Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 1: Background: Saints and Martyrs

In Christianity, the term "saints" originally referred to "all believers"—as in the hymn, For All the Saints. But the meaning of saint changed during the Roman Empire's persecution of Christians, and "martyr" became the prototype of saint. Even this word, martyr, needs some unpacking, for the root meaning of martyr is "witness." As martyrs and saints became increasingly important to the Christian faith, so, too, did their "sacrifice," a word which means "to make sacred." Today, the Catholic Church canonizes individuals as saints who were not martyred. So, in thinking about our religious ancestors who died because of their beliefs, we will wrestle with a range of words including "believer," "saint," "martyr," "sacrifice," and "witness."

In considering our martyrs, remember:

1. It is impossible to completely untangle the cultural, political, and religious motives of a martyr or of a persecutor. Virtually all martyrdoms have a political element, especially in any historical time when civic and religious authorities overlap.

2. Not all, nor even most, martyrs seem to have voluntarily sought death. Rather, it seems most martyrs faced their deaths heroically when they were unable to turn from their conscience, or truth, or belief—that is, when they were witnessing to their faith.