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In the book The Trail of Blood by James M Carroll, the author makes the claim that 50,000,000 early Baptists were martyred under persecution by the Catholic Church. The author makes the claim multiple times without any sourcing for that number. My question is essentially two parts. Is the claim of 50,000,000 Baptist martyrs accurate, and if so, can someone point me to a source that validates the claim?

  • This question isn't off-topic here, but it would also be on-topic (and solicit perhaps more scholarly answer) on Skeptics.SE as well. – Flimzy Nov 10 '14 at 15:18
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    Here's an interesting Baptist source on the matter. – Peter Turner Nov 10 '14 at 15:34
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    That book promotes the concept of Baptist successionism--the idea that every group in church history that was opposed to infant baptism was a predecessor of modern Baptists. This includes the Paulicians and the Cathars, gnostic sects that had little in common with Baptists. Even if the 50 million number is accurate (which I strongly doubt) it includes many people who were not actually Baptists. – Bruce Alderman Nov 10 '14 at 15:50
  • @Flimzy Can the same question be posted on both sites, or would it be better if it was migrated? – Zachary Nov 10 '14 at 16:10
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    You do know that this book has been discredited more than Left Behind, right? It ranks up there with "Time on the cross" as outdated propaganda. – Affable Geek Nov 11 '14 at 11:10
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No, there is no reliable historical evidence to support such a claim.

Before going into the question significantly, I should point out that the number of Baptists killed by the Catholic Church depends on how one defines "Baptist" - apparently, there are some who consider any early sect of Christianity which did not practice infant baptism to be a "proto-Baptist"; a predecessor of the Baptists. Rather than decide "who really is a Baptist", I'm just going to count all Christians who were killed, or died, by order or complicity of the Catholic Church: to my shame I must admit there were many.

The first appearance of the number "fifty million" that I can find is in Charles Buck, A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms, 1836, in the article "Persecution":

It has been computed that fifty millions of Protestants have, at different times, been the victims of the persecutions of the Papists, and put to death for their religious opinions.

Unfortunately, Buck does not state where he gets this number. In his discussion of "Persecution of Christians by those of the same name", in which he focuses exclusively on post-Reformation persecutions of Protestants by Catholics, he mentions the Inquisition, the Dutch Revolt (not by that name), the French Wars of Religion (likewise not by that name), the English Reformation, the 1641 Irish Rebellion, and unspecified slaughters by Catholics in Scotland and Spain (although it specifies that the Spanish killings it mentions are of Jews, Muslims, and "barbarians", not of Christians).

According to this source, which cites the "fifty million" number as well (and which refers to the statement by Buck), between fifty and sixty-eight million people (not necessarily all Protestants) were killed by "Inquisition", 1518 and later. This apparently refers to the Roman Inquisition, although it could refer to the Spanish and perhaps the Portuguese Inquisitions as well. This academic source states that relatively few of those tried by the Inquisitions were in fact executed; Wikipedia estimates that the total number of people executed by the inquisition was probably between three and five thousand. There are much higher estimates, but none higher than 350,000; the median of several reliable estimates is 32,000.

The Dutch Revolt appears to have killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people.

The French Wars of Religion probably killed about three million people (Wikipedia estimates between two and four million).

In the English Reformation, based on the Wikipedia list, fewer than 500 people were killed.

In the Irish Rebellion of 1641, about 112,000 Protestants were killed.

Wikipedia, citing an article in The Oxford Book of Scottish History, estimates that "over 1,500 people" were executed for witchcraft, of between 4,000 and 6,000 tried.

These numbers total well under 5 million. While this amount is lamentable, it is nowhere near the fifty million cited.

Perhaps one could add the figures referred to in this source from FaithAssemblyOnline.org, which includes the Albigensian Crusade and the Thirty Years' War. It appears that scholarly estimates of the deaths from the Albigensian Crusade amount to between 100,000 and 1,000,000, roughly in agreement with the Faith Assembly source. Wikipedia's article on the Thirty Years' War, however (citing Europe, A History by Norman Davis), estimates that it caused 8 million deaths on all sides.

Finally, since I am unable to find a good source for the number of deaths caused by the crusade against the Waldensians, let's assume that the number given in the Faith Assembly source (900,000) is correct. These numbers total 14.5 million, nowhere near the 50 million.

Note several things:

  1. This is a total of all self-described Christians whose deaths might be ascribed to the Catholic Church, whether they're considered precursors of Baptists or not.
  2. In conflicts (the Dutch Revolt, the French War of Religion, the Thirty Years' War) for which separate numbers of Catholic and Protestant deaths were not given, I assumed that all people killed were Protestants. This is almost certainly quite far from the truth.
  3. This is the highest possible estimate I could get from the numbers; the low estimate (taking the lowest estimate of non-conflict casualties, and assuming that casualties from conflicts were about half Protestant and half Catholic) is about 4 million.
  4. The conflicts were in part caused by religious divisions, but they were political events as much as if not more than religious events; calling them "deaths caused by the Catholic Church" grossly misrepresents the causes and structure of the conflict, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I have included them to attempt to inflate the numbers as much as possible.

