Tracts for the Times/Record XII

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Dec. 17, 1833.]


RECORDS OF THE CHURCH.

No. XII.


THE HOLY CHURCH THROUGHOUT ALL THE WORLD DOTH ACKNOWLEDGE THEE.




The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Disciple of St. John, and Bishop of Smyrna.


Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and Martyr, was a disciple of St. John; he was placed over the Church at Smyrna by the Apostle, and presided in it at least seventy years. Some persons have supposed that he was the "Angel," or Bishop, of Smyrna mentioned in Rev. ii. 8–11. Shortly after St. John's death, he was visited by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who had as well as himself attended the teaching of St. John, and was then on his way to martyrdom at Rome. It was from Smyrna that Ignatius wrote several of his Epistles, especially that to the Romans; and, when he had left the place, and got as far as Troas, he wrote his Epistles to Polycarp and the Church at Smyrna. We owe it to Polycarp that these important Epistles were preserved to after-ages.

Among the disciples of Polycarp was Irenæus, who was Bishop of Lyons in France, after Pothinus, his predecessor, had been martyred in the great persecution there[1]. He gives the following account of his Master in one of his works. "I remember," he says, "what happened when I was a boy, more vividly than what takes place now; for what we learn in our youth grows up with us, and at last becomes part of our mind itself. Thus I can describe even the place, where the sainted Polycarp used to sit and discourse, and his goings forth, and comings in, and his manner of life, and his personal appearance, and his discourses to the people; and his account of what passed between him and St. John, and the other Disciples who had seen the Lord; and his recollections of the sayings of those who were eye-witnesses of the Word of Life, of their account of His miracles, and His teaching, which was all agreeable to what is related in the Scriptures. To all this I used to listen with earnestness, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, recording them, not on paper, but in my heart; and through God's grace I ever have them accurately in mind." Irenæus says this, when writing against a friend of his, who had been formerly taught by Polycarp, but had fallen away from the true faith into heresy. He adds; "I protest in the sight of God, that if that Blessed and Apostolical Elder had heard any such doctrine as thine, Florinus, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and said after his manner; 'O my God, unto what times hast thou reserved me, that I should hear such words!' and would have even fled the place in which he had heard them."

So far Irenæus. Now let us hear the account of Polycarp's Martyrdom, which took place under the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, A. D. 169.


Epistle from the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium.

The Church of God which dwelleth in Smyrna to the Church of God which dwelleth in Philomelium, and all the members, in every place, of the Holy Catholic Church, mercy, peace, and love, from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.

We have written to you, brethren, the history of those who have been martyred, and more particularly of the blessed Polycarp, who closed the persecution, setting a seal as it were upon it by his own martyrdom. For almost all that happened before was done, that the Lord from on high might in him set forth to us this example of a true Christian confession. For he abode where he was, as also our Lord did, that he might be delivered up, in order that we too might be followers of him, and not look only to our own good, but to the good of our neighbours also; for it is the part of a sincere and stedfast charity for a man to desire not only his own salvation, but also of all the brethren.

Noble, therefore, and blessed are all those testimonies, which have been offered up according to God's will; (for to God must we with especial reverence attribute the power over all things;) for who but must admire their nobleness, their endurance, their faithfulness to their Lord? For when torn with scourges, till their whole frame, even to the veins and arteries within, was laid open, they bore it so patiently, that the very bystanders pitied and bewailed them; yet they had attained to such a noble spirit, that not one of them uttered a cry or a groan himself, showing plainly to us, that in that hour of torment Christ's witnesses were absent from the flesh, or rather that our Lord stood near and held converse with them; and they, intent on Christ's favour, despised this world's torments, that they might by one hour's anguish purchase redemption from eternal chastisement. The fire of their cruel tormentors felt cold to them, for they had before their eyes the fleeing from the eternal fire that never shall be quenched, and with the eyes of their heart they looked to the good things reserved for them that endure; the things which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have they entered into the heart of man; but which were already half shown by the Lord to them, who were men no more, but already angels. In like manner also did those who were condemned to the wild beasts endure long time, in their confinement, fearful punishments; for they lay long stretched on sharp shells, and were buffeted with divers other torments, that, if he were able, the tyrant might by continued punishment turn them to a denial of the faith.

For many were the contrivances which the Devil wrought against them; but, (thanks be to God,) he prevailed not over them. For the heroic Germanicus gave courage to their fearfulness by the patient endurance that was in him; who fought with the wild beasts notably: for when the Proconsul endeavoured to persuade him, and besought him to compassionate his years, he provoked the animal, and drew it upon himself, wishing to be sooner freed from an unjust and lawless race. Upon this the whole multitude were struck with wonder at the Christians' noble love and devotion to their God, and shouted, "Away with the godless men, look for Polycarp."

