October 31, 1517 is the date most people think of as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—the date that changed Western Christianity forever, when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. But at the time, the publication of Erasmus of Rotterdam's New Testament in the spring of 1516 might have seemed more important.

Today we would call Erasmus's work a "study Bible." It had three parts: the Greek text, which Erasmus edited; his new Latin translation, a more elegant and accurate alternative to the traditional Vulgate; and brief scholarly comments on exegetical issues. Erasmus prefaced this monumental work of scholarship with an exhortation to Bible study. The New Testament, he proclaimed, contains the "philosophy of Christ," a simple and accessible teaching with the power to transform lives.

In words that would become prophetic, Erasmus declared his disagreement with those who wanted to keep the Scriptures from the common people: "If only the farmer would sing something from them at his plow, the weaver move his shuttle to their tune, the traveler lighten the boredom of his journey with Scriptural stories!" Ironically, Erasmus's work was unintelligible to plowmen, or to anyone outside a small intellectual elite: Erasmus wrote exclusively in Latin.

Born in Rotterdam, Erasmus spent his life traveling throughout Europe, living in such cultural centers as Paris, Basel, and the university towns of Italy. Between 1499 and 1517, he spent about five years in Cambridge, England, doing much of the work on his New Testament. In England he found many of his warmest admirers. Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, persecutor of Protestants, and future Catholic martyr, was a close friend, and English aristocrats (including church officials) frequently sponsored Erasmus's work.

Erasmus's ideas dazzled young English intellectuals. Like many of his fellow humanists, he began by studying the pagan classics. He then turned to the New Testament and the church fathers, believing that the Bible and the early church modeled a Christianity with more practical relevance for people's lives than academic speculations or popular rituals.

Bilney's bruised bones

One of the many young scholars whose lives were changed by Erasmus's work was Thomas Bilney, a Cambridge fellow who began reading Erasmus's Latin New Testament for the style, but soon found far greater value in the content. In Bilney's words: "Immediately, I seemed unto myself inwardly to feel a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch as my bruised bones leaped for joy."

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Throughout the early 1520s, Bilney exercised a gentle yet powerful influence at Cambridge. The great preacher and eventual martyr Hugh Latimer, for instance, was converted to evangelical ideas through Bilney. His most influential convert initially, however, was Robert Barnes, who presided over lively theological discussions at the White Horse Inn.

Barnes was Bilney's opposite in personality. The gentle, ascetic Bilney slept only four hours a night and generally ate only one meal a day, saving the other meal for prisoners or other needy folk. He regarded music as a frivolous diversion, and was sorely tried by a neighbor who played the recorder. Barnes, by contrast, was a jolly, talkative Augustinian friar, in his element quaffing beer with friends.

We do not know for sure who took part in the White Horse Inn discussions. But we do know that most of the leading names of early English Protestantism were at Cambridge at some point during the early 1520s, including (besides Bilney, Barnes, and Latimer) Thomas Cranmer and the biblical translators William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale. Through their translation (an important model for the King James Version), Erasmus's wish became reality in England: The Scriptures became the possession of ordinary Christians. But this happened at the cost of Tyndale's life, and he was only one among many of the "Cambridge Reformers" to pay such a price.

Thomas Bilney was the first of these reformers to pay for his beliefs with his life. He became a licensed preacher in 1525, and soon stirred up trouble by exhorting people to pray directly to God rather than asking for the prayers of the saints. Twice angry hearers dragged him from the pulpit. Cardinal Wolsey, the powerful ecclesiastical statesman whose arrogance did much to turn people against the Catholic church, hauled him in on two occasions for interrogation as a Lutheran, and on both occasions Bilney denied the accusation. He even swore an oath not to preach Lutheranism. Eventually, threatened with condemnation as a heretic, Bilney agreed to a public declaration of repentance and reconciliation with the church.

After his release, Bilney was plagued by such deep depression that his friends were afraid he would commit suicide. Convinced that he had denied Christ by confessing that his teaching was heretical, in the end he found peace by seeking a new condemnation.

A faith to die for

Bilney told his friends that he was "going up to Jerusalem," resumed open-air preaching, and began handing out copies of Tyndale's New Testament. He was arrested and condemned to death as a relapsed heretic, though Bilney saw himself not as a rebel against the Catholic church, but as a preacher of evangelical faith within it.

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Thus the spiritual father of so many English Reformers died at the hands of the church he refused to leave, a martyr less to Protestantism (which on many points he never accepted) than to an evangelical faith born of the reading of Scripture and similar in many ways to the reforming Catholicism of Erasmus.

Unlike Bilney, Erasmus was incapable of being a martyr to either Catholicism or Protestantism. He hoped he would be able to die for Christ, he quipped, but was unwilling to die for Luther. The Protestantism that eventually triumphed in England in some ways resembled Erasmus's faith more than Luther's, but it was an "Erasmianism" sanctified by the blood of martyrs.

Continental Protestants have always found such English forms of Protestantism as Anglicanism and Methodism maddeningly untheological, and English-speaking evangelicalism is often faulted for its vague experientialism. But the combination of evangelical piety with what John Wesley called a "catholic spirit" and C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity" remains a living and powerful force today. Bilney's example shows that a piety focused on the study of Scripture and the joyful leaping of bruised bones rather than on theological definitions can also give timid scholars the power to face the flames.

Edwin Woodruff Tait is adjunct professor of history at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.

Related Elsewhere:

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine Christian History & Biography are also available.

Previous Christian History Corners include:

Campus Ministry Cambridge Style | The roots of InterVarsity and other evangelical college clubs (Jan. 6, 2006)
Dorothy Sayers: "The Dogma Is the Drama" | An interview with Barbara Reynolds. (Dec. 16, 2005)
Sharing Stories from the Heart | The lessons of history are fair game for use today. (Dec. 9, 2005)
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 18, 2005)
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Is It Wrong-Headed to Translate the Gospel for Culture? | Christian History Corner takes on the Christ and culture debate. (Oct. 28, 2005)
Old Words, Vibrant Faith | Christian pop/rock band Jars of Clay explains why the church needs more Redemption Songs. (Oct. 21, 2005)
J.S. Bach: For the Glory of God | Such humility is exceedingly rare among those who have gained worldwide fame (Oct. 14, 2005)
Bringing Peace to Paradise | The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past (Oct. 7, 2005)
Emergents, Meet Saints! | The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past (Sept. 30, 2005)
From Mutual Aid to Global Action | How the Anabaptist emphasis on practical acts of love led a tightly knit enclave to reach out to the world. (Sept. 23, 2005)
The Trailblazer | The first evangelical missionary to India set out to prove that the gospel does not destroy culture but transforms it from within. (Sept. 16, 2005)
Reformation Reoriented | Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom evaluate the Catholic/evangelical detente in Is the Reformation Over? (Sept. 2, 2005)
Ministries of Mercy: Mother Teresa | She stirred a generation by touching the untouchables. (Aug. 26, 2005)