Bold and Fearless Women Part 1
Images of what bold and fearless women are supposed to be and look like, flood our news feeds. They are typically loud and boisterous, women who are not afraid to “shout their abortion”. Women who have the courage to “come out” to their friends and family about their sexuality. Women who fight to climb the boss babe latter of a corporation aiming for successful careers and the fruition of the American dream. In our society today, you won’t see celebratory images of women who were willing to sacrifice their very lives for the sake of Christ. You won’t see young, Christian converts who pray for their unsaved Hindu or Muslim family members, all while fleeing from them due to persecution and possible martyrdom. You won’t see celebratory images of young missionary brides who faithfully followed their husbands to war torn countries and cannibalistic islands to take the gospel to those in desperate need of Jesus. You won’t see the faithful mother applauded for teaching her children the Scriptures even if it meant death by fire. You won’t see the women applauded who risk their lives just to have a Bible in their home. But these women are the ones I desire to emulate, these are the women I desire to tell my future daughters about. They were not well known, they were certainly never famous, but they were faithful to the end just as you and I should desire to be. These are the stories of truly bold and fearless women, Sarah’s daughters who “did not fear anything that was frightening” (1 Peter 3:6).
Vibia Perpetua – 181-203 AD
In 202 the Roman Governor at Carthage in North Africa ordered the arrest of Christians. Among those rounded up was Perpetua, the young mother of a one-year-old boy. Perpetua came from a noble family, her father being a pagan, her mother a Christian. It is unclear whether her husband had died or abandoned her due to her Christian beliefs, but we do know that he was no longer in her life or her son’s life. During this time, Christians were able to escape persecution if they would agree to offer a sacrifice to the emperor as a god. After Perpetua’s arrest, she was held with four other Christians in a private home under guards. Her father came to see her, seeking to persuade her to deny her faith for the sake of her son and her family. He begged of her to reject Christ but pointing to a vase she said, “Father can that vase change its name?” “No” he replied. “Neither can I call myself anything else that what I am- a Christian.” Her determined reply upset him greatly, grabbing her by the shoulders, he shook her and demanded that she renounce her face. “I am a Christian” she replied firmly. A few days later the prisoners were moved from the house to the dungeon of a large prison where they were cursed and whipped. Concern of physical torture, however, could not compare to the concern Perpetua had for her baby.
Only a few days later, the chief jailer moved the four Christians to a less crowded section of the prison and a friend brought Perpetua’s infant son to her. She thanked God for the ability to nurse her famished child. She then placed her son in the care of her mother. After several days, word came that the Christians would soon face trial. Once again, Perpetua’s father came trying to persuade her to renounce her faith and escape punishment. “Daughter” he said, “have pity on your father if I still deserve to be called your father. Do not deliver me up to the scorn of men. Think of your mother and your brothers, have compassion on your child that cannot live without you, lay aside your courage and resolve for we cannot bear the thought of your suffering.” He then knelt at her feet, kissing her hands and sobbed saying “My lady, please relent.” Perpetua fought back tears but replied, “Father, do not grieve, nothing will happen but what pleases God, know that we are not placed in our own power, but in God’s.” Realizing that he could not persuade her, he bowed his head and left.
The following day, Perpetua and her friends were led by guard to the town hall amongst the gawking spectators. The Christians stood before the provincial governor where he first questioned the three men who boldly professed Jesus, refusing to offer a sacrifice. As the men were being examined, Perpetua’s father appeared once again, this time, with her son. He pulled her aside whispering, “Perpetua, please consider the misery that you will bring on this innocent child.” As Perpetua gently refused her father’s request, the governor overheard their discussion. “What?” he said, “Will neither the grey hair of a father who you were born to make miserable, nor the tender innocence of a child which your death will leave an orphan, move you?” Stretching an open hand toward her, he told her to make a sacrifice and she would be free. Perpetua looked the emperor straight in the eyes and said, “I will not do it.” “Are you a Christian then?” he asked. “I am a Christian” was her reply. The governor ordered a soldier to strike her face for her obstinance, the blow knocked her back, but she would not deny Christ or offer incense to the emperor. After the trial was over, the emperor condemned each of the prisoners to die by wild beasts. Their execution would be a part of the games in the Roman Coliseum for the entertainment of the crowd.
