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Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV: ST. POLYCARP (AD 166)

About the same time with Justin the Martyr, St. Polycarp, bishop of
Smyrna, was put to death. He was a very old man; for it was almost
ninety years since he had been converted from heathenism. He had
known St. John, and is supposed to have been made bishop of Smyrna
by that Apostle himself, and he had been a friend of St. Ignatius,
who, as we have seen, suffered martyrdom fifty years before. From
all these things, and from his wise and holy character, he was
looked up to as a father by all the churches, and his mild advice
had sometimes put all end to differences of opinion which but for
him might have turned into lasting quarrels.

When the persecution reached Smyrna, in the reign of Marcus
Aurelius, a number of Christians suffered with great constancy, and
the heathen multitude, being provoked at their refusal to give up
their faith, cried out for the death of Polycarp. The aged bishop,
although he was ready to die for his Saviour, remembered that it was
not right to throw himself in the way of danger; so he left the
city, and went first to one village in the neighbourhood and then to
another. But he was discovered in his hiding-place, and when he saw
the soldiers who were come to seize him, he calmly said, "God's will
be done!" He desired that some food should be given to them, and
while they were eating, he spent the time in prayer. He was then set
on an ass, and led towards Smyrna; and, when he was near the town,
one of the heathen magistrates came by in his chariot, and took him
up into it. The magistrate tried to persuade Polycarp to sacrifice
to the gods; but finding that he could make nothing of him, he
pushed him out of the chariot so roughly that the old man fell and
broke his leg. But Polycarp bore the pain without showing how much
he was hurt, and the soldiers led him into the amphitheatre, where
great numbers of people were gathered together. When all these saw
him, they set up loud cries of rage and savage delight; but Polycarp
thought, as he entered the place, that he heard a voice saying to
him, "Be strong and play the man!" and he did not heed all the
shouting of the crowd. The governor desired him to deny Christ, and
said that, if he would, his life should be spared. But the faithful
bishop answered "Fourscore and six years have I served Christ, and
He hath never done me wrong; how then can I now blaspheme my King
and Saviour?" The governor again and again urged him, as if in a
friendly way, to sacrifice; but Polycarp stedfastly refused. He next
threatened to let wild beasts loose on him, and as Polycarp still
showed no fear, he said that he would burn him alive. "You threaten
me," said the bishop, "with a fire which lasts but a short time; but
you know not of that eternal fire which is prepared for the wicked."
A stake was then set up, and a pile of wood was collected around it.
Polycarp walked to the place with a calm and cheerful look, and, as
the executioners were going to fasten him to the stake with iron
cramps, he begged them to spare themselves the trouble. "He who
gives me the strength to bear the flames," he said. "will enable me
to remain steady." He was therefore only tied to the stake with
cords, and as he stood thus bound, he uttered a thanksgiving for
being allowed to suffer after the pattern of his Lord and Saviour.
When his prayer was ended, the wood was set on fire, but we are told
that the flames swept round him, looking like the sail of a ship
swollen by the wind, while he remained unhurt in the midst of them.
One of the executioners, seeing this, plunged a sword into the
martyr's breast, and the blood rushed forth in such a stream that it
put out the fire. But the persecutors, who were resolved that the
Christians should not have their bishop's body, lighted the wood
again, and burnt the corpse, so that only a few of the bones
remained; and these the Christians gathered out, and gave them an
honourable burial. It was on Easter eve that St. Polycarp suffered,
in the year of our Lord 166.