Down through the ages, many people have lost their lives because of their beliefs. Whether it be religion, politics, or social ideology, all have had their martyrs.
The Greek word from which “martyr” is derived translates to “witness.” Today, the word martyr most frequently carries the connotation of some numinous stoic becoming the victim of great injustice and losing their life for their convictions. Here are a few great witnesses who died because of who they were and their desire to hold on to a particular way of life or, in some cases, trying to forge a path toward a better way of life.
Perpetua of Carthage
Vibia Perpetua was a young woman of about 22 when she met her death within the walls of the Carthaginian arena of gory entertainment. The date of her death is traditionally held to be March 7, 203 C.E. A bold and brave believer in the Christian faith, the documentation relating what we know about Perpetua informs us how little she let fear dominate her actions. Her end, as well as that of her companions, was orchestrated—like the martyrdoms of many an early Christian—by the Romans, who occupied Carthage in North Africa at this time.
The night prior to the martyrdom of Perpetua and her comrades, the Roman officials were given the opportunity to jeer and gawk at the prisoners who would be executed upon their swords the following day, after being attacked by animals in the arena. Instead, Perpetua's band of followers, including her slave, Felicity, joined in a bout of laughter at the Romans' expense.
The resilience and dynamic personality of Perpetua are not her only special qualities. She also kept a journal that has been hailed as one of the oldest surviving records written by a Christian woman. The text was finished by an anonymous eyewitness to Perpetua's final moments. Perpetua's historic manuscript is today known as The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity.
Joan of Arc
France's Joan of Arc is one of those heroines who never fails to inspire. A symbol of godly devotion for some, gallant service to others, and individualism to yet more, Joan has been a pop culture figure for centuries. Her story convinced Mark Twain to pen a titular novel to her memory, and her life has been captured in innumerable books, artworks, films, plays, and even comic books. While her image is always one of encouragement and triumph, the real story of Joan is fraught with tragedy and political upheaval.
The messy politics of her life (and death) can be understood in the context of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), in which she was engaged through several battles. The so-called Hundred Years' War involved the dispute over territory and ruling power between England and France and the military confrontation that ensued. Joan, who believed she had been called by God and guided by saintly voices, was instrumental, via her militaristic leadership, in Charles VII's coronation as King of France in 1429.
Following this, Joan returned to her war campaign, went to fight at Compiègne, and was subsequently captured. After her initial imprisonment by pro-English factions, Joan was put on trial for 70 charges, among them accusations of heresy and witchcraft. Due either to political bias, incredulity at Joan's divinely-ordained instructions, or gender bias—one of the official charges against her being cross-dressing—her actions were condemned by authorities. On May 30, 1431, Joan was burned at the stake at Rouen. She was just 19 years old. Today, the farm-girl-turned-warrior is considered a saint in the Catholic Church.
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Western Christendom by and large responded and adhered to the Roman Catholic Church. That changed drastically in 1517, when Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, publicly disputed actions and practices from the Catholic hierarchy through the publication of his “95 Theses.” Thus began the Protestant Reformation, giving an opening to others who wished to veer off and away from Catholic direction.
Luther had spearheaded the Protestant movement, deviating from Catholicism for close to a decade, when along came William Tyndale, writing theological treatises and propositions of his own. Much of Luther's body of religious musings was consumed and adopted by Tyndale. More significantly, his desire to see laypeople read the Bible in the vernacular led to his release of the New Testament, the first English edition to be mass-produced with the printing press.
The translation was met with stringent opposition by Henry VIII as well as many ecclesial officials. Tyndale was also opposed to the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage. Betrayed in 1535, Tyndale was arrested and found himself charged and convicted of heresy. On October 6, 1536, he was strangled and his body was burned at the stake.
Joseph Smith Jr.
Joseph Smith was responsible for a wholly new iteration of faith that would break across the American continent. His own family members belonged to various Christian denominations, and young Joseph carried a troubled heart within him as he prayed and sought what faith he was called to.
In 1820, Joseph was said to have received the first of his visions by which Divine Providence communicated religious truths personally to him. As a result, Smith believed that he was given the one true Christianity that would authentically claim the Gospel of Christ in its intended fashion. This was the precursor to the Latter-Day Saints Church, or the Mormon movement.
