Born around the year 1503 in England, John Rogers grew up engrossed in religious studies. By the year 1526 he had earned his Bachelor of Arts at Cambridge and entered into the ministry about six years later as Rector of a Catholic church. Rogers served his post faithfully, but as the reformation started to kick up steam new ideas started percolating into England. Martin Luther had been writing and speaking actively since 1517 and while Rogers was at school Luther’s ideas would have become a topic of debate. Over the years, these new ideas would start to shape Rogers and he started to question his place in Catholic ministry.
He left the church and served as a chaplain for English merchants in Antwerp, Belgium. Here he “became intimate [friends] with William [Tyndale and] then engaged on his translation of the Old Testament [into English] ultimately abandon[ing] the doctrine of Rome.” (Cambridge Alumni Profiles) This is extraordinarily significant. The doctrine of the supremacy of the scriptures meant that church authority could no longer stand as it had. People were no longer content to simply let the church interpret the scriptures for them. While in Belgium, Rogers in association with Tyndale, helped to compile an English translation of the bible under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. It was also during this time in Belgium, that Rogers met and married Adriana de Weyden. Here they may have stayed if not for the betrayal and arrest of Tyndale, documented earlier.
Rogers left Belgium and his chaplaincy to go to the center of Reformation activity in Europe – Wittenberg , Germany. The very place that Martin Luther had hammered the 95 Theses to the church door, Rogers came onto the scene where people were actively campaigning for and living out the Reformation. One imagines that Rogers would have met Martin Luther there with his wife Katharina Von Bora. It would certainly have been odd to avoid such a meeting.
Some debate had rested on Rogers in Germany until recently. Joseph Chester in his 1861 biography recounted that, “Foxe gives us no information whatever on the subject, and only records the bare facts that he went to Wittenberg, became a proficient in the German language, and took charge of a congregation there…[yet] a careful research among the archives in Belgium and Saxony has resulted in a failure to discover even so little as his name.” (16-17) The lack of easily accessible more recent resources on Roger’s life lended itself to the idea that this trip may have never happened. Dan Graves, in his short biography, doesn’t mention the Wittenberg trip at all. (“John Rogers, 1st of Many Martyrs”) However in 2003, David Daniell unearthed evidence that confirms that Rogers did indeed study at the University of Wittenberg until 1540. His Yale University Press published volume on the history of the English Bible demonstrates that Rogers became a close friend of Philipp Melanchthon, and served in ministry over a church in Meldorf, Dithmarschen in modern day Schleswig-Holstein. (The Bible in English) Foxe had not been so inaccurate, after all.
Eventually, Rogers did make it back to England. Protestantism had become acceptable for a time under Henry VIII and Edward VI. Rogers had already published his English version of the Bible a few years earlier. Reforming bishop of the Church of England Thomas Cranmer loved it. Graves relates, “When Bishop Cranmer saw a copy of the new Bible, he was so excited that he asked Chancellor Thomas Cromwell to see if the king would license it. Henry VIII did, and the Matthew Bible became the first officially authorized version in the English language.” (“John Rogers”) Following the accolades and after spending time on the continent Rogers left to come back to his native soil where he was given, “high positions in the Church…” (Graves). He served in multiple positions and congregations including St. Sepulchre’s (still standing) , St. Paul’s (still standing), and St. Margaret Moses (destroyed in 1666 due to the Great Fire of London). Rogers’ work went before him.
Unfortunately, the era of Protestantism in England during this time was by no means permanent. Queen Mary I or “Bloody Mary” took the throne after Edward VI and slowly but surely set out to censure those who had been preaching a vernacular bible in order to reestablish Catholicism in England. Rogers may have held out, but he could not deny the reformed doctrines he now had adopted. He served faithfully in his post, but due to his reformation theology was thrown into prison in 1554. Here, he faced constant questioning “about his beliefs by Lord Chancellor Stephen Gardiner.” (Graves). In 1555, in Smithfield, Rogers was burned at the stake. His year of torment over, Rogers death is recounted by John Foxe:
He was the first martyr of all the blessed company that suffered in Queen Mary’s time that gave the first adventure upon the fire. His wife and children, being eleven in number, ten able to go, and one sucking at her breast, met him by the way, as he went towards Smithfield. This sorrowful sight of his own flesh and blood could nothing move him, but that he constantly and cheerfully took his death with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of the Gospel of Christ.
– Acts and Monuments
Roger’s legacy remains a subject of study to this day.
Click Here for a fantastic facsimile of John Roger’s Matthew Bible.
Chester, Joseph Lemuel. John Rogers: the compiler of the first authorised English Bible; the pioneer of the English reformation; and its first martyr. Embracing a genealogical account of his family, biographical sketches of some of his principal descendants, his own writings, etc. etc. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861. Hosted on Hathi Trust Digital Library.
Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Web. 13 Oct 2015. Quoted on Wikipedia.
Graves, Dan. “John Rogers, 1st of Many Martyrs.” March 2007. Church History. Christianity.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
“Rogers, John.” A Cambridge Alumni Database. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
[Edited 10/14/15 formatting, word choice, added quote from Acts and Monuments]