Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we remember John Bale, playwright and theologian of the English Reformation.

It is the 21st of November, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Are you familiar with the phrase “cage stage”? If not, you may know the type- usually, the kind of person who discovers a new theological tradition and becomes so enamored with it and zealous about it, they might do well to be kept in a cage for a season to cool off lest they scare people on the patio or start too many fights with co-religionists.

Today, I introduce to you, perhaps, such a character. John Bale was born on this, the 21st of November in 1495, in Suffolk, England- he would take Holy Orders with the Carmelite Monks only to leave them around 1533- he had studied at Cambridge under Thomas Cranmer and came to embrace the Reformation and the Anglican Church that came into existence the following year with King Henry’s break from Rome.

He would then live the life of a mid-century English reformer- chased off the Island as subsequent kings and queens came to rule and support the church of their choice. The very real threat of martyrdom would lead many in the English tradition to follow a kind of “middle way.” This would not be the case with John Bale. He would serve in the Church of England, but he became best known as a playwright and author.

His major biographer, W.T. Davies, wrote that he was the first real scholar in the history of English studies. He made copious notes about English authors from various English monasteries that would later be sold off, and many libraries lost. His collection of Medieval English writers is valuable enough to make him a character worthy of remembrance. One author suggests that he was influenced by Archbishop Matthew Parker, who became a great patron of ancient manuscripts.

He also wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation- in it, he gives the text, then his own paraphrase and notes the contemporary applications- in which, surprise, surprise, the Pope holds the office of Anti-Christ. He would collect stories of martyrs killed by the Roman church and made famous the model used later by John Foxe and his book of Martyrs. There seemed to be no occasion he could ever find to fail to criticize the Catholic Church. The Catholic historian Anthony Wood called him “foul-mouthed Bale” on account of his vituperativeness.

Before the English break with Rome, Bale got in trouble on account of his preaching against the invocation of the Saints. Thomas Cromwell was a fan of Bale’s mystery plays- a late medieval genre and the court released him. These mystery plays were morality tales on stage told through Bible stories. The transition from Medieval to Early modern drama also takes us through Bale’s story. He is credited with writing one of the first English Historical Dramas- a genre perfected by Shakespeare (or so I’m told). And you can bet that he was able to bring Reformation polemics into the story. His most popular play, and one credited with bringing English drama into a new age, was King John.

And you don’t have to ask, “Which King John?” Because in England, there is literally only 1. And you know him, at least through this program, as: 

The breezy and uneasy king of England! The snivellin' grovellin',
 Measly weasly,
 Blabberin' jabberin',
 Gibberin' jabberin', 
Blunderin' plunderin',
 Wheelin' dealin'
 Prince John, that phony King of England!

That’s right! Of Robin Hood fame! But, get this: in Bale’s play, King John is the good guy. He represents a kind of Proto-Protestant who defies the Pope and is accused of being a Lollard (that’s a follower of John Wycliffe).

Add to his lists of “early or first,” he wrote a curious work called “Vocacyon,” an early English autobiography that tells the story of his shipwreck when leaving England with the reign of Queen Mary. In it, he tells his story in parallel to Paul’s shipwreck. So- early autobiography, historical drama, manuscript collection, book of martyrs, commentary on Revelation, and, add to that- one of the translators of the Psalms into the Metrical Psalms for corporate worship. And maybe marred a little by his zeal, one author found him guilty of intolerance and unprovoked persecution. John Bale- born on this day in 1495, died in 1563 at the age of 67.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary and the final benediction from Paul in 1 Thessalonians:

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who only recognizes today as the birthday of Canadian Pop Queen Carly Rae Jepsen- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who says, “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy/but here’s my number, so call me, maybe.” I’m the real Jepsen fan- I’m 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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