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Puritan Memoirs - Mr. John Fox

Puritan Memoirs - The Life and Death of Some Reformed Ministers

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The life and death of Mr. John Fox.

THIS celebrated author, better known by the title of Martyrologist, was born at Boston in Lincolnshire, in 1517. Owing to the early death of his father, and the second marriage of his mother, he was put under the guardian care of his fatherinlaw. At the age of sixteen he was sent to Brazennose college, Oxford, and afterwards became fellow of Magdalene college in the same university. In his youth he discovered a taste for poetry, and composed several Latin comedies upon subjects selected from the scriptures. For some time after he went to college, Mr. Fox was strongly attached to the Romish religion. His life was also strictly moral, he therefore rejected the doctrine of justification through the merits of Christ, considering that his own merit, almsdeeds, penances, and compliance with the ceremonies of the church, would afford him sufficient security and protection. Afterwards, however, he came to be convinced of the false foundation on which he had erected his visionary fabric of defense, and fled for refuge to the blood of sprinkling. His indefatigable researches into the history of the church, the writings of the fathers, and especially the Holy Scriptures, thoroughly convinced him of the immense difference that existed between the doctrines and practice of the Roman church and those of the primitive Christians.

Anxious to become a competent judge of the controversy, which was now become general between the papists and protestants, he studied incessantly. Living in a very solitary manner, and forsaking, in a great measure, the company of his old popish friends and acquaintances, he soon became suspected of entertaining the reforming principles, and of being infected with heresy: But having found the truth, he became bold in its defense, and determined to suffer the loss of all things that came in competition with his public profession thereof. This was no sooner known, than he was publicly accused, and expelled the college for heresy. His enemies indeed thought they had dealt very favorably in suffering him to escape with his life. This took place in 1545, upon which he was deserted by his friends and relatives, who, as he had been convicted of heresy, thought it unsafe, and for that reason were unwilling to countenance or protect him. In the meantime, his father-in-law basely took advantage of this circumstance, to withhold his estate which had been left him by his father. In this hour of extremity, while forsaken by his friends, and oppressed by his enemies, God had compassion on him, and raised him an unexpected friend and protector, in Sir Thomas Lucy of Warwickshire, who took him into his house, and made him tutor to his children, where he found a comfortable asylum from the rage of his enemies. While in this situation he married, but still continued in Sir Thomas’ family till his pupils were grown up, when he was” again reduced to great straits, and glad to solicit entertainment at the house of his father-in-law, which, with considerable difficulty, he sometimes obtained; and sometimes also he lived at his wife’s father’s in Coventry, till a little before the death of king Henry, that he removed to the metropolis. After his arrival in London, he had no employment for a considerable time, and was again reduced to absolute penury and destitution. In this deplorable condition, as he was sitting one day in St. Paul’s, pale, meager, and dejected from want and starvation, with a countenance ghastly as that of a dying man, a person, whom he had no recollection of having ever seen before, came and sat down beside him, and accosting him with great familiarity, put a sum of money into his hand, saying, “Be of good cheer Mr. Fox, and use all means to preserve your life; for, be assured, that in a few days God will give you a better prospect, and provide you with less precarious means of subsistence.” Though Mr. Fox could never learn to whom he was indebted for that providential relief, in less than three days be was taken into the family of the duchess of Richmond, and appointed tutor to the earl of Surrey’s children, whose education had been committed to her care. In this honorable family Mr. Fox continued daring the remaining part of the reign of Henry VIII., the whole reign of Edward VI., and part of that of queen Mary. Bishop Gardiner, in whose diocese he enjoyed this comfortable retreat, would have willingly brought him to the stake, had not the powerful protection of the duke of Norfolk, who had been his pupil, saved him. It was with deep regret that Gardiner beheld the heir of one of the first families of England trained tip in the protestant faith under his influence. This proud and persecuting prelate formed several designs, and used various stratagems to effect the ruin of this harmless individual, till at last he had to fly for his life, and take shelter in a foreign land.

The duke, who revered him as a father, protected him so long as he was able, and took care, when he removed, to provide him with every thing necessary for his comfort on the voyage. He set sail from Ipswich, in company with his wife and some other persons engaged in the same cause. The vessel had scarcely got out to sea when they were overtaken by a tremendous storm, which obliged them to return to the port, where they landed next day. But Mr. Fox had just got ashore when he was apprised that the bishop’s warrant for his apprehension had been emitted, and that the strictest search had been made for him during his absence at sea. Upon this intelligence, he prevailed on the captain to put again to sea; which he did immediately, though the storm had not subsided, and they arrived in safety at Newport, in Flanders, in two days. Thus had Mr. Fox twice narrowly escaped the flames.

