Persecution in the Early Church

A review of Church History cannot escape the word ‘martyr’, which springs up in every age and in every place. The fact that untold millions have been killed for their faith in Christ is a staggering phenomenon, which will only continue, until Christ returns. As we consider the history of the early church it is appropriate to put some of that persecution into perspective.

Jewish Opposition

The world into which Jesus Christ was born was under Jewish administration, with Roman oversight. Rome had conquered Palestine, but they relied on the existing local systems and structures to maintain the local order and peace. Roman soldiers intervened when the will of the Emperor needed to be enforced, or to maintain Roman authority if the local leaders could not handle it.

The New Testament history reveals that the Jewish religious authorities were unsettled by the emergence of the new religious characters of John the Baptist and Jesus. We have accounts of their interrogation of John and their persistent opposition to Jesus.

So it is no wonder that, following Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost and the birth of the church, the Jewish religious hierarchy was quick to engage in opposition to the early church.

Saul of Tarsus

A prominent young man (I was going to say ‘zealot’ but that has a specific meaning in New Testament times), named Saul, gave increased impetus to the Jewish opposition to early Christians. He was instrumental in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. He was also involved in seeing other Christians killed, imprisoned, pressured to blaspheme and so on.

When Saul was converted to Christianity, by miraculous encounter with the Risen Christ, some of the impetus against the Christians was probably diminished for a time. But it wasn’t long before there were Jewish plans to kill Saul (who we remember best by his name Paul).

Throughout Paul’s ministry he consistently faced opposition from the Jews. Reading the book of Acts we are left with the impression that the church’s main antagonists were the Jews.

Jewish Persecution

Initially Christianity was seen by the Roman authorities as an off-shoot of Judaism. Jewish leaders were often told to deal with Christianity themselves, as it was a matter of their own religion. This accounts for the energy which the Jews put into persecuting those who followed ‘the way’.

Jewish persecution of Christians in Rome became so intense that in 51AD the Roman authorities expelled Jews from the city, since they were behaving as disruptive trouble makers.

The Romans

Initially the Roman authorities functioned as protectors of the Christians, especially in the case of Paul, who was a Roman citizen due to his birth at Tarsus. The Roman leaders refused at times to hear the Jewish claims against Christians, seeing it as simply a matter of semantics and competing religious claims in their own localised religion.

Christians, however, became an increasing presence and concern to Rome, since the faith was spreading quickly and widely, and Christians refused to acknowledge any other deity, including the Emperor.

Roman persecution of Christians was first unleashed by Nero, following the Fire of Rome in 64AD which destroyed about three quarters of the city. Nero faced suspicion for having part in the fire, and so it seems he chose the Christians as his scapegoat. There is no reason to suggest that Christians had any connection with the devastating fire at all.

Roman Persecution

Nero attacked Christians with savagery, even using Christians doused in flammable liquids as torches to light up his gardens. While it cannot be confirmed it is understood that both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome at this time.

Roman persecution of Christians continued to varying degrees until the time of Constantine’s conversion. Toward the end of the first century Emperor Domitian came to power and persecuted both Jews and Christians. In 98AD Trajan became Emperor and instituted a policy of not hunting out the Christians, but putting them to death if they came to the attention of the authorities.

The symbols of early Christian persecution are usually those of the Colosseum, and the Roman catacombs. This is a worthy connection, since Roman Emperors delighted in making public sport of killing Christians.

Rachel Saint Reaches the Auca Indians in Ecuador

Rachel Saint was born in Pennsylvania on January 2, 1914.

As a young girl Rachel had a dream of dark skinned natives in green jungles. She worked for over a decade in outreach to alcoholics in New Jersey and then joined the Peru branch of the Summer Institute in Linguistics (SIL) in 1942. For the next decade she worked with several different remote tribal groups.

When Rachel made contact with a run-away Huarani woman named Dayuma she became convinced that she had found the native tribe the Lord had given her a vision for as a child.

As a skilled linguist working with Wycliffe Bible Translators, Rachel learned the Auca language and saw Dayuma converted. This remarkable convert later appeared as a guest on the platform of Billy Graham`s 1957 Madison Square Garden Crusade, New York.

