John Foxe – Documenting Persecution and Martyrdom
The most influential and inspirational book arising out of the flames of the Protestant Reformation was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This book, second only to the Bible in popularity, should be found, according to John Wesley, in every minister’s library.
Born in Boston, England, John Foxe (1517 – 1587) grew up in a family of modest wealth and prominence. He began his studies at Oxford at the age of sixteen and completed theological studies with a master’s degree nine years later, prepared to become a lecturer in logic, an academic career that would require priestly ordination and celibacy. However, his acquaintance with William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, and other Reformers as well as his theological and biblical studies turned him away from his Catholic heritage.
Without a clerical position, Foxe struggled to support his bride, Agnes Randall. But with the death of Henry VIII and the ascension of Edward VI to the throne, his prospects improved. Protestant sympathizers were eager to support his ministry of teaching and writing. The Duchess of Richmond served as his patron and for a time provided housing in her castle. She introduced him to other leading Reformers of the day, including Nicholas Ridley, who presided over his ordination in 1550. But when Edward VI died and Mary ascended the throne, the good times for Foxe, his patron, and his fellow Reformers were over. Fearing for their lives, he and his pregnant wife left for Holland and then moved on to Frankfurt and Strasbourg.
Although united by a fear of Catholic rulers back home, the English exiles were unable get along among themselves. From Strasbourg, Foxe returned to Frankfurt as the minister of an English church. But soon the matter of liturgy caused the members, in his words, to fall into “the violence of warring factions.” Some, influenced by Knox, insisted on following Calvin’s church order, while others demanded the continued use of the Book of Common Prayer. Though a friend of Knox, Foxe, like most Reformers, was deeply troubled by Knox’s “rude vehemency” toward Queen Mary.
With the death of Queen Mary in 1558, Foxe, like many of his fellow English exiles eagerly returned to his homeland. But never again would he enjoy the luxurious patronage of his earlier years. Yet he continued writing and publishing, focusing on the history of persecution and martyrdom from the time of the early church to his own day. In 1563 he published the first edition of his Book of Martyrs, which became an immediate bestseller (though it never made him a rich man). His writing, based on trial records, journals, letters, and eyewitness accounts, served as a powerful defense of the Protestant cause while at the same time exacerbating the hostility between Catholics and Protestants. He exonerated Protestants while recording every account of Catholic brutality that came his way. But the book stood as a monument to faith and courage amid persecution, bringing consolation to Christians worldwide.
Although a religious partisan, Foxe was known for a spirit of religious toleration unusual in his era. He petitioned Queen Elizabeth to grant reprieve to several Anabaptists who had been sentenced to death, and some years later he pleaded for the lives of Jesuits awaiting execution.
The English Reformation would continue on into the late seventeenth century with the Puritans and their profound influence on religion in America. The dissatisfaction with the Anglican Church and its failure to carry out reform as Calvin had in Geneva spurred many English Christians to call for purity and separation, thus the terms Puritans and Separatists.