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Durham University

Department of Theology and Religion


Publication details for Dr Susan Royal

Royal, Susan (2017). English Evangelical Historians on the Origins of “the Reformation”. Études Épistémè (32).

Author(s) from Durham


Although Luther’s protest of indulgences in 1517 is often considered to be the point of origin for “the Reformation”, first- and second-generation English evangelicals understood that origin differently. Knowing their fledgling movement needed to be grounded in history for legitimacy, evangelicals searched historical records for evidence of their movement prior to Luther’s protest. This essay examines the work of two leading historians during the English Reformation, John Bale (d. 1563) and John Foxe (d. 1587), to analyze what they made of the beginnings of the English Reformation. Specifically, it explores the place of the lollards, late medieval English dissenters condemned by the Church, in the histories written by Bale and Foxe between the 1540s and 1570. It argues that Bale and Foxe saw their own reform movement through an apocalyptic prism; reading the historical records through the light of Scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, led them to recognize the career of John Wyclif (d. 1384), the putative progenitor of the lollards, as the beginning of the final age of the world. Alongside Bale and Foxe, Luther, William Tyndale (d. 1536) were living at the end of that age. The essay concludes that early English evangelicals understood “the Reformation” to be a process, not a single event, and this is further demonstrated by a brief case study examining the issue of vernacular Scripture in the reform movement.