Catholic Foxe Print
Written by Toby Sumpter   
Sunday, 19 September 2010 18:59

John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was one of the most significant works of the Reformation, and a glimpse into his life and his famous book indicates why that was and why it should continue to be.

Foxe became convinced of Protestant doctrines while studying at Magdalen College at Cambridge and resigned (or was asked to resign) in 1545, and when Mary came to the throne, he and his family fled to the mainland a few years later. Foxe spent time in Frankfurt and Strassbourg among other cities, and while in exile and found himself embroiled in controversy in Frankfurt when two factions formed in the English speaking church divided over issues of church polity. One side, led by Richard Cox, held to the polity of the Church of England and the newly published Book of Common Prayer, while the other side led by John Knox (and supported by Foxe) preferred the polity and liturgy of John Calvin’s Geneva. This of course gives us the debate of Cox, Knox, and Foxe which just goes to show that Dr. Suess was never far from the truth.

Beginning in Frankfurt and continuing throughout his life, Foxe showed himself to be a catholic protestant. While he sided with the Reformed contingent in Frankfurt, he decried the violence of the warring factions. Back in England he quickly assumed a similarly Reformed and puritan stance on many points. While he allowed himself to be ordained to the priesthood, he refused to wear vestments and because of similar scruples with the Church England declined to take any pastorate in the English Church though he did continue to write and preach in various capacities.

Despite Foxe’s objections to some of the forms imposed upon the English Church, Queen Elizabeth would refer to him affectionately as “our father Foxe,” and in 1570, the Anglican Convocation ordered a copy of his Book of Martyrs to be placed in every collegial church in England. Before the end of his life the Council of Bishops also ordered it placed in every cathedral church. Frequently it could be found chained to the pulpit next to the Bible. And for many years following, a well worn Book of Martyrs was as indicative of a fervent English faith as a Bible.

While it was Foxe who succeeded in giving Mary the epithet “Bloody,” and he would have no patience for talk of returning to Roman idolatry or mimicking its tyrannical abuses, he was not a reactionary either. While he decried the burning of Protestants at the stake, he likewise decried the execution of competing versions of Christianity period. He raised objections to the burning of two Roman Catholics during the reign of Edward VI, the protestant prince. Later, he objected strenuously to the burning of several Anabaptists. As he objected to the factions of Frankfurt, he was an irenic man who was not looking for dissension or divisions for the sake of dispute.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs reveals something of this catholic spirit in its literary structure as well. While Foxe is most famous for his vivid and excruciating accounts of the English martyrs, particularly during the reign of Bloody Mary, he doesn’t begin there. It is striking that Foxe begins with Jesus and the apostles and documents in great detail the ten great persecutions under Roman Emperors before the Edict of Milan under Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century. Foxe summarizes: “As the children of Israel had suffered in Egyptian captivity for 400 years, so had the Christians suffered persecution under the heels of the Roman empire for 300 years. The blood  of the lamb had saved the Israelite’s when the death angel passed over Egypt to deliver them from Pharaoh’s iron grip, and now the Cross of the Lamb of God had led an army of deliverance into the last stronghold of Roman tyranny and set God’s people free.”

While Foxe points to isolated persecutions “in isolated areas of the world” he sees the freedom granted under Constantine as the beginning of a thousand years in which Christians “lived in relative peace.” He recounts some of those isolated incidents and martyrdoms which occurred throughout the Middle Ages, but he picks up his central story again pointing out that the “persecution of Christians was spasmodic for nearly a thousand years, but then Satan again fastened himself on Rome and sent his workers forth in another systematic attempt to destroy the Church. Only this time the persecutions would not come from pagans, but from those who called themselves Christians, and whose fury and sadistic actions against those who held in faith to Christ would far exceed the cruelest imaginations of the pagans.”

Here Foxe’s catholicity becomes most apparent. While his rhetoric may strike our ears as heated and divisive, if he can prove what he says there is nothing overstated. But furthermore these few short quotations give us a glimpse into his overall project in the Book of Martyrs. His book is not merely a loose collection of martyr narratives. The overall plan and theme of the book is to tell the story of the true catholic Church. He opens the book quoting Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and he traces the story of God’s people particularly through their struggles and suffering.

But what Foxe notices is that there are some striking parallels between his 16th century situation and the situation of the early church martyrs. In both cases there is horrific suffering and death for believers, and in both cases the suffering and death is being meted out by furious and sadistic Romans. In the first instance it was Roman Emperors and their governors, and in the Reformation it was Roman Pontiffs and their bishops. Foxe draws a straight line from the early church down through the centuries to the Reformation and argues through narrative and story for the catholicity of the Reformation. The true catholic church is displayed and glorified through the blood of the martyrs, and ironically Rome is the instigator of both eras of persecution.

Many commentators have noted that Foxe does not pretend to offer an unbiased account of the Reformation. It is clear who Foxe is cheering for. But his cheering is not for a newly formed splinter denomination of English Puritanism. For all his own personal convictions, Foxe reveals a deep love and thankfulness for the historic catholic church, the church of the middle ages, the church of the fathers, the church of the apostles, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not the Reformers who left the Church, it was rather the Roman officials who defected to the old imperial and pagan ways. And despite the horror, Foxe sees in the courage of the Protestant martyrs the image of Christ, proving once again that Christ is with His Church and it will not be overcome.

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