I've just crossed the finish-line on my trek through the monumental “Acts and Monuments” of John Foxe, known popularly as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The original work runs a full 7,058 pages and consists of 8 volumes. The popular 300-page paperback edition you will find in the Christian bookstore is a “Reader's Digest” version of a “Reader's Digest” version of a “Reader's Digest” version. Archbishop Grindal, who supplied Foxe with many of the official records he cites, and who financially supported Foxe during his exile in Strasbourg, once referred to the work as Foxe's “book or martyrs,” and the name has stuck.
This will not be a book review in the traditional sense, because reviewing a work of over 7,000 pages would be impossibly long, and would make the work seem undesirable. It is a massive work. Writing it must have been an herculean feat, but reading it is not. I did not breeze through it, but many portions are so engaging that 100-150 pages seem to fly by. This will be more of a review by impression.
One of the most important thoughts I've had while reading this work is expressed by George Townsend in his introductory dissertation: “If Foxe's Acts and Monuments had not been written, and this is the best criterion of its merits, no book in the English language can be mentioned, which could supply its place. Whoever will but impartially and candidly consider the mass of the materials collected, and remember that this work was the first attempt to give to the common reader a history of the church of Christ, as well as a narrative of the evil consequences of the one false principle, that the soul of the Christian is to be governed by authority that is fallible, on the supposition that such authority is infallible, unchangeable and divine,—must, I think, acknowledge, that the work of John Foxe is one of the most useful, most important, and most valuable books we still possess. It has never been superseded.”
As Townsend points out, the value of the work is multi-faceted. First, there is the sheer vastness of the accumulated knowledge and materials. Foxe, through a multitude of influential connections, had access to countless records and documents which no other historian could have gotten their hands on – at least at the time of his writing. Secondly, his work proved that the ministers of the Church are to be our useful directors, not infallible teachers. Thirdly, an individual Christian might be in the right, while the great body of the Church's leaders may be in the wrong. Hence each individual must deem himself responsible to God alone. Fourthly, Foxe's work taught the supremacy of Scripture for governing the conscience. Fifthly, we are shown that every system of laws must be founded upon the conviction of their usefulness and truth, or they cannot be made permanent even by the most unrelenting persecutions, of the most formidable power.
One of the most interesting features of Foxe's work is his eschatology. The best description I have read of his view, is “ Amillennial historicist.” The more I have thought about it, the more convincing his view is.
In setting the stage for what I am about to say, let me point out that all Christians are agreed (at least in theory) that the prevalence or sparseness of a subject in Scripture, is an indicator of its relative importance. Anything revealed by God is important, but in the hierarchy of doctrine, frequency and prevalence determines rank. Having said that, isn't ironic that every eschatological position held in Christendom is defined by its relation to the Millennium – something mentioned a grand total of two times in the space of a couple verses, and that in the most difficult book to interpret. Based on what we have already said, it would seem to be a more balanced approach to view the Millennium as something - while real - less central, less definitive, less overall important, to our view of eschatology. Foxe's view does just this.
In sum, Foxe believes the Millennium was a specific 1000 year period in the Church's history, and that this period is now past. It is not the grid upon which all redemption history is written. Like hundreds of other events in the life of God's people foretold in Scripture, it came to pass exactly as foretold, and thus verifies the truth of God's Word.
Foxe reads Revelation 8 telling of a period of 294 years of vicious persecution against the Church. This coincides exactly with the cessation of state-sanctioned persecution at Constantine's conversion. This is the beginning of the Millennium, according to Foxe. For a literal 1000 years, there was no state-sanctioned, state-sponsored wholesale persecution of the Church. The 1000 year period ends in the early 1300's when persecution, which included prison and execution begins, with the sanction of church and state, against men who proclaimed the Gospel truths which were buried under the accumulated doctrinal pollutions of the Middle Ages. This marks the period spoken of in Revelation 20 that Satan is let loose to persecute the Church again as he did in the first 300 years of Church history. This period is extremely intense because Satan knows his time is short. What we often forget is how incredibly intense the persecution of Christians was in the decades after 1517. We seem to imagine that Luther nailed up his 95 Theses, and Boom! everything was changed. The fact is, that in many European nations (Foxe focuses mostly on England), the Reformation was a slow, grinding process, with many false starts, and nearly endless opposition.
