Tag Archives: Martyrdom

Church as Mother: Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)

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Bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer. He was born around the year 200 in North Africa near Carthage. His father was a noble and a wealthy Roman officer of high rank who gave his son a good Greek education. Cyprian himself became a leading member of a legal fraternity in Carthage. He was an orator, “pleader in the courts,” and a teacher of rhetoric. He was well into middle age when he converted to Christianity and was baptized. The exact date of his conversion is unknown. But after his baptism, around 245-248, he gave a portion of his wealth away to the poor in Carthage, as befitted a man of his status.

After his conversion, he devoted himself to ascetic retirement and to the study of the scriptures and great men of the church, especially Tertullian, whom he highly admired. Soon after his conversion he became a deacon. In or around 248 or 249, after he had been a believer for a year, the church at Carthage made him a presbyter. The following year they prevailed upon him to fill the vacant position of bishop. This placed Cyprian as the head of the North African clergy. This was a popular choice among the poor but was opposed among a portion of the presbytery. Moreover, this opposition did not dissolve during his episcopacy. He administered his office with skill, wisdom and fidelity. 

Soon, the church community was put to a test. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for years and the church was assured and lax. Early in 250, the Decian persecution began. Measures were taken demanding that the bishops and church officers sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul went on circuit to administer the edict. But when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled in order to escape seizure. Under the onslaught of this persecution, many lapsed and denied the faith. Cyprian urged them to constancy. He continued in his office while in seclusion, writing to his presbyters, deacons and laymen, encouraging them to be faithful and true. He assured them that he would return as soon as God showed him it was his will. 

The church community was divided between those who persisted in civil disobedience and those who buckled and submitted to the civil authorities and received a ticket called a “libellus.” Cyprian’s secret departure was regarded by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity and they wasted no time accusing him at Rome. The Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian defended his decision stating that he fled in accordance with visions and divine command. 

The persecution was especially severe at Carthage, according to church sources. Many fell away and were referred to as “lapsi” but afterwards asked to be received again into the church. Their requests were granted early with no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and the faithful at Carthage who insisted upon earnest repentance. Indeed, when dealing with the lapsed, Cyprian was rigid, demanding confession and unmistakable evidence of penitence. But the confessors among the more liberal group intervened to allow hundreds of the lapsed to return to the church. Cyprian returned to Carthage in 251, after the persecution was over, having been in retirement for two whole years. He defended leaving his post in letters to other North African bishops and a tract “De lapsis,” and called a council at Carthage to deal with the issue of the lapsed. It was decided that pardon could be granted to the lapsed, but only after a proper period of penitence. 

During this time, Cyprian rose in favor with the people when they saw his self-denying devotion during a time of great plague and famine. He comforted his brethren in his writing exhorting them to active charity toward the poor, while he himself set the best pattern for his own life. He also defended Christianity against the reproach of the heathen who said that Christians were the cause of public calamities. 

In 256, yet another round of persecution of the church under the emperor Valerian. Cyprian courageously prepared his people and set an example himself when he was brought before the Roman proconsul on August 30, 257. He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Jesus Christ. He was banished to Curubis (modern day Korba) and there he comforted his flock the best he could. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. After a year he was recalled and was put under house arrest in his own villa. Soon a more stringent imperial edict arrived, demanding the execution of all Christian clerics, according to the reports of Christian writers at the time. 

On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned and the following day was examined for the final time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God!” The execution was carried out immediately in an open place near the city. A crowd followed him on his final trip. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself he was beheaded by the sword. 

The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution and over it, along with the site of execution, were churches built. But they were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones removed to France. 

Cyprian wrote a number of epistles and tracts. The most important being “De unitate ecclesiae.” In it he writes, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother…he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” and “nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.” He also declared that the unity of the church rested in the episcopate, making the bishops the representatives of the apostles, thus making the chair of St. Peter the center of episcopal unity. He gave Peter a primacy of honor in the church. 

His first writing starts out as a speech he made to his friends. It’s called “Ad Donatum.” It speaks out against the Roman government and gladiator shows. St. Cyprian remarks that the only refuge from these evils is the prayerful life of a Christian. He was the first great Latin writer in the Church. Until Jerome and Augustine, his writings had no rivals in the West. 

His feast day in the Anglican Communion is September 13. In the Catholic Church, it is September 16. 