The Huarani Indians (also written Waorani) were a warlike tribe, known for their ferocity, living in the Ecuador jungles near the Andes Mountains. They were so violent and murderous they were known by the title “Auca”, which means ‘savage’. The Christian world knows the tribe best as the Aucas.

It was Rachel’s interest in the Huarani Indians that prompted her younger brother, Nate Saint, to take interest in reaching the tribe and to fly over a remote Auca village many times over a four month period, dropping gifts to them, in preparation for the missionary visit.

When Rachel was 42, Nate Saint, piloted his Piper aircraft with four other missionaries aboard, onto a small beach in the Ecuadorian jungle. Their aim was to befriend and evangelise the Huarani Indians. On 8 January, 1956, the five daring missionaries were massacred on the beach where their plane had landed. News of this tragedy shocked Christendom. The five Brethren missionaries were speared to death. Their names are: Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Peter Fleming and Ed McCully.

Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, organised a whirlwind USA tour for Rachel and Dayuma (the Huarani convert), including television interviews which stirred the hearts of the American nation. Rachel Saint became one of the best known American missionaries overnight.

By 1958 Rachel and Dayuma joined forces with two widows of the Auca massacre who were ready to carry on the ministry their husbands had commenced.

With the assistance of Gospel Recordings, another missionary organisation, Rachel Saint produced messages in the native tongue. This was followed by a friendly confrontation with these people who had killed her brother. Conversions took place as the Gospel was preached to them. Six of those who had taken part in the massacre were among the converts. One of them, Kimo, even became pastor of the church that was established and baptised Steve & Kathy Saint, Nate’s children.

Less than three years after the five missionaries had gone Through Gates of Splendour, Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot (widow of Jim Elliot) had established permanent residence in a Huarani settlement, where they practised basic medicine and began the process of developing a written form of the language.

Rachel lived for two decades with the tribe and saw great fruit. She also translated the Gospel of Mark into the Huarani tongue.

Rachel Saint died on 11 November, 1994, in Quito, Ecuador at the age of 80… but her nephew Steve Saint continued to serve the Lord as his parents had done among native tribes in this same Ecuadorian jungle.

(References: Christianity Today, December, 1994; Evangel, March, 1996)

Note from Chris Field – Yet another member of the Saint family is working in South America, Evelyn Saint-Jimenez is working in Cordoba, Argentina and translated my book, Family Horizons, into Spanish for me.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

St Stephen’s Day is Boxing Day in Honour of Martyrs

“Why do we call the day after Christmas Day ‘Boxing Day’?” If you’ve never been able to answer that question then this article will be helpful to you.

St Stephen’s Day is observed by some churches on December 26, and that gives rise to the title of Boxing Day – which I’ll explain later.

For the past 150 years this day has also been associated with “Good King Wenceslas” who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen”. That account of King Wenceslas comes to us from the lyrics of a Christmas carol which gives a fictitious account of an historical character.

History tells us that Wenceslas was a Bohemian king who was martyred by his pagan brother about AD 930. St Wenceslas is the patron saint of what used to be Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia – two separate countries).

The ‘Feast of Stephen’ was set aside by churches to commemorate the death of Stephen the deacon, the church’s first martyr, as recorded in Acts 7. Stephen, as a deacon, was assigned the task of caring for the needy. The Apostles did not want to become entangled in that task, but needed to concentrate on preaching and praying.

So the Feast of Stephen celebrated this first martyr and charitable care for those in need.

It was John Mason Neale, ‘the prince of hymn translators’, and an Anglican vicar of the nineteenth century, who gave us the carol “Good King Wenceslas” in 1853, to exemplify generosity. Wenceslas was a martyr, like Stephen, and he was a charitable man. Neale sought to bring these factors together in a song to celebrate the significance of St Stephen’s Day.

The song has no basis in fact, but was one of Neale’s original compositions … written 1000 years after Wenceslas lived – and who may, or may not, have looked out on the Feast of Stephen!

And because Stephen, the New Testament deacon, had been employed in caring for the poor, it became customary for the early Christians to open the church alms-boxes and distribute the benefits therein to those in need on St Stephen’s Day. Hence, this first day after Christmas Day is the day for opening the boxes and distributing charity – and is now referred to as “Boxing Day”.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman Massacred Missionaries

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were massacred on November 29, 1847.

