In history, hundreds of early Christians have faced persecution for their faith. Some historians even believed that the Roman Catholic church was born out of the martyrdom of its members. A Christian martyr is someone willing to face death rather than deny Jesus Christ or his Gospel. Beheading, stoning, crucifixion, and burning at stake were some of the few horrific ways they were punished for their beliefs.
But why did the members of the church underwent such sacrifices? It was because the Romans were polytheistic ever since the beginning. From an initial array of gods and spirits, Romans included Greek gods as well as several foreign cults. The earliest forms of Roman religion were animistic in nature, in which people believed that spirits inhabited everything around them.
Due to this pagan belief, Romans developed animosity towards people with a different view on religion from them. The refusal of Jews and Christians from practicing the Roman belief and offering sacrifices in their temples was seen as a threat to the empire. As Christianity continued to spread across the empire, persecution towards the Church and its followers became rampant.
The Roman empire began conducting public execution of the members of the Catholic Church at least before the middle of the third century. Below is the list of 10 famous martyrs and why died, including some details about their life and the legacy they have left behind.
1. St. Stephen, Stoned to Death
Stoning is among the traditional forms of punishment for grave sin. St. Stephen died in 36 AD in Jerusalem, and he was the first to suffer that gruesome fate and the first Catholic martyr. He was a Hellenistic Jew and he was among the first ordained deacons of the Catholic Church. Given the title archdeacon, St. Stephen was recognized for his exemplary gift as an evangelist. However, his popularity caused animosity among Jews, particularly from the members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen.
Members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen challenged St. Stephen’s teaching through debates, but none of them could withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke. This only fueled further hostility among his enemies and they began making false testimonies against him. St. Stephen was later accused of committing blasphemy against Moses and God. This accusation sparked public outcry, and the public demanded him to be sentenced to death.
St. Stephen was taken to the Sanhedrin, the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem. Instead of defending his innocence, he gave a speech about the history of Israel and the blessings that God has given upon his chosen people which was recorded in Acts Chapter 7 of the Bible. The crowds watching the trial were furious after being rebuked. They dragged him out to the city and started stoning him to death.
St. Stephen was buried by Christians, but the exact location of his tomb was unknown. However, in 415 AD, a priest named Lucian had a dream that revealed the gravesite where St. Stephen’s remains were located. His name was found inside, confirming it belonged to the martyred saint. His relics were later brought to the church of Hagia Sion on December 26, 415 AD. Today, the Catholic Church hailed him as the patron saint of stoneworkers. He also has his own cult of believers spread widely from Jerusalem to Constantinople, North Africa, Rome, and Prague.
2. St. Lawrence, Grilled to Death
The Roman Emperor Valerian persecuted St. Lawrence in 258 AD. It was a difficult beginning for the First Christian Millennium because hostility against the early followers of God was growing. Roman authorities charged Christians of that era with “hatred of the human race.”
St. Lawrence was among the seven deacons tasked with helping the less privileged under Pope Sixtus II who was also persecuted by Valerian. The soldiers of the emperor arrested Sixtus and beheaded him along with his deacons. Following the death of the pope, Lawrence started distributing the money and possessions of the Church to the poorest people in the city. Valerian heard the news about this, so he offered St. Lawrence clemency in exchange for bringing him the fortune hidden away by the church in three days.
However, the saint went through the city, and instead of money or gold, he gathered all the poor and sick people the Catholic Church was supporting and presented them to Valerian. The emperor was furious and condemned St. Lawrence to a slow and brutal death by grilling on a gridiron. Despite being on death’s door, he was still able to find a way to get on the nerves of his persecutors by asking them to turn him over the other side of his body that was not yet burned.
St. Lawrence was buried in a cemetery in Via Tiburtina. Constantine would later build a Basilica in that location. Today, St. Lawrence is hailed as the patron saint of the poor due to his legacy of helping the less privileged during his life.
3. St. Margaret Clitherow, Pressed to Death
St. Margaret was born in Middleton, England in 1555 from protestant parents. In 1571, she married a well off grazier and butcher named John Clitherow to whom she bore two children. A few years later, St. Margaret joined the Catholic Church. However, her husband was not only a fresh meat supplier, but he was also responsible for reporting Catholic worshipers to the authorities.
Her devotion to the Catholic Church led her to harbor fugitive priests. She even allowed masses to be conducted in her home secretly. This created tension in her marriage with her husband. St. Margaret started to subvert the authorities and the official church by being a recusant or a non-church attender. Soon, she was arrested and imprisoned by hostile authorities. St. Margaret was offered recourse in exchange for denying her faith, but she stood firm in her religion and was ordered to be executed by pressing to death.
