Martyrs those who lay down their life or suffer death for the sake of their religion. In accordance with the primitive Greek sense of the word, i.e. a witness, SEE MARTYR, it is applied by Christian writers to such as suffer in testimony of the truth of the Gospel or its doctrines. The Christian Church has abounded with martyrs, and history is filled with surprising accounts of their singular constancy and fortitude under the most cruel torments that human nature is capable of suffering. The primitive Christians were accused by their enemies of paying a sort of divine worship to martyrs. Of this we have an instance in the answer of the Church of Smyrna to the suggestion of the Jews, who, at the martyrdomn of Polycarp, desired the heathen judge not to suffer the Christians to carry off his body, lest they should leave their crucified Master, and worship him in his stead. 'To this they answered,' We can neither forsake Christ nor worship any other, for we worship him as the Son of God; but love the martyrs as the disciples and followers of the Lord, for the great affection they have shown to their King and Master." A like answer was given at the martyrdom of Fructuosus in Spain; for when the judge asked Eulogius, his deacon, whether he would not worship Fructuosus, as thinking that, though he refused to worship the heathen idols, he might yet be inclined to worship a Christian martyr, Eullogius replied, "I do not worship Fructuosus, but him whom Fructuosus worships." The courage and constancy of the sufferers naturally enough won the highest admiration from their brethren in the faith; and so it came to be held a special privilege to receive the martyr's benediction, to kiss his chains, to visit him in prison, or to converse with him; and as it was held by the primitive Christians that the martyrs enjoyed very singular privileges with God, SEE MARTYRDOM, it came to be held also that their great and superabundant merit might, in the eyes of the Church, compensate for the laxity and weakness of less perfect brethren, and thus gradually a practice of intercession arose, which finally degenerated into the granting of indulgences, etc., as now common in the Roman Catholic Church. SEE INDULGENCES; SEE INVOCATION.
Perhaps the admiration and veneration which Christian martyrdom secures has had a great tendency to excite many to court martyrdom. We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that martyrdom in itself is no proof of the goodness of our cause, but only that we ourselves are persuaded that it is so. "It is not the blood, but the cause that makes the martyr" (Mead). Yet we may consider the number and fortitude of those who have suffered for Christianity as a collateral proof at least of its excellency; for the thing for which they suffered was not a point of speculation, but a plain matter of fact, in which (had it been false) they could not have been mistaken. The martyrdom, therefore, of so many wise and good men, taken with a view of the whole system of Christianity, will certainly afford something considerable in its favor.
In the early days of Christianity it was no unusual occurrence to build a church over the grave of a martyr, calling the church after his name, in order to preserve the memory of his sufferings. SEE MARTYRIUM. But soon every Church wished to possess a saint's tomb for an altar. Mere cenotaphs did not suffice. Thus, according to Augustine, Ambrose was delayed in the consecration of a new church at Milan till a seasonable dream helped him to the bones of two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius. And the second Council of Nice (A.D. 787) went even so far as to threaten bishops with deprivation if they should undertake to consecrate churches without relics. The consequence was that a supply was produced by such a demand, and frauds of every kind were perpetrated and overlooked. Each Church also had its own Fasti, or calendar of martyrs. SEE CALENDAR; SEE CHURCH.
The festivals of the martyrs are also of very ancient date. On the first establishment of their religion, it was natural that Christians should look back from a condition of unexpected security on the sufferings of their immediate predecessors with the most vivid sentiments of sympathy and admiration. They had witnessed those sufferings, they had beheld the constancy with which they were endured; the same terror had been suspended over themselves, and their own preservation they attributed, under the especial protection of divine Providence, to the perseverance of those who had perished. The gratitude and veneration thus fervently excited were loudly and passionately expressed; and the honors which were due to the virtues of the departed were profusely bestowed on their names and their memory. Enthusiasm easily passed into superstition, and those who had sealed a Christian's faith by a martyr's death were exalted above the condition of men, and enthroned among superior beings. The day of martyrdom, moreover, as being held to be the day of the martyr's entering into eternal life, was called the "natal" or "birth" day, and as such was celebrated with peculiar honor, and with special religious services. Their bodies, clothes, books, and the other objects which they had possessed, were honored as Relics (q.v.), and their tombs were visited for the purpose of asking their intercession. SEE MARTYRS, FESTIVALS OF THE.
