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A Great Cloud of Journalistic Witnesses

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You may get so wrapped up in day-to-day pursuits that you forget long-term goals. The best antidote for distorting impulses is daily Bible-reading. A lesser antidote is some knowledge of the great cloud of journalistic witnesses. Like the heroes of faith told about in Hebrews 11, our Christian journalistic predecessors sacrificed much to gain the opportunity to pursue biblically directed journalism. Christian writers and editor-journalists in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries gave up their freedom and sometimes even their lives to win for us, their theological posterity, the right to publish God-glorifying and hard-hitting articles.

Throughout this book, which emphasizes so much the immediate task, we’ll be stepping back every third chapter to take a broader perspective.* Let us start about two thousand years ago, when Christ’s emphasis on trusting the Father in heaven contrasted so sharply with Rome’s official story of governmental power and wisdom. Caesar’s message was, "If you obey, we will take care of you." Published news was what authorities wanted people to know. The Acta Diurna, a handwritten news sheet posted in the Roman Forum and copied by scribes for transmission throughout the empire, emphasized governmental decrees but also gained readership by posting gladiatorial results and news of other popular events. Julius Caesar used the Acta to attack some of his opponents in the Roman senate–but there could be no criticism of Caesar. (Had there been independent journalism, he might have survived the Ides of March.)

The Bible, with its emphasis on truth-telling–Luke (1:3—4 niv) wrote that he personally had "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" so that Theophilus would "know the certainty of the things you have been taught"–was unique in ancient times. New Testament writers comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Once the Catholic Church entered its bureaucratic phase, however, it showed no sympathy for independent truth-telling. In medieval times ballads and poems that mocked rulers could be passed on orally from person to person, but all the news considered fit to write down and copy reflected the desires of earthly rulers.

The tiny and fairly barbaric part of the world where English was spoken was no exception to the general rule. In 1275, the statute of Westminster I outlawed "tales whereby discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the king and his people or the great men of the realm." You might think that church leaders would advocate Bible-reading, but anything that could inspire such discord–including the Bible, which stated laws of God under which every man and woman, whether king or commoner, had to live–was banned from common use. After John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English during the late-fourteenth century, a church synod forbade Scripture translation. Wycliffe’s books were burned in 1410 and 1412; his bones were dug up and burned in 1428.

The technological opportunity for a big change came in the mid-1400s, with the development of movable type in the Mainz workshop of Johann Gutenberg. Innovation creates possibility; worldviews determine whether, and how quickly, inventions are used. Demand from monasteries and kings or commercial leaders for big Latin Bibles was growing, and at first printed volumes merely met that demand: The Bibles were usually for show rather than tell. Printing created potential for change, but as long as priests discouraged Bible-reading and governments jailed or killed independent printers, journalism that was dependent on God but independent from state or state church pressures had little opportunity to flourish.

Early post-Gutenberg developments in England showed the limited effect of the technological revolution by itself. Printing began there in 1476 when William Caxton, given royal encouragement and grant of privileges upon good behavior, set up a press in Westminster. Others followed, but were careful to avoid publishing works that might irritate king or prelates. Regulations limited the number of printers and apprentices. Royal patents created printing monopolies. Importation, printing, and distribution of threatening books–such as English translations of the Bible–were prohibited. In this policy England remained in line with other state-church countries during the early 1500s–but then came the providential sound of a hammer on a door, and the beginning of a theological onslaught (aided by journalistic means) that changed Europe.

The effect of Martin Luther’s theses and his subsequent publications is well known, but one aspect often is missed: Luther’s primary impact was not as a producer of treatises, but as a very popular writer of vigorous prose that concerned not only theological issues but their social and political ramifications. Between 1517 and 1530 Luther’s thirty publications probably sold well over three hundred thousand copies, an astounding total at a time when illiteracy was rampant and printing still an infant.

Luther and other Reformation leaders emphasized the importance of Bible-reading; Christians were to find out for themselves what God was saying. Literacy rates began to skyrocket everywhere that the Reformation took root, while remaining low wherever it was fought off. Luther not only praised the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages but also made a masterful one himself. In preparing his German translation, Luther so understood the need for specific detail to glorify God and attract readers that when he wanted to picture the precious stones and coins mentioned in the Bible, he first examined German court jewels and numismatic collections. Similarly, when Luther needed to describe Old Testament sacrifices, he visited slaughterhouses and gained information from butchers.