 

Church and State: Wigtown Martyrs

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Church and state and religious freedom..it’s the never ending story. And on this day, May 11, we remember two martyrs who died in name of religious freedom. Margaret Wilson was a young Scottish Covenanter, from Wigtownshire in Scotland, executed  by drowning to swear an oath declaring James VII as head of the church. Her death became part of the martyrology of Presbyterian churches, and she was commemorated as the most famous of the Wigtown Martyrs.

From February 6, 1685, James II of England (1633-1701) was King of England and Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII. James wanted to proceed quickly to his coronation and was crowned with his wife at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1685. Margaret Wilson was granted a reprieve by the Scottish Parliament one week later. James was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over Great Britain and Ireland. The political and religious elite opposed him for being pro-French and pro-Catholic and for his plans to become an absolute monarch. When he produced an heir, tensions rose dramatically, and the leading nobles called on William III of Orange (his son-in-law and nephew) to land an invasion army from the Netherlands.

The Covenant movement was a movement to maintain the reforms of the Scottish Reformation and it came to the fore with the signing of the National Covenant of 1638 in opposition to the royal control of the church, promoting Presbyterianism as a form of church government rather than the rule of bishops appointed by the Crown. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Covenants were declared treasonable and the rule of bishops was restored. In southwestern Scotland, the ministers refused to submit. Barred from their churches, they held open air field assemblies called conventicles which the authorities suppressed using military force.

Margaret Wilson was born at Glenvernoch, a farm near Newton Stewart  in Penninghame,Wigtownshire. Her parents were dutiful Anglicans, but her older brothers were among the Covenanters. By 1684 they were hiding from the authorities in the hills and increasingly government action had ended the large conventicles. Small gatherings were still held indoors, but failure to take a test of allegiance to the king, which required renouncing the Covenant, met with the death penalty, as did even attending a conventicle or harboring Covenanters. Despite these risks, Margaret started attending conventicles with her younger brother, Thomas. On occasion they took along their younger sister Agnes.

In February 1685 Thomas Wilson left to join other Covenanters in the hills. The Wilson sisters went on a secret visit to Wigtown to visit friends, including an elderly widow Margaret McLachlan. The sisters were arrested, possibly after refusing to drinking the king’s health and were put into the “thieves’ hole.” They refused to take the Abjuration Oath renouncing the Covenant. The following Sunday Margaret McLachlan was arrested and placed in the theives’ hole along with the girls. The three were taken before the local assizes of the government commissioners for Wigtownshire. On the 13th of April, 1685 they were indicted as being guilty of the Rebellion of Bothwell Bridge, Aird’s Moss, 20 field conventicles and 20 house conventicles. They were found guilty on all charges and were sentenced to tied to palisades fixed in the sand within the floodmark of the sea and there to stand till the flood overflowed them.

The father of the girls, Gilbert Wilson, went to Edinburgh and made a plea to the Privy Council of Scotland for clemency for all three, presenting a petition which claimed that Margaret McLachlan had recanted. Agnes was granted freedom on bond of 100 pounds and reprieve was granted for the two Margarets on April 30, 1685. Urging that the two had been officially granted reprieve by His Majesty’s Privy Council, Mark Napier insisted that its agents should not have dared flout the Council’s decree. Grieson of Lag, nevertheless chose to do so. A contemporary wrote that “over zeal was no crime in 1685.”

On May 11, 1685, eleven days after being granted reprieve, Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth. At the last moment, choking on the salt water, Wilson was allowed to offer a prayer to the king, which she did. Yet she still refused to abjure the covenant. This wasn’t good enough for her accusers and she was forcibly thrust beneath the waves. It has been said that, as the tide rose, she defiantly quoted from the Psalms and the epistles and sang until she drowned. Another contemporary, Robert Wodrow later wrote that the murderers should have been prosecuted for ignoring the reprieve.

Margaret Wilson was only 18 years old when she died and was buried together with her friend Margaret McLachlan, in the churchyard of Wigtown. The above picture is of the monument that was built in memory and honor of these Wigtown Martyrs. And let us follow in their footsteps and continue to exercise our religious freedom, a right that was given to us by God and which no man or king can take away even on pain of death. As the Apostle Peter remarked to the ruling Jewish leaders, “We must obey God rather than man.” May we also be brave enough to die for such freedom!