The book that is now known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was released by Englishman John Foxe in 1563 and entitled Acts and Monuments. The account of Christian martyrdom earned such popularity that for a while this was the only accessible reading to the Christians in addition to the Bible. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs left an imprint on early history of the land later became the United States of America, the land that attracted many escaping religious prosecution.
John Foxe, as follows from the stand he takes in the book, was a staunch Protestant and believed the Protestant faith to be the only true faith. He also believed in the connection between the Holy Scripture and Christian history, deeming the latter to be a direct continuation of the first. He saw his work in describing Christian martyrs as continuing the description of early Christians found in Acts. In Foxe’s view, God and Satan are at work in this world and have been so since the earliest days of Christianity. Days when Satan’s activity is suppressed alternate with those when his evil hand is released for action. Satan’s ascension is accompanied by increase in the scope of religious persecutions.
Foxe’s first edition of History of the Acts and Monuments of the Church that came out in 1554 was in Latin, an acknowledged language of science and scholarly writing in the 16th century. In 1564 the English edition reached the world, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth whom Foxe believed to be a benefactor of the true faith, just as Queen Mary from the North had come to destroy this faith. The fact that the book was written in English made it accessible for wide masses of people and contributed a lot to the popularity of Foxe’s writings. 170 woodcuts included in the book served to make it meaningful to the illiterate part of the population.
In the first chapter, Foxe recounts the story of Peter who was chosen by Christ to be the rock for the construction of the church. Foxe gives credit to the founder of the Catholic Church by remembering “the disciple who was known unto the high-priest” (Forbush). In the second chapter, Foxe proceeds to describe ten primitive persecutions that took place under various Roman emperors, Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, and others. These early pages of the Christian history are rather uncontroversial since most Christians including Catholics are acquainted with the cruel treatment of Christians by Roman rulers.
The subsequent chapters span a broad period of time involving persecution of Christians by non-Christian groups such as Persians, Goths, Vandals, and Arian Heretics. Then Foxe proceeds to describe the atrocities of Papacy in medieaval Europe, classifying persecutions of groups labelled by the Catholic leadership as heretic as martyrdom. Foxe’s conviction that Protestant branch of Christianity is the only true religion corresponds to the account of persecutions. Foxe’s book brought to Europe the description of campaigns against Wycliftists, Hussites, and Waldensians. Their ideas, Protestant in nature were close to Foxe’s beliefs, and he equated to some extent their sufferings with those experienced by early Christians in the Roman empire. The Roman Papacy, just as the Roman empire of the time of its grand finale, seems to have accumulated too much wealth and get sunk in low worldly pursuits of material gain, contrasting with selfless opponents regarded as Christian martyrs.
In Chapter III, Foxe is more concerned with secular persecution, mob killings, or cases of religious reprisals in non-Christian nations. In Chapter IV he turns to papal power that “under the guise of Christianity, committed more enormities than ever disgraced the annals of paganism” (Forbush). Along with Waldensees, he includes here the Albigenses, the Bartholomew Massacre at Paris in 1572, and the story of persecution in France up to the Revolution in the late 18th century.
The next chapter is devoted specifically to the atrocities of the Inquisition, in particular in the Holy Roman Empire and in Spain. Foxe also devotes whole chapters to life stories of renowned Protestant leaders and those who espoused similar ideas, including Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Calvin and others. These people to Foxe the direct descendants of early Christians upholding their values and ideas, neglected by the papacy. Foxe pays little attention to Christian persecution of Jews. Moors, and other ethnic and religious groups. His primary focus is the injustice inflicted on Christian martyrs, and mainly those who can serve as proof of the correctness of Protestant beliefs. All his martyrs are lauded as true Christians whose death is the working of the Satan eager to destroy those who have true faith.
Foxe does not hesitate to attribute to this category Queen Mary, a politically correct move for that time that won him the benevolence of Queen Elizabeth, the winner over Queen Mary. Foxe’s portrayal of martyrs under Queen Mary is supplied with documents from trials over Christians, for instance Oxford scholars Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer. The statements made by the martyrs in courts often reveal their position on religious matters in a very vivid and memorable way. Latimer’s words “We shall this day light a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!” are probably the inner motto of Foxe himself who devoted his whole life to the preservation of true Christian ideals (Forbush). The rule of Queen Mary is denigrated in the book as an authority that subordinated the British to the dominance of the Roman Papacy.
For all its limitations visible to the contemporary reader, such as preoccupation with one religious trend or failure to account for other instances of persecutions, Foxe’s book carries an important message to the modern reader throughout the centuries that separate us from its author. It is a song to the strength of the human spirit, mighty in the fight against injustice and persecution, ready to stand up for its ideals, for the creation of a better world for everybody on earth. Similar to stories of genocide in more recent history, this book alerts us to the need to guard and treasure the freedom of religion to put a barrier in the way of new reprisals on religious grounds.
Forbush, William Byron (ed.). Fox’s Book of Martyrs. 11 September 2005 <http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/home.html>.