But one Phrygian, Quintus by name, who had newly arrived from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, played the coward; yet this was the man who had prevailed on himself and others to offer themselves voluntarily for apprehension. Him the Proconsul, after much urging, persuaded to take the oath and offer sacrifice: wherefore, brethren, we commend not those who give themselves up, since the Gospel doth not so teach.

Now the truly admirable Polycarp, when he first heard of these clamours, was nowise troubled, but wished to remain in the city. The greater part of us, however, persuaded him to withdraw, and he withdrew to a small villa, not far distant from the city, and there remained with a few brethren, doing nothing else, night and day, but praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, as was his practice. And as he prayed, three days before his apprehension, he saw his pillow, in a vision, on fire. Turning therefore to those who were with him, he said prophetically, "I must be burnt alive."

His pursuers persevering in their endeavours, he removed to another villa; and immediately they came to the first place, and when they found him not, they took hold of two young slaves, one of whom being put to the torture confessed. And truly it was impossible that he should remain concealed, when they who betrayed him were his own servants: and the Irenarch[2], who is also called the Distributor of lots, Herod by name, hastened to bring him to the theatre, that Polycarp might accomplish his lot, being made partaker of Christ; but they who betrayed him might undergo the penalties of Judas.

Taking therefore the lad with them, on the day of preparation, about the hour of supper, the search-officers and horsemen set forth with their ordinary weapons, as though they were pursuing a felon; and entering late in the evening, they found him lying down in a small chamber at the top of the house. From thence he might have got away to another place, but would not, saying, "The Lord's will be done;" but, on hearing that they were come, he descended from his chamber, and conversed with them. And they who were there marvelling at his age and vigour, some said, "Was there such a mighty work about arresting an old man like this?" And he gave orders immediately to set before them meat and drink as much as they would, and besought them to give him an hour's free space to pray. And when they permitted him, standing up he prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that for two whole hours he could not cease; and they that heard him were astonished, and many repented that they had come out against such a divine old man.

After he had done praying, having made mention of all with whom he had ever met, great and small, noble and obscure, and of the whole Catholic Church throughout the world; when the hour of going forth arrived, they set him on an ass, and led him into the city, it being the day of the great Sabbath. As he went, the Irenarch Herod and his father Nicetes, who were driving forth, happened to meet him, and transferred him into their chariot; and sitting by him argued with him, saying, "What harm is there in saying. Lord Cæsar? and in sacrificing, and so saving your life?" with the other usual sort of arguments. At first he gave them no answer: but on their persevering he only said, "I will not do what you counsel me." So they, when they found their endeavours to persuade him fruitless, railed at him, and pushed him down from the chariot so hastily, that in his descent his shin was laid open. But he, nowise moved, passed on readily and speedily as though he had received no injury, being led by the attendants to the theatre.

As he entered it, though the tumult there was so great that many heard not, a voice came to Polycarp from Heaven, "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man[3]." Him that spake, not one of us saw; but the voice, those of ourselves who were present heard. On his being led to the tribunal, there was immense clamour at the news that Polycarp had been apprehended. At last, when he was brought near, the Proconsul asked him, if he were Polycarp; and, on his acknowledging it, he began to persuade him to deny the faith, saying, "Compassionate thine years;" and other similar expressions, which it is their wont to use. "Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; think better of the matter; say, Away with the godless men[4]." But Polycarp regarded with a sad countenance the whole multitude of lawless heathen in the theatre; and waving his hand towards them, groaned, and looking up to Heaven said, "Away with the godless men." And when the Governor urged him further, and said, "Swear, and I will dismiss thee; revile Christ;" Polycarp replied; "Eighty and six[5] years have I been his servant, and he hath wronged me in nothing, and how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour." And on his pressing him again, saying, "Swear by the fortune of Cæsar," Polycarp replied; "If ye vainly suppose that I shall swear by Cæsar's fortune, as ye call it, pretending to be ignorant of my real character, let me tell you plainly, I am a Christian; and if ye wish to hear the Christian doctrine, appoint me a time, and hear me." The Proconsul answered, "Persuade the people." Polycarp replied, "To you I thought it right to give account, for we have been taught to give to rulers and the powers ordained of God such fitting honour as hurteth not our souls; but them I deem not worthy, that I should defend myself before them." The Proconsul said unto him, "I have wild beasts in readiness, to them will I throw thee, if thou wilt not change thy mind." But he said, "Bring them forth then, for the change of mind from better to worse I will never make. From cruelty to righteousness it were good to change." Again he said unto him, "I will have thee consumed by fire, since thou despisest the wild beasts, except thou change thy mind." Polycarp answered; "Thou threatenest me with a fire that burneth for an hour, and is speedily quenched; for thou knowest not of the fire of future judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring what thou wilt."

