Christianity under the successors of Aurelius enjoyed a season of comparative repose and tranquillity. The depravity of Commodus was overruled to subserve the interests of the Christians after their long sufferings under his father; and the brief reign of many of the emperors left them no leisure to war against the aggressions of Christianity. "During little more than a century," says Milman, "from the accession of Commodus to that of Diocletian, more than twenty emperors flitted like shadows along the tragic scene of the imperial palace. The empire of the world became the prize of bold adventure, or the precarious gift of a lawless soldiery. A long line of military adventurers, often strangers to the name, to the race, to the language of Rome — Africans, Pyreans, Arabs, and Goths — seized the quickly shifting scepter of the world. The change of sovereign was almost always a change of dynasty, or, by some strange fatality, every attempt to re-establish a hereditary succession was thwarted by the vices or imbecility of the second generation."
Thus the Christians had about a hundred years of comparative rest and peace. There were, no doubt, many cases of persecution and martyrdom during that period; but such cases were more the result of personal hostility in some individual than from any systematic policy pursued by the government against Christianity. The first and commanding object of each succeeding emperor was to secure his contested throne. They had no time to devote to the suppression of Christianity, or to the social and religious changes within the empire. Thus the great Head of the church — who is also "head over all things to the church" — made the weakness and insecurity of the throne the indirect means of the strength and prosperity of the church.
But although the reign of Cornmodus was generally favorable to the progress of Christianity, there was one remarkable instance of persecution which we must note.
Apollonius, a Roman senator, renowned for learning and philosophy, was a sincere Christian. Many of the nobility of Rome, with their whole families, embraced Christianity about this time. The dignity of the Roman senate felt itself lowered by such innovations. This led, it is supposed, to the accusation of Apollonius before the magistrate. His accuser, under an old and unrepealed law of Antoninus Pius, which enacted grievous punishments against the accusers of Christians, was sentenced to death and executed. The magistrate asked the prisoner, Apollonius, to give an account of his faith before the senate and the court. He complied, and boldly confessed his faith in Christ; in consequence of which, by a decree of the senate, he was beheaded. It is said by some to be the only trial recorded in history where both the accused and the accuser suffered judicially. But the Lord's hand was in it, and high above both the accuser and the magistrate, Perennius, who condemned them both. From this period many families of distinction and opulence in Rome professed Christianity, and sometimes we meet with Christians in the imperial family.
After a reign of about twelve years the unworthy son of Aurelius died from the effects of a poisoned cup of wine.
Pertinax, immediately upon the death of Commodus, was elected by the senate to the throne; but after a brief reign of sixty-six days, he was killed in an insurrection. A civil war followed, and Septimius Severus ultimately obtained the sovereign power in Rome.
In the early part of the reign of Severus he was rather favorable to the Christians. A christian slave, named Proculus, was the means of restoring the Emperor to health, by anointing him with oil. This remarkable cure — no doubt in answer to prayer — gave the Christians great favor in the eyes of Severus. Proculus received an honorable position in the imperial family, and a christian nurse and a christian tutor were engaged to form the character of the young prince. He also protected from the popular indignation men and women of the highest rank in Rome — senators, their wives and families — who had embraced Christianity. But alas! all this favor towards the Christians was merely the result of local circumstances. The laws remained the same, and violent persecutions broke out against them in particular provinces.
It was not till about the tenth year of his reign that the native ferocity of his dark and relentless mind was manifested against the Christians. In 202, after his return from the East, where he had gained great victories, and no doubt lifted up with pride, he put forth his hand, and impiously dared to arrest the progress of Christianity — the chariot of the gospel. He passed a law, which forbade, under severe penalties, that any of his subjects should become either Jews or Christians. This law, as a matter of course, kindled a severe persecution against young converts and Christians in general. It stimulated their enemies to all kinds of violence. Large sums of money were extorted from timid Christians by some of the venal governors as the price of peace. This practice, though yielded to by some for the sake of life and liberty, was strongly denounced by others. It was considered by the more zealous as degrading to Christianity, and an ignominious barter of the hopes and glories of martyrdom. Still the persecution does not appear to have been general. It left its deepest traces in Egypt and Africa.
At Alexandria, Leonides, father of the famous Origen, suffered martyrdom. Young people at schools, who were receiving a christian education, were subjected to severe tortures, and some of their teachers were seized and burned. The young Origen distinguished himself at this time by his active and fearless labors in the now almost deserted schools. He longed to follow in his father's footsteps, and rather sought than shunned the crown of martyrdom. But it was in Africa-a place we only think of now as a dark, miserable, and thinly peopled desert — that the silver line of God's marvellous grace was most distinctly marked in the heavenly patience and fortitude of the holy sufferers. We must indulge our readers with a few brief details.
Historians say that in no part of the Roman Empire had Christianity taken more deep and permanent root than in the province of Africa. Then it was crowded with rich and populous cities. The African type of Christianity was entirely different from what has been called the Egyptian. The former was earnest and impassioned, the latter dreamy and speculative through the evil influence of Platonism. Tertullian belongs to this period, and is a true type of the difference we have referred to; but more of this farther on. We will now notice some of the African martyrs.
Amongst others who were apprehended and martyred in Africa during this persecution, Perpetua and her companions, in all histories, hold a distinguished place. The history of their martyrdom not only bears throughout the stamp of circumstantial truth, but abounds with the most exquisite touches of natural feeling and affection. Here we see the beautiful combination of the tenderest feelings and the strongest affections, which Christianity recognises in all their rights, and makes even more profound and tender, but yet causes all to be sacrificed on the altar of entire devotedness to Him who died entirely devoted to us. "Who loved me," as appropriating faith says, "and gave Himself for me." (Ga 2:20.)
At Carthage, in the year 202, three young men, Revocatus, Saturnius, and Secundulus, and two young women, Perpetua and Felicitas, were arrested, all of them being still catechumens, or candidates for baptism and communion. Perpetua was of a good family, wealthy and noble, of liberal education, and honorably married. She was about twenty-two years of age, and was a mother, with her child at the breast. Her whole family seem to have been Christians, except her aged father who was still a pagan. Nothing is said of her husband. Her father was passionately fond of her, and greatly dreaded the disgrace that her sufferings for Christ would bring on his family. So that she had not only death in its most frightful form to struggle with, but every sacred tie of nature.
