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date: 29 March 2023

Martyrdom and Religion in North Americafree

Martyrdom and Religion in North Americafree

  • Adrian Chastain WeimerAdrian Chastain WeimerProvidence College


In American history, venerating a death as martyrdom has been a way of claiming its significance within a narrative of ultimate victory. The words for martyr in both Greek and Arabic literally mean “witness”: martyrs’ willingness to die is a form of witness to the truth of a tradition. Figures claimed as martyrs in American history from the Mormon leader Joseph Smith to Baptist civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have often prophesied their own deaths, embracing the hope that their sacrifice will inspire zeal in others. Religious communities in North America have commemorated martyrs through stories, paintings, shrines, maps, monuments, poetry, liturgy, and theological reflections. The category of martyrdom tends to become more diffuse over time. Moving beyond a strict definition of death for the faith, Americans have used the language of martyrdom to find spiritual significance in a range of physical and interior sufferings. For example, both French Canadian nuns and New England puritans claimed their daily colonial sufferings as a form of martyrdom. Narratives of martyrdom have also played an important role in political movements such as the anti-lynching crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martyr language can even push the boundaries of what constitutes religion itself. In the 20th century, the suffering of American jazz musicians, denied civil rights, has been described as martyrdom. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom, the term has often been associated with terrorism. Debates about justifications for violence in the Qur’an and the true meaning of jihad have taken place among politicians, religious leaders, and academic scholars. This intense focus on Islamic theology of martyrdom has led both to widespread suspicion of Muslims (and those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent generally) as well as to new ecumenical commitments to a shared ethic of loving God and neighbor.


  • Comparative Religions
  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion in America

To call someone a martyr is a theological claim rather than a historical categorization. Both the Greek and Arabic terms for “martyr” literally mean “witness.” Martyrs are not martyrs for everyone; their status reflects a community’s embrace of the convictions to which they are witnesses. Pervasive in North American religious history, the language of martyrdom is both divisive and powerfully motivating. R. Laurence Moore famously argued that the claim to outsider or persecuted status is “a characteristic way of inventing one’s Americanness.” North Americans of various religious traditions have commemorated martyrs as a way of embracing an oppositional identity.

Some theologies of martyrdom can be traced back to European traditions; others are American in origin. Both Catholics and Protestants participate in an Early Church tradition that martyrs purify and grow the true Church. This idea is crystalized in Tertullian’s phrase, “the blood of Christians is seed,” often stated as “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”1 It is closely related to a devotional ethic that suffering can result in great spiritual fruit for the community of the faithful. For almost all religious traditions, claiming a death as martyrdom imbeds it within a narrative of ultimate victory. Martyrs defy inconsequentiality; their death requires action, whether veneration, hope, further sacrifice, or even participation in divine vengeance.

New World Martyrdom

The Catholic faith brought by Jesuits to the New World had recently experienced a reinvigoration of the martyr tradition. The rediscovery of the Roman catacombs in 1578 sparked a revival of interest in Early Church martyrs and martyrology across Europe. When eight Jesuits and lay missionaries serving Iroquois tribes in North America were killed in the 1640s, they were almost immediately celebrated as martyrs. Often grouped as the “Canadian Martyrs” or “North American Martyrs,” these missionaries would be canonized in 1930. Recent historians of Iroquois cultures have attempted to peel back layers of hagiography in order to see the missionaries’ deaths in the context of intra-tribal mourning wars rather than hatred for the Catholic faith.2

Of the Jesuit martyrs, Isaac Jogues’s story became especially well-known among contemporaries. After several years of ministering among Wendat, Petun, Ojibwa, and Mohawk tribes, he was captured by Mohawk warriors who held him responsible for the disease and famine that were devastating their tribes. During a year of captivity and torture, he experienced supernatural visions. Remarkably, after losing his fingers, he escaped back to France to tell his story. While traditionally priests had to have the full use of their hands to perform the mass, Pope Urban VIII declared that “it would be unjust that a martyr for Christ should not drink the blood of Christ” and made an exception.3 Jogues then made the decision to return to the mission field and was killed soon after. Other Jesuits molded his story into a narrative in which soaking the mission in martyrs’ blood was crucial to its success in the New World.

There is some controversy about whether colonial Jesuits actually sought out martyrdom. In his own mystical experiences, Jean de Brébeuf experienced a longing for martyrdom as a way of sharing in the suffering of Christ. While he could have fled from a Wendat village upon hearing of a Haudenosaunee offensive, he chose to stay. Regardless of whether they actively pursued martyrdom, Jesuit missionaries developed a theology of suffering that responded to the violence surrounding the mission. As initial hopes of rapid Christianization of the Wendat tribes came up against native decisions to form hybrid traditions or reject the faith, Brébeuf and other Jesuits came to see the New World itself as a land of crosses, the mission itself as a form of living martyrdom.4 Nuns such as Marie de l’Incarnation also contributed to a New World theology of martyrdom. They emphasized an alternative tradition of interior, invisible martyrdom, experienced in daily life in convent and schoolyard. In this emerging female tradition of Catholic spiritual martyrdom, “the sufferer gets to tell the tale herself, and she who writes the letter wears the crown.”5 Women were also central to the popularization of the cult of the North American martyrs. For example, Sister Catherine de Saint-Augustin saw Brébeuf in visions and attributed miraculous healings to his relics. Buttressed by these miracles, the Jesuits’ faithfulness in the midst of excruciating pain became a part of North American Catholic devotional life. The martyrs have also become a part of Canada’s national identity and iconography. They were especially important to 19th-century French Canadian nationalists who saw their own marginalization as a kind of martyrdom.6