Perhaps I should let Foxe speak in his own words:
Concerning the interpretation of which times, I see the common opinion of many to be deceived by ignorance of histories, and the state of things done in the church; they supposing that the chaining loosing up of Satan for a thousand years, spoken of in the Revelation, was meant from the birth of Christ our Lord. Wherein I grant that spiritually the strength and dominion of Satan, in accusing and condemning us for sin, was cast down at the passion and by the passion of Christ our Saviour, and locked up, not only for a thousand years, but for ever and ever. Albeit, as touching the malicious hatred and fury of that serpent against the outward bodies of Christ's poor saints (which is the heel of Christ), to afflict and torment the church outwardly; that I judge to be meant in the Revelation of St. John, not to be restrained till the ceasing of those terrible persecutions of the primitive church, at the time when it pleased God to pity the sorrowful affliction of his poor flock, being so long under persecution, the space of three hundred years, and so to assuage their griefs and torments; which is meant by the binding up of Satan, worker of all those mischiefs: understanding thereby, that forasmuch as the devil, the prince of this world, had now, by the death of Christ the Son of God, lost all his power and interest against the soul of man, he should turn his furious rage and malice, which he had to Christ, against the people of Christ, which is meant by the heel of the seed [Gen. iii.], in tormenting their outward bodies; which yet should not be forever, but for a determinate time, when it should please the Lord to bridle the malice, and snaffle the power, of the old serpent, and give rest unto his church for the term of a thousand years; which time being expired, the said serpent should be suffered loose again for a certain or a small time. [Apoc. xx.]
And thus to expound this prophetical place of Scripture, I am led Three by three reasons:
The first is, for that the binding up of Satan, and closing him in first the bottomless pit by the angel, importeth as much as that he was at liberty, raging and doing mischief before. And, certes, those so terrible and so horrible persecutions of the primitive time universally through the whole world, during the space of three hundred years of the church, do declare no less. Wherein it is to be thought and supposed that Satan, all that time, was not fastened and closed up.
The second reason moving me to think that the closing up of Satan was after the ten persecutions of the primitive church, is taken out of the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse; where we read, that after the woman, meaning the church, had travailed forth her man-child, the old dragon, the devil, the same time being cast down from heaven, drawing the third part of the stars with him, stood before the woman with great anger, and persecuted her (that is, the church of God) with a whole flood of water (that is, with abundance of all kinds of torments), and from thence went, moreover, to fight against the residue of her seed, and stood upon the sands of the sea; whereby it appeareth that he was not as yet locked up.
The third reason I collect out of the Apocalypse, chapter xiii., where it is written of the beast, signifying the imperial monarchy of Rome, that he had power to make war forty and two months; by which months is meant, no doubt, the time that the dragon and the persecuting emperors should have in afflicting the saints of the primitive church. The computation of which forty-two months (counting Forty-two every month for a Sabbath of years; that is, for seven years, after the order of Scripture), riseth to the sum (counting from the passion of the Lord Christ) of three hundred years, lacking six; at which time Maxentius, the last persecutor in Rome, fighting against Constantine, was drowned with his soldiers, like as Pharaoh, persecuting the children of Israel, was drowned in the Red Sea. Unto the which forty-two months, or Sabbaths of years, if ye add the other six years wherein Licinius persecuted in the East, ye shall find just three hundred years, as is specified before in the first book (vol. i. Page 291). After the which forty and two months were expired, manifest it is that the fury of Satan, that is, his violent malice and power over the saints of Christ, was diminished and restrained universally throughout the whole world. Thus then, the matter standing evident that Satan, after three hundred years, counting from the passion of Christ, began to be chained up, at which time the persecution of the primitive church began to cease, now let us see how long this binding up of Satan should continue, which was promised in the Book of the Revelation to be a thousand years; which thousand years, if ye add to the forty-two months of years, that is, to two hundred and ninety-four years, they make one thousand two hundred and ninety-four years after the passion of the Lord. To these, moreover, add the thirty years of the age of Christ, and it cometh to the year of our Lord 1324, which was the year of the letting out of Satan, according to the prophecy in the Apocalypse.
