Christian Martyrdom as a Pervasive Phenomenon


Historians have undertaken the study of Christian martyrdom primarily to understand its impact on the growth of the religion since its inception. This article takes a different perspective on the study of martyrdom, instead examining how many Christians around the world have died in situations of witness every year. Included is a comparative analysis of twentieth- and twenty-first-century trends regarding the phenomenon, highlighting both qualitative and quantitative differences between the two periods. Measuring Christian martyrdom is not without controversy, however. Here, the number of martyrs per year is determined by a specific set of criteria that takes into consideration historical, sociological, and theological arguments. This article will present a definition of martyrdom highlighting two important aspects: (1) the motivation of the killed rather than the killer, and (2) the inclusion of Christians who have died as a result of mass killings and genocides. Drawing on historical and contemporary descriptions of martyrdom situations, we argue that martyrdom is a broad-based phenomenon not limited to state persecution that is profoundly affecting thousands of Christians in the context of civil war, genocide, and other conflicts.

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  1. 1.

    Kolbe’s story is told in Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (New York: Crossroad, 2000).

  2. 2.

    Discussed in Joyce E. Salisbury, The Blood of Martyrs: Unintended Consequence of Ancient Violence (London: Routledge, 2004), 1.

  3. 3.

    David B. Barrett, “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1986.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10:1 (January 1986): 22–3.

  4. 4.

    More details on counting Christian martyrs are found in David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Trends (South Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2001), Part 4, “Martyrology.” The compilation of data on Christian martyrs in all countries over the 20 centuries of Christian history is found in two tables: Table 4–10 describing 600 major martyrdom situations in 150 countries, AD 33–2000; and Table 4–11, “Alphabetical listing of 2,500 known Christian martyrs, AD 33–2000”. A martyrdom situation is defined as “any description of mass or multiple martyrdoms at one point in Christian history.” See Barrett and Johnson, World Christian Trends, 859.

  5. 5.

    The average annual rate over 10 years is used because of the time lag in collecting documentation on martyrdom situations. In addition, situations vary significantly from year to year. An average annual rate gives a more realistic assessment of the phenomenon.

  6. 6.

    In the case of Sudan, so many Christians were killed that the Anglican Church established May 16 as the “Feast of the Martyrs of Sudan” in its liturgical calendar. More than two million people, mostly Christians, were killed from 1983–2005. See

  7. 7.

    See Rodney Stark and Katie E. Corcoran, Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror (Waco, TX: ISR Books, 2014), 105–7. See also Ruth Alexander, “Are There Really 100,000 New Christian Martyrs Every Year?” BBC, 11 November 2013,

  8. 8.


  9. 9.

    Aryeh Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought (Brooklyn: Moznaim Pub. Corp., 1979).

  10. 10.

    A. Ezzati, “The Concept Of Martyrdom In Islam,” Al-Serat XII (1986).

  11. 11.

    David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 30.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., 45–73.

  13. 13.

    Jolyon Mitchell, Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3.

  14. 14.

    Barrett and Johnson, World Christian Trends, 227.

  15. 15.

    For more on these traditions, see Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 74–95.

  16. 16.

    This estimate and its rationale are found in Barrett and Johnson, World Christian Trends, 97–8.

  17. 17.

    For example, see John F. Fink, American Saints: Five Centuries of Heroic Sanctity on the American Continents (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 2001), which tells the story of 137 individuals who have been beatified or canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

  18. 18.

    See Craig Hovey, To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008), 59–60.

  19. 19.

    See Thomas Schirrmacher, “A Response to the High Counts of Christian Martyrs Per Year,” in William Taylor, et. al., Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012), 37–42.

  20. 20.

    John L. Allen, Jr., The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (New York: Image, 2013), 216.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., 92–5.

  22. 22.

    Anne Barnard, “Long a Survivor in Syria, a Dutch Priest is Slain,” New York Times, 7 April 2014,

  23. 23.

    Michael Budde, “Martyrs and Antimartyrs,” in Michael L. Budde and Karen Scott, eds., Witness of the Body: The Past, Present, and Future of Christian Martyrdom (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 155.

  24. 24.

    Titus Presler, Horizons of Mission (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001), 87–8.

  25. 25.

    Here, “religious persecution” is defined as hostilities against people of a particular religion because of their affiliation with that religion. This is in contrast to how we define martyrdom, where people are targeted because of living out the convictions of their religion, not simply their affiliation with it.

  26. 26.

    See James and Marti Hefley, By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs from the Twentieth Century and Beyond, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 9.

  27. 27.

    David Moshman, “Conceptions of Genocide and Perceptions of History,” in Dan Stone, ed., The Historiography of Genocide (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 86.

  28. 28.

    Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack, eds., In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001), 2–3.

  29. 29.

    Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Second Edition. (London: Routledge, 2001), 37–8.

  30. 30.

    Martin Shaw, What is Genocide? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 117.

  31. 31.

    Jones, Genocide, 355.

  32. 32.

    African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair, and Defiance, rev. ed. (London: African Rights, 1995), 865.

  33. 33.

    Timothy Longman, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 18.

  34. 34.

    Ibid., 4–5.

  35. 35.

    “The Martyrs of Rwanda,” The Tablet, 25 June 1994, 791.

  36. 36.

    International Rescue Committee, “Special Report: Congo,” accessed 23 April 2014,

  37. 37.

    North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema, Katanga, and Oriental provinces.

  38. 38.

    Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).

  39. 39.

    Ibid., 138.

  40. 40.

    It follows from the IRC report that approximately four million excess deaths occurred between 2000 and 2010; 95 % of all these people were Christians. To approximate “situations of witness,” we estimate that approximately 20 % of those Christians were practicing Christians: Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and African Independent churches, averaged. See David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 211. This leaves approximately 800,000 Christians killed in the DRC in a situation of witness from 2000–10.

  41. 41.

    Documented in Todd M. Johnson, ed., World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2014),

  42. 42.

    See Todd M. Johnson, “Persecution in the Context of Religious and Christian Demography, 1970–2020” in Thomas Farr and Timothy Shah, eds., Christianity and Freedom (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  43. 43.

    See Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Global Restrictions on Religion, 17 December 2009,

  44. 44.

    Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013).

  45. 45.

    Eric O. Hanson, “Flashpoints for Future Martyrdom,” in Michael L. Budde and Karen Scott, eds., Witness of the Body: The Past, Present, and Future of Christian Martyrdom (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 223–4.

  46. 46.

    Ibid., 225–6.

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Johnson, T.M., Zurlo, G.A. Christian Martyrdom as a Pervasive Phenomenon. Soc 51, 679–685 (2014).

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  • Christian martyrdom
  • Genocide
  • Mass killing
  • Christianity
  • Congo