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.