Biographies from Church History: Part 2 of 3, Thomas Cranmer

25475c7900000578-3603692-thomas_cranmer_pictured_lived_in_the_home_before_henry_viii_made-a-45_1463950655676Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was educated in scholasticism, the Fathers and the Bible at Cambridge. During his education, he was influenced by Erasmus and followed his emphasis on Scripture over scholastic reasoning and preferred conciliarism to papal authority. He accepted justification by faith as the correct exegesis of Paul. Thus, Cranmer was one of the many who advocated for reform of the church in England. In 1532, Cranmer completed a residency in Germany serving as the king’s ambassador to Charles V. While in Germany, he married a relative of the Reformer named Andreas Osiander who further influenced Cranmer’s reform outlook.[1]

When King Henry VIII of England was having personal and political conflict with the Roman Catholic church, he persuaded the pope to name Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury. Thus, King Henry VIII called upon Cranmer to return back to England to work with him under his new developing policies. King Henry VIII sought to reform the church by restoring the rights of the king against the papacy. In 1534, King Henry declared himself as the supreme head of the Church of England resulting in a break from the Roman Catholic church. Cranmer believed that this new national church under the direction of civil authorities would pave the way for theological reform that he had hoped for several years. Although Cranmer tried to persuade King Henry VIII towards theological reform, the Church of England’s official theological position remained Roman Catholic under King Henry VIII. Nevertheless, the reformation ideas of Cranmer and others still spread throughout the nation.[2]

Cranmer ordered that the Bible be translated into English and a copy was to be displayed in every church where people could read it. This empowered the advocates of reform because it enabled them to show the scriptural support for their reformed ideas. The nation at the end of King Henry’s life was ripe for theological reform. Thus, when King Henry’s son Edward VI took the throne and was supportive of reformation ideas, this gave Cranmer the opportunity to reshape the teachings of the Church of England according to his reformed ideas.[3]

thomas_cranmerFirst, Cranmer supervised the development of the Book of Homilies which was a collection of sermons for parish clergy in order to guide them and the church in protestant theology. Second, he created a new national liturgy and ordinal called the Book of Common Prayer which was exclusively in English as opposed to Latin. The Book of Common Prayer emphasized the systematic reading of scripture, scripted prayers and the eucharist. The eucharist was viewed as spiritual in nature, “a holy communion in the heart of the believer through personal faith.”[4] Lastly, Cranmer established the foundation for theological belief through the Articles of Religion. The Articles of Religion affirmed the “orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, the person of Christ and human sinfulness and concerning their particularly Protestant emphasis upon justification by faith, the Scriptures and the two gospel sacraments.”[5]

After King Edward VI died, the Church of England swung back to its Roman Catholic roots under the leadership of King Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. Most of the church reform that took place under King Henry VIII and King Edward VI was undone by Queen Mary and her reign was defined by her repressive measures and persecution against protestants giving her the nickname, “Bloody Mary.”[6] Queen Mary went after Cranmer and had him imprisoned. She wanted Cranmer, as the figurehead of the reform movement, to recant, so she forced him to watch the execution of his friends and bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Cranmer did sign a letter of recantation but was still condemned to death. At the time of his execution by fire, Cranmer publicly withdrew his recantation and condemned his hand to be burned first by the fire. Thus, he stuck his hand in the fire until it was charred, and then the rest of his body was burned in effigy.[7]

Cranmer had a lasting impact on the Church of England, and he continues to have an impact on the present Worldwide Anglican Communion through the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion. While the Book of Common Prayer has undergone several revisions since Cranmer, it still remains a treasured prayer book for Christians across traditions.


[1] J.A. Null, “Cranmer, Thomas (1489-1556)” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition. [2] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity: Vol.2 Reformation to the Present Day, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt. 1, ch. 8, “Henry VIII.” [3] González, The Story, Vol.2, EPUB edition, pt. 1, ch. 8, “Henry VIII.” [4] Null, “Cranmer, Thomas (1489-1556)” in NDT, EPUB edition. [5] Peter Toon, “The Articles and Homilies,” in The Study of Anglicanism, Rev. Edition, edited by Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight (London: SPCK/Fortress Press, 1998), 143. [6] González, The Story, Vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt. 1, ch. 8, “Mary Tudor.”[7] González, The Story, Vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt. 1, ch. 8, “Mary Tudor.”