The five prisoners were led back to the prison where, for several days, they were chained with their hands and feet in stocks. The jailer, seeing how bravely and patiently the Christians bore the torture took pity on them and removed them from the stocks, allowing visitors to come see them. Again, Perpetua’s father came to her, looking haggard and exhausted, he threw himself on the ground begging her to recant and save her life. “I cannot” she told him. After he left, tears streamed down her face and she wrote, “I was ready to die in sorrow to see my father in such poor condition.”
In the days leading up to the games, their cell block was full of people- visitors who wanted to see these Christians who would rather die that give up their faith. By this time, even the chief jailer himself had turned to Christ through the example of the five Christians. As people came to see them, Perpetua’s pastor, a fellow prisoner, smiled at the visitors saying, “Tomorrow you will clap your hands at our death and applaud our murders. But look carefully at our faces that you may recognize them on that beautiful day, when all men shall be judged.” The onlookers left astounded by their courage, later, several of them would put their faith in Christ.
When the day of execution finally arrived, guards led the prisoners to the arena. Eyewitnesses reported that Perpetua calmly walked with her eyes to the ground and entered the arena singing a Psalm of praise. As they walked past the governor’s seat, one of the men said to him, “You judge us in this world, but God will judge you in the next.” The five prisoners were scourged per the demands of the crowd and order of the governor. After receiving the bloody blows, they all gathered together and gave thanks to God that they had been counted worthy to suffer in the same way Christ had suffered before Pilate. The three men were the first to die at the snapping jaws of a bear, a leper and wild boar. Perpetua and her friend Felicitas faced a raging bull, it hooked Perpetua on its horns, throwing her back but she rose, gathering her tattered clothes about her and running to the aid of Felicitas who had been badly harmed. The two women stood together arm in arm expecting another charge from the beast, but a guard led the women aside for a time so the gladiators could enter the arena to fight. During this time, a Christian friend brought Perpetua’s younger brother to her. “Stand firm in the faith and love one another” she told them, “Don’t be discouraged by my sufferings.” As the games drew to a close, Perpetua and Felicitas were dragged back to the center of the arena where they died by a gladiator’s sword. These personal accounts written during their imprisonment and eyewitness accounts of their martyrdom were spread abroad, strengthening the resolve of Christians in North Africa and beyond.
Mrs. Smith of Coventry – 1485-1519
One evening in 1519 Mrs. Smith, a widowed mother, sat with her children around the hearth of their cottage in Coventry England. She was reading to them the gospel of Luke and teaching them to recite the Lord’s prayer in English. They worshipped secretly with a small group of lollards who read the Bible in English and followed the teachings of John Wycliff. One-hundred-fifty years earlier, Wycliff, a professor at Oxford University, studied the Word of God and discovered that many of the teachings of the Roman church such as purgatory, prayers to saints, indulgences, and many others were contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. Wycliff began to teach his students that the teachings of the church were unbiblical doctrines hiding the good news of Jesus Christ. “Church law has no force when it opposes the Word of God” Wycliff once wrote. At that time the Latin vulgate was the only Bible translation allowed by the church but only the educated elite understood Latin. Wycliff longed for the people to read and hear the Scriptures in their own language, so, with the help of his students he translated the Bible into English. He sent out his helpers to preach and distribute handwritten portions of the Scriptures. These “lollards”, as they were called, won thousands of Englishmen to Christ but the bishops convinced the king to crush them. Hunted and hounded for decades, scores of lallords were burned at the stake. They went underground, worshipping behind closed doors and secretly passing out hand copied passages of the Bible. In reaction to Wycliff’s efforts, the authorities enforced severe punishments for those translating the Scriptures into English or reading the Scriptures in English. But persecution by the church and the crown could not fully extinguish Wycliff’s Bible or the lollards.
One-hundred-thirty years after Wycliff’s death, Martin Luther who was in Germany, began using the Scriptures to boldly challenge the teachings of the Roman church. As Luther’s writings rolled off the printer’s press in Germany they were smuggled off to England and then spread throughout the kingdom through merchant’s and booksellers, many of whom were lollards. The bishop of London warned: “there have been found certain children of iniquity who are endeavoring to bring into our land the old and accursed Wycliffite heresy and along with it the Lutheran heresy”. Young King Henry the VIII enraged by Luther’s criticism of the Roman church, called the German a serpent and cunning viper. Henry ordered that Luther’s writings be publicly burned in London and made it clear that English supporters of these ideas would face persecution. A crack down on lollards soon followed.
