John Foxe wrote a huge work named Actes and Monuments; popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. He wrote it in a reaction to the persecution of Protestant Christians under Mary I of England. He also wrote it to support her successor Elizabeth I, who was the head of both the state and the church in England. His book covered much more than Mary’s reign, but many of the most memorable moments in his book came from the accounts of martyrs who perished during her reign.
The message of his book seems to present persecution as the main theme in the history of the church. He believed that there was limited time in history and held to the imminent return of Christ. Foxe wanted to present England as a Protestant nation as opposed to a Catholic nation. His book fueled anti-Catholic sentiment in England. It was also a prelude to the wars of religion that engulfed the continent in the first half of the 17th century.
The book was widely read by both Anglicans and Puritans, which was quite a feat as the two groups were opposed to each other on many issues. The book was put in churches all over England, and many more copies were bought by people who wanted the book in their homes. His book continued to play a part in English and even American society for centuries to come.
Foxe’s language in the book spoke to a lot of his readers. Many images presented in the book are quite memorable, such as the episode of the execution of Ridley and Latimer. Latimer is quoted in the book as saying to Ridley: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” This picture of a candle has come down through the decades. Another memorable moment is the execution of Thomas Cranmer. In the book, Cranmer puts his hand in the fire voluntarily to symbolize his regret at having signed his recantations.
Foxe also tells the story of Lady Jane Gray, but emphasizes her theological rather than political position in the aftermath of the death of Edward VI. She stands fast regarding the Protestant faith against the preaching of a catholic theologian who is trying to convert her to catholicism. Jane gets in a debate with the catholic theologian, but is not convinced of catholicism. Lady Jane Gray died for treason against queen Mary. Foxe’s language is effective here too, as he uses her story to state that catholicism and protestantism are irreconcilable.
But, although it’s popularity signifies the effectiveness of his language in the past, is his language still compelling today? In my opinion, Foxe has some memorable moments in his work that people today can still appreciate. But, however, people today would not receive it with the same enthusiasm as 16th and 17th Englishmen.
The English protestants would view Foxe’s work as a protestant document to rally around. It told about a legacy of martyrs who died; furthering the Protestant faith. People today do not see catholicism as a threat as 16th and 17th century English protestants might have seen it. Readers today may appreciate the bravery of the martyrs, but his language would not be as effective today due to the culture we live in today.