When she was first brought before her persecutors, her aged father came and urged her to recant and say she was not a Christian. "Father," she calmy replied, pointing to a vessel that lay on the ground, "can I call this vessel anything else than what it is? ... No," he replied. "Neither can I say to you anything else than that I am a Christian." A few days after this the young Christians were baptized. Though they were under guard, they were not yet committed to prison. But shortly after this, they were thrown into the dungeon. "Then," she says, "I was tempted, I was terrified, for I had never been in such darkness before. Oh what a dreadful day! The excessive heat occasioned by the number of persons, the rough treatment of the soldiers, and, finally, anxiety for my child, made me miserable." The deacons, however, succeeded in purchasing for the christian prisoners a better apartment, where they were separated from the common criminals. Such advantages could usually be purchased from the venal overseers of prisons. Perpetua was now cheered by having her child brought to her. She placed it at her breast, and exclaimed, "Now, this prison has become a palace to met"
After a few days there was a rumor that the prisoners were to be examined. The father hastened to his daughter in great distress of mind. "My daughter," he said, "pity my grey hairs, pity thy father, if I am still worthy to be called thy father. If I have brought thee up to this bloom of thy age, if I have preferred thee above all thy brothers, expose me not to such shame among men. Look upon thy child — thy son-who, if thou diest, cannot long survive thee. Let thy lofty spirit give way, lest thou plunge us all into ruin. For if thou diest thus, not one of us will ever have courage again to speak a free word." Whilst saying this, he kissed her hands, threw himself at her feet, entreating her with terms of endearment, and many tears. But, though greatly moved and pained by the sight of her father, and his strong and tender affection for her, she was calm and firm, and felt chiefly concerned for the good of his soul. "My father's grey hairs," she said, "pained me, when I considered that he alone of my family would not rejoice in my martyrdom." "What shall happen," she said to him, "when I come before the tribunal, depends on the will of God; for we stand not in our own strength, but only by the power of God."
On the arrival of the decisive hour — the last day of their trial — an immense multitude was assembled. The aged father again appeared, that he might for the last time try his utmost to overcome the resolution of his daughter. On this occasion he brought her infant son in his arms, and stood before her. What a moment! what a spectacle! Her aged father, his grey hairs, her tender infant; to say nothing of his agonising importunities: what an appeal to a daughter — to a young mother's heart! "Have pity on thy father's grey hairs," said the governor, "have pity on thy helpless child, offer sacrifice for the welfare of the Emperor." Thus she stood before the tribunal, before the assembled multitude, before the admiring myriads of heaven, before the frowning hosts of hell. But Perpetua was calm and firm. Like Abraham of old, the father of the faithful, her eye was not now on her son, but on the God of resurrection. Having commended her child to her mother and her brother, she answered the governor, and said, "That I cannot do." "Art thou a Christian? " he asked. "Yes," she replied, "I am a Christian." Her fate was now decided. They were all condemned to serve as a cruel sport for the people and the soldiers, in a fight with wild beasts, on the anniversary of young Geta's birthday. They returned to their dungeon, rejoicing that they were thus enabled to witness and suffer for Jesus' sake. The gaoler, Pudas, was converted by means of the tranquil behavior of his prisoners.
When led forth into the amphitheater, the martyrs were observed to have a peaceful and joyful appearance. According to a custom which prevailed in Carthage, the men should have been clothed in scarlet like the priests of Saturn, and the women in yellow as the priestesses of Ceres; but the prisoners protested against such a proceeding. "We have come here," they said, "of our own choice, that we may not suffer our freedom to be taken from us; we have given up our lives that we may not be forced to such abominations." The pagans acknowledged the justice of their demand, and yielded. After taking leave of each other with the mutual kiss of christian love, in the certain hope of soon meeting again, as "absent from the body and present with the Lord," they came forward to the scene of death in their simple attire. The voice of praise to God was heard by the spectators. Perpetua was singing a psalm. The men were exposed to lions, bears, and leopards; the women were tossed by a furious cow. But all were speedily released from their sufferings by the sword of the gladiator, and entered into the joy of their Lord.
The interesting narrative, which is here abridged, and said to have been written by Perpetua's own hand, breathes such an air of truth and reality as to have commanded the respect and confidence of all ages. But our main object in writing it for our readers is to present to them a living picture, in which many of the finest features of christian faith are beautifully blended with the warmest and tenderest christian feelings; and that we may learn, not to be complainers, but to endure all things for Christ's sake, that so His grace may shine, our faith triumph, and God be glorified.
A few years after these events, Severus turned his attention to Britain, where the Romans had been losing ground. The Emperor, being at the head of a very powerful army, drove back the independent natives of Caledonia, and regained the country south of the wall of Antoninus, but lost so many troops in the successive battles which he was obliged to fight, that he did not think proper to push his conquests beyond that boundary. Feeling at length his end approaching, he retired to York, where he soon expired, in the eighteenth year of his reign, A.D. 211.
After the death of Septimius Severus — except during the short reign of Maximin — the church enjoyed a season of comparative peace till the reign of Decius, A.D. 249. But during the favorable reign of Alexander Severus, a considerable change took place in the relation of Christianity to society. He was through life under the influence of his mother, Mammaea, who is described by Eusebius as "a woman distinguished for her piety and religion." She sent for Origen, of whose fame she had heard much, and learnt from him something of the doctrines of the gospel. She was afterwards favorable to the Christians, but there is not much evidence that she was one herself.
Alexander was of a religious disposition. He had many Christians in his household; and bishops were admitted even at the court in a recognised official character. He frequently used the words of our Savior,
"As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Lu 6:31.)
He had them inscribed on the walls of his palace and on other public buildings. But all religions were nearly the same to him, and on this principle he gave Christianity a place in his eclectic system.
