The New Book of Christian Martyrs: ‘A Wakeup Call to All of Us’
The stories of Christians who died for their faith were once far more central in the minds of Americans than they are today. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was widely read. That’s not so true anymore, but two authors hope to make believers more aware of martyrs’ stories with a new and updated book on these great witnesses to faith in Christ.
“So many early American households, if they had any books at all, you were likely to find the Bible there and often you would find Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” Johnnie Moore, co-author of The New Book of Christian Martyrs said in an interview he and co-author Jerry Pattengale gave The Stream.
John Foxe’s history of Christian martyrdom, first published in 1559, recounts in harrowing detail the suffering of Christians who were faithful to Jesus unto death.
What would we gain if we knew the stories of fellow believers who died for the faith? Would we be different? Previously I described my experience reading The New Book of Christian Martyrs, concluding, “This book offers a great gift: perspective. Perspective that could change us and help prepare us to hear Jesus say, ‘Well done.’” Here, in the second of a three-part series on the book, I share my interview with the authors.
Are We on Track Towards Persecution in the West?
Pattengale and Moore spoke about the idea that believers in the West might need to learn from the suffering church to prepare for greater difficulty to come. Pattengale said from what he’s read on this topic, socialism, which comes with persecution and mass death, starts with the loss of freedoms.
Moore agreed. While he avoids drawing stark parallels between beheadings in western Africa and restrictions on religious liberty in the U.S., he finds two points of comparison worth considering. One, “All my persecuted Christian friends in countries around the world — they tell me it didn’t start this way.” They say their persecution began with things like marginalization and discrimination, truth being irrelevant, rapid secularization, and traditional Christians being seen as a threat. “So it’s like a slippery slope and then all of a sudden you’re facing something you’d never thought you would face before.”
Moore’s second point was that most martyrs face an ultimatum: “Change your beliefs or die.” It occurred to him at a certain point in his conversations with people about this book that there isn’t such a great philosophical difference between the ultimatum, change your beliefs or die, versus change your beliefs or face another consequence. “The consequence may be different, but it’s fundamentally the same ultimatum.”
Moore said the number one persecutors of Christians around the world are communists, and if we don’t know history, we could repeat it. “I think reading these stories is a wake-up call to all of us,” Moore said — a reminder that we shouldn’t take religious freedoms for granted.
Ancient Stories and Recent Stories From Across Christian Denominations
Moore and Pattengale’s New Book of Christian Martyrs seeks to provide a “modern update to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” It begins with New Testament martyrs such as John the Baptizer and Stephen, then covers stories of martyrs down through history until very recent days. Included among the stories is that of a woman who had been one of Pattengale’s own students. Moore noted, as the book’s introduction also states, that there have been more Christian martyrs in the past century than in the previous 19 centuries combined.
Moore is a speaker and human rights and religious freedom activist. His work includes organizing an evacuation of ISIS victims in 2015 and serving as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Pattengale is a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, a founding scholar of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. and a co-author of the TV series Inexplicable: How Christianity Spread to the Ends of the Earth. Together they offer both historical scholarship and an awareness of the modern plight of Christians.
Moore said Foxe’s book was an anti-Catholic and pro-Protestant text, telling many stories in which Catholics were the persecutors of Protestants. Moore and Pattengale added stories of martyrs from streams of Christianity that Foxe hadn’t covered positively.
The Authors’ Top Stories From the Book
Moore said one of his favorite things about the book is its amazing stories of women of faith. He recalled the story of Perpetua, who died under Roman rule in AD 203, in Carthage. Perpetua had a newborn son. She and other Christians faced beasts in an arena before a crowd to celebrate the emperor’s birthday. Not long before her death, Perpetua wrote that she had a vision of her upcoming battle: “I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.”
Moore spoke of her dignity as she faced death. As written in their book, “The raging bull attacked and gored them. We catch another glimpse of Perpetua’s fortitude, pinning up her hair in the midst of the frenzy. To leave her hair down would indicate mourning, whereas this was her moment of triumph and victory.”
“Her story becomes famous in the whole world,” Moore said. “She was 22 years old. She was just a young woman and it [her story] changed so many.”
Pattengale mentioned Blandina, whose story is also included in the section, “Women Martyrs in the Early Church.” Her story of bravely enduring horrible suffering and death in AD 177 was circulated among Christians.
Pattengale’s Former Student Became a Martyr
Pattengale then told the story of his student at Indiana Wesleyan, Cheryl Becket, age 32. She went on a mission trip to Afghanistan, where she and nine other aid workers helped villagers with medical needs. Pattengale said their Jeep couldn’t cross a creek. The Taliban found them, saw a Bible with them, lined the medical missionaries up and shot them one by one.
Pattengale read from the book a quote from Becket’s father, who reflected:
She wrote in her journal, which has been a spiritual oasis for me. Over and over again I read this theme: no longer my own, I’ve been bought by Christ, with His own blood. I want to know Him better.
And then she wrote, “I want to die to myself.” And then she asked the question to herself, “What does that look like? How do I make that tangible?” That is what she devoted her life to, knowing Him but knowing Him by sacrificially suffering in order to show Him.
Moore said, “Somewhere along the line we stopped telling our future generations these stories. It’s astonishing to me that every living Christian leader doesn’t know the story that Jerry told of someone who died in our lifetime, much less, you know, the stories from history. And that’s the mission we’re on. We’re on a mission to get people to know the suffering church, and hopefully, it’ll inspire their faith too.”
Find the other parts of the series on The New Book of Christian Martyrs here.