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What do we owe to the Reformation?

By J. C. Ryle


"For one thing the Reformation delivered England from gross religious ignorance and spiritual darkness.

No doubt there was a professing Church of Christ in the land when Henry VIII ascended the throne. But, for any useful and soul saving purposes the English Church was practically dead, and if St. Paul had come out of his grave and visited it, I doubt if he would have called it a Church at all. The plain truth is that it was a Church without a Bible; and such a Church is as useless as a lighthouse without a light - a candlestick without a candle - or a steam engine without fire.

As to the CLERGY, as a general rule, their religion was the merest form, and scarcely deserved to be called Christianity at all. As to the LAITY, it is not too much to say that the bulk of them, except in the hour of trial, sickness and death, had no religion at all.

For another thing, the Reformation delivered England from the most grovelling, childish and superstitious practices in religion. I allude especially to the worship of RELICS. Destitute of the slightest scriptural knowledge, our forefathers were taught by the priests to seek spiritual benefit from the so-called relics of dead saints, and to treat them with divine honour.

At Reading Abbey, in Berkshire, the following things, among many others, were exhibited by the monks on great occasions, and most religiously honoured by the people. An angel with one wing - the spearhead which pierced our Saviour's side - two pieces of the Holy Cross - St. James' hand - St. Philip's stole - a bone of Mary Magdalene, and a bone of Salome.

At Bury St. Edmunds … the coals that roasted St. Laurence, the parings of St. Edmund's toe nails, Thomas a 'Becket's penknife and boots, and as many pieces of our Saviour's cross as would have made, if joined together, one large whole cross.

Records like these are so amazingly silly, as well as painful, that one hardly knows whether to laugh or to cry over them. But it is positively necessary to bring them forward, in order that men might know what was the religion of our forefathers in the days when Rome ruled the land before the Reformation.

For another thing, the Reformation delivered England from the degrading tyranny and swindling impostures of the priesthood.

In the last days of the Pope's supremacy in this land, the laity were thoroughly "sat upon" by the clergy, and could hardly call their souls their own. One great object which the priests steadily kept in view was to enrich the Church and to fill the pockets of their own order. To accomplish this end they employed many devices. Sometimes they persuaded tender-hearted, affectionate persons to give money to get the souls of their relatives out of Purgatory by procuring Masses to be said for them. Sometimes they induced dying sinners to give vast tracts of land for abbeys and monasteries, in order to atone for their bad lives.

The other object, which they never forgot for a moment was to keep their own power. For this purpose they claimed to hold the keys of heaven literally and really. To them confession must be made. Without their absolution and extreme unction (last rites), no professing Christian could be saved. Without their masses no soul could be redeemed from Purgatory. To please and honour them were the first duties; to injure them was the greatest of sins.

The Reformation delivered England from the worst plague that can afflict a nation, I mean the plague of unholiness and immorality among the clergy.

The lives of the clergy, as a general rule, were simply scandalous, and the moral tone of the laity was naturally at the lowest ebb. The parochial priesthood became unhappily notorious for gluttony, drunkenness and gambling. " … loiterers of the alehouse bench - dicers, scarce able to say by rota their paternoster (Our Father), often unable to repeat the Ten Commandments - Mass priests who could just read their breviaries and no more - men often dubbed by the uncomplimentary names of Sir John Lack-Latin, Sir John Mumble-Mattins, or Babbling and Blind Sir John.

The very carvings still extant in some old ecclesiastical buildings tell a story in stone and wood which speak volumes to this day. Friars were often represented in those carvings as foxes preaching with the neck of a stolen goose peeping out of the hood behind - as wolves giving absolution, with a sheep muffled up their cloaks - as apes sitting by a sick man's bed, with a crucifix in one hand and with the other in the sufferer's pocket.

But the blackest spot on the character of our pre-reformation clergy in England is one of which it is painful to speak. I mean the impurity of their lives and their horrible contempt of the Seventh Commandment. The results of auricular confession, carried on by men bound by their vow never to marry, were such that I dare not enter into them. The consequences of shutting up herds of men and women in the prime of life, in monasteries and nunneries were such that I will not defile my paper by dwelling upon them.

But what shall we say to the modern proposals to give up the principles of the Reformation, and to return to the communion of the Church of Rome? What shall we say indeed! I say the man who makes such a proposal must have taken leave of his senses, or be utterly ignorant of the facts of history. Let the Israelite return to Egypt, if he will. Let the prodigal go back to his husks among the swine. Let the dog return to his vomit...we owe a debt to the Reformation for having delivered us from an enormous mass of evil"


Thank God for an open Bible,

                                                                                    Thank God for the men so true -                                                                                    
Wycliffe, Tyndale and Cranmer,
And a host of others too;
Some of them poor and humble.
Yet each one bearing a part
In that grand Reformation
Which reached old England's heart;
Driving away her darkness,
Opening her eyes to see
The errors that had bound her,
And the way to liberty.
Thank God for an open Bible!
Shall we not firmly hold
The precious truths they stood for,
Those martyr-saints of old?
Though dead they yet are speaking,
My friends, to you and me -
"We died to disperse the darkness,
We died to make men free.
Hold fast the truths we bought you,
Through flood and flame and sword;
Use well your open Bible,
Author unknown

Taken from Bishop Ryle's booklet: "What Do We Owe To The Reformation?" 

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