by James W. Alexander
New York, November 18, 1852

Consolation derived from a review
of Christian martyrdom

The sufferings of Christ's faithful martyrs not only furnish an attestation to the truth of Christianity—but evince its power to support the soul under the greatest sufferings. And herein the study is one eminently promotive of consolation.

When our Lord, in predicting the arrest and trial of his disciples, says to them, "And it shall turn to you for a testimony;" the meaning is, your persecutions, when foes shall lay their hands on you, this shall turn to you for a testimony—it shall afford you an opportunity to testify for Christ in the most striking circumstances, and with the greatest effect. The word rendered "testimony "is kindred to our word martyr, which is only the Greek for witness—one who bears testimony. You shall, by means of your faith and endurance, be witnesses for my gospel.

Let me, then, call your attention to the lessons to be drawn from the testimony of the martyrs. But first, we must consider who and what the martyrs were.

A martyr, it has already been said, is a witness; but, in the language of the church, one who bears witness to Christianity by his death; while the term confessor was applied to those who, before persecuting magistrates, firmly hazarded punishment for confessing Christ. The confessor became a martyr by shedding his blood. In this sense we constantly speak of "martyrs and confessors." The ancient historians reckon exactly ten persecutions; but it is scarcely possible to confine the number to this. They arose from the iron determination of the heathen powers to suppress the true religion. In every age Christians have been found ready to hazard the greatest sufferings rather than deny Christ, and have gone out of the world in torments of body—but triumph of soul, declaring their belief of the gospel.

(1.) Among the invaluable lessons to be deduced from the sufferings of Christian martyrs, the first is this—They furnish attestation to the truth of Christianity. They thus turned to those who suffered for a testimony. The great foundation of the credibility of divine messengers is the miracles which were wrought to certify their legation. The Apostles and many of the primitive Christians attested the truth by martyrdom. This is a fact as undeniable as any in history. Do I hear you object, that martyrdom may be suffered for falsehood as well as truth; our reply is, that the objection does not meet the point of the reasoning. Our argument is not that the martyrdom directly proves the doctrine to be true—but that it proves the sincerity of him who testifies. In regard to the miracles of Christianity, prove the sincerity, and you prove the facts. These facts, it admits of easy proof, are of such a nature, that the reporters could not be deceived. The primitive martyrs had the opportunity of arriving at absolute truth, with regard to the facts alleged; and their dying for the truth is in the circumstances as strong proof of the miracles as the case admits.

Never forget that they could one and all have escaped all their torments, by denying these facts, or by the simplest renunciation of Christianity. Here I will quote a passage from Pliny, in regard to those who were apprehended under the charge of being Christians—"A paper was presented, accusing certain people therein named of being Christians. These, when, after my example, they invoked the gods, and offered wine and incense to your statue, which for that purpose I caused to be brought, and when, moreover, they had blasphemed the name of Christ (which, it is said, none who are true Christians will ever do), I dismissed." All the tortures of the heathen were intended to bring them to this denial. A single word, a single morsel of incense, an inclination of the head, would have saved their lives. But, no! they died under excruciating pains, rather than renounce. No man, woman, or child suffered for Christianity under any other compulsion than that of conscience. "Every martyr made a voluntary sacrifice of himself to maintain the truth, and to preserve a good conscience."

Christianity was not then a religion of imposture. These men were sincere. No rational mind can doubt it. Multitudes of people gave the strongest possible testimony to their belief of certain facts, which passed under their own observation, and in which they could not have been deceived. The case of later martyrs, though not so cogent, as to the proof of the original facts, is equally so, as to their own sincerity of belief. These sufferers were true believers. The system under which they suffered was one that commanded the mind's conviction. And the strength of this conviction is measured by the intensity of the sufferings endured, and the terror of the evils threatened. What, therefore, must we say of the sincerity which resists the greatest of mortal apprehensions, namely, that of death! An instance may possibly be found here and there of some fanatical or obstinate villain, who from insane pride may die for what he believes untrue; but here are multitudes of all conditions, and in various ages. If, indeed, this does not prove sincerity of belief, it would be vain to look for any such proof.

(2.) The history of the martyrs is a testimony to the power of Christianity to support the soul under great sufferings, and this is the main point in our present discussion. "People of all ages, of all conditions in life, and of both sexes, exhibited under protracted and cruel torments, a fortitude, a patience, a meekness, a spirit of love and forgiveness, a cheerfulness, yes, often a triumphant joy, of which there are no examples to be found in the history of the world. They rejoiced when they were arrested; cheerfully bade adieu to their nearest and dearest relations; gladly embraced the stake; welcomed the wild beasts let loose to devour them; smiled on the horrible torture devices by which their sinews were to be stretched, and their bones dislocated and broken; uttered no complaints; gave no indication of pain, when their bodies were enveloped in flames; and when condemned to die, begged of their friends to interpose no obstacle to their felicity (for such they esteemed martyrdom), not even by prayers for their deliverance."