In the spring of 1519, the bishop of Coventry received word that certain families were teaching their children the Lord’s prayer and the 10 Commandments in English. The bishop ordered the arrest of six men and one woman- Mrs. Smith. While they were held at an abbey outside of town, their children were brought to Grave Mires Monastery in Coventry. The boys and girls were made to stand before Friar Stafford the Abbot. One by one, they were interrogated about their parent’s beliefs. “Now then” he told them “I charge you in the name of God to tell me the whole truth, you shall suffer severely for any lies you tell or secrets you conceal. What do you believe about the church and the way to heaven?” he asked. “Do you go to the services of the parish church? Do you read the Scriptures in English? Do you memorize the Lord’s prayer or other Scriptures in English?” After getting from the children’s own lips the information he needed to convict their parents he warned them, “Your parents are heretics, they have led you away from the teachings of the church. You are never to meddle again with the Lord’s prayer or the 10 commandments in English. Or any other Scriptures in English. If you do, rest assured, you will burn at the stake for it.”
The next day, the six fathers and Mrs. Smith stood before a panel of judges that included the bishop and Frier Stafford. After presenting the evidence against them, and because the men had already been warned before by the bishop not to persist in their lollard ways, the men were condemned to death by burning. Since this was Mrs. Smith’s first offense however, the court dismissed her with a warning not to teach her children the Scriptures in English anymore under penalty of death. It was late in the evening when the court decided this, so the bishop’s assistant decided to see Mrs. Smith home in the dark. As they walked out into the night, he took her arm to lead her across the street. Hearing the rattling of papers within her sleeve he stopped and said, “Well what do you have here?” He grabbed her arm, reached into the sleeve and pulled out a small scroll. Under the light of a lantern, he read it and found that it contained The Lord’s prayer, The 10 commandments, and the Apostles Creed handwritten in English. “Well, well he said with a sneer, come now, this is as good a time as any.” He drug her back again to the bishop where the panel quickly sentenced her to be burned with the six condemned men and sent her off to prison to await her fate. A few days later they were led to an open space in the center of Coventry known as Little Park. There, they tied them to a stake and burned them to death for the crime of teaching their children the Word of God in English.
Sarah Boardman Judson – 1803-1845
Ever since Sarah was in her early teens growing up in Salem, Massachusetts she felt called to foreign missions. “It is my ardent desire” she wrote a friend at that time, “that the glorious work of reformation may extend till every knee shall bow to the living God. How can I be so inactive when I know that thousands are perishing in this land of grace and millions in other lands are, at this very moment, kneeling before senseless idols?” Just a few years earlier, James Culbit, the pioneer missionary to Burma had died. Nineteen-year-old Sarah wrote a poem about his life on the mission field, a Christian magazine printed it, and it was read by George Boardman, a Baptist minister preparing to take Culbin’s place in Burma. After reading it, Boardman strongly desired to meet the author of the poem. When they met, George and Sarah talked for hours about their Christian faith and international missions, before long, they fell in love. In 1826 they married and honeymooned on the ship that took them from the United States to Calcutta, India. They remained in Calcutta for a time while the British put down rebellion by natives in Burma. In the meantime, the Boardman’s began to learn the language.
In 1827 they and their newborn baby arrived in Burma and met Adoniram Judson, the head of the mission, who was still reeling from the death of his wife. Several months later, Judson sent them to start a mission in Savoy, a city about fifty miles away. When they got there, the British commanding officer urged them to live inside the fortified walls of the town for protection. “Our goal is to bring the gospel to the Burmese people” George told them, “to do that, we must live among them.” They had a small bamboo hut built outside the town walls on the edge of the jungle. Soon, Sarah contracted malaria which greatly weakened her, she suffered reoccurring bouts of the disease her whole life. Once, bandits broke into their hut and would have killed them had they awoken, God miraculously kept them sleeping. They awoke the next morning to their possessions gone and knife slits in the mosquito net that hung over their bed.
Tavoy (now known as Dawei) was a stronghold of Hinduism, filled with thousands of shrines and hundreds of Hindu priests. As George and Sarah mastered the language, the natives began to visit them to hear about their God. The people loved to touch Sarah’s clothing and fair white skin. Over time, some of the natives turned to Christ. Many of the converts were Karens, tribal people who lived in the forest and mountains, other Burmese people called them wild men. The Karen converts led many of their tribesmen to the Christian faith. George began to venture many miles into the jungle to visit their remote villages. The people welcomed him and flocked around to hear him preach the good news of Jesus Christ. He baptized young converts and helped to organize village churches. While George made trips into the jungle, Sarah cared for their daughter and their newborn son and told those who visited their home about Jesus. Sarah began a women’s Bible study and prayer meeting; she also opened a school in Tavoy and trained native women to start Christian schools in their villages. “To see so many in this dark land putting on Christ fills me with joy and gratitude” Sarah wrote in a letter home. “It makes us forget the hardships and dangers.” Sadly, Sarah would face even greater hardships soon.