As he spake these and other words, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was overspread with grace; so that not only was he not overthrown and confounded with what was said to him, but the Proconsul on the contrary was wonderstruck, and sent the herald to proclaim three times in the middle of the Stadium, that Polycarp had confessed himself to be a Christian. When this had been announced by the herald, the whole multitude, both of Gentiles and of Jews, who were settled in Smyrna, shouted with uncontrollable rage, and in a loud voice, "This man is the teacher of all Asia, the father of the Christians, who pulleth down our gods, who teacheth many neither to pay incense nor homage to them." With these words they called upon Philip, the Asiarch[6], to let out a lion upon Polycarp. But he answered, he could not do that, as the show of wild beasts was concluded. Then it occurred to them with one accord, to demand that he should burn Polycarp alive. For it was necessary that the vision which had been shewn to him upon his pillow should be fulfilled; when he saw it on fire as he prayed, and turned to the believers who were with him, and prophetically declared, "I must needs be burnt alive."

This, therefore, was no sooner said than done, for the multitude collected immediately wood and faggots from the shops and the baths, the Jews especially, as is their wont, being very zealous in assisting to this end. But, when the pile was ready, without any aid he laid aside his garments, and after unloosing his girdle, endeavoured to unbind his sandals too, a thing he had never done before, because that each of the faithful was ever pressing to be the first to touch his person. For he had ever been highly honoured on account of his virtuous conversation, even before his head had grown hoary.

Straightway then they arranged about his person all that was requisite[7] for the pile. But when they were about also to nail him to the stake, he said, "Leave me as I am, for He who giveth me to endure the fire, will also give me power, without the security of your nails, to remain untroubled upon the pile." They forbore, therefore, to nail him, but only bound him with cords. He therefore placed his hands behind him, and being bound to the stake even as the chief ram taken from a large flock, to be a burnt offering acceptable to God, lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, "O Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy well-beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have attained to the knowledge of Thee; Thou God of Angels and of Powers, and of every creature, and of the whole generation of the just who live before Thee; I bless Thee that Thou hast accounted me worthy of this day and hour, that I might receive my portion in the number of thy witnesses, and drink of the cup[8] of Thine Anointed, unto the resurrection of both body and soul unto eternal life through the incorruption of the Holy Spirit; amongst which blessed martyrs may I be accepted before Thee this day for a rich and acceptable sacrifice, even as Thou hast foreordained, foreshewn, and now accomplished, the true and unfailing God. For this and for all Thy doings I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy well-beloved Son, through whom be glory to Thee with Him in the Holy Spirit, both now and for evermore. Amen."

And when he had pronounced in a loud voice his Amen, having finished his prayer, they whose office it was kindled the fire, and a great flame flashed forth; and we, to whom the sight was vouchsafed, beheld truly a mighty marvel, who have been to this end preserved, that we might declare to the rest the things which were done. For the fire taking the shape of a dome, like the sail of a ship when filled with wind, compassed all round the body of the martyr; and he appeared in the middle, not like burning flesh, but like gold and silver tried in the furnace. Yea, we perceived too such a sweet odour as from the breath of frankincense, or some other precious perfume.

In the end, therefore, when the ungodly saw that his body could not be consumed of the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near to him, and thrust his sword into him. Which when he had done, there issued forth such a stream of blood, that it quenched the fire; and all the multitude marvelled that there was such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. Of them was this man one, and the most remarkable in all our time, being Bishop of the Catholic Church that is in Smyrna, and an Apostolic and prophetic Teacher. For never word came from his mouth, but it has been, or shall be fulfilled.

But the envious and wicked Adversary of the generation of the righteous, when he saw the mightiness of his testimony, and his blameless conversation from the first, and how that he was now crowned with the crown of immortality, and had borne away a prize that could not be spoken against, contrived that his poor body might not be obtained by us, though many much desired to secure it, and to communicate[9] over his holy remains. For some suggested to Nicetes, the father of Herod, and brother of Alce, that he should persuade the governor not to give up his body, "lest," said he, "they leave the Crucified and take to worshipping this fellow." And these things they said, as instigated and supported by the Jews, who even watched us when some of us were about to take his body from the fire, for they little knew how impossible it was for us either to forsake the worship of Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of them that be saved, or to pay worship to any other. For to Him truly we pay adoration, forasmuch as He was the Son of God; but the martyrs, as the disciples and followers of the Lord, we revere as they deserve, for their incomparable loyalty to their King and Master, praying that we may be made their partners and their fellow-disciples.

Then the centurion, seeing the earnestness of the Jews, laid out the body and burnt it, as was their custom; and so we afterwards gathered up his bones, more valued than stones of much price, and purer than fine gold, and laid them up in a fitting treasure-house. There assembling, as we may, in joy and in triumph, the Lord shall grant unto us to celebrate the birth-day[10] of his martyrdom, both to the remembering of them who wrestled before in the cause, and the training and preparing of those that shall come after.

