By guest writer Benjamin Hawkins, Ph.D.
On Easter 1555, the zealous English evangelical[I] William Flower burst into a rage in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, when he noticed a priest administering the Mass – a rite that Flower saw as the epitome of Roman Catholic idolatry. Immediately, he struck the offending priest with his woodknife, cutting him on the head, arm and hand. Blood from the priest’s wounds, according to the martyrologist John Foxe,[ii] sprinkled onto the consecrated host of the sacrament, which the priest was carrying in a chalice. Immediately, Flower was arrested and, after his trial, was burned at the stake as a heretic.
This intriguing tale of church violence made its first appearance in Foxe’s Acts & Monuments (often called the Book of Martyrs), a colossal tome known best for its heroic tales of some 280 evangelical martyrs who suffered during the brief reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England.[iii] As will be seen shortly, Flower’s story takes us to the heart of Foxe’s view of martyrdom. But, for the past four-and-a-half centuries, it has been used by critics to bludgeon Foxe and discredit his reliability as a historian. In keeping with such criticisms, historian Eamon Duffy in his 2009 book, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, depicts Flower’s bloody outburst as a “demented suicide-mission.”
"Even a crazed would-be assassin,” he writes, “might be a warrior in the battle against antichrist if his death could be presented as a martyrdom.”[iv] And, indeed, this is precisely how Foxe presents Flower’s death – namely, as a martyrdom that glorified God and testified to the truth of the evangelical message.
Though Duffy makes no mention of the fact,[v] early 20th-century historian J. F. Mozley has already answered criticisms about Foxe’s portrayal of Flower as an evangelical martyr. In fact, none other than C.S. Lewis rated Mozley’s evaluation of Foxe highly. Mozley “defended Foxe’s integrity, as it seems to me, with complete success,” Lewis writes about the historian’s 1940 publication, John Foxe and His Book. He then provides an apt summary of Mozley’s view of Foxe:
From his examination Foxe emerges, not indeed as a great historian, but as an honest man. ... For the Marian persecution his sources are usually the narratives of eyewitnesses. Such narratives, whispered in secret during a Terror and emulously proclaimed as soon as the Terror is over, are liable to distortion. Men who have seen their friends die in torture are not always inspired by that coolly scientific spirit which the academic researcher so properly demands. But there seems no evidence that Foxe ever accepted what he did not himself believe or ever refused to correct what he had written in the light of fresh evidence.[vi]
Such is the case with Foxe’s story of Flower, about which Mozley writes,
Now once again we observe that Foxe tells us frankly the facts of the case, and his critics depend on him for their detailed knowledge of it. Once again too he makes no manner of excuse for the crime [i.e., of attacking the priest]; he says plainly that Flower therein ‘did not well nor evangelically’, and when Flower alleges the examples of Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, Judith and other Old Testament heroes, Foxe replies that ‘extra-ordinary zeals are no general rules to be followed’.
Indeed, Flower himself confessed his error in attacking the priest with his dagger. Moreover, as Mozley adds, Foxe ranks Flower among evangelical martyrs “not because he struck the man, but because he refused to buy his life by recanting his protestant beliefs. Whether wise or not, [Foxe’s] position is perfectly honest, and is neatly summed up in the side note which he adds: ‘Repenteth his act in striking, is constant in his faith.’”[vii]
Mozley’s assessment is fair, and it’s also important for understanding Foxe’s view of martyrdom. If Foxe had judged Flower to be merely a “crazed would-be assassin” who was punished for his “demented suicide-mission,” then he wouldn’t have placed him among the evangelical martyrs of Queen Mary’s reign. For, as Foxe writes in a Latin preface to his 1570 edition of Acts & Monuments, “The cause, not the punishment, makes the martyr.”[viii]
But what cause, according to Foxe, makes a martyr? As reported in Acts & Monuments, the cause of Flower’s martyrdom wasn’t his despicable crime in attacking a priest, but rather his evangelical views and refusal to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass. As the Roman church of the 16th-century taught, ordained priests could repeatedly offer up the body of Christ as a “bloodless sacrifice” during the eucharistic sacrament. But, for evangelicals like Foxe and Flower, this doctrine was abhorrent. Christ sacrificed himself once for all on Calvary, they argued, and now He sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.