Her little daughter died suddenly, then George fell ill with tuberculosis, a disease that sapped his strength and made him cough constantly. “We must look beyond this frail, fleeting world for our true peace” Sarah wrote her sister. “Alas I know by most bitter experience that it is in vain to seek true happiness here below. My fondest earthly hopes have again and again been dashed. My heart was almost broken when I stood beside the deathbed of my sweet, lovely girl” Not long after, their 8-month-old son died. Through all the trials, the Boardman’s clung to God and worked to bring the Burmese to Christ. Later, Sarah gave birth to another son but shortly afterward, her husband George died. “The hours of loneliness and bitter weeping I endured” she wrote “are known only to God, but still Jesus has sweetened the cup.” After the death of her husband, Sarah wondered if she should remain a missionary in Burma or return to the States. At that time, single women rarely served on the mission field. Her parents and the leaders of her home church urged her to return home. “When I first stood by the grave of my husband” she wrote in a letter home “I thought that I must go home, but these poor Karens and the Burmese, would then be left without anyone to instruct them. How then can I go?” She decided to remain and threw herself into the work. “Every moment of my time is occupied from sunup to 10 in the evening” she reported. Within the last two months, fifty-seven Karens had been baptized. Two years later she wrote “our schools are flourishing with sixty scholars in town and about fifty among the Karens in the jungle. I feel desolate, lonely and sometimes deeply distressed at my great and irreparable loss, but I bless God, I am not in despair.”
After 3 years in Burma as a widow, Sarah married Adoniram Judson and moved to Moulmein, the headquarters of Judson’s mission. Adoniram had been laboring in Burma for more than twenty years, he had suffered imprisonment, torture, and the death of his wife Ann and all their children. Through those difficult times he preached, organized churches, and translated the entire Bible into Burmese. Sarah proved to be as great a blessing to Adoniram as he was to her, “you know I love you more than all the world beside” Adoniram told her. Through the years they had eight children. Sarah led Bible classes for women and trained teachers to start Christian schools. Sarah had also mastered Burmese so well that she preferred reading the Bible in that language rather than English. She translated John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into Burmese as well as hymns, a catechism booklet, and Christian tracts, all the while suffering from reoccurring malaria. Sarah died at the age of forty-one, in one of her final letters home she wrote, “I can say with gratitude to God, that amid all the vastitudes which I have been called to pass, I have never for one moment regretted that I entered the missionary field. We are not weary of our work; it is our heart’s desire to live and die among these people.”
Purnima -1993 to present
Thirteen-year-old Purnima shivered as she and the other thirty-four Christians were interrogated in the open courtyard. “Why do you want to be a Christian? Where does your support come from? This is a Buddhist country, and you have dishonored us by accepting this foreign religion. Why do you want to turn your people against you?” There were about twenty-five officers, most of them big and intimidating. Purnima cringed as the man beside her was slapped. Young Purnima stood before the men who towered over her, praying for enough courage to face the impending questions. “Who gave you permission to celebrate Christmas in the village of Purtah? This is Bhutan. You are not allowed to celebrate Christmas in Bhutan! This is your last choice: You either return to Bhuddism or you leave Bhutan.” The officer was speaking directly to Purnima now and she felt the impact of this ultimatum. “Do you understand? You are not permitted to stay here and practice this foreign religion. What will it be?” Purnima knew the officer was serious, already she had been kicked out of her home and village, she had no idea where she would go now but she knew what she must do. “I will not deny Christ! I do not wish to leave my Country, and I will not leave Christ. He is the only One who can save me- or you.” Her body shook as she spoke, but her heart was fixed, and her fate now sealed. She and the other Christians had five days to leave the country, less than one week left of the life they had always known.
