During the prayers in daily chapel this morning, we remembered Polycarp of Smyrna, a pastor martyred during one of the Roman persecutions. Born in 69 AD (about 30 or 40 years after Jesus was crucified), Polycarp was a disciple of John, and at the time of his death was likely the last surviving person who’d personally known one of the apostles. As such he served as a link between the first eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection and the generations that followed, and was a major leader in the early Church.
On February 23, 156 AD, Polycarp was executed for a most heinous crime in the Roman Empire: atheism. Because Christians refused to worship or offer sacrifices to the Roman pantheon of gods (which included the emperor), their belief in one God classified them as atheists, subject to torture and death in the arena. While publicly charging Polycarp with this crime, the Pro-Consul tried to persuade the 86-year-old pastor to renounce his faith multiple times, at last demanding that he first swear by Caesar’s name then renounce Christianity with a cry of, “Away with the atheists!” Polycarp immediately turned to the pagan crowd screaming for his death, and said of them, “Away with the atheists.”
Polycarp also serves as good evidence that the early Church practiced infant baptism. During his trial, when the Pro-Consul again pressed the pastor to revile Christ, Polycarp answered, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
You can read an eyewitness narrative of his death by googling “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” a letter from the Church of Smyrna to the Church at Philomelion in Phrygia, written to inform them of his death. It is the earliest account of Christian martyrdom recorded outside of the New Testament.