Saints, Martyrs, and Missionaries of Asia

December 2 is observed in some Anglican Churches as a commemoration of the saints, martyrs, and missionaries of Asia. I have moved the commemoration to December 3, given the commemoration of Bishop Channing Moore Williams on December 2. December 3 is the date for the commemoration of Francis Xavier, Missionary to the Indies, in the Roman Catholic and some Anglican calendars.

The Christian faith began in western Asia, and it was there that the first martyrdoms and missionary journeys took place. After the time of the apostles, this continued with early saints such as Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, and Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, both of whom bore witness as martyrs. As a result of the labors of early Christian missionaries, churches were founded not only to the west of Jerusalem, around the Mediterranean Sea, but also to the east, north and south of Jerusalem, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, into the kingdoms of Palmyra and Armenia, into Arabia, and into Persia. St Thomas the Apostle is traditionally held to have preached the Gospel in Persia and in India, where he is said to have suffered martyrdom. The Syrian Orthodox Church (and its daughter Churches), the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Mar Thoma Church (among others) are the modern-day descendants of these early Asian Christians. At one point during the Middle Ages, the Assyrian Church of the East, with its Catholicos-Patriarch at Ctesiphon in Persia and later at Baghdad, could count perhaps one-quarter of the world’s Christians as adherents, with episcopal and archiepiscopal sees as far flung as Jerusalem, Bardaa in the Caucasus Mountains, Navekath in modern-day Turkestan, Patna on the Ganges, Beijing in China, and Tangut in Tibet. Persecution saw only a remnant of this Church survive into modern times in Iraq, where continued persecution has driven most Assyrian Christians to Lebanon, North America, Europe and Australia. Persecution and social and political constraints have also greatly reduced the Oriental Orthodox and Orthodox Churches of the Middle East in the centuries since the early Middle Ages.

In later centuries missionaries from Europe came to Asia, preeminent among them Francis Xavier whose missionary work in the 16th century extended to India, Japan and elsewhere. Catholic missionaries, including numbers of Franciscans and Jesuits, continued his work throughout East Asia (including China) and India. In the late 18th century Henry Martyn, a priest of the Church of England, left his native Cornwall to teach and evangelize in India and Persia (Martyn is commemorated on October 19). William Carey, an English Baptist pastor, labored in the early 19th century in Serampore in India, where he translated the Bible into Bengali and Sanskrit; and Adoniram Judson, an American Baptist missionary, worked in Burma not long after that. Russian Orthodox missionaries took the faith to the Asian parts of the Russian Empire and into China and Japan in the latter half of the 19th century. Anglican and Protestant missionaries entered China and Japan in the 19th century as well. The work of all these missionaries saw the growth of Christian churches in India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and Korea alongside those churches previously established, and helped to strengthen Christian communities where they already existed in those lands.

With the missionaries, martyrs, and saints of the Church in Asia in previous centuries, we also remember today all Christians throughout Asia, and particularly those who still undergo persecution; and we pray for their continued witness to the living truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

compiled from various sources,
including Celebrating the Saints (Robert Atwell, SCM Press)

The Collect

Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of your servants, the saints, martyrs and missionaries of Asia, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at least we may with them attain to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Information on the Churches of the Anglican Communion in Asia may be found at the Anglican Communion website’s Provincial Directory page.

For a brief account of the Assyrian Church of the East (the Nestorian Church) in China, see “Christianity: a traditional Chinese religion” at The Confessing Reader weblog.

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