Beheaded for the Gospel: A Legacy of Martyrs

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Across church history’s rich tapestry, the thread of martyrdom emerges as a vivid testament to Christ. As we join in prayer on the feast days of martyrs, we petition God in the collect,

“Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

We ask God to give us the same faith that carried the many martyrs of Christian history through their deaths into glory.

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Since St. John the Baptist’s execution, martyrs who met their fate by beheading have stood among those examples to the faithful. Against mortal peril, they have chosen to proclaim the Kingdom of God, meeting the ire of the crowned heads of this world. Their lives testify to the power of Christ and the embrace of his cross in the face of this world’s adversity. They remind us that though tribulations abound, Christ’s ultimate conquest has overcome the world (John 16:33). As we highlight a few beheaded for the gospel, may we, in their shadow, embrace Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24).

St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist stands out amongst this list as the one whose martyrdom preceded Christ’s crucifixion. Though John only appears in the New Testament (outside prophecies about him), theologians have often called him the last Old Testament prophet because of this. Yet John’s message is ultimately that of the New Testament:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

This news that a new king and kingdom was on the scene superseding that of mortal, earthly kings put him on the watchlist for the Roman authorities and their puppet king Herod Antipas. John fearlessly condemned Herod’s unlawful marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, prompting Herod to imprison him. Herod had no immediate intention of killing John and even feared him. However, the Gospels of Mark (Mk. 6:14-29) and Matthew (Matt. 14:1-12) tell us that Herodias’s daughter Salome danced for Herod at a lavish banquet. Herod was so pleased that he offered her anything she wished, up to half his kingdom. Persuaded by her mother, she requested John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Forced to grant her request to maintain his reputation, Herod immediately had John beheaded in prison.

John the Baptist’s execution is a tragic example of the tensions between truth and power. It is a testament to his unwavering commitment to righteousness, even in the face of death.

The Church traditionally celebrates St. John the Baptist’s nativity on June 24, and we commemorate his beheading on August 29.

St. Paul

Under his Hebrew name, Saul, St. Paul had been a Pharisee persecuting the earliest Christians. He stood by as a mob stoned the deacon Stephen to death, approving of the execution (Acts 8:1). However, an encounter with the risen Christ changed his heart (Acts 9:1-9). He then traveled land and sea preaching the gospel, enduring opposition and suffering. He also wrote highly theological and pastoral letters that together comprise over a quarter of the New Testament. While the details of Paul’s martyrdom are not documented in the New Testament, his final letter to his disciple, Timothy, indicates that he knows his mortal life is drawing to a close:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8)

Tradition and early Christian writings offer insights into Paul’s destiny. According to tradition, St. Paul faced execution in Rome during Emperor Nero’s rule, around A.D. 64 or 67. Early documents support that he was beheaded, a standard execution for Roman citizens. The “Acts of Paul,” a non-canonical text, is the earliest source to mention Paul’s death and supports this assertion. Early Christian writers like Clement of Rome and Tertullian also reference Paul’s martyrdom in their writings. These early Christian sources and later traditions together compensate for the lack of detailed accounts in the New Testament.

St. Paul’s shares a feast day with St. Peter on June 29, and we commemorate his conversion on January 25.

St. Alban

Alban, a Roman citizen residing in Verulamium (now aptly named St. Albans) in England in the third century, sheltered a Christian priest fleeing persecution. Impressed by the priest’s piety and devotion, Alban himself converted to Christianity. When Roman authorities searched for the priest, Alban donned the priest’s cloak, allowing the cleric to escape. This action resulted in Alban’s subsequent arrest. When confronted by the Roman judge who compelled him to abide by the Pagan rites, Alban refused and professed, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.” Alban then endured severe torture and received a death sentence.

On June 22, sometime between 250 and 259 A.D., soldiers took Alban to be executed. Spectators clogged a bridge on the road that led to the execution site. Legend recounts that Alban miraculously caused a river to divide, granting him and his captors passage. Amazed, one of the executioners fell at Alban’s feet and asked that he could either take Alban’s place or be executed alongside him. His fellow executioners then beheaded him alongside Alban. Alban died for his refusal to reject the gospel, making him England’s first recorded Christian martyr (often referred to as a protomartyr).

