John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Historical Christian Classic

Page From John Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Cuthbert Simpson suffers on the rack in the Tower of London, during the Marian persecution, 1558. He was burnt at Smithfield in the same year, along with two other Protestant martyrs. From John Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is one of the great classics of Christianity, detailing the history of Christian persecution from the earliest days of the church to the Protestant Reformation. English educator and historian John Foxe produced four editions in his lifetime (1563, 1570, 1576, 1583), published by his friend John Day, and titled initially, The Acts and Monuments of Matters Happening to the Church. The book’s simple style, together with its graphic narratives of suffering and persecution under Papist tyranny, made it instantly popular yet timeless in its historical value.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is a Christian classic recounting the lives of persecuted believers from the earliest days of the church until the time of the Protestant Reformation. The book’s author, John Foxe, was a Protestant educator in 16th-century England who took a keen interest in church history and particularly the martyrs of the Reformation.

  • Author: John Foxe
  • Original Title: Acts and Monuments of Matters Happening to the Church
  • Original Publisher: John Day
  • Originally Published: March 20, 1563, in England, UK
  • Original Language: English
  • Genre: Biography
  • Subject: History of Protestantism; Christian Martyrology
  • Biographies Included: John Wickliffe, Sir John Oldcastle, Jan Hus, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, Hugh Latimer, Bishop Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, and many more.
  • Notable Quote: “I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind. For this cause I was sent, that I should suffer this fire, for Christ’s sake. Consider and behold my visage, ye shall not see me change my colour. This grim fire, I fear not. I know surely that my soul shall sup with my Saviour Christ this night.” —George Wishart, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Who Was John Foxe?

John Foxe (1516–1587), a native of Lincolnshire, England, was an Oxford-trained educator with an intense interest in church history. With a master’s degree and a fellowship at Magdalen College, Foxe seemed set on a successful path. But when he found himself landing on the side of Protestantism, he was disowned by his family and dismissed from his teaching fellowship.

Portrait of John Foxe (1516-1587).
Portrait of English martyrologist John Foxe (1516-1587), author of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Artist Unknown. Print Collector / Getty Images

During the Protestant-friendly reign of King Edward VI (1547–1553), Foxe took a private tutoring position and began writing about English church history. In 1550, Foxe was ordained a deacon by Ridley, Bishop of London, in St. Paul’s Cathedral. But when the staunchly Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Tudor), took the throne in England (1553–1558), Foxe and his wife, Agnes Randall, under threat of persecution, were forced to flee England and take refuge in France and Germany. There Foxe encountered other Protestant refugees such as the Scottish reformer John Knox.

Foxe continued to pursue his passion for writing about church history while taking odd jobs to support his family. During this time, Foxe met Edmund Grindal (1519–1583), who would later be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Grindal, a fellow English Protestant in exile, was chronicling the stories of Christian martyrs. Grindal’s work inspired Foxe, who then turned his full attention to the persecution of Protestant reformers. With the help of his printer friend, John Day (1522–1584), in 1563, Foxe published Acts and Monuments of Matters Happening in the Church, immediately and commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Foxe and his wife had at least five children and lived quite modestly. During the final year of his life, Foxe’s health declined rapidly. He died in April 1587 and was buried in St. Giles’ Church in Cripplegate, London.

Major Editions

Foxe’s initial historical writings were printed in Latin at Strasbourg, France, in 1554. This edition featured the persecution of Jan Hus and also the Lollards, a movement of pre-Protestant Christians led by John Wycliffe.

After returning to England in 1559, Foxe expanded the work, with the first English edition being released on March 20, 1563. The book, with its primary objective of commending the heroic endurance of Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary’s brutal reign, was approved and officially endorsed by the bishops of the Church of England.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1563 Edition.
Title page of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1563 Edition. Public Domain

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs went through three more editions in Foxe’s lifetime (1570, 1576, 1583). After his death, the book underwent at least ten significant abridgments, revisions, and improvements. The four editions published during Foxe’s lifetime strongly influenced Elizabethan England.

