John Foxe entered Oxford still a boy. He was eventually elected a fellow of Magdalen College, and from 1539 to 1545 he studied church history. He converted to Protestantism and was forced to resign his academic position as a result. In 1550 he was ordained by Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and he became friends with Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale, and Thomas Cranmer. But when Queen Mary ascended the throne, tilting England back into Catholicism, Foxe fled. In Switzerland he heard horrible news filtering from England. Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer, and countless others were being captured and burned.
An idea formed in Foxe’s mind, soon obsessing him. He would compile a record of the persecution of God’s people. Living on the edge of poverty, Foxe spent every spare moment on his project. He labored by day in a printing shop to support his family, but by night he pored over his manuscript. He wrote vividly, giving details, painting word pictures. In 1559 Foxe published his book on the continent—732 pages in Latin. Returning to England under Protestant Elizabeth, he resumed pastoral work and translated his book into English. John Day published it in London in 1563 under the title Acts and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Days Touching Matters of the Church.
But Foxe wasn’t finished. He spent four years interviewing witnesses, tracking down documents, finding letters. After long days of church ministry, he sat by flickering candlelight, continuing his writing. In 1570 a second edition appeared—two large volumes totaling 2,315 pages—then a third and a fourth. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was one of the most important publications in Elizabeth’s reign, having an extraordinary impact. It was in every cathedral alongside the Bible. Vicars read from it during Sunday services. Francis Drake read it aloud on the Western seas. It inspired the Puritans. It took the world by storm.
But it also took a toll on Foxe’s personal health, and he never recovered. He died from weariness on April 18, 1587. But he had given us his life’s crowning achievement.
At that time the church in Jerusalem suffered terribly. All of the Lord’s followers, except the apostles, were scattered everywhere in Judea and Samaria. … The Lord’s followers who had been scattered went from place to place, telling the good news. (Acts 8:1-4)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Apr. 18.