Purnima had grown up in a small Buddhist village in the green hills of eastern Bhutan. Her father was the local witch doctor and often led rituals and performed animal sacrifices to drive out evil spirits that threatened their community. Their family of eight were all very close, her older, sickly sister Maya and brother-in-law living with them. For years, Purnima watched as her father made sacrifices on behalf of Maya, yet her health never improved. It wasn’t until Maya’s husband Sival received a Bible and began praying to Jesus that Maya was healed, the couples’ faith only grew stronger after this. Maya and Purnima’s father declared, “If you insist on being a Christian, you can no longer stay here. The villagers would never allow it, they will drive us out and your new religion will bring disgrace and calamity on the whole family.” No one in the family was allowed to visit the couple in their place of exile. After hearing that her sister had given birth to a little boy, Purnima could not take it any longer and began sneaking out to visit her Christian sister. Each time she visited, Maya would read Purnima a story from the Bible. She was especially fascinated by the story of Moses and how he had been forced to leave his home, yet eventually became the mouthpiece of God. If she was a Christian, she imagined she would be like Moses. After Maya gave birth to a daughter, Purnima’s secret visits became more and more frequent. Even after being caught and warned by her mother, Purnima persisted in visiting her sister, but now it wasn’t just love for her sister that drew her there. Purnima had become a Christian. Though she kept her faith secret at first, she now longed to be baptized as a declaration of her faith. Not only did she long to be baptized, but she also yearned to tell her parents about her newfound faith. Though her sister warned her of what would happen, trying to encourage her to keep it a secret until she was older, Purnima was unwavering. She rushed home, in all her twelve-year-old innocence and simply blurted out the news. She was forced to leave that same evening.
Now, here she was, one year later, at the door of her old home for the last time. Her mother grabbed her daughter tightly, “Please tell me you are home to stay. Please tell me you are not a Christian any longer.” Purnima remained silent for a few moments, she didn’t want to cause her mother any more pain, but she had to tell her. “Mom, I have to leave Bhutan. The police won’t let me live here. I’m sorry.” “Purnima” her mother replied, “you are not yet fourteen, how can you be so brave? How can you forsake your country?” They both began to weep in each other’s arms. “I am not forsaking my country mom; my country has forsaken me” she sobbed. She knew her parents had never wanted to force her out of their house, they were simply afraid, everyone was afraid- afraid of Christians, afraid of Christmas, afraid of Christ. “Here, take this,” her father said handing her a small wad of money “and please be careful” he looked into his daughter’s teary eyes, gave her a quick hug and left the room. Purnima looked at her beautiful mother again, perhaps for the last time, one more hug then she disappeared though the fields. Her journey was long. Maya and Sival, along with their children had already fled. Purnima joined eight other Christians, none of whom had ever ventured beyond their remote region. They were dropped off by a bus only a short distance past the boarder of Bhutan and told to walk “that way” through the mountains of India and Nepal. They journeyed for days by foot but grew increasingly exhausted. Along the way they were robbed and beaten- all of them were left bruised and bloody, they had lost everything except for Purnima’s Bible and a small amount of money her father had given her which she managed to keep hidden.
Eventually, Purnima was reunited with her sister in Nepal where they were forced to live in a refugee camp. Life in the camp was difficult for Purnima, but her older sister encouraged her “God must have work for us to do here” The high point of camp life was the fervent growth of the church that was occurring among the thousands of refugees. Purnima felt most contented during her adventures to visit other villages to take the gospel there she was burning for the lost and took advantage of the language classes the camp offered so that she could learn to share the gospel with the people of Nepal. Eventually Purnima was caught sneaking out of camp to give out gospel tracts, she and other Christians were put into jail to be interrogated and beaten. After some time, the Christians were brought out for trial and Purnima was sentenced to three years in the federal prison. She was fifteen now, she had been forced from her home, forced from her country, lived in a refugee camp, endured beatings and now prison. Through everything she suffered, she felt privileged to be able to endure it for Christ’s sake and continued shearing Jesus with those in prison. As Purnima’s health began to decline due to the poor conditions of the prison, her faith underwent severe testing and was shaken. She often had dreams of her home and her mother, and she worried about her vulnerability and declining faith. Even through this difficult time though, she continued to serve those in the prison. Rather than using her meager prison allowance to buy warmer blankets or food for herself, she spent it all on chicken and vegetables which she then made into a Christmas dinner for her unsaved cell mates. The prisoners could not understand why she would do that, especially being so young and they listened to her as she told them the Christmas story. Later, many of her cell mates were saved through her testimony and witness to them.
After fourteen months and six days, Purnima and her friends were released. From the first time Maya had read her the story, Purnima had admired Moses. He had been exiled from his land as she had, he too had felt inadequate to speak as she often did because of her age, yet God had still used her mightily just as He had Moses. Today, Purnima is frequently invited to speak at churches surrounding the refugee camp where she still lives with her sister. Her prayer is that one day she can return to Bhutan to see her mother and preach the gospel.