How did the author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs respond to the Coronavirus of His Time?
John Foxe never liked being called a martyrologist (he regarded his work as church history), but the author of Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, popularly called Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs”, turned to the martyrs as exemplars when in 1563 he wrote a pamphlet to encourage and comfort Londoners caught in the grip of plague:
And thus being armed with the power and strength of Christ, pass through this storm, be it never so rough and sharp to the flesh, having before your eyes so many examples of good men which passed the same way before you: the Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs of Christ, who in their extremities passed through greater torments, some racked, some torn to pieces, some sawed asunder, some stoned to death, some hanged by one member, some by another, some broiled upon coals, some burned with flaming fire; which they notwithstanding abode with patience. But especially casting up your mind and beholding the death of Christ, learn thereby to die and not to fear death, not to murmur against God. For if he did abide a smarting passion, and that in his middle and best age: think yourself not better than he.
Just as with his “Book of Martyrs” (the first English edition of which was published that same year), Foxe urged Londoners not to fear “bodily death” as the plague bore down on them:
For what is the estate and condition of all men but mere mortality; that is to say, not so soon born to this world as dead to God. And what does it change then when a dead man dies, who is dead already before he begins to die; whether to die sooner or later: as all men be who are born of Adam. For where Christ says in the gospel, let the dead go bury the dead: what does he mean but that we should understand thereby no difference between those who are dead and those who are still alive?
It was hardly abstract theology–Foxe knew of no such thing in any of his writings, and in this case, he wrote not only as a theologian and pastor but also as a parent whose own daughter died in the plague the year he wrote. It makes the conclusion of his pamphlet, entitled “A Prayer to be Said Over Children” in time of plague, all the more personal:
And forasmuch as the pains of the same poor child seem grievous and vehement, we beseech thee to mitigate the vehemency thereof, that by the relieving of it, we also may be comforted, dealing with it according as it shall seem good to thy divine wisdom, whether by death to call it or by life to restore it, so that whether it goes, or tarries, it may be thine, and at last with thine elect be made partaker of that blessed resurrection, when thou shalt appear.
The plagues change, but the God who comforts us in the midst of them does not.
The John Foxe quotes (adapted to modern English by me) come from his 1567 pamphlet entitled A Brief Exhortation, fruitfull and meete to be read in this heavy tyme of Gods visitation in London, to suche as be Sicke, where the Ministers do lacke, or otherwise cannot be present to comfort them, as cited in Warren W. Wooden’s masterful book, John Foxe (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), pp. 89-90.