Furthermore, Luther understood that it was important to present bad news as well as good. Luther’s Reformed theological understanding led him to write, "God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. . . . In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith." Reformation leaders believed that people would seek the good news only after they became fully aware of bad news: Man needs to become aware of his own corruption in order to change through God’s grace, and if you help make readers aware of sin you do them a service.

In England, Henry VIII broke from Rome not to battle sin but to try to advance his own. The bishops that he appointed became little more than political arms of the state, used to stamp out religious dissent, which was seen as a threat to social order. When Catholics opposed to unlimited governmental authority, such as Thomas More, refused to endorse Henry’s whims, he beheaded them. Henry added new antipress legislation almost as often as he added new wives. In 1534, his "Proclamation for Seditious Books" ordered that no one should print any English book without a license from the king’s councils or those persons appointed by the king as licensers. His "Proclamation of 1538" left the press with only one master: the king.

Parliament’s regulatory law of 1542-43 was totalitarian: "Nothing shall be taught or maintained contrary to the King’s instructions." The law stated:

There shall be no annotations or preambles in Bibles or New Testaments in English. The Bible shall not be read in English in any church. No women or artificers, prentices, journeymen, servingmen of the degree of yeomen or under, husbandmen, nor labourers, shall read the New Testament in English. . . . if any spiritual person preach, teach, or maintain anything contrary to the King’s instructions or determinations, made or to be made, and shall be thereof convict, he shall for his first offense recant, for his second abjure and bear a fagot, and for his third shall be adjudged an heretick, and be burned.

Henry VIII’s structure of government and society was simple: The state, with its official church, was at the center, giving orders to other social institutions. But in the thought of Reformation leaders such as John Calvin, the kingdom of God could not be equated with state interests. Instead, the Reformers believed that God reigns everywhere and man can serve God directly in every area of life–in government, journalism, education, business, or whatever. Reformed thinkers placed God’s laws above those of the state or any other institution.

The Reformers did not advocate extremist intransigence or easy disobedience of governmental authority. Scotland’s John Knox, for instance, appealed for moderation and compromise whenever truly fundamental issues were not at stake. But under the Reformed doctrine, for the first time, journalists could be more than purveyors of public relations. They had their own independent authority and could appeal to biblical principle when officials tried to shackle them. The Bible had to be carefully followed, and the interpretations of those who had studied it at length were not to be negligently disregarded, but the Bible was clear enough on most matters for ordinary individuals to read it themselves and see its truths for themselves.

During the reign of Mary Tudor, "Bloody Mary," from 1553 to 1558, government confrontation with those who based their lives on sola scriptura–the Bible only–reached its zenith. One of the first Protestants to go to the stake was John Hooper, publicly burned at Gloucester on February 9, 1555. He was joined by about seventy-five men and women who were burned as heretics that year, and many more during the following two years. Soon, reports of those burnings spread illegally throughout England: Ballads and other publications–one was called Sacke full of Newes–attacked the queen and praised the heroism of the martyrs.

The sixteenth-century journalist who made the greatest impression on several generations of English men and women originally had no desire to report on current events. John Foxe, born in 1516, was an excellent student. He became a fellow at Oxford, but was converted to the Reformed faith and had to give up his stipend if he wanted to go beyond doing public relations for the king. In 1548, Foxe began writing a scholarly history of Christian martyrdom, but it turned journalistic in 1553 when Mary became queen. Facing death in 1554 Foxe left England and began earning a poor living as a proofreader with a Swiss printer, but he continued to collect historical material about past persecutions and testimony about current ones.

Foxe published two volumes in Latin during the 1550s but switched to English for his journalistic output, with the goal of telling the martyrs’ stories in a readable manner. He was able to return to England with the ascension of Elizabeth to the throne in 1558 and then spend five more years interviewing, collecting materials, and writing, before publishing the sensational account that became known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. To make sure everything was accurate, he worked seven years more before putting out in 1570 an expanded, second edition that contained woodcuts portraying burnings and whippings; later, large-scale editions increased the number of illustrations.

Foxe was following Luke’s biblical tradition of careful investigation and interviewing of eyewitnesses. Foxe vividly wrote of how John Hooper, tied to a stake, prayed for a short time. Then the fire was lit, but the green wood was slow to burn. Hooper was shown a box and told it contained his pardon if he would give in: "Away with it!" he cried. As the fire reached Hooper’s legs a gust of wind blew it out. A second fire then slowly burned up Hooper’s legs, but went out with Hooper’s upper body still intact.

