Think of your mother, your brother, your aunt. Please, Perpetua, think of me, your aging father. But most of all, think of your little baby!"
Perpetua agonized over the pain she was causing her father. She and four others, including her slave girl Felicitas, were in jail in Carthage in North Africa. The charge against them: They were Christians.
It was around the year 200 AD The Roman emperor Septimus Severus was cracking down on traitors. And those Christians showed a dangerous lack of loyalty. They wouldn't offer incense to the Roman gods--even under threat of death.
The Romans really didn't want martyrs. It was all so simple, as they saw it, only a sacrifice to the official gods, a patriotic gesture, kind of like a salute to the flag. Surely this young woman, from a well-respected family, would see the sense of it and comply. But Perpetua held firm. As a Christian, she felt that offering the required sacrifice was the same as denying that Jesus was the one and only Lord.
A New Mother
Perpetua was about 22 years old and had recently given birth to a son. Apparently, she was a relatively new Christian, too--she was actually baptized while in prison. Felicitas, her slave girl, was like a sister to her. And she too was a new mother, giving birth shortly after her arrest.
Three times Perpetua's father was allowed in to beg her to change her mind. No decent daughter in this patriarchal society would deny her father's pleas and cause him public disgrace.
The resolve of the two young women and their friends was unshakable. To deny Christ was worse than death. To follow Him was their first loyalty, no matter what the cost. Shortly before her trial, Perpetua received a series of visions from the Lord, reassuring her of his strength and presence.
When the fatal day came, Perpetua and Felicitas left the prison for the arena "joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven," as the eyewitness account puts it. Before a raging crowd, the Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. A mad heifer charged the women and tossed them, but Perpetua rose and helped Felicitas to her feet. She was ready, even eager, to die for the Lord.
"You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another," she called to the other martyrs, "and do not be weakened by what we have gone through!" When the beasts failed to kill the women, soldiers came to finish them off. But the soldier who came to Perpetua was trembling so much that she had to guide the sword to her throat, indicating that she was giving her life willingly.
These two young women, new in the faith, quickly became heroines, examples for Christians everywhere. Even today, we can be inspired by their uncompromising faithfulness to the Lord.
Perpetua was an educated woman, fluent in Latin and Greek. Our knowledge of her prison experience comes from a diary that she kept. (Other believers added the details of her execution.) Hers is thought to be the first writing that we have, done by a Christian woman.
Still a Lady
After she was thrown to the ground by the heifer, her clothing ripped, Perpetua modestly covered herself and asked if she could have a hairpin. She fixed her hair to avoid an unkempt appearance that might suggest she was in mourning.
Perpetua stunned Roman society when she denied her father's plea that she renounce her faith. Young women, especially in noble families, were expected to obey their fathers. But Christianity established a new family, the church. Perpetua's loyalty to the Body of Christ and to her heavenly Father superseded any obligations to her natural family and her human father. The support of their new family, the church, assured both Perpetua and Felicitas that their infants would be cared for.
What's in a Name?
Two centuries later, Augustine pointed out the significance of the names of these two martyrs. Joined together, perpetua felicitas means "everlasting happiness," which is exactly what they received.
What About Now?
Although we think of the first three hundred years of the church as a time of extreme persecution, there have actually been more martyrs for Christ in the last fifty years of the twentieth century than in the first 300 years of the church.
At Peace in Prison
After her baby was brought to her in the dungeon, Perpetua wrote, "All at once I regained my health, relieved of my worry and anxiety about the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else."
Slave and Sister
How could Perpetua, a Christian, own a slave? The fact is Christianity did not immediately attack the institution of slavery. It did something more basic. The church taught a new way of looking at all people -- including slaves -- as equally beloved and free in Christ, thereby undermining the foundation of slavery. Thus the two women acted as sisters to each other.