Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Review: Foxe's Book of Martyrs

I'm not sure where I acquired this book, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe, Whitaker House, 1981, ISBN 0-88368-095-5. Perhaps at a garage sale, for it does not have a resale shop sticker. I bought it because of the subject matter, not from prior familiarity. Who wouldn't want to read about those who went before us in the faith, and who suffered the ultimate price for that faith?

John Foxe wrote this record of the saints' suffering from about 1550 to 1563. He continued to modify it for years after until his death in 1587, adding anecdotes and more stories. These were difficult times in England. King Henry 8th took his nation out of the Roman Catholic church when the pope wouldn't grant him a divorce. His heir, the boy king Edward VI, continued on the same Protestant path under the influence of regents, but died at age sixteen. His half sister Mary became queen in 1553, and for the five years of her short reign through domestic affairs into turmoil as she restored Catholicism and attempted to purge Protestantism with threats, coercion, imprisonment, and execution.

Foxe lived through this, though he spent the Mary years in exile. So the book is concerned mostly with the martyrs of that era. One long chapter covers martyrs of the first three centuries of Christianity. The next covers Constantine--not because he was a martyr but because of his impact on Christianity. John Wycliff is next, again not for martyrdom but for persecution and impact.

After this are chapters covering the martyred and the persecuted of the late 15th and 16th centuries, a parade of names both familiar and not: Oldcastle, Huss, Tyndale, Luther, Hooper, Taylor, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer. Some chapters cover a number of martyrs in short fashion, such as those from Scotland and those many burned at the stake at Smithfield near Newgate.

Foxe, in his narratives, concentrates on the period after arrest of the "heretic"--the subsequent attempts to turn the prisoner to the Catholic faith, perhaps some words in defense or the refusal to recant, then the actual execution. Almost nothing is included about what led to the arrest, or of the martyr's earlier life. That's probably as it should be, but it leaves me a bit unsatisfied. I'd like to know more about how these men and woman developed the beliefs and convictions that allowed them to face the flames without fear and with joy.

I left the book having disgust for Queen Mary, and sadness that such things as trans-substantiation and the mass and the authority of the pope were once thought important enough to kill for. The most uplifting part was the testimony of the saints, who maintained confidence and steadfastness in their beliefs, who joined the ones that an ancient writer declared "faced jeers and flogging, ...were chained and put in prison, ...stoned, ...sawed in two, ... put to death by the sword...went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated." For all of these received something better, planned by God.

Is this book a keeper? I'm not sure at this point. It is almost source material for other writing. But I think probably not. Should you read it? The language is archaic, as is the organization (lack of subheadings, extremely long paragraphs), so it is a difficult read. But, yes, if you have an opportunity, read it and be enlightened.

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