Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Most Christians know that the most popular Christian book ever written aside from the Bible itself is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But how many Christians today can name the Christian book that has come next in popularity down through the centuries? It is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The author took an active role in the English Reformation of the sixteenth century, himself spending a number of years on the continent to escape death, although he later returned to his homeland and there won great respect as a writer and preacher. The first edition of his Martyrs appeared in 1563. It retells church history from the beginning, using an account of larger developments as a framework for the stories of individual saints who were persecuted for their faith, most of them dying as martyrs. My own three copies of this book are quite different, for it has been issued in many versions. Perhaps the most popular is actually a condensation of Foxe’s work together with a lengthy supplement telling of persecutions after Foxe’s day until the beginning of the last century. The author of the supplement chose to be anonymous.

Foxe was a conscientious scholar who relied on credible sources for his accounts. Although not shy of using dramatic language, he never descended to sensationalism or vulgar exaggeration. Perhaps the best way to introduce his work is to read his memorial to a certain John Hullier, a fellow preacher who died in the years when the British sovereign still regarded any challenge to the Catholic church as a capital offense.

Rev. John Hullier was brought up at Eton College, and in process of time became curate of Babram, three miles from Cambridge, and went afterward to Lynn; where, opposing the superstition of the papists, he was carried before Dr. Thirlby, bishop of Ely, and sent to Cambridge castle: here he lay for a time, and was then sent to Tolbooth prison, where, after three months, he was brought to St. Mary’s Church, and condemned by Dr. Fuller. On Maunday Thursday he was brought to the stake: while undressing, he told the people to bear witness that he was about to suffer in a just cause, and exhorted them to believe that there was no other rock than Jesus Christ to build upon. A priest named Boyes, then desired the mayor to silence him. After praying, Hullier went meekly to the stake, and being bound with a chain, and placed in a pitch barrel, fire was applied to the reeds and wood; but the wind drove the fire directly to his back, which caused him under the severe agony to pray the more fervently. His friends directed the executioner to fire the pile to windward of his face, which was immediately done. A quantity of books were now thrown into the fire, one of which (the Communion Service) he caught, opened it, and joyfully continued to read it, until the fire and smoke deprived him of sight; then even, in earnest prayer, he pressed the book to his heart, thanking God for bestowing on him in his last moments this precious gift. The day being hot, the fire burnt fiercely; and at a time when the spectators supposed he was no more, he suddenly exclaimed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and meekly resigned his life. He had gunpowder given him, but he was dead before it became ignited. This pious sufferer afforded a singular spectacle; for his flesh was so burnt from the bones, which continued erect, that he presented the idea of a skeleton figure chained to the stake (1).

Foxe’s book wins few readers among Christians today. From their perspective, its retelling of the brutality that has been heaped upon simple, good-hearted human beings, whose only crime was their desire to draw closer to God, is too sad and unsettling. The only possible response to Rev. Hullier’s story, for example, is to mourn, at least with invisible tears. Every other story in the Book of Martyrs has the same impact. So, in a world that puts a premium on being entertained, Foxe’s book has little appeal.

But you might be surprised to learn that most Christians in the past, who lived in a world where persecution was a more immediate danger, viewed his book in a different light. They saw it as a celebration of heroic faith, serving as an example to us should we face the same stern tests of our loyalty to God. Indeed, we should read it as an inspiration to godly endurance under persecution. We should have our children read it for the same purpose. Who knows what they will face someday in a world declining rapidly into vehement hatred of Christ?

Sheep among Wolves

We should not view persecution of believers as anything extraordinary. Quite the opposite. Scripture affirms in many places that it is the normal lot of a believer (2 Tim. 3:12; John 15:20). The fullest discussion of persecution anywhere in the Bible appears in the teachings of Jesus. His practice whenever He told prospective workers what to expect in serving God was to give a balanced picture of positives and negatives. For example, on one occasion He promises a hundredfold increase in both earthly family and earthly possessions, yet He says that these will come in combination with persecution (Mark 10:29-31). We understand that the result of persecution might be hardship and suffering.

Soon after He selected His twelve disciples, He sent them out two-by-two with the charge to preach the gospel everywhere in the land of Israel (Matt. 10:6-7). In the discourse He addressed to them before they embarked on their assignment, the warning of persecution is the dominant theme, and the warning is ominous indeed. He gives them a realistic picture of the bitter persecution they would face as His spokesmen. Yet at the same time, He eloquently argues that the reward for unflagging courageous testimony would far outweigh the cost, and in passionate tones He exhorts them to remain true under fire.

He starts off by drawing upon the animal world for appropriate comparisons (Matt. 10:16). His workers are simultaneously sheep, serpents, and doves, but as they go out into the world they will meet yet another beast—the wolf. Obviously, then, they will face opposition of the fiercest kind, intent upon devouring and destroying them.