On March 25, 1586, St. Margaret was stretched out on the ground with a sharp rock on her back and her body was crushed under a door overladen with unbearable weights. Her bones were broken, and she died within 15 minutes.
St. Margaret Clitherow was given the nickname “The Pearl of York.” Queen Elizabeth I seemed to condemn St. Margaret’s killings, writing a letter to the people of York saying that Margaret should have been spared the gruesome fate on account of her gender. In October 1970, Pope Paul IV canonized Margaret as one of the forty English martyrs.
4. St. Sebastian, Clubbed to Death
St. Sebastian came from Southern France and was educated in Milan, Italy. He joined the Roman Army in 283 AD to help other Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans. He was appointed as the captain of the Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian because they did not know he was a Christian.
Two brothers, Marcus and Marcellian, were imprisoned for refusing to make public sacrifices to the Roman gods because they were deacons of the Christian Church. Their parents encouraged them to renounce Christianity while they were imprisoned, however, Sebastian convinced the parents to be converted into Christianity instead. St. Sebastian was also able to convert other prominent individuals, including the Local Prefect, which led to his discovery.
Diocletian accused Sebastian of betrayal and persecuted him to be bound to a stake at a field and be shot with arrows. They left him there to die, however, a woman named Irene found him, and brought him to her house where she nursed him back to health.
Diocletian encountered the emperor once again and harangued him. Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be beaten to death, and his body was thrown in a sewer. Sebastian was said to have appeared in an apparition to a widowed woman named Lucina and told her where his body was buried. They retrieved the remains of the saint and buried it at the catacombs by the apostles. Nearly 80 years after his death, his remains were moved to a basilica in Rome which was built by Pope Damasus I.
The martyrdom of St. Sebastian is one of the most prominent themes in Western religious art. He is commonly depicted in art and literature as being tied to a post and shot with arrows. The arrows piercing him are used as a symbolic representation of the Black Death during the Middle Ages because Sebastian is the patron saint of plague victims.
5. St. Dymphna, Beheaded
St. Dymphna was born in Ireland in the seventh century to a pagan father and a devout Christian mother. She consecrated herself to Christ when she was fourteen, and took a vow of chastity. Her mother died afterward, and her father, who had loved his wife deeply, began to suffer mental stability. The King’s counselors suggested he remarry, in which he agreed to do even though he was still grieving. Damon, St. Dymphna’s father, sent messengers throughout his town and other lands to find a noblewoman who resembled his wife and would be willing to marry him.
However, none was found, and his wicked advisers suggested he marry his daughter instead. St. Dymphna fled her home after she heard her father’s twisted plan. Together with a priest named Gerebran and two trusted servants, they sailed towards Belgium and hid in the town of Geel. Damon found the whereabouts of his daughter and traveled to Geel to capture them. He ordered Father Gerebran to be beheaded and attempted to convince his daughter to return to Ireland and marry him.
Dymphna refused and her father enraged and beheaded her with his own hands. She was only fifteen-years-old at that time. After Damon fled, the residents retrieved the remains of St. Dymphna and the priest and buried them in a cave.
St. Dymphna was given the crown of martyrdom in 620 in defense of her martyrdom, and she was hailed as the “Lily of Eire.” In 1349, a church in honor of her was built in Geel, and it started to house pilgrims seeking treatments for mental illness
in 1480. Unfortunately, the original St. Dymphna Church in Geel was burnt down during the 15th century. But it was consecrated in 1532 and it was still standing above the location where her body was originally buried. St. Dymphna is the patroness of the people suffering from mental illnesses as well as the victims of incest.
6. St. Andrew, Crucified to Death
St. Andrew was among the first disciples of Christ. He is the older brother of St. Peter and he was born in the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee between 5 AD and 10 AD. He worked as a fisherman, along with his brother Simon Peter, before he became a disciple of Jesus.
Andrew traveled to the shores of the Black Sea to preach the gospel and throughout what is now known as Greece and Turkey. When he was in Greece, Governor Aegeas told him to renounce his faith and stop preaching. St. Andrew refused and he was sentenced to be crucified to death in the city of Patras. He was supposed to be crucified on a cross, but he requested an X-shaped one because he felt unworthy of dying on an upright one as Jesus did. He was bound, rather than nailed, on a cross form known as “crux decussata.”
