On Persecution

As Mormons we believe strongly in the principle of agency. Modern scripture tells us that the War in Heaven was fought over it. [1] And yet this belief sometimes leads us to believe that, as W. E. Henley famously put it, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” [2] Aside from the doctrinal insistence that Jesus should be the captain of our souls, and acknowledging that Henley’s poem can be of use when we need to rouse ourselves against the troubles that surround us, the reality remains that much about our lives remains outside our control. [3] It may be true in the ultimate sense that we control our destinies, but in many ways we simply don’t have such control in the short, medium, and even the long term of our mortal lives. The unexpected has a way of occurring, no matter how righteous we may be. And in this respect, it sometimes seems as though Life—or its nefarious human agents—is out to get us.

The occurrence of the unexpected was almost the norm in sixteenth-century England. Henry VIII went from being Defender of the Faith to breaking with Rome. Within five years after William Tyndale was burned at the stake for printing the Bible in English, an expanded version of his translation was being published by royal authority. Henry the impossibly complicated mostly-Catholic was succeeded by his fervently Protestant son Edward VI, who was then succeeded by the so-Catholic-she-was-married-to-the-king-of-Spain Mary, who was then succeeded by the moderate Protestant Elizabeth I. Actually taking one’s religion seriously in this period—as many people did—was a perilous business.

Today we remember three such men, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer, known as the Oxford martyrs after their place of execution. Latimer was a resolute Catholic for the first several decades of his life, taking his Bachelor of Divinity at Oxford by setting out to refute Melanchthon (Luther’s right-hand man in Wittenberg). Thomas Bilney seized this occasion, however, to persuade Latimer to the Protestant way. Once on it, he never turned back. After becoming Bishop of Worcester, he had to resign his office and be imprisoned in the Tower for opposing Henry VIII’s too-Catholic Six Articles. He rose to prominence again under Edward VI, but Mary’s bishops, Gardiner and Bonner, got him and sentenced him to burn at the stake in Oxford. He is reported to have said to his fellow-martyr Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

The martyrdom of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563)

Nicholas Ridley, too, was a strong supporter of the Protestant cause, especially in its particularly English form. As Bishop of Rochester he argued, against those under Continental influence who argued that clerical vestments should be done away with, that although such things were indifferent (because not commanded in scripture) the King as Head of the Church might nevertheless require them. He met his downfall because he supported Lady Jane Grey as the successor of Edward VI—hoping thereby to keep England under Protestant rule. He and Latimer burned together on 16 October 1555.

Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Book of Common Prayer, merits particular celebration in the Mormon Lectionary Project, which simply couldn’t exist without his influence. A member of the circle of Anne Boleyn, he was an early English adopter of Protestantism, and he became Archbishop of Canterbury in token of gratitude for his assistance with the King’s Business with Rome. Well aware that Henry VIII was not particularly friendly to Protestantism, Cranmer pursued a long and patient process of liturgical reform, eventually producing the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, with a second edition to follow in 1552. If Wycliffe and Tyndale gave people access to the Bible in the vernacular, Cranmer gave them formal church worship in the vernacular. For the first time since Latin ceased to be a mother tongue, the uneducated could understand their worship services. Cranmer rendered traditional Latin prayers into a beautiful English, his style influencing English literature for centuries to come. (That sounds like an exaggeration; it isn’t.) Here is the Collect for Peace, as printed in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

O God whiche arte aucthor of peace, & lover of concorde in knowlege, of whom standeth our eternal lyfe, whose service is perfect fredome: defend us thy humble servauntes in all assaultes of our enemyes, that we suerly trusting in thy defence, maye not feare the power of any adversaryes, through the myght of Jesu Christe oure lorde. Amen. [4]

Cranmer, too, ran afoul of Mary’s reign, and after watching Latimer and Ridley burn in October, he was burnt at the stake on 7 March 1556.

The martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563)

These, then, are three people to whom the unexpected happened. Famously, they held to their beliefs to the point of death—but that is what Bishops Gardiner and Bonner were doing, too. This conflict is the stuff of Hegelian tragedy, in which characters defined by adherence to a singular principle collide violently with one another until one or both of them dissolves in a dénouement of death, thereby enabling some universal human truth to emerge. Something along these lines seems to happen in Alma 14, which presents a cosmic justice operating behind the terrible victory of the people of Ammonihah over the believers in their midst.

That cosmic justice most often remains inscrutable to us earth-wanderers, however. We are left to cry unto the Lord with our voices, to make supplication with our songs. We must believe that the fire of dissolution will reveal the work of the master builder in us. Jesus said that, if he was persecuted, his followers would be persecuted also. And yet our lives are not the stuff of Hegelian tragedy. As Milton wrote, “Good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt into the world,” and we are each of us twinned beings. We are not the “us” against whom “they” have levied forces of persecution. Rather, we are us and them all bound up in one, the “us” in us wounding the “them” in others, and vice versa. We must plead with God to deliver us from the tendencies to persecution within ourselves as well as from the persecutions that come from without.

