Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Polycarp

Jan. 26; A.D. 166

There is another "Father of the Church" who is thought also to have been taught by St. John. His name was Polycarp, which means "much fruit." He did truly bear much and precious fruit for the Church of CHRIST.

It is said that Polycarp was at first a slave, and that a good Greek lady, called Callista, took him to live in her house, had him taught, and then gave him his freedom. He showed great talent, and ceased not to study and to work. By-and-by he was made a Deacon, and worked for some years under the Bishop of Smyrna. Then, many years later, about the time that St. Ignatius was put to death, Polycarp became himself Bishop of Smyrna.

He dwelt there for many years, preaching and teaching, carrying out with faithfulness and love all the duties of his office. During all this time he wrote to the other Churches of Asia letters full of devoted affection and earnest, helpful thought. He believed he should die a martyr; he fain would follow in the path of the Apostles, and he counted it a glory to give up his life for his faith. But he grew to old age, and it was a time of peace for the Christians.

Then all at once things changed. Famine, war, plague came upon the empire of Rome, and again men said it was on account of the Christians that the land was so greatly troubled. The fury of the people was allowed to burst out upon them; many were taken and brought before the tribunal. When they refused to give up their faith, they were put to death with horrible cruelty. The friends of Polycarp begged him to go away from the city, and hide from the anger of the people, in a little country place within reach. He knew it was not right to seek death, though he felt sure he would soon be called upon to give up his life for CHRIST. So he went away to the secluded village. But the direction he had taken was found out, and in order to discover exactly where the Christian Bishop lay hidden, the persecutors got hold of two children from the village. They beat the poor little boys, and tried to frighten them into saying where they must look to come upon St. Polycarp. One child was strong and firm; he bravely bore the beating; he was ready to die under the cruel blows rather than betray the Bishop. The other could not hold out. So when the searchers knew where to find their prey they sent a body of horsemen, who placed themselves round the Bishop's dwelling. "The LORD'S will be done," said the old man, as he gave himself up. They mounted him upon an ass, and early in the morning set out for the city.

Some of the great men of the place begged him to give in—to bow down before the gods of the heathen. At first Polycarp would not even answer such a proposition; but when they went on pressing him, he said firmly, "I shall never do what you ask." At this they were very angry, and pushed rudely by him, so that he fell and hurt his leg.

He was led into the great amphitheatre: it was full of people. When the judge saw the fine old man stand there, quite calm and gentle, unmoved before the mass of gaping lookers on, he was much struck, and was sorry to think he would have to give him up to death. So he, too, began to beg St. Polycarp to deny CHRIST.

"Eighty and six years. have I served Him," Polycarp replied; "nor hath He ever done me wrong. Why, then, should I deny my King and Saviour?"

"Knowest thou not," said the judge, "that I have beasts to which I will cast thee if thou yieldest not?"

"Let them come," said Polycarp. I will not turn from good to evil, but from evil to good it is well to pass."

"If thou carest not for the beasts, thou shalt be burnt with fire," cried the judge.

"Thou dost threaten me with a flame that is soon burnt out," said Polycarp. "Delay not, bring whatever thou wilt."

Then the people cried out, "Away with him! the beasts for Polycarp!"

But the beast shows were over. They cried, "Fire," and men hurried off to bring fagots. A stake was piled, and the aged saint was placed upon it. It was the custom at Smyrna to fasten victims to the stake with nails. Polycarp would not let this be done for him.

Leave me alone," he said, "He Who gives me strength to endure the flames, will enable me to stand firm on the pile of fagots." So they only tied his hands behind.

As the fire was set light to, Polycarp began to sing words of praise to GOD . We have the very words of this hymn still; it is one of the oldest hymns which have come down to us. Thus singing, the noble old man stood among the flames. But they did not touch him. A strong wind had risen; the tongues of fire were blown outwards, and made a sort of arch all round the saint, leaving him unharmed in their midst. At this sight the people only grew the more enraged, and called out to one who was near to kill the old man at once. A moment later a short sword was plunged into his left side. Then the boy was ordered to be burnt—the brave child who had stood so firm under torture, who had been ready to bear any pain rather than betray the Christian Bishop to his enemies: "Baptized in blood for JESUS' sake."

It was Easter Eve, April 25th, 166. At night some of the Christians crept back to the blackened pile and took away what they could find of the bones of their beloved Bishop. They buried them on the hill-side near, and there stands to this day a small Christian church over the spot.