John Foxe: Martyrologist


Originally published in Pulpit Helps, June 1997.

John Foxe was born in 1516 or 1517 at Boston, Lincolnshire, England. Beginning his studies enslaved by unscriptural dogma (as all of his countrymen were at that time), he was eventually enlightened and broke with Roman Catholicism.

He became one of the most outstanding church historians. His monumental Book of Martyrs, still widely circulated after more than four centuries, deserves ranking in the same league with such immortal classics as Pilgrim's Progress.

Thorough study of the church fathers and ecclesiastical history persuaded Foxe that the official church had distorted Christian truth. His conversion is not clearly documented; however, it seems that soon after obtaining a masters degree as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, he began to absent himself from college chapel and university church services on all but official occasions.

Correspondence with Hugh Latimer and William Tyndale, both prominent reformers and eventual martyrs, helped influence Foxe in the way of truth.

A series of moves landed Foxe in London near the end of the reign of Henry VIII. His resources nearly ran out before the Earl of Surrey engaged him as his children's tutor. At Reigate, Foxe was ordained deacon.

The reformation England had enjoyed under Edward VI did not, alas, continue. Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") succeeded to the throne; nearly 300 leaders would be murdered in her maniacal zeal to destroy the hated Protestant "heretics" and their cause. During this tumultuous time, Foxe fled England for the Continent, eventually settling in Basel, Switzerland, with many other British refugees from persecution. Their horrifying accounts of Bloody Mary's atrocities appalled Foxe. In recording these stories, Foxe modestly began the work which would eventually be greatly enlarged and become world famous.

In 1559, after Elizabeth I succeeded her sister Mary, Foxe returned to England in safety. He became prebendary (honorary clergyman) of Shipton in the cathedral of Salisbury, where he devoted most of his energies to literary endeavors. Later he was vicar of St. Giles, Cripplegate.

In 1563, Foxe published History of the Acts and Monuments of the Church, containing 1,700 closely-printed folio pages. When finally revised and completed in 1570, it gained its present title, Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Foxe was so dedicated to his work that once, when dining with a friend, he was asked which course of food he preferred first. "The last," he replied, so he could return home and get back to work sooner.

He wrote Grindal that no animal was ever "so weighed down and overdone by carrying burdens as I have long been by literary labors." Indeed his exertions, without adequate repose or recreation, so altered and emaciated his person that occasionally visiting relatives and friends scarcely recognized him! As his book progressed, it aroused a storm of opposition from Roman Catholics, who naturally sought to discredit and denounce it. Foxe only worked harder to substantiate everything in his volume.

Attacks against its authenticity still occur occasionally. One of the best defenses is J. F. Mozley's John Foxe and His Book (1940). It highlights and largely reestablishes Foxe's historical credibility, thus effectively vindicating him.

Foxe's monumental work, which first appeared in Latin, went through several editions during his lifetime. Still published today, it must rank as one of the longest continuously published books. Total circulation cannot begin to be estimated.

Over the centuries, the Book of Martyrs has comforted, inspired, and challenged multitudes of Christians facing trials and persecutions of whatever magnitude. Foxe deserves special honors for his unique role in preserving and publishing many of the sorriest episodes in Church history. His heroic victims "of whom the world was not worthyobtained a good report through faith" (Heb. 11:38-39).

Bernard R. DeRemer chronicled the lives of dozens of heroes of the faith in more than a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps Magazine, and continued to serve in this capacity as a volunteer contributor to Disciple. He joined those he had written about so faithfully in the Lord's presence in 2014.

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