The Demographics of Martyrdom

Dr. Todd M. Johnson

Note: This article was condensed from Part 4, “Martyrology,” in Barrett and Johnson, World Christian Trends (WCT). The compilation of data on Christian martyrs in all countries over the 20 centuries of Christian history is found in two large tables in WCT: Table 4–10 describing 600 major martyrdom situations in 150 countries, A.D. 33–2000; and Table 4–11, “Alphabetical listing of 2,500 known Christian martyrs, A.D. 332000.” Country-by-country statistics of martyrdom can be found at www.worldchristiandatabase.org. A version of this article was published in Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in the Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom edited by William D. Taylor, Antonia van der Meer and Reg Reimer (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012).

Throughout Christian history, across all traditions of Christianity, and in every part of the world, some 70 million Christians have been murdered for their faith and hence are called martyrs. 

Origin of the Word “Martyr”

The English word “martyr” is derived from the Greek martys, which carries the meaning “witness” in English. In New Testament usage, it meant “a witness to the resurrection of Christ.” This witness resulted so frequently in death that by the end of the 1st century, martys had come to mean a Christian who witnessed to Christ by his or her death. This enlarged meaning has become the accepted norm throughout church history.

Definition of Terms

For a quantitative analysis of martyrdom, Christian martyrs are defined as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.” This definition has five essential elements:

  1. Believers in Christ.” These individuals come from the entire Christian community of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans, Marginal Christians and Independents. By A.D. 2010, more than 2.2 billion individuals were deemed Christians, and since the time of Christ more than 8.5 billion have believed in Christ.
  2. Lost their lives.” The definition is restricted to Christians actually put to death, for whatever reason.
  3. Prematurely.” Martyrdom is sudden, abrupt, unexpected, unwanted.
  4. In situations of witness.” “Witness” in this definition does not mean only public testimony or proclamation concerning the risen Christ. It refers to the entire lifestyle and way of life of the Christian believer, whether or not he or she is actively proclaiming at the time of being killed.
  5. As a result of human hostility.” This excludes deaths through accidents, crashes, earthquakes and other “acts of God,” illnesses or other causes of death, however tragic.

It is important to note that this definition omits a criterion considered essential by many churches in their martyrologies—“heroic sanctity,” by which is meant saintly life and fearless stance. Those are certainly essential for a martyrology if it is to have compelling educational and inspirational value for church members under persecution, and in particular for new converts. Heroic sanctity is, however, not essential to the demographic definition, because many Christians have been killed shortly after their conversions and before they had any chance to develop Christian character, holiness or courage.

More Detailed Definition

A more complex definition sees martyrs as Christians whose loyalty and witness to Christ (as witnesses to the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and also as legal witnesses to, and advocates for, the claims of Christ in God’s cosmic lawsuit against the world) lead directly or indirectly to a confrontation or clash with hostile opponents (either non-Christians, or Christians of another persuasion) as a result of their either (1) being Christians, or (2) being part of a Christian body or community, or (3) being Christian workers, or (4) averring the truth of Christianity, or (5) holding to some Christian tenet or principle or practice, or (6) holding to Christian tenets different from their opponents, or (7) speaking for Christ, or (8) refusing to deny Christ or their Christian convictions; which then results in violence and in their voluntarily or involuntarily losing their lives prematurely.

Violence can include shedding their blood, being put to death, executed, assassinated, killed, stoned, clubbed to death, beheaded, guillotined, garroted, strangled, stabbed, eaten alive, gassed, injected, electrocuted, suffocated, boiled in oil, roasted alive, drowned, torched, burned, massacred, crucified, lynched, hanged, shot, murdered, pushed under oncoming traffic, immured, buried alive, crushed to death, poisoned, drugged to death, starved, deprived of medication, chemically or electronically killed, killed extrajudicially, killed under torture, killed due to beatings, killed in custody, killed in prison, killed soon after release from prison, or allowed or left to die. Any of these may take place with or without prior demand or opportunity to recant.

Note that (6) above means that most Christians killed as alleged “heretics” down the ages should correctly be included in demographic enumerations of martyrs. Item (3) above also includes vocational Christian workers killed while engaged in ministry, or who lose their lives because they happen to be in the path of violence (this includes workers killed by robbers, soldiers, police, etc). Note also that the definition of demographic martyrdom includes those children and infants who lose their lives along with adult martyrs.

Counting Martyrs

The basic method for counting martyrs in Christian history is to list “martyrdom situations” at particular points in time. A martyrdom situation is defined as “mass or multiple martyrdoms at one point in Christian history.” It is then determined how many of the people killed in that situation fit the definition of martyr outlined above. (This is explained in more detail in World Christian Trends.) Note that in any situation of mass deaths or killing of Christians, one does not automatically or necessarily define the entire total of those killed as martyrs, but only that fraction whose deaths resulted from some form of Christian witness, individual or collective. For example, our analysis does not equate “crusaders” with “martyrs,” but simply states that during the Crusades, a number of zealous and overzealous Christians were in fact martyred as defined under “Definitions” above.

