Christian Prisoners in Recent Times (1901–Present)

Sing Sing cell block, New York Public Library.

How do moderns face prison compared to Christians of earlier periods? Imprisoned by the Communists, the Chinese Jesuit bishop, Francis Xavier Ts’ai, was forbidden to even move his lips in prayer. He used to repeat inwardly, “My good Jesus, glorify yourself, and the rest counts for little.”

Communism was a major antagonist of Christians in the twentieth century, although by no means the only one. The Nazis, for example, sent many Christians to prison and to death. Under Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism untold thousands suffered incarceration and death.

Here are a few records from our godless era, in which more Christians suffered persecution than at any other in history. They did so with no less courage than their predecessors.

Christian Prisoners in Post-Reformation Times (1601–1900)

With the multiplication of Christian sects, state churches imprisoned and killed their adherents. Here Quaker evangelist Mary Dyer is led to execution in Boston. Image from the Library of Congress.

After the Reformation, Christian sects multiplied at a dizzying pace. The rich panoply of modern varieties of Christianity came into flower and was reflected in prison literature.

Unfortunately, sects persecuted sects, especially in those nations with state-run churches—as these accounts show. Except for John Donne, imprisoned in retaliation for his elopement with a powerful man’s daughter, the missionary Adoniram Judson imprisoned on false accusations of spying, and Silvio Pellico, who engaged in subversive activities, all of these prisoners found themselves incarcerated for faith. Pellico finds a place in these pages because of the determination he formed early in his imprisonment to live as a Christian.

John Brown is a difficult case. His faith drove him to attempt to raise a slave insurrection. Taking up arms against Virginia, he met a predictable fate. Like Brown, George Thompson was an abolitionist. Unlike Brown, he committed no crime under Missouri law, but only attempted to point slaves in the direction of freedom; for this he spent five years in prison. George Borrow, although engaged in Bible distribution in Spain, did so with an arrogance that seemed to invite the imprisonment that befell him. James Montgomery went to prison less for faith than for the conscientious reportage his faith demanded of him. We include Alexander Cruden’s incarceration in a mental asylum because of his fame as a Bible student. All five are included because they wrote or spoke in prison from a Christian point of view.

Lilburne, Fox, Penn, Evans, and Cheevers were imprisoned for their Quaker witness. Alleine, Baxter and Bunyan defied the English government’s regulations against preaching, as did Rutherford. Defoe would never have gone to prison had he not been a Dissenter. Similarly, the American Baptists James Ireland and John Weatherford defied Virginia’s laws against preaching.

Marie Durand lived a godly life amidst horrors that would break almost any spirit. The stiff and drawn expression of her portrait in old age shows what a toll her sufferings took on her. Her sole crime was to be the sister of a Huguenot preacher.

Our last example is a man with no name, but a heart of joy. The Inspector of Forests demonstrated what real Christianity is all about.

Christian Prisoners in the Reformation Era (1501–1600)

In the Reformation era, Catholics spread the faith world-wide, including to Japan. After weeks of cruel captivity, the Nagasaki martyrs depicted here by an unknown Japanese artist, were roasted slowly between fires [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you could spend an afternoon with just one person from the Reformation, who would you choose? The Reformation was an era of well-known names, heroes and heroines on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide. The fire of their faith could not be quenched. The zeal with which they faced imprisonment and even met death has become a testimony to all subsequent ages. It would be the opportunity of a life time to talk with almost any of them.

Six half-hour programs vividly bring to life the Reformation Overview, and covers seven colorful reform leaders.

reformation overview dvd

For myself, I would be torn between Knox and Tyndale. Luther wrote so much and so much has been written about that I feel as if I already know him. Although much has also been written about Knox and Tyndale, too, I still cannot form as clear an estimate of either as I wish. Probably I would opt to sit down with Tyndale.

Who would you pick?

