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Review by J. Peter Pham
Published in March 1563, less than five years after the death of Mary I and the accession of her half-sister, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church, popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was perhaps the most influential apologetical work of the English Reformation during the early Elizabethan period. The fourth edition, the final published before the author’s death in 1587, was an extraordinary technological accomplishment for its time and consisted of two volumes of 2,000 folio pages in double columns, quadruple the length of the Bishops’ Bible then in use.
It was best known for its sometimes lurid descriptions and John Day’s graphic woodcuts illustrating the sufferings of the martyrs. But Foxe had a more subtle intention, using the sufferings of the godly as a vehicle to recount the age-old conflict between the True Church and its foes, thereby vindicating the historical continuity of the Church of England with the early Christian Church, even while celebrating the recent martyrs, knowledge of which “may redound therby to the profite of the Reader and edification of Christian faith.”
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical campus pastor and businessman who served two terms on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Jerry Pattengale, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, have written The New Book of Christian Martyrs, a substantial work that, even if it thankfully is not as immense as Foxe’s, has the same ambition: to glory in the sacrifice of the victims and record the infamy of their persecutors. It is as true in the 21st century as it was in the second that the blood of martyrs is the Church’s seed.
The first part of the book covers well-trod ground, telling select stories of Christian witnesses from the New Testament era through 16th-century England. Where Moore and Pattengale depart from Foxe is their inclusion not only of Protestant martyrs, but also those who died still professing the old Catholic faith: Sir Thomas More is chronicled alongside John Frith and Andrew Hemet, whom he earlier had helped send to burn at the stake. Moore and Pattengale are intentional in their commitment to honor Christians across a wide spectrum of faith traditions, noting: “At the center of each believer’s life and death is the cross of Christ … Christ’s outstretched arms reflect not only his death on the cross but his embrace of all who seek him.”
The bulk of The New Book is devoted to telling the stories of martyrs since the Reformation, from the age of “discovery” and colonialism down to today. And here the witnesses are truly ecumenical, representing Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians of widely diverse times, places, and conditions of life. A number are already liturgically commemorated or otherwise celebrated by some Churches: included are the stories of nine of the 10 20th-century martyrs whose statues have been erected above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey (the odd omission is Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop killed by a death squad while celebrating Mass in 1980 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2018).
Others are not as well known, even though their lives and deaths occurred in even more recent times, including:
- Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Iraq, kidnapped and killed in 2008
- the 127 churchgoers who were killed when two suicide bombers attacked the Church of Pakistan’s historic All Saints Church, Peshawar, after Sunday services in 2013
- Mary Sameh George, a young Coptic Christian laywoman who was dragged from her car by a mob while out delivering food and medicine to elderly Christians and Muslims in Cairo in 2014
- the 21 Christians (20 Egyptians and one Ghanaian) beheaded on a Libyan beach in 2015 by the Islamic State for being “People of the Cross”
- Vincent Machozi, a Roman Catholic priest and tireless peacemaker shot by a group of soldiers while waiting for a community meeting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016
- Han Chung-Ryeol, the pastor of a church on the Chinese side of the China-North Korea border who was on the North Korean regime’s most-wanted list for more than a decade for helping and sharing the gospel with those fleeing Pyongyang’s tyranny, stabbed and hacked to death in 2016.
As the Church begins her third millennium, in certain respects the situation is even grimmer than those faced by the English martyrs five centuries ago. The authors estimate that two-thirds of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians live in danger, and they cite conservative estimates that around 10,000 Christians have died in each of the last ten years because of their faith.
Yet amid that suffering a blessing emerges: The New Book quotes the head of the Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Burkina Faso, a West African country that, since 2020, has seen large swathes of its territory overrun by militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State, saying that Catholics and evangelicals are “closer together than before, because we face the same attacks, the same threats, the same hardships.”
The Rev. Canon Dr. J. Peter Pham is priest associate at St. Paul’s K Street in Washington, D.C. From 2018 to 2021 he served in the United States Department of State as U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes and Sahel Regions of Africa, with the personal rank of Ambassador.