Using specific detail, Foxe wrote of how the fire was rekindled, and soon Hooper was heard to say repeatedly, "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me; Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me; Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Hooper’s lips continued to move even when his throat was so scorched that no sound could come from it: Even "when he was black in the mouth, and his tongue swollen, that he could not speak, yet his lips went till they were shrunk to the gums." Finally, one of Hooper’s arms fell off, and the other, with "fat, water, and blood" dripping out at the ends of the fingers, stuck to what remained of his chest. At that point Hooper bowed his head forward and died.

Foxe also described the deaths of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Ridley, chained over another of those slow-burning fires, was in agony, but Latimer seemed to be dying with amazing ease–Foxe wrote that he appeared to be bathing his hands and face in the fire. Latimer’s last words to his suffering friend were, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, [so that] we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

Foxe’s third famous report concerned the death of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the English Protestants. Imprisoned for months without support of friends, Cranmer received daily ideological hammering from theological adversaries. After watching Ridley die, he wrote out a recantation and apology in return for pardon. When Cranmer was told later that he had allegedly led so many people astray that he would have to burn anyway, his courage returned and he resolved to go out boldly. He declared in one final statement that his recantation was "written with my hand contrary to the truth which is in my heart, and written for fear of death." He offered a pledge: "As my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned." Foxe wrote of how Cranmer made good on that promise; sent to the stake, he placed his right hand firmly in the fire and held it steadily there until it appeared like a coal to observers. Soon, Cranmer’s entire body was burned.

Foxe’s book became very popular not only because of its combination of theological fervor and grisly detail, but through its use of colorful Bible-based imagery. For example, Foxe’s report on the impending death of John Hooper described how light overcame darkness as Hooper was led through London to Newgate prison.

Officers had ordered all candles along the way be put out; perhaps, being burdened with an evil conscience, they thought darkness to be a most fit season for such a business. But notwithstanding this device, the people having some foreknowledge of his coming, many of them came forth of their doors with lights, and saluted him; praising God for his constancy in the true doctrine which he had taught them. . . .

Foxe’s stress on accuracy was maintained by Miles Coverdale, who wrote in 1564 that "it doth us good to read and heare, not the lying legendes . . . triflyng toyes & forged fables of corrupted writers: but such true, holy . . . epistles & letters, as do set forth unto us ye blessed behaviour of gods deare servantes." (Think of the forged fables that today’s "spin doctors" provide.) For a time it appeared that a free press, with careful fact-checking, might arise–but Queen Elizabeth, while allowing direct criticism of her predecessor, Mary, cracked down on anyone who objected to her reign or to the domination of the established Anglican religion.

In 1570, Elizabeth’s proclamation offered a reward to those who informed against anyone writing or dispersing books in opposition to the queen or nobles. The secret tribunal known as the Star Chamber did not hesitate to prosecute and persecute Puritan rebels, including Hugh Singleton, Robert Waldegrave, John Stroud, and John Hodgkins. Puritans as an organized journalistic group first went public in 1572 with An Admonition to Parliament, a sixty-page attack on state churches; Admonition authors John Field and Thomas Wilcocks spent a year in prison.

Other pamphlets soon appeared. John Stubbes, an English Puritan who in 1579 wrote a pamphlet respectfully criticizing Queen Elizabeth, was punished by having his right hand "cut off by the blow of a Butcher’s knife." A contemporary account tells of his amazing response: "John Stubbes, so soone as his right hand was off, put off his hat with the left, and cryed aloud, God save the Queene." Stubbes, under such duress, set the pattern of respecting those in authority over us, while exposing their unbiblical actions.

Among the best-read Puritan products at the end of the sixteenth century were pamphlets published in 1588 and 1589 and called the Martin Marprelate tracts; these tracts humorously satirized and ridiculed the heavy-handed theological treatises put out by defenders of the established church. The tracts, printed by John Hodgkins on a press that was dismantled repeatedly and moved around by cart, irritated king and court so much that a massive search for its producers began. Hodgkins escaped harm until he was unloading his press one day in the town of Warrington before curious onlookers. A few small pieces of metal type fell from one of the boxes. A bystander picked up a letter and showed it to an official, who understood the significance of the discovery and summoned constables. Arrested and repeatedly tortured, Hodgkins refused to admit guilt and implicate others.

