The Ballad of John Penry


John Penry

Hidden in the shadow of the grave Epynt
John Penry was born
In the mist and the darkening rain
By the black river Dulas
Cefn Brith was the name of his homestead
A long, low house
Modest but prosperous
And well situated to catch the speckled sun
Here he was raised
A warm and comfortable home
Seedbed of an inquiring mind
Mother to a child of dangerous intelligence
First educated by the Parson of Llangammarch
He was quick and able
Progressive and questioning
Well-equipped to flourish at the grammar school in Brecon
Latin and English he learned
Grafted on to the Welsh bedrock
But never supplanting his love of home
The warm hiraeth for his native land.
In 1580 the fatal choice was made
From the dark, warm depths of Wales
He journeyed to the low lands of England:
The bright, shining spires of Cambridge
And what a world was there!
Men of learning and understanding
Delving the ancient arts of rhetoric and logic:
Creating a new breed of educated men
Penry was a Welsh boy in an English world
But he settled
Learnt the grammar, stretched his mind
Embraced the unfamiliar and the new
And of all that Penry learned in Cambridge
One thing shone brighter
One thing touched deeper
One thing captured him heart and soul:
A Pearl of great Price, beyond all others:
True Biblical Religion
The vision of a Reformed Church
Leading God’s elect into perfect holiness
He became a Puritan
Rejected the ritual of the Romish church
The rules of bishops and prelates
Cleaved to Calvin’s condensed religion.
But returning home to the dark hills of Wales
He was troubled
Yes, he loved his family, delighted in home
But their religion? Superstition
Old practices, unreformed
No knowledge of the Bible, no light
The broad and easy path which leads to hell
It troubled him
He pleaded with his kin
Showed clearly, plainly God’s laws in Scripture
But could it be that his own dear family, his mother, his sisters
Were not numbered amongst God’s Elect?
Penry returned to England, uncertain, anxious
Wrestling in his soul until…
The light shone
The mist on the black mountains cleared!
His people had never known true religion
Never heard God’s Word in their own tongue
Or listened to the preaching of Godly men!
The light shone. This was his vocation. This his call
God had called John Penry to be the Welsh Harp
To ring loud and clear the cause of Wales
Expose error. Purify the Church
Set free the Word of God to save his land
He wrote an ‘Aequity’, a ‘Humble Supplication’
Piled argument on Scripture, Scripture on argument
Showed clearly what needed to be done
To save the land of Wales…
It was accepted for publication
Puritan’s applauded him
But when it reached Whitgift, the prelate of Canterbury
The clouds gathered, the darkness swelled
Who was this young preacher to criticize the church?
Question God’s appointed representatives?
He was summoned, questioned
Thrown in jail.
In the dark cell he pondered
Had not God ordained him,
Called him to this work?
So why thwarted? Why chained in darkness?
Then searching Scripture, praying
Once more the light dawned! The sun rose!
Whitgift was no agent of Christ, no godly man
But a servant of the Antichrist. A wolf in Christ’s fold!
Penry was released. Warned. A marked man
But now his path was certain. His way light
He wrote, with others, many pamphlets
Exposing truth. Making error plain.
They found a printer: Waldegrave
A skilled man and godly, who printed their words
But secretly
Evading Whitgift’s spies
And so the word spread
Pamphlets clearly expounding God’s truth
Became a web of godliness:
A healing virus spread abroad in elected hearts
It was exhilarating for the young men
Pushing the technology of printing
They mocked the hypocrisy of priest and prelate
Exposed the false religion which held men slaves
But it was dangerous
Informers could be anywhere
Even in the midst of the godly
People grew anxious, feared for their lives
Often the printing press was moved
From London to Daventry;
Coventry to Warrington:
Just beyond the reach of Whitgift’s long fingers
But not for long
An informer was captured and revealed all
Whitgift clenched them in his cleric grip…
But not Penry, he escaped, fled to the haven of Presbyterian Scotland
By now Penry had married
And his wife, Eleanor, joined him in Scotland
But once more Penry became troubled
Once more he questioned his faith
Presbyterian Scotland should have been a paradise
Reformed under the preaching of stern John Knox
It had rejected bishops, all remnants of Romish ritual
But it was not holy
The church did not live solely under God’s law
It was still entangled with the State
Not free to be a holy people
It served not God but the dictates of man
Three years Penry live quietly in Scotland
Turning in his mind his short life
Scouring Scripture
Seeking the way of true holiness
Then Whitgift’s spies found him
And Elizabeth wrote to her cousin James
Demanding his return or banishment
James agreed
Now everything was clear
Once more the light shone
The true church is separate, independent of the State
As Scripture said “Be ye not yoked with the ungodly”
Purified by his Scottish digression
Penry returned to London
Entered once more the stronghold of the Antichrist
Lived his body as his words demanded.
London was a joy
Here at last he lived the life his soul long for
The warmth of family: four daughters and wife
Re-creating distant Wales
And a church of True Believers: God’s Elect
Eager for the preaching of the word
Meeting in a brother’s house or quiet wood
Free of hierarchy and Whitgift’s long claw
And the excitement, the thrill
Of walking God’s narrow way
Outwitting the agents of the Antichrist
And living with Christ under the shadow of a cross
It could not last
One night in the depth of Islington’s woods
The believers we gathered for prayer
Fervent as Christ in Gethsemane…
When Whitgift’s men appeared
Armed with clubs and swords
They arrested every man
Locking them in a makeshift cell
But Penry escaped
Like Peter evading the prison guards
He prayed his freedom
And made his way to a brother’s house
Around him the Fellowship gathered
Secretly ferrying him to Stepney
(A village to the east of London)
Where he found refuge
But not for long
The vicar, a bishop’s man,
Was suspicious
And once more Penry was captured, held in chains
He languished in the dungeon
Cut off from light
Darkly pondering his fate
How had a boy from Breconshire ended here?
He thought of his wife
And his four children
Deliverance, Safety, Sure Hope and Comfort
How he missed them –
Their childish innocence so resonant of home
Had he abandoned them?
Did their names mean nothing?
Had he no comfort? No deliverance?
No. He was God’s chosen one
To plead the cause of Wales
This was his candle in the gloom
When the darkness of despair threatened to engulf him
He had been a good and faithful servant
And had not squirmed beneath the tyrant’s boot
Whatever came
He would be ready
Two months he was in prison
He wrote letters. Pleaded his cause
Sought the ear of the Queen
But there was no crack
Church and State was set against him
His ideas were too dangerous
His actions too courageous
This Welsh candle must be snuffed out
On the 29th of May 1593
John Penry was taken to the place of execution
He never saw his wife
He never kissed his children
He had no opportunity to preach a final sermon.
Before a straggle of strangers
He was hung upon the gallows
John Penry was dead