It was on this day, the 17th of July in 180 AD, that 12 African Christians were added to the list of the earliest church Martyrs. These Scillitan Martyrs (named after Scillium, a province in northwest Africa) had rejected the way of Empire, refused to recant their faith, and were summarily executed at the order of Proconsul Vigellius Saturninus.

Surely if we stopped to observe every martyr in the history of the church, we would never get around to anything else. There are too many to focus on at once. And so, the church calendar sought to focus the hearts and minds of the faithful on specific martyrdoms as representative of all the Saints. The story of these faithful Christians serves to highlight the roles of both Africa and martyrdom in the early church and today.

The Place of Africa in the Story of Christianity

As a 21st-Century American, I have had to readjust my perceptions of the African continent constantly. The beginning of the 20th century saw an explosion in missionary efforts to the world’s second largest continent. At that time, no region had a population comprised of more than a fraction of one percent of people who identified as Christians. The story of Africa in the 20th century is one of tragedy, mainly at the hands of misguided westerners and well-intentioned but culturally tone-deaf missionaries. It was not because of this, but in spite of this, that the transformation of Africa in the 20th century to a mostly Christian continent is a fascinating story, waiting to be told in the noble manner we once only reserved for pale-skinned missionaries.

At the end of the 20th century, most regions in Africa had Christian populations of over 90%. In late 2018, Africa became the most populous Christian continent, with over 380 million adherents. But the modern story of Christianity in Africa is not an exception to the history of the continent, as it may seem to some of us in the West, but really a discovery of a prevalent theme.

The transformation of Africa in the 20th century to a mostly Christian continent is a fascinating story, waiting to be told in the noble manner we once only reserved for pale-skinned missionaries.

That Africa would play a possibly outsized roll in the history of the Christian church should be no surprise. After all, it was Africa which first took in the Holy family as refugees during the persecution of King Herod. And, in a prescient wink to those outside the “traditional” locales of the early church, the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 foreshadows the spread of the Gospel to that part of the earth.

The story of the early church and the creation of Christian orthodoxy play out in Africa with notable characters such as Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine, to name a few. It was the “Alexandrian” theology, based in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early church which provided a helpful antidote to “Antiochene” theology (from modern Turkey) in balancing our understanding of the “two natures” in Christ.

After a century of paternalization from the West, the story of the modern African church will hopefully develop organically as did early African theology. In the early years of the 20th century, the church in Africa, and her theology was largely an extension of the western powers that funded the church. But the massive growth over the century coincides with the church testing what was biblical against what was culturally conditioned, and the beginnings of a translation of Christian theology in their own voices (for more on this topic, see How Africa Shaped the Western Mind: The African Seedbed of Western Christianity and The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy: Return to Foundations). When it comes to understanding theology globally, we don’t need to pretend to have all the same conclusions, but we certainly should want every story represented. The 12 Scillitan martyrs, who refused to recant their faith and worship the emperor, are one more example of the strength and vigor of Christ’s church in Africa.

The story is only recorded in a fragment. The proconsul of Scillium or Numidia (modern Algeria), asks the seven men and five women what has caused them to rebel against worshipping the emperor. They reply, “the books and epistles of Paul, a just man.” The emperor was seemingly unimpressed but not particularly upset, and so he gave them thirty days to reconsider and recant. These 12 replied on the spot, “never!” And then they lost their heads. That is the end of this story; just one of many that were so very common throughout the history of the church. It begs the question, why do we tell, celebrate, and revel in martyrdom? And if this is a universal impulse, is there anything particularly “Christian” about it?

The story of these martyrs is redeemed in that it is based on the story of one, particular Martyr

It seems counterintuitive to motivate those who believe the same things as you through stories of brutal torture and death about people who share in such beliefs. Still, we seem to resonate with the stories of martyrs. Perhaps it’s the drastic and final nature of the personal sacrifice, or maybe it’s disgust at the worst of humanity that makes it hard to turn away. But Christians do not hold a monopoly on martyrdom. Dying for one’s beliefs seems to be a universal, albeit rare, trait. However, the particular pattern we see in the Scillitan Martyrs story would resonate throughout the centuries. The story of the African Martyrs has parallels to the story of Daniel’s friends in the furnace (Daniel 6), Jesus before Pilate (John 18) and Paul before the authorities (throughout Acts). We find the biblical and historical record replete with this example. The response from the faithful may include a resolute belief in the face of danger, refusal to recant, and ultimately, silence in imitation of Christ. You can read the entire, but short, tale of the Scillitan Martyrs here.

The story of these martyrs is redeemed in that it is based on the story of one, particular Martyr. It is his death that makes Christian martyrdom peculiar. And only by this Martyr can we be redeemed. For it is impossible by the blood of bulls, goats (or even the holiest of mortal martyrs) to take away the sins of the world (Heb. 10:4). And so we remember the Scillitan Martyrs and all others who proclaim their only hope in life and death through the blood of the Ultimate Martyr who has won rest for each of us.