The Early Persecution of Christians: an Overview | Church History

The early Church suffered immense persecution from her genesis, especially in Rome and Alexandria. The degree of persecution differed depending on the emperor and rulers in charge. If persecution was not decreed by edict, there were certainly local waves of persecution. When an imperial persecution took place, it often came with the purpose of either eradicating or halting the spread of Christianity. The extent of the persecution and bloodshed in the face of the continual growth compelled an early Christian thinker by the name of Tertullian to say, “The more you mow us down, the more we grow. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Examples of waves of persecution were experienced under Maximinus Thrax c. 235, Decius c. 250, Valerian c. 257 and the Great persecution under Dioceltian c. 302. Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome were among the bishops who fell victim to the persecution of Valerian. Diocletian’s persecution was so brutal that the beginning of his reign was appointed the start of the ecclesiastical calendar adopted in Alexandria known as the calendar of the martyrs. Although such waves of persecution would end with many devout Christians shedding their blood for Christ as martyrs or confessors, others apostatized under the heavy yoke of persecution. This compelled the Church to answer questions such as: Should one actively seek martyrdom? Should one avoid martyrdom at all costs? How was the Church to treat apostates who desired to return to Church.

Theologians such as Origen of Alexandria encouraged pursuing martyrdom. As an adolescent, he sought to be martyred but because his mother hid his clothes, could not leave his house. Nevertheless he died because from wounds inflicted on him for his confession of faith in old age. Cyprian of Carthage preferred that people avoid persecution lest they succumb and apostatize. Nevertheless Cyprian would never say that a believer should deny Christ if captured as others would feign denying Christ to escape torture while continuing to believe in their hearts. Cyprian considered such deniers as apostates. When an apostate desired to return to the Church, there was a controversy as to how they ought to be received. Some insisted that they could not be accepted into the Church after having apostatized. Cyprian took a more moderate stance which required them to live in penance and not approach the chalice (or partake of the Holy Communion) until their deathbed. This controversy sparked temporary schisms in Carthage and its surrounding regions in Africa.