Pop quiz: What were the best-selling books in the Middle Ages?
- The Holy Bible–1611
- Pilgrim’s Progress–John Bunyan, 1672
- Foxes Book of Martyrs–John Foxe, 8 volumes, 1563 (note that modern copies of this book are severely truncated…leaving out around 6,000 pages)
This past Sunday evening at Awanas, I shared some martyr “stories of the faith” with our AWANA Trek Clubbers. We’ve titled our contest theme this year “Track the Trek Tract Challenge”. Our goal with the Trek club is to hand out a certain number of tracts this year, and if we meet our goal, we’ll have a pizza party to celebrate. The kids earn tracts just as they earn Awana dollars, one tract per section signed in the handbook. They’ve enjoyed collecting and reading all of the tracts from chick.com before giving them away. Each week we share the unique places we’ve left tracts, and “track” how many we’ve left.
We’re also exploring a “Do Hard Things” theme. Hence, my wanting to share about the martyrs this past week. I think you all will be amazed by these stories as well.
With a blood-filled pen…
In 1557, Ralph Allerton was burned at the stake. Because he had no ink in prison, he wrote with his own blood, a report of his trial and a letter of encouragement to a widow. His bloody letters pleaded thus,
“I believe the Scripture to be true, and in the defence of the same I intend to give my life, rather than I will deny any part thereof, God willing.” Foxe, vol. 8, p. 408
I have to admit, I never realized the Biblical extent of the stakes these martyrs were standing for…that they were not dying for their faith in Jesus–because their Catholic persecutors claimed to believe in Jesus also–but rather for standing strong in defense of the holy scripture, and the veracity of every single word contained therein. That is so important to understand. You see, in the Dark Ages (c. 500-1500), Rome taught that the scriptures could only be understood by a ‘language scholar’, by a priest or member of the laity. The Bible was illegal in the hands of the people. But the word of God was with the people regardless, and they stood firm against any tampering thereof.
For instance, John Cavel, in 1556, was burned at the stake along with five others, for refusing to go to a church that ‘corrected’ the Bible one week, and preached the gospel the next:
“John Cavel…answered, that the cause why he did forbear the coming to the church, was, that the parson there had preached two contrary doctrines. For first, in a sermon that he made…he did exhort the people to believe the gospel; for it was the truth, and if they did not believe it, they should be damned. But in a second sermon, he preached that the Testament was false in forty places, which contrariety in him was a cause amongst others of his absenting from the church.” Foxe, vol. 8, p. 106
Memorizing huge portions of scripture…
Adam Wallace was taken to be burned at the stake. The men who took him,
“…spoiled him of his Bible, which always, til after he was condemned, was with him wherever he went. ” He spent the night before he was burned at the stake, singing the entire book of Psalms by heart or “without book” as they called it then.” Foxe, vol. 5 pp. 637-641
Memorizing whole books of the Bible was very common in those days. Paper being scarce, Bibles were a precious commodity, and also, people were poor. Persecution was everywhere. Christians took to heart as many scriptures as they could…and in this way, groups like the Vaudois or Waldensians were able to preserve the purity of the scriptures and protect them against the corruption of those days. It gives all new meaning to Psalm 119:11,
“Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.”
The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 475, says:
“We can safely say that they would have been able to reproduce much the same translation as we have…through long years of memorization and recitation…”
Here is what one “Inquisitor’s Tract” relayed in 1260,
For I have heard and seen a certain unlettered countryman, who used to recite Job word for word and many others who knew the whole New Testament perfectly” M. Deansley, The Lollard Bible, 1920, p. 62
This would have been of illegal proportions to the mind of an “inquisitor”…the title of which should ring alarms tolling back to history classes and the Roman Catholic Inquisition, when Christianity any other way than the pope’s way, was a sure ticket to torture and death. Keeping God’s word from the people was of primary importance. But these “unlettered” Christians, in the face of persecution, memorized the whole New Testament!
A blind girl’s pennies…
Joan Waste, a blind girl residing in the town of Derby, was burned at the stake at the young age of 22. Her crime was three-fold. She objected to the services being read in Latin, she was found the owner of a New Testament, and she denied the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation holding that the “bread and wine were just that”. Here is her amazing story.
Although blind, she was able to “recite many chapters of the New Testament without book.” With money earned from knitting and rope making, she procured a copy of the New Testament, and as she was able, she saved out “a penny or two” to pay people to read the Bible to her. She was reported to have held the hand of her twin brother on her way to her death. (Foxe, vol. 8, pp. 247-248)
Practical application: Beloved…contend for the faith!
“Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
William Tyndale, martyred in 1536, who was the first to make an English translation directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts, has this to say to parents:
“Thou shalt buy them wholesome books, as the holy gospel, the epistles of the holy apostles, yea both the New and Old Testament, that they may understand and drink of the sweet fountain and waters of life”…”Bring thy children to the church, to hear the sermon; and when thou shalt come home, thou shalt ask them what they have kept in memory of the sermon…” Foxe, vol. 5, p. 598
I wonder what William Tyndale would have thought of little league, Guitar Hero or Harry Potter. What about us adults? I’m just as guilty of the many ways we keep so busy in the ways of the world, which are so far from God’s ways. Surely too busy to memorize the 27 books of the New Testament.
Remembering the martyrs might be a good place to effect some change. In my house as well as yours.