In 1831, things became a bit hairy following the supposed revelation that informed Smith to practice polygamy. And so, in the span of his earthly life, Smith was married (or “sealed,” as the Mormons would have it) to some 40 women, the youngest of whom was a 14-year-old girl. The circumstances were socially taboo, to say the least.
In the 1840s, there was dissent among the Mormons, with a reformist group determined to express their own opinions in the short-lived newspaper The Nauvoo Expositor (its namesake being Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith had started a Mormon settlement). Smith and city officials of Nauvoo deemed the paper a threat to order and ordered the printing press to be destroyed. A ruckus resulted over the issues of libel and freedom of expression.
After fleeing and then returning to Nauvoo, Smith was told to turn himself in to the authorities at Carthage, IL to stand trial for inciting a riot. There, an angry mob broke into the jail where he and his brother Hyrum were imprisoned and shot and killed them both. Ever since, Smith has been considered a martyr within the ranks of the Mormon community.
Emily Wilding Davison seemed born to seek out the audacious, no matter to what extreme she pushed herself. She was a vocal promoter of women's rights in England at the beginning of the 20th century.
Born in 1872, Davison displayed an outstanding effort in her academic pursuits, and studied at Oxford University. However, she couldn't acquire a degree from Oxford as they did not offer them for women. She would later graduate with honors from the University of London instead. The victim of such systemic sexism, she later got involved with the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), which advocated for women's voting rights in England. During her time as a suffragette, she pulled some daring moves—such as going on numerous hunger strikes while incarcerated for her activism.
Davison's fatality is marked by an odd series of events. She went to the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913, where she planned on publicizing her position on suffrage. Maneuvering past the rails which barred her from the racecourse, she made her way onto the track where a horse belonging to King George V collided with her, injuring not only the activist but the horse's jockey as well. Davison passed away at a hospital on June 8. While some major outlets dealt out ridicule for her actions, the suffragist press lauded Davison. Today, she has been called a martyr for British women's suffrage.
In Ilse Weber, we see the intersection of two well-known, yet tragic stories: the pursuit of the artist, struggling and suppressed, and the mortal discrimination of one people against another. A talented author and composer, Weber perished during the Holocaust.
Placed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Weber's condemning attribute was nothing short of her Jewish identity. She worked as a nurse there, often attending to the children of the camp. While she worked, she began to make up songs and sing them to her young patients. The songwriter was killed at an Auschwitz gas chamber in 1944, along with one of her sons.
Fortunately, her husband was able to preserve a number of her poems and musical pieces from the time she spent in the camps. Many other famous martyrs also spent the last days of their lives at Auschwitz—such as Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who volunteered to die in someone else’s place and has since been canonized.
George W. Lee
George Washington Lee knew what racial oppression felt like. His mother, an illiterate plantation worker, died while he was young; his stepfather was abusive. Out of demoralizing beginnings, he refused to let anything halt his aspirations. The Mississippi minister was always willing to be there for those in his community. When he opened a grocery store, he was simultaneously involved in pastoral duties at four different churches. He also operated his own printing press and was a part of the NAACP.
Rev. Lee realized that racial integration was not going to be an immediate nor easy transition. He jumpstarted efforts in his region to get Black people registered to vote. Lee's endeavors were quickly faced with counter-organization from white community members. After refusing to acquiesce to threatening notes that demanded he abandon his Black voting agenda, Lee received multiple gun wounds to the head while driving home. He died of said wounds at a local hospital. To this day, his murderer remains unknown.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Often considered the very face of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had an outsize impact on America and its progress toward racial equality. Hailing from a reputable line of Baptist ministers, King saw religion as a widely influential vehicle for promoting the inalienable rights that the Black community was so often denied. King himself was inspired by the words of Gandhi, the famed moralist and peace advocate of India. Peaceful protest in the face of injustice would become the backbone of King's civil rights agenda.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, King assisted his father, also a pastor, at a church in Atlanta and promulgated legal and social desegregation in the American South. Quickly gaining a national following, King was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Though King accomplished so much in the way of racial integration and communal brotherhood, his life was cut short in one shot. The devastating assassination which shook the nation occurred on April 4, 1968.