An important point in the history of the church, and one that proves its altered position in the Roman Empire, now comes before us for the first time. It was during the reign of this excellent prince that public buildings were first erected for the assemblies of Christians. A little circumstance connected with a piece of land in Rome shows the true spirit of the Emperor and the growing power and influence of Christians. This piece of land, which had been considered as a common, was selected by a congregation as a site for a church; but the Company of Victuallers contended that they had a prior claim. The case was judged by the Emperor. He awarded the land to the Christians, on the ground that it was better to devote it to the worship of God in any form than apply it to a profane and unworthy use.
Public buildings — christian churches, so-called — now begun to rise in different parts of the empire, and to possess endowments in land. The heathen had never been able to understand why the Christians had neither temples nor altars. Their religious assemblies, up till this time, had been held in private. Even the Jew had his public synagogue, but where the Christians met was indicated by no separate and distinguished building. The private house, the catacombs, the cemetery of their dead, contained their peaceful congregations. Their privacy, which had often been in those troublous times their security, was now passing away. On the other hand, it must also be observed that their secrecy was often used against them. We have seen from the first, that the pagans could not understand a religion without a temple, and were easily persuaded that these private and mysterious meetings, which seemed to shun the light of day, were only for the worst of purposes.
The outward condition of Christianity was now changed — wonderfully changed — but alas! not in favor of spiritual health and growth, as we shall soon see. There were now well-known edifices in which the Christians met, and the doors of which they could throw wide open to all mankind. Christianity was now recognised as one of the various forms of worship which the government did not prohibit. But the toleration of the Christians during this period rested only on the favorable disposition of Alexander. No change was made in the laws of the empire in favor of Christians, so that their time of peace was brought to a close by his death. A conspiracy was formed against him by the demoralised soldiery, who could not endure the discipline which he sought to restore; and the youthful Emperor was slain in his tent, in the twenty-ninth year of his age and the thirteenth of his reign.
Scarcely had the new churches been built, and the bishops, received at court, when the hand of the Lord was turned against them. It happened in this way.
Maximin, a rude Thracian peasant, raised himself to the imperial throne. He had been the chief instigator, if not the actual murderer of the virtuous Alexander. He began his reign by seizing and putting to death all the friends of the late Emperor. Those who had been his friends he reckoned as his own enemies. He ordered the bishops, and particularly those who had been the intimate friends of Alexander, to be put to death. His vengeance fell more or less on all classes of Christians, but chiefly on the clergy. It was not, however, for their Christianity that they suffered on this occasion, for Maximin was utterly regardless of all religions, but because of the position they had reached in the world. What can be more sorrowful than this reflection?
About the same time destructive earthquakes in several provinces rekindled the popular hatred against the Christians in general. The fury of the people under such an emperor was unrestrained, and, encouraged by hostile governors, they burnt the newly-built churches and persecuted the Christians. But happily the reign of the savage was of short duration. He became intolerable to mankind. The army mutinied and slew him in the third year of his reign; and a more favorable season for the Christians returned.
The reign of Gordian, A.D. 238-244, and that of Philip, A.D. 244-249, were friendly to the church. But we have repeatedly found that a government favorable to the Christians was immediately followed by another which oppressed them. It was particularly the case at this time. Under the smiles and patronage of Philip the Arabian the church enjoyed great outward prosperity, but she was on the eve of a persecution more terrible and more general than any she had yet passed through.
One of the causes which may have contributed to this was the absence of the Christians from the national ceremonies which commemorated the thousandth year of Rome, A.D. 247. The secular games were celebrated with unexampled magnificence by Philip; but as he was favorable to the Christians, they escaped the fury of the pagan priests and populace. The Christians were now a recognised body in the State, and however carefully they might avoid mingling in the political factions or the popular festivities of the empire, they were considered the enemies of its prosperity and the cause of all its calamities. We now come to a complete change of government — a government that afflicts the whole church of God.
Decius, in the year 249, conquered Philip and placed himself on the throne. His reign is remarkable in church history for the first general persecution. The new Emperor was unfavourable to Christianity and zealously devoted to the pagan religion. He resolved to attempt the complete extermination of the former, and to restore the latter to its ancient glory. One of the first measures of his reign was to issue edicts to the governors, to enforce the ancient laws against the Christians. They were commanded, on pain of forfeiting their own lives, to exterminate all Christians utterly, or bring them back by pains and tortures to the religion of their fathers.
From the time of Trajan there had been an imperial order to the effect, that the Christians were not to be sought for; and there was also a law against private accusations being brought against them, especially by their own servants, as we have seen in the case of Apollonius; and these laws had been usually observed by the enemies of the church, but now they were wholly neglected. The authorities sought out the Christians, the accusers ran no risk, and popular clamor was admitted in place of formal evidence. During the two succeeding years a great multitude of Christians in all the Roman provinces were banished, imprisoned, or tortured to death by various kinds of punishments and sufferings. This persecution was more cruel and terrible than any that preceded it. But the most painful part of those heart-rending scenes was the enfeebled state of the Christians themselves — the sad effect of worldly ease and prosperity.
The student of church history now meets with the manifest and appalling effect of the world in the church. It is a most sorrowful sight, but it ought to be a profitable lesson to the Christian reader. What then was, is now, and ever must be. The Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, is not now less sensitive to the foul and withering breath of the world than He was then.
What the enemy could not do by bloody edicts and cruel tyrants, he accomplished by the friendship of the world. This is an old stratagem of Satan. The wily serpent proved more dangerous than the roaring lion. By means of the favor of great men, and especially of emperors, he threw the clergy off their guard, led them to join hands with the world, and deceived them by his flatteries. The Christians could now erect temples as well as the heathen, and their bishops were received at the imperial court on equal terms with the idolatrous priests. This unhallowed intercourse with the world sapped the very foundations of their Christianity. This became painfully manifest when the violent storm of persecution succeeded the long calm of their worldly prosperity.
