From Justin Martyr to Emily Davison

Today, while we are celebrating Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, many will be thinking of Emily Davison, the suffragist, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in the hope of advancing the cause of votes for women. Justin was beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which neatly solved the problems some had found with his theology. Martyrdom, like love, covers not only a multitude of sins but also acts as the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy. The ‘secular martyrdom’ of Emily Davison is more problematic. There are grounds for thinking that her death was an unintended consequence of her action rather than planned from the beginning, and in the short term it achieved very little other than opprobrium for herself. The First World War did more to achieve votes for women, although it is undeniable that Emily Davison’s death drew attention and made some, at least, think about the injustice of refusing the franchise to women. It seems to me, however, that, brave as she was,  to talk of her as a martyr is to misunderstand the nature of martyrdom.

A martyr bears witness through his or her death to the truth of the Church’s faith in Christ. Death is not sought; it is accepted as the necessary consequence of belief, and it is important to note that it is the Church’s belief, rather than the individual’s, which is affirmed through the sacrifice of life. That is why so many graces flow from martyrdom. The Church has her martyrs in every age, but those we remember from the first centuries often have a peculiar sweetness and charm frequently at odds with the horrific tortures to which they were subjected. Justin himself is an attractive figure. A chance conversation with an old man transformed him from a Stoic into a Christian philosopher: ‘A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.’

Truth, joy, sacrifice: they are surely a form of witness we can all strive to emulate.


2 thoughts on “From Justin Martyr to Emily Davison”

  1. When I read the attitudes of the male dominated society of the Day regarding Women’s suffrage, which have been featured most recently in republished weekly extracts of 100 years ago in the Church Times, I feel ashamed too be of the male gender.

    The totally misogynistic venom against giving women the vote, might have been typical of the mindset and culture of the time, but it was and remains disgraceful.

    When I view how the Church of England has dealt with the issue of women in ministry in the last few years, it appears that much of the mindset remains among sections of the Church, particularly so called ‘male headship’. I know that the Catholic Church has a different view of this issue, but within the Church of England, the vast majority of Clergy and Laity support the ministry of women and see no reason why they should not be appointed as Bishops.

    The Church is held to ransom by a element who quote scripture as their basis to continue discrimination on the basis of gender, using Jesus and the Apostles as their example, ignoring the many women who were in leadership in the early church and in particular those who accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry and who were alone with John at the foot of the cross.

    I’m not sure whether or not Emily Davidson was a Martyr to Women’s liberation or not, but what is so sad is that 100 years after her death, some of the views held in her time persist among elements of the CofE today.

  2. Thank you for the clarification of Martyrdom for the Faith. In recent times the term has been used too loosely in connection with those of other ideologies who seek to harm innocent people in the process, but there is much to be gained from learning about Christian Martyrs.

    Our family made a pilgrimage many years ago to the site of the Jesuit Huron Martyrs, now a shrine, participated in a Mass. The communicants took part in a veneration of their relics, and in turn the priest gave a special benediction with the relics. It was a tangible experience of the Communion of Saints, a strengthening of our faith as it brought us closer to Christ.

Comments are closed.