John Foxe and His Turbulent Times
DOES mankind learn from the past, or are history’s lessons wasted on us? Think about that question as you consider the life of John Foxe, an Englishman who took to the pen in hopes that his readers would repudiate the unspeakable cruelties that plagued his time.
John Foxe’s accounts, recorded during the Reformation, did indeed have a powerful influence on the people of England for centuries. His book, entitled Acts and Monuments of the Church, took more than 25 years to complete. And it is said by some to be second only to the vernacular Bible as a formative influence on the English language and culture.
John Foxe was born in Boston, England, in 1516 or 1517, about the same time that, as tradition has it, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses, or protests, to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. So Foxe, a Roman Catholic by birth, came on the scene as Reformers were challenging the authority and teachings of the Catholic Church.
Foxe enrolled at Oxford University, and his studies included Greek and Hebrew, which enabled him to read the Bible in its original languages. Evidently, his Catholic beliefs suffered as a result. In fact, his colleagues began to think he might be embracing Protestantism—a suspicion that they divulged to the heads of the college. Thereafter, Foxe was closely watched.
After being awarded his master’s degree in 1543, Foxe was in line to be ordained as a priest. But he refused the ordination because he disagreed with enforced celibacy. This stand brought things to a head. Under suspicion of heresy—which, if proved, could have meant death—he resigned from the university in 1545. Abandoning a promising academic career, Foxe became a tutor for a family near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where he married a woman named Agnes Randall.
A citizen of nearby Coventry, Agnes told Foxe about a widow named Smith (or Smythe) who had taught her children the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ model prayer, often called the Lord’s Prayer. Instead of teaching her children in Latin though, she taught them in English. For this “crime” she was burned at the stake, along with six men who were similarly charged. Because this gross injustice angered the people, the local bishop spread the word that the victims were burned for the “greater crime” of eating meat on Fridays and other fast days.
How had the martyrs become familiar with portions of the Bible in English? Some 150 years earlier, despite church opposition, the Bible had been translated from Latin into English by John Wycliffe, who also trained itinerant preachers known as Lollards.* These carried handwritten portions of Scripture, which they read to the people. As a result, Parliament tried to stop that activity. In 1401, it passed a statute giving bishops the power to imprison and torture heretics and burn them at the stake.
Fearing arrest, Foxe moved with his family to London, where he later took a stand for the Protestant cause. There he translated tracts from German Reformers into English and translated other tracts written in Latin as well. He also wrote some tracts of his own.
Additionally, Foxe began to compile a history of the Lollards in England, completing it in 1554. The work was published in Strasbourg, today a city in France, as a small Latin volume of 212 leaves. In effect, this was the first of his Acts and Monuments of the Church. Five years later, he enlarged the volume to over 750 folio pages.
The Deadly Fruits of Intolerance
The Reformation in Europe saw thousands of men, women, and children slaughtered. In England, in 1553, an ardent Catholic who came to be known as Bloody Mary was crowned. Since the English Parliament had severed all connection with Rome in 1534, she was determined to bring England back under papal authority. During Mary’s five-year reign, some 300 men and women, including Protestant church leaders, were burned as heretics. Many others died in prison.
Foxe survived this era because he took his family to Basel, Switzerland, soon after Mary’s enthronement. In 1559, one year after Mary’s Protestant sister Elizabeth was crowned queen, he returned to England, along with other exiles. That same year, Elizabeth reinstated the Act of Supremacy*, which made her the Supreme Governor of the Church. In response, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570. Soon, international conspiracies against England were uncovered, including schemes to assassinate the Protestant queen. As a result, hundreds of Catholics were charged with treason and killed on Elizabeth’s orders.
How far the churches of Christendom—Catholic and Protestant—had strayed from the teachings of Jesus Christ! “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you,” he taught. (Matthew 5:44) Because both Catholics and Protestants disregarded this very clear directive, they brought much reproach on Christianity—a development foretold in the Bible. “The way of the truth will be spoken of abusively” on account of pretenders to Christianity, wrote the apostle Peter.—2 Peter 2:1, 2.
Foxe Completes His Work
Back in England, Foxe embarked on an enlarged edition of his account, details of which may have been witnessed in person by some of his readers. His first English edition—with some 1,800 pages and a number of woodcut illustrations—appeared in 1563 and became an immediate best seller.
The second edition followed seven years later. Its two volumes had over 2,300 pages and 153 illustrations. The following year, the Church of England decreed that a copy of Foxe’s book be installed alongside the Bible in all English cathedrals and in the homes of church dignitaries for the benefit of servants and visitors. Parish churches soon followed this example. Even the illiterate could benefit, thanks to the illustrations, which made a deep and lasting impression.
By this time, Foxe had joined the Puritans, Protestants who felt that mere separation from the church of Rome was not enough. They taught that every vestige of Catholicism had to be removed—a stance that, ironically, brought them into conflict with the Protestant Church in England, which retained many Catholic customs and doctrines.
Because his work exposed many of the religious atrocities that took place in his turbulent times, John Foxe shaped the way people viewed religion and politics in England for centuries to come.
See the article “The Lollards, Courageous Bible Preachers,” in the August 1, 1980, issue of The Watchtower.
The Leading Facts of English History, by D. H. Montgomery, states that in 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, “which declared Henry to be without reservation the sole head of the Church, making denial thereof high treason. As he signed the act, the King with one stroke of his pen overturned the traditions of a thousand years, and England stood boldly forth with a National Church independent of the Pope.”
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FOXE’S BOOK OF MARTYRS
As the Catholic Church continued to fight the Reformation, martyrologists in Europe, such as Jean Crespin, compiled details of persecution and martyrdom in their countries.* As a result, Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Church was dubbed Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Later, as revised and abridged editions appeared, the unofficial title superseded the one chosen by Foxe.
See the article “Jean Crespin’s Book of Martyrs” in the March 2011 issue of this magazine.
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John Wycliffe sent out itinerant preachers known as Lollards
From the book The Church of England: A History for the People, 1905, Vol. II
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From Foxe’s Book of Martyrs