Christian Prisoners in the Renaissance (1201–1500)

John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, suspended in flame for supporting the Bible-preaching Lollards, from John Foxe, et al., Foxe’s book of Martyrs of the world. Moody Press, c. 1880.

The Renaissance was what it was because of unique and determined individuals. In those days, when the church had become notoriously lax, several notable Christians embarrassed their contemporaries, who became eager to do away with them.

The most astonishing Renaissance prisoner was Joan of Arc. There is no way to describe her life except as miraculous. The only question for contemporaries was to whom to attribute the miracles—God or Satan. The churchmen who examined her tried to trap her into words which would justify them in claiming Satan. In the end, they had to trick her in another way.

Savonarola and John Hus were more traditional martyrs, who proved their bona fides as Christians by dying cruelly for the beliefs they championed. The end of William Thorpe is unknown; like Hus, he was inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe.

Christian Prisoners in the Middle Ages (301–1200)

St. Sigismund of Burgundy, by Georges Jansoone (JoJan) (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. After a bloodthirsty reign, he became a monk, was imprisoned around 523, and executed in captivity.

During the Middle Ages we encounter the sad spectacle of people who called themselves Christians incarerating (and even killing) others who bore the same name—a practice which would only become more common in successive centuries.

The prisoners featured in this section seem to have been innocent of the crimes alleged against them. To be in prison for a crime is bad; to be in prison for no wrongdong is worse in one sense but more blessed in another. All three rose above the injustice done them; two used their hours of incarceration to produce triumphant works of literature.

Christian Prisoners in the Early Church Era (c. 70–300)

Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Gerome [Public Domain]

If one thing can be said to characterize the early church, it was the fervor of its converts. They spread the gospel throughout the known world within three centuries and transformed nations and an empire in the process. Their fervor sustained them through terrible persecutions.

In this part we look at several Christians who suffered under pagan persecution in the earliest years of the church. Faith and zeal such as theirs was contagious in their world. May it reach across the centuries to us, too.

Prisoners of the Bible Era (4000 BC–AD 70)

Detail of the Mamertine prison in Rome (Carcere Mamertinum), which supposedly held the Apostles Peter and Paul, by Chris 73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

God must have a special place in his heart for prisoners. How else do we explain the frequent mention of prison and prisoners in his word? Imprisonment is one of the most wretched situations into which humans can fall in this world. Not only are prisoner movements and activities restricted, not only are they deprived of family ties and forced to dwell in some of the most vicious company on earth, but they enter a slave-like relationship where others who care little for their well-being, order them about, and even abuse them. God, whose love and mercy cause him to commiserate with the downtrodden, sympathizes with the sufferings of prisoners, and so the Bible speaks often, and with compassion, of those in prison.

Thus we have one of Isaiah’s great Messianic prophesies that the Suffering Servant would set captives free, a prophecy which Jesus applied to himself at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:18,19).

Isaiah 61:1.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me; because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good news to the meek; He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…

This concern also appears in Isaiah 49:9 and is likewise evident in Psalms 102 and 146:

Psalm 102: 19,20.

For he looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven the Lord viewed the earth to hear the groans of the prisoners, to loose those who were appointed to death…

Psalm 146:7.

Who executes justice for the oppressed,
Who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.

The magnanimous character of God is shown in the extent of his concern. It is not just those who are captive for their faith, or falsely accused, or in the bondage of persecution whom he remembers with his liberating grace. Quite the contrary; in Psalm 107 we see his concern even for those who find themselves in prison because they rebelled against his word.

Psalm 107: 10-15.

Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron because they rebelled against the words of God, and rejected the counsel of the Most High: therefore He brought down their heart with labor; they fell down, and there was none to help. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their chains in two. Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!

The majority of prisoners mentioned in the Bible were not rebels, but rather saints cast into prison as a result of their faithful witness. The first recorded in the sacred text is Joseph, and the last was Paul. (Although John was exiled, it is not clear whether or not he was imprisoned).

Here, then, is a collection of prison literature drawn from the Bible.