Christians in various parts of the world daily suffer for their faith. They are peaceful, honest and hardworking but still undergo unprovoked attacks solely because of their testimony concerning the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord, the Head of the church foretold that accompanying eternal life and its blessings, we will receive persecutions (Mark 10:30) and these come because of ‘the word’ (Mark 4:17). Jesus said, ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’ (John 15:20). Jesus was cruelly martyred, and Stephen would soon follow in his footsteps (Acts 7:54-60). James, John’s brother, was probably the first apostle to be put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2). Following Christ necessitates taking up the cross of suffering (Mark 8:34).
New Testament period
Immediately after the stoning of Stephen, ‘a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem… Saul began to destroy the church… going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison’ (Acts 8:1-3). Paul later became the object of much hostility, being flogged, lashed, beaten and stoned (2 Cor. 11:23-27) and finally executed under Nero at Rome. Nero’s cruelties included dipping Christians in oil and lighting them as candles to illuminate his sporting festivities. Paul followed those in the Old Testament church who were killed, even sawn in two, for their faith (Heb. 11:35-38), of whom ‘the world was not worthy’.
Early Christian persecutions
We can only give a brief survey of various periods of tribulation endured by Christ’s church, especially in Europe.
The ten periods of persecution under different emperors began with Nero and ended with the Great Persecution during the reign of Diocletian (284−305AD). This was especially fierce after he had issued an edict in 303 strictly enforcing adherence to the Imperial cult, when about 3,000-3,500 Christians were executed, as described by the historian Eusebius (ca. 262-340AD), Bishop of Caesarea. Persecutions continued until the Edict of Milan, 313AD, under Constantine the Great and Licinius, legalised Christianity.
In the mid-twelfth century Peter Waldo of Lyons annoyed the Roman Catholic priests by insisting that only religious practices derived from the Scriptures could be justified. He therefore spoke out against image-worship, indulgences, the mass, purgatory, and praying to saints. Their persecution continued into the 15th century, with an inquisition covering a large area, including Aix, Geneva, Vienna, Venice and Avignon. Those convicted of reformed doctrines were delivered to the civil authorities to be burnt and their goods confiscated. In 1400, those living in the valley of Pragela were driven into the Alps in the depth of winter, where they froze to death. In 1488 in the valley of Loyse, 3,000 men, women and children were either cast down the rocky precipices or suffocated by fires lit at the mouths of the caves in which they were sheltering. The persecutions continued for a further one hundred years. In a similar manner, the Bible-believing Albigenses in southern France were exterminated during the 13th century.
This celebrated reformer, the ‘Morning Star of the Reformation’, lived from ca. 1324 to 1384 in the reign of Edward II. He highly valued the Bible as the ground of all doctrine, so translated the New Testament into English, while others translated the Old Testament. He fearlessly proclaimed his beliefs, including his views against the doctrine of the mass and papal authority. His followers, the Lollards, would dress simply and go from place to place preaching the Word in a language the locals would understand. He survived opposition during his lifetime, but in 1415 he was exhumed and his bones burnt before being scattered into the river Swift.
Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire in 1494 and had an aptitude with languages, graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford. Then, after studying theology at Cambridge, he was ordained a priest. He was disgusted at the behaviour of the priests which contrasted with the teaching of the Bible. This was still in Latin and considered too holy to be read by the common man, yet Tyndale was passionate that it should be accessible to everyone. He commented in a warm debate with one priest, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years, I shall cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do!’ He set about translating the Bible, but was molested by the priests, so moved to Hamburg in Germany, then later to Antwerp. He exported printed copies of the New Testament to England and later completed the whole Bible but was betrayed at Antwerp and incarcerated in a nearby castle. He was eventually strangled and afterwards burnt to ashes, but not before he called out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!’ This was fulfilled when Henry VIII ordered Miles Coverdale’s Bible, based on Tyndale’s, to be used in every parish in the land.
The Marian martyrs
Queen Mary was called ‘Bloody Mary’ because during the last four years of her reign, from 1555 to 1558, 288 Protestants were burnt for adhering to the Word of God. These included one archbishop and four bishops, 21 clergymen, 55 women and four children. It was through reading Ryle’s account of the joint martyrdom of old Bishop Latimer and the younger Bishop Ridley that I was truly brought to saving repentance and faith as I read Latimer’s words encouraging his friend while the flames were licking up the faggots around them: ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’
There followed a period when evangelical Protestants, the Puritans, were hounded by the high church party. John Bunyan (1628-1688) was imprisoned for 12 years in 1660, and then for a further 6 months when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. His contemporary, John Flavel (1627-1691), was one of the 2,000 Puritan ministers who suffered in the Great Ejection following the Act of Uniformity in 1662. Flavel had to leave his church at Dartmouth, meeting secretly in nearby woods to minister to his congregation. Philip Henry (1631-1696), father of the commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714), also lost his living. These troubles only ended with the Glorious Revolution following the accession of William III of Orange to the throne in 1688.
The present day
It is not militant Catholicism which causes most concern today but militant Islam. The atrocities of the Islamic State in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria and beyond that horrify us. These terrorists even kill Muslims who fail to support their harsh laws, but Christians have been singled out for particular brutality. We should never forget to pray for our brothers and sisters in these situations who uphold the word of God and refuse to convert to Islam.
‘I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained… Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed’ (Rev. 6:9-11).
- For information regarding Christian martyrs see the Book of Martyrs by John Foxe (1516-1587).
- J. C. Ryle, Five English Reformers, Banner of Truth (1960).