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St. Robert Barnes, Martyr

Today is the 475th anniversary of the martyrdom of Robert Barnes, English Lutheran reformer and personal friend of Luther.

Barnes, who had served as an Augustinian prior, was one of the Cambridge scholars who gathered at the White Horse Inn for theological study and discussion. He received his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1523, and was arrested and brought before Cardinal Wolsey for preaching a Lutheran sermon in 1526. Given the choice of recanting or being burned at the stake, Barnes chose the former, and was committed once again to the Augustinian monastery. He escaped to Antwerp, however, and proceeded from there to Wittenberg, where he met Luther and was a guest in his home. While there, he also made the acquaintance of Stephen Vaughn, an agent of Thomas Cromwell. Barnes made a good impression on Vaughn, who recommended him to Cromwell. Commenting on a book Barnes had written, he wrote prophetically to the Protestant who would replace Wolsey as Henry VIII's chancellor, "Look well. It is such a piece of work as I have not yet seen any like it. I think he shall seal it with his blood."

Barnes became one of the intermediaries between Luther and the princes who supported him on one hand, and Henry VIII on the other. He was sent by Henry to Wittenberg to attempt to obtain Luther's support for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. His mission failed miserably; Luther- with his typical lack of diplomacy- began his letter to the newly divorced and remarried Henry, "Martin Luther, by the grace of God minister at Wittenberg, to Henry, to the disgrace of God King of England, greetings."

Forced again to apologize and recant after attacking Catholic Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Barnes reverted to Lutheranism when Cromwell was made Earl of Essex and Bishop Sampson, one of Gardiner's closest friends, was sent to the tower. But the king's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves sealed the fate of both Cromwell and Barnes. Cromwell was deposed, and on July 30, 1540 Barnes was burned at the stake at Smithfield, London. Fellow Lutherans William Jerome and Thomas Gerrard were burned with him. Catholics Thomas Abel, William Fetherstone and Edward Powell were hanged for treason in denying Henry's claim to be head of the English church at the same time.

Barnes- not always the most tactful man during his life- died with sublime courage. His eloquent final words proclaimed his firm adherence to the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ's sake alone, and scores of onlookers were said to have been converted to Lutheranism by his words and by the manner of his death. When word reached Wittenberg, Luther openly mourned the passing of the man he called "this blessed martyr, St. Robertus."

Seldom remembered today, and like all of the Lutheran martyrs for some reason omitted from the Lutheran calendar, Barnes remains an outstanding figure in the history of the English Reformation and of the Lutheran church. His story should be more widely known.

Praise, too, for England's martyr
Of brighter faith than fame,
Whose witness to the Gospel
Glowed brightest in the flame.
Lord, grant that our confession,
Like Robert's, may inspire
In other hearts the kindling
Of Your most holy fire!

-A verse for For All Your Saints in Warfare, LSB 517-518.



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