A sermon by Michael Jensen
If you happen to be in the Broad Street in Oxford just opposite a shop that sells lingerie, and if you care to look down at the surface of the road (avoiding as you do the reckless undergraduate cyclists wheeling past on their way to classes), you will find, amongst the dobs of chewing gum and the cigarette butts, a small cross.
On that very spot four and half centuries ago, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, the great martyrs of the English church, were burnt to death. They were the victims of Queen Mary’s brutal attempt to reverse her father’s policy of separation from the Roman church.
In 1534 Henry VIII declared himself head of the English church and rejected the Pope’s authority. In doing so he had (not quite intentionally) brought to England the great teachings of the Reformation – justification by faith alone, the sole authority of scripture, and the priesthood of all believers. Mary’s brother, Edward VI established the evangelical cause in England – but then died tragically young. The policy of the Queen was to purge the country of the Reformation – by fire if necessary.
Queen Mary’s own death in 1558 meant that the Protestants would triumph in England under her sister Queen Elizabeth. But would the men and women who had died be simply forgotten in the passing of the years?
John Foxe (1517-1587) was the man who enshrined the memories of Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley and many, many others in the English consciousness. The book that he wrote, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church – or as it is better known, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – went through four editions in his lifetime. It was a big book. Its second edition of 1570, for example, was a massive 2,300 pages long – so large, in fact, that the printer simply ran out of paper!
The book proved to be so popular that Foxe achieved a kind of celebrity in his day. By the time of the fourth edition of his work, the authorities had ordered that one be put in every church in the nation. His work was to prove a lasting monument to those who had suffered.
Foxe was determined not just to tell the story of the martyrs for the evangelical cause in his own time. He wanted to show that these episodes were part of a continuous history that had begun in the New Testament itself and continued in the early church period.
For example, here’s how he described the deaths of Latimer and Ridley on that now neglected spot in Oxford:
…the fire being kindled, when Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him, he cried with a loud voice, “Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit; Lord receive my spirit;” and repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit.” Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul;” he received the flame as if embracing it. After he had stroked his face with his hands, and, as it were, bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died, as it appears, with very little pain. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, bishop Latimer, for whose laborious services, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm has cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.
We are then told how Ridley died, in severe agony. It’s a vivid and memorable account. And it is made more so because we know that Foxe was able to interview eyewitnesses to the event itself and to make use of eyewitness accounts – in this case, Ridley’s brother-in-law George Shipside and a student of Latimer’s, Augustine Bernher.
An attentive reader might notice that Foxe has Ridley speak Jesus’s words from the cross as recorded by Luke’s gospel: Lord into your hands I commend my spirit. This is not accidental: Foxe wants us to see that this death was an echo of that first great death. In fact, it was in the stream of historical events that flowed out from that first death.
In telling this terrible narrative, Foxe calculated to inspire an outrage in his readers that godly ministers could be so vilely treated. However, Foxe told the vast story of the martyrs of the church like this not merely because he was after an emotive impact (though of course he was), but because he wanted to give the Protestant cause legitimacy. It was legitimacy that it appeared to lack without the authority of the Pope.
But if Foxe could show that the killing of the evangelical martyrs was of the same type as the martyrdoms of the early church, then he could give an immense boost to the English Reformation. The true church of Jesus Christ, if it is like Jesus himself, is a persecuted church. Under Queen Mary, there was no doubt as to which church the more Christ-like (as Foxe saw it).
Foxe drew his inspiration from the book of Revelation. In that book he saw an account of the history of the world that had martyrs at the centre: ‘these are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev 7:14). And it was a book which spoke of a true and false church: of those who were faithless and those who are faithful.
Foxe interpreted what he saw as part God’s great providential plan. It was God who had blessed the church with these great witnesses. It was he who had provided them with an opportunity to testify to the great truths of Jesus Christ. Nothing in the end had fallen outside of God’s power, as horrible as it might have been. Proof of that, for Foxe, was the way in which those great deaths played their part in toppling the old Queen and putting her sister on the throne.
You might think from this that Foxe was not an effective historian. Isn’t he too partisan, too committed to a singular view of history, too blind to the mistakes of his own party? This was the standard line on Foxe for a century or more. His writings seemed somewhat distasteful and alarming; and he seemed to be unaware of the rules of contemporary history writing. He seemed particularly uninterested in being objective! And even his stoutest defenders will have to concede that he did not mention that Protestant authorities also committed atrocities against Roman Catholic and anabaptist Christians in this period.
But Foxe’s mighty book is a remarkably trustworthy source for its times. As Professor Patrick Collinson has written, ‘Foxe never made anything up’. Foxe was, undoubtedly, trying to write history for a persuasive purpose. That is not in dispute. But he was a meticulous compiler of records. He was a sifter of evidence. He collected eyewitness accounts of the events of his own time. As Collinson says: ‘His history was not dispassionate and disinterested but highly partisan and polemical, arousing furious responses from his no less biased catholic critics. But Foxe was not a liar, and…he stuck more faithfully, even slavishly, to the documented record than many modern historians’. Historan Thomas Freeman compares Foxe to a barrister who arranges the facts to make a case in defence of a client he believes to be innocent.
But granted his value for historians of the period, is there anything more that we can get from Foxe? Twenty-first century westerners have a deep ambivalence about martyrdom. We suspect that those who are prepared to die for a faith might also be ready to kill for it. We observe in our own world that the memory of martyrs is connected with a sense of resentment against their persecutors, rather than forgiveness. There is for us no greater blasphemer against the goodness and preciousness of life than the suicide bomber – and would he not call himself a martyr? Is he not inspired by the ideal of martyrdom?
Foxe recorded the stories and the words of the martyrs because he believed that God was working his purposes out in the history of the church. This was not a lurid piece of propaganda. It was a vision of the whole of world history – but a vision that you need biblical eyes to see.
And he’s pretty much right. The church of Jesus Christ lives in a world that is by nature hostile to it, just as it was hostile to Jesus himself. This hostility may be muted for a time, of course. But western Christians should not close their eyes to the terrible suffering of their brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world.
God has promised to vindicate his martyrs. The persecution of his church looks like a terrible disaster. The reality is that martyrdom is a sign of God’s victory in Christ. Lashing out against the church is an act of desperation from those who oppose it. The blood of the martyrs, as Tertullian once said, is the seed of the church. In fact, it is one of the best church growth strategies going (though rarely mentioned in the manuals…).
And because martyrdom is a sign of God’s victory, honouring and remembering the martyrs of the church ought not be an act of resentment or productive of violent reaction to the persecutors. It is precisely because God says ‘vengeance is mine’ that Christians are called upon to pray for those who persecute them.