We often overlook the failures of our heroes. Martin Luther’s antisemitic comments do not inspire us to defend the gospel, so we tell the story of his heroic stand at the Diet of Worms. John Wesley’s failure to be a loving husband doesn’t motivate us to pray for revival, so we tell of the stirring crowds who rushed to know how they could be saved after hearing of the new birth in Christ. We drool over the multi-volume sets of so-and-so’s “works,” dumbfounded by such productivity, never considering what these writers might have neglected at home or in their church in order to be so productive in print.

But Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury (b. July 2, 1489; d. March 21, 1556), will never enjoy the luxury of having his failures overlooked. His greatest public failure is closely related to why we still remember his story.

On this day, 456 years ago, Cranmer burned as a heretic to Roman Catholics and a martyr to Protestants.

Deep and Sustaining Influence

Many of us may cringe at the decisions Cranmer made in order to bring the Reformation to England, following the legacy of Luther and guidance of the Continental Reformers. He helped assemble the case for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, leading to the separation of the Church of England with the Holy See. And he supported the principle of Royal Supremacy, which gave the throne legal sovereignty over the Church in England.

Though Cranmer’s tight marriage of church and state may offend American sensibilities, he was, of course, a man of his times. The Reformation was closely related to the growing phenomenon of nationalism in Western Europe.

But Cranmer was also a pastor who slowly and patiently brought reform to the Church of England through sermons and letters. He wrote the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer and contributed to and compiled the two-volume Book of Homilies, a collection of teaching based on robust Protestant theology. Beyond teaching the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone, the book also included pastoral instruction on things like how to read the Bible, how to guard against idleness, and how to pray.

Cranmer’s legacy of pastoral and theological reformation in the Church of England was the basis for the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Anglican statement of faith. Cranmer, the most important figure for the English Reformation of the 16th century, paved the way for the Puritan movement of the 17th century.

Complicated Death

But when Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) took the throne, Cranmer’s influence and reforms were immediately halted. As Mary reversed the English Reformation, persecuting Protestants, Cranmer encouraged colleagues such as Peter Martyr to flee to the continent and take refuge with pastors and theologians who had stayed with them as refugees just one generation earlier before. But Cranmer stayed.

Almost immediately after saying farewell to Martyr, Cranmer was imprisoned with his friends Hugh Latimer and Nichols Ridley. The three were condemned for treason. Latimer and Ridley were taken immediately for execution; Cranmer was forced to watch their burning. The church situation was desperate. Cranmer smuggled out a letter to Martyr. “I pray that God may grant that we may endure to the end!” he wrote, foreshadowing a tragic series of events for Cranmer.

Between January and mid-February 1556, Cranmer gave way to pressure to recant his Protestantism and submit to papal authority. After privately recanting, he was required to explain himself in the pulpit of University Church, Oxford.

Much to the surprise of the throne, Cranmer publicly denounced his private recantations. He also denied papal authority, and, knowing that he would immediately be executed, declared that he would punish the hand that originally signed the recantations by burning it first.

Pulled from the pulpit, Cranmer was tied to the stake where his companions Latimer and Ridley died just five months earlier. Fulfilling his words, he stuck his hand in the fire first, crying out as he died, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. . . . I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Theological Backbone

To accuse Cranmer of lacking courage is to ignore his reforms in Britain and the shelter he offered Continental Reformers. Nevertheless, fear got the best of him, and for a period of time, he recanted all his life’s labors. It’s hard to say whether it was the fear of the flame or man that made him cave.

Cranmer’s death is complicated. He didn’t die abandoning his faith, but his behavior in the months before his death doesn’t exactly neatly identify him as a hero. Martyrdom without previous recantations is a much easier, more inspiring story to tell. We wish the story worked out differently, and I’m sure Cranmer felt the same way.

Within some Protestant and Catholic circles, Cranmer was an opportunist, tilting whichever way the theological windmill blew. To others, he was a victim of Catholic propaganda.

But Cranmer’s death resembles many ordinary stories where Christian leaders needed to stiffen their backbones but didn’t. We wish we had taken a stronger stance, not capitulated so much, been a bit clearer without so much backtracking. It’s likely that none of us will have entire reformations pending upon our decisions. But all Christian leaders must be courageous and ambitious, looking to Christ for our security and humbly admitting when we’re wrong.