” who criticized the established Anglican Church. The authors of the Marprelate tracts have never been established with certainty, but Penry was undoubtedly involved in their printing and distribution. Amongst the attacks of Marprelate- the anonymous authors condemned the bishops and vestments of the Anglican Church. The tracts were noted for their wit and their use of satire. Modern commentators have pointed out how this was a novel and effective means of dissent. The use of humor in religious controversy is often more effective than naked condemnation, fire, and brimstone. These tracts were so popular that the crown hired famous authors and satirists to answer the Marprelate tracts under pseudonyms.

In 1589 the press was confiscated, and Penry fled to Scotland. There he wrote and translated Theodore Beza. The future king of England called out his presence- then king of Scotland, James VI (who would be James I of England). King James would later famously express the idea “No Bishop, no King”- that is, he believed the king needed a national system of Bishops to uphold the monarchy. Needless to say, James condemned Penry.

In 1590 John Penry came secretly to England, where he joined the separatists. Someone in the church betrayed him, and it was on this, the 22nd of March in 1593, that he was arrested. His writings were searched, and he was brought up on charges of sedition. The authorities couldn’t find evidence to connect him to the Marprelate tracts, but his association with Waldegrave’s printing press and his past writings against the Episcopacy sealed his fate.

He was sentenced to death and hanged in May. The press referred to his death as “the hanging of Martin Marprelate.” John Penry, the young Welsh separatist martyr, was only 30 years old.

The Last Word for today comes from Jeremiah 17:

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals

and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,

and shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,

in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,

and it does not cease to bear fruit.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 22nd of March 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who knows that the past tense of hang is hung unless you’re talking about the act of killing with a rope: then is it is “hanged.” He is Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose fear of pronouncing Welsh words is off the charts… Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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