In many parts of the empire the Christians had enjoyed undisturbed peace for a period of thirty years. This had told unfavorably on the church as a whole. With many it was not now the faith of an ardent conviction, such as we had in the first and second centuries, but of truth instilled into the mind by means of christian education — just what prevails in the present day to an alarming extent. A persecution breaking out with great violence, after so many years of tranquillity, could not fail to prove a sifting process for the churches. The atmosphere of Christianity had become corrupted. Cyprian in the West, and Origen in the East, speak of the secular spirit which had crept in — of the pride, the luxury, the covetousness of the clergy — of the careless and irreligious lives of the people.
"If," says Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, "the cause of the disease is understood, the cure of the affected part is already found. The Lord would prove His people; and because the divinely-prescribed regimen of life had become disturbed in the long season of peace, a divine judgment was sent to reestablish our fallen, and, I might almost say, slumbering faith. Our sins deserve more; but our gracious Lord has so ordered it that all which has occurred seems rather like a trial than a persecution. Forgetting what believers did in the times of the apostles, and what they should always be doing, Christians labored with insatiable desire to increase their earthly possessions. Many of the bishops who, by precept and example, should have guided others, neglected their divine calling, to engage in the management of worldly concerns." Such being the condition of things in many of the churches, we need not wonder at what took place.
The Emperor ordered rigorous search to be made for all suspected of refusing compliance with the national worship. Christians were required to conform to the ceremonies of the pagan religion. In case they declined, threats, and afterwards tortures, were to be employed to compel submission. If they remained firm, the punishment of death was to be inflicted, especially on the bishops, whom Decius hated most bitterly. The custom was, wherever the dreadful edict was carried into execution, to appoint a day when all the Christians in the place were to present themselves before the magistrate, renounce their religion, and offer incense at the idol's altar. Many, before the dreadful day arrived, had fled into voluntary banishment. The goods of such were confiscated, and themselves forbidden to return, under penalty of death. Those who remained firm, after repeated tortures, were cast into prison, when the additional sufferings of hunger and thirst were employed to overcome their resolution. Many who were less firm and faithful were let off without sacrificing, by purchasing themselves, or allowing their friends to purchase, a certificate from the magistrate. But this unworthy practice was condemned by the church as a tacit abjuration.
Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, in describing the effect of this terrible decree, says, "that many citizens of repute complied with the edict. Some were impelled by their fears, and some were forced by their friends. Many stood pale and trembling, neither ready to submit to the idolatrous ceremony, nor prepared to resist even unto death. Others endured their tortures to a certain point, but finally gave in." Such were some of the painful and disgraceful effects of the general relaxation through tampering with this present evil world. Still it would ill become us, who live in a time of great civil and religious liberty, to say hard things of the weakness of those who lived in such sanguinary times. Rather let us feel the disgrace as our own, and pray that we may be kept from yielding to the attractions of the world in every form. But all was not defective, thank the Lord. Let us look for a moment at the bright side.
The same Dionysius tells us that many were as pillars of the Lord, who through Him were made strong, and became wonderful witnesses of His grace. Among these he mentions a boy of fifteen, Dioscurus by name, who answered in the wisest manner all questions, and displayed such constancy under torture, that he commanded the admiration of the governor himself, who dismissed him, in the hope that riper years would lead him to see his error. A woman, who had been brought to the altar by her husband, was forced to offer incense by some one holding her hand; but she exclaimed, "I did it not: it was you that did it;" and she was thereupon condemned to exile. In the dungeon at Carthage the Christians were exposed to heat, hunger, and thirst, in order to force them to comply with the decree; but although they saw death by starvation staring them in the face, they continued stedfast in their confession of Christ. And from the prison in Rome, where certain confessors had been confined for about a year, the following noble confession was sent to Cyprian: "What more glorious and blessed lot can, by God's grace, fall to man than, amidst tortures and the fear of death itself, to confess God the Lord — than, with lacerated bodies and a spirit departing but yet free, to confess Christ, the Son of God — than to become fellow-sufferers with Christ in the name of Christ? If we have not yet shed our blood, we are ready to shed it. Pray then, beloved Cyprian, that the Lord would daily confirm and strengthen each one of us, more and more, with the power of His might; and that He, as the best of leaders, would finally conduct His soldiers, whom He has disciplined and proved in the dangerous camp, to the field of battle which is before us, armed with those divine weapons which never can be conquered."
Among the victims of this terrible persecution were Fabian, bishop of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem. Cyprian, Origen, Gregory, Dionysius, and other eminent men, were exposed to cruel tortures and exile, but escaped with their lives. The hatred of the Emperor was particularly directed against the bishops. But in the Lord's mercy the reign of Decius was a short one; he was killed in battle with the Goths, about the end of 251.
As the name of Cyprian must be familiar to all our readers, and a name most famous in connection with the government and discipline of the church, it may be well to notice particularly the serene fortitude of this Father in the prospect of martyrdom.
He was born at Carthage about the year 200; but he was not converted till about 246. Though in mature age, he possessed all the freshness and ardor of youth. He had been distinguished as a teacher of rhetoric, he was now distinguished as an earnest devoted Christian. He was early promoted to the offices of deacon and presbyter; and in 248 he was elected bishop by the general desire of the people. His labors were interrupted by the persecution under Decius; but his life was preserved till the year 258. On the morning of the 13th of September, an officer with soldiers was sent by the proconsul to bring him into his presence. Cyprian then knew his end was near. With a ready mind and a cheerful countenance he went without delay. His trial was postponed for a day. The intelligence of his apprehension drew together the whoie city. His own people lay all night in front of the officer's house with whom he was lodged.
In the morning he was led to the proconsul's palace surrounded by a great multitude of people and a strong guard of soldiers. After a short delay the proconsul appeared. "Art thou Thascius Cyprian, the bishop of so many impious men? " said the proconsul. "I am," answered Cyprian. "The most sacred Emperor commands thee to sacrifice." "I do not sacrifice," he replied. "Consider well," rejoined the proconsul. "Execute thy orders," answered Cyprian, "the case admits of no consideration."