What sustained these sufferers? It was their belief in Christianity. They never pretended that it was anything beside. If anything may be regarded as established, even by the concessions of adversaries, it is that the Christian system imparted to the humblest and weakest a fortitude and a constancy which were unknown to the schools of philosophy. This was, indeed, the chief irritation of the persecutors. Exhausting their whole resources in vain against aged men, feeble women, and inexperienced children, they were at length driven to wilder means, as discovering that Christianity could not be quenched in blood. These aspects of martyrdom, my brethren, ought by no means to be neglected. That thousands should have died so supported is a striking fact in the world's history. "Neither," says the noble Arnold, "should we forget those who, by their sufferings, were more than conquerors, not for themselves only—but for us, in securing to us the safe and triumphant existence of Christ's blessed faith."

O my brethren, we would have higher views of Christ and of his religion, if we could enter more fully into the conflicts of those who have suffered for his sake; if we could trace the growth of Christian martyrdom from its first fainting origin, when the shuddering soul dreaded the hour of coming trial; through the hours, days, weeks, and months of prayer and meditation; up to the critical moment when all was surrendered and all ventured for Christ; if we could comprehend the resignation, the peace, and the victorious confidence of the instant, when the soul reached its highest joy in dissolution, and just hovering between time and eternity forgot its pangs in the visions of God. O what are gibbets, fires, wild beasts, or inquisitorial racks, to one who already feels his union with Christ, and knows that death is swallowed up in victory!

(3.) The martyrdom of God's children is a testimony that God will be with us in our own coming trials. The argument is easy—He who was with them will be with us. It is God's presence with the martyr which sustains him, and makes him callous to the knife or the torture, and deaf to the fierce clamors of the multitude. I believe that the soul may be so raised above suffering of the body as to be as though it knew them not. We have seen it many times in smaller degree, in our common human observation. But the record of early Christians and of those who suffered under popery, shows that grace actually neutralized bodily anguish.

But what we are now to observe is, that this sustaining power is not confined to the dungeon, the arena, or the stake. Martyrs are not the only sufferers; and wherever there are Christian sufferers, there is Christ. In vehement diseases; in long-continued and exhausting pains of body; in paroxysms of anguish; in nervous trepidations, sinkings and horrors; weaknesses more hard to bear than pain; and in the convulsions of death; the bodies of believers often call for the same sustaining power which was granted to the martyrs, and they receive it. There is no affliction which can befall us, that is too great for grace. Let me not confine myself to distresses of the outer man. There are wounds of soul which are greater than all wounds of body. The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity—but a 'wounded spirit' who can bear! None, my brethren, unless sustained by Him who "heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds."

As our Lord told his disciples that persecutions and arrests would surely come upon them—but that this ought not to dishearten, as it would turn to them for a testimony, and thus they should be able more abundantly to show forth the power of God—so he seems to tell us, that trials and adversities will overtake us—but that this shall turn to us for a testimony, and offer new occasions to glorify our supporting God.

We cannot tell what our troubles shall be; and we cannot tell what our consolations shall be under them. It is not the plan of our Lord to give us his special grace before it is needed. We are not therefore to be discouraged because we have not at this moment that boldness and resolution which shall be needed in the emergency. God will never be lacking. He has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." If God is for us, who can be against us! Especially in the inevitable hour of death, when you have passed beyond the reach of physicians and dearest friends, and when those who love you best will be mute and motionless beside your bed; when your limbs have already stretched themselves for the coffin, and your glassy eyes fixed themselves in their last position; when your soul shall be falling back on its faith (if it has any) and looking forward to its impending judgment—in that hour, the God of the martyrs will be with you!

Let every recorded triumph of faith be to you for a testimony. "I tremble," said dying Beza, "lest having come to the end of my voyage, I now make shipwreck, in the very harbor." No, no—Christ will not forsake his people in the hour of their extremity. It is indeed a time, when Satan often rages, because his time is short; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. We ought often to be entertaining thoughts of death, and of our own dying; and among the considerations which help to prepare for this hour, one is the support which God has given in former times to those who were dying violent deaths for his sake. Do not think that this will make death more dreadful. All the contrary.

The writer may be pardoned for making an observation in his own person. Belonging to a profession which often calls me to stand by dying beds, I do here testify, that I have never had the dread of death so much removed, as when I have seen it triumphed over by the true believer, even amidst great pangs of body. O readers (everyone of whom is soon to die—though some, perhaps, have little preparation), may God give you the wisdom to be securing that provision for the great hour, which is derived from his gospel! For be assured, the faith of the martyrs is what must be your stay in that tremendous moment.

4. Finally; as it is not forbidden to mingle reproof with consolation, the testimony of martyrs in their pangs is a testimony against our lukewarmness and unbelief. It is impossible to reflect on their history and not own this. Theirs was Christianity in earnest. How different from ours! Suppose a mighty persecution to break out in our day; our churches to be closed; our ministers to be imprisoned, or chased away; our Bibles to be burnt. Suppose coming to the communion to be the same as coming to peril or death. Suppose the name of Christ a reproach, and the dominant population armed against us; is it not your belief that many a Christian church would be thinned?

