The persecutions of the early Church form an important and deeply interesting portion of its history. When its Great Author died on the accursed tree, Christianity was baptized in blood; and for several centuries its annals consist largely of details of proscription and of suffering. God might have introduced the gospel amongst men amidst the shouts of applauding nations, but |He doeth all things well;| and He doubtless saw that the way in which its reign was actually inaugurated, was better fitted to exhibit His glory, and to attest its excellence. Multitudes, who might otherwise have trifled with the great salvation, were led to think of it more seriously, when they saw that it prompted its professors to encounter such tremendous sacrifices. As the heathen bystanders gazed on the martyrdom of a husband and a master, and as they observed the unflinching fortitude with which he endured his anguish, they often became deeply pensive. They would exclaim -- |The man has children, we believe -- a wife he has, unquestionably -- and yet he is not unnerved by these ties of kindred: he is not turned from his purpose by these claims of affection. We must look into the affair -- we must get at the bottom of it. Be it what it may, it can be no trifle which makes one ready to suffer and willing to die for it.| [284:1] The effects produced on spectators by the heroism of the Christians cannot have escaped the notice of the heathen magistrates. The Church herself was well aware of the credit she derived from these displays of the constancy of her children; and hence, in an address to the persecutors which appeared about the beginning of the third century, the ardent writer boldly invites them to proceed with the work of butchery. |Go on,| says he tauntingly, |ye good governors, so much better in the eyes of the people if ye sacrifice the Christians to them -- rack, torture, condemn, grind us to powder -- our numbers increase in proportion as you mow us down. The blood of Christians is their harvest seed -- that very obstinacy with which you upbraid us, is a teacher. For who is not incited by the contemplation of it to inquire what there is in the core of the matter? and who, that has inquired, does not join us? and who, that joins us, does not long to suffer?| [285:1]
In another point of view the perils connected with a profession of the gospel exercised a wholesome influence. Comparatively few undecided characters joined the communion of the Church; and thus its members, as a body, displayed much consistency and steadfastness. The purity of the Christian morality was never seen to more advantage than in those days of persecution, as every one who joined the hated sect was understood to possess the spirit of a martyr. And never did the graces of the religion of the cross appear in more attractive lustre than when its disciples were groaning under the inflictions of imperial tyranny. As some plants yield their choicest odours only under the influence of pressure, it would seem as if the gospel reserved its richest supplies of patience, strength, and consolation, for times of trouble and alarm. Piety never more decisively asserts its celestial birth than when it stands unblenched under the frown of the persecutor, or calmly awaits the shock of death. In the second and third centuries an unbelieving world often looked on with wonder as the Christians submitted to torment rather than renounce their faith. Nor were spectators more impressed by the amount of suffering sustained by the confessors and the martyrs, than by the spirit with which they endured their trials. They approached their tortures in no temper of dogged obstinacy or sullen defiance. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer in so good a cause. They manifested a self-possession, a meekness of wisdom, a gentleness, and a cheerfulness, at which the multitude were amazed. Nor were these proofs of Christian magnanimity confined to any one class of the sufferers. Children and delicate females, illiterate artisans and poor slaves, sometimes evinced as much intrepidity and decision as hoary-headed pastors. It thus appeared that the victims of intolerance were upheld by a power which was divine, and of which philosophy could give no explanation.
