Saunder's Wife and Child Visit Him in Prison
Rev. Laurence Saunders had been educated at Cambridge, and found his first employment with Sir William Chester, a rich merchant of London, who was afterward sheriff of that city. Saunders had not been long in this place, when he became weary of a tradesman's life. He lost his spirits, and pined to be released from an employment so little to his taste. His master, who was a kindly man, took notice of his clerk's despondency and asked the reason for it. The young man told him that he wanted to continue his studies in college, so as to prepare himself for the ministry, whereupon the merchant generously gave him back his papers of apprenticeship, and sent him home to his relations.
Overjoyed at his release, Saunders lost no time in returning to his studies at Cambridge, fully determined to qualify himself as a preacher. He especially devoted himself to the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages, so that he could read the Scriptures in the original tongues. Having complete his course, at the beginning of king Edward's reign, when the reformers were in the ascendant, Saunders began to preach with great success. His first appointment was at Fotheringham, where he read a divinity lecture; but that college soon being closed, he was appointed a preacher at Lichfield. He married about this time, and won the respect of all by his active and useful life in the ministry.
While Saunders was thus attending to the work of his parish, king Edward died, and queen Mary succeeded to the throne. In the second year of her reign a royal proclamation was sent out requiring all persons to attend mass. Many refused to obey this, and no one was more determined in his refusal than Laurence Saunders. He continued to preach whenever he had an opportunity, and recommended the prayer-book, with the Scriptures, to the people.
One day as Saunders was coming to the city of London, Sir John Mordant, a councilor to queen Mary, Overtook him, and asked him where he was going. "I have," said Saunders, "an appointment to preach at London, and now I am going there to instruct my people according to my duty."
"If you will follow my counsel," said Mordant, "let them alone, and go not to them." To this Saunders answered, "How shall I then be excused, if any of them be sick and desire consolation, if any want good counsel and need instruction, or if any should slip into error and receive false doctrine?"
"Did you not, said Mordant, preach last Sunday in Bread street, in London?" "Yes, truly," said Saunders, "that is where my church is." "I heard you myself," said Mordant: "and will you preach there again?" "If it please you," said Saunders, "to-morrow you may hear me preach again in that same place."
"I would advise you," said Mordant, "not to preach." Saunders answered, "If you can and will forbid me by lawful authority, then must I obey."
"Nay," replied Mordant, "I will not go so far as to forbid you, but I do give you warning," And then they both entered the city, and parted from each other,--Mordant, in a spirit of malice, going at once to give information to Bonner, bishop of London.
The next morning, being Sunday, Saunders preached as he had intended; exhorting his people to be steadfast in the truth, and not to fear those who can only kill the body. He was listened to by a great crowd of people, which gave much offence to the clergy, particularly to bishop Bonner. No notice, however, was taken of him in the forenoon, but in the afternoon, when he made ready to preach again, Bonner sent an officer to arrest him. The minister went away quietly with the officer, and Sir John Mordant appeared to give evidence against him.
When Saunders appeared before bishop Bonner, he was roughly charged with disobeying the queen's command. "How happeneth it, cried the bishop, that, nothwithstanding the queen's proclamation to the contrary, you have continued to preach!"
Saunders did not deny that he had preached. He said he saw the perilous times at hand, and did but exhort his flock to persevere in the doctrine which they had learned; saying also, that he was moved and urged forward to it by the command to obey God rather than man: and, moreover, that nothing had stirred him thereto but his own conscience.
"A goodly conscience, surely!" said the bishop. "This your conscience would make our queen not entitled to her crown: would it not, I pray you?"
Saunders replied, "We do not declare or say that the queen has no right to the throne. But let those take care who have declared it, and whose writings are yet in the hands of men:"--by this meaning the bishop himself, who had, to get the favor of Henry VIII, written a book in which he openly declared queen Mary to be illegitimate, and therefore not able to inherit the throne. "And," said Saunders, "as to our preaching, we do only profess and teach the purity of the Word; and, although we may now be forbidden to speak with our mouths, our lives hereafter shall testify."
The bishop being put out of countenance by this, cried, "Carry away the frenzied fool to prison." Saunders answered, that he did gibe God thanks who had given him at last a place of rest and quietness, where he might pray for the bishop's conversion.
Saunders remained in the Marshasea prison for a year and three months; during which time he sent letters to Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, and also to others complaining of the cruelty of the queen, and injustice of the bishops. His wife used to come to the prison to see him, carrying her young child in her arms. When Saunders saw the child he clasped him to his breast, and rejoiced greatly, saying, how happy he was in having such a son; and all who were in the prison admired the beauty of the boy.
At last, being brought before the council for his final examination, Saunders was asked many questions, all of which he answered boldly, caring more to uphold what he considered the truth than to save his life. He was soon found guilty of heresy, and sent to the Compter prison to await his sentence. Saunders' treatment in this place was less severe than it had been in the Marshalsea prison, and he was able to see his friends, many of whom visited him. But this was not to last long. His enemies were untiring in their efforts to hasten on his dreadful punishment. In a few weeks the sheriff of London came and took him out of prison, and delivered him to the queen's guard, who had bee ordered to take him to the city of Coventry to be burned.
As the company were coming into the town of Coventry, a poor shoemaker came to the prisoner as he stood among the soldiers, and said to him, "O my good master, God strengthen and comfort you." "Good shoemaker," cried Saunders, "pray for me; for I am the unworthiest man to be chosen for this sacrifice that ever was appointed to it; but I doubt not that my gracious God and Father is able to make me strong enough for it." That night he was put into the common jail among the other prisoners, where he slept little, but spent the night in prayer. On the next day he was led to the place of burning in a park without the city. He had but an old gown and shirt to wear, and was barefooted, and he often fell flat on the ground, and prayed.
When he was come near to the place, the officer, who was appointed to see the execution done, cried out that the prisoner was one of those who marred the queen's realm with false doctrine and heresy, "wherefore thou hast deserved death," said he; "but yet, if thou wilt revoke thine heresies, the queen will pardon thee; if not, yonder fire is prepared for thee."
To this Saunders answered, It is not I, nor my fellow-preachers of God's truth, that have hurt the queen's realm, but it is yourself, and such as you, who have always resisted God's holy word; it is you who have, and who do mar the queen's realm. I maintain no heresies; but the doctrine of God, the blessed Gospel of Christ, that I hold to, that I believe,, that I have taught, and that will I never revoke.
Then cried the officer, "Away with him!" And away they hurried him to the stake. When he had come to it he fell to the ground, and prayed; and then rose up again, took the stake to which he was to be chained, in his arms, and kissed it, saying, "Welcome the cross of Christ, welcome everlasting life." Such were the last words of Laurence Saunders, who may well be compared to the ancient martyrs of the church; both in fervent zeal for the truth and constant patience in his suffering, as also for the cruel torments that he sustained in the flames of fire. For so his cruel tormentors hated him that they burned him with green wood rather than dry fuel, which put him to much more pain. But the grace and consolation of Christ, who never forsakes his servants, gave him patience to bear all their torments.
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