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Reformation Heroes Book Review

Reformation Heroes

In American culture, we love superheroes. Consider Superman—“faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound;” he’s one of the good guys committed to “truth, justice, and the American way.”  Or, think about Captain America, injected with an experimental serum by the United States government.  With his superhuman strength and the ultimate good guy name of “Captain America,” what evil foe can stand against his pearly goodness?  Finally, give thought to Tony Stark and his alter ego Iron Man.  In our culture’s estimation, here’s a man who has it all—wealth, power, intellect, and the good-looking girlfriend.  With preternatural strength, these superheroes fight the bad guys, save the innocent, and achieve world peace on the big screen in just under two hours.  “If only real life could be like this!” we often sigh.

For the follower of Christ though, the Bible reveals that the true life of those who belong to Jesus surpasses the fictional life of a superhero.  Redeemed by the precious blood of the Son of God, promised an imperishable inheritance, and protected by the power of God for eternity, the Christian lives with enormous privileges.  While God lavishes all His children with these tremendous privileges, the Bible teaches that some were earmarked by Him to suffer immensely in this lifetime:

They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:37-38)

It is this type of Christian disciple, “men of whom the world was not worthy,” that Diana Kleyn and Joel R. Beeke write about in Reformation Heroes.  In this 250-page illustrated hardcover book, Kleyn and Beeke set out to inform teen readers of 33 men and women of character, true heroes of the Christian faith, who made significant contributions to the Kingdom of God during the time of the Reformation and some who paid the ultimate price—martyrdom for faith in Christ alone. 

Forerunners of the Reformation

Organized chronologically and by country of origin, each chapter of this work explores the life of an individual Reformation hero.  However, before the reader becomes acquainted with the Reformers, Kleyn and Beeke open this book with a compelling section on “Forerunners of the Reformation,” key individuals who God used to lay the groundwork of the Reformation.  Often, when the Reformation is spoken of, many think of its inception as the crucial moment when Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg.  While God used Luther’s action significantly to bring about the purifying of His church, His providential plan and the groundwork to prepare for the Reformation stretched hundreds of years before Luther’s time.  Kleyn and Beeke introduce the reader to four individuals whom God used to pioneer the way for the Reformation:  Peter Waldo (1140-1217), John Wycliffe (1324-1384), Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394), and John Huss (1372-1415). 

Of these forerunners, Anne of Bohemia was the only one of noble birth; she had been taught the Scriptures from an early age.  She married King Richard II of England and became Queen Anne.  The remaining three were all commoners.  Peter Waldo was a wealthy French merchant, and John Wycliffe from England and John Huss from Bohemia both studied to become preachers.  Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss taught that salvation was found only in Christ and not in good works or acts of penance.  They faced persecution often and at times lived on the run.  Kleyn and Beeke also provide insightful content on how the lives of these forerunners intersected.  In England, John Wycliffe amassed many enemies by singling out the hypocrisy of the monks and friars who lived decadent lives at the poor’s expense.  In her position of power, Queen Anne extended protection to John Wycliffe by frequently pleading on Wycliffe’s behalf to her husband King Richard II and entreating the king not to heed the wicked advice of the clergy who sought to execute Wycliffe. 

Although these four pioneers came from different backgrounds, they all shared a love for reading God’s Word.  At a time when most people had never seen a Bible, God providentially placed them in positions where they were able to study the Scriptures with joy and intensity.  While Queen Anne died at the early age of 27, Kleyn and Beeke highlight that God divinely planned this.  After her death, Queen Anne’s servants returned to Bohemia taking many of Wycliffe’s writings and translations of the gospels from Latin into English with them.  Years later John Huss in Bohemia read the writings of Wycliffe and became a Christian.  Of these forerunners, Huss was the only one martyred.  He was sentenced to be burned to death at the stake for preaching against the sale of indulgences and teaching that only by trusting in the sacrifice of Christ could one’s sins be forgiven.  At his execution he prayed, “Lord Jesus, I cheerfully suffer this terrible and cruel death, for the sake of Thy holy gospel, and the preaching of Thy sacred Word.  Do Thou forgive my enemies the crime they are committing.”  His enemies bound him in wet ropes to exponentially intensify his suffering, but instead of wailing in anguish as he burned, Huss sang praises to God.  After his death, his enemies cast his ashes into the Rhine River to display their utmost hatred for him.  In God’s providence nearly 100 years later, the writings of John Huss greatly influenced one of the best-known Reformers, Martin Luther.

