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Summer Research project examines history of martyrdom

Martyrdom: The Coloring Book is one of many resources for Will Andress '17 in his Summer Research project.

Martyrdom: The Coloring Book is one of many resources for Will Andress ’17 in his Summer Research project.

Coloring books are all the rage these days. Besides the typical children’s characters, there are now coloring books for adults featuring everything from butterflies to mandalas. And as Will Andress ’17 found out during his Summer Research project, there is even a martyrdom coloring book.

Martyrdom: The Coloring Book is one of many texts—historical and otherwise—Andress is consulting for his project, “Making the Martyr: Understanding the Conception and Reception of the Martyr in Early Christianity.” He is working alongside Gordon Steffey, the Barbara Boyle Lemon ’57 and William J. Lemon Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy, to examine how martyrdom emerged in Christianity and how public perception about it has changed over time.

Will Andress '17 and Gordon Steffey meet to discuss one of their readings in the Student Center.

Will Andress ’17 and Professor Gordon Steffey meet to discuss one of their readings in the Student Center.

The pair is reading letters and sermons written by religious scholars as well as first-person accounts by martyrs themselves, leading up to their planned deaths. Most of the texts Andress and Steffey have read are about martyrs in second and third century Carthage. Besides hours of reading on their own each day, Andress and Steffey meet regularly in Randolph’s Student Center for coffee, where they discuss what they’ve read and compare ideas.

“It’s fun, and we’re learning lots,” Steffey said. “This project involves a lot of intense reading, thinking, reflecting, dialoguing, and re-reading, so a lot of times when we meet we’re still discussing texts that we read weeks ago.”

The project was inspired by a test question Andress answered about holiness during the previous academic year. After completing the test, he found himself wanting to delve into the subject more. The breadth of the topic prompted him to narrow his focus to martyrdom.

“One of the things that has surprised me is that we’ve found martyrdom reaches back to a lot of other traditions,” Andress added. “It’s not something that comes about in the vacuum of Christianity. It has ideas from and calls back to traditions in Judaism and is also within pagan ideas like the noble death of Socrates.”

Andress is a native of Houston, Texas and was raised in the Christian church. He knew he wanted to major in religious studies before he even came to Randolph.

“My favorite thing about religious studies is that it really resonates with me personally,” Andress said. “The appeal is that I get to go to class every day and read or learn something that I can apply to how I live my life every day and maybe help others, too.”

Andress said the project is helping prepare him for a future as a teacher or college professor. “I’m seriously considering teaching at an institution like this,” he said. “And this is a good exercise to get more ideas in my head and to help me understand religious concepts better, making me a more well-rounded religious studies major.”

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