By Their Blood
7 June 2014
By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs from the Twentieth Century and Beyond by James and Marti Hefley, introduces us to some of these martyrs and brings their stories to life.
The original 636-page version, published in 1979, states on the cover that it is "a continuation of Foxe's Book of Martyrs." There is also a 672-page second edition from 1994. The 380-page updated and abridged third edition which I have, published in 2004, is divided into 37 chapters which document many, many incidents of martyrdom, country by country and region by region.
In order to give you a bit more information about this excellent book, I will share with you the preface from the authors:
Christian martyrs! The words stir the imagination. A saint singing above flames that crackle around his stake. A believer kneeling serenely before a blood stained block; the gimlet-eyed executioner preparing to swing his sword. A missionary bound with vines beside a bubbling pot, his eyes lifted confidently to heaven, while loin-clothed cannibal aborigines dance wildly around to the beat of booming drums.
But burning at the stake passed out of style after Reformation times. Death by the sword rarely occurs today. And only a few missionaries have ever been cooked by cannibals. Such macabre martyrdoms more often occur in the imagination of novelists.
Martyrs of the twentieth century have met their earthly end in more conventional, up-to-date methods such as gunshots, bombs, banditry, debilitating prison diseases, and starvation.
A second oversimplification is that Christian martyrs always die strictly for their testimony of Christ. This idea persists because accounts of martyrdom often do not include sufficient backgrounding of the events. When all the details are known, it is apparent that most Christian martyrs die in circumstances related to their witness for Christ. For example, five young American missionaries were speared to death in 1956 by Auca Indians in Ecuador because of the Indians' fear that they were cannibals. And nurse Mavis Pate was killed by gunfire from a Palestinian refugee camp because Arab commandos mistook the Volkswagen Microbus in which she was riding for an Israeli army vehicle. However, some Christians are killed primarily for their allegiance to Christ. Most martyrs to communism in China and the former Soviet Union fit into this category.
So the first dictionary definition of martyr — "One who submits to death rather than renounce his religion" — cannot always be strictly applied to the violent death of Christians. The second definition — "One who dies, suffers, or sacrifices everything for a principle, cause, etc." — is more inclusive. By this delineation, Lottie Moon, the heroine of Southern Baptists, who died from self-imposed starvation in China was as much a martyr as John and Betty Stam, who were brutally murdered by cold, calculating Chinese Communists.
Recognizing this, we have included many martyrs who might be excluded in some books because they did not die a violent death. At the same time we have not classified as martyrs those who died in accidents which might have happened to them in their homeland. Admittedly, the line is hard to draw here.
We have sought to provide stories of the deaths of Christian nationals where reliable information is available. This is often not the case. Young churches, developing amidst persecution, are less likely to keep records than established congregations with more time and freedom. National believers, also, because of educational and communicational disadvantages, do not document and preserve the stories of their own who have died for Christ. These stories are usually transmitted orally and later written down by educated leaders and/or missionaries. In contrast, the stories of most missionary martyrs and nationals who die with them are well attested. Books by eyewitnesses or close relatives have even been written about some of them.
We have generally restricted our time limit to the twentieth century, although in giving background and introducing the martyrs of a country or area, we have usually summarized hostilities to Christianity before the year 1900. In instances of both martyred nationals and missionaries, we have also sought to understand the political, national, and social forces behind great outbreaks, such as the Boxer Rebellion of China and the later Congo massacre.
We have organized the narrative by geographical units, with the chronological being subordinate to the geographic. Large nations such as China and the Soviet Union are treated as units within themselves, as is Nazi Germany. Smaller nations where little bloodshed of Christians has occurred in the twentieth century are encompassed in larger units and given less attention.
We have excluded the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, although some Christians have died in these countries in connection with their Christian service. We have noted some instances of martyrdom in Western European countries during the Nazi occupation. Independent western governments have been neutral, if not encouraging, to the advance of Christianity in modern times, with Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece to some degree excepted. There has been no particular policy of physical persecution of evangelicals in the democratic western countries, although in recent times Bible-believing evangelicals have suffered discrimination from the media, the courts, government, and business.
We must plead imperfection and the subjectivities of our rearing and national loyalties in failures to adequately define Christian martyrdom in many instances. We are humbled at the devotion and commitment of these thousands of Christians who were willing to lay down their lives for the Cause in which they believed.
We found it impossible to include a biography on every Christian martyr of the twentieth century. The World Mission Digest, published by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, cites the World Evangelization Database as accounting for the martyrdom of 119 million Christians during this century. Many, if not most, of these martyred believers died as the result of genocidal attacks by brutal dictators and political and religious zealots. Though little is known on earth, their names will be heralded in heaven.
We do believe that every martyr, whether included in this classification or not, has died for a purpose within the sovereign will of God. God was there when every human life was taken, not setting up the deaths, but permitting evil men to exercise free will and to do their dastardly deeds under the temporary dominion of Satan. Yes, our God was there in grace abounding over sin, beauty growing out of ashes, victory triumphing over death, and the Church advancing beyond defeat.
Over 100 million Christians have been martyred in the past century. More than in all other eras of church history combined. Their amazing stories are told in By Their Blood, a modern continuation of the classic Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Some stories are well known. John and Betty Stam were beheaded by an anti-foreign mob; Jim Elliot and four others were slain by Auca Indians in Ecuador.In closing, I would like to share a few thoughts about this book. I appreciated the focus on Christians outside of the Western world. I suppose the non-Western world got a lot of attention because that's where most of the martyrdoms have taken place. But as someone from the West, this book was a real eye-opener. I discovered that I was woefully ignorant of what followers of Yeshua (Isa, Jesus) have been suffering, and continue to suffer, all around the world. Somehow us Westerners tend to see the West as the center of Christianity. That may have been true in the past, but I don't think it's the case any longer. In the future, once we are all with Yeshua in His eternal Kingdom, I think us Westerners will be vastly outnumbered by Asians, African, and others not from the West.
But countless other stories are less known, though equally dramatic and soul stirring. From accounts of torture behind the Iron Curtain to massacres in sub-Saharan Africa, here is a montage of those who have given their lives for the cause of Christ in the last century. This new edition of the Gold Medallion winner is thoroughly updated to include the stories of Christian martyrs up to the present day.
"The authors do a great service to the church by calling attention to those in our time who have given up their lives for the gospel. This substantial book reflects a lot of research." — Christian Herald.
From what I read, I would say that during the past century the greatest persecutors of Christians have been Communism (which is on the decline), Nazism (which is extinct), Islam (which is definitely on the rise) ... and, surprisingly enough, Catholicism — particularly in Latin America. This is a topic for a future article, but for the moment I will just briefly mention that the Catholic Church has persecuted and killed true followers of Yeshua ever since the Roman emperor Constantine took it over in the year 312 AD. During the Middle Ages, the Inquisition killed untold thousands of believers. Unfortunately, this violent, demonically-inspired persecution has continued in some parts of the world right up to this very day.
I was somewhat disappointed by the authors' apparent inability to fully embrace a martyr theology. Even as they were chronicling the countless martyrdoms of the twentieth century, and extolling the courage and steadfastness of those who died, they would sometimes call the deaths a "tragedy," or make some similar type of remark. This is not the attitude of the New Testament towards suffering and martyrdom. But it is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent and worthy book.
I encourage you to get a copy of this book — either the shorter third edition, or the much-longer first or second editions. They are all out of print, so you'll have to get a used copy on Amazon or one of the other used-book Web sites. By reading about those martyrs who have gone before, you will be preparing yourself for your own martyrdom as your Islamic future inexorably approaches.