THOMAS BILNEY, (c. 1495-1531)
A History of Preaching
F. R. Webber

Thomas Bilney was born in or near Norwich about the year 1495. Educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he began the study of law, but soon turned to theology. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1519. It was about this time that he went through a spiritual struggle, due to the fact that he could feel no assurance of forgiveness of sin through fasting and penances. Five letters of Thomas Bilney, addressed to Tunstall, Bishop of London, have survived. He compares his state to the woman in the Scriptures, who spent all that she had with the physicians, but found no help, but rather was she made worse. In like manner, declared Bilney, he had sought help from the priests and friars, but with no results.

"O the mighty power of the Most High!" he continued, "which I also, a miserable sinner, have often tasted and felt; whereas before, I spent all I had upon those ignorant physicians, insomuch that I had little strength left in me. But, at last, I heard of Jesus; and that was when the New Testament was translated by Erasmus; for at that time I knew not what it meant. But looking into the New Testament by God's special providence, I met with those words of the Apostle St. Paul, 'This is a true saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, whereof I am chief.' O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul! This one sentence, through God's instruction, and inward working, did so exhilarate my heart, which before was wounded with the guilt of my sins, and almost in despair, that immediately I found wonderful comfort and quietness in my soul; so that my bruised bones leaped for you.". . .

Thomas Bilney accepted the doctrine of justification by grace through faith and became leader of a group of Cambridge men who were beginning to hold like views. Among those who became followers of Bilney were Thomas Arthur of St. John's, John Lambert of Queen's, and Robert Barnes the prior of the Augustine Friars at Cambridge. Closely associated with Bilney was George Stafford, fellow of Pembroke College, which had become a center of the Reformation movement. As lecturer in divinity he began to give regular expositions of the Gospels and Epistles. There was a nimble-minded young priest who was cross-bearer to the university. His name was Hugh Latimer. In public and in private he annoyed George Stafford, sometimes by his embarrassing questions and again by his witty ridicule. Stafford complained to his friend Thomas Bilney, and Bilney went at once to see young Latimer. Years later Latimer declared that "Master Bilney, or rather Saint Bilney . . . was the instrument by whom God called me to His knowledge; for I may thank him, next to God, for that knowledge that I have in the Word of God; for I was as obstinate a papist as any was in England, insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration was against Philip Melanchthon, and against his opinions." It was in 1524 that Bilney persuaded Hugh Latimer to accept the reformed teachings.

In 1525 Thomas Bilney was licensed to preach, and he went throughout Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, preaching in many places, and with growing popularity. He rejected salvation by works, as well as fastings and pilgrimages, the veneration of relics and the intercession of the saints. However, he clung firmly to his belief in the mass, transubstantiation, the supremacy of the Roman pontiff and the authority of the Latin Church. . . .

Thomas Bilney considered himself a Roman Catholic to the last. He insisted that he accepted all the fundamental teachings of the Church of Rome, but only rejected certain things which he considered contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. In the estimation of Hugh Latimer, Matthew Parker and others, there were few men in Bilney's day who could equal him as a preacher.

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