FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Four hundred and fifty-seven years ago on a March day in Oxford, England, spectators watched as Thomas Cranmer held his right hand into the flames lapping at his legs as he stood, bound and burning. That right hand, he said, had offended him by signing a recantation of his faith. With bravery, though, he recanted his recantation and submitted to the punishment of death for the crime of denying the power of the pope—an offense considered heresy and treason by the state.
Today, 35 black and yellow bricks, arranged in a square half the size of a parking space, mark the spot on the ground where officials burned Cranmer to ashes. The small spot was one of many stops a group of Southwesterners visited on a 17-day study tour and evangelism trip to Oxford this July. Having studied about Reformers like Cranmer who paved the way for a free church and a faith yielding only to biblical authority, students found the historical markers enlightening and life changing.
“You really see where our heritage comes from,” said Matthew Yarnell, a student in the College at Southwestern. “You get in the culture, you get in the land, and you really see these monuments, and they're not just monuments. They’re representations of actions that really happened—how people stood up in the face of death for what they believed.”
That heritage of Christianity and of Christians, who lived lives so deeply committed to Christ that many indeed gave their very lives for it, looms throughout the land, said Southwestern evangelism professor David Mills.
“In Oxford, there’s a church on every corner,” Mills said. “Everywhere you go, most of them are empty, but it’s hard to miss the Christian heritage of the United States or England.”
Yet, despite walking and driving by those monuments every day, many in England do not know about Christ or the salvation He offers. Mills recalled talking with one agnostic woman who said she had never heard the Gospel before.
“She was aware of churches and Christians and Jesus but had never heard the biblical story,” Mills said. “I essentially described the Gospel from Genesis to Revelation for her, and it struck her. I thought the top of her head was going to blow off. She was so excited, as an agnostic, to have someone put it together for her. So, that was very, very encouraging.”
Yarnell said he found the opportunity for evangelism to be a highlight of the trip, especially as he had the chance to join his father Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology and Oxford Study Tour leader for the past 10 years, in that very task.
“We had one day where we were evangelizing around Oxford … and it was really something special,” Matthew said. “I think that is the number one thing that I remember from the trip. It was really good—just me and him sharing Christ.”
Malcolm said he, too, enjoyed the time spent evangelizing with his son and said that knowing his son and other children watch his life closely urges him to continue to live an authentic life and to allow his faith to color each part of his life.
That authenticity is something that students on the trip both noticed and appreciated.
“It was such a rare opportunity to get to travel and spend as much time as we were given with professors,” said Michele Davis, a Master of Arts student from Tennessee. “I can wholeheartedly say that these men actively live what they teach. They were such servants, showing the love of Christ not only to the students but to everyone we came in contact with—the coach driver, waiters, locals, etc. It's was such a blessing to witness!”
Kennedy Mathis,* a Master of Divinity student, said the trip sparked in her a desire to come back and study Baptist heritage, church history, theology and missiology with refreshed and increased vigor.
“Church history and Baptist heritage can be considered such a dry topic, and most people—me included—are not history people,” Mathis said. “To be able to go and see where the history happened was huge to me, because I could look, and I could see a replica of the map that William Carey made and think about him sitting there making shoes and praying over the nations. … So, it really was a spark to get me to do some more studying on my own, because I want to understand, and I want to know these stories well enough to tell them.”
*name changed to protect mission work