St. Andrew’s remains, relics, and the cross on which he was martyred are kept in the church named after him in Patras following the order of Pope Paul IV. He is venerated in Georgia for being the first preacher of Christianity in the country. St. Andrew’s saltire cross is also featured on the flag of Scotland. Today, he is hailed as the patron saint of fishermen.
7. St. Bartholomew, Death by Skinning
St. Bartholomew was among the twelve apostles of Jesus. He was born in Cana, Judea during the first century. He was often referred to as a “True Israelite.” Few accounts of his life were recorded, yet it was known that he and St. Jude Thaddeus went to Armenia, also known as modern-day Turkey, to spread the word of God.
St. Bartholomew converted Polymers, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. Astyages, the kings’ brother, heard about this and he ordered Bartholomew to be persecuted. He was sentenced to death in Albanapolis, Armenia where he died after he was skinned alive. The authorities also beheaded his corpse, to make sure he was already dead.
8. Joan of Arc, Burned at Stake
Joan of Arc was born on January 6, 1412, to pious parents of the French peasant class in the obscure village of Domremy, near the province of Lorraine. At such a young age, she led the French army to victory, believing she was acting under divine guidance.
When Joan’s village of Domremy became the frontier between the France of the Anglo-Burgundians and the Dauphins, she traveled to Vaucouleurs where she asked the captain of the garrison, Robert de Baudricaourt, for permission to join the Dauphin. She was refused by the captain, but her firmness and piety gained her respect from the people and the captain, and she was finally allowed to go to the Dauphin at Chinon. This was the beginning of her participation in the French army.
When Joan was captured, she was brought to Marigny where she was accused of rejecting counsel and acting willfully. She was interrogated countless of times before her trial officially started. She was charged with multiple offenses, including blasphemy. However, Joan stood firm with her position that she was guided by divine guidance. She was later condemned as a heretic and was sentenced to death by burning at stake.
9. Wycliff, Burned Alongside His Writings
John Wycliff may not be a saint, but his contribution to the spread of Christianity is immense. He is known as “The Morning Star of Reformation” and was a 14th-century theologian. Aside from preaching the Bible, he is known for being the first translator of the scriptures into English. Wycliff believed that the Bible should be available to the people in their own language.
Wycliff is known as the “Father of English Prose” because of the clarity and the popularity of his writings and his sermons in the Middle English dialect. However, one pope accused him of heresy due to his stand against papal authority. The Catholic Church in England challenged him thrice, and two Popes summoned him to Rome, but he was never imprisoned. John Wycliff was never excommunicated nor asked to leave the church despite all his questionings of the doctrines of the church and the corruption of the clergy.
Wycliff suffered a fatal stroke during one of his mass. Even though he passed away in peace, the Church exhumed his body 44 years later, burned his bones alongside his writings, and scattered his ashes in the nearby river. The Anti-Wycliff Statute of 1401 led to the persecution of his followers.
10. William Tyndale, Choking to Death
William Tyndale is known as the “Father of the English Bible” who translated 90% of the King James Version of the scriptures. Over a hundred years later after John Wycliff has made the first English translation of the Bible, Tyndale aimed to make the Bible accessible to more people even though translating it in English was prohibited by the church. Tyndale asked Bishop Tunstall to authorize him to write a translation of the Bible, but the bishop denied his request. However, it did not stop Tyndale from his desire.
Tyndale went to Europe to complete his translation after receiving encouragement and support from British merchants. He had the Bible printed in there and smuggled it back to England. Tyndale went to Hamburg, Germany in 1524 where he worked on the New Testament. However, news of Tyndale’s activity reached the opponent of Reformation who had the press raided. But he was able to escape with the pages already printed and went to Germany City where the New Testament was soon published.
Tyndale continued hiding among the merchants in Antwerp while he started translating the Old Testament. The authorities found him after an Englishman who pretended to be his friend turned him over. He was detained in prison for one and a half years and later brought to trial for heresy. He was later condemned and was sentenced to death on October 6, 1536, by strangling, and his body was burned to stake. Three years after his death, Henry VIII required every parish church in England to print English copies of the Bible and have it circulated to the public.
These followers of Christ were only a few of the thousands who died gruesome deaths because of their faith. Their respective societies saw them as a threat, and oppression towards someone with a different belief was great at that time, so they were all wrongly persecuted.
Until today, persecution against Christian believers is high. Millions of believers around the world are suffering for their faith. Religion should not become a basis for oppression. For society to progress, they should be able to allow their people to practice the faith they want to believe in without forcing anyone to conform.