“Let there come on me fire, and cross, and struggles with wild beasts, cutting, and tearing asunder, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil, may I but attain to Jesus Christ!”
— Ignatius to the Romans, V.3
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Here in the comfortable and progressive West the word martyr has long been associated almost exclusively with a laughable psychological complex. That may be changing.
Despite all the talk about strengthening borders, we are daily being pressed on all sides by strange new influences and forces: foreign mindsets and ideologies characterized by a shocking degree of raw zeal and youthful vigor. They are adamant and determined. No wall can keep them out. Our pale, worn, groundless platitudes about “rights,” “freedom,” and “the American way” seem impotent beside them. As a result, we are discovering that martyrdom is no longer merely a thing of the gold-illuminated, rosy-tinted, and romantic medieval-religious past. It is a present and immediate reality.
A word of clarification: a martyr is not a person who straps explosives to his body and kills himself and hundreds of other innocent people in the name of some ideal. That kind of “martyrdom” is both counterfeit and cowardly.
The Greek verb martyrein means “to bear witness.” That’s exactly what a real martyr does. He speaks the truth in spite of opposition. He delivers his message again and again, even in the face of ridicule, insult, taunts, and deadly threats. If necessary, he submits to death rather than betray his Master’s call by remaining silent. And in that moment death itself becomes his clearest, loudest, and most persuasive testimony. This, too, is a crucial part of the Pilgrim Path.
George Eagles, a tailor from Essex, was both Pilgrim and martyr. Somewhere around the middle of the sixteenth century – about a hundred years before John Bunyan wrote his little book in the Bedford Gaol – Eagles decided that he had a talent for public speaking, and that it was incumbent upon him to use his gift in the service of God. Leaving his shop, he set out as an itinerant gospel preacher, tramping all over the countryside, living in the woods, sleeping in the open fields, addressing small groups in private houses and inns, speaking to anyone and everyone who would listen. In the process he earned for himself the nickname “Trudgeover-the-World” or simply “Trudgeover.” All this took place during the reign of King Edward VI – a time when there was relatively little risk associated with such undertakings.
The situation changed drastically when Edward’s sister Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) came to the throne. Mary made a law specifying that anyone found convening a gathering of more than six persons in a private or secret place was to be considered guilty of the crime of treason or sedition. In accordance with this legislation, Trudgeover was hunted down and arrested in a wheat field outside of Colchester. Two days later he was taken to London to be tried by the church authorities.
Convicted of having prayed that “God should turn Queen Mary’s heart or else take her away” (he staunchly maintained that he had prayed only for the change of heart), Eagles was bound flat to a sledge and dragged to the place of execution. From one end of this short journey to the other he did not cease to read loudly from his psalm-book. What he suffered when he reached the gallows is too gruesome to be described in detail – suffice it to say that he was, in the vernacular of the time, “hanged, drawn, and quartered.” His head was the only part of his anatomy to receive a decent burial: some sympathetic person picked it up and interred it in the churchyard one night after the wind had blown it down from the market-cross in Chelmsford.
The authorities found it fairly easy to put a stop to George Eagles’ preaching. Unfortunately, they failed to silence his witness to the truth. His story, recorded in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, has been speaking powerfully into the lives of subsequent generations of Pilgrims ever since – for more than four centuries.
It continues to speak to us today. And not the least part of its message is contained in the thought that some of us may eventually be called upon to follow in Trudgeover’s footsteps – just as many of our brothers and sisters around the world are doing at this very hour.