Likewise, in Latin America in the 1980s, we do not count as martyrs all Christians who became victims of political killings, but only those whose situations involved Christian witness. Typical illustrations of the latter include the vast number of cases of an entire congregation singing hymns as soldiers lock their church’s doors and proceed to burn it to the ground with no survivors.

One adjustment to the total is to include “background martyrs,” or those very small or isolated or individual situations. They cover cases where a Christian is killed as a result of human hostility, but where the circumstances have nothing directly or immediately to do with organized Christianity.

Martyrdom is Not Exclusively an Early Christian Phenomenon

Martyrdom comes about because of persecution and results in a death that is in itself a witness for Christ. In the early church, the idea developed that it was not enough to be called a Christian; one had to show proof. That proof was normally some kind of verbal acknowledgement (“witness”) of identification with Christ, starting with the confession “Jesus is Lord.” Baumeister writes: “Dying because one is a Christian is the action par excellence in which the disciple who is called to this confirms his or her faith by following the example of Jesus’ suffering and through action is able once again to become a word with power to speak to others.” Eventually confessors were distinguished from martyrs.

When most Christians hear the word “martyr,” they tend to think of the Roman persecution of early Christians. The Ecclesia Martyrum, or Church of the Martyrs, often is thought to refer only to the earliest period of church history, the 10 imperial Roman persecutions. This is not the case. Martyrdom is a consistent feature of church history and occurs in every Christian tradition and confession. One can see that all of the 10 largest martyrdom situations in Table 1 occurred in the second millennium of the Christian faith. The rate of martyrdom across the world throughout the ages has been a remarkably constant 0.8 percent. One out of every 120 Christians in the past has been martyred, or in the future is likely to so be.



Table 1: Top 10 martyrdom situations in Christian history ranked by size.

Why are There Martyrs?

According to Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff, they exist for two reasons: (1) Christians prefer to sacrifice their lives rather than to be unfaithful to their convictions, and (2) people who reject proclamation persecute, torture and kill (Metz 1983). This general presence of evil in the world, combined with Christian devotion, is at the root of martyrdom. When we examine a list of martyrs down the ages, as comprehensive as is known today, some startling findings emerge. Table 1 provides a list of the 10 largest known martyrdom situations ranked by size. Note that over 20 million were martyred in Soviet prison camps, and that well over half of the 70 million Christian martyrs were killed in the 20th century alone. Even though state-ruling powers (atheists and others) are responsible for most martyrdom, closer examination of the entire list of martyrdom situations reveals that Christians themselves have been the persecutors responsible for martyring 5.5 million other Christians.

Table 2 reveals that over half of all martyrs have been Orthodox Christians. One partial explanation for this is the vast anti-Christian empires throughout history centered in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Nonetheless, all Christian traditions have suffered martyrdom.

A Potential Impact of Martyrdom

In some countries, one finds that martyrdom was followed by church growth. A contemporary example is the church in China. In 1949, there were only one million Christians. Fifty years of antireligious Communist rule produced some 1.2 million martyrs. The result: explosive church growth to today’s 100 million believers. Today, major martyrdom situations continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Indonesia, Nigeria and other hot spots around the globe.

Limitations of This Model of Counting Martyrs

Defining and enumerating martyrs in the widest possible sense has both limitations and advantages over other methods. First, it is limited because it leaves out questions of quality, such as holy lifestyle (mentioned above) or theological persuasion of Christian martyrs. Second, it reports on martyrdom from a purely demographic lens, leaving out thousands of fascinating stories and anecdotes. Fortunately, these are not in short supply in other publications.

Two advantages can also be highlighted here. First, due to extensive coding of martyrdom situations (available in World Christian Trends), it allows for a selective approach to the data, addressing questions such as “How many Roman Catholic martyrs were there in South America in the 19th century?” Second, this approach resists fragmentation by placing all Christian martyrs in the same global phenomenon.

Table 2: Confessions of martyrs, totals from AD. 33-2000

The Future of Martyrdom

One might be tempted to believe that mankind will gradually grow out of its violent nature, and that perhaps 100 years in the future, people will no longer be killing others, for whatever reason. However, this is unlikely to be the case. The future almost certainly holds more martyrdom situations, and the names of individual martyrs are likely to continue mounting year after year.

Dr. Todd M. Johnson is the Associate Professor of Global Christianity and Director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA. He is co-author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2001) and co-editor of the Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).