We form a most inadequate estimate of the trials of the early Christians, if we take into account only those sufferings they endured from the hands of the pagan magistrates. Circumstances which seldom came under the eye of public observation not unfrequently kept them for life in a state of disquietude. Idolatry was so interwoven with the very texture of society that the adoption of the new faith sometimes abruptly deprived an individual of the means of subsistence. If he was a statuary, he could no longer employ himself in carving images of the gods; if he was a painter, he could no more expend his skill in decorating the high places of superstition. To earn a livelihood, he must either seek out a new sphere for the exercise of his art, or betake himself to some new occupation. If the Christian was a merchant, he was, to a great extent, at the mercy of those with whom he transacted business. When his property was in the hands of dishonest heathens, he was often unable to recover it, as the pagan oaths administered in the courts of justice prevented him from appealing for redress to the laws of the empire. [287:1] Were he placed in circumstances which enabled him to surmount this difficulty, he could not afford to exasperate his debtors; as they could have so easily retaliated by accusing him of Christianity. The wealthy disciple could not accept the office of a magistrate, for he would have thus only betrayed his creed; neither could he venture to aspire to any of the honours of the state, as his promotion would most certainly have aggravated the perils of his position. Our Saviour had said -- |I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes shall be they of his own household.| [287:2] These words were now verified with such woeful accuracy that the distrust pervading the domestic circle often imbittered the whole life of the believer. The slave informed against his Christian master; the husband divorced his Christian wife; and children who embraced the gospel were sometimes disinherited by their enraged parents. [287:3] As the followers of the cross contemplated the hardships which beset them on every side, well might they have exclaimed in the words of the apostle -- |If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.| [287:4]
In the first century the very helplessness of the Church served partially to protect it from persecution. Its adherents were then almost all in very humble circumstances; and their numbers were not such as to inspire the sovereign with any political anxiety. When they were harassed by the unbelieving Jews, the civil magistrate sometimes interposed, and spread over them the shield of toleration; and though Nero and Domitian were their persecutors, the treatment they experienced from two princes so generally abhorred for cruelty elicited a measure of public sympathy. [288:1] At length, however, the Roman government, even when administered by sovereigns noted for their political virtues, began to assume an attitude of decided opposition; and, for many generations, the disciples were constantly exposed to the hostility of their pagan rulers.
The Romans acted so far upon the principle of toleration as to permit the various nations reduced under their dominion to adhere to whatever religion they had previously professed. They were, no doubt, led to pursue this policy by the combined dictates of expediency and superstition; for whilst they were aware that they could more easily preserve their conquests by granting indulgence to the vanquished, they believed that each country had its own tutelary guardians. But they looked with the utmost suspicion upon all new systems of religion. Such novelties, they conceived, might be connected with designs against the state; and should, therefore, be sternly discountenanced. Hence it was that Christianity so soon met with opposition from the imperial government. For a time it was confounded with Judaism, and, as such, was regarded as entitled to the protection of the laws; but when its true character was ascertained, the disciples were involved in all the penalties attached to the adherents of an unlicensed worship.
Very early in the second century the power of the State was turned against the gospel. About A.D.107, the far-famed Ignatius, the pastor of Antioch, is said to have suffered martyrdom. Soon afterwards our attention is directed to the unhappy condition of the Church by a correspondence between the celebrated Pliny, and the Emperor Trajan. It would seem that in Bithynia, of which Pliny was governor, the new faith was rapidly spreading; and that those who derived their subsistence from the maintenance of superstition, had taken the alarm. The proconsul had, therefore, been importuned to commence a persecution; and as existing statutes supplied him with no very definite instructions respecting the method of procedure, he deemed it necessary to seek directions from his Imperial master. He stated, at the same time, the course which he had hitherto pursued. If individuals arraigned before his judgment-seat, and accused of Christianity, refused to repudiate the obnoxious creed, they were condemned to death; but if they abjured the gospel, they were permitted to escape unscathed. Trajan approved of this policy, and it now became the law of the Empire.
In his letter to his sovereign [289:1] Pliny has given a very favourable account of the Christian morality, and has virtually admitted that the new religion was admirably fitted to promote the good of the community, he mentions that the members of the Church were bound by solemn obligations to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery; to keep their promises, and to avoid every form of wickedness. When such was their acknowledged character, it may appear extraordinary that a sagacious prince and a magistrate of highly cultivated mind concurred in thinking that they should be treated with extreme rigour. We have here, however, a striking example of the military spirit of Roman legislation. The laws of the Empire made no proper provision for the rights of conscience; and they were based throughout upon the principle that implicit obedience is the first duty of a subject. Neither Pliny nor Trajan could understand why a Christian should not renounce his creed at the bidding of the civil governor. In their estimation, |inflexible obstinacy| in confessing the Saviour was a crime which deserved no less a penalty than death.
