Christian Prisoners in Recent Times (1901–Present)

[ABOVE—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. The stories are listed chronologically by year of death.

Edith Cavell (1865–1915) Reflects in Prison Before Meeting the Firing Squad

Tikhon (1865–1925) and the Bolsheviks

Sundar Singh (1889–c. 1929) Mysteriously Rescued from a Death Pit

A Toyohiko Kagawa (1888–1960) Prison Poem

Lin Zhao’s (1932–1968) Blood Letters

Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983) Survives a Nazi Death Camp

John Sung (1901–1944) Imprisoned in an Insane Asylum for His Faith

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) Composes a Masterpiece in Nazi Concentration Camp

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–1988) Blesses Prison

Richard Wurmbrand (1909–2001) Survives Torture for Christ

Noble Alexander (1934–2002) Faced Trumped up Charges

Tsehay Tolessa (d. 2014) Endured a Decade of Torture in Ethiopia

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

[ABOVE—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. Defoe would never have gone to prison had he not been a Dissenter nor would De Laune had he not responded to a challenge to defend Dissenter positions. Alleine, Baxter and Bunyan defied the English government’s regulations against preaching, as did Rutherford. 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. Entries are listed chronologically by year of death.

John Donne (1572–1631) Adds an Epigram to Prison Literature

Richard Baker (1568–1645) in Debtors Prison

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) Defends Christianity While in Prison

John Lilburne (c. 1614–1657) Writes His Testimony While Incarcerated

Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661) Admonishes His Congregation from Exile

Joseph Alleine (1634–1668) Encourages Feeble Christians from Prison

De Laune (d. 1685) Done to Death

John Bunyan (1628–1688) Pens His Second Best Book While a Prisoner

Richard Baxter (1615–1691) and His Wife Set up House in Prison

George Fox (1624–1691) Describes the Disgusting Prison Conditions He Endured

Katherine Evans (died 1692) and Sarah Cheever (17th century) Write Home While Held by the Maltese Inquisition

Hans Burki (fl. 1710) Describes His Brutal Incarceration

William Penn (1644–1718) Helps Establish the Right to a Jury Trial

Daniel Defoe (1659–1731) Glorifies the Pillory, Instrument of His Shame and Punishment

Alexander Cruden (1699–1770) Urges Reform of Insane Asylums

Marie Durand (1715–1776) Immured 38 Years for Her Huguenot Faith

James Ireland (1745–1806) Endures Insult in Prison for Preaching as a Baptist

John Weatherford (c. 1740–1833) Preached from His Prison Cell Window

Adoniram Judson (1788–1850) Tortured in Burmese Prisons

James Montgomery (1771–1854) Frisks Along a River Bank Following His Release from Jail

Silvio Pellico (1789–1854) Determines to Live as a Christian in Prison

John Brown’s (1800–1859) Final Speech and Prophecy Before Hanging

George Borrow (1803–1881) Threatens an International Incident when Held in Spanish Prison

George Thompson (died 1893) Pens Praise Poems in Prison

Inspector of Forests (Late Nineteenth Century) Exhibits Joy in a Chain Gang

Christian Prisoners in the Reformation Era (1501–1600)

[ABOVE—During 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?

Subjects are listed chronologically by year of death.

John Fisher (1469–1535) Points Others to Heaven from His Prison Cell

Thomas More (1478–1535) Meditates on Choice While Awaiting Execution

William Tyndale’s (1494–1536) Poignant Prison Letter

Martin Luther (1483–1546) Translates the Bible While in Protective Custody

Anne Askew (1521–1546) Holds Her Own Against the Men Who Torture Her

John Frederick (1503–1554) rejected a compromise of faith

Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) Finds her final hope in Christ

Giovan Paschale (died 1560) Hopes for Eternal Satisfaction

Peter Bergier leads Jean Pierre Chambon to Christ in Prison (1562)

Guido de Brés (1522–1567) Comforts His Family from Death Row

Philip of Moscow (1507–1569) Assassinated in Prison for Rebuking Ivan the Terrible

John Knox (1510–1572) Pulls an Oar as a Galley Slave

Edmund Campion (1540–1581) Defends His Mission at His Arraignment

John of the Cross (1542–1591) Paraphrases Solomon in His Dungeon

Henry Barrowe (c. 1550–1593) Is Bullied at His “Arraignment”

Southwell (c.1561–1595) Was Tortured for Priestly Actions

Christian Prisoners in the Renaissance (1201–1500)


[ABOVE—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.

Prisoners are listed chronologically by year of death.

William Thorpe (fl. 1407) Testifies of Christ and is Sent to Prison

John Hus (c. 1372–1415) Stands Solid During Incarceration

Joan of Arc (1412–1431) Defends Herself Alone Against a Gang of Interrogators

Savonarola (1452–1498) Laments After Recanting Under Torture

Christian Prisoners in the Middle Ages (301–1200)

[ABOVE—St. Sigismund of Burgundy, by Georges Jansoone (JoJan) (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL ( or CC 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.

These prisoners are listed chronologically by year of death.

Chrysostom (c. 347–407) Exiled, Forced to Walk Until He Drops

Boethius (c. 480–c. 525) Writes His Philisophical Masterpiece on Death Row

Theodulf of Orleans (750–821) Pens a Praise-Hymn in Prison

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

[ABOVE—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 are listed chronologically by year of death.

Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 108) Writes Churches on His March to Death

Pothinus (died 177) Expires Under the Rigors of Prison

Blandina (died c. 177) Inspires Fellow Prisoners Under Terrible Tortures

Perpetua (died c. 202) Finds Prison a Stepping Stone to Heaven

Pamphilius of Caesarea (died 309) Translates the Septuagint Bible in Prison

Simeon, Bishop of Seleucia (died c. 343) on His Way to Prison Restores a Lapsed Christian

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

[ABOVE—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 ( or GFDL (], 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.