By Dr. Rex Butler
This is the second in a series of articles written to examine early Christian martyr stories and to compare them with contemporary accounts of persecution according to content, themes, players, and actions. Widespread global persecution in the past one hundred years is the continuation of persecution that began during the early centuries of the church.
In the fourth century, the pagan Libanius exclaimed, “What women these Christians have!” The focus of his admiration was
Anthusa, mother of the famed preacher John Chrysostom, but any student of Christian history could make the same affirmation of the hundreds of women who have suffered and died for the sake of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the earliest days of the church, the persecutor Saul “began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:3).
Throughout church history, the role of women in the church has been debated. In the arena of Christian suffering, however, women always have had a prominent place in the annals of martyrs. Reading through early Christian martyr stories, several women stand out, but perhaps the best known of all are Perpetua and Felicitas.
On March 7, 203, in Carthage, North Africa, a faithful group of Christians gave their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ, and their story is told in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. Although the martyrs included five new Christians, three men and two women, along with their teacher, only the two heroines were immortalized in the title of the Passion.
The narrator introduced Perpetua as “a woman nobly born, educated in the liberal arts, and respectably married. She had a father and a mother and two brothers … as well as an infant son, who was still nursing. Perpetua was about twenty-two years old.” Perpetua was able to keep a diary, which is included in the Passion and is the earliest existing writing by a Christian woman.
When Perpetua was placed under house arrest, her noble father begged her to renounce her Christian faith. But she pointed to a vase and asked: “Can this vase be called by any other name?” Then she proclaimed that, just as the vase could not be called by any other name, so she could not be called anything other than “what I am – I am a Christian!”
When Perpetua was imprisoned, separation from her nursing baby, along with the terrors of the dungeon, caused great anguish for this young woman accustomed to the luxuries of her father’s house: “I was frightened, because I had never experienced such darkness. Oh, what a terrible day: the strong heat because of the crowd, the extortion of the soldiers! Worst of all, in that place, I was tormented by worry for my infant.” However, deacons from her congregation bribed the soldiers to move the prisoners to better quarters, where Perpetua was allowed to keep her son with her. Then she wrote, “Suddenly, my prison was made a palace for me, so much so that I preferred to be there rather than anywhere.”
Perpetua’s slave Felicitas was eight months pregnant at the time of their arrest. Because Roman law prohibited the execution of pregnant women, Felicitas’s death would have been postponed, and she would have died later among common criminals instead of with her Christian friends. Her companions, therefore, prayed for early delivery, and she entered into labor. During her birth pains, a jailer mocked her suffering, but she answered: “I alone endure what I am suffering now. In that place, however, another one will be within me who will endure suffering on my behalf, because I will be suffering for him also.” Then she gave up her daughter to a Christian sister to raise. Later, in the arena, Felicitas, “rejoicing that she had given birth safely so that she could fight the beasts, went from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, washing after childbirth in the second baptism.”
As these women marched into the arena, the eyewitness reported that “Perpetua was singing a psalm.” When wild beasts were let loose upon the Christians, Perpetua and Felicitas were tied to and attacked by a mad cow, which was chosen to match their gender. After she was tossed about and trampled, Perpetua regained her composure and exhorted her fellow believers watching from the stands to “stand firm in the faith.”
When the time came for Perpetua’s execution in the Carthaginian arena, the inexperienced executioner botched her beheading, striking her in the collarbone, and so Perpetua once again tasted pain. In the end, “she herself guided the erring hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat.” It was said of Perpetua that Satan feared “so great a woman,” who could not be martyred except by her will.
Women continue to suffer for Christ’s sake around the globe. Two women reminiscent of Perpetua and Felicitas are Maryam Rustampoor and Marzieh Amirizadeh, who were arrested in March 2009 by Iranian security forces and imprisoned in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran. When interrogated about their alleged apostasy, they answered in words similar to Perpetua’s confession: “Yes, we are Christians;” “We have no regrets;” “We will not deny our faith.” Thankfully, they were released in November of the same year.
Another Christian woman who has gained international attention for her suffering is Asia Bibi of Pakistan. In 2009, this farm worker and mother of five was imprisoned after being accused of blasphemy. Her crime was to drink from a cup belonging to Muslim coworkers, who complained that she made the cup “impure.” During her arrest, Bibi’s arm was broken, and a Muslim mob cried out, “Death to the Christian!” During the past five years, Bibi has been moved from prison to prison, often facing death threats and attempts to kill her. Even two men who advocated for her have been assassinated. As of late 2014, she remains in prison under sentence to be hanged for blasphemy; if the sentence is carried out, she will be the first woman to be executed under Pakistani blasphemy laws.
Often women suffer equally with their husbands. Three years after her husband was imprisoned in Communist Romania, Sabina Wurmbrand was placed in work camps in 1951 and remained there for over two years. Richard described her ordeal: “Christian women suffer much more than men in prison…. The mockery, the obscenity is horrible. The women were compelled to work at hard labor at a canal which had to be built, and they had to fulfill the same work load as men. They shoveled earth in winter…. My wife has eaten grass like cattle to stay alive…. One of the joys of the guards on Sundays was to throw women into the Danube and then fish them out, to laugh about them…. My wife was thrown in the Danube in this manner.” Sabina survived her imprisonment to serve alongside her husband throughout their ministry on behalf of Christians suffering around the world.
These several women serve only as token reminders of the thousands of “Perpetua’s” and “Felicitas’s” who have suffered for their faith in Christ. As Augustine pointed out regarding the “manliness” of these women: “But this is the highest glory of him, in whom believers and in whose name faithful and zealous combatants are found, according to the inner person, neither male nor female.”
Dr. Rex Butler is a professor of church history and patristics and currently occupies the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.