The first production of the book contained more than 60 horrifying illustrations composed of woodcut impressions, making it the largest project ever published in England. It was said to be more than a foot in length. By the time the 1570 edition was produced, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was ordered to be displayed in every church, common hall, and college in England.

Within one hundred years after Foxe’s death, five significant editions came out. These future versions continued to expand on Foxe’s historical biographies of church martyrs. The 1610 edition took the work up to the time of King James, and the 1640 edition brought it to the time of King Charles. The gilt-edged version of 1684 replaced the woodcut illustrations with heavy bond paper and copperplate etchings. Two more editions emerged in the 19th century, and present-day editors continue to release new versions, incorporating the stories of Christian martyrs all the way into the 21st century.

Historical Force

No book, other than the Bible, has affected the history of Protestantism as profoundly as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Its tremendous influence can be chalked up in part to Foxe’s determination to contextualize Protestant martyrdom within an elaborate interpretation of church history.

In his postmillennial description of history, Foxe identified the one thousand year period described in the book of Revelation—the Millennial Kingdom—as the time in church history spanning from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (AD 306–337) to the 14th century. Foxe pinpointed the period of the Antichrist as beginning with the Catholic Inquisition (12th century) and persecution of the pre-reformers.

In Foxe’s dramatic writings, the martyrdom of Protestant reformers was characterized as spiritual warfare against God’s chosen people. These persecuted believers were sustained through their confident expectation of the final triumph of Jesus Christ over the Antichrist and the hope of God’s eternal kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.

The book aroused considerable controversy, drastically contributing to Catholic queen Mary becoming known as “Bloody Mary.” Foxe wrote, “We earnestly pray that the annals of no country, Catholic or pagan … ever be stained with such a repetition of human sacrifices to papal power, and that the detestation in which the character of Mary is holden may be a beacon to succeeding monarchs to avoid the rocks of fanaticism!”

Execution Of Ridley And Latimer
Descriptive table of the execution of Bishop Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555) and Father Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) preacher, reformer, condemned by Mary Tudor to die at the stake at Balliol College, Oxford, October 16, 1555. Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Contributor / Getty Images

Contents

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs opens with a sketch of the persecution of the earliest Christians, including the deaths of the apostles. Of Peter, Foxe recorded, “Jerome saith that he was crucified, his head being down and his feet upward, himself so requiring, because he was (he said) unworthy to be crucified after the same form and manner as the Lord was.” Foxe wrote about the death of the apostle Paul under Nero’s persecution, saying, “The soldiers came and led him out of the city to the place of execution, where he, after his prayers made, gave his neck to the sword.”

Foxe’s history of Christian persecutions categorizes the first several centuries as persecutions “confined principally to the pagan world.” Then, wrote Foxe, “The storm of papal persecutions first burst upon the Waldenses.” According to Foxe, this era of papal persecution began in the latter part of the 12th century.

The life of John Wickliffe (“Morning Star of the Reformation”), the story of William Tyndale (a close friend of Foxe), and the persecutions of Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Archbishop Cranmer, are just a few of the hundreds of Christian martyrs Foxe memorialized in his work.

Timeless Impact

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs had an enormous impact on shaping Protestant reforms during its first 20 years in print, documenting both the historical and theological influence of the Reformation in church history. And its profound impression on the English mindset spilled over to the American colonies.

Charles Spurgeon, the 19th century “Prince of Preachers,” was deeply inspired by Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, recommending it as “the perfect Christmas gift for a child.”

In his 1916 introduction to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, James Miller Dodds wrote: “After the Bible itself, no work so profoundly influenced early Protestant sentiment in England as the Book of Martyrs. Even in our own time it is still a living force … The book is far more than a bare record of persecution. It is an arsenal of controversy, and a storehouse of romance, as well as a source of edification.”

Sources

  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 630).
  • John Foxe. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 352).
  • The Life and Times of Charles H. Spurgeon. Christian History Magazine-Issue 29: Charles Spurgeon: England’s “Prince of Preachers.”
  • English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century. Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds. John Foxe (1516–1587). https://www.bartleby.com/209/118.html.