In the Catholic southwest (northern New Spain), both Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries were honored as martyrs, their relics enshrined in churches across the landscape. New Mexico’s early martyrs such as Fray Francisco López and Fray Agustín Rodríguez participated in a long-standing Franciscan tradition of intensely desiring martyrdom. As with the Jesuits in New France, literal martyrdom and everyday suffering formed a path to spiritual perfection and union with God. Influential Franciscan women such as the Abbess María de Jesús Coronel in Spain and Mother Juana de San Antonio in Manila actively encouraged friars to go to New Mexico and seek martyrdom there. María de Jesús Coronel reported traveling spiritually to New Mexico several times a day, experiencing wounds from native attacks that earned her the crown of martyrdom. Almost half the first hundred Franciscans in New Mexico were martyred, twenty-one of them on a single day during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. While Catholics of many ethnicities have traditionally celebrated these martyrs, recent scholars have pointed to the aggressive nature of Franciscan martyrdom. In Ramón Gutiérrez’s highly critical analysis, the friars’ martyrdoms were not pacifist, but rather “supreme acts of aggression” because by targeting native idolatry they provoked Indians to commit murder, knowing Spanish soldiers would retaliate.7 Jesuit martyrologies such as Andrés Pérez de Ribas’s Historia de los Triumphos de nuestra Santa Fee (Madrid, 1645) also contain intriguing clues about the ways that indigenous populations parodied the symbols of martyrdom as a means of resisting European presence. For example, one Jesuit’s body, just before death, was held up in a mock mass and then “chopped into a visual replica of the cross.”8 That the southwest martyrs have not been canonized speaks to the complex politics of religion and colonialism. Promoters have had difficulty proving that they died “in odium fidei” or because of hatred to the faith, rather than as agents of colonial expansion. Even so, traditions of martyrdom have been immensely significant for Catholic iconography, spirituality, and pilgrimage in the southwest.9

Although they rejected the Catholic cult of the martyrs with the cult of the saints, English-speaking Protestants developed their own martyrological tradition. Protestant martyrs were not prayed to, but they were remembered as exemplary models of holiness for their biblical articulation of the faith and ecstatic experiences when facing death. Most prominently, English Protestants treasured the stories of the Marian martyrs, several hundred clergy and laypeople who were burned at the stake rather than recant under the Catholic Queen Mary in the 1550s. These stories, along with martyr stories from the Early and Medieval Church, were compiled by John Foxe into the Actes and Monuments. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as it was commonly known, was revered as a sacred text in both England and colonial America.

Volumes of the Book of Martyrs and its many redactions show up frequently in colonial libraries, wills, and probate records. They were read by women as well as men. A New England puritan, Betty Sewall, read through a volume in her evening free time over three months in 1671, which a relative listed among her best qualities. The first textbook in the North American colonies, the New England Primer, included an excerpt from Foxe, a poem by the Marian martyr John Rogers. Rogers encouraged his nine children: “I send you here God’s perfect Truth; and seal it with my Blood … Keep always GOD before your eyes; with all your whole intent; / Commit no Sin in any wise, keep his Commandment.”10 The Protestant spirituality of martyrdom was one which said biblical truth was infinitely more valuable than creature comforts or even life itself. True faith meant submitting to death rather than sinning or (perhaps worse) falling into “popery.”

Often including an overview of Christian history, almanacs kept the stories of Early Church, Reformation, and Marian martyrs fresh in English colonists’ imaginations. The martyrs’ letters were also popular devotional guides. For example, in 1664 the Boston press issued Divine consolation for mourners in Sion: being an extract of certain choice epistles of dying martyrs to each other. New Englanders loved to read the stories of John Philpot and John Bradford, whose lives demonstrated Christ’s comfort and power even in the midst of profound suffering. The colonial poet Edward Taylor created his own lengthy history of Christianity in verse, highlighting those who had died for their faith. Drawing on Foxe as well as a continental work, the Magdeburg Centuries, Taylor contemplated the way God made himself known to the martyrs in the midst of their darkest moments. While Taylor’s work circulated only in manuscript form, another colonial contribution to the martyrological tradition gained a wide readership. Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana was modeled on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. While grateful that so few puritans died for their faith in the New World, Mather nonetheless saw their wilderness suffering as a part of the ongoing drama of the Protestant Reformation. Like the martyrs of the Early Church and the medieval reformers such as the Waldensians, New Englanders battled forces which would corrupt the true Church. Colonists contributed to these battles by resisting Spanish and French Catholic settlement as well as “popish” corruptions within the Church of England, and through bearing their own mundane sufferings with martyr-like patience.11 In the 19th-century, martyr stories played an important role in American children’s literature.12

