History records that on 1st August 1556, Joan Waste became one of the nearly 300 souls burnt at the stake for heresy during the Marian Persecutions during the reign of Queen Mary I. Her life and death is so much more than a statistic in the Kingdom of God, however, for she was a willing vessel in the hands of her God, allowing herself to be shaped and used by Him for His Glory’s sake. This unknown woman of the Reformation, neither of noble birth nor of learned education, epitomises for me the hope I have in my Lord and God. Her testimony rings out across the centuries of the glory that our Great God is able to bring forth from our lives for the sake of His Name if we too are willing to take up our cross and follow after Him.
The life of Joan Waste was a mere 22 years in length, but during that time she was the subject of 4 different monarchs at a time of great upheaval in English history. She was born, with her twin brother Roger, during the reign of Henry VIII into a poor family, her father William was a barber and rope-maker. She was blind from birth, yet even so, between the ages of 12 and 14 she had learnt not only to knit but also the art of rope-making herself. When her parents died, she and her brother took care of one another.
When Joan was 13 years old, King Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI. The Reformation that was making progress on the continent through the teachings of Luther and Calvin had only made partial progress in England during Henry’s reign. The advent of the Protestant boy king, Edward VI to the throne in 1547 brought royal approval to the Reformation, and the Church of England became increasingly Protestant. For the first time, church services were conducted in English, the language of the people; the 1549 Prayer book taught the reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the 1552 Book of Common Prayer removed any notion that the real presence of God was in the bread and wine.
“The LORD is my light and my salvation” – Psalm 27:1
So it was that during the reign of Edward VI, when God in His divine providence enabled the Word of God to be made more freely available to the people of England through both the spread of English language Bibles and the use of English in the services, Joan Waste began attending daily services with her twin brother, Roger. As she heard the Word of God preached, faith was born in her heart through the power of the Holy Spirit, and she soon desired her very own copy of the New Testament. Hunger for God leads to a hunger for His Word. Despite her poverty, she was able to save enough money from her rope-making to purchase a copy.
“Teach me your way, O Lord” – Psalm 27:11
Her desire for the Word of God overcame the fact of her blindness, and she made haste to the local prison where she befriended the 70-year old John Hurt. Lonely and with little to keep him occupied during the day, when Joan approached him and asked him to read a chapter from the New Testament to her each day, he was glad to oblige. When he was unavailable or unwell, this similarly did not deter her, and she would find another person to read to her, even paying them whatever she could spare if they were unwilling to do so freely.
Through her listening to the Scriptures, she was soon able to recite whole chapters herself from memory, and the Word of God was so ingrained on her heart that it shaped her character, and she was also able to identify false teaching. Oh, that God would grant all of us this desire and love for His Word, that we would cherish it likewise, memorise it in our hearts and minds, and allow it to shape us, mould us, and influence each and every area of our lives! May we never take the free availability of the Bible for granted, may we instead see that it is a divine providence that is given or taken away for the sake of His Glory, and may we use the opportunity we currently have to store as much of it in our hearts as possible!
“The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1
In 1553, when Joan was 19 years of age, King Edward died. A royal battle followed as to who would succeed Edward, for the Protestant King wished to prevent the country returning to Catholicism through the succession of the rightful heir, his half-sister Mary. A plan was hatched to put his cousin, Lady Jane Grey on the throne – however, her reign lasted a mere 9 days before Mary deposed her and returned England to Catholicism. The revival of the Heresies Act in December 1554 led to the infamous Marian Persecutions, where refusal to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation would lead to death. Here is the point at which a faith in theologians, the teachings of others, and even a knowledge of words on the pages of the Bible is no longer sufficient. A faith in the living God, Who has made those words alive in our hearts, Whose Spirit has poured those words like sweet honey into the very depths of our souls, Who has answered the desperate crying and seeking of our hearts with His very real presence in our lives, so that our hearts can cry out “I know Whom I have believed!” is surely what will carry us through times such as this, as His grace meets us in our time of need.
Joan Waste, one such soul who could cry out “I know Whom I have believed!” would not compromise on her precious faith, and refused to participate in Catholic acts of worship. It wasn’t long before she attracted the attention of the Bishop of the Diocese, Raif Bain, and his chancellor Dr Draicot. Refusing to recant her belief that the bread and wine was not the real body and blood of Christ but only a remembrance of Him, she was sentenced to death.
“Give me not up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence” – Psalm 27:12
A few weeks later she was taken to the parish church of All Saints and stood before the pulpit as Dr Draicot condemned her for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, accused her of being not only blind in her eyes but blind in her soul too, and said her soul would burn in hell with everlasting fire. Then, holding onto her brother Roger’s hand, she was led out to Windmill Pit where, crying out to Jesus for mercy, she was burned at the stake. A hollow victory for the enemy for “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:11).
“I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!” – Psalm 27:13
The goodness of God to Joan Waste was such that He redeemed her life – he took her blindness of flesh and gave her spiritual eyes to see Him and seek His face. He even redeemed her name as Joan Waste’s life was certainly not a loss to God’s purposes. How He took her life and gained the glory from it at each point because she was willing to be used by Him. When the conditions in the country were favourably disposed towards the advancement of the Christian faith, she glorified Him by seeking to read and meditate on His Word, no matter how difficult this was for her in her particular circumstances, and allowed it to shape her life. When persecution came through a change in monarch, she glorified Him by refusing to renounce her faith and was willing to lay down her life for Her Lord rather than bend the knee to Caesar. May we all learn from the life of this dear, faithful, young woman of God.
The next post in this series is Anne Bradstreet by Elizabeth DeBarros
About the Author: Diana Lovegrove, who blogs at Waiting for our Blessed Hope, lives in England with her husband, Pete, her 6 year old son Harry, and her Jack Russell terrier, Patch.