Such is the story of the blessed Polycarp, who, being, (with them of Philadelphia,) the twelfth who has given his testimony in Smyrna, is made alone the especial subject of all men, so that even by the Gentiles is he spoken of in every place, having been not only a notable teacher, but also a chief witness; whose confession, rendered as it was according to the Gospel of Christ, all men desire to imitate. For by his patient endurance he triumphed over the unjust ruler, and thus having won the garland of immortality, and rejoicing with the Apostles, and all Saints, he glorifieth God and the Father and blesseth our Lord, who is both the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.

Ye requested, therefore, that these circumstances should be detailed to you at length, and we have now briefly signified them through our brother Marcus. Therefore after ye have understood these things, send our letter about to our brethren also in the regions beyond you, that they too may glorify the Lord, who maketh choice out of His own servants, who is able by His grace and free gift to bring all of you unto His eternal kingdom, through His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, to whom be glory, honour, dominion and greatness, for ever. Amen. Salute ye all the Saints. They that are with us salute you; and Evarestus, who hath written this, with all his house.

The blessed Polycarp gave his testimony on the 2nd of the month Xanthicus, on the 26th of March, on the Great Sabbath[11], at the eighth hour. He was apprehended by Herod, in the High Priesthood of Philip of Tralles, in the proconsulship of Stratius Quadratus, in the everlasting reign of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory, honour, greatness, and a throne eternal, from generation to generation. Amen.

We pray you brethren to be strong, walking by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, (with whom be glory to God, both Father and Holy Spirit, for the salvation of the elect Saints,) even as the blessed Polycarp suffered, in whose steps may we be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.



This letter Gaius took from Irenæus, the disciple of Polycarp, being himself also a friend of Irenæus.




And I Socrates, of Corinth, have transcribed it from the copy of Gaius. Grace be with all men.




And I, again, Pionius have copied from the above written, Polycarp himself in a vision having shewed me where the manuscripts were, as I shall declare in the sequel, after I had long sought for them; and so I gathered them, when now by length of time almost worn out, that so the Lord Jesus Christ may gather me also with his elect; to whom be glory, with Father and Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.




Thus ends this ancient history. It appears that one Pionius suffered martyrdom at the same place Smyrna, in the Decian persecution, which happened eighty years after this in which Polycarp suffered. The name and death of this martyr are mentioned by Eusebius in connection with that of Polycarp, and it seems probable that the full account of his sufferings was appended to the MS. which has been here translated. We may therefore infer, that this was the man, who had so diligently and faithfully transcribed the history of his fellow-countryman, and that having carefully conned his sacred lesson, and thus given courage to his fearfulness, and strength to his weakness, he at length by God's grace was enabled to withstand the like tortures, "not accepting the deliverance, that he might obtain a better resurrection."



These Tracts may be had at Turrill's, No. 250, Regent Street, London.

KING, PRINTER, ST. CLEMENT'S, OXFORD.

  1. Vid. Records, No. vi.
  2. This office seems to have answered to that of Provost Marshal.
  3. "Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley's feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man, we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'"—Fox's Book of Martyrs.
  4. Literally, Atheists; for such, because they denied the heathen deities, the Christians were called; and such, because they denied the one true god, Polycarp terms the unbelievers.
  5. This must not be understood of his age, (for then he could have been only seventeen when St. John died, and consequently could not have been conscecrated Bishop by him, as is almost universally believed,) but of his conversion to Christianity.
  6. Not the Proconsul, for his name was Quadiatus, but as it appears below, the Pagan High Priest, to whom it had fallen to provide the wild beasts, and shows of gladiators, on that occasion.
  7. That is, probably, the shirt besmeared with pitch and tar, in which we elsewhere learn it was usual to clothe the Christian confessors, the stake to which they were fastened, and the cords used so to fasten them.
  8. Matt. xx. 22, 23. xxvi. 39, 42. John xviii. 11.
  9. That is, probably, to meet for prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist with the body in their sight. The same feeling has shewn itself almost in all ages, in the interment of the dead in the church and churchyard.
  10. The Church always celebrated the day of martyrdom as that on which the Saint was truly born, and not what we call the birth-day. The following translation from an old writer may serve to explain this view. "We celebrate not the day of birth, since it is the entrance to sorrow and all trials; but it is the day of death we celebrate, as the lying down of all sorrows, and the escape from all trials. We celebrate the day of death, because these die not when they seem to die."—Comment, in Job. Lib. 3.
  11. There is some doubt what this great sabbath was; but it seems most probable that it was that which came between the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, a fitting time for His followers to enter into His rest.