The governor consulted with his council, and then delivered his sentence. "Thascius Cyprian, thou hast lived long in thy impiety, and assembled around thee many men involved in the same wicked conspiracy. Thou hast shown thyself an enemy alike to the gods and to the laws of the empire; the pious and sacred emperors have in vain endea-voured to recall thee to the worship of thy ancestors. Since then thou hast been the chief author and leader of these guilty practices, thou shalt be an example to those whom thou hast deluded to thy unlawful assemblies. Thou must expiate thy crime with thy blood." "God be praised!" answered Cyprian; and the crowd of his brethren exclaimed, "Let us too be martyred with him." The bishop was carried into a neighboring field and beheaded. It was remarkable that but a few days afterwards the proconsul died. And the Emperor Valerian, the following year, was defeated and taken prisoner by the Persians, who treated him with great and contemptuous cruelty — a calamity and disgrace without example in the annals of Rome.
The miserable death of many of the persecutors made a great impression on the public mind, and forced on many the conviction that the enemies of Christianity were the enemies of heaven. For about forty years after this outrage, the peace and prosperity of the church were not seriously interrupted; so that we may pass over these years for the present, and come to the final contest between paganism and Christianity.
Before attempting a brief account of the persecution under Diocletian, it may be well to review the history and condition of the church as the final struggle drew near. But in order to form a correct judgment of the progress and state of Christianity at the end of three hundred years, we must consider the power of the enemies with which it had to contend.
the East at Alexandria. On returning to his native country, he advanced very high pretensions to superior knowledge and power; and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, "This man is the great power of God." From this notice of Simon we may learn what influence such men had over the minds of the ignorant and the superstitious, and also what a dreadful power of Satan the early church had to contend with in these evil workers. He assumed not merely the lofty title of "the great power of God," but that he combined in himself the other perfections of Deity. He is spoken of by writers generally as the head and father of the whole host of impostors and heretics.
After being so openly and shamefully defeated by Peter, he is said to have left Samaria, and traveled through various countries, choosing especially those which the gospel had not reached. From this time he introduced the name of Christ into his system, and thus endeavored to confound the gospel with his blasphemies, and confuse the minds of the people. As to his miracle and magic working, his marvellous theories about his own descent from heaven, and other emanations, we say nothing, only that they proved, especially in the East, a mighty hindrance to the progress of the gospel.
The successors of Simon, such as Cerinthus and Valentinus, so systematised his theories as to become the founders of that form of gnosticism with which the church had to contend in the second century. The name implies pretensions to some superior knowledge. It is generally thought that St. Paul refers to this meaning of the word when warning his son Timothy against "science," or knowledge, "falsely so called."
Although it would be out of place in these "Short Papers" to attempt anything like an outline of this wide-spread orientalism or gnosticism, yet we must give our readers some idea of what it was. It proved for a time the most formidable opponent of Christianity. But as the facts and doctrines of the gospel prevailed, gnosticism declined.
Under the head of the gnostics may be included all those in the first ages of the church who incorporated into their philosophical systems the most obvious and suitable doctrines of both Judaism and Christianity. Thus gnosticism became a mixture of oriental philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity. By means of this Satanic confusion the beautiful simplicity of the gospel was destroyed, and for a long time, in many places, its real character was obscured. It was a deep-laid plan and a mighty effort of the enemy, not only to corrupt, but to undermine and subvert, the gospel altogether. No sooner had Christianity appeared than the gnostics began to adopt into their systems some of its sublimest doctrines. Judaism was deeply tinged with it before the christian era, probably from the captivity.
But gnosticism, we must remember, was not a corruption of Christianity, though the whole school of gnostics are called heretics by ecclesiastical writers. As to its origin, we must go back to the many religions of the East, such as Chaldean, Persian, Egyptian, and others. In our own day such philosophers would be viewed as infidels and utter aliens from the gospel of Christ; but in early times the title heretic was given to all who in any way whatever introduced the name of Christ into their philosophical systems. Hence it has been said, "If Mahomet had appeared in the second century, Justin Martyr or Irenaeus would have spoken of him as a heretic." At the same time we must own that the principles of the Greek philosophy, especially the Platonic, forced their way at a very early period into the church, corrupted the pure stream of truth, and threatened for a time to change the design and the effects of the gospel upon mankind.
Origen, who was born at Alexandria — the cradle of gnosticism — about the year 185, was the Father who gave form and completeness to the Alexandrian method of interpreting scripture. He distinguished in it a threefold sense — the literal, the moral, and the mystical — answering respectively to the body, soul, and spirit in man. The literal sense, he held, might be understood by any attentive reader; the moral required higher intelligence; the mystical was only to be apprehended through the grace of the Holy Spirit, which was to be obtained by prayer.
It was the great object of this eminent teacher to harmonize Christianity with philosophy; this was the leaven of the Alexandrian school. He sought to gather up the fragments of truth scattered throughout other systems, and unite them in a christian scheme, so as to present the gospel in a form that would not offend the prejudices, but insure the conversion, of Jews, gnostics, and of cultivated heathen. These principles of interpretation, and this combination of Christianity with philosophy, led Origen and his followers into many grave and serious errors, both practical and doctrinal. He was a devoted, earnest, zealous Christian himself, and truly loved the Lord Jesus; but the tendency of his principles has been, from that day to this, to weaken faith in the definite character of truth, if not to pervert it altogether by means of spiritualizing and allegorizing, which his system taught and allowed.
The Malignity of Matter was a first principle in all the sects of the gnostics; it pervaded all the religious systems of the East. This led to the wildest theories as to the formation and character of the material universe, and all corporeal substances. Thus it was, that persons believing their bodies to be intrinsically evil, recommended abstinence and severe bodily mortifications, in order that the mind or spirit, which was viewed as pure and divine, might enjoy greater liberty, and be able the better to contemplate heavenly things. Without saying more on this subject — which we do not much enjoy — the reader will see that the celibacy of the clergy in later years, and the whole system of asceticism and monasticism, had their origin, not in the scriptures, but in oriental philosophy.
Paganism. Not only had the church to contend with Judaism and Orientalism, it also suffered from the outward hostility of Paganism. These were the three formidable powers of Satan with which he assailed the church during the first three hundred years of her history. In carrying out her Lord's high commission — "Teach all nations"... "preach the gospel to every creature" — she had these enemies to face and overcome. But these could not have hindered her course, had she only walked in separation from the world, and remained true and faithful to her heavenly and exalted Savior. But alas! alas! what Judaism, Orientalism, and Paganism could not do, the allurements of the world accomplished. And this leads us to a close survey of the condition of the church when the great persecution broke out.
