When we think of the early church, our minds focus on the Church Fathers. Sadly, we normally fail even to consider the Church Mothers. Yet, these godly women heroically waged spiritual warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Their loses and their victories, their pain and their joy, their walk with Christ and their journey with one another are all an inheritance from which each of us are eligible to draw. There is a mighty company of gallant women believers from whom we can learn.
Vibia Perpetua (181-203) heads that company. The early Church preserved her manuscript, The Martyrdom of Perpetua, because it is one of the oldest and most descriptive accounts of death for Christ. It is also the earliest known document written by a Christian woman.
Anyone who has ever suffered for the faith or has been oppressed by the powerful can carry on a conversation and feel a bond with Perpetua. In fact, in the introduction to her story, we read that it was “written expressly for God’s honor and man’s encouragement” to testify to the grace of God and to edify God’s grace-bought people.
Of course, even reading the word “martyr” likely causes us to imagine that Perpetua was a spiritual “super woman” whose life and ministry we could not possibly emulate. The story of her life, however, demonstrates just the opposite.
The Story of Her Life
Perpetua lived in Carthage in North Africa during the persecution of Christians under Septimius Severus. At the time of her arrest in 202 AD, she was a twenty-one-year-old mother of an infant son. Born into a wealthy, prominent, but unbelieving family, she was a recent convert with a father who continually attempted to weaken her faith and a husband who was, for reasons unknown to us, out of the picture. Nothing in Perpetua’s situation or background prepared her for the titanic spiritual struggle God called her to face.
Perpetua, her brother, her servant (Felicitas), and two other new converts were discipled by Saturus. We learn from Perpetua of the arrest of all these faithful followers of Christ.
“At this time we were baptized and the Spirit instructed me not to request anything from the baptismal waters except endurance of physical suffering. A few days later we were imprisoned.”
A Light in the Darkness: Experiencing the Pain of Others
Perpetua candidly faces her fears and expresses her suffering.
“I was terrified because never before had I experienced such darkness. What a terrible day! Because of crowded conditions and rough treatment by the soldiers the heat was unbearable. My condition was aggravated by my anxiety for my baby.”
This very human woman exudes superhuman strength. In the midst of her agony, she empathizes with and consoles others. Her father, completely exhausted from his anxiety, came from the city to beg Perpetua to recant and offer sacrifice to the emperor.
“I was very upset because of my father’s condition. He was the only member of my family who would find no reason for joy in my suffering. I tried to comfort him saying, ‘Whatever God wants at this tribunal will happen, for remember that our power comes not from ourselves but from God.’ But utterly dejected, my father left me.”
“As If” Empathy
On the day of Perpetua’s final hearing before being martyred for her faith in 203 AD, the guards rushed Perpetua to the prisoners’ platform. Her father appeared with her infant son, guilting her and imploring her to “have pity on your son!” He caused such an uproar, that Governor Hilarion ordered him thrown out, and he was beaten with a rod.
Perpetua writes of this horrible incident.
“My father’s injury hurt me as much as if I myself had been beaten. And I grieved because of his pathetic old age.”
Perpetua provides a classic portrait of biblical empathy. Her as if experience of her father’s pain is the essence of sustaining soul care—making the agony of others our very own.
The Rest of the Story
Return for Part 2 of Perpetua’s story to learn of her perpetual faith in Christ.
Join the Conversation
Why do you think that so much of church history focuses on “dead white males” and minimizes or ignores the contribution of so many godly women?
Note: I’ve developed the following blog post from the book I co-authored with Susan Ellis: Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith. This book shares the amazing narratives of over fifty godly Christian women. Read a free sample chapter here.