Though the rescript of Trajan awarded capital punishment to the man who persisted in acknowledging himself a Christian, it also required that the disciples should not be inquisitively sought after. The zeal of many of the enemies of the Church was, no doubt, checked by this provision; as those who attempted to hunt down the faithful expressly violated the spirit of the imperial enactment. But still, some Christians now suffered the penalty of a good confession. Pliny himself admits that individuals who were brought before his own tribunal, and who could not be induced to recant, were capitally punished; and elsewhere the law was not permitted to remain in abeyance. About the close of the reign of Trajan, Simeon, the senior minister of Jerusalem, now in the hundred and twentieth year of his age, fell a victim to its severity. This martyr was, probably, the second son of Mary, the mother of our Lord. He is, perhaps, the same who is enumerated in the Gospels [290:1] among the brethren of Christ; and the chronology accords with the supposition that he was a year younger than our Saviour. [290:2] His relationship to Jesus, his great age, and his personal excellence secured for him a most influential position in the mother Church of Christendom; and hence, by writers who flourished afterwards, and who expressed themselves in the language of their generation, he has been called the second bishop of Jerusalem.
Though the rescript of Trajan served for a time to restrain the violence of persecution, it pronounced the profession of Christianity illegal; so that doubts, which had hitherto existed as to the interpretation of the law, could no longer be entertained. The heathen priests, and others interested in the support of idolatry, did not neglect to proclaim a fact so discouraging to the friends of the gospel. The law, indeed, still presented difficulties, for an accuser who failed to substantiate his charge was liable to punishment; but the wily adversaries of the Church soon contrived to evade this obstacle. When the people met together on great public occasions, as at the celebration of their games, or festivals, and when the interest in the sports began to flag, attempts were often made to provide them with a new and more exciting pastime by raising the cry of |The Christians to the Lions;| and as, at such times, the magistrates had been long accustomed to yield to the wishes of the multitude, many of the faithful were sacrificed to their clamours. Here, no one was obliged to step forward and hold himself responsible for the truth of an indictment; and thus, without incurring any danger, personal malice and blind bigotry had free scope for their indulgence. In the reign of Hadrian, the successor of Trajan, the Christians were sadly harassed by these popular ebullitions; and at length Quadratus and Aristides, two eminent members of the Church at Athens, presented apologies to the Emperor in which they vividly depicted the hardships of their position. Serenius Granianus, the Proconsul of Asia, also complained to Hadrian of the proceedings of the mob; and, in consequence, that Prince issued a rescript requiring that the magistrates should in future refuse to give way to the extempore clamours of public meetings.
Antoninus Pius, who inherited the throne on the demise of Hadrian, was a mild Sovereign; and under him the faithful enjoyed comparative tranquillity; but his successor Marcus Aurelius, surnamed the Philosopher, pursued a very different policy. Marcus is commonly reputed one of the best of the Roman Emperors; at a very early period of life he gave promise of uncommon excellence; and throughout his reign he distinguished himself as an able and accomplished monarch. But he was proud, pedantic, and self-sufficient; and, like every other individual destitute of spiritual enlightenment, his character presented the most glaring inconsistencies; for he was at once a professed Stoic, and a devout Pagan. This Prince could not brook the contempt with which the Christians treated his philosophy; neither could he tolerate the idea that they should be permitted to think for themselves. He could conceive how an individual, yielding to the stern law of fate, could meet death with unconcern; but he did not understand how the Christians could glory in tribulation, and hail even martyrdom with a song of triumph. Had he calmly reflected on the spirit displayed by the witnesses for the truth, he might have seen that they were partakers of a higher wisdom than his own; but the tenacity with which they adhered to their principles, only mortified his self-conceit, and roused his indignation. It is remarkable that this philosophic Emperor was the most systematic and heartless of all the persecutors who had ever yet oppressed the Church. When Nero lighted up his gardens with the flames which issued from the bodies of the dying Christians, he wished to transfer to them the odium of the burning of Rome, and he acted only with the caprice and cunning of a tyrant; and when Domitian promulgated his cruel edicts, he was haunted with the dread that the proscribed sect would raise up a rival Sovereign; but Marcus Aurelius could not plead even such miserable apologies. He hated the Christians with the cool acerbity of a Stoic; and he took measures for their extirpation which betrayed at once his folly and his malevolence. Disregarding the law of Trajan which required that they should not be officiously sought after, he encouraged spies and informers to harass them with accusations. He caused them to be dragged before the tribunals of the magistrates; and, under pain of death, to be compelled to conform to the rites of idolatry. With a refinement of cruelty unknown to his predecessors, he employed torture for the purpose of forcing them to recant. If, in their agony, they gave way, and consented to sacrifice to the gods, they were released; if they remained firm, they were permitted to die in torment. In his reign we read of new and hideous forms of punishment -- evidently instituted for the purpose of aggravating pain and terror. The Christians were stretched upon the rack, and their joints were dislocated; their bodies, when lacerated with scourges, were laid on rough sea-shells, or on other most uncomfortable supports; they were torn to pieces by wild beasts; or they were roasted alive on heated iron chairs. Ingenuity was called to the ignoble office of inventing new modes and new instruments of torture.