Diocletian ascended the throne in 284. In 286 he associated with himself Maximian, as Augustus; and in 292 Galerius and Constantius were added to the number of the princes, with the inferior title of Caesar. Thus, when the fourth century began, the Roman empire had four sovereigns. Two bore the title of Augustus; and two, the title of Caesar. Diocletian, though superstitious, indulged no hatred towards Christians. Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, was friendly to them. At first the face of christian affairs looked tolerably bright and happy; but the pagan priests were angry, and plotting mischief against the Christians. They saw in the widespreading triumphs of Christianity their own downfall. For fully fifty years the church had been very little disturbed by the secular power. During this period Christians had attained an unexampled degree of prosperity; but it was only outward: they had deeply declined from the purity and simplicity of the gospel of Christ.
Churches had arisen in most of the cities of the empire, and with some display of architectural splendor. Vestments and sacred vessels of silver and gold began to be used. Converts flocked in from all ranks of society; even the wife of the Emperor, and his daughter Valeria, married to Galerius, appear to have been among the number. Christians held high offices in the state, and in the imperial household. They occupied positions of distinction, and even of supreme authority, in the provinces and in the army. But alas! this long period of outward prosperity had produced its usual consequences. Faith and love decayed; pride and ambition crept in. Priestly domination began to exercise its usurped powers, and the bishop to assume the language and the authority of the vicegerent of God. Jealousies and dissensions distracted the peaceful communities, and disputes sometimes proceeded to open violence. The peace of fifty years had corrupted the whole christian atmosphere: the lightning of Diocletian's rage was permitted of God to refine and purify it.
Such is the melancholy confession of the Christians themselves, who, according to the spirit of the times, considered the dangers and the afflictions to which they were exposed in the light of divine judgments.
THE ACTS OF DIOCLETIAN AND THE CLOSE OF THE SMYRNEAN PERIOD
Already the church has passed through nine systematic persecutions. The first was under Nero, then Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Severus, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian. And now the fearful moment has arrived when she must undergo the Tenth, according to the prophetic word of the Lord: "Ye shall have tribulation Ten days." And it is not a little remarkable that not only should there be exactly ten government persecutions, but that the last should have continued exactly Ten years. And, as we saw at an earlier part of the Smyrnean period, exactly Ten years elapsed from the beginning of the persecution, under Aurelius, in the East, till its close in the West. The christian student may trace other features of resemblance: we would rather suggest such features than press their acceptance upon others, though we surely believe they are foreshadowed in the Epistle to Smyrna.
The reign of Diocletian is one of great historical importance. First, it was rendered conspicuous by the introduction of a new system of imperial government. He virtually removed the capital from ancient Rome to Nicomedia, which he made the seat of his residence. There he maintained a court of eastern splendor, to which he invited men of learning and philosophy. But the philosophers who frequented his court, being all animated with extreme hatred against Christianity, used their influence with the Emperor to exterminate a religion too pure to suit their polluted minds. This led to the last and greatest persecution of the Christians. It is only with the latter we have to do. And as all histories of this period are gathered chiefly from the records of Eusebius and Lactantius, who wrote at this time, and witnessed many executions, we can do little more than select and transcribe from what has been already written, consulting the various authors already named.
The pagan priests and philosophers above referred to, not succeeding well in their artifices with Diocletian to make war against the Christians, made use of the other Emperor, Galerius, his son-in-law, to accomplish their purpose. This cruel man, impelled partly by his own inclination, partly by his mother, a most superstitious pagan, and partly by the priests, gave his father-in-law no rest until he had gained his point.
During the winter of the year 302-303 Galerius paid a visit to Diocletian at Nicomedia. His great object was to excite the old Emperor against the Christians. Diocletian for a time withstood his importunity. He was averse, from whatever motive, to the sanguinary measures proposed by his partner. But the mother of Galerius, the implacable enemy of the Christians, employed all her influence over her son to inflame his mind to immediate and active hostilities. Diocletian at length gave way, and a persecution was agreed to: but the lives of the Christians were to be spared. Previously to this, Galeflus had taken care to remove from the army all who refused to sacrifice. Some were discharged, and some were sentenced to death.
About the 24th of February the first edict was issued. It ordained that all who refused to sacrifice should lose their offices, their property, their rank, and civil privileges; that slaves persisting in the profession of the gospel should be excluded from the hope of liberty; that Christians of all ranks should be destroyed; that religious meetings should be suppressed; and that the scriptures should be burnt. The attempt to exterminate the scriptures was a new feature in this persecution, and, no doubt, was suggested by the philosophers who frequented the palace. They were well aware that their own writings would have but little hold on the public mind if the scriptures and other sacred books were circulated. Immediately these measures were resolved upon, the church of Nicomedia was attacked, the sacred books were burnt, and the building entirely demolished in a few hours. Throughout the empire the churches of the Christians were to be levelled to the ground, and the sacred books were to be delivered to the imperial officers. Many Christians who refused to give up the scriptures were put to death, while those who gave them up to be burnt were considered by the church as traitors to Christ, and afterwards caused great trouble in the exercise of discipline towards them.
No sooner had this cruel edict been affixed in the accustomed place than a Christian of noble rank tore it down. His indignation at injustice so flagrant hurried him into an act of inconsiderate zeal — into a violation of that precept of the gospel which enjoins respect towards all in authority. Welcome was the occasion thus furnished to condemn a Christian of high station to death. He was burnt alive at a slow fire, and bore his sufferings with a dignified composure which astonished and mortified his executioners. The persecution was now begun. The first step against the Christians having been taken, the second did not linger.
