“Good people! I have taught you nothing but God’s holy Word, and those lessons that I have taken out of God’s blessed book, the holy Bible. I have come here today to seal it with my blood.” —Dr. Rowland Taylor, 1555
Dr. Rowland Taylor was the parish clergyman of the flock in Hadley, Suffolk in the mid-1500’s. Hadley was one of the first towns in England to receive the Word of God, and this was followed by flourishing in the town in both education and spirituality. This was due largely in part to Dr. Taylor’s work among the people as their shepherd.
And he truly was their shepherd. When he was given charge of the church in Hadley, it would have been common to assign someone else to look after it, but Taylor did not do this. Instead, he took the call personally, modelling the condescending love of Christ by leaving his high position in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s house and moving to the parsonage in Hadley to live among the people.
By all accounts, Dr. Taylor was a godly and humble shepherd, caring for his flock in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. The same could be said of his role as father and husband. He disposed his duties effectively and lovingly, earning the favor of his people.
Bloody Mary and the Catholic turn
All was peaceful and quiet during the rule of Edward VI. But when Edward died in 1553 his half-sister who would become known as “Blood Mary” took her seat on the throne. During her reign, the Church of England faced great upheaval as she sought a return to the ways of the Roman Catholic Church where the pope reigned as supreme.
Though most everyone in Taylor’s flock regarded him highly and they held to the true Word of God there were still some papal sympathizers. On the Tuesday before Easter of 1555, two of these sympathizers hired a parson from another town who was keen to follow Mary’s new direction to hold a mass in the Roman Catholic tradition. Dr. Taylor saw this as an affront not only to his authority as the shepherd in Hadley, but to the authority of the very Word of God, as he saw the Roman mass to be an idol-filled event. Taylor barged in on the visiting parson’s mass and demanded to be told why this man was holding mass in his church and infecting the minds of his people.
A summons to death
Predictably, this did not go over well with the Catholic parson, and he accused Taylor of being a heretic and traitor. The two parishioners that betrayed Taylor then wrote a letter to the bishop and Lord Chancellor informing him of Taylor’s accusations. Taylor was subsequently summoned to appear before the bishop to give an account of what happened in Hadley. This summons was clearly a call to death in that day, as those close to Taylor knew. As such, they urged him to flee. But he would not even consider it, saying,
“Dear friends, I most heartily thank you for so tenderly caring for me. And although I know that I can look for neither justice nor truth at the hands of my adversaries, I know that my cause is so good and righteous, and the truth so strong on my side, that by God’s grace I will go and appear before them and resist to their faces their false doings.”
Three marks of righteous faith
In this amazing statement, Taylor revealed three things about his faith that were directly informed by the suffering servant Jesus. First, he was gracious to his friends and his enemies. He knew his friends’ trust was not in God when they begged him to flee, but he thanked them for their care of him. He knew he would not get fair treatment where he was headed, but he obliged his enemies request anyway.
Second, Taylor knew that his cause was righteous. Just like Jesus, Taylor knew he would not be heard or respected by his enemies, but he was confident in the righteous cause of upholding the Word of God and the reward for staying the course.
And third, Dr. Taylor believed the Truth of God’s Word was worth dying for. He knew that this was not simply a matter of political and ecclesiastical proceedings, but that something far more important was at stake – the very Word of God. He knew that if he gave in to the Roman way he would be compromising Jesus’ Way and forfeiting all the progress he had seen in his people through Christ.
A dead man burning
Following the proceedings in the bishop’s presence, Taylor was sentenced to prison for two years, and then sentenced to be burned to death. Throughout the prison sentence and leading up to his death, Taylor’s faith did not waiver, and he even saw several of those keeping watch over him come to faith in Christ. As he approached the stake at which he would be burned, Taylor kissed it and then hopped into the barrel of pitch that would fuel his fate.
He then folded his hands, looked up at heaven, and started praying. His captors bound him to the stake with chains and ridiculed him once more. Then the flames were lit at the foot of the righteous Dr. Taylor, but even now he stood still with his hands folded, neither crying nor moving, praying all the while. This enraged his tormentors so greatly that they clubbed him violently on the head, splitting it open.
Dr. Rowland Taylor, parish clergyman, slumped over into the flames, a dead man burning.
Reactions to Dr. Taylor’s persecution
The reactions to Taylor’s persecution were mixed. All those who knew him were grieved, save the two parishioners who betrayed him. Taylor’s wife was steadfast in her faith as she watched her husband be falsely accused, imprisoned, and brutally murdered. Those Dr. Taylor cared for were rightfully overwhelmed by what they saw happening to him, but they were less faithful in how they handled those feelings. Several times leading up to his execution, those close to him urged him to flee. They let their feelings for the man overshadow their faith in Christ.
The Church of England’s reaction to Taylor’s claims of popish-idolatry was harsh, seeing as they were the persecutor. But those who would be closest to Taylor over the course of his prison sentence and execution were at times overwhelmed by the love and power of Christ they saw working in him, moving some of them to become believers or to weep at what they were doing to him.
The results of Dr. Taylor’s persecution
The results of Dr. Taylor’s persecution and martyrdom were also mixed. The true Church certainly took a blow, losing a faithful shepherd as the so-called “Church” expanded its influence. The faith of some increased, including those who previously did not know Christ among Taylor’s guards. The faith of at least some of his parishioners diminished leading up to his execution, as they sought his safety rather than God. But perhaps as they saw his faith carry him through to the end they were emboldened to live a life of righteous faith as well.
Perhaps most importantly, the Kingdom of God grew through Taylor’s persecution. As mentioned above, Taylor was able to win some to Christ even in chains, and those souls were certainly won in the face of Taylor’s persecution and steadfast faith.
An important story for a similar time
Taylor’s story is incredibly challenging because it seems so contemporary. Many stories of martyrdom involve extraordinary circumstances and events, but Taylor’s was a more straightforward dispute over the Word of God. In a day where the authority of God’s Word takes a hit each and every day from those inside the Church, Taylor’s faithfulness is a story we need. The Word of God demands bold witness, and the days of casual, comfortable Christianity are long gone. When the fundamentals of the faith are being attacked from inside the Church, those who would stand for the true Word of God are needed more than ever.
Dr. Taylor’s commitment to his people and the Word of God are encouraging. It was his daily investments in time with God and his people that prepared him to face his persecution. We always need reminding that spiritual growth happens over time as Christ slowly but surely refines us into something more perfect. The refining happens in the everyday parts of our lives as Christ chips away at our sinful flesh.
This article is based on information found in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.