Question: Is the definition of a Christian martyr always understood only as one who does not fight back?

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Question: Is the definition of a Christian martyr always understood only as one who does not fight back?

It is contrary to standard usage and practice to insist that Joseph Smith and Hyrum were not martyrs because they did not allow themselves to be murdered without a fight

It is claimed that Joseph Smith is not a martyr because, while in jail, he fought back against those who attacked him. No one questions if he died for his religion. The question therefore is, has the definition of a Christian martyr always been understood only as one who does not fight back?

Clearly, non-LDS authors have seen those who suffered for their beliefs to be martyrs even if they:

  1. tried to escape
  2. escaped successfully
  3. were killed in trying to escape
  4. were killed fighting back, even if the cause was not directly related to the persecutor (e.g., death from plague)
  5. fought back against their persecutors
  6. took up arms against their persecutors
  7. killed their persecutors
  8. entered into defensive warfare against their persecutors.

It is contrary to standard usage and practice, then, to insist that Joseph Smith and Hyrum were not martyrs because they did not allow themselves to be murdered without a fight.

The 1828 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language off-site Webster defines a martyr as the following:

One who suffers death in defense of any cause. We say, a man dies a martyr to his political principles or to the cause of liberty.

Throughout history, Christian martyrs have both accepted their fate quietly and resisted with evasion or violence.

The classic Protestant work on martyrs is John Foxe, Fox's Book of Martyrs, Or A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of the Primitive Protestant Martyrs (First published 1563). off-site. Italics and emphasis added in all cases.

(Note: Foxe's work has considerable prejudice against Roman Catholicism, because this was the politically dominant faith for much of the period about which he writes. The use of these accounts is intended in no way to impugn the good-will and dedication to religious liberty held by modern Roman Catholics.)


In Tunis, if a christian slave is caught in attempting to escape, his limbs are all broken, and if he murders his master, he is fastened to the tail of a horse, and dragged about the streets till he expires.

[184 direct off-site]

14th century

"An account of the Persecutions of Calabria"...

These authorized persons came to St. Xist, one of the towns built by the Waldenses, and having assembled the people told them, that they should receive no injury or violence, if they would accept of preachers appointed by the pope;[108] but if they would not, they should be deprived both of their properties and lives; and that their intentions might be known, mass should be publicly said that afternoon, at which they were ordered to attend.

The people of St. Xist, instead of attending mass, fled into the woods, with their families, and thus disappointed the cardinal and his coadjutors…

The cardinal having gained his point by deluding the people of one town, sent for troops of soldiers, with a view to murder those of the other. He, accordingly, despatched the soldiers into the woods, to hunt down the inhabitants of St. Xist like wild beasts, and gave them strict orders to spare neither age nor sex, but to kill all they came near. The troops entered the woods, and many fell a prey to their ferocity, before the Waldenses were properly apprised of their design. At length, however, they determined to sell their lives as dear as possible, when several conflicts happened, in which the half-armed Waldenses performed prodigies of valour, and many were slain on both sides. The greatest part of the troops being killed in the different rencontres, the rest were compelled to retreat, which so enraged the cardinal, that he wrote to the viceroy of Naples for reinforcements. [107–109, direct off-site]

"Account of the Persecutions in the Valleys of Piedmont"...

A great many more of the reformed were oppressed, or put to death, by various means, till the patience of the Waldenses being tired out, they flew to arms in their own defence, and formed themselves into regular bodies.

Exasperated at this, the bishop of Turin procured a number of troops and sent against them; but in most of the skirmishes and engagements the Waldenses were successful, which partly arose from their being better acquainted with the passes of the valleys of Piedmont than their adversaries, and partly from the desperation with which they fought; for they well knew, if they were taken, they should not be considered as prisoners of war, but tortured to death as heretics. … A party of the troops found a venerable man, upwards of a hundred years of age, together with his grand-daughter, a maiden, of about eighteen, in a cave. They butchered the poor old man in the most inhuman manner, and then attempted to ravish the girl, when she started away and fled from them; but they pursuing her, she threw herself from a precipice and perished.

The Waldenses, in order the more effectually to be able to repel force by force, entered into a league with the protestant powers of Germany…

[110–111 direct off-site]

15th century

Finding that his [Jerom of Prague's] arrival in Constance was publicly known, and that the council intended to seize him, he thought it most prudent to retire…he wrote to the emperor, and proposed his readiness to appear before the council, if he would give him a safe-conduct; but this was refused. He then applied to the council, but met with an answer no less unfavourable than that from the emperor.

[154- direct off-site]

John de Trocznow (Zisca)… immediately flew to arms, declared war against the emperor and the pope, and laid siege to Pilsen with 40,000 men….Compelled to pass through a part of the country where the plague raged, he was seized with it at the castle of Briscaw[160] and departed this life, October 6, 1424.

[157, 160 off-site]

17th century

"An Account of the Persecutions in the Valleys of Piedmont, in the Seventeenth Century"…

This armed multitude being encouraged by the Roman catholic bishops and monks, fell upon the protestants in a most furious manner. Nothing now was to be seen but the face of horror and despair, blood stained the floors of the houses, dead bodies bestrewed the streets, groans and cries were heard from all parts. Some armed themselves, and skirmished with the troops; and many, with their families, fled to the mountains.

An inhabitant of La Torre, named Giovanni Andrea Michialm, was apprended, with four of his children, three of them were hacked to pieces before him, the soldiers asking him, at the death of every child, if he would renounce his religion which he constantly refused. One of the soldiers then took up the last and youngest by the legs, and putting the same question to the father he replied as before, when the inhuman brute dashed out the child's brains. The father, however, at the same moment started from them, and fled: the soldiers fired after him, but missed him; and he, by the swiftness of his heels, escaped, and hid himself in the Alps. [122, 125-126 direct off-site]

"Further Persecutions in the Valleys of Piedmont, in the seventeenth Century"…

A soldier, attempting to ravish a young woman, named Susanna Gacquin, she made a stout resistance, and in the struggle pushed him[129] over a precipice, when he was dashed to pieces by the fall.

[126, 128–129. direct off-site]

The persecution continued many years, when the remnant of the innumerable christians, with which Japan abounded, to the number of 37,000 souls, retired to the town and castle of Siniabara, in the island of Xinio, where they determined to make a stand, to continue in their faith, and to defend themselves to the very last extremity.

The Japanese army pursued the christians, and laid siege to the place. The christians defended themselves with great bravery, and held out against the besiegers for the space of three months, but were at length compelled to surrender, when men, women and children, were indiscriminately murdered; and christianity, in their martyrdoms, entirely extirpated from Japan.

[181 direct off-site