John Foxe (1516-1587), born in Lincolnshire, England, was an English church historian whose massive and unanswerable work, The Acts and Monuments, nerved all of England against the Church of Rome.
John entered his training at Brazenose College, Oxford when just sixteen–in the same year that Henry VIII’s Church of England made its breach with Rome. King Henry was a shrewd politican who had the remarkable ability of speaking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. In our day this usually requires extensive cosmetic surgery, but Henry had learned to do it naturally, as he compromised between the old medieval church and the new rising Lutheranism. Though England had made a break with Rome, Romish doctrine held sway.
In that tenuous climate, Foxe graduated in 1538, and became an instructor at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1543. He had a talent for poetry and wrote several Latin comedies based on biblical themes, so we know he was being exposed to the Word of God. He was converted when about 26 years of age while studying the controversy between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
In 1545, due to his new-found beliefs, he was accused of heresy. He had rejected the idea of the physical presence of the body and blood of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Heresy was a serious crime. Heretics were outcasts, often ostracized by family, banned by law from owning property and/or receiving patrimony. When he did not back down, but rather defended his Protestant opinions, he was fired from his job. The previous year three men had been burned at the stake for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation. So when Foxe was dismissed from his teaching position, he was informed that he was getting off easy.
But Foxe knew whereof he spoke. By his thirtieth year, he was intensely investigating the errors of the papists and the truth of the gospel. He mastered ecclesiastical history, becoming conversant in all the Greek and Latin Fathers, the Church creeds and councils, and the writings and controversies of the schoolmen. He was acquainted with Jewish and rabbinical writings, and mastered both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament.
His often protracted studies kept him up into the night hours, especially his studies of the Bible in the original languages. Throughout his life, he ensconced himself in his study. Did he do the right thing? The abiding monuments left by such men are their own vindication.
For the next several years, Foxe supported himself by tutoring, first in the family of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote. While there he married the daughter of a gentleman from Coventry who had been a guest in the house. God blessed that union with children who adored and admired their father. Yet they were not easy days. John’s father-in-law cut them off from any financial support on his part because of the heresy charge.
In 1547, Foxe tutored the children of the Earl of Surrey. Between 1547-1553, he tutored the grandchildren of the Duke of Norfolk at Reigate. There Thomas Cranmer assisted Foxe in researching a book. It was a massive project that Foxe would entitle The Acts and Monuments of the Church, otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Foxe was a personal friend of Hugh Latimer and William Tyndale. In 1550, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England by Nicholas Ridley.
After the accession of Bloody Mary to the throne, more than 2000 clergymen were turned out of their pulpits. Of these about 800 Reformers sailed to foreign parts, including notables like John Jewel, John Knox, and William Whittingham. Many foreigners such as Peter Martyr and John a Lasco also fled.
Foxe survived the reign of Mary Tudor by fleeing to a Reformation-friendly northern Europe. In the year 1554, several friends disappeared, and the prison system was experiencing a sudden influx. The young Duke of Norfolk secured passage for Foxe’s family, and arrranged for them to stay with one of his tenant farmers near Ipswich while they waited for the ship to sail. The Foxes hid in the barn. The day they embarked, a messenger from the Bishop of Winchester broke into the farmer’s house with a warrant for his arrest. So the difference between John Foxe becoming the author of a book of martyrs and being the subject in a book of martyrs was only a matter of minutes.
Safe in Nieuport, they moved on to Antwerp, then to Strasbourg, where, in 1554, he published the first part of his labors, a 1000-page volume in Latin narrating the persecutions of the saints in the two centuries preceding the Reformation, notably those of the Wycliffites and the Hussites. This original edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments was the result of eleven years of research. He had written every word with his own hand.
He moved on to Frankfurt where Peter Martyr and John Knox also resided. There he engaged in disputes between the English who followed Knox’s Puritanism by rejecting the English Prayer Book, and those who followed the Episcopalians in embracing it. That experience showed that being thrown into the same foxhole in the crisis didn’t mean that they all agreed. These were strongminded men who had paid a heavy price for their beliefs.
In 1555, Foxe moved to Basil. There he revised, expanded, and improved several later editions of his book. In 1559, the first enlarged edition was published from Basel in Latin and from Geneva in French. This 1559 edition was in three volumes, the second volume covering Luther to Henry VIII and the third volume recounted the years and persecutions under Bloody Mary.
And between 1555 and 1558, Mary had Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley and–it is generally accepted today–about 300 Protestant leaders burned at the stake. According to Foxe’s careful computing, 285 died.
J. Strype in his Ecclesiastical Memorials says that 288 perished by the flames or the broadax, not to mention those who perished in prisons from starvation and exposure. Another historian, A. G. Dickens, discovered still other cases that neither Foxe nor Strype figured in.
Not everyone enjoyed the conclusions that Foxe came to, but no one seriously accused him of inflating the known data. Indeed, the conclusions that Foxe arrived at have been hotly disputed between Catholics and Protestants, but the factual basis of Foxe’s reporting stands unanswered. And whatever incidental mistakes have been discovered have not discredited Foxe’s scholarship. This established the Protestant church on the moral high ground, and convinced generations since that the compromised and compromising established institutional church is not to be trusted.
After Mary died, her Protestant sister, Elizabeth, came to the throne, and Foxe cautiously returned to England. His former pupil, Cecil, now Duke of Norfolk, gave him a pension for his support, and in 1563 Foxe was appointed prebendary, or occasional preacher in Shipton at the Cathedral of Salisbury by the efforts of his friend, Bishop Parkhurst. For the first time since he was expelled for heresy, he was not living in extreme poverty. Also in 1563, an expanded English edition of 1700 page (besides indexes, prefaces, etc.) was published at London.
Each of the many new editions Foxe prepared was improved and enlarged. Most current editions of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs are condensations of condensations. These modern versions only encompass about 1/4 of the original text, and this in a very abridged form. They focus on the martyrs’ sufferings but largely omit the evangelical truths for which these martyrs perished. According to Foxe, the spirit of the martyrs has always been the sufficiency and authority of the Bible and the right of private judgment.
There is a full set available. It is a recent reprint of the 1843 edition published in London in eight volumes. The first volume includes a 230-page biography of Foxe, plus appendices, by George Townsend. The text of the martyrology runs some 5800 pages, with over 600 pages of appendices, a 120-page general index, an 11-page index of martyrs, and a 9-page glossarial index. It is available at a discounted price to Uplook readers from Still Waters Revival Books, 4710-37A Ave, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6L 3T5. Phone: (780) 450-3730.
Though an Episcopalian, John Foxe steadfastly refused higher preferments because he objected to various ceremonies and vestments. When urged by Archbishop Parker to subscribe, he said, “To this will I subscribe” and pulled a Greek New Testament out of his pocket.
He is renowned for his diligence, perseverence, and servant’s spirit. Few literary contributions have had such impact or have endeared themselves to believers as has Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It came to North America with the earliest settlers alongside the Bible and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Foxe paid scrupulous attention to the facts, and labored to show the kinship of the Reformation and Protestant cause with the persecuted church of the catacombs and the martyrs of the Dark Ages. His book eloquently answered the sarcastic Papist query, “Where were you before Luther?”
In 1587, John Foxe fell asleep in Jesus. He was buried in the church cemetery of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London.
Material for this article taken from:
Neal’s History of the Puritans, Harper and Bros., 1843
George Townsend, The Life of John Foxe, 1843.
Malcolm Lambert, Medievel Heresy, Oxford UK, 1992