Based on my review of both the sources which provide the "50 million" number, and the historical evidence regarding the events to which the sources allude, I conclude that there is no historical reason whatsoever for believing that this number is anywhere close to accurate.

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The History of Romanism by John Dowling published in 1845 is where the statistic probably comes from as it's pretty much a verbatim claim.

Unfortunately, the footnotes on page 542 say that:

No amount of computation can reach the number

-History of Romanism Page 542 - footnote#1

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    "No computation can reach the numbers... who have been put to death, in different ways, on account of their maintaining the profession of the Gospel, and opposing the corruptions of the Church of Rome." The footnote then proceeds to list the numbers of those slain. – ShemSeger Nov 10 '14 at 21:11
  • A few numbers, which don't add up to fifty million; and which don't explain how those numbers were derived, nor cite objective historical evidence to support the claims. – Matt Gutting Nov 10 '14 at 21:21
  • "These are but a few specimens, and but a few, of those which history has recorded;" – ShemSeger Nov 10 '14 at 21:39
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    The footnote is basically saying, "There were 50 million martyrs, but no one can count how many people died because of other problems with the church." So while this answer supports a true point (that the 50 million number is made up) it doesn't arrive there in a reliable way. – Mr. Bultitude Jan 13 '16 at 15:10
  • Dowling talks of "reliable historians" estimating the number. The footnote is a direct quote from "Scott's Church History", not further identified. – disciple Jul 6 '16 at 4:42
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It does seem unlikely, that number is supposed to be representative of a period of about 1,200 years, but even over that period of time you'd still have to kill at least 114 baptists a day to reach that number. There's always a high estimate and a low estimate when calculating casualties, my initial assumption is that 50 million is the high estimate, and may not be exclusive of Baptists. The number certainty isn't unrealistic, the Soviet Union Communists alone killed 20 million christians in a period of 60 years.

I get my numbers based off of this interesting (and heavily sourced) study:

Estimates of the “number killed” by the papacy in the middle ages and later.

The study linked above includes sourced estimates of how many souls have been martyred in the past two millennia by the Catholic Church. They are careful to exclude casualties of war and plague from their numbers, so their conclusion is based on martyrs only. They are also sensitive enough to emphasize at the beginning of the study that it is not their intention to show hostility towards the Roman Catholic Church today because of the sins of their past.

The same study linked above concludes with this:

CHAPTER 3. THE 50 MILLION FIGURE:

It is often claimed by HISTORIC PROTESTANT WRITERS that 50 MILLION OR MORE PEOPLE have been killed by the Papacy. For example, Buck [Buck, Charles, A Theological Dictionary, containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; ... Philadelphia, Thomas Cowperthwait & Co., 1838, Article “Persecution”, p. 335] writes, “It has been computed that Fifty Millions of PROTESTANTS have, at different times, been the VICTIMS of the PERSECUTIONS OF THE PAPISTS, and put to death for their Religious Opinions.” However, most people today HAVE NO IDEA how this figure of 50 million was originally computed. Some persons today are claiming that this figure of 50 million has no basis in fact and is an exaggeration based on ANTI-CATHOLIC sentiment. Therefore, it is of interest to find out how this figure was originally computed in order to evaluate its reliability. This study reveals some aspects of History that are being NEGLECTED TODAY and also gives us an insight into the extent to which the TRUE HISTORY of religion is being lost. This study also shows how some of the other figures were computed.

There were MANY ATTEMPTS to calculate the NUMBER KILLED by the Papacy. Albert Barnes, in his Commentary on Revelation 11:14, states, “Calculations, more or less accurate, have been made of the numbers Popery has slain….” We give one plausible method of computation for the often quoted figure of 50 MILLION KILLED by the Papacy in Europe. As a starting point, JOHN WESLEY speaks of “the whole number of victims who have been offered up in Europe since the Beginning of the REFORMATION? Partly by war, partly by the Inquisition, and a thousand other methods of Romish cruelty? No less within forty years, if the computation of an eminent writer be just, than FIVE AND FORTY MILLIONS!” Also, Halley’s Bible Handbook, 1965 Edition, Page 726, referencing many older works on Church History states “Historians estimate that, in the MIDDLE AGES and EARLY REFORMATION ERA, more than 50,000,000 MARTYRS perished.” Furthermore, speaking of Innocent III, Halley writes [p. 776], “More Blood was Shed under his direction, and that of his immediate successors, than at any other period of Church History, except in the Papacy’s Effort to CRUSH THE REFORMATION in the 16th and 17th Centuries.” In his introduction to [Berg, Lectures on Romanism, D. Weidner, Philadelphia, 1840, p. 6], Brownlee writes, “Rome has been ‘drunk with THE BLOOD’ OF FIFTY MILLIONS of Martyred Culdees, Waldenses, Albigenses, Bohemian Brethren, Wicklifites, and Protestants!” This at least gives a listing of those included in one of the computations of FIFTY MILLION KILLED. Voltaire wrote [Traite sur la Tolerance, 1763, Chapter XVII] This shows that one of these computations of 50 million killed was ACCEPTED BY VOLTAIRE and approximately covered the Period from 350 A.D. to 1750 A.D.


