Mary Honywood and Her Flickering, Unquenchable Faith

Mary was one of the many gentlewomen of her time who supported Protestant preachers during the troubled reign of Mary Tudor.

On July 1, during the scheduled execution of preacher John Bradford (1510–1555) and apprentice John Leaf in the district of Smithfield, the authorities delayed the proceedings for five hours, hoping the massive crowd would disperse. This didn’t happen. In fact, the attendants were so many and so eager to find a good spot that Mary Honywood of Kent (1527-1620), one of Bradford’s closest friends, lost her shoes in the commotion, and had to walk barefoot to the center of town, where she bought a new pair.

 

By 1558, most Londoners had come to loath Mary Tudor’s systematic executions of Protestants. Keeping the throngs away was in the crown’s best interest. On July 1, during the scheduled execution of preacher John Bradford (1510–1555) and apprentice John Leaf in the district of Smithfield, the authorities delayed the proceedings for five hours, hoping the massive crowd would disperse. This didn’t happen. In fact, the attendants were so many and so eager to find a good spot that Mary Honywood of Kent (1527-1620), one of Bradford’s closest friends, lost her shoes in the commotion, and had to walk barefoot to the center of town, where she bought a new pair.

Struggles of Faith

Mary was one of the many gentlewomen of her time who supported Protestant preachers during the troubled reign of Mary Tudor. She was also one of the many who struggled in the transition from Roman Catholic to Protestant teachings.

This transition had created new questions. In the Medieval Church, the attitude that Christians had to contribute to their salvation by living godly lives had become prevalent. Since anyone who is honest knows that godly living is never fully attainable in this life, the Medieval Church encouraged believers to remedy to this lack by attending the sacraments, offering prayers to Mary and the saints, lighting candles, paying for indulgences, participating in pilgrimages, doing acts of penance and charity, donating money to the church, and so on. Even then, few people could hope to go straight to Heaven, but could be thankful for Purgatory, the imaginary place where they would be able to pay the penalty for their sins by sacrifice and suffering.

As precarious as this system might seem, it offered Christians the satisfaction of knowing they had done what they could. No Christian could be absolutely sure of his or her salvation, but this assurance was not expected. In fact, it was discouraged as presumptuous.

On the other hand, the pure Gospel, as presented by Protestant preachers, seemed too good to be true. The biblical injunction, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” was a comforting thought, but difficult to accept when the reality of one’s sins came crushing down.

This was the perplexity that troubled Mary Honywood, a perplexity historian John Foxe (1517-1587) described as “that heaviness and godly sorrow, which the feeling and sense of sin worketh in God’s children.”[1]

Besides, the new emphasis on the Biblical teaching of salvation through grace alone by faith alone created an additional conundrum. In spite of the Apostle’s description of faith as a gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9), for people who had been trained to depend on their own works there was a constant temptation to turn faith into a work that needed to be constantly improved and carefully monitored.

Mary’s compulsive scrutiny of her faith and her sins escalated into utter frustration. When John Foxe tried to assure her that her faith will eventually become stable, she responded that the chance of that happening was as great as the chance of a glass not breaking when thrown against a wall. To reinforce her statement, she threw the Venetian glass she was holding. But the glass hit a chest and fell to the floor without as much as a crack.

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