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Anecdotes of Church History

1.  THE 4TH ENSIGN OF ROYALTY 

On the day of his coronation Edward VI of England (1500-1515) was presented with three swords that signified his dominion over three kingdoms. Although youthful in years (he was nine!), he proved to be an “old young man,” as the coronation did not swell his pride, nor weaken his mature use of Scripture.  Accordingly, he wisely remonstrated: “There is still one sword missing.” When asked to clarify, he forthrightly answered: “The Holy Bible, which is the ‘sword of the Spirit’ and is to be preferred before these ensigns of royalty.” (p. 62 of The Godly Man’s Picture

2. WILLIAM TYNDALE BETTERS THE PAPISTS 

The great William Tyndale (1500-1565) is famous for translating the Word of God into English from the Hebrew and Greek texts, much to the dismay of the English Roman Catholics, who schemed to seize and then torch (!) as many Tyndale Bibles as possible, even offering compensation for the pleasure. 

A delegate commissioned from the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury (his name being Augustine Packington) and hoping to find the forbidden contraband, boldly chose to travel and confront Tyndale face-to-face (Tyndale having fled to Europe for fear of his life), who when asked who the buyer was, was candidly told: “The bishop of London.” The conversation is recounted by Church historian Roland H. Bainton: 

“Oh, that is because he will burn them,” responded Tyndale. 

“Yea, marry,” quoth [said] Packington. 

“I am the gladder,” surprisingly rejoined Tyndale, “for these two benefits shall come thereof: I shall get money from him for these books and bring myself out of debt, and the whole world shall cry out on the burning of God’s Word, and the overplus of the money that shall remain to me shall make me more studious to correct the said New Testament, and so newly to imprint the same once again; and I trust the second will much better like you than ever did the first.”  

Thus the transaction issued in the bishop getting the books, Packington received the thanks, and Tyndale the money to retire his debts and finance (to the chagrin of Roman Catholics) an even better translation. (The Reformation of the 16th Century, p. 196). 

3. D. MARTYN LLOYD-JONES’ FAUX PAS 

Every preacher of the Gospel has committed a faux pas or two (or three, or four, or five, etc!). D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones was no exception: on one occasion he expressed concern when three ladies attended the third Puritan Conference in 1955, which was tailored to prepare men for the Christian ministry. His reaction was unenthusiastic. He said to J.I. Packer: “They don’t come here to study the Puritans, they’re only here for the men! I know one of them; she’s a member of my church.”  With that, the conference organizer replied: “as a matter of fact, I’m going to marry her” (the woman had accepted his proposal the night before). But without the slightest hesitation, Lloyd-Jones replied: “Well then, you see I was right about one of them; now what about the other?”  

Note: The story is reminiscent of an incident in one of our Reformed churches. A minister was preaching and was moved to say something negative about bad lawyers, even citing William Shakespeare, that we should shoot all the lawyers. But as soon as he unloaded, his conscience smote him, since one of the members was a godly lawyer in attendance. Thus, determining to squirm from the unintended offence, he decided to soften the insult by placing himself before the same firing squad: “And we ought to shoot all the preachers, too.”* 

*For the record, Shakespeare never said “shoot all the lawyers.” The precise wording is: “first, kill all the lawyers,” which was spoken by Dick the Butcher in Henry VI, who complained about good lawyers who opposed graft.   

4. THE MAKING OF THE FILM, MARTIN LUTHER 

Perhaps the most compelling religious film ever made was the black-and-white 1953 movie, Martin Luther, which starred Niall MacGinnis (1913-1977), and was spearheaded by the National Lutheran Council, and then by the Lutheran Church Productions (which included Dr. Oswald C. J. Hoffmann, preacher of the internationally acclaimed, The Lutheran Hour.)   

The choice of MacGinnis to play the lead role was amusingly paradoxical. First and foremost, he was an Irish Roman Catholic! Plus, there was no love lost between him and the Germans as during WWII he served as a doctor in London, where he ministered to people injured in the aerial bombardments. Filmed in Germany, it seemed that on the set his vendetta against all Germans was exasperated whenever he drank wine. When the Germans protested his participation he was nearly cashiered, until he humbled himself and promised to reform.  In the meantime, he was pacified by bottles of Nestle’s coffee which helped him give the ringing performance of his career.  Later in life he–hilariously– even married a German countess!      