One of the most distinguished sufferers of this reign was Justin, surnamed the Martyr. [293:1] He was a native of Samaria; but he had travelled into various countries, and had studied various systems of philosophy, with a view, if possible, to discover the truth. His attention had at length been directed to the Scriptures, and in them he had found that satisfaction which he could not obtain elsewhere. When in Rome about A.D.165, he came into collision with Crescens, a Cynic philosopher, whom he foiled in a theological discussion. His unscrupulous antagonist, annoyed by this discomfiture, turned informer; and Justin, with some others, was put to death. Shortly afterwards Polycarp, the aged pastor of Smyrna, was committed to the flames. [293:2] This venerable man, who had been acquainted in his youth with the Apostle John, had long occupied a high position as a prudent, exemplary, and devoted minister. Informations were now laid against him, and orders were given for his apprehension. At first he endeavoured to elude his pursuers; but when he saw that escape was impossible, he surrendered himself a prisoner. After all, he would have been permitted to remain unharmed had he consented to renounce the gospel. In the sight of an immense throng who gloated over the prospect of his execution, the good old man remained unmoved. When called on to curse Christ he returned the memorable answer -- |Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse Him my Lord and Saviour?| |I will cast you to the wild beasts,| said the Proconsul, |if you do not change your mind.| |Bring the wild beasts hither,| replied Polycarp, |for change my mind from the better to the worse I will not.| |Despise you the wild beasts?| exclaimed the magistrate -- |I will subdue your spirit by the flames.| |The flames which you menace endure but for a time and are soon extinguished,| calmly rejoined the prisoner, |but there is a fire reserved for the wicked, whereof you know not; the fire of a judgment to come and of punishment everlasting.| These answers put an end to all hope of pardon; a pile of faggots was speedily collected; and Polycarp was burned alive.
Towards the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, or about A.D.177, the Churches of Lyons and Vienne [294:1] in France endured one of the most horrible persecutions recorded in the annals of Christian martyrdom. A dreadful pestilence, some years before, had desolated the Empire; and the pagans seem to have been impressed with the conviction that the new religion had provoked the visitation. The mob in various cities became, in consequence, exasperated; and demanded, with loud cries, the extirpation of the hated sectaries. In the south of France a considerable time appears to have elapsed before the ill-will of the multitude broke out into open violence. At first the disciples in Lyons and Vienne were insulted in places of public concourse; they were then pelted with stones and forced to shut themselves up in their own houses; they were subsequently seized and thrown into prison; and afterwards their slaves were put to the torture, and compelled to accuse them of crimes of which they were innocent. Pothinus, the pastor of Lyons, now upwards of ninety years of age, was brought before the governor, and so roughly handled by the populace that he died two days after he was thrown into confinement. The other prisoners were plied with hunger and thirst, and then put to death with wanton and studied cruelty. Two of the sufferers, Blandina, a female, and Ponticus, a lad of fifteen, displayed singular calmness and intrepidity. For several days they were obliged to witness the tortures inflicted on their fellow-disciples, that they might, if possible, be intimidated by the appalling spectacle. After passing through this ordeal, the torture was applied to themselves. Ponticus soon sunk under his sufferings; but Blandina still survived. When she had sustained the agony of the heated iron chair, she was put into a net and thrown to a wild bull that she might be trampled and torn by him; and she continued to breathe long after she had been sadly mangled by the infuriated animal. While subjected to these terrible inflictions, she exhibited the utmost patience; no boasts escaped her lips; no murmurs were uttered by her; and even in the paroxysms of her anguish she was seen to be full of faith and courage. But such touching exhibitions of the spirit of the gospel failed to repress the fury of the excited populace. Their hatred of the gospel was so intense that they resolved to deprive the disciples who survived this reign of terror of the melancholy satisfaction of paying the last tribute of respect to the remains of their martyred brethren. They, accordingly, burned the dead bodies, and then cast the ashes into the Rhone. |Now,| said they, |we will see whether they will rise again, and whether God can help them, and deliver them out of our hands.| [296:1]