The bravery of Hodgkins, like that of Martin Luther, John Hooper, John Stubbes, and many others, could not be ignored; persecution of the Puritans, instead of stamping them out, led to new conversions. When James I became king of England in 1603 and Puritans presented petitions for religious and press freedom, he threatened to "harry them out of the land, or else do worse." James, arguing that he was "above the law by his absolute power," and that "it is presumptuous and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can do, or say that a king cannot do this or that," advised subjects to "rest in that which is the king’s revealed word in his law." But that is something that Puritan writers, committed as they were to following God’s law whatever the costs, would not do.

Puritan doctrines won increasing acceptance particularly in English towns; opposition to James and his successor, Charles I, increased. When one Puritan critic, Alexander Leighton, wrote and published a pamphlet in 1630 entitled An Appeal to Parliament, Charles and his court were outraged. Leighton insisted that Scripture was above everything, including kings, so that subjects could remain loyal while evaluating their kings against biblical standards; Leighton said his goal was to correct existing problems "for the honour of the king, the quiet of the people, and the peace of the church." The Star Chamber saw the situation differently, terming Leighton’s work "seditious and scandalous." On November 16, 1630, Leighton was whipped at Westminster, and had one of his ears cut off, his nose slit, and one side of his face branded. One week later the mutilation was repeated on the other side.

The penalty did not stop other Puritans. John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and William Prynne were hauled into the Star Chamber in 1637 and charged with seditious libel for writing pamphlets that criticized royal actions. Each man was sentenced to huge fines, perpetual imprisonment without access to writing materials, and the loss of their ears. The royal authorities, believing that they had the populace on their side, proclaimed a public holiday highlighted by the public mutilations. But when the three men were allowed to make public statements, according to the custom of the day, as the officials waited with knives, they were cheered. Prynne was actually arrested and maimed twice; when he was released from prison and allowed to return to London, he was greeted by a crowd of ten thousand.

Barbarous attempts to control the press prompted even more determined opposition; as a Boston Gazette essayist would note over a century later, the English civil war had as its "original, true and real Cause" suppression of the press, and "had not Prynn lost his Ears, K. Charles would have never lost his Head." The verbal battle of Parliament versus crown, and Puritans versus Anglicans, led to war during the 1640s. The changed political environment led to a journalistic surge, as a Puritan-dominated Parliament, remembering past oppression, abolished in 1641 the torture-prone Star Chamber. The result, according to a parliamentary committee in 1643, was that many printers "have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish and disperse Books, pamphlets and papers. . . . ."

Some of these publications were regular newspapers with high standards. Samuel Pecke’s weekly, A Perfect Diurnall, began with these words: "You may henceforth expect from this relator to be informed only of such things as are of credit. . . ." Pecke did not make up things. Although clearly a Puritan partisan, he truthfully reported royalist military victories, and twice covered wrongful conduct by Parliamentary soldiers. He also gave opponents space to express their views: When Archbishop Laud was executed for murder, Pecke included a transcript of the archbishop’s speech from the scaffold.

Similarly, when John Dillingham began his newspaper, The Parliament Scout, in 1643, he pledged "to tell the truth" and not to "vapour and say such a one was routed, defeated," when there actually had been no battle. Dillingham wrote of plundering by Cromwell’s soldiers, the bravery of some captured Royalists, and the need for better medical treatment of the wounded on both sides. He did what we should do today: Support the side fighting for biblical values, but tell the truth about our own vices and our opponents’ virtues.

Some Puritan leaders did not like criticism any more than the king’s officials did, but most were committed to the idea of biblical rather than personal authority, and of letting individuals read for themselves. One Puritan leader and friend of John Milton, Samuel Hartlib, reflected general hopes when he predicted in 1641 that "the art of Printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression."

Parliament in 1643 did pass a law that restricted sales of pamphlets and newsbooks, but it received little enforcement and much criticism. Puritan pamphleteer William Walwyn noted that licensing might restrict some evil publications but would also "stopt the mouthes of good men, who must either not write at all, or no more than is suitable to the judgments or interests of the Licensers." Another Puritan, Henry Robinson, proposed that theological and political combat should "be fought out upon eaven ground, on equal termes, neither side must expect to have greater liberty of speech, writing, Printing, or whatsoever else, than the other."

The most famous response to the new law was penned by Milton himself. Licensing, he wrote, brought back memories of Bloody Mary, she of "the most unchristian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired," and was inconsistent with the "mild, free and human government" that the Puritans said they would provide. Milton’s most famous words in his Areopagetica were:

>Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.

Milton had faith in God’s invisible hand over journalism; he asked, "For who knows not that truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make victorious; those are shifts and the defenses that error uses against her power."

