Note: The beginning scene is inspired by a scene from the Torchlighters episode about Perpetua. Other sources (Christian History and Salisbury) were also drawn upon.
Silence hung over the courtroom as Perpetua, a young noblewoman, faced Hilarian, the governor of Carthage.
“Sacrifice to the Emperor!” Hilarian commanded.
The face of the young woman displayed the struggle raging within. How can I forsake my son? Perpetua thought. Lord, why did you do this to me? Give me strength to remain steadfast in Your Truth. Help me carry my cross.
Suddenly, Perpetua’s father burst into the room, carrying her infant son.
“Perpetua, my daughter, please! Think of your son and his future. Do you really want to die knowing he will never have a memory of you, his very own mother?” Tears streamed down his face, his eyes imploring her to consider the consequences if she disobeyed the Emperor.
On hearing this outburst, Perpetua glanced at her father and son, smiling weakly. “I’m sorry, father. I can’t deny my Lord and Savior. Take care of my son,” she said.
“Enough!” the governor cried. He tired of the drama. “Vibia Perpetua, will you burn incense to the Emperor Severus?”
“I will not,” the woman said with firm resolve. Her face appeared serene, and she felt an overwhelming peace, even as the guards carried her off to prison.
Vibia Perpetua grew up in Carthage. She was a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and, most importantly, a Christian. Historians are not sure exactly how Perpetua came to faith, but perhaps it was through the influence of her Christian slave, Felicitas, who was one of the five people martyred with Perpetua.
Despite the fact that Carthage housed a large Christian community, doom awaited men and women who followed Christ during that time. Around the year 201, Emperor Septimius Severus ordered a decree that no person could convert to Christianity. While preparing for baptism, Perpetua and four other Christians were captured by the guards and taken to prison. While there, another Christian joined them voluntarily. When the day of the trial came, all six were brought before the governor Hilarian. When asked to recant and sacrifice to the Emperor, all six remained firm in the faith and returned to prison to await their fate.
In prison, Perpetua kept a journal, one of the oldest surviving documents written by a Christian woman. Among her entries, she described her dreams in prison, including a vision of her ascending into Heaven. She believed these visions were prophetic of her martyrdom.
Finally, the day of her martyrdom arrived. After asking someone else to record her death in her journal, Perpetua and the other prisoners were led to the arena. Although scratched countless times by wild beasts, none of the Christians were fatally wounded. Eventually, guards walked into the arena and slayed the Christians with the sword. Each accepted his or her fate willingly, counting it joy that they were persecuted for Christ’s sake.
Perpetua’s life brings up a question that Christians have long struggled with: How can God ask His followers to give up their families?
In Matthew 10:37, Jesus says “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (NKJV). When loyalty to family becomes more important than loyalty to God, God calls us to deny family and take up our cross. Perpetua was a beautiful example of this principle. Even when emotions of pain and longing to be with her family bombarded her, she knew that Christ was enough to satisfy and sustain her. Having been rescued from sin, she would not deny her Savior.
Although she went to the Lord 1814 years ago, Perpetua’s influence remains. St. Augustine, an early church father, and theologian, wrote sermons on her life, death, and faith. In addition, churches in Carthage read Perpetua’s journal annually for centuries as a memorial and testimony to one young woman’s courage and faith.
Picture: Lawrence OP via Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0.
Holy Bible. New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982.
Publishers of Christian History Magazine. “Perpetua: High Society Believer.” www.christianitytoday.com, Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/perpetua.html.
Salisbury, Joyce Ellen. “Perpetua.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc., November 10, 1999, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Perpetua-Christian-martyr.
“The Perpetua Story.” The Torchlighters: Heroes of the Faith, Vision Video, 2013. Right Now Media, https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/KidsSeries/733#1.