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Book Review: "Foxe's Book of Martyrs" by John Foxe

For many years, reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs was something I had on my mental, undated to-do list. I had known of the book for decades but never took the next step of reading a copy. That changed a couple of months ago, thanks to a dear lady (Elizabeth) in my adult Bible study class at church. After mentioning one Sunday morning that I'd like to read the book, she immediately went to the church library after class, checked out a copy (in my name), and brought it to me before I even left our classroom. Now, there was no excuse. I had to read it!

I dove into its pages within the next day or two and was immediately hooked. I couldn't believe what I was reading - story after story of faithful Christian men, women, and children standing firm in their faith in circumstances of extreme persecution and cruel, torturous deaths. Some of the early chapters of the book seemed like rapid-fire blasts of horror, with each story only lasting a few sentences. Reading them required more frequent mental breaks to absorb what I was reading and prepare my heart and mind for more. Other sections based on stories with more documentation extended the narratives to share available details.

It was soon apparent that reading this book was not for the squeamish. Still, every adult Christian should muster the fortitude to read about the genuine courage our brothers and sisters in the faith have demonstrated throughout 2000 years of Christianity. So many have faced cruel and painful deaths for their faithfulness to Christ and the truths of God's Word. Can't we at least muster the courage to read about their courage?

There is much to be learned from this history, not just about history but about the evilness of the human heart apart from Christ, the cruelty of false religion masquerading as faith, and the blessed reminder that God's Holy Spirit within the believer can provide supernatural strength and biblical words of wisdom at just the right time to deal with any situation we face. Given the anti-Christian direction of our present world, modern Christians must be equipped to stand firm in gospel-centered genuine faith, ready to endure a fresh wave of persecution when (not if) it occurs. Christ's own words and the rest of Scripture affirm that persecutions will continue and will increase in intensity until Christ comes again.

Are we prepared? Are we equipping the next generation of believers to stand firm against spiritual and worldly opposition? I believe the modern church generally fails at this task. However, there are undoubtedly faithful pastors, teachers, and individual Christians scattered throughout the body of Christ whom God has placed to model and equip us for what is ahead. Reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs can be an essential tool in one's toolbox to teach and help prepare believers for difficult times.

There are many editions of the book available. Since John Foxe (sometimes spelled "Fox") published his original work in the mid-1500s, his work has been summarized and reprinted in part by various publishers around the world. The original title was "Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church." (Don't you love old book titles?) Foxe's original work was an enormous three-volume set of over 2,000 large-size pages. Any modern book claiming to be Foxe's Book of Martyrs will inevitably be a tiny fraction of the contents of his original work. You don't go from approximately 2,500 large pages to 300-400 much smaller pages without omitting most original content. Of course, online searches may yield the availability of centuries-old editions much closer to the original if you care to search them out and peruse them.

The photo above shows the cover for an edition I purchased after reading the earlier church library edition. This more recent edition, with a 2001 copyright, is published by Bridge-Logos and includes stories of martyrs up through the beginning of the 21st century. The book has three major sections:

  1. The First Sixteen Centuries. This content comes from Foxe's original work and makes up about two-thirds of the book.

  2. The Next Three Centuries. This includes additional martyrs from the 1600s through the 1800s.

  3. Modern Martyrs. This includes martyrs from the 1900s and early 2000s.

Regardless of the edition one reads, be prepared to learn new terminology. Some words were common in the 1500s that are either no longer in use or have significantly different meanings now. Editions vary in how much and how well they inform the reader of these changes. The book edition I first read from our church library included a helpful glossary in the back. The Bridge-Logos edition pictured above includes bracketed notes embedded in the text as needed to explain items of interest. For example, the modern reader might raise an eyebrow when reading about placing a faggot on the fire unless he knows that "faggot" was a term used in the 1500s for a bundle of sticks or kindling used to build a fire. Likewise, modern readers may be blissfully unaware of the names of weapons and torture devices used in Foxe's day. An online search will be your friend while reading the book if unclear terms aren't explained in the text.

Foxe gained his share of enemies from writing this major life work. Those behind the Roman Catholic Inquisition, for example, were not pleased with anyone documenting their godless, unchristian torture and murder of God's faithful children. Foxe had to flee his home in England to another country for years until it was safe to return under Queen Elizabeth I.

Foxe is also criticized for being biased and unreliable in his accounts of martyrs. I have no way of knowing what is entirely accurate and what may not be, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt since he did the research and writing. Suppose his stories necessarily relied on the stories of others. In that case, their accuracy can rarely be proven or disproven without the benefit of much fuller documentation - something not likely except for the stories of those people more renowned.

Some also believe Foxe's bias toward the Reformed theological beliefs gaining ground in his day unnecessarily colored his ongoing commentary sprinkled throughout the stories. As a person of Reformed theology, I found that endearing, not troubling, as I read the book. Frankly, it made me smile.

I'm pleased to report that my tenth great-grandfather, William Cecil, who was the Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I at the time, recommended to the queen in 1563 that Foxe receive a regular stipend (called a prebend) for the rest of his life for his outstanding contribution to the faith in this book. The queen agreed, and Foxe received the stipend until he died in 1587. Way to go, Gramps!

Even though I have completed reading two editions of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, I am not through. I am in the early days of a much longer journey through the newly acquired most prized possession in my library, an 1811 edition of the book (the title page is pictured on the right). It's a single volume of a large size, similar to the original size published by Foxe in three volumes - 17 inches tall, 11 inches wide, nearly three inches thick, with about 800 glorious pages. I'm spending a short time daily reading my way through it. What a joy it was to find in its pages the note about my tenth great-grandfather's connection with Foxe!

It is said that when John Bunyan was imprisoned and writing The Pilgrim's Progress, he had a Bible and Foxe's Book of Martyrs with him. Copies of the Bible and Foxe's book were chained to pulpits in Great Britain to keep eager souls from walking away with them. How many of today's Christians have read it? How many have even heard of it? At best, it is a small fraction. How sad!

Churches can do a great favor for the growth of their people by placing a renewed emphasis on the stories of martyrs and persecution through the 2,000 years of the church. We have brothers and sisters in Christ today around the world who are being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. These stories must be told not just to honor those who have gone before but to equip believers in the present and to call us to a deep, genuine faith built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ and his Word. Reading these stories and teaching about them will encourage, challenge, humble, and maybe frighten us, but they must be known.

There is coming a day when God will raise and honor his total number of martyrs. Some reading these words may be included in that number. Let us pray, prepare, and persevere for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.

There are a few timeless books that Christians should not just read once and lay aside but should re-read periodically because of their depth and significance. Besides the Bible, I include Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and Foxe's Book of Martyrs in this number. Please read it and see how the Lord moves your heart, for indeed, He will.

18 views2 comments


Thanks for this review. My dad loves this book and used it often during his time of pastoring.

Jeff Ross
Jeff Ross

That's great that your dad used this in pastoring. I wish more did. I'm still slowly working my way through the huge 1811 edition I have. It's a blessing to read.

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