Of the sayings, sufferings, and deaths of the martyrs, though preserved with great care for the purposes above alluded to, and to serve as models to future ages, we have but very little left, the greatest part of them having been destroyed during the Diocletian persecution; for a most diligent search was then made after all their books and papers, and all of them that were found were committed to the flames. Some of those records since compiled have either never reached us at all, or, if they have, their authority is extremely suspected. SEE MARTYROLOGY.
The appropriate homage to be rendered to the martyrs by the Protestant world, as a reason why our respect of these sainted dead should not degenerate into martyr-worship, by the exhibition of an enthusiasm which with the early Christians was quite natural, but with us would be artificial, has been well commented upon by Gieseler (Church History, 1:1.08, 282), who says: "The respect paid to martyrs still maintains the same character as in the 2d century, differing only in degree, not in kind, from the honor shown to other esteemed dead. As the churches held the yearly festivals of their martyrs at the graves of the latter, so they willingly assembled frequently in the burial-places of their deceased friends, for which they used in many places even caves (cryptae catacumbae). At the celebration of the Lord's Supper, both the living who brought oblations, as well as the dead, and the martyrs for whom offerings were presented, especially on the anniversary of their death, were included by name in the prayer of the Church. Inasmuch as the readmission of a sinner into the Church was thought to stand in close connection with the forgiveness of sin, an opinion was associated with the older custom of restoring to Church communion the lapsed who had been again received by the martyrs, that the martyrs could also be serviceable In obtaining the forgiveness of sins. In doing so they set out in part with the idea, which is very natural, that the dead prayed for the living, as the living prayed for the deads, but that the intercession of martyrs abiding in the captivity of the Lord would be of peculiar efficacy on behalf of their brethren; while they also thought that the martyrs, as assessors in the last decisive judgment, were particularly active (1Co 6:2-3). Origen attributed very great value to that intercession, expecting from it great help towards sanctification; but he went beyond the ideas hitherto entertained, in attributing to martyrdom an importance and efficacy similar to the death of Christ. Hence he feared the cessation of persecution as a misfortune. The more the opinion that value belonged to the intercession of martyrs was established, the oftener it may have happened that persons commended themselves to the martyrs yet living for intercession." The number of martyrs who suffered death during the first ages of Christianity has been a subject of great controversy. The early ecclesiastical writers, with the natural pride of partisanship, have, it can hardly be doubted, leaned to the side of exaggeration. Some of their statements are palpably excessive; and Gibbon, in his well-known sixteenth chapter, throws great doubt even on the most moderate of the computations of the Church historians. But it is clearly though briefly shown by Guizot, in his notes on this celebrated chapter (see Milman's Gibbon's Decline and Fall, 1:598), that Gibbon's criticisms are founded on unfair and partial data, and that even the very authorities upon which he relies demonstrate the fallaciousness of his conclusions. Those who are interested in the subject will find it discussed with much learning and considerable moderation in Ruinart's Acta Primitiva et Sincera Martyrum. No little difference of opinion has also existed as to what, in the exploration of the ancient Christian tombs in the Roman Catacombs, are to be considered as signs of martyrdom. The chief signs, in the opinion of older critics, were (1) the letters 13. I., (2) the figure of a palm-tree, and (3) a phial with the remains of a red liquor believed to be blood. Each of these has in turn been the subject of dispute, but the last is commonly regarded as the conclusive sign of martyrdom. The first recorded martyr of Christianity, called the "protomartyr," was the deacon Stephen, whose death is recorded in Ac 6; Ac 7.
See Siegel, Christliche Alterthümer, 3:272 sq.; Bingham, Orig. Eccles. p. 102, etc.; Riddle, Christian Antiquit. p. 101 sq.; Donaldson, Lit. 2:284 sq.; Neander, Plant cand Train. Christ. Churches (see Index); Lardner, Works, 3:91, 219 sq.; Jortin, Remarks, 1:345; Taylor, Anc. Christianity, p. 380; Milman, Christianity (see Index); Lat. Christianity (see Index); Waddington, Ch. Hist. pt. iv, p. 114; Schaff, Ch. Hist. 1:177 sq., 182 sq.: Coleman, Anc. Christianity, p. 404; Am. Theol. Rev. 1860 (Aug.), p. 530; Zeitschr. histor. theol. 1850, p. 315; Eadie, Eccles. Cyclop. s.v.; Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.