From Newport he traveled to Antwerp, then to Frankfort, where he got involved in the contentions excited amongst the brethren by the officious interference of Dr. Cox and his party, which obliged the first settlers to remove to Basil in Switzerland, whither Mr. Fox accompanied them. Basil, at this time, was accounted one of the first places in Europe for printing; here a number of the English refugees found employment in revising and correcting the press. Mr. Fox supported his family in this way; and here he laid the plan of his Acts and Monuments of the Martyrs, and had proceeded some length with the work, but reserved the greater part of it till he returned to his native country, where he could obtain the testimony of a greater number of witnesses who had seen the transactions they attested. It appears, from the author’s own notes, that he was eleven years in compiling this great work, notwithstanding that he was favored with the assistance of several distinguished characters; among whom were Mr. John Aylmer, bishop of London, Edmond Grindal, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Norton, a highly celebrated lawyer, who married archbishop Cranmer’s only daughter. From this last mentioned individual our author received the greatest assistance. Grindal likewise furnished him with a great many documents, which, when digested and arranged, he found of important service. For this purpose, during Grindal’s exile, he had established a correspondence in England, by which means statements of most of the sufferings of the martyrs came through his hands; but so intent was he on obtaining satisfactory evidence for everything introduced into, this work, that he persuaded Mr. Fox not to publish it till some opportunity could be embraced for comparing and correcting the documents sent over on the ground where the transactions took place. It was also by Grindal’s advice that Mr. Fox at first published the Acts of several of the Martyrs separately, particularly of such as had been supported with satisfactory evidence. Mr. Fox had resolved to publish the whole work in Latin; but by the advice of Grindal, he published it both in Latin and English, with the design of rendering it more generally serviceable to the public. It was first published in London, in one thick folio volume, with the following title, “Acts and Monuments of these latter perilous days, touching matters of the Church; wherein are comprehended and described the great persecutions and horrible troubles that have been wrought and practiced by the Romish prelates, specially in this realm of England and Scotland, from the year of our Lord a thousand unto the time now present,” etc. The ninth edition of this work was published in London, 1632, in three volumes folio, with copper cuts, the former editions having had only wooden ones.

Several writers have labored to depreciate the memory of Mr. Fox, by insinuating that his martyrology contains many misrepresentations and falsehoods. Dr. Collier, ever watchful for an opportunity to vilify his performance, and lessen his reputation, charges him with ill nature and disingenuousness, and that a vein of coarse satire and indelicate phraseology runs through the whole work: That he ought to be read with great caution; moreover, that his zeal was bitter, and that his passion and disaffection pushed him on to profanity.

That Mr. Fox evinces, in some parts of his book, a temper kindled into indignation, will not be denied; but then it ought to be recollected, that the scenes, of merciless cruelty and unspeakable torment, he has described, were many of them recent transactions, several of which, in all likelihood, passed under his own eye, and must therefore have left impressions on his mind which could never be obliterated; besides, though he escaped the flames of Smithfield almost by a miracle, he had to drink a pretty large proportion of the bitter cup allotted to the faithful of that periodsrail which circumstances taken into the account, the wonder is not, that he sometimes gave vent to his indignation at such diabolical procedure, but that he conducted himself, while describing these fiendlike transactions, with so much moderation as he has done. Mr. Fox, like every other writer of memoirs, was subjected to the inconveniency of selecting his information from so many sources, that it was impossible for him to publish a volume of such dimensions with certainty that no error had crept into his narrative. He corrected, however, all the mistakes that came to his knowledge in his next edition. What more could be reasonably expected? Tyrants and persecutors, in all ages, have endeavored to cover their atrocities with some plausible pretence. It is little wonder then that they should charge Fox with disingenuity, who had torn off their veil of hypocrisy, and exhibited them to the world in all their naked and hideous deformity.

On this herculean performance Mr. Strype passes an honorable encomium. “Mr. Fox (says he) has done essential service to the protestant cause, by shewing, from ancient records, books, registers, and choice manuscripts, the continual encroachments of the popes and their coadjutors, and the spirited resistance maintained by learned and good men in every age and country, particularly under king Henry and queen Mary in England. He hath preserved the memoirs of those holy men and women, those bishops and divines, together with their histories, acts, sufferings, and deaths, cheerfully submitted to for the sake of Christ and his gospel, and for refusing to comply with the popish doctrines and superstition. The world is infinitely indebted to Mr. Fox, continues he, for his painful and patient researches into the records, achieves, and repositories of original acts and letters of state, and other highly important manuscripts, from which he has communicated abundance of extracts in these volumes; and as his labors were incessant, so his transcriptions are eminently correct.”
No book ever inflicted a wound so deep and incurable on the Romish system of superstition and bloody persecution; on which account, his talents, zeal, and labors, drew down upon himself the, malice and unqualified malediction of all his catholic foes. His name was inserted in a bead roll, or list of prescription, intended for a first sacrifice when the contemplated scheme of overrunning England should be accomplished. Mr. Fox’s history of the martyrs was placed in the common halls of archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons, and heads of colleges, and in all churches and chapels throughout the kingdom, by order of queen Elizabeth.

