A book review by Dr. Herbert Samworth
This is the third book written by J. F. Mozley that we are reviewing. However, it was the second that he wrote. It is entitled John Foxe and His Book. The name of the book itself is a clue to the manner in which Mozley writes. The book of course is Acts and Monuments or more popularly known as The Book of Martyrs. Undoubtedly there are few persons who have never heard of the book. However, the opposite would be true regarding the life of the person who compiled it. Perhaps some would know that it was compiled by John Foxe. But who is John Foxe? What do we know about his life? It is probably true to say that very little is known about Foxe himself.
To rescue Foxe from this undeserved anonymity is the purpose of Mozley’s book. Certainly he does not neglect the book itself. Rather he gives us a very clear account of its origin, its publication and subsequent editions. There is probably no other book that accomplished the repudiation of the Roman Church in England as did the Acts and Monuments. However, I believe that a strong case can be made that this was not the original intent of the work. Certainly it possesses an anti-Roman bias but this was because of the intolerance and cruelty imposed on those who disagreed with its teachings. However, Foxe did not limit his disagreement against temporal forms of punishing heresy to the Roman Church. He was totally opposed to any form of temporal punishment against false teaching whether it was practiced by the Roman Church or the Protestant Church.
However, if we are to understand this we must know something of the man himself. Foxe matriculated in 1534 and graduated from Oxford University around four years later because he became master in 1539. There was always one consistent thing about John Foxe and it was his pronounced Protestantism. Indeed, his faithfulness to its teaching cost him his fellowship because it required ordination to hold it. However, to be ordained meant to take the vow of celibacy and Foxe remained unconvinced that this was what the Word of God taught even though the Church had made it a sacrament.
Not only was Foxe a person of integrity he was also known for his unwillingness to seek preferment in the church for the sake of material gain. The case of those who used the religious changes in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI to enrich themselves is not pleasant to read.
There is an account recorded in Acts and Monuments that is revealing of Foxe’s opposition to cruelty. We give it from the book itself:
In mentioning Joan of Kent there occurs to our mind an incident “not unworthy perhaps of the reader’s attention. When the evangelical bishops had decided on her death, there came to John Rogers, who was then divinity lecturer in the great church of Paul’s, a certain friend of his, urging and begging him to use his influence with the archbishop of Canterbury, that at least the life of the wretched woman should be spared, while her error should be punished and repressed as much as possible… When Rogers replied that death must be inflicted, the other said: If the verdict runs that her error and her life shall be taken away together, at least let another kind of death be chosen, answering better to the mildness of the gospel…When Rogers again said that to burn men alive was the least agonizing of all punishments and sufficiently mild, the other hearing these words, which breathed so little care and respect for the agonies of wretched men, in a great fervour of spirit held his friend’s right hand in a firm grasp, and beating it with his own right hand said: – Well, maybe the day will come when you yourself will have your hands full of this same gentle burning. And after that Rogers himself was the next to burn, being the first of the Marian martyrs.
There is another incident recorded of Foxe’s aversion to cruelty. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a group of Dutch Anabaptists were discovered while in an illegal worship service. Foxe wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth requesting that their lives be spared when five men were condemned to be burned at the stake. After rehearsing his arguments against such a form of punishment he closed with the following words:
This one thing I earnestly beg, that you suffer not the pyres and flames of Smithfield, so long laid to sleep under your blessed auspices, to rekindle now. But if even this may not be granted I vehemently implore you to give us one or two months in which we may try to recover them from their errors, lest their souls also be in peril of eternal ruin.
As it turned out, Foxe was unable to persuade either the Queen or the Council to whom he also address a letter requesting clemency.
However, Foxe’s aversion to cruelty should not be interpreted to mean indifference to the truth of God’s Word. Foxe stood firmly upon the Scriptures as the rule of faith and conduct. He underwent exile for a number of years because of his convictions. After the death of Mary and his return to England, he sided with the Puritans who refused to wear the vestments demanded by Queen Elizabeth. Because of his convictions he never received preferment in the church and was poor for most of his life.
All of these things Mozley reports in great detail. Obviously the account of the composition and publication of the Acts and Monuments is given in great detail. However, it is always taken in the context of the person and character of John Foxe himself.
If we could assign a reason for Foxe’s views of these things, what would it be? Perhaps the key to understanding John Foxe is best illustrated in a commentary that he dedicated to Christopher Foxe. We must remember that Foxe had lived the life of an exile with all its hardships and had been a witness to what had taken place.
There was one thing that Foxe could not reconcile himself to after hearing and observing some of the contentions between the exiles. He simply could not believe that persons who were sharing deprivation and exile could show such bitterness in theological disputations. He had heard of the disputes that had taken place in Frankfurt between two parties of the English church with great heat on both sides. He wrote frankly to Thomas Lever, another exile who had gone from Frankfurt to Geneva. Note what he wrote to him:
I hear (he says) and I have reason to believe the rumour, that you are given to discord and quarrelling, and that you hate your fellow Englishmen who have never harmed you. Have we so few contentions in the world that you must needs add to them? Put off your old bitterness and return to peace.
There is no doubt that John Foxe will always be remembered as the compiler of accounts of martyrdom and violence done in the name of the Lord. It is tragic that many people thus believe that his main interest was in giving accounts of suffering. However, would it not be truer to view Foxe as one who sought to reconcile brethren? Such reconciliation must always be in the truth and never at its expense. Perhaps the best accolade that can be given to John Foxe comes from the lips of our Lord when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
We owe a great debt to J. F. Mozley for giving this portrait of John Foxe.