Under the brutal and bloody Commodus, the son and heir of Marcus Aurelius, the Christians had some repose. Marcia, his favourite concubine, was a member of the Church; [296:2] and her influence was successfully exerted in protecting her co-religionists. But the penal statutes were still in force, and they were not everywhere permitted to remain a dead letter. In this reign [296:3] we meet with some of the earliest indications of that zeal for martyrdom which was properly the spawn of the fanaticism of the Montanists. In a certain district of Asia, a multitude of persons, actuated by this absurd passion, presented themselves in a body before the proconsul Arrius Antoninus; and proclaimed themselves Christians. The sight of such a crowd of victims appalled the magistrate; and, after passing judgment on a few, he is said to have driven the remainder from his tribunal, exclaiming -- |Miserable men, if you wish to kill yourselves, you have ropes or precipices.|
The reigns of Pertinax and Julian, the Emperors next in succession after Commodus, amounted together only to a few months; and the faithful had meanwhile to struggle with many discouragements; [296:4] but these short-lived sovereigns were so much occupied with other matters, that they could not afford time for legislation on the subject of religion. Septimius Severus, who now obtained the Imperial dignity, was at first not unfriendly to the Church; and a cure performed on him by Proculus, a Christian slave, [297:1] has been assigned as the cause of his forbearance; but, as his reign advanced, he assumed an offensive attitude; and it cannot be denied that the disciples suffered considerably under his administration. As the Christians were still obliged to meet at night to celebrate their worship, they were accused of committing unnatural crimes in their nocturnal assemblies; and though these heartless calumnies had been triumphantly refuted fifty or sixty years before, they were now revived and circulated with fresh industry. [297:2] About this period, Leonides, the father of the learned Origen, was put to death. By a law, promulgated probably in A.D.202, the Emperor interdicted conversions to Christianity; and at a time when the Church was making vigorous encroachments on heathenism, this enactment created much embarrassment and anxiety. Some of the governors of provinces, as soon as they ascertained the disposition of the Imperial court, commenced forthwith a persecution; and there were magistrates who proceeded to enforce the laws for the base purpose of extorting money from the parties obnoxious to their severity. Sometimes individuals, and sometimes whole congregations purchased immunity from suffering by entering into pecuniary contracts with corrupt and avaricious rulers; and by the payment of a certain sum obtained certificates [297:3] which protected them from all farther inquisition. [297:4] The purport of these documents has been the subject of much discussion. According to some they contained a distinct statement to the effect that those named in them had sacrificed to the gods, and had thus satisfied the law; whilst others allege that, though they guaranteed protection, they neither directly stated an untruth, nor compromised the religious consistency of their possessors. But it is beyond all controversy that the more scrupulous and zealous Christians uniformly condemned the use of such certificates. Their owners were known by the suspicious designation of |Libellatici,| or |the Certified;| and were considered only less criminal than the |Thurificati,| or those who had actually apostatised by offering incense on the altars of paganism. [298:1]
About this time the enforcement of the penal laws in a part of North Africa, probably in Carthage, led to a most impressive display of some of the noblest features of the Christian character. Five catechumens, or candidates for baptism, among whom were Perpetua and Felicitas, [298:2] had been put under arrest. Perpetua, who was only two and twenty years of age, was a lady of rank and of singularly prepossessing appearance. Accustomed to all the comforts which wealth could procure, she was ill fitted, with a child at the breast, to sustain the rigours of confinement -- more especially as she was thrown into a crowded dungeon during the oppressive heat of an African summer. But, with her infant in her arms, she cheerfully submitted to her privations; and the thought that she was persecuted for Christ's sake, converted her prison into a palace. Her aged father, who was a pagan, was overwhelmed with distress because, as he conceived, she was bringing deep and lasting disgrace upon her family by her attachment to a proscribed sect; and as she was his favourite child, he employed every expedient which paternal tenderness and anxiety could dictate to lead her to a recantation. When she was conducted to the judgment-seat with the other