Foxe makes his case for this view in his “Sermon of Christ Crucified,” first published in 1570. But his sermon is much more than a polemic against the Roman Catholic sacrifice of the Mass. Instead, in an exposition of 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, Foxe pleads with his hearers to be reconciled with God by trusting wholly in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
According to Foxe, Christ entrusted this message of reconciliation to His apostles in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). They were, as the apostle Paul had it, ambassadors for Christ’s sake. But, Foxe asks, does this embassy no longer exist? “Did this message of the apostles cease with the end of the apostles? Or did the preaching thereof extend no farther, but during the continuance of their time?” Indeed, this message and embassy continue, for “the same Lord which liveth still” doesn’t cease to “send messengers into his church from time to time.”[ix]And this message, according to Foxe, was the true martyr’s cause.
Granted, as Flower’s story reveals, not all of Foxe’s martyrs were spotless lambs. Indeed, Foxe sometimes downplayed evidence of actual heresy – for example, anti-Trinitarianism – among those listed in his magnum opusas martyrs. But, then again, Foxe loathed any use of the death sentence for the purpose of enforcing religion. In fact, he pled not only for the lives of his evangelical friends, but also for the lives of Anabaptists and Roman Catholics. “In a sense, Foxe’s subject, ... was not so much the martyr as the persecuting force which victimized him,” historian Patrick Collinson writes. For, as Collinson adds, “a cruel church would never be a true church.”[x]
But it would be a mistake to believe that most of Foxe’s martyrs held strictly heretical views. Most of them – men and women, young and old – died fulfilling their gospel embassy, proclaiming a message of reconciliation with God, clinging to an evangelical faith as they suffered. And today, although we may never face the flames of Smithfield, we nevertheless carry the same message and promote the same cause as such martyrs did. May we be as faithful amid freedom as they were amid persecution and pain.
Benjamin Hawkins, Ph.D., is associate editor of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s newspaper, The Pathway (MBCPathway.com) and author of Pathways to Reform: Remembering the Reformation after 500 Years, which can be purchased at MoBaptist.org/Reformation.
[i]In keeping with common usage among historians of the English Reformation, I use the term “evangelical” here to refer to someone we might now call “protestant.”
[ii]Historian Patrick Collinson notes that Foxe “disowned the title of ‘martyrologist’”; however, as Collinson goes on to say, if Foxe is not a “martyrologist,” it wouldn’t be appropriate to use the term for anyone else. See https://www.johnfoxe.org/index.php?realm=more&gototype=&type=essay&book=essay3(accessed 2018 Aug. 28).
[iii]Readers can find an online edition of Foxe’s Acts & Monuments, in each of its editions, on www.johnfoxe.org. The direct link for the story of William Flower, in Foxe’s 1583 edition, is https://www.johnfoxe.org/index.php?realm=text&gototype=&edition=1583&pageid=1597&anchor=WILLIAM%20FLOWER#kw.
[iv]Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor(New Haven: Yale University Press,2009), 118-119.
[v]It should be granted, of course, that Duffy’s does not intend his book primarily as a critical analysis of Foxe’s Acts & Monuments.
[vi]C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford University Press, 1973), 299-300.
[vii]J.F. Mozley, John Foxe and His Book(New York: Octagon Books, 1970 reprint), 193.
[ix]John Foxe, A Sermon of Christ Crucified, accessed online (2018 Aug. 28) via Google Books at this link: https://books.google.com/books?id=e9eKge5--BcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=john+foxe+sermon&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjruf3grOHcAhUQSq0KHSIJAM0Q6AEIPDAE#v=onepage&q=john%20foxe%20sermon&f=true. As an interesting side note, this edition of the sermon was published in 1759 by none other than George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the Great Awakening.
[x]Patrick Collinson, “Truth and Legend: The Veracity of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” in Elizabethan Essays (London: The Hambledon Press, 1994), 151-77.