She was just an average young woman who was standing in line. She was about twenty-two, and from a well-off family. She was the mother of a dark-haired,precocious baby boy, and she loved her husband and son with all of her heart. She had dreams just like the rest of us. She was going to homeschool her son, so that he would not be indoctrinated by the state schools. She was going to take care of her parents in their old age, and let her son take care of her in hers. She dreamed of seeing her parents find the faith that she had. She was going to make a difference in her country, which was fast sliding into the swamp of depravity and debauchery. She hated the abortion that was so commonplace, and passionately wanted to see it ended.
She was a follower of Jesus—a Christian.
The line was moving now, the five other people surrounding Perpetua walking with firm, decisive steps. The lights began to glare, and the noise began to batter her ears so excruciatingly that nausea dropped like a curtain over her. Her husband’s gentle smile floated into her mind, and then the picture of that day when she had decided to take the step of baptism and had joined the requisite classes. It had been a sunlit day, and yet she remembered holding her baby boy close for an eternity that evening, while a tear or two dropped upon his velvet cheek.
Perpetua felt a shove from behind and stumbled. The crowd roared even more, and as she lifted up her intent eyes to meet the stare of the people in the stadium, they could not hold her gaze, and they turned away uncomfortably. A few of them Perpetua recognized as friends of her parents, and the realization overwhelmed her with the memory of the last time she had seen her father.
It was at the sentencing, after she had been imprisoned for her faith in Jesus Christ. Each one of her friends was thrown in front of the governor. Each one was asked, “Will you sacrifice in worship to the Emperor?” Each one raised their bruised heads and replied in as ringing a tone as they could muster, “No; I am a Christian, and Christ is Lord.”
It was finally Perpetua’s turn, and as the guard prodded her in the back with the edge of his sword, she wet her dry lips, prepared to seal her death sentence for Christ. But suddenly, her father had rushed in, carrying her precious son. He grabbed her, and his faded eyes gazed with intense love into hers as he begged, “Perpetua, perform the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby!”
The governor saw an opportunity and added his voice to her father’s: “Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the Emperor.”
Most compelling of all, her baby boy held out his arms to her with a heart-wrenching cry.
And though tears had filled her own eyes, Perpetua turned from the easy choice, putting life behind her for once and for all, and said decisively, “I will not.”
“Are you a Christian then?” asked the governor.
“Yes I am,” Perpetua replied without a moment’s hesitation, her clear eyes pinning him with that same intense stare.
And with that, she sealed her fate, even as her father was beaten for desperately appealing to his daughter one last time.
And now, condemned to die, this Carthaginian girl, barely in the bloom of womanhood, was striding onto the stage of her own death, the trench for her own blood, the arena of her brutal martyrdom for the entertainment of hundreds of heartless people.
And through all of these memories, the words of a psalm pierced Perpetua’s soul with their comfort and appeal to God, and this young woman on the brink of death began to sing. At first, the onlookers hardly noticed, so hoarse and quiet was her lone voice, but it only took a few measures before all six of the condemned were pouring their hearts out to God through the simple psalm. A few of the watchers paused, wondering where that faint yet sweet melody could be coming from, and the voices of Perpetua and her fellow Christians rang as they marched to the death.
Witnesses described Perpetua in the arena as “young and beautiful”, “a pure and modest Christian lady”, “with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a bride of Christ.”
And she was only twenty-two. Shortly before this day at the stadium, Perpetua wrote, “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.”
To the bloodthirsty screams of the onlookers, the Christians were beaten. To their violence-lusting shrieks a wild heifer was let loose to charge the group of Christians, and Perpetua was hurtled onto her back. To the audience’s maniacal chants for more, a leopard was released into the stadium, and blood did begin to flow, but not fast enough for the audience. To their murderous shouts, Perpetua was hauled up, barely conscious, and lined up with the other five bloodied Christians. Then they were murdered by the sword, and then the audience’s insatiable bloodlust was satisfied momentarily.
Perpetua’s body lay lifeless and still on the arena floor, her spirit in Heaven in the presence of the Lord she refused to deny. But the testimony of that bloody and battered body still speaks, over 1800 years later. And the testimony in her own words of her martyrdom and unfailing allegiance to Christ she wrote for us, her sisters and brothers in Christ centuries removed, as if to say, “Make Christ the Lord of your life, dear ones, and care not for this short breath of time on earth.”
She wrote of her death, “It will all happen in the prisoner's dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.” She was only twenty-two, and Christ was the Lord of her life and her death.
Read Perpetua's journal from prison, The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity , recounting her imprisonment, and the testimony of her martyrdom from a fellow Christian. This account is one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman.
A Christianity Today Article with more information on this incredible woman of God.