The Church commemorates St. Alban on June 22.

St. Cyprian and the Martyrs of Carthage

St. Cyprian of Carthage, a prominent 3rd-century Christian bishop and theologian, faced martyrdom during the Decian persecution. As the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian skillfully guided his congregation, emphasizing unity and maintaining proper discipline. He asserted the importance of safeguarding the Church’s doctrinal purity in the face of theological challenges. Cyprian also emphasized matters of charity, ardently championing the support of the poor within the community. An astute theologian, his surviving writings reflect such subjects as the sacraments and church unity.

Cyprian played an instrumental role in the Church’s response to the Decian persecution, guiding Christians who grappled with either renouncing their faith or staying steadfast under the threat of death. Thus, when arrested, he steadfastly refused when ordered to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, affirming his loyalty to Christ. Arrested and brought before the Roman proconsul, Cyprian had the chance to renounce his faith and save his life, yet he remained resolute.

On September 14, 258 A.D., Cyprian was led to an open area near the city. A vast multitude followed him to his place of execution. He removed his garments unassisted, knelt, and offered a prayer. After blindfolding himself, he received a beheading with a sword. Christians then interred his body close to the execution site. Eight of his disciples—Montanus, Lucius, Flavian, Julian, Victoricus, Primolus, Rhenus, and Donatian—followed him in martyrdom on February 24, 259 A.D.

Anglicans commemorate St. Cyprian’s September 15, as the date of his death, September 14, is Holy Cross Day in our calendar. Although not in the current ACNA calendar, February 24 is the traditional feast day for the Martyrs of Carthage under Valerian.

The Ugandan Martyrs

In the late 19th century, under King Mwanga II’s rule, 22 Anglican and 23 Catholic young men, collectively known as the Ugandan Martyrs, encountered persecution and death due to their steadfast Christian faith. King Mwanga’s reign was characterized by political instability and resistance against foreign influences, including the spread of Christianity. Both Anglican and Catholic missionaries aimed to proclaim the message of Christ, clashing with the king’s authority and traditional values.

The young Christian men found themselves torn between allegiance to the king and their commitment to Christ. They rejected any compromise on their Christian convictions. The men endured brutal persecution, including imprisonment and torture. Some were made to march in chains for long distances. Despite these unbearable conditions, the men clung firmly to their faith, professing their devotion to Jesus Christ until the very end. They met cruel executions, some by beheading, between January 31, 1885, and January 27, 1887.

Their sacrifices left an enduring mark on Ugandan Christianity, inspiring subsequent generations and ultimately contributing to the expansion and thriving of the faith in the region.

The Church commemorates the Ugandan Martyrs yearly on June 3.

The 21 Coptic Martyrs

We end our journey with modern martyrs. In 2015, ISIS militants in Libya abducted 21 Coptic Christians, mostly Egyptians. These faithful individuals endured unimaginable suffering for their unwavering commitment to their Christian faith. In two separate incidents, ISIS militants took them captive, yet they remained steadfast in their devotion. Their ordeal culminated on February 15, with the militants releasing a harrowing video showing the Christians being brutally beheaded on a Libyan beach.

The death of these Coptic martyrs underscores the challenges Christians still face in hostile and conflict-ridden areas. Even today, faith leads Christians to pay the ultimate price. They echo the sacrifice of earlier Christian martyrs and remind the world of the enduring struggle for Christ’s Kingdom and the triumph of faith in Christ over the world’s darkness.

The Coptic Martyrs are not listed in the ACNA’s calendar. However, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches commemorate them every February 15.


Image: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

August 26, 2023

Author

Jacob Davis

The Rev. Jacob Davis is the editor of Anglican Compass. He is a priest in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as assisting clergy at Grace Anglican Church.

View more from Jacob Davis

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