Commemoration of Dr. Robert Barnes, Lutheran Martyr

On July 30, we commemorate Dr. Robert Barnes (1495-1540), a 16th century Augustinian friar and prior who saw the need for reform in the English Church and eventually became one of history’s first Lutheran martyrs.

After a controversial Christmas 1525 sermon in Cambridge, Barnes was convicted of heterodoxy and condemned to recant or be burnt. In 1528, he managed to escape to Antwerp, going on to meet Martin Luther in Wittenberg. Barnes published a book on his Protestant views in 1530.

An excerpt from Barnes’ writings:

“Scripture says that faith alone justifies because it is that through which alone I cling to Christ. By faith alone I am partaker of the merits and mercy purchased by Christ’s blood. It is faith alone that receives the promises made in Christ. Through our faith the merits, goodness, grace, and favour of Christ are imputed and reckoned to us.” [1]

Barnes returned to England in 1531 as a chaplain for the king and an intermediary with Lutheran Germany. Raised Catholic, King Henry VIII supported reforming the church to varying degrees, stemming from his desires to end and begin marriages with women of alternating Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. After Pope Clement VII refused to grant his annulment from Catherine of Aragon, Henry sent Barnes on an unsuccessful mission to win the support of Luther. The king broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church and secretly married Anne Boleyn in 1533. After Henry executed his second wife and lost his third to a fever following childbirth, Barnes assisted in negotiating the terms of his marriage to Anne of Cleves. Henry’s fourth marriage ending in divorce cast a shadow over Barnes and all associated with the dealings. Despite reforms, the Church of England remained largely Catholic and Barnes’ position became increasingly precarious.

During the 1540 Lenten season, Barnes preached a sermon attacking Bishop Gardiner, was arrested, and sent to the Tower of London. Barnes and two other Protestant preachers were burned to death on July 30, 1540.

Barnes’ final confession remained true to his Lutheran beliefs:

“There is none other satisfaction unto the Father, but this [Christ’s] death and passion only… That no work of man did deserve anything of God, but only [Christ’s] passion, as touching our justification… For I knowledge the best work that ever I did is unpure and unperfect… Wherefore I trust in no good work that ever I did, but only in the death of Jesus Christ.” [2]

Martin Luther had this to say of his fellow reformer’s martyrdom:

“This Dr. Robert Barnes we certainly knew, and it is a particular joy for me to hear that our good, pious dinner guest and houseguest has been so graciously called by God to pour out his blood and to become a holy martyr for the sake of His dear Son… He always had these words in his mouth: Rex meus, regem meum [“my king, my king”], as his confession indeed indicates that even until his death he was loyal toward his king with all love and faithfulness, which was repaid by Henry with evil. Hope betrayed him. For he always hoped his king would become good in the end. Let us praise and thank God! This is a blessed time for the elect saints of Christ and an unfortunate, grievous time for the devil, for blasphemers, and enemies, and it is going to get even worse. Amen.” [3]

[1] Neelak S. Tjernagel, ed., The Reformation Essays of Dr. Robert Barnes (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1963), 36.

[2] George Pearson, ed., The Remains of Myles Coverdale, Bishop of Exeter (Cambridge: University Press, 1846), 355, 379, 383, 397.

[3] “Preface to Robert Barnes Confessio Fidei (1540).” Translated by Mark DeGarmeaux from pp.449-51 of vol. 51 of D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Bohlau, 1883-). Found in Treasury of Daily Prayer, Scot Kinnaman, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), 574-5.

Further reference and resource:

Dodgers, Rev. Anthony. “Robert Barnes: A Lutheran Martyr in England.” July 30, 2017.…/robert-barnes-lutheran-ma….

[Dr. Robert Barnes and his Fellow-Prisoners Seeking Forgiveness, Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1887]