Not long after the publication of the edict, a fire broke out in the palace of Nicomedia, which spread almost to the chamber of the Emperor. The origin of the fire appears to be unknown; but, of course, the guilt was charged on the Christians. Diocletian believed it. He was alarmed and incensed. Multitudes were thrown into prison, without discrimination of those who were or were not liable to suspicion, the most cruel tortures were resorted to for the purpose of extorting a confession; but in vain. Many were burnt to death, beheaded and drowned. About fourteen days after, a second fire broke out in the palace. It now became evident that it was the work of an incendiary. The heathen again accused the Christians, and loudly cried for vengeance; but as no proof could ever be found that the Christians had any hand in any way with these fatal conflagrations, a strong, and, we believe, truthful suspicion rested on the Emperor Galerius himself. His great object from the first was to criminate the Christians, and alarm Diocletian by his own more violent measures. As if fully aware of the effect of these events on the dark, timid, and superstitious mind of the old Emperor, he immediately left Nicomedia, pretending that he could not consider his person safe within the city.
But the end was gained; and that to the utmost extent which even Galerius or his pagan mother could have desired. Diocletian, now thoroughly aroused, raged ferociously against all sorts of men and women who bore the christian name. He compelled his wife Prisca, and his daughter Valeria, to offer sacrifice. Officers of the household, of the highest rank and nobility, and all the inmates of the palace, were exposed to the most cruel tortures, by the order, and even in the presence, of Diocletian himself. The names of some of his ministers of state have been handed down who preferred the riches of Christ to all the grandeur of his palace. One of the chamberlains was brought before the Emperor and was tortured with great severity, because he refused to sacrifice. As if to make an example of him to the others, a mixture of salt and vinegar was poured on his open wounds, but it was all to no purpose. He confessed his faith in Christ as the only Savior, and would own no other God. He was then gradually burnt to death. Dorotheus, Gorgonius, and Andreas, eunuchs who served in the palace, were put to death. Anthimus, the bishop of Nicomedia, was beheaded. Many were executed, many were burnt alive; but it became tedious to destroy men singly, and large fires were made to burn many together; others were rowed into the midst of the lake, and thrown into the water with stones fastened to their necks.
From Nicomedia, the center of the persecution, the imperial orders were despatched, requiring the cooperation of the other emperors in the restoration of the dignity of the ancient religion, and the entire suppression of Christianity. Thus the persecution raged throughout the whole Roman world, excepting Gaul. There the mild Constantius ruled, and, though he made a show of concurring in the measure of his colleagues, by the demolition of the churches, he abstained from all violence against the persons of the Christians. Though not himself a decided Christian, he was naturally humane, and evidently a friend to Christianity and its professors. He presided over the government of Gaul, Britain, and Spain. But the fierce temper of Maximian, and the savage cruelty of Galerius, only awaited the signal to carry into affect the orders from Nicomedia. And now the three monsters raged, in the full force of the civil power, against the defenceless and unoffending followers of the meek and lowly Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
"Grace begun shall end in glory ; Jesus, He the victory won ; In His own triumphant story Is the record of our own, "
Not long after the first edict had been carried into execution throughout the empire, rumors of insurrections in Armenia and Syria, regions densely peopled with Christians, reached the Emperor's ears. These troubles were falsely attributed to the Christians, and afforded a pretext for a second edict. It was intimated that the clergy, as leaders of the Christians, were particularly liable to suspicion on this occasion, and the edict directed that all of the clerical order should be seized and thrown into prison. Thus in a short time prisons were filled with bishops, presbyters, and deacons.
THE THIRD EDICT
A third edict was immediately issued prohibiting the liberation of any of the clergy, unless they consented to offer sacrifice. They were declared enemies of the State; and wherever a hostile prefect chose to exercise his
boundless authority, they were crowded into prisons intended only for the basest criminals. The edict provided that such of the prisoners as were willing to offer sacrifice to the gods should be set free, and that the rest should be compelled by tortures and punishments. Great multitudes of the most devout, godly, and venerable in the church, either suffered capitally, or were sent to the mines. The Emperor vainly thought, that if the bishops and teachers were once overcome, the churches would soon follow their example. But finding that the most humiliating defeat was the result of his measures, he was goaded on by the united influence of Galerius, the philosophers, and the pagan priesthood, to issue another and a still more rigorous edict.
By a fourth edict the orders which applied only to the clergy were now to be extended to the whole body of Christians. The magistrates were directed to make free use of torture for forcing all Christians — men, women, and children — into the worship of the gods. Diocletian and his colleagues were now committed to the desperate but unequal contest. The powers of darkness — the whole Roman empire — stood, armed, determined, pledged, to the defense of ancient polytheism, and to the complete extermination of the christian name. To retreat would be the confession of weakness; to be successful the adversary must be exterminated; as to victory there could be none, for the Christians made no resistance. Historically, it was the final and fearful struggle between paganism and Christianity; the contest was now at its height, and drawing to a crisis.
Public proclamation was made through the streets of the cities, that men, women, and children, were all to repair to the temples of the gods. All must undergo the fiery ordeal — sacrifice or die. Every individual was summoned by name from lists previously made out. At the city gates all were subjected to rigid examination, and such as were found to be Christians were immediately secured.
Details of the sufferings and martyrdoms that followed would fill volumes. As edict followed edict, in rapid succession and in wrathful severity, the spirit of martyrdom revived; it rose higher and higher, until men and women, in place of being seized and dragged to the funeral piles, leaped into the burning flames, as if ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire. Whole families were put to various kinds of death; some by fire, others by water, after enduring severe tortures; some perished by famine, others by crucifixion; and some were fastened with their heads downwards, and preserved alive, that they might die a lingering death. In some places as many as ten, twenty, sixty, and even a hundred men and women, with their little ones, were martyred by various torments in one day.
In almost every part of the Roman world such scenes of pitiless barbarity continued with more or less severity for the long period of ten years. Constantius alone, of all the emperors, contrived to shelter the Christians in the west, especially in Gaul, where he resided. But in all other places they were given up to all sorts of cruelties and injuries, without the liberty to appeal to the authorities, and without the smallest protection from the State. Free leave was given to the heathen populace to practice all sorts of excesses against the Christians. Under these circumstances the reader may easily imagine what they were constantly exposed to, both in their persons and estates. Each one felt sure of never being called to account for any violence he might be guilty of towards the Christians. But the sufferings of the men, however great, seemed little compared with those of the women. The fear of exposure and violence was more dreaded than mere death.