On learning that Elizabeth had mounted the throne of England, Mr. Fox returned from his exile, and was received with great cordiality, and kindly entertained by his pupil the duke of Norfolk, who maintained him at his residence, and settled a pension upon him by his last will. In 1572, when this unhappy nobleman was beheaded on, Towerhill for his treasonable connections with the queen of Scots, he was attended by Mr. Fox, and Dr. Newell dean of St. Paul’s, in his last moments on the scaffold. After returning from the continent, Mr. Fox was three years without preferment of any kind whatever, as appears from his letter to Dr. Humphrey, his friend and acquaintance; where he says, “I still wear the same clothes, and remain in the sordid condition that England received me when I came from Germany; nor have I changed my degree and order, which is that of the mendicants or friar preachers, if you please.” Thus, with good-natured pleasantry, did he reproach the neglect and ingratitude of the times. He continued, however, till the year 1563 without the least preferment, when secretary Cecil procured for him a prebend in the church of Salisbury; this, which with some difficulty he retained till his death, was all the preferment ever he obtained. He lived, however, many years after this in great esteem and favor with persons of high rank and reputation. Bishops Grindal, Parkhurst, Pilkington, and Aylmer, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Thomas Gresham, were his steady and powerful friends; and by their influence would have raised him to the highest preferment; but as he could not subscribe, and disapproved of the ceremonies of the church, he expressed his gratitude for their kind intentions, but begged to be excused.
In the year 1564, archbishop Parker attempted to force the clergy to conform to the ritual of the established church; and trusting that the capital would influence the country, began with the London ministers: Judging also that Mr. Fox’s conduct would, in all probability, be followed in the city, he was first called, and examined on the following question: “Will yon promise conformity to the apparel, by law established, and testify your acquiescence by subscribing with your hand?” Here Mr. Fox drew from his pocket his Greek New Testament, saying, “To this I will subscribe!”

When the commissioners urged him to subscribe the canon, he refused, saying, “I have nothing in the church but a prebend in Salisbury, and much good may it do you if you take it from me.” Whoever refused thus to conform were immediately suspended, and, at the termination of three months, deprived of their livings. His ecclesiastic judges, however, were ashamed to deprive so celebrated an individual to whom so little had been given.
The queen having, at one time, been graciously pleased to grant indulgence to several nonconforming divines, Fox presented her majesty with a panegyric written in Latin; but in the year 1575, he had occasion to address her on a very different subject. In the course of this year the spirit of persecution was wrought up to the most extravagant pitch against the Anabaptists in London, ten of whom were condemned for the opinions they held; of which number eight were ordered into banishment, and the remaining two to be burnt. On this occasion Mr. Fox wrote an excellent letter of admonition to the queen, in which he deprecates rekindling the fires of Smithfield, from the consideration, that men, who err from ignorance, which all must do who adhere to their errors in defiance of death, are more the objects of pity than punishment, more entitled to instruction than persecution, unless we are determined to destroy the soul as well as the body. I do not write this, says he, with any design of favoring or patronizing error, but to save the lives of erring men, I myself being one, and to leave them an opportunity of reconsidering their belief, of being better informed, and of retracting their erroneous opinions. His laudable endeavors, however, to soften the rigor of her severity against these otherwise unoffending individuals, were all to no purpose; the queen remained inflexible, and though she always called him father Fox, on this occasion she gave him a flat denial, unless they would submit to her despotic authority; which they would not, and were accordingly both burnt at Smithfield, July 22d, 1575, to the everlasting disgrace of the reign, the character, and kingdom, of this cruel and imperious woman.

Mr. Fox was a laborious student, a most learned, pious, and judicious divine, strongly opposed to every act of severity in matters of religion; but being a noted and determined nonconformist, his merits were overlooked and shamefully neglected. Preferment, however, he had determined not to accept on the terms it was then bestowed; he was content with his prebend at Salisbury; while the richest mitre in England, according to Fuller, would have counted itself preferred by being placed on his head. His enemies were many; yet several of them have had the honesty to acknowledge his powerful talents, his pious life, and manifold virtues. Even Wood denominates him a sagacious searcher into antiquity, incomparably charitable, and of an exemplary life and conversation; but a severe Calvinist, and a bitter enemy to popery.

This celebrated author, and indefatigable preacher, having spent a long and laborious life in promoting and in suffering for the cause of Christ, and the best interests of men, resigned his soul to God who gave it, in April 18th, 1587, and in the seventieth year of his age. His remains were interred in the chancel of St. Giles’s church, Cripplegate, London, where, against the south wall, a monumental inscription was erected to his memory by his son.

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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