prisoners, the old gentleman appeared there, to try the effect of another appeal to her; and the presiding magistrate, touched with pity, entreated her to listen to his arguments, and to change her resolution. But, though deeply moved by the anguish of her aged parent, all these attempts to shake her constancy were in vain. At the place of execution she sung a psalm of victory, and, before she expired, she exhorted her brother and another catechumen, named Rusticus, to continue in the faith, to love each other, and to be neither affrighted nor offended by her sufferings. Her companion Felicitas exhibited quite as illustrious a specimen of Christian heroism. When arrested, she was far advanced in pregnancy, and during her imprisonment, the pains of labour came upon her. Her cries arrested the attention of the jailer, who said to her -- |If your present sufferings are so great, what will you do when you are thrown to the wild beasts? You did not consider this when you refused to sacrifice.| With undaunted spirit Felicitas replied -- |It is I that suffer now, but then there will be Another with me, who will suffer for me, because I shall suffer for His sake.| The prisoners were condemned to be torn by wild beasts on the occasion of an approaching festival; and when they had passed through this terrible ordeal, they were despatched with the sword.
After the death of Septimius Severus, the Christians experienced some abatement of their sufferings. Caracalla and Elagabalus permitted them to remain almost undisturbed; and Alexander Severus has been supposed by some to have been himself a believer. Among the images in his private chapel was a representation of Christ, and he was obviously convinced that Jesus possessed divine endowments; but there is no proof that he ever accepted unreservedly the New Testament revelation. He was simply an eclectic philosopher who held that a portion of truth was to be found in each of the current systems of religion; and who undertook to analyse them, and extract the spiritual treasure. The Emperor Maximin was less friendly to the Church; and yet his enmity was confined chiefly to those Christian ministers who had been favourites with his predecessor; so that he cannot be said to have promoted any general persecution. Under Gordian the disciples were free from molestation; and his successor, Philip the Arabian, was so well affected to their cause that he has been sometimes, though erroneously, represented as the first Christian Emperor. [300:1] The death of this monarch in A.D.249 was, however, soon followed by the fiercest and the most extensive persecution under which the faithful had yet groaned. The more zealous of the pagans, who had been long witnessing with impatience the growth of Christianity, had become convinced that, if the old religion were to be upheld, a mighty effort must very soon be made to strangle its rival. Various expedients were meanwhile employed to prejudice the multitude against the gospel. Every disaster which occurred throughout the Empire was attributed to its evil influence; the defeat of a general, the failure of a harvest, the overflowing of the Tiber, the desolations of a hurricane, and the appearance of a pestilence, were all ascribed to its most inauspicious advancement. The public mind was thus gradually prepared for measures of extreme severity; and Decius, who now became emperor, aimed at the utter extirpation of Christianity. All persons suspected of attachment to the gospel were summoned before the civil authorities; and if, regardless of intimidation, they refused to sacrifice, attempts were made to overcome their constancy by torture, by imprisonment, and by starvation. When all such expedients failed, the punishment of death was inflicted. Those who fled before the day appointed for their appearance in presence of the magistrates, forfeited their property; and were forbidden, under the penalty of death, to return to the district. The Church in many places had now enjoyed peace for thirty years, and meanwhile the tone of Christian principle had been considerably lowered. It was not strange, therefore, that, in these perilous days, many apostatised. [301:1] The conduct of not a few of the more opulent Christians of Alexandria has been graphically described by a contemporary. |As they were severally called by name, they approached the unholy offering; some, pale and trembling, as if they were going, not to sacrifice, but to be sacrificed to the gods; so that they were jeered by the mob who thronged around them, as it was plain to all that they were equally afraid to sacrifice and to die. Others advanced more briskly, carrying their effrontery so far as to avow that they never had been Christians.| [301:2] Multitudes now withdrew into deserts or mountains, and there perished with cold and hunger. The prisons were everywhere crowded with Christians; and the magistrates were occupied with the odious task of oppressing and destroying the most meritorious of their fellow-citizens. The disciples were sent to labour in the mines, branded on the forehead, subjected to mutilation, and reduced to the lowest depth of misery. In this persecution the pastors were treated with marked severity, and during its continuance many of them suffered martyrdom. Among the most distinguished victims were Fabian bishop of Rome, Babylas bishop of Antioch, and Alexander bishop of Jerusalem. [302:1]