The first persecution of the primitive church, beginning at the thirtieth year of Christ, was prophesied to continue forty-two months; that is, till a.d. 294.
The ceasing of the last persecution of the primitive church by the death of Licinius, the last persecutor, began in the three hundred and twenty-fourth year from the nativity of Christ; which was from the thirtieth year of his age, two hundred and ninety-four years.
The binding up of Satan after peace given to the church, counting from the thirty years of Christ, began a.d. 294, and lasted a thousand years, that is, counting from the thirtieth year of Christ, to the year 1294.
About which year, pope Boniface VIII was pope, and made the sixth book of the Decretals, confirmed the orders of friars, and privileged them with great freedoms; as appeareth by his constitution, Super Cathedram a.d. 1294...
These things thus premised for the loosing out of Satan, according to the prophecy of the Apocalypse, now let us enter (Christ willing) upon the declaration of these latter times which followed after the letting out of Satan into the world; describing the wondrous perturbations and cruel tyranny stirred up by him against Christ's church, and also the valiant resistance of the church of Christ against him and Antichrist, as in these our books here under following may appear, the argument of which consisteth in two parts: first, to treat of the raging fury of Satan now loosed, and of Antichrist, against the saints of Christ fighting and travailing for the maintenance of truth, and the reformation of the church. Secondly, to declare the decay and ruin of the said Antichrist, through the power of the word of God; being at length, either in a great part of the world overthrown, or, at least, universally in the whole world detected. - John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Book V (Volume 2 of 8), pages 724-727 of the 1843 edition
This framework and exposition of prophecy surfaces again and again in Foxe's work. It is the defining characteristic of the work. The little paperback edition will not convey this. Foxe is not merely recounting history and giving Protestants a “Remember the Alamo,” he is interpreting history through his interpretation of Scripture. The matter-of-factness with which Foxe treats biblical prophecies and historical fulfillments, leaves one with the impression that Foxe's view was the standard view of most of his contemporaries. Every single one of Foxe's critics, whether the papists of his own day, or those of subsequent centuries, have focused their attention on pretended reliability issues of Foxe's primary sources, or whether Foxe was accurately presenting the facts. No one, I repeat, no one – has ever tackled his eschatology. To me, this speaks volumes. When one is faced with a mountain of inconvenient evidence, from a purely pragmatic stance, sometimes ignoring its existence is more effective than taking it on point by point.
As far as Foxe's reliability as a historian goes, Townsend writes, “His frequent appeals to eye-witnesses of the things he relates, the manner in which the declarations he received from the persecuted of their examinations and sufferings, are affirmed by him, not to be credited for their own words only, even though in one remarkable case the narrative of their sorrows was written with their own blood, and not with ink. All these things prove to us that Foxe is worthy of our confidence, and that his 'veracity and fidelity' cannot be assailed with either truth or honour. Disgrace has followed every attempt to destroy its value.” Subsequent historical investigations have further strengthened Townsend's assessment.
I will never forget the impact the little paperback "Book of Martyrs" had on me when I read it as a young teen. I was inspired, appalled, edified, and frightened all at the same time. For days I remember living with a gloomy cloud over my head - a cloud of fear that I could never possibly endure what so many men, women, and children before me endured. As time passed, I began to realize that most of them would've felt the same way, and that it was the same grace of God which enabled them to witness to God's truth in their deaths that enabled me to witness to God's truth in my life. But that impact is nothing compared to the impressions that this complete edition makes and leaves. I know millions of readers love the little paperback, but in all honesty, it is a travesty of the original. Far too much ended up on the cutting-room floor. And what gets left out is precisely what gives impact to what got left in.