This dedicated missionary couple both hailed from upstate New York. Marcus was born in 1802 in Rushville and Narcissa in 1808 in Prattsburgh. Narcissa, born into a devout Presbyterian family, committed herself to the mission field at the age of 16. Upon completion of her own education she taught primary school in Prattsburgh. Then in 1834 she moved with her family to Belmont, New York, still awaiting the opportunity to fulfil her missionary pledge

Marcus studied medicine under a local doctor and received his medical degree in 1832. After practicing medicine for four years in Canada he returned to New York and became an elder in a Presbyterian church. He then felt the call to reach the Indians of Oregon, prompting his trip in 1835 to seek out potential sites.

Narcissa could not get backing from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions since they did not support the notion of unmarried women being sent to the mission field. Marcus and Narcissa solved her problem by deciding to be wed in 1836.

The day after their wedding they left for Missouri in the company of another couple, Henry and Eliza Spaulding. Some years previously Narcissa had rejected Henry’s marriage proposal, nor did Henry have a ‘personality suited to teamwork’.

The group travelled with fur traders for most of the 2,000 miles of ‘gruelling hardship’ and took wagons farther West than any American expedition before them. Along the way, Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Reaching the Walla Walla River on September 1, 1836, the Whitmans decided to found a mission to the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu in the Walla Walla Valley. Henry and Eliza travelled on to present-day Idaho where they founded a mission to the Nez Percé indian tribe at Lapwai.

Narcissa and Marcus built a “rough lean-to with a mud roof … and only blankets for doors …” There, three months later, a baby daughter was born.

The Whitmans threw themselves into their mission, with Marcus taking church services, practicing medicine and constructing numerous buildings. Narcissa taught in the mission school, while also running their household and assisting in the religious ceremonies. Initially optimism prevailed, as reflected in Narcissa’s letter home, “We never had greater encouragement about the Indians than at the present time.”

Optimism soon faded when the Whitman’s two-year-old daughter drowned in a nearby stream in 1839 and Narcissa’s eyesight gradually failed almost to the point of blindness. Their isolation dragged on year after year and the Cayuse continued to resist their preaching of the gospel.

From the perspective of the Cayuse, whose souls the Whitmans felt they were destined to “save,” the mission was at first a strange sight, and soon a threatening one. The Whitmans did not see the need to make the gospel culturally relevant to the Indians. While the Cayuse saw gifts as an essential part of social and political life the Whitmans thought of it as a form of extortion. While the Cayuse linked religion and domestic life, Narcissa rejected the idea of allowing the natives into their domestic life. Even a sympathetic biographer admits that “her attitude toward those among whom she lived came to verge on outright repugnance.”

As the mission station began to grow “it resembled an inn for immigrants” and prices at the Whitman store – justly or unjustly? – were spoken of as being exploitive. The Indians resented the missionaries’ ‘prosperity’. The mission board 2000 miles away heard rumours and censured them.

Due to the lack of fruit the American Missionary Board decided in 1842 to close the mission and transfer the Whitmans elsewhere. Marcus returned East, undaunted by the coming winter, determined to convince the board to reverse its decision. He was successful and on his return journey in 1843, helped lead the first “Great Migration” to the West, guiding a wagon train of one thousand pioneers up the Oregon Trail.

This influx, however, soon had the Whitmans spending more time assisting settlers than ministering to the Cayuse. They took in eleven orphaned children and their mission also served as a kind of boarding school for early Oregon settlers like Joe Meek, whose daughter lived there for a time.

The mission’s close connection with the influx of white settlers further strained relations with the Cayuse. Narcissa observed in a letter of July 1847 that “the poor Indians are amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into the country… They seem not to know what to make of it.”

In late 1847 an epidemic of measles, brought by the white man, struck immigrant and indian alike. However the white children survived, while half of the Cayuse, including most of their children, died.

So it was that on November 29, 1847, several Cayuse, under the leadership of the chief Tiloukaikt, took revenge for what they saw as treachery on the part of doctor Whitman. Of the 72 people living on the mission they killed fourteen, including the Whitmans, and burnt the mission buildings to the ground.