The reign of Decius was short; [302:2] but the hardships of the Church did not cease with its termination, as Gallus adopted the policy of his predecessor. Though Valerian, the successor of Gallus, for a time displayed much moderation, he eventually relinquished this pacific course; and, instigated by his favourite Macrianus, an Egyptian soothsayer, began about A.D.257 to repeat the bloody tragedy which, in the days of Decius, had filled the Empire with such terror and distress. At first the pastors were driven into banishment, and the disciples forbidden to meet for worship. But more stringent measures were soon adopted. An edict appeared announcing that bishops, presbyters, and deacons were to be put to death; that senators and knights, who were Christians, were to forfeit their rank and property; and that, if they still refused to repudiate their principles, they were to be capitally punished; whilst those members of the Church who were in the service of the palace, were to be put in chains, and sent to labour on the imperial estates. [302:3] In this persecution, Sixtus bishop of Rome, and Cyprian bishop of Carthage, [302:4] were martyred.
On the accession of Gallienus in A.D.260, the Church was once more restored to peace. Gallienus, though a person of worthless character, was the first Emperor who protected the Christians by a formal edict of toleration. He commanded that they should not only be permitted to profess their religion unmolested, but that they should again be put in possession of their cemeteries [303:1] and of all other property, either in houses or lands, of which they had been deprived during the reign of his predecessor. This decree was nearly as ample in its provisions as that which was issued in their favour by the great Constantine upwards of half a century afterwards.
But, notwithstanding the advantages secured by this imperial law, the Church still suffered occasionally in particular districts. Hostile magistrates might plead that certain edicts had not been definitely repealed; and, calculating on the connivance of the higher functionaries, might perpetrate acts of cruelty and oppression. The Emperor Aurelian had even resolved to resume the barbarous policy of Decius and Valerian; and, in A.D.275, had actually prepared a sanguinary edict; but, before it could be executed, death stepped in to arrest his violence, and to prevent the persecution. Thus, as has already been intimated, for the last forty years of the third century the Christians enjoyed, almost uninterruptedly, the blessings of toleration. Spacious edifices, frequented by crowds of worshippers, and some of them furnished with sacramental vessels of silver or gold, [303:2] were to be seen in all the great cities of the Empire. But, about the beginning of the fourth century, the prospect changed. The pagan party beheld with dismay the rapid extension of the Church, and resolved to make a tremendous effort for its destruction. This faction, pledged to the maintenance of idolatry, now caused its influence to be felt in all political transactions; and the treatment of the Christians once more became a question on which statesmen were divided. Diocletian, who was made Emperor in A.D.285, continued for many years afterwards to act upon the principle of toleration; but at length he was induced, partly by the suggestions of his own superstitious and jealous temper, and partly by the importunities of his son-in-law Galerius, to enter upon another course. The persecution commenced in the army, where all soldiers refusing to sacrifice forfeited their rank, and were dismissed the service. [304:1] But other hostile demonstrations soon followed. In the month of February A.D.303, the great church of Nicomedia, the city in which the Emperor then resided, was broken open; the copies of the Scriptures to be found in it were committed to the flames; and the edifice itself was demolished. The next day an edict appeared interdicting the religious assemblies of the faithful; commanding the destruction of their places of worship; ordering all their sacred books to be burned; requiring those who held offices of honour and emolument to renounce their principles on pain of the forfeiture of their appointments; declaring that disciples in the humbler walks of life, who remained steadfast, should be divested of their rights as citizens and free-men; and providing that even slaves, so long as they continued