For example: The little paperback version tells how Nicholas Ridley was tied to a stake and burned alive for his faith. What the little paperback doesn't give you is the full context of Ridley's trial. “Acts and Monuments” includes dozens of pages of court transcripts. It provides letters between the key players giving the reader a background and framework to the story that the little paperback will never convey. You can read the verbatim back and forth between Ridley and “bloody” Bonner. You can read Mary's ecclesiastics twist his words on purpose and order court recorders falsify his answers. You can read how he was publicly humiliated in the courtroom. Men forcibly restrained him and dressed him up as a popish priest while a man behind him read out the ceremony of the mass in Latin, pretending that he (Ridley) was saying it, thus “making” Ridley commit the transubstantiation he repudiated. The humiliation goes on and on for days. Ridley bears up under it and continues to appeal to Scripture against Gardiner and Bonner. If you only read the account of Ridley, you would be inclined to think that a greater travesty of justice has never been committed. But Foxe provides nearly the same documentary evidence for another 200 Marian martyrs, not to mention all the martyrs whose lives and sufferings he presents from the days of the Apostles through the days of Wycliffe, Hus, and Savanarola. Ironically, the concentrated emphasis on torture and death in the little paperback actually lessens its impact. The real personhood of both the sufferers and the persecutors gets lost.
Besides all this, Foxe's honesty will not let you reduce his work to a hagiography. Along with hundreds of accounts of the brave sufferings of countless martyrs and confessors, he also includes court transcripts and letters of men and women who could not bear up under the persecution and who lapsed and recanted. Foxe never scorns these men and women, either. In fact, he seems to include the stories, often quite elaborate and long, to emphasize the prodigious power the Romish church had. It took extraordinary men and women to buck up under the pressure and set the bar for other martyrs and confessors. Foxe openly acknowledges that men, in human frailty, may recoil from the prospect of torture and cave in to the temptation to recant. He is surprisingly understanding of this phenomenon, yet without condoning it as an expedient to save one's life.
This honesty is another feature that slips through the cracks in the little paperback. That small edition will beat you over the head with blood and gore. This edition will provide text and context to the sufferings – and will also tell you about those who ran from the sufferings and recanted. He will even give you their two or three-page-long letters of recantation – shameful as they may be.
In a very real sense, this work is not a “book of martyrs.” It is so much more. It is an indispensable resource whose absence could not be filled by anything else ever written.
I conclude with a couple of thoughts:
- This is really more of a reference work than a history. When Foxe relates the life of particular martyr, he frequently includes actual court transcripts of his trial, condemnation, and sentencing. He also not infrequently includes letters written to and from the person under consideration. Many of these letters are to found nowhere else but in the Acts and Monuments. Foxe has done the Church an inestimable service in preserving these materials. Foxe was personally known to many of the martyrs and confessors whose lives and deaths he chronicles. His connections to the official documents through Grindal and others, gave him access to records no one else alive at the time could've gotten their hands on. This is no superficial history. Foxe lives in primary sources. Many of these sources are inaccessible to today's readers because the only extant copies are in special sections of museums, or else they are in Latin or Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Foxe has provided both original transcriptions of the original texts and English translations of these. The sources which are readily available (Bede, Matthew Paris, Henry of Huntingdon, etc) will more than verify the veracity of Foxe's accounts.
- This work needs to be republished in its full form. This 1843 edition should be a standard reference work in every pastor's library. It is a great disservice and insult to the memory of our martyred Protestant forebears that the full version of this work has been out of print for so long. And it is an even greater insult to their memory that many of the modern editions include the deaths of papists, as if in the end, they belong in the same company as our sainted Protestant martyrs – whom they killed!
