‘Foxe’ is not a name familiar to many Christians. It is the first word in the title of what is today a widely un-read book, Foxe’s book of Martyrs.
In fact, John Foxe was a real person, and two good reasons for thinking about him are that he was a Christian and that he was born exactly 500 years ago (probably!).
For most of the twentieth century John Foxe was disregarded. He belonged firstly to the Puritan type of Christianity, which was so out of vogue; and secondly was widely read in Victorian times, and anything Victorian was certainly out of vogue. However, times change and people seem to like things Victorian now (the same cannot be said about Puritan though).
Digital Book of Martyrs
There is no major modern biography of this man and there is even debate about the exact year of his birth; it may actually have been 1517.
However, for the past 20 years, a major academic undertaking based at the University of Sheffield in England has been producing digital versions of the Acts and Monuments (Foxe’s book of Martyrs). These are now available to the public via the website www.johnfoxe.org
Foxe himself would surely have been delighted to have the internet at his disposal. If you want to read this colossal publication, or if you want to discover more about Foxe himself, this website is a good starting point.
Born in Boston, Lincolnshire, seven years into the reign of Henry VIII, Foxe lived during some of the most turbulent times in English history. By the time he was 20, the Reformation in England, in all its complexity, was well under way.
It was through family connections that John was given the means to study at Brasenose College, Oxford. He initially pursued an academic life and became a fellow of Magdalen College from 1539-45. Eventually he had to resign this post, the exact reasons being unclear; it may have been due to his support for the Protestant movement in England.
For a number of years Foxe was tutor to children of a well connected family and, during this time, married. In the closing years of Henry’s reign he was ordained to the Christian ministry. The bishop who ordained him was Nicholas Ridley, later burned at the stake under Queen Mary.
John Foxe was on friendly terms with a number of leading advocates of reformation. By the time he was 30-something, Edward VI, the fragile son of Henry VIII, began his brief rule. Unlike his father, the teenage king openly supported further reformation and John Foxe gladly served as a true pastor in the English church under such a king.
Yet, before he reached 40, he was on the continent of Europe in exile and on the run from Mary I, Henry’s daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Once popularly known as Bloody Mary for her persecution and execution of several hundred Protestants, Mary sought to reverse the whole process of reformation and return England to the pope and Catholic Church.
We should not imagine that exile on the Continent was solitary confinement. People travelled around Europe a great deal and there was considerable freedom in the movement of people, goods and traffic. Foxe was in contact with a number of other English reformers, all seeking to further their ideals as best they could.
One plan was to use the modern technology of the day to print books that would expose the errors and oppression of Mary’s pro-Catholic reign. Such resources would also sustain those still striving in England.
A book that could tell the story of the church from a Protestant and biblical perspective with solid scholarship, and that would address the contemporary situation, was needed. If that book could provide the justification for a Protestant England and help inspire gospel Christians in England, and if it could expose the tyranny of Romanism and show the people the path to spiritual light and liberty, it would be a valuable weapon in the cause of the Reformation.
John Foxe ended up being the man who compiled such a work. He actually began it in Latin and, before Mary’s reign was over, published two editions of a two-volume history covering the European scene.
Mary’s counter-reformation came to a stuttering halt with her death in 1558. Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by wife number two, Anne Boleyn, came to the throne and ruled for over 40 years.
During Elizabeth’s reign, Protestantism was consolidated, but the process of further reformation stagnated. The gospel advanced despite the monarch rather than because of her. She was unenthusiastic about the gospel, but keen to build defences against Catholic-inspired plots within and invasions from without.
So John Foxe’s great project played a major part in ensuring Catholicism was never again seen as a viable option by most English people. His Acts and Monuments developed into a truly epic publication of eight large volumes, written in English and providing vivid, documentary accounts of how believers — both men and women — had heroically stood for the faith down the centuries and across the lands of Europe.
But more than this, the book charted the whole sweep and progress of Christ’s church, as Foxe and many others saw it. It was a story of how England, in particular, threw off the yoke of spiritual oppression to blaze the light of gospel truth in triumph and trial.
From our perspective, we know that, after Elizabeth’s accession, Catholicism did not re-establish itself as a force in England for several centuries. This was not known to Foxe or his contemporaries and, as far as they were concerned, Catholicism was a far greater danger to the security of the realm than radical Islam is to us today.
If they needed proof of that, the Armada gave them plenty. Foxe’s book therefore performed a role as an alternative narrative and apologia or justification for the Protestant Reformation.
It established a set of sound, solid and durable British values that almost nullified the attempts of Roman Catholics to rouse English people against Elizabeth. It portrayed not abstract concepts, but the truth of the gospel lived out in the lives of ‘martyrs’. And these martyrs were not people who took up arms or took lives, but those who took up the Word of God and surrendered their lives for Christ.
The weapons of their warfare were not guns and explosives, but scriptural arguments that had divine power to bring souls into the liberty of Jesus Christ.
It is, of course, true that government policy endorsed the Acts and Monuments. It was the most effective anti-radicalisation programme (apart from the gospel itself) that could have been devised. Elizabeth and her ministers were politically astute and knew that using such a book would bolster an isolated and vulnerable England.
But that does not make the Acts and Monuments only government propaganda. It was effective because true. It was also effective because widely read.
Even Sir Francis Drake took a copy with him when he sailed round the world. On quiet days he might pass the time colouring the book’s woodcut pictures. After successful battles with the Spanish, he was not above teasing his captives by reading out appropriate passages!
Not that Foxe would pass muster as a historian today: he had too much of an ‘agenda’ for academia. He had a story to tell and told it. But his history was squarely based on original documents and went to immense lengths to establish the facts.
He adapted his text with successive editions as he responded to the attacks of his opponents. The reality is that, while Foxe’s book of Martyrs was in print and in demand, Catholicism was a non-starter in England.
John Foxe, however, was about more than just a great book. He was firstly a pastor in what we now know as the Church of England. As a pastor he had a true concern for the good of the people.
Just after the first edition of Acts and Monuments was published in England, plague broke out in London. The summer of 1563 brought death to many, and multitudes left the capital for their own safety. Foxe remained and brought spiritual and material comfort to the suffering.
He wrote and published a pamphlet which was intended to give spiritual help to those he could not reach, since ministers were few. It included a strong plea to the wealthy to give practical support from their purses.
It is unsurprising that such a pastor, living such a life, was honoured at his funeral by great crowds who came to his burial. They did not recall a detached academic, but a man who had a heart for the gospel and for people.
Times have changed, but truth does not. Foxe’s great book may today seem inaccessible, but it is not hard to browse it on the internet, and today there is opportunity to revisit events long past and ponder the many issues that still apply.
What is the gospel? What is the church? Where is truth to be found? What is the real character of a Christian person? How do we face opposition and persecution? Will God’s cause be extinguished or finally prevail?
Oh, and exactly how are we to understand the book of Revelation? All this and more, John Foxe sought to answer. We would do well to revisit his work on this the 500th anniversary of his natural birth (see also p.18).
Simon Chase is pastor of Gillingham Baptist Church, Dorset