Take one example. "A certain holy and devout female," says Eusebius, "admirable for her virtue, and illustrious above all in Antioch for her wealth, family, and reputation, had educated her two daughters — now in the bloom of life, noted for their beauty — in the principles of piety. Their concealment was traced, and they were caught in the toils of the soldiery. The mother, being at a loss for herself and her daughters, knowing what was before them, suggested that it was better to die, betaking themselves to the aid of Christ, than fall into the hands of the brutal soldiers. After this, all agreeing to the same thing, and having requested the guards for a little time, they cast themselves into the flowing river, to escape a greater evil." Although this act cannot be fully justified, it must be judged with many considerations. They were driven to despair. And sure we are that the Lord knows how to forgive all that is wrong in the action, and to give us full credit for all that is right in our motives.
For a moment the persecutors vainly imagined that they would triumph over the downfall of Christianity. Pillars were raised, and medals were struck, to the honor of Diocletian and Galerius, for having extinguished the christian superstition, and for restoring the worship of the gods. But He who sits in heaven was at that very moment overruling the very wrath of these men for the complete deliverance and triumph of His people, and the acknowledged defeat and downfall of their enemies. They could martyr Christians, demolish churches, and burn books; but the living springs of Christianity were beyond their reach.
Great and important changes began to take place in the sovereignty of the empire. But the Head of the church watched over everything. He had limited and defined the period of her sufferings, and neither the hosts of hell, nor the legions of Rome, could extend these one hour. The enemies of the Christians were smitten with the direst calamities. God appeared to be making requisition for blood. Galerius, the real author of the persecution, in the eighteenth year of his reign and the eighth of the persecution, lay expiring of a most loathsome malady. Like Herod Agrippa and Philip II of Spain, he was "eaten of worms." Physicians were sought for, oracles were consulted, but all in vain; the remedies applied only aggravated the virulence of the disease. The whole palace was so infected from the nature of his affliction, that he was deserted by all his friends. The agonies which he suffered forced from him the cry for mercy, and also an earnest request to the Christians to intercede for the suffering Emperor in their supplications to their God.
From his dying bed he issued an edict, which, while it condescended to apologise for the past severities against the Christians, under the specious plea of regard for the public welfare and unity of the state, admitted to the fullest extent the total failure of the severe measures for the suppression of Christianity; and provided for the free and public exercise of the christian religion. A few days after the promulgation of the edict Galerius expired. For about six months the merciful orders of this edict were acted upon, and great numbers were liberated from the prisons and the mines; but, alas! bearing the marks of bodily torture only short of death. This brief cessation of the persecution showed at once its fearful character and alarming extent.
But Maximin, who succeeded Galerius in the government of Asia, sought to revive the pagan religion in all its original splendor, and the suppression of Christianity, with renewed and relentless cruelty. He commanded that all the officers of his government, from the highest to the lowest, both in the civil and military service; that all free men and women, all slaves, and even little children, should sacrifice, and even partake of what was offered at heathen altars. All vegetables and provisions in the market were to be sprinkled with the water or the wine which had been used in the sacrifices, that the Christians might thus be forced into contact with idolatrous offerings.
New tortures were invented, and fresh streams of Christian blood flowed in all the provinces of the Roman empire, with the exception of Gaul. But the hand of the Lord was again laid heavily both on the empire and on the Emperor. Every kind of calamity prevailed. Tyranny, war, pestilence, and famine depopulated the Asiatic provinces. Throughout the dominions of Maximin the summer rains did not fall; a famine desolated the whole East; many opulent families were reduced to beggary, and others sold their children as slaves. The famine produced its usual accompaniment, pestilence. Boils broks out all over the bodies of those who were seized with the malady, but especially about the eyes, so that multitudes became helplessly and incurably blind. All hearts failed, and all who were able fled from the infected houses; so that myriads were left to perish in a state of absolute desertion. The Christians, moved by the love of God in their hearts, now came forward to do the kind offices of humanity and mercy. They attended the living, and decently buried the dead. Fear fell upon all mankind. The heathen concluded their calamities to be the vengeance of heaven for persecuting its favored people.
Maximin was alarmed, and endeavored, when too late, to retrace his steps. He issued an edict, avowing the principles of toleration, and commanding the suspension of all violent measures against the Christians, and recommending only mild and persuasive means to win back these apostates to the religion of their forefathers. Having been defeated in battle by Licinius, he turned his rage against the pagan priests. He charged them with having deceived him with false hopes of victory over Licinius, and of universal empire in the East, and now revenged his disappointment by a promiscuous massacre of all the pagan priests within his power. His last imperial act was the promulgation of another edict, still more favorable to the Christians, in which he proclaimed an unrestricted liberty of conscience, and restored the confiscated property of their churches. But death came and closed the dark catalogue of his crimes, and the dark line of persecuting emperors, who died of the most excruciating torments, and under the visible hand of divine judgment. Many names, of great celebrity both for station and character, are among the martyrs of this period; and many thousands, unknown and unnoticed on earth, but whose record is on high, and whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
Thus closed the most memorable of all the attacks of the powers of darkness on the Christian church, and thus closed the last hope of paganism to maintain itself by the authority of the government. The account of the most violent, most varied, most prolonged, and most systematic attempt to exterminate the gospel ever known, well deserves the space we have given to it, so that we offer no apology for its length. We have seen the arm of the Lord lifted up in a gracious but solemn manner to chastise and purify His church, to demonstrate the imperishable truth of Christianity, and to cover with everlasting shame and confusion her daring but impotent foes. Like Moses, we may exclaim, "Behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burned. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush." Thus we see why the bush was not burned, or Israel in Egypt not consumed, or the church in this world not exterminated: God was in the midst of the bush — He is in the midst of His church — it is the habitation of God through the Spirit. Besides, Christ hath plainly said, referring to Himself in His risen power and glory,
"Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Exodus 3; Matthew 16.)
Chapter 10 - Constantine