- Nothing can prepare you for encountering the barbarity and despicable cruelty of Stephen Gardiner and “bloody” Edmund Bonner. Under the auspices of Queen Mary, these two moral monsters account for 288 executions, not to mention those who were mercilessly whipped, those who died in prison, those whose bones were exhumed to be desecrated, and those who lived in a self-imposed exile overseas (one of whom was Foxe).
Reading the whole work was truly a monumental task. The sheer amount of information is overwhelming. The graphic descriptions of the torture and execution of so many men, women, and children, is heart-rending. I had a sick feeling deep in my gut through many parts of this work. Foxe concludes his account of Mary's reign with these words: “Of queen Mary this truly may be affirmed, and left in story for a perpetual memorial or epitaph for all kings and queens that shall succeed her, to be noted—that before her, never was read in story of any king or queen of England, since the time of king Lucius, under whom, in time of peace, by hanging, beheading, burning, and prisoning, so much Christian blood, so many Englishmen's lives, were spilled within this realm, as under the said queen Mary for the space of four years was to be seen, and I beseech the Lord never may be seen here after.”
Foxe concludes the work by reminding his readers that he had access to enough information to have made the work considerably longer! His final paragraphs read:
“And thus to conclude, good christian reader, this present tractation, not for lack of matter, but to shorten rather the matter for largeness of the volume, I here stay for this present time, without further addition of more discourse, either to overweary thee with longer tediousness, or overcharge the book with longer prolixity; having hitherto set forth the acts and proceedings of the whole church of Christ, namely, of the church of England, although not in such particular perfection, that nothing hath overpassed us; yet in such general sufficiency, that I trust, not very much hath escaped us, necessary to be known, touching the principal affairs, doings and proceedings of the church and churchmen. Wherein may be seen the whole state, order, descent, course, and continuance of the same, the increase and decrease of true religion, the creeping in of superstition, the horrible troubles of persecution, the wonderful assistance of the Almighty in maintaining his truth, the glorious constancy of Christ's martyrs, the rage of the enemies, the alteration of times, the travails and troubles of the church, from the first primitive age of Christ's gospel, to the end of queen Mary, and the beginning of this our gracious queen Elizabeth. During the time of her happy reign, which hath hitherto continued (through the gracious protection of the Lord) the space now of twenty-four years, as my wish is, so I would be glad the good will of the Lord were so, that no more matter of such lamentable stories may ever be offered hereafter to write upon. But so it is, I cannot tell how, the elder the world waxeth, the longer it continueth, the nearer it hasteneth to its end, the more Satan rageth; giving still new matter of writing books and volumes: insomuch that if all were recorded and committed to history, that within the said compass of this queen's reign hitherto hath happened, in Scotland, Flanders, France, Spain, Germany, besides this our own country of England and Ireland, with other countries more, I verily suppose one Eusebius, or Polyhistor, which Pliny writeth of, would not suffice thereunto."But of these incidents and occurrents hereafter more, as it shall please the Lord to give grace and space. In the mean time, the grace of the Lord Jesus work with thee, gentle reader, in all thy studious readings. And while thou hast space, so employ thyself to read, that by reading thou mayest learn daily to know that which may profit thy soul, may teach thee experience, may arm thee with patience, and instruct thee in all spiritual knowledge more and more to thy perpetual comfort and salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord; to whom be glory in secula seculorum, Amen.”
Uncomfortable as reading much of this material was, it must be read, and it must be kept in the Church's view. We dishonor our Protestant forebears and the Lord they suffered, bled, and died for, by neglecting and forgetting their lives and sufferings. We must never forget.
For those who may be interested in reading it, there are a couple of sources.
Still Waters Revival Books has the set available in pdf format. One can purchase either the entire 8 volume set, or the individual volumes. It is available here.
Also, the individual volumes can be found on Google Books. Below are the links to each volume.