Christians, should be incapable of manumission. [304:2] Some time afterwards another edict was promulgated directing that all ecclesiastics should be seized and put in chains. When the jails were thus filled with Christian ministers, another edict made its appearance, commanding that the prisoners should by all means be compelled to sacrifice. At length a fourth edict, of a still more sweeping character and extending to the whole body of Christians, was published. In accordance with this decree proclamation was made throughout the streets of the cities, and men, women, and children, were enjoined to repair to the heathen temples. The city gates were guarded that none might escape; and, from lists previously prepared, every individual was summoned by name to present himself, and join in the performance of the rites of paganism. [305:1] At a subsequent period all provisions sold in the markets, in some parts of the empire, were sprinkled with the water or the wine employed in idolatrous worship, that the Christians might either be compelled to abstinence, or led to defile themselves by the use of polluted viands. [305:2]
Throughout almost the whole Church the latter part of the third century was a period of spiritual decay; and many returned to heathenism during the sifting time which now followed. Not a few incurred the reproach of their more consistent and courageous brethren by surrendering the Scriptures in their possession; and those who thus purchased their safety were stigmatised with the odious name of traditors. Had the persecutors succeeded in burning all the copies of the Word of God, they would, without the intervention of a miracle, have effectually secured the ruin of the Church; but their efforts to destroy the sacred volume proved abortive; for the faithful seized the earliest opportunity of replacing the consumed manuscripts. The holy book was prized by them more highly than ever, and Bible burning only gave a stimulus to Bible transcription. Still, however, sacred literature sustained a loss of no ordinary magnitude in this wholesale destruction of the inspired writings, and there is not at present in existence a single codex of the New Testament of higher antiquity than the Diocletian persecution. [305:3]
It has been computed that a greater number of Christians perished under Decius than in all the attacks which had previously been made upon them; but their sufferings under Diocletian were still more formidable and disastrous. Paganism felt that it was now engaged in a death struggle; and this, its last effort to maintain its ascendency, was its most protracted and desperate conflict. It has been frequently stated that the Diocletian persecution was of ten years' duration; and, reckoning from the first indications of hostility to the promulgation of an edict of toleration, it may certainly be thus estimated; but all this time the whole Church was not groaning under the pressure of the infliction. The Christians of the west of Europe suffered comparatively little; as there the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, and afterwards his son Constantine, to a great extent, preserved them from molestation. In the East they passed through terrific scenes of suffering; for Galerius and Maximin, the two stern tyrants who governed that part of the empire on the abdication of Diocletian, endeavoured to overcome their steadfastness by all the expedients which despotic cruelty could suggest. A contemporary, who had access to the best sources of information, has given a faithful account of the torments they endured. Vinegar mixed with salt was poured on the lacerated bodies of the dying; some were roasted on huge gridirons; some, suspended aloft by one hand, were then left to perish in excruciating agony; and some, bound to parts of different trees which had been brought together by machinery, were torn limb from limb by the sudden revulsion of the liberated branches. [306:1] But, even in the East, this attempt to overwhelm Christianity was not prosecuted from its commencement to its close with unabated severity. Sometimes the sufferers obtained a respite; and again, the work of blood was resumed with fresh vigour. Though many were tempted for a season to make a hollow profession of paganism, multitudes met every effort to seduce them in a spirit of indomitable resolution. At length tyranny became weary of its barren office, and the Church obtained peace. In A.D.311, Galerius, languishing under a loathsome disease, and perhaps hoping that he might be relieved by the God of the Christians, granted them toleration. Maximin subsequently renewed the attacks upon them; but at his death, which occurred in A.D.313, the edict in favour of the Church, which Constantine and his colleague Licinius had already published, became law throughout the empire.
It is often alleged that the Church, before the conversion of Constantine, passed through ