When an assembly of judges accused John Bunyan of preaching heresy, Elizabeth courageously declared: “My lord, when the righteous Judge shall appear, it will be known that his doctrine is not the doctrine of the devil.” This same confidence in eternal vindication has characterized many godly women of the past. It must also characterize wives today.
I’m not into projections of national doom. I listen to NPR, not Fox News. I read The New Yorker, not The National Review. I tune out when people start talking conspiracy and what-the-media-doesn’t-want-us-to-know.
I don’t go looking for trouble.
I also live in Bible Belt America, where a Judeo-Christian ethic seems embedded in the clay soil. Around here, preachers still have their smiling headshots, 12-feet-tall, on Interstate billboards.
But, after the death of DOMA, I have to admit I’ve been thinking about martyrs. About godly men and women who took their convictions and stood on them all the way to heaven.
If my preacher-husband and I are going to face persecution, I suspect that issues of gender and sexuality are the way something wicked will come. A recent article in my (digital) copy of the The New York Times reported on a growing boycott of the new film Ender’s Game because Orson Scott Card, the author-who-wrote-the-novel-on-which-the-film’s-screenplay-is-based, has spoken out against gay marriage. (Though I haven’t seen the movie, the NYT says it has nothing to do with human sexuality.) 667 people worked on this film and a boycott affects all of them. That can’t be popular behind the scenes.
Card is a Mormon, but, increasingly, the views of evangelical Christians, especially in matters of human sexuality, are censured as radical and intolerant. I’d like to think our shifting cultural norms won’t lead to mistreatment of Christians, but I think it’s probably likely.
Persecution is nothing new for Christians. Throughout the world, throughout history, those who proclaim Christ have been—are being—ridiculed, ostracized, imprisoned, killed. The words of the author of Hebrews weigh heavily: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” (Heb. 13:3) By preparing myself for persecution I also empathize with my sisters throughout the world. Sisters in Iran, and Eritrea, and North Korea whose husbands are in chains. Even if I never encounter persecution on my own street, I can learn the lessons of those who do. I also am in the body.
So, I’ve gone looking for godly women of the past whose husbands were imprisoned or killed. And, in the process, I’ve discovered that a martyr’s wife just might be the best wife a guy could ask for.
Count the Cost
There is a cost to Christ-following, and it’s not buried in the fine print. “’If anyone would come after me,’” said Jesus in Matthew 16:24, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Perhaps especially for those who preach, the Scriptures tell one story after another of the real cost of living by the gospel: John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, John.
In 1810, Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), Baptist missionary, wrote to the father of a godly woman named Ann to ask for her hand in marriage:
“I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world! Whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, and the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life! Whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death! Can you consent to all this for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing and immortal souls; for the sake of Zion and the glory of God!”
Ann’s father did consent, and his daughter accompanied Judson first to India and then to Burma. They were forced out of India. Later, Judson was (wrongly) imprisoned as a spy in Burma while Ann was caring for their infant child. Soon after his release, Judson left Ann in Amherst, Burma so that he could explore a new region with an eye to preaching the gospel. She died while he was gone.
Ann Judson did not experience all the hardships of which she was forewarned, but she experienced many of them. Her life’s circumstances were difficult, but no surprise. When I married my seminary-student husband, I wasn’t planning to become Ann Judson, but I need to start now.
Know What You Believe
I’ve long understood the Scriptures to require women to be theologians. I even found a husband by enrolling in Old Testament Greek at my college. But in the teeth of persecution, theology is no idle hobby.
A martyr’s wife is one who isn’t just along for the ride. A martyr’s wife is one who knows the truth of Scripture, who lives it with conviction, and who even ventures to preach it to her husband.
Margaret, the wife of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), was such a woman. As a non-conformist, Baxter risked imprisonment every time he preached, but his wife was thoroughly convinced of its necessity. In his biographical sketch of her, John Angell James writes:
“such was her heroic spirit that, so far from dissuading or discouraging Baxter from preaching, because of the threatened penalties of fines and imprisonment, she incited him courageously to persevere in the good work, and abide tranquilly by the consequences. Any indication he gave, however slight, or the very idea that he shrank from the duties of his office from the dread of suffering by fines or otherwise, caused her uneasiness. . .and by her persuasions she induced him to remove with her from their dwelling in Southampton Square, to a house adjoining her new chapel, that here, in defiance of the penalties of the laws, he might preach the gospel to such as were perishing for lack of knowledge.”
Margaret Baxter knew what she was asking. Her husband had already been imprisoned (unjustly) for a period of six months, and yet she continued to be Baxter’s courage, constantly encouraging him by her belief in the necessity of gospel preaching for the salvation of souls.
Elizabeth, the second wife of John Bunyan (1628-1688,) was once asked by a judge if her husband would stop preaching and gain his freedom from jail. In her reply, she stood with and for her husband: “’My lord, he dares not leave preaching as long as he can speak.’” I pray I would say the same.
Help Your Husband
Every godly wife is her husband’s helper. Created bone from bone and flesh from flesh, she seeks in all things both mundane and glorious to be what her husband needs. Being a wife in persecution’s midst is still a calling to be a helper.
Margaret Baxter was tenderly helpful to her husband, following him to prison and making a home in their cell. (Baxter wrote that she “brought her best bed thither and did much to remove the removeable [sic] inconveniences of the prison.”)
In Burma, Ann Judson tirelessly visited government offices, a nursing infant literally in her arms, pleading for her imprisoned husband’s release. Elizabeth Bunyan was also an advocate for her husband. During the nearly twelve years that her husband was in prison, Elizabeth boldly presented petitions to various judges in London, asking them to allow Bunyan to present his defense. In one instance, she was on the street when a judge passed by in his coach. She took a copy of her petition and threw it into his moving carriage.
By their faithful love and persistent advocacy, these women took their work as help-mate into the arena of suffering and left a beautiful example for us to follow.
Look to Eternity
Ultimately, of course, these women did not hope in release from an earthly prison. The martyr’s wives of the past knew firsthand what Paul proclaimed: “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
When an assembly of judges accused John Bunyan of preaching heresy, Elizabeth courageously declared: “’My lord, when the righteous Judge shall appear, it will be known that his doctrine is not the doctrine of the devil.’” This same confidence in eternal vindication has characterized many godly women of the past. It must also characterize wives today.
One of the most poignant stories of a martyr’s wife is that of Isabel, the wife of Scottish covenanter John Brown (1627-1685). On her wedding day, a fellow minister warned Isabel of her new husband’s likely violent death. Historian Dane Love writes that he “advised her to keep linen with which to make winding sheets, or grave clothes.”
Three years into their marriage, John Brown was indeed shot in front of his wife and children because he refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the king. The commanding officer stood over Isabel as she cradled the body of her husband and asked her what she thought of her husband now.
Isabel’s reply shows her sure and certain hope: “I ay thocht muckle [always thought much] o’ him, but now more than ever.”
Will persecution come to the American church and its gospel ministers? I don’t know. But if it does come, I will pray the words of Isabel Brown, when the soldiers arrived at her house: “’The thing I feared has come upon me. O give me grace for this hour.’”
These women give me confidence that He will.
Megan Hill is a PCA Pastor’s wife and a regular contributor to The Aquila Report. She writes a blog about ministry life at www.SundayWomen.com. This article is used with permission.