Protestant Profiles #9: John Bradford

John Bradford (1510-1555) 


Born: Manchester, England
English Reformer, preacher, royal chaplain, martyr
Theological Emphases: repentance; holiness of life
Protested against: neglect of true religion and God’s Word; “insatiable covetousness,” “filthy carnality” and “intolerable ambition and pride” of the English court.[1];  papal authority; transubstantiation

John Bradford had a relatively short life and an even shorter ministry as a preacher and reformer. He was converted in 1547, in his mid-late thirties; pursued the ministry a couple of years later and was burned at the stake on heresy charges at the age of 45. But the impact of his life, character and ministry have had a profound impact on English Christians in the centuries since his martyrdom.

Bradford’s name is lesser known today than those of several of his friends, associates and ministry partners. He was the junior of the more famous English Reformer-martyrs Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. He accompanied Martin Bucer (a continental Reformer cum theology professor in the English Reformation and contemporary of Luther and Calvin) to a meeting with Peter Martyr Vermigli (an imminent Italian Reformer and another contemporary of Luther, Calvin et. al) in 1550. And he was a chaplain for a short time to the famous Protestant king Edward VI.

But Bradford himself was known as powerful preacher in his day and was remembered by later Christian generations in his homeland for his great personal piety. Thomas Watson, a Puritan who did most of his own ministry a century after Bradford’s death said: “It is said of holy Bradford, that preaching, reading, and prayer were his whole life.”

In a biographical sketch, John Brentnall adds to this picture of piety:

In all the extant biographies of England’s worthies, we rarely hear of one who was ‘more devout and godly’ than the writer ever knew, who not only led ‘a heavenly life himself’, but also ‘very earnestly and heartily’ laboured ‘to persuade others’ to do the same. Yet such a man was John Bradford – scholar, royal chaplain, itinerant preacher, contender for the true faith and martyr.[2]

What was it about Bradford that made him so esteemed as a model for godliness? Accounts of his life attest to a deep and serious awareness of his own sinfulness and an earnestness in repentance and prayer. Watson again: “It is reported of Bradford, the martyr, that he was of a melting spirit; he seldom sat down to his meal but some tears trickled down his cheeks.” Watson also notes that Bradford would sign off his letters as “The most hard-hearted-sinner.”

His piety was also expressed in his fearless preaching. Brentnall says:

All who heard Bradford, including enemies, agreed on the quality of his preaching and the godliness of his life. His ‘passionate earnestness’ spared the sins of neither rich nor poor, while with bold single-mindedness he rebuked the worldliness of courtiers. Indeed, he was most forthright when attacking the greed and ambition of men in power under Edward VI.[3]

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs confirms this testimony:

Sharply he opened and reproved sin, sweetly he preached Christ crucified, pithily he impugned heresies and errors, earnestly he persuaded to godly life.[4]

Bradford’s unfettered proclaiming of God’s Word was part of what helped the Reformation continue to progress in England. It is also a significant factor that led to his arrest and execution by the authorities shortly after the Catholic Mary’s accession to the throne.

Bradford was arrested on trumped up sedition charges and later accused of heresy as well. He steadfastly refused to recant the Protestant faith or to seek the Queen’s mercy – as he rejected the accusation that he had done anything wrong. He was burned in July 1555, preaching from the stake to the largest crowd ever to gather for such an execution. Among his final exhortations was: “O England, England, repent thee of thy sins, repent thee of thy sins. Beware of idolatry, beware of false antichrists.”

Sometime before he knew he would face death, he wrote about the need for Christians not to fear it, but to be prepared for it:

Let death be premeditated, not only because it comes uncertainly (I mean with respect to the time, for aside from that, death is most certain) but also because it helps much to the contempt of this world (out of which, just as nothing will go with you, so also you can take nothing with you).

Because [premeditating on death] helps with the mortifying of the flesh, which when you feed, you do nothing else but feed worms. Because it helps with the well disposing and due ordering of the things you have in this life. Because it helps to repentance, to bring you to the knowledge of yourself, that you are but earth and ashes, and it brings you to know God better.[5]

Bradford is also notable as one of the possible sources of the famous phrase: “There, but for the grace of God go I.” He is said to have uttered similar words while witnessing the execution of violent criminals.

Here is an example of a man who grasped the innate depravity of the human heart, just as his forebears Calvin, Augustine and Paul had. Here was a reformer who echoed Luther’s powerful emphasis on continual, heartfelt repentance. His personal piety and powerful preaching are Reformation truth on fire and in action.

We need evangelical Protestants like Bradford, who will live and die daily for Christ and perhaps lose their earthly life for the sake of His name – all the while striving to make him known in our nations.

You can read a fuller biography of John Bradford here.
Or you can read his works online here.


“John Bradford” wikipedia


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