Of this there were some examples in early times, and some examples even among Christians. They were called Lapsi, the lapsed. But O with what bitterness did they lament their weakness, even to the end of life! You remember the recantation of Cranmer, and how soon, how bitterly, and how constantly he repented of it. His dying prayer breathes humility for the sin—"O God the Son, you were not made man, nor was this great mystery wrought, for few or small offences," etc. Then he confessed before the people his inconstancy with great profusion of tears, saying, "the great thing that troubled his conscience was, that for fear of death he had written with his hand contrary to the truth which he thought in his heart." "And therefore (cried the old man, in the holy violence of zeal), my hand shall be punished first. If I may come at the fire, it shall be first burnt!" At the stake, accordingly, he stretched out his hand, which was distinctly seen to be burning alive, and cried, "This hand has offended!" Surely he could say, "Like Peter, I have sinned; but by grace, like Peter, I have wept!"

God has chosen to let the great and learned sometimes fall, to show us what is in man; and to hold up the timid woman and the feeble child, to show us what is in God. But, fellow-Christians, what preparation have you for trials, losses, fears, pains, bereavements, and death? If you can so ill bear the daily crosses of life, and are so easily affrighted by the sneers or the inconveniences that befall you; if amidst these days of easy and honorable Christianity, you find it so hard to be Christians, how will it be when you come into the billows of mighty conflict? And the quotation may be repeated—"If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses; and if in the land of peace, wherein you trust, they wearied you, then how will you do in the swellings of Jordan?"

Let such things bring us to a most serious consideration of the temper of our religion. Those provisions suit the calm which are utterly insufficient in the tempest. The religion of the martyrs, need I say it, was a religion all in earnest. They died for it, they died by it. It caused them to die; but it caused them to die rejoicing. Christ was their all. When holy Polycarp was summoned to deny Christ, he replied—"Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no harm—how can I revile my King, who has saved me?" When Robert Glover, in Queen Mary's reign, was preparing for his death, he prayed all night long for strength and courage, and seemed to find none, until suddenly he was so replenished with comfort and heavenly joys, that he cried out to his friend, "Austin, He is come! he is come!" and went to the stake with the alacrity of one going to the chief festival of life.

Now, these men were in earnest; and theirs was an earnest faith; it was their very life—to them, to live was Christ; to die was gain. My brethren, how is it with us? I say not, are we ready for martyrdom, for this would be no fair criterion; but are we deeply concerned with the things of God? have they so entered our souls as to be our very life? Are we pressing on, against difficulties and oppositions, with a heart-felt conviction, that union with Christ is everything? Are we awake to our great necessities, and to the solemn realities which are impending over us? Have we deliberately renounced this world for our rest and portion, as a great bubble, and laid hold on eternal life? Is our faith in any respect "the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen?"

Deeply consider, that the visible church has tares among the wheat; and that on the good foundation of gold are built much wood, hay, stubble, which shall not endure the flames. I see no way of arriving at high confidence—but by casting ourselves into religion as the all-absorbing interest. Our 'halfway Christianity', operative on Sabbaths and in the sanctuary, is not the thing we need. Every suffering of disciples in former days of conflict and confession, ought to rebuke and stimulate us. God has graciously given us prosperity, harvest, peace. But that robe of consistency, which Satan cannot wrest from us by the keen wind of adversity, we sometimes let slip under the sunshine of worldly favor. There are summer as well as winter dangers. It is recorded of a certain man that on reading the New Testament, he exclaimed, "Either this is not Christianity or we are not Christians!" The same might be said of some among us. For what signs do we read concerning primitive believers, and the evidences of their faith? They "had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yes, moreover, of bonds and imprisonments; they were stoned, they were sawn asunder; were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; they wandered in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." It is remarkable that the most eminent piety has been nurtured under tribulations. Baxter's Saint's Rest, in part, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and many of the seraphic letters of Samuel Rutherford, were written in prison. Shall we, therefore, desire prisons, and pray for persecution? I think not. Let us be thankful for our prosperity; but let us mark its dangers. Sound, unbroken health, honor among men, domestic comforts, great wealth; these are not usually the means of exalted piety. Against the temptations of these we should be vigilantly preparing ourselves. And to aid us, we should be often contemplating the lives and deaths of those who by faith and patience inherit the promises.

The crowning act of the martyrs' Christianity was their despising this mortal life, and deliberately throwing it away for the sake of eternal glory. And is this peculiar to martyrdom? What says our Lord? If any man hates not his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. The martyrs gave up life—rather than give up Christ. And can we hope for anything less? It is of the very essence of all genuine religious experience, that Christ is above all. We are not to count our own lives dear to us. And this state of mind is to be attained only by higher measures of faith, and by keeping the soul's eye intently fixed on the person of the Lord Jesus, until we are ravished with his love, and ready to die that we may be with him forever.

But I must bring these observations to a close, especially when I reflect how many there are who not only have not these eminent traits of piety—but have no faith whatever; and to whom all that can be said on this subject must be matter or weariness, if not of incredulity. Perhaps it may profit even them to reflect, that the way to heaven is not without difficulties; and that many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able. Among high professors, some shall perish. Among true believers, some shall be saved "as by fire." "And if the righteous is saved with difficulty—what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?"