The greatest journalistic talent of seventeenth-century England emerged during this mid-1640s period of relative freedom. Marchamont Nedham was born in 1620 in a small town near Oxford. He studied Greek, Latin, and history as a child, received a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1637, and spent the next six years as a schoolteacher, law clerk, and dabbler in medicine. During those six years, Nedham underwent a theological and political transformation that led him to side with the Puritans. When King Charles established in 1643 his own weekly newspaper, the Mercurius Aulicus, Nedham was hired to help out with a competing newspaper from the Parliamentary side, Mercurius Britanicus. Within a year Nedham was in charge and doing almost all of the writing for a newspaper that was eight pages long and typographically clean enough to make possible headache-free reading of it three centuries later.

Nedham’s writing was sensational and colorful; rather than theorizing or preaching, he provided specific detail about the vices of Royalists. Lord Ratcliffe, for example, was "bathing in luxury, and swimming in the fat of the land, and cramming his Hens and Capons with Almonds and Raisins," and Lord Porter was "that Exchequer of Flesh, which hath a whole Subsidie in his small guts and his panch, and hath bestowed the Sessments, and taxes of the State in sawces." Nedham saw himself turning darkness into light by exposing corruption; when Nedham reviewed his work as editor, he wrote:

I have by an excellent and powerful Providence led the people through the labyrinths of the enemies Plots . . . King could not keepe an evil Councellour, but I must needs speake of him. The Queene could not bring in Popery, but I must needs tell all the world of it. . . . I undisguised the Declarations, and Protestations, and Masqueries of the Court.

Nedham, while thoroughly partisan, desired accuracy and criticized the propagandistic tendencies of Royalist newspaper editor John Birkenhead.

Oh! what Prodigious Service hath he done, he could tell of Battailes and victories, when there was not so much as an Alarme or skirmish, he could change Pistolls into Demi-Cannons, and Carbines into Culverings, and Squadrons and Troopes into Regiments and Brigades, he could rally routed Armies and put them into a better condition when they were beaten then before.

Unlike Birkenhead, Nedham commented on his own side’s difficulties: "The King is too nimble for us in horse, and his designers ride, while ours go on foot, and we lacquey beside him, and usually fall short of his Army, and we shall scarce be able to encounter him, unless he please to turn back and fight with us." Furthermore, he made theological points through laying up specific detail, rather than by preaching: "Prince Rupert abides in Westchester . . . the young man is lately grown so devout, that he cannot keep the Lord’s day without a Bull baiting, or Beare baiting."

Nedham rarely drew attention to himself, but in one issue he explained that "I took up my pen for disabusing his Majesty, and for disbishoping, and dispoping his good subjects." Exposure was his goal: He wanted to take off the "vailes and disguises which the Scribes and Pharisees at Oxford had put upon a treasonable and popish Cause." He enjoyed his effectiveness: "I have served a Parliament and Reformation hitherto in unmaking and unhooding incendiaries of all sorts. . . . Everyone can point out the evill Counsellours now." But, in a question-and-answer note (an early version of "Dear Abby") at the end of each issue of Mercurius Britanicus, he regularly cautioned against arrogance: When asked, "What are we to do or expect now in this time when our forces are so considerable?" Nedham answered, "Not to trust nor looke too much upon them, but through them to a Diviner power, lest we suffer as we did before."

Nedham had many ups and downs over the next two decades, as the Puritan revolution soured and the monarchy returned in 1660. In May 1662, the new, Royalist-dominated Parliament passed a bill enacting a new, stringent censorship system. No more, said Parliament, would

evil disposed persons [sell] heretical, schismatical, blasphemous, seditious and treasonable books, pamphlets and papers . . . endangering the peace of these kingdoms, and raising a disaffection to his most excellent Majesty and his government.

Nedham retired from journalism and turned to the practice of medicine. A tight censorship eliminated regular news coverage unless it helped to propel the official news. For Puritan journalists, life was even harder than it had been before the revolution. For example, John Twyn in 1663 was convicted of sedition for printing a book arguing that citizens should call to account a king whose decrees violated biblical law. After Twyn refused to provide the name of the book’s author, his "privy-members" were cut off before his eyes, and he was then beheaded. Twyn’s body was cut into four pieces, and each was nailed to a different gate of the city as a warning to other printers or writers.

If you are a biblically directed journalist today, you do not have to fear punishment similar to Twyn’s. You may be fired, but only occupationallyand, if Twyn could know the risk and still write directly, what excuse do you have for dithering?


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