An Account on Polycarp’s Death

The following is an abridged version (by me) of the letter sent out by the Church of Smyrna, shortly after the martyrdom of Polycarp.  

The Church of God at Smyrna, to the Church of God in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Universal Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.


We have written to you, our brothers and sisters, as to what happened to the martyrs, and especially to the blessed Polycarp. For Polycarp waited to be delivered up to the enemy persecutors, even as the Lord Jesus had done that we also might become his followers, while we do not look merely at what concerns ourselves but have regard also to our neighbours. For it is the part of a true love, not only to wish one’s self to be saved, but also all the brothers and sisters.

The devil has done many things to go against the martyrs, but thanks to God, the devil could not conquer over all. When the people who watched the Christian martyrs die, they marveled that the martyrs died in dignity and with extraordinary calmness and peace. Many were Christians were put to death, and when the Christian martyr Germanicus died, the people in the city called to the rulers to have Polycarp arrested, since he was a famous Christian leader.


Polycarp was not disturbed when he heard that he was going to be arrested, but he remained in the city. But eventually, he was persuaded by many of his church to leave the city. He departed to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few friends, engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was arrested and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to be on fire. Upon this, turning to his friends who were with him, he said to them prophetically, “I must be burnt alive.”


When his pursuers (those who wanted to arrest him) were close, he departed to another place. When the pursuers did not find him, they caught two youths who were there and tortured one. The tortured youth confessed to Polycarp’s whereabouts. Because of the betrayal from people close to Polycarp, he was eventually captured and Herod (a high ranking officer who is NOT the same as the one who killed Jesus Christ) immediate brought him before the stadium (similar to the gladiator stadium in movies).


The pursuers came around evening time to the place where he was and found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house. Although he could have escaped into another place, he refused saying, “The will of God be done.” So when he heard that they had come to arrest him, he went down and spoke with them.

The men who were there marveled at his age and his actions, some of them even said, “Was so much effort made to capture such a respected old man?” Immediately then, in that very hour, Polycarp ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much as they needed. Polycarp asked them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And on their giving him permission, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for TWO full hours. To the astonishment of them that heard his prayers, many began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and respected an old man.


Eventually, they brought him into the city, and Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a chariot), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated themselves beside him, and tried to persuade him to deny Christ, saying, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar (the king of the Roman empire), and in sacrificing to idols and ensure your safety?” But he at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said, “I shall not do as you advise me.”

So they, having no hope of persuading him, began to speak bitter words unto him, and cast him with violence out of the chariot. So harsh was the action that in getting down from the carriage, he dislocated his leg by the fall. But without being disturbed, and as if suffering nothing, he went forward with all speed, and was led into the stadium, where the noise from the audience was so great, that there was no possibility of being heard.


Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp!” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brothers who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the noise became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken.

And when he came near, the officer in charge asked him whether he was Polycarp. On confessing that he was, the officer sought to persuade him to deny Christ, saying many things to him. “Swear, and I will set you free… insult Christ;”

Polycarp instead declared, “Eighty six years have I served Him, and He never did me any harm: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”


The officer again pressed him to insult Christ, but Polycarp answered “Since you pretend not to know who and what I am by asking me to do all these things, hear me declare with boldness, I AM A CHRISTIAN. And if you wish to learn what the teachings of Christianity are, set me a day, and you shall hear them.”

The officer replied with a sneer, “Tell that to the audience instead!” But Polycarp said, “To you personally I have thought it right to offer an account of my faith; for we are taught to give all due honour to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these people, I do not think they are worthy of receiving any account from me.”


Again the officer threatened him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, except you repent of your behaviour.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not used to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”

But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing that you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.” But Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns only for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished, but are you ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal and unending punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why are you slow in your threats? Bring on what you will.”


While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and he was full of grace, so that not merely did he not fall or was troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the officer was astonished, and sent his assistant to proclaim in the midst of the stadium THREE TIMES, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”

The whole multitude of those who stayed at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.” They cried out with one consent, that Polycarp should be burnt alive. For thus it was revealed to him in regard to the vision of his burning pillow to be fulfilled.

The funeral pile that was made of wood, was quickly erected since the audience were so eager to see Polycarp dead (for some of them, this was a form of entertainment). Just as they wanted to nail him on the funeral pole, Polycarp said to them, “Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile. I will not move from the fire!”


They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like sheep out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before You, I give You thanks that You hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the purity given by the Holy Spirit. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, has determined, has revealed before hand to me, and now have fulfilled. I also praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”


When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were in charge of the funeral pile kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we were there to witness it, saw a great miracle, and have been kept safe that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of a semi-circle, covered around the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we could smell such a sweet perfume coming from the pile, as if some precious spices had been smoking there.


At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a great quantity of blood so that the fire was extinguished. So great was the testimony shown by Polycarp that all the people wondered that there about the difference between the unbelievers and the Christians, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one.


This, then, is the story and account of the blessed Polycarp, who, being the twelfth that was martyred in Smyrna, yet he occupies a place of his own in the memory of all men, even among the unbelievers themselves. He was not merely a great teacher, but also a great martyr, whose martyrdom all should desire to follow, and is thus altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ.

For, having through patience overcome the injustice of the world, he has thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous in heaven, rejoicingly glorifying God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Universal Church throughout the world.

We wish you, brothers and sisters, all happiness, while you walk according to the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy people, whose example in dying on the cross the blessed Polycarp suffered. May we be found following in their examples that we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!


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