Interestingly, the Lutheran Council hired an unbelieving Hollywood dialog director named Charlotte Wanamaker.  Clueless about the on-going grace of God kindled by the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Reformers, she innocently asked, “How could anything that happened 2,000 years ago be of any value today?”   

Before Hoffmann had a chance to respond, the director chimed, “Oh, that doesn’t bother me at all. The light that comes from out there in space comes from a lot longer ago than that!” 

5.  A PREDESTINATED MARRIAGE 

The Rev. Donald Barnhouse (1895-1960) was a colorful and nationally acclaimed Bible-teacher and pastor of the 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  For example, from 1949 to 1960 he conducted The Bible Study Hour from coast-to-coast, preaching consecutively through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Yet, although basking in the radiance of great fanfare, his life was not without internal blood-letting. For example, his first wife, Ruth, died of cancer in 1944, leaving a miserable void, that only a godly helpmeet could fill. Finally, and solely by the grace of God, he found such a woman in the one who would become Mrs. Margaret N. Barnhouse, a Bryn Mawr graduate but nominal Christian, who he discipled with her husband.  Yet, it wasn’t long before Doug and Margaret realized that Dr. Barnhouse’s most poignant need was a companionable wife and they prayed diligently for this happening.  But then the “one event that happens to them all” struck again: Margaret’s husband, Doug, suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving her equally devastated. But all was not lost: when Barnhouse heard of her loss, he immediately contacted her, commiserated, and arranged several in-group rendezvous, the culmination being a stroll across Times Square amidst heavy foot traffic. Separated from their friends by the scurrying pedestrians, he turned, studied her face, and asked: 

“Do you believe in predestination?” 

“What do you mean?” she asked, playing dumb, but almost shocked by the untimeliness of the question.  

“If you don’t know what I mean, I’ll never mention it again, because I don’t want my feelings hurt. But if you do know what I mean…well, later on–at a more appropriate time–we’ll discuss it later.” 

The sequel is that a short time later she was “called to answer my own prayer for a wife for this man.” (from That Man Barnhouse, by Margaret N. Barnhouse) 

6.  ARCHBISHOP THOMAS CRAMNER HIDES HIS WIFE.  

During the days of the Reformation the Reformers used unorthodox means of hiding their wives from civil and church authorities who ruled that marriage among ministers was illegal. Martin Luther, for example, hid his future bride in a herring barrel on a fish cart when she was smuggled out of the nunnery.  Also, in England a clergyman who married could be bloodily whipped, if not killed, if his nuptials were discovered.  Accordingly, Archbishop Cranmer (1489-1556) postured himself to do everything possible to hide his illegal wife from the Church and authorities, even employing more “straitened” means.  For example, after marrying the niece of one of the Continental Reformers, he determined to sequester his spouse safely at home, or– if on the road– employ more extreme measures. To illustrate: he often concealed his spouse in a chest that when turned topsy-turvy caused not a little discomfort for Mrs. Cranmer.  Accordingly, it is suggested that Mrs. Cranmer go down in history as one of the “minor” heroines of the Reformation! 

7.  THE HOLY RAT 

When John Calvin’s closest friend Pierre Viret (1511-1571) was called to pastor in the city of Lausanne, he learned that the region was in a deplorable spiritual condition. To illustrate: it seems that a town in the suburbs had been infested with swarms of June bugs so that the befuddled authorities summoned a monk from Lausanne, who counseled that the people needed to make a procession through the town for three consecutive days. Then, the official would summon every insect to appear before his tribunal and “peremptorily” pronounce a sentence of excommunication! (The effectiveness of this church censure is unknown.) 

On another day a pesky rat managed to wheedle his way into the Lausanne church and was discovered to have gorged the bread of the host. Since the host was believed to be the physical body of Christ, the church christened the rat “the Holy Rat,” and the papists piously cared for the rat his remaining days. When the day of the holy rat’s funeral came, his remains became a sacred relic for generations (Pierre Viret, The Angel of the Reformation, p. 50).     