The various animals that describe the servants of God show the three main aspects of their relationship to a hostile world. In their dependence on the leadership and care of another, who is God, they are like sheep. In their great wisdom, capable of penetrating even the designs of their enemy, who from the beginning has been known as the serpent and dragon, they are like serpents themselves. In their utter commitment to loving their neighbor, they are like harmless doves.

Jesus then gives more information about the wolves. He is speaking primarily not about their enemies in the spiritual realm—not about Satan and his hosts—but about men under Satan’s control. What kind of men? In the next two sayings He clarifies whom He means (Matt. 10:17-18). First, He is referring to leaders of the Jewish people, for they will bring Jesus’ disciples before councils and scourge them in synagogues. The word "councils" is actually "sanhedrins," a reference to the council of Jewish elders that presided over the Jewish nation. Second, He is referring to governors and kings, evidently non-Jewish, for what the disciples say before rulers of this kind will serve as a testimony to the gentiles.

Now we come to a conundrum. We have said that this discourse of Jesus was meant for the Twelve He was sending out to reach the Jewish nation. Yet we have no evidence that they suffered any opposition resembling what Jesus predicted. During their brief tour of cities in Galilee, they did not, so far as we know, meet with wolves who arraigned them before synagogues or councils or kings. It must be that in His discussion of persecution, Jesus primarily had in view not their work during the next few weeks, but the far more significant work they would undertake as leaders of the church. Indeed, what Jesus says beginning in verse 16 has timeless relevance. It is meant as guidance for all who would serve Christ down through the centuries of church history.

Jesus, speaking bluntly, told all His future servants that the gospel of Christ, although a gospel of peace in the sense of restoring peace between God and man, was fundamentally a declaration of war (Matt. 10:34). It put His followers in the role of soldiers fighting to deliver lost souls from the bondage of sin and Satan. Whereas the believer would use the Word of God as His sword, the enemy would often use a real sword of sharpened steel to stop him. In other words, the cost of fighting on God’s side might be death.

Counsel on Defending Ourselves

As soon as He tells of the vicious opposition awaiting His servants, He shows His heart of concern by giving helpful advice on how they should cope with it (Matt. 10:19-20). He counsels them, and us as well, that if we are dragged before human judges to face charges related to the work of God, we should not prepare any defense beforehand. Rather, we should rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the right words when we must answer our accusers. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will take possession of our tongues and say exactly what He wants to be said. We need not fear that our lips will be paralyzed, for the Spirit Himself will open our mouths. We need not fear that we will lack a proper defense, for the Spirit Himself, speaking through us, will serve as our lawyer. Thus, we should not engage any human lawyer to act as our spokesman unless he too is a believer filled with the Spirit.

Jesus is quite firm in forbidding us to work out our own defense. We are not to give so much as a single thought to what we will say. Clearly, He does not wish us to compound our suffering by agonizing over our trial before it comes to pass. We are to approach it with calm hearts. Instead of wrestling with imagined arguments back and forth, we should quiet our minds and think on peaceful things.

A Warning as to Who May Oppose Us

Next, continuing to address not just the Twelve but all believers in all ages, Jesus magnifies His picture of the wolves so that their snarling visages can be seen more clearly, and He points out faces that His followers would never expect to find among their enemies (Matt. 10:21). Among them are some close relatives. In the battle between God and Satan, every soldier on God’s side may suffer the grief of seeing loved ones join Satan’s side. The enemy he meets in combat may be a brother, a father, or even a child. To prepare us for the worst case, Jesus said that evil powers might gain such a hold over our loved one that he might even deliver us to death. Church history has proved the prophecy correct. Every wave of major persecution has turned brother against brother and parent against child. Still today, a convert to Christ in Muslim or Hindu countries might be killed by his own family in defense of what they imagine to be their honor. In reality, they are protecting their position in the community.

Later in the same discourse, Jesus warned again that anyone who undertakes the work of God may incur stiff opposition from members of his own family (Matt. 10:34-7). It was needful to say more about such opposition because it has always been Satan’s most effective weapon against the church. The choice between serving Christ and retaining the good will of a family hostile to Christ is one of the most severe tests of faith a man can face, and many a professing believer has failed it. Under pressure from loved ones, he has backed down from doing God’s will.

To prepare His soldiers for the fiercest combat, Jesus reemphasized that the battle lines in the war for souls might disrupt the closest ties, the dearest bonds, between one human being and another. Against the faithful servant of God might be ranged such adversaries as father and mother and mother-in-law. Jesus singles out those bonds that are especially rich in emotional importance: a son’s deep reverence for the primary source of his own identity, his father; a daughter’s similar love for her mother; but also a wife’s special longing to be approved by the woman she supplanted in her husband’s affection, her mother-in-law.