Narcissa was 39 years of age; Marcus was 45.

This event sparked Indian wars which were long remembered. Weakened by disease and subjected to continued white raids, what remained of the Cayuse were assimilated into nearby tribes, especially the Nez Percé and Yakima. Thus the Whitmans’ missionary efforts ended in their own deaths and also the end of the Cayuse as an independent people.

A post referring to to these events and adding other detail has already been posted on September 4, 2008. The link is:

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

John Williams Transforms Polynesia

On November 20 John Williams was clubbed to death and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromanga in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). It was 1839 – and he was 43 years of age.

Born in London 27 June, 1796 at Tottenham High Cross, he came from evangelical stock, his father a Baptist and his mother influenced by the Calvinistic Methodist movement. At age 14 John was apprenticed to an ironmonger and was soon managing the business.

At age 19 he was converted to Christianity and joined the Calvinistic Methodist Tabernacle Church, where Rev Wilks taught him grammar and exegesis.

At the age of 20 he offered himself to the London Missionary Society.

He married Mary Chauner and together they set sail for the Society Islands of the Pacific in December, 1816, sent out by the London Missionary Society. The mission team collected another member at Rio de Janeiro then travelled on to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). There in March 1817 Williams preached the first evangelical service on that soil, defying official church opposition by preaching in the open air. In May they arrived in Sydney and established good relations with Governor Lachlan Macquarie, on the promise of good trading prospects from the Pacific Islands.

On November 17, 1817 John and Mary arrived in Tahiti. John mastered the language in 10 months and was ready to preach! Williams was one of those unstoppable missionaries who seemed to take every obstacle in his stride. He was regarded as the most enterprising missionary in the islands.

He set to work building a boat – the first of five – which would enable him to sail to the other islands. But such a course of action did not meet with the approval of the mission directors back in England.

It was the old, old question, oft to be repeated: Who knows best – the man on the field where the action is, or the administrators in their office back home?

“The years that followed were tainted by conflict – sometimes heated and bitter – as Williams in flagrant violation of the directors’ mandate continued his nautical activity” (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, by Ruth Tucker).

In December 1821 Williams and his wife visited Sydney for three months, where he preached and addressed public meetings. He also bought a ship with Rev Samuel Marsden’s reluctant approval, to trade between Raiatea and Sydney; and he engaged Thomas Scott to teach cultivation of sugar-cane and tobacco to the people of Raiatea. Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane was so impressed by Williams that he supplied stock to the mission and gave him magisterial authority for the islands.

In 1823 Williams travelled from the Society Group to the Hervey Group of islands and discovered Rarotonga where most of the inhabitants were soon converted. Williams later translated parts of the Bible and other books into Rarotongan and the Rarotongan’s asked him to create a civil and legal code for them, based on Christianity.

In 1838, when Williams had become a public figure, he returned to Sydney in the newly outfitted mission ship Camden, and drew considerable crowds to his meetings. He was returning form London (1834-1838) where he had given evidence before the committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines, and so was influential in the establishment of the local Aborigines Protection Society. In 1837 he published “Narrative of Missionary Enterprise in the South Sea Islands” throwing valuable light on Polynesia.

It is recorded that during his 22 years of ministry, this Apostle to Polynesia saw 300,000 natives brought to Christ. He taught them to build houses and furniture, churches and schools, and raise sugar cane. Natives were trained as teachers and as missionaries to other islands. The Rarotongan translation of the New Testament was printed during his lifetime.

“In 1823,” Williams wrote, “I found them (the Raratongans) all heathens; in 1834 they were all professing Christians. At the former period I found them with idols … in 1834 congregations amounting to 6000 persons assembled every Sabbath day; I found them without a written language, and left them reading in their own tongue the wonderful works of God” (Epoch Makers of Modern Missions, page 127).

Williams believed that Australia had a divine responsibility to take the gospel to the Pacific.

On 20 November, 1839, at the age of 43, he visited the isle of Erromanga, and was clubbed to death by hostile cannibals. His is one of the great stories of missionary endeavour with which every Christian should be acquainted.

Another famous missionary, John Coleridge Patteson, was martyred in the New Hebrides in 1871. That account can be found posted for September 20, 2008.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.