In response to doubts about the reliability of the document I have linked in this answer, I've taken the liberty to compile a list of some of the citations attached to the statements supporting the figures, it looks like a fairly well researched study to me:

  • "History of Romanism," pp. 541, 542. New York: 1871

  • "History of Romanism" (Book VIII, Chapter 1, Footnote 1).

  • J.P. Callender, Illustrations of Popery, 1838, p. 400

  • Bourne, George, The American Textbook of Popery, Griffith & Simon, Philadelphia, 1846, pp. 402-403

  • Cushing B. Hassell, HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF GOD, Chapter XIV

  • "History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe," Vol. II, p. 32. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910

  • Citing Dr. Brownlee’s “Popery An Enemy to Civil Liberty”, p. 105

  • Cushing B. Hassell, History of the Church of God, Chapter XVII

  • “Plea for the West” by Lyman Beecher (Cincinnati, Truman and Smith, 1835), pp. 130-131.

  • Popery An Enemy to Civil Liberty, 1836, pp. 104-105

  • The Roman Catholic Religion Viewed in the Light of Prophecy and History, New York, Charles K. Moore, 1843, Page 60

  • Cushing B. Hassell, History of the Church of God, Chapter XV

  • A Debate on the Roman Catholic Religion, Christian Publishing Co., 1837, p. 327

  • Walter M. Montano, Behind the Purple Curtain, Cowman Publications, 1950, Page 91.) -- The Shadow of Rome, by John B. Wilder; Zondervan Publishing Co., 1960, Page 87

  • Bunch, Taylor, The Book of Daniel, 1950, p. 170

  • Bunch, Taylor, Studies in the Revelation, 1933?, p. 105

  • [Buck, Charles, A Theological Dictionary, containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; ... Philadelphia, Thomas Cowperthwait & Co., 1838, Article “Persecution”, p. 335]

http://arcticbeacon.com/books/Plaisted-Estimates_Number_Killed_by_the_Papacy-2006.pdf

http://teachinghearts.org/dre04historynotes.html

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    Do they MENTION in there how many CATHOLICS were the VICTIMS of PROTESTANTS? – Peter Turner Nov 10 '14 at 19:46
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    The link is there, you're welcome to read it and see for yourself, but I don't think that info would not be relevant to this question. – ShemSeger Nov 10 '14 at 19:53
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    The link there seems to have the same text as was referred to in a previous answer (now deleted?); I commented on that answer that the paper, though supposedly heavily sourced, contains only two citations; this contains numerous questionable statements and overestimates (compared to e.g. Wikipedia's numbers). I don't feel this is a very historically reliable document. – Matt Gutting Nov 10 '14 at 20:29
  • I count 17 inline citations + the 2 sourced references noted at the end. – ShemSeger Nov 10 '14 at 20:40
  • You must be missing something - I count 23 plus the two references at the end. I stand by my statement about the historical reliability; but I don't feel it's appropriate to discuss in comments. – Matt Gutting Nov 10 '14 at 21:08
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At the fall of the western Roman empire triggered by a Roman naval revolt in south east Spain opened the Mediterranean and it's north Africa bread basket to cutting by pirates caused famine in Rome, adding to plague, revolt in the army over devalued payment high taxes to support a large bureaucracy caused the fall of Rome in to smaller states, the population of the western empire was approximately 50 million by the time of Luther it had climbed to approximately 78 million, there was three waves of the black plague which killed 1/3 of the population of Europe, the ripples of these deaths cause a demand for labor freeing the serf from his Lord, the opening of market towns with charters given by the ruling class to replace lost revenue. Technology advances in water power for making steel, fabric etc..The death of scribes who had been trained by the church caused the printing by Gutenberg to break the guilds. The ripples run throughout present history. There are no ripples of the 50-168 million killed by the Catholic Church, none. It didn't happen, what did happen was Luther Zwingli Calvin and Elizabeth I of the house of Tudor and the war with the Catholic Spanish empire. And propaganda myths and slander happened.

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