Many people have been killed for their faith through the ages. Interestingly, the word we use today to talk about someone who is killed for their beliefs, martyr, is the basic Greek word used in the New Testament which is translated “witness.”
Therefore, when Jesus said, “ye shall be witnesses unto me” in Acts 1:8 it had great significance to them. This does not mean that every follower of Christ will be killed for their faith, but because the witness of the early church followers lead to their martyrdom, we use the word today to mean someone who dies for their faith.
Here are 10 famous Christian martyrs or groups of martyrs. Most of them are people from ancient past, but I also wanted to include a couple of recent martyrs to help remind us that people are still sacrificing their lives for the cause of Christ today.
Famous Christian Martyrs
Christians through the centuries have been tenacious in holding to their beliefs
Acts chapters 6 and 7 give us the account of Stephen’s martyrdom. Stephen is considered one of the first Christian martyrs after Christ himself.
Stephen was speaking the truth of Jesus Christ. However, his words offended the listeners. They put together a council that brought false-witness to the things Stephen was saying (Acts 6:11-13). Stephen proclaimed that God’s own people were at fault for suppressing the prophets’ call to righteousness. They even killed the Holy One, Jesus Christ.
Their reaction was to gnash on him with their teeth. They ran Stephen out of the city and stoned him. Yet Stephen patiently accepted the persecution that was given to him. Stephen asked the Lord not to hold them guilty who had stoned him. He essentially repeated Christ’s words on the cross.
Andrew was one of the first disciples of Christ. He was previously a disciple of John (John 1:40). Andrew was the brother of the boisterous Simon Peter. After the biblical record of Andrew’s life, he went on to preach around the Black Sea and was influential in starting several churches. He was the founder of the church in Byzantium or Constantinople.
Tradition says that Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross on the northern coast of Peloponnese. Early writings state that the cross was actually a Latin cross like the one Jesus was crucified upon. But the traditional story says that Andrew refused to be crucified in the same manner as Christ because he was not worthy.
Brought to Christ by his brother Andrew, Peter is known as the disciple who spoke often before he thought. After Christ’s death Peter was the fiery preacher prominently seen in the first half of the book of Acts. He founded the church at Antioch and traveled preaching mainly to Jews about Jesus Christ.
Peter was martyred under Nero’s reign. He was killed in Rome around the years 64 to 67. Tradition holds that he was crucified upside down. Like Andrew, his brother, he is said to have refused to be crucified in the same manner as Christ because he was unworthy to be executed in the same way as the Lord.
As with many people in the early centuries, Polycarp’s exact birth and death dates are not known. Even his date of martyrdom is disputed; though it was some time between AD 155 and 167.
Polycarp was probably a disciple of the Apostle John who wrote the books of the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John and the book of Revelation. Polycarp may have been one of the chief people responsible for compiling the New Testament of the Bible that we have today.
Because of his refusal to burn incense to the Roman Emperor he was sentenced to burn at the stake. Tradition says that the flames did not kill him so he was stabbed to death.
Known as “The Morning Star of the Reformation,” John Wycliffe was a 14th century theologian. He is probably best remembered as a translator of scriptures. He believed that the Bible should be available to the people in their common tongue. He translated the Latin Vulgate into common English.
He was persecuted for his stand against Papal authority. While he was not burned at the stake as a martyr, his persecution extended beyond his death.
His body was exhumed and burned along with many of his writings. The Anti-Wycliffe Statute of 1401 brought persecution to his followers and specifically addressed the fact that there should not be any translation of Scripture into English.
Huss was a Czech priest who was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Particularly he fought against the doctrines of Ecclesiology and the Eucharist as taught by the Roman Catholic Church. He was an early reformer living before the time of Luther and Calvin (other well-known reformers of Roman Catholicism).
Huss was martyred on July 6, 1415. He refused to recant his position of the charges that were brought against him. On the day he died he is said to have stated, “God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.”
Most known for his translation of the Bible into English, William Tyndale was a reformer who stood against many teachings of the Catholic Church and opposed King Henry VIII’s divorce, which was one of the major issues in the Reformation. Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible was the first to draw significantly from the original languages.
Tyndale was choked to death while tied to the stake and then his dead body was burned. The date of commemoration of Tyndale’s martyrdom is October 6, 1536 but he probably died a few weeks earlier than that.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on June 9, 1945. I hesitated to include Bonhoeffer in this list because he was not martyred strictly for his Christian beliefs.
He was executed because of his involvement in the July 20 Plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer staunchly opposed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. As a Christian pastor he could not sit idly by and watch the murder of so many men and women.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged just two weeks before soldiers from the United States liberated the concentration camp in which he was held.
Jim Elliot and Four Missionary Friends
Jim Elliot, along with four of his missionary colleagues was killed on January 8, 1956 while trying to establish contact with the Auca Indians in Ecuador (now known as the Waodani people).
Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Flemming and Roger Youderian had been working to make friendly contact with the Auca tribe which they had seen from the air.
Though they had only met one tribesman face to face, they had participated in trades with the Auca from a plane to ground system. When Elliot and his friends landed on a river beach on that fateful January day they were slaughtered by the waiting men.
Their deaths were not in vain though. The widows continued to try and make peaceful contact and eventually won the hearts of the tribe. God has used this recent missionary martyr story to inspire new generations of missionaries willing to give their lives for what they believe.
Nag Hammadi Massacre
On the night of January 7, 2010 a group of eight Egyptian Christians were killed as they left their church after celebrating a Christmas mass in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The motive behind the massacre is disputed, but it was carried out by militant Islamic believers.
It may have been done in retaliation for an alleged crime against a Muslim girl by a Christian man. Even if that was the reason, the retaliation was not targeted at the man who committed the crime but at Christians because of their association through religion.
This type of martyrdom happens in many parts of the world today. There are still wars being fought on small and large scales because Christians hold strongly to their beliefs. The Christians are not the aggressors in most cases. They are being targeted because of their religion.
It is heartbreaking to see anyone killed for any reason. However, Christians through the centuries have been tenacious in holding to their beliefs. While 10 martyrs or groups of martyrs were mentioned here, there are many more you can read about. One great book to get you started on your study of Christian martyrs is the classic book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.