But a soldier’s duty is clear. He must engage and overcome the enemy wherever he finds him, and he must do so without reckoning the cost. Never in human experience has a soldier’s tender feelings been accepted as an excuse for giving the enemy an advantage. Likewise in spiritual warfare, a soldier for Christ who meets opponents in His own family must strive for victory with a zeal unabated by personal loyalties. He wins not by doing them harm. Certainly not. On the contrary, he always shows them the love of Christ and seeks to recruit them to God’s side in the conflict. But if they choose to remain his foes, he cannot let them maneuver him into a position of surrender. He must press on, though he risks their hatred, though they threaten him with reprisals, though they actually punish him in one fashion or another. He must press on, showing that he has transferred his loyalty to someone more worthy.

A Warning as to How Many May Oppose Us

Opposition to the work of Christ will someday wax so strong that it will engulf the whole world (Matt. 10:22a). The warning is referring to the Tribulation, the period of worldwide calamity after the rapture of the church. Then, the followers of Jesus will be hated of all men, without exception. Then, the question each believer will face is whether he will stand firm in his faith despite the cost, for the probable cost will be death.

Proof that Jesus is looking far into the future lies in His next saying, "But he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matt. 10:22b). The term "end" is the Greek word telos, which He uses in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:6, 13, 14) with special reference to that climactic moment of history when He will return in power and great glory. He means that any true follower of Christ will, even under extreme provocation, resist the temptation to betray His Lord. He will go on enduring the worst Satan can contrive against him until Christ Himself steps into history and defeats Satan.

Yet the admonition, "He that endureth to the end shall be saved," also had meaning for those who stood by Jesus as He spoke. For the Twelve, the "end" could be understood as referring to the day of their deliverance. Whether they would be delivered in life, by God restraining the hand of their persecutors, or delivered by death, their persecution would not go on forever. Until it came to an end, they would remain faithful to Christ if their bond to Him was genuine. Their perseverance would not earn them salvation, but would demonstrate that they were truly saved.

Legitimate Responses to Persecution

Then Jesus offered another principle as relevant to us today as it was to the Twelve. "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another" (Matt. 10:23a). There is no merit in remaining under persecution or in accepting a martyr’s death if we can escape honorably. It is dishonorable to save ourselves by denying our Lord, but it is not dishonorable to flee. That is generally the course of wisdom. Often in Paul’s ministry, he left a city when the opposition grew so heated that the only alternative to leaving was dying. It made no sense to let his enemies stop his ministry. It was better to preserve his ministry by evading them. Yet he never turned tail and ran like a coward. His whole career of preaching the unpopular gospel of Christ was a demonstration of courage in the midst of exceeding danger.

Likewise, all of us in ministry today must be both courageous and cunning in contending with persecutors. The devil’s purpose is to crush the work of God. Rather than cooperate with his purpose by presenting ourselves as the next victims, we should employ tactics that will keep the work of God going. When persecutors mount an attack, any defense that does not compromise our principles is legitimate. We can stall, obstruct, negotiate, appease, or even hide. If all else fails, it is time to flee.

By "stall," I mean that it is legitimate to wait until a deadline before announcing noncompliance with an objectionable demand. By "obstruct," I mean to do as Paul did when at least twice he protected himself from severe or disgraceful treatment by informing local authorities that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:36-39; 22:24-29). By "negotiate," I mean to offer compromises that might satisfy the persecutor without compromising our convictions. By "appease," I mean to follow the advice of Romans 12:20-21. Treating a persecutor with kindness may succeed in appeasing his wrath. What I mean by "hide" needs no explanation.

Our Forerunner in Suffering

Do not be surprised at persecution. We serve a master who suffered persecution at its very worst (Matt. 10:24-5). He was arrested, falsely accused, condemned to die, slapped, buffeted with fists, mocked, spat upon, tormented by thorns driven into His skull, scourged, and crucified on a cross. If the world so mistreated Jesus, we can hardly expect it to be any kinder to His servants, for "it is enough for the disciple that he be as his master." Jesus drew an analogy between our enemies in spiritual warfare and the marauders of a household. Whereas these marauders might show some restraint in attacking the head, perhaps in hope of securing ransom, they will have no pity at all for other defenders of the house.

Yet in warning His disciples that they would be as ill-used as He was, Jesus made no reference to the grim ordeal that would end His life. Rather, He reminded them of the shameful insult recently cast upon Him, when His enemies said He was in league with Beelzebub. In some respects, this insult may have been more painful to Jesus than the physical torture He would endure later. To be denounced as an ally of the evil one, who epitomized everything Jesus hated and who raged against everything Jesus loved, must have been bitter to hear. What an awful wound our lovely Lord must have felt when He was called a fiend instead of a friend, a hellhound instead of a healer, one who lies rather than loves, a parasite instead of a prophet, a curser instead of a king, a serpent instead of a savior! Yet He accepted the abuse so that He might bring us eternal life.


  1. John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (Albany, OR: Books for the Ages, 1996), 324-5.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.