Let us therefore, on this day of remembering Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, not only mourn their martyrdoms, but let us also find the persecutors hiding within our persecuted souls and, seeing that, find charity in our hearts for those who persecute us. We without them cannot be saved, and in this we are called not to mourn, but to rejoice: “A voice of mercy out of heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth[.]” May we find the capacity to imagine such a charity, for if we cannot imagine it, it will never come to pass.

mormon_lectionary-100x100px-rgbaThe Mormon Lectionary Project

The Feast Day of Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, 1555/1556

1 Cor 3:9-14 (NRSV); Psalm 142 (BCP); John 15:20-16:1 (NRSV); Alma 14:8-11; D&C 128:15-19

The Collect: O God, the all-merciful, who judgest the quick and the dead: grant this day that the memories of the martyrs Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer might rouse us in the courage of faith, but also awaken in us the charity of thy Son, who said of those who persecuted and killed him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”; we plead as thy fractious children that we may learn to be one in the same love that makes thee, Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, worlds without end.

For the music, I thought that nothing would be so fitting as the Lacrimosa section of the requiem mass, that point at which the wrath of God dissolving the world in flames gives way to tears. Here is György Ligeti’s setting, the stunning and even beautiful discord absolutely perfect for our own weeping over the pain we inflict on others.


[1] See my talk on the subject here.

[2] The poem is called “Invictus.”

[3] Boyd K. Packer quotes Orson F. Whitney’s poem responding to “Invictus” here. Contrast James E. Faust’s favorable quotation of it here.

[4] For ease of reading, I’ve modernized u/v and expanded contractions. I accessed this volume in Early English Books Online, where it is STC 16269.


  1. Because eventually it’ll be fixed, I’m just going to post this right here for the record:


  2. Thanks, Scott. Now quit persecuting me. :)

    Elvis is not exactly Ligeti, but I do like Elvis’s version of “Farther Along.”

  3. Powerful. Breathtakingly powerful words to hear today. There is a balm in Gilead.

  4. Great work, JK. Didn’t Smith read Foxe and comment favourably?

  5. I think so, but I’m a little short on sleep (for evidence, see Scott B.’s comment), so I can’t recall specifically.

  6. A lot of intelligent things were said here–must have been because I don’t understand them. I will say that I believe that MUCH of our persecution would be avoided if we were sensible and gracious–certainly true of of The Mormons in Missouri & the inflammatory things said from the pulpit and the outrageous ways some members interpreted what they were supposed to do and say. Our California woes on “marriage” would have been lessened if we as a people had been more gracious, careful, and sensible. The Prophet would do us a great favor if he asked all members to NOT watch Fox News. . .

  7. The monument to the martyrs in Oxford is in the middle of a busy bus lane on St. Giles. Thousands noisily go past it every day with no thought as to what it represents. It’s amazing that what once seemed so scandalous — enough to burn people alive! — is of no major repute today. A reminder, perhaps, that in matters of faith, things change, often radically so.

  8. A quibble, maybe, but I don’t get “the doctrinal insistence that Jesus should be the captain of our souls.” The “captain” metaphor actually strikes me as quite apt. One can be the captain of a ship without being the ship’s owner — isn’t this the usual arrangement? — and as captain one can guide the ship well or poorly, can take it safely into port or steer it into the rocks, either way being fully answerable to the owner. Ditto for one’s soul. The metaphor of being captain of one’s soul does not at all suggest that one will not have to “answer unto Him / To whom all souls belong.”

    And if Jesus is the captain of my soul, what does that make me? The cabin boy of my soul?

  9. Dr_Doctorstein: I quite agree with you, in fact. While the “doctrinal insistence” has two apostles behind it (Orson F. Whitney and Boyd K. Packer), I actually disagree strongly with the Augustinian notion that seems to be behind this insistence, namely that the economy of salvation is some kind of zero-sum game, meaning that human merit detracts from God’s glory. In keeping with the crypto-Anglicanism of this series, I side with the religious rationalism of Richard Hooker, who believed that God gave us reason, and that we fail to glorify God if we don’t use it. So yes, we do (I believe) have the responsibity to captain the ships of our lives as well as we can, all in the service of the God for whom we sail.

  10. Let us not bandy semantics. I am nothing without his help; by grace am I saved, after all I can do. Whether that means I’m the captain and he’s the owner, or he’s the captain and I’m the helmsman, or he’s the coach and I’m the quarterback – we could go on, but you get the idea.

  11. doctordoctorstein2013 says:

    With all due respect, N.I., the way that we read figurative language is actually very important and well worth discussing, if only because (1) the scriptures use it so much, and (2) we are prone to getting it wrong (consider, e.g., the way the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ metaphor of the “leaven of the Pharisees”).

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