The Reformers

After introducing the young reader to the predecessors of the Reformation, Kleyn and Beeke launch into the Reformation heroes.  Along with well-known individuals such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, the authors include material on the contributions of lesser-known Reformers such as Jan Laski of Poland and Queen Marguerite of Navarre.  Teen readers will enjoy learning about how these Reformers influenced one another, labored together, sometimes had regrettable fallings-out with each other, and some who paid the ultimate price alongside one another—martyrdom for refusing to deny the gospel. 

A prime example of the fascinating connections these Reformers shared is found in Chapter 18, which delves into the lives of the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism, Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, and the man who spearheaded the effort to have the catechism created, Frederick III, Elector Palatine in Germany.  At age 20, God used a tragic situation to cause Caspar Olevianus of Germany to switch courses in life.  Several young students got together for fun and decided to go boating. In the midst of rough housing on the boat, it capsized and they were thrown into the water.  Olevianus tried to save one of the young men, Herman Louis, who was the son of Frederick III, but Olevianus failed and Herman drowned in the Eure River.  The tragic death of young Herman caused Olevianus to be faced with the brevity of life, and he changed course from becoming a lawyer to becoming a minister of the gospel.  At this point, Olevianus had no idea he would be one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, or that the man, Frederick III, who lost his son would be the one who would lead the effort to have the catechism written.

Zacharias Ursinus was born into a Protestant family.  He studied at Wittenberg under Reformer Philip Melanchthon, who was a close friend of Martin Luther.  After studying Scripture, Ursinus adopted John Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper instead of Martin Luther’s.  Kleyn and Beeke share that this caused problems for Ursinus in his hometown of Breslau where most Protestants were Lutherans and did not agree with John Calvin’s view.  The people of Breslau treated Ursinus poorly and eventually forced him out of the city.  By including this disappointing part of Ursinus’s life, Kleyn and Beeke show the fallenness of our world—that despite the amazing time of spiritual renewal during the Reformation, pettiness and in-fighting festered among God’s people.

In his duties as a ruler, Frederick III faced these dilemmas of in-fighting among Protestants (specifically, Lutherans and Calvinists) over doctrinal positions.  With hopes of helping the people of Heidelberg reach a consensus on the Lord’s Supper and other doctrinal matters, he requested Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus to come to Heidelberg to write a catechism that precisely summarized the doctrines of Scripture.  At the time of this invitation, Caspar Olevianus was imprisoned in the city of Treves for preaching that salvation is found in Christ alone.  Frederick had to pay a sum of money to the city of Treves to gain Olevianus’s freedom.  Although Frederick lived in a position of power, Kleyn and Beeke point out that he too bore personal disappointments.  One of his daughters died before the age of 15, and his son Herman Louis, who had been sent with great hopes by his father to study with the French Protestants, drowned tragically. 

And so, Caspar Olevianus at age 26 and Zacharias Ursinus at age 28 started to write the Heidelberg Catechism.  Consider the following words penned by such young men:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

After the completion of the Heidelberg Catechism, these three men spent years defending the Scriptural truths in it from Catholics and at times from Lutherans.  In 1566, Frederick III was called to an important meeting, the Diet of Augsburg.  His friends did not want him to attend for they knew many enemies wanted to kill Frederick; people had spread outrageous lies about him, some claiming that the devil wouldn’t let Frederick sleep at night.  At the Diet of Augsburg, with a calm trust in the sovereignty of God, he defended the Scriptural truths in the catechism before the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II and many German princes.  By highlighting these difficulties, Kleyn and Beeke draw the teen reader’s attention to the strength of character that Frederick displayed, and also to the historical complexities of the Reformation—while at certain times there may have been peace between the Catholics and Lutherans, this did not mean peace automatically existed between Calvinists and Catholics or between Calvinists and Lutherans.  Touching on quagmires such as this makes Reformation Heroes a rich work for growing teen minds.

The Anabaptists, the Counter-Reformation, and More

At the end of this volume, chapters on the Anabaptists and the Counter Reformation provide teen readers with a fuller understanding of the different groups that formed during the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Reformation.  Helpful appendices containing study questions on each Reformation hero, a map of Europe during this time period, a chart of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, and a robust glossary supply the student with practical material that can be used in research projects and group discussions.  The book concludes with a well-compiled bibliography of further books on the Reformation for readers who want to learn more.

The Reformers lived through tumultuous times, not knowing how God would use their sufferings.  Instead, they focused on studying God’s Word, praying with fervency, and obeying and entrusting themselves to their faithful God. These are lessons for Christians in all ages, and lessons we long to pass on to our teens in our church family.  Reformation Heroes is available on Amazon and Heritagebooks.org.