Like Jesuits, puritan missionaries to native tribes understood the willingness to suffer as crucial to success. However, puritans also tried to introduce Protestant martyr traditions to Algonquians through the printing press. When translating the devotional classic, The Practice of Piety, John Eliot could not find an Algonquian equivalent to the word “martyr” and so created a word based on the English. It was important to him for native Christians to have access to Bayly’s guide to martyr-like piety, modeled on the lives of the Marian martyrs. Yet not all colonists were sure that native Christians could be true martyrs. In 1675 many Praying Indians and their English supporters considered John Sassamon to be the first Algonquian martyr for his death at the hands of Wampanoag warriors after warning Plymouth of an impending attack. Some English colonists, however, were not sure of his loyalty to the Christian faith or to the English. Massachusetts’s commissioner for Indian Affairs, Daniel Gookin promoted his status as the first Indian Christian martyr. Gookin also held up the suffering of the Praying Indians, exiled during King Philip’s War to Deer Island with very little provisions, as holy, martyr-like suffering. It was the Indians, rather than the English, who continued the lineage of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.13

Martyrdom was also a contested category among Protestant groups. Anglicans in Virginia honored George Thorpe as a martyr for his death while engaging in missionary work among the Chesapeake Algonquian tribes, though few other groups recognized him. Rhode Island’s Roger Williams (who saw his own exile as a kind of martyrdom) and Quaker leader George Fox engaged in heated debate over who were the true Protestant martyrs. In Williams’s view, John Foxe’s martyrs were “men and women … of low and meek Spirits towards all” who “were slain for maintaining the Authority and Purity of the Holy Scriptures” while Quaker martyrs were “proud, ambitious, and Worldly-minded Wretches” who died for “childrens Baubles” and “fantastical Traditions.”14 Quakers considered Williams woefully corrupt and themselves to be the heirs of Foxe’s martyrs, on the front lines of the true Protestant Reformation.

Martyrdom was even more important to early Quakers than most other Protestants. Convinced they were living in the end times, Quakers aggressively interrupted church services throughout the American colonies. They also occasionally went through the streets naked, prophesying doom on local ministers and magistrates, sometimes interrupting court meetings by breaking bottles on the floor. In the 1650s and 1660s, they were imprisoned for disturbing the peace in every colony except Rhode Island. At least one Quaker died in prison in Virginia, and in 1659 and 1660 four Quakers who returned after banishment upon pain of death were executed in Boston. The stories and letters of the four Quaker martyrs, Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra, became enshrined in Quaker martyrologies, which were already documenting the hundreds of Quakers who had died in English prisons. Quakers considered martyrdom to be the ultimate witness of their faith, and some even sought it out as a platform for proclaiming the truth.

Colonial Mennonites also developed a distinctive understanding of martyrdom, rooted in Jan Thieleman van Braght’s Bloody Theater or Martyrs’ Mirror (1660). This martyrology became a central resource for Mennonites as they practiced the principle of “defenselessness” in times of conflict such as the Seven Years’ War. Although Mennonites shunned seeking out martyrdom, or the idea that martyrdom on its own had any spiritual efficacy, they did see “persecution and martyrdom … as prominent signs of election and the surest way of ‘imitating’ Christ.” Concerned that they would be forced to take up arms, Pennsylvanian Mennonites commissioned a new German translation of Martyrs’ Mirror from a scholar at the utopian Ephrata community in 1745. The book itself was understood as a “textual and spiritual embodiment of the Mennonites’ stance of suffering for peace.”15 During a paper shortage in the Revolutionary War unbound copies of the newly translated martyrology were used as cartridge wadding and shot from muskets. Understandably offended, Mennonites bought up the remaining copies. Yet even non-Mennonites were appalled, assuming armies who so mistreated martyr stories could not be on the right side of Providence.16

Although many early American Protestants considered their wilderness sufferings a kind of martyrdom and keenly followed the stories of Protestant, especially Huguenot, suffering in Europe, they claimed very few New World martyrs in comparison with Catholics. In recent years, both Catholics and Protestants in North America have been troubled by the fact that Europeans have most often been commemorated as martyrs when the overwhelming fatalities occurred among Native American Christians. For example, though early etchings included him, the Algonquian Catholic Joseph Onahare (d. 1650) was tortured and killed alongside the Jesuits but has yet to be canonized. Modern Quebec Jesuits have distanced themselves from the cult of the North American martyrs for this very reason. These Jesuits reject their forbears’ methods of evangelization, and view the cult as overshadowing the agency of indigenous Catholics.17 Among early American Protestants, very few picked up Daniel Gookin’s suggestion that it was native Christians who were the true heirs of Foxe’s lineage, instead celebrating the sacrifices of white rather than native missionaries.

Martyr language has persisted in America as a potent idiom for honoring missionaries who died on the field. A well-known example is the Protestant Jim Elliot, killed while ministering to the Huaorani (Waorani) people of Ecuador in 1956. Elliot and his companions, the “Auca martyrs,” became famous in large part because Eliot’s wife, Elizabeth Eliot, wrote a bestselling biography (Through Gates of Splendor) as a deliberate, though not uncritical, contribution to the Tertullian‒Foxeian tradition. She and another widow also returned as missionaries to the same tribe responsible for their husbands’ deaths.