8.  A ROGUE INTERPRETATION OF LLOYD-JONES’ PALTRY SALARY 

When Dr. David Martyn-Lloyd Jones took up the pastoral reins at Westminster Chapel in London in 1939, he initially assisted G. Campbell Morgan. Campbell, the senior pastor, received 1,000 pounds and Lloyd-Jones 800. Inexplicably (except that the deacons must have slept on the job), Lloyd-Jones’ salary continued on at that precise figure for ten years before they finally raised it 300 pounds.  

Understandably, when an American minister visited England in the late 1940s and heard of Lloyd-Jones’ skimpy salary, he rushed to judgment, even concluding that the Doctor couldn’t be the renowned preacher that everyone raved about! (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981, p. 101). 

9.  THE GOSPEL CANNOT BE IMPRISONED 

The spread of the gospel often thrives when God’s people are imprisoned for the Faith.  This may have started with Joseph and his fourteen-year imprisonment in an Egyptian dungeon (Genesis 39:21-23), or Paul amidst the Roman Praetorium Guard in Philippians 1:12-14, or Paul and Silas and their influence on the Philippian jailer and his family (Acts 16:19-34). Their prison evangelism was not lost on William Tyndale who spread the Gospel to his jailers after being incarcerated for translating the Bible into English. Fox in his Book of Martyrs writes of Tyndale’s impact, especially when behind closed doors: 

“Such was the power of his doctrine, and the sincerity of his life, that during the time of his imprisonment, (which endured a year and a half), it is said he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household. Also, the rest that were with Tyndale conversant in the castle, reported of him, that if he were not a good, Christian man, they could not tell whom to trust.” (William Tyndale: A Biography, David Daniel, 381). 

10.  A NUN IS “BLESSED” 

Brendan Behan (1923-1964) was an Irish playwright and revolutionary, who also authored a number of nonfiction books.  He was a hellion in behavior, whether drunk or sober, and seemed to fear very little. Because of recurring battles with drunkenness, he found himself in and out of hospitals, because the alcohol exasperated his manifold physical woes. On one occasion he was nursed by a Sister, a nursing nun, to whom he said: “Bless you Sister. May all your sons grow up to be bishops.” 

11.  JOHN STOTT’S REPARTEE 

Anglican pastor John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) was preaching an Easter sermon at the All Souls Church, Langham Place in London, when he spoke of the transformation that came upon the disciples after the resurrection, most notably Peter, who was transformed ‘from a rabbit into a lion.’ His metaphor elicited an objection: a literally-minded woman wrote and explained that such a metaphor suggested the transmigration of human souls into animals (a Hindu idea). When questioned by his friends about his response, Stott said: “Oh, I sent her a postcard with the words ‘you cuckoo!'”     

12.  A FAMOUS WELSH SAINT WORKS A REMARKABLE “MIRACLE”  

The supposed miracle-working saint, Beuno, (d. c. 640) was believed to be interred in a Welsh Chapel. As the Chapel was renovated, the workmen broke into his tomb and discovered an intriguing “relic.” When an anthropologist was summoned to study the skeleton, he noted that the pelvis of the saint contained the bones of a fetus. Not in the least intrigued, the leader of the excavation intoned: “Saint Beuno was a very remarkable man.”     

13.  UNFLINCHABLE IN THE FACE OF TORTURE AND DEATH.   

Basil the Great (329-379) was a clergyman in the Eastern Roman empire where he became the celebrated archbishop of Caesarea. In those days the Arian heresy that reduced Christ to a mere creature was rampant so that he was forced to do battle with the Emperor Valens, who threatened him with extreme measures, if he failed to cave to the blasphemy that Christ was less than fully God. Undeterred, he met the Emperor’s threats head on: 

“Well, in truth confiscation means nothing to a man who has nothing, unless you covet these wretched rags and a few books; that is all I possess. As to exile, that means nothing to me, for I am attached to no particular place. That wherein I live is not mine, and I shall feel at home in any place to which I am sent. Or rather, I regard the whole world as belonging to God, and I shall consider myself as a stranger wherever I may be. As for torture, how will you apply it? I have not a body capable of bearing it, unless you are thinking of the first blow you give me, for that will be the only one in your power.  As for death, this will be a benefit to me, for it will take me the sooner to the God for whom I live.”  

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