Mormon Traditions of Martyrdom

Mormons also turned to the discourse of martyrdom as a way to understand suffering and sacrifice. Most early Mormon families were former New Englanders and so inherited a Foxeian legacy. This heritage developed into a robust Mormon martyrological tradition following the death of founder Joseph Smith, along with his brother Hyrum Smith in 1844. The Smiths were killed in a jail cell in Carthage, Illinois, by local rioters angry that Mormons had destroyed the Nauvoo Expositor press. Smith anticipated a violent death, “like a lamb to the slaughter,” and preached that Mormons were not persecuted for any crimes but because their opponents had a “thirst for blood.” A follower managed to bring a “six shooter” to Joseph Smith in jail, and the brothers and companions defended themselves in a “Handsome Fight” when the mob attacked.18

The story of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom existed in multiple versions. According to William Daniels, after Joseph Smith was shot, his attackers tried to mutilate his body, but a bright light paralyzed them, to the extent that they had to be carried away from the scene. Others also reported seeing a great light. The editor of the official History of the Church, B. H. Roberts, considered these accounts unreliable, and simply said Smith died saying “O Lord, my God!”19 Yet Roberts also affirmed that Smith was preparing for a martyr’s death, including multiple predictions and prophecies. In his martyr narrative, Roberts emphasized the illegality of the proceedings against Smith, including many legal documents and testimonies that point to the failure of the American justice system to live up to its own principles.

Smith had long prepared the community for his martyrdom with words such as, “I am ready to be offered up a sacrifice in that way that can bring to pass the greatest benefit and good to those who must necessarily be interested in this important matter.” In general Smith’s followers viewed his martyrdom as a necessary sacrifice for the good of the faith rather than an inexplicable tragedy. After Smith’s death, two Mormon Apostles quoted Tertullian’s formula and instructed, “Proceed onward with all your labors as though nothing had happened, only, preach Joseph martyred for his religion, instead of living.” The hymn that comforted Smith in jail, “A poor wayfaring man of grief,” also became a way of remembering Smith’s martyrdom in Mormon communities.20

Violence against Mormon missionaries in the postbellum South initiated a new chapter in Mormon martyrological tradition. Most prominently, in 1884 in Tennessee, a group of two dozen vigilantes led by a Protestant minister assaulted a Mormon congregation. A battle ensued, and several young men who led the defense died, along with two Mormon missionaries. It was the missionaries, John Gibbs and William Berry, who the Mormon community celebrated as martyrs of the “Cane Creek Massacre.”21

Episodes of violence against missionaries and elders were frequently covered by Utah publications such as the Deseret News. These stories, and especially the memory of the Cane Creek martyrs, contributed to an identity of separation from the “gentile” world, which was inevitably hostile to Mormons as it had been to Jesus and the apostles. Like earlier Christian groups, Mormons considered themselves engaged in a cosmic battle, in which martyrdom was a sign not of defeat but ultimate victory. They tended to draw their models of martyrdom directly from the Bible rather than the post-apostolic era (up to the revelations of Joseph Smith). Their own sufferings became a way to reenact biblical scenes such as the deprivations under Pharaoh or the persecutions of the apostolic Church.22 Sufferings became a bodily, spiritual connection to the biblical age.

Mormons tended to be less concerned with whether a particular act of violence was motivated by hatred to the faith. In keeping with their theological emphasis on the restoration of the Kingdom and distinctly American roots, Mormons merged classic tropes of martyrdom with language of the kingdom and American rights. Following the Cane Creek massacre, the president of Southern States Mission compared the Mormon Elders’ deaths to those of revolutionary patriots who died to “establish freedom and the great American nation,” declaring that they had died “to establish religious liberty and in defense of the Kingdom of God.” He concluded by giving the old Tertullian formula an American twist: “The blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the Church as it has ever been, and the heads of liberty-loving people in this nation, over this crime, are not bowed for naught.”23 Experiencing more social acceptance than ever before in the late 20th century, Mormons chose to highlight their most prominent martyrdom in a new way. The building formerly used as the Carthage jail was restored to its original appearance as a part of the 1994 sesquicentennial of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and is now a popular pilgrimage site.24

Martyrdom and Political Movements

Traditions of martyrdom in 19th-century America reached across confessional lines to play central roles in political movements. Executed in 1859 for an anti-slavery revolt, the radical abolitionist John Brown became a martyr figure for the anti-lynching movement. Anticipating his death, Brown predicted, “To me it is given, in behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake,” and identified with Paul’s rejoicing that his death “would greatly advance the cause of Christ.”25 Anti-lynching protestors from Baptist ministers to Frederick Douglass wove Brown’s death into a narrative of “emancipatory martyrdom.” This literature emphasized the justice of an avenging God. Brown’s prison letters became a kind of sacred text for advocates of African American equality through the 1920s.26

While abolitionists and anti-lynching campaigners proclaimed John Brown’s martyrdom at great personal risk, Abraham Lincoln’s Good Friday 1865 death was claimed as martyrdom almost universally among Protestants across the northern states. Grieving over Lincoln’s death was not optional; rich and poor, black and white wore clippings of black crepe and muslin, or pins with Lincoln’s likeness, and some even gathered relics. Those who spoke against Lincoln were beaten or sometimes imprisoned for their own protection.

Lincoln’s death highlights tensions among various strands of martyr traditions. Catholics on the whole objected to the idea of Lincoln as a martyr, a reflection of their opposition to the war generally as well as a belief that true martyrs were members of the Catholic faith. Jewish Republicans told synagogue audiences to weep for the martyred Lincoln as Moses’s contemporaries had wept and to wait for a new Joshua. Black Protestants understood Lincoln’s death within the context of John Brown’s. For African Methodist Episcopal church leaders “both martyrdoms magnified the divine mandate ensuring the eventual civic and political liberty of black people.” While radical Republicans honored Lincoln’s martyrdom by focusing on his personal virtues rather than his political legacy, African Americans in general promoted both his sanctity and his moderate republican program.27 In the South, martyrdom language was used to memorize confederate soldiers who “fought like lions … endured like martyrs, and … bore the tattered flag of the sovereign States … with an heroic faith, a matchless patience.”28

Martyrdom again became a powerful political framework in the era of civil rights. Exhibits in the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, honor those men, women, and children who died in the civil rights struggle between 1954 and 1968 as martyrs for the cause of racial justice. Those honored include both activists who were assassinated and random victims of violence from anti‒civil rights forces, such as the four young girls who were killed by a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. In his eulogy for three of these girls Martin Luther King Jr. called them “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity… . The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force … that will bring new light to this dark city.”29 King’s assassination in 1968 would make him the most revered American martyr of the 20th century, memorialized not only among Baptists but across the country.

King had often anticipated his own death, desiring it to be a Christ-like sacrifice for the cause of freedom. Drawing on the significance of Gandhi’s martyrdom as well as the writings of the stoic philosopher Epictetus, King considered the willingness to confront death essential to nonviolent activism. He expected his followers to embrace the possibility of martyrdom as well, drawing on Tertullian to say, “Once more it might well turn out that the blood of the martyr will be the seed of the tabernacle of freedom.”30

The immediate reaction to the news that King had been assassinated was anger, expressed through rioting in the streets in many cities across America. As the nation grieved, the language of martyrdom came to the fore. Herbert Mitgang of the New York Times covered his death with the headline, “The Race Crisis: A Non-Violent Man Is Martyred.” In relatively short time, King was elevated to the status of an American saint. Churches, colleges, and civic groups memorialized him in monuments and stained glass. Black Catholics, Episcopalians, and Evangelical Lutherans were the first to incorporate King into their liturgical texts.31 However, his status as an American martyr for the cause of civil rights transcends the boundaries between religious traditions and even between the religious and the secular.

That the assassinated Muslim activist Malcolm X, and many other activists, were not broadly venerated as martyrs is also significant to the story of American religion. The African American poet and scholar Ishmael Reed has called attention to those whose suffering has been overlooked. Building on the claim that “jazz is a religion,” he asks, “Who are the Jazz martyrs?” Reed’s lyrical and provocative catalogue of the physical and psychological suffering of African American musicians and “zones,” sometimes at the hands of law enforcement, valorizes their experience and the cause of civil rights. It also claims the inversionary power of martyrology: “Though they may chain the martyrs, they will never chain the music.”32

Not all religious traditions have associated martyrdom with unequivocal sanctity. Jewish understandings of martyrdom (qiddush ha-Shem, death for “the sanctification of the name [of God]”) are rooted in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. However, martyrdom has not always been valorized. Some Talmudic literature permits transgressions of the law for the higher good of saving one’s life. Those trying to come to terms with the horror of the Holocaust have grappled with the adequacy of martyr language. While some Jews have described the six million killed by Nazis as martyrs, others object that the involuntary nature of their deaths makes language of genocide more salient. Martyr language continues to play a role in Sabbath prayers (medieval in origin) for “the holy congregations, who laid down their lives for the sanctification of the divine name.”33

Martyrdom in the Post-9/11 Era

There is no standard definition of a martyr (shahid, “witness”) in the Qur’an or hadith. Historically, Muslim martyrs have often been venerated by local communities rather than the global Muslim community, unless they are of a high status or their deaths were especially noble, such as al-Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson. Shi’a Muslims remember Husayn and his fellow-fighters, who died at the Battle of Karbala (680) on the Day of Ashura, and are generally more inclined than Sunnis to embrace an identity as a persecuted people. However, many modern American Muslims have followed martyrological websites such as those listing contemporary Palestinian martyrs.34

In the first decades of the 21st century, Islamic martyrdom became the subject of heated debates. That the jihadists who flew planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were celebrated as martyrs in militant Islamic communities was a shock to most Americans. The final instructions of the hijackers who drove planes into New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, advised: “Pray for yourself and all your brothers that they may be victorious and hit their targets and ask God to grant you martyrdom facing the enemy, not running away from it, and for Him to grant you patience and the feeling that anything that happens to you is for Him.”35 The young men were assured that their deaths as martyrs would erase their sins and win them “eternal bliss.” In interviews and videos, suicide bombers have proclaimed themselves to be following in the footsteps of ancient Muslim martyrs for the faith, not so much seeking death as fulfilling their lives in a sacrifice for truth and redemption. The ensuing public debate over whether Islam is a peaceful or violent religion has centered on the Qur’anic theology of martyrdom and highlighted the volatility of martyr discourse.

In the post-9/11 era, American scholars have debated the history and theology of Muslim martyrs. Some have argued that historically the predominant Muslim martyr has been the “fighting martyr” and traditionally martyrdom has been closely associated with jihad (“striving”) as a form of “divinely sanctioned warfare” in service of the expansion or defense of Islam.36 Others have resisted the “fighting martyr” interpretation, arguing that, while there are verses in the Qur’an that seem to “glorify dying on the battlefield and to specifically promote a cult of military martyrdom … the Qur’an seeks to prevent the formation of such a cult.” Still others have tried to pull martyrdom out of the conversation about Islamic terrorism, arguing that even among radical Muslim groups the majority of terrorist acts can be accounted for by “the military presence of foreign combat forces” rather than any kind of Muslim theology of martyrdom.37

Related debates have occurred among American religious leaders as they have tried to define the place of jihad within contemporary Islamic ethics. Most American Muslims have strongly condemned suicide bombers as terrorists, not martyrs. In the midst of the retaliatory US “war on terror,” some non-Muslim civic and religious leaders argued that the Qur’an itself condoned violence against unbelievers. When in a 2006 lecture on faith and reason Pope Benedict XVI briefly quoted a Byzantine emperor who said the Qur’an justified religious violence, dozens of prominent Muslims protested (Benedict later clarified that the quote did not represent his personal view). The controversy led to collaboration among more than a hundred Muslim leaders to state the importance of peaceful cooperation among Muslims and Christians, rooted in biblical and Qur’anic principles of loving God and neighbor. In response, hundreds of Christian leaders—both evangelical and mainline Protestant—signed a like-minded affirmation, “Loving God and Neighbor Together.” These documents have become the groundwork for significant inter-religious conferences.38

These ecumenical efforts had little impact on government security measures or popular antagonism. Anticipation of further attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom led to large-scale surveillance of Muslim populations in the United States. Images on mainstream television of another radical group, the Islamic State or ISIS, killing Egyptian Christians, Yazidi, and others, as well as further attacks such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, have amplified widespread associations between Islam and terrorist violence. Mosques have been the targets of vandalism, threats, and legal antagonism over building permits. Not only practicing Muslims but many Americans of Arab and South Asian heritage have been subject to popular and official suspicion. In the face of fear and stereotypes, various groups of American Muslims have worked hard to create cultural resources that reach across ethnic or regional barriers as well as to educate Americans generally about the Muslim faith. The language of martyrdom has also appeared in both religious and secular contexts to memorialize the victims of mass shootings and terrorist attacks.

Martyrdom has not always been about crisis or rupture. For many liturgical traditions, such as various branches of the Orthodox Church, the veneration of martyrs has formed a regular part of the liturgy. Remembering martyrs—from ancient or recent history—has formed an important bond between emigrants and global religious communities. Up until the late 1960s American Catholics remembered two sets of biblical and Early Church martyrs through the first Eucharistic prayer. Post-Vatican II openness to other Eucharistic prayers has meant that martyrs were less often part of the liturgy.

In recent times martyrs have also played a role in ecumenical efforts across Christian traditions. In 1978 the Faith and Order Commission of the (mainline Protestant) World Council of Churches called for an ecumenical martyrology, and in 1995 Pope John Paul II declared that “in a theocentric vision we Christians already have a common Martyrology.”39 Both Catholics and Protestants in North America have been involved in creating martyrologies that include men and women from multiple branches of the Christian faith.

Review of the Literature

Until recent decades, much of the literature on martyrs in America focused on the four Quakers executed in Boston between 1659 and 1661. This literature tended to be hagiographical and written by those within or sympathetic to the Quaker faith, for example, Rufus Jones’s 1911 Quakers in the American Colonies.40 However, in the 1980s and early 1990s, historians of Quakerism such as Carla Pestana and Jonathan Chu returned to the Quaker-Congregationalist conflict, emphasizing the Quakers’ deliberate pursuit of martyrdom, their persistence in returning to Massachusetts after banishment, and the difficulty of the tension between civic peace and religious radicalism.

Brad Gregory’s landmark 2001 comparative study of Protestant, Catholic, and Anabaptist martyrologies in Europe, Salvation at Stake, opened up a new line of scholarship on the appropriation of these martyrological traditions in colonial America.41 Studies by Emma Anderson on New France and Adrian Chastain Weimer on New England focus less on the martyrs themselves than on the communities who shaped their stories, and the literary, iconographic, and devotional traditions that developed around those narratives. Anderson traces these traditions up to the 20th century in a fascinating account of the political and religious uses of martyr stories in modern Canada.42

In a provocative reading of martyrdom itself as a form of aggression, Ramon Gutierrez’s When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away focuses on the violence surrounding Franciscans in early New Spain. Building on Gutierrez’s work, Maureen Ahern attends in theoretically sophisticated ways to indigenous inversions and parodies of Catholic martyr traditions.43 Forthcoming works by Brandon Bayne on the early southwest and Heike Jablonski on martyr stories in 18th- and 19-century devotional literature, including children’s literature, will also be important reading for those interested in martyrdom in early America.

There is not yet a general book-length study of martyrdom in the modern United States. The literature instead centers on religious traditions or specific figures. Patrick Q. Mason’s The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South uncovers the importance of martyr traditions surrounding Joseph Smith and missionary Elders to the Mormon faith.44 Although not focused on martyrdom per se, Stuart Towns’s Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause offers intriguing hints about the language of martyrdom in the cultural memory of the postbellum South.45 Kathryn T. Long has studied the collaboration among missionary-minded evangelicals, the popular press such as Time and Life magazines, and the Billy Graham crusade to publicize and transform the “Auca Martyrs” narrative into a triumphant story. She also looks at the story’s deeper significance for neo-Evangelicals’ ideal of “participating in the modern world without becoming a part of that world.”46 Recently, scholars have begun to attend to the importance of martyrdom rhetoric and traditions in memorializations of political figures. Richard Wrightman Fox’s Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History (New York: Norton, 2015) is one of the strongest examples of this vein of scholarship.

Historians, religious studies scholars, and political scientists have spent enormous energy studying global Islamic theologies and practices of martyrdom after the September 11, 2001, attackers left writings claiming to be martyrs for Islam. Some of this scholarship is highly polemical in nature, arguing for or against the violent nature of the Qur’an or Islam itself. Despite the extensive attention to Islamic martyrdom, there is not yet a book-length study of the meaning and cultural tensions surrounding martyrdom in America post-9/11. However, important historical essays by Charles Kimball and Ebrahim Moosa, and theoretical reflections by Bruce Lincoln have begun to advance this line of study.47

Further Reading

  • Afsaruddin, Asma. Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Anderson, Emma. The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Bayne, Brandon. “A Passionate Pacification: Salvation and Suffering in the Jesuit Missions of Northern New Spain, 1594–1767.” PhD diss., Harvard Divinity School, 2012.
  • Erben, Patrick. “Book of suffering, suffering book: The Mennonite Martyrs’ Mirror and the translation of Martyrdom in Colonial America.” In Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic. Edited by Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster, 191–215. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Fox, Richard Wrightman. Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History. New York: Norton, 2015.
  • Greer, Allan. “Colonial saints: Gender, race, and hagiography in New France.” William and Mary Quarterly 57.2 (April 2000): 323–348.
  • Gutiérrez, Ramón. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Hoffman, Scott W. “Holy Martin: The overlooked canonization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10.2 (Summer 2000): 123–148.
  • Ibbett, Katherine. “Reconfiguring Martyrdom in the colonial context: Marie de l’Incarnation.” In Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic. Edited by Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster, 175–190. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Jablonski, Heike. “John Foxe in America: Discourses of Martyrdom in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century United States.” PhD diss., University of Heidelberg. 2016.
  • Long, Kathryn T. “The ‘Auca Martyrs,’ Evangelicalism, and Postwar American Culture.” In The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History. Edited by Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker, 223–236. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.
  • Mason, Patrick Q. The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Middleton, Paul. Martyrdom: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  • Perron, Paul. “Isaac Jogues: From Martyrdom to Sainthood.” In Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800. Edited by Allan Greer and Jodi Bilinkoff, 153–168. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Reed, Ishmael. “Who are the Jazz Martyrs?” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 14.1 (Spring‒Summer 2014): 42–49.
  • Trodd, Zoe. “John Brown’s spirit: The abolitionist aesthetic of emancipatory martyrdom in early antilynching protest literature.” Journal of American Studies 49.2 (2015): 305–321.
  • Weimer, Adrian Chastain. Martyrs’ Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.


  • 1. R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), xi; and Tertullian, “Apologeticus,” in Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, part I, ed. Allan Menzies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), L: 55.

  • 2. Allan Greer, “Colonial Saints: Gender, Race, and Hagiography in New France,” William and Mary Quarterly 57.2 (April 2000): 330–335. The missionaries were René Goupil (d. 1642); Isaac Jogues (d. 1646); Jean de Lalande (d. 1646), Antoine Daniel (d. 1648), Jean de Brébeuf (d. 1649), Gabriel Lalemant (d. 1649), Noel Chabanel (d. 1649), and Charles Garnier (d. 1649).

  • 3. Felix Martin, The Life of Father Isaac Jogues (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1885), 164; Paul Perron, “Isaac Jogues: From Martyrdom to Sainthood,” in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800, eds. Allan Greer and Jodi Bilinkoff (New York: Routledge, 2003), 156; and Emma Anderson, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 14–29.

  • 4. Emma Anderson, “Blood, Fire, and ‘Baptism’: Three Perspectives on the Death of Jean de Brebeuf, Seventeenth-Century Jesuit ‘Martyr,’” in Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape, eds. Joel Martin, Mark A. Nicholas, and Michelene E. Pesantubbee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 129.

  • 5. Katherine Ibbett, “Reconfiguring Martyrdom in the Colonial Context: Marie de l’Incarnation,” in Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic, eds. Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 190.

  • 6. Anderson, Death and Afterlife, 55–72, 102.

  • 7. Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 69, 128–130, quote on 130.

  • 8. Maureen Ahern, “Martyrs and Idols: Performing Ritual Warfare on Early Missionary Frontiers in Northwest New Spain,” in Religion in New Spain, eds. Susan Schroeder and Stafford Poole (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007), 291.

  • 9. Brandon Bayne, “A Passionate Pacification: Salvation and Suffering in the Jesuit Missions of Northern New Spain, 1594–1767” (PhD diss., Harvard Divinity School, 2012).

  • 10. The New-England Primer Enlarged (Boston, 1727); Adrian Chastain Weimer, Martyrs’ Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 33–34, 37–40.

  • 11. Weimer, Martyrs’ Mirror, 29–37.

  • 12. Heike Jablonski, “John Foxe in America: Discourses of Martyrdom in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century United States” (PhD diss., University of Heidelberg, 2016).

  • 13. Daniel Gookin, “An Historical Account of the Doings and Sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England,” Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society 2 (1836): 423–534; and Weimer, Martyrs’ Mirror, 118–142.

  • 14. Roger Williams, George Fox Digg’d Out of his Burrows (Boston, 1676), 270–273.

  • 15. Patrick Erben, “Book of Suffering, Suffering Book: The Mennonite Martyrs’ Mirror and the Translation of Martyrdom in Colonial America,” in Empires of God, 194–195.

  • 16. Erben, “Book of Suffering,” 194–195, 211–214.

  • 17. Greer, “Colonial Saints,” 335–336; and Anderson, Death and Afterlife, 220–221.

  • 18. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1948–1961), 6:555, 558, 566, 607–608, 617–618.

  • 19. Dean C. Jessee, “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” Journal of Mormon History 8 (1981): 5, 15–18; and Smith, History of the Church, 6:618.

  • 20. Smith, History of the Church, 5:159, 7:174, 6:614–615.

  • 21. Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 149–170.

  • 22. Mason, The Mormon Menace, 151; and Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 51–54.

  • 23. “Honoring the Martyrs,” Deseret News, August 25, 1884.

  • 24. “Carthage Jail,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints official website.

  • 25. John Brown, Letter to Rev. James McFarland, Charlestown Jail, November 23, 1859, in The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, eds. John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 66.

  • 26. Zoe Trodd, “John Brown’s Spirit: The Abolitionist Aesthetic of Emancipatory Martyrdom in Early Antilynching Protest Literature,” Journal of American Studies 49.2 (2015): 305–321.

  • 27. Richard Wrightman Fox, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History (New York: Norton, 2015), 61, 68, 55 (quote), 67–73.

  • 28. John Temple Graves, “Two Kinds of Heroes,” 1, quoted in Stuart Towns, Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 69.

  • 29. Martin Luther King Jr., “Eulogy for the Young Victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eds. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York: Warner Books, 2001), 95.

  • 30. John Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1982), 97–100. Quote from King, “Address to the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, Dec. 3, 1956,” King Collection, I, no. 11, p. 18, found in Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr., 97. See also Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 173.

  • 31. New York Times, April 7, 1968, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Online; Scott W. Hoffman, “Holy Martin: The Overlooked Canonization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10.2 (Summer 2000): 123–148.

  • 32. Ishmael Reed, “Who are the Jazz Martyrs?,” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 14.1 (Spring‒Summer 2014): 42, 47–48.

  • 33. “Martyrdom,” Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. Adele Berlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 474; and Paul Middleton, Martyrdom: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 143, 149–153.

  • 34. Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 95; and David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 167, 170.

  • 35. “Final Instructions to the Hijackers of September 11, Found in the Luggage of Mohamed Atta and Two Other Copies,” Appendix A, in Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, by Bruce Lincoln (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 97; see also Qur’an, Sura 8:15.

  • 36. Cook, Martyrdom in Islam, 166.

  • 37. Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97.3 (August 2003): 343–361. Pape’s methods and conclusions are contested among political scientists.

  • 38. Charles Kimball, “The War on Terror and Its Effects on American Muslims,” in The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, eds. Yvonne Y. Haddad and Jane I. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 491–501.

  • 39. John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 84.

  • 40. Rufus Jones, Quakers in the American Colonies (London: MacMillan, 1911).

  • 41. Brad Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

  • 42. Anderson, Death and Afterlife; and Weimer, Martyrs’ Mirror.

  • 43. Maureen Ahern, “Martyrs and idols: Performing ritual warfare on early missionary frontiers in Northwest New Spain,” in Religion in New Spain, eds. Susan Schroeder and Stafford Poole (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007), 279–298.

  • 44. Mason, The Mormon Menace.

  • 45. Town, Enduring Legacy.

  • 46. Kathryn T. Long, “The ‘Auca Martyrs,’ Evangelicalism, and Postwar American Culture,” in The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History, eds. Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 225.

  • 47. Charles Kimball, “The war on terror and its effects on American Muslims,” in The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, eds. Yvonne Y. Haddad and Jane I. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 491–501; Ibrahim Moosa, “Post 9/11: American Agonizes over Islam,” in The Cambridge History of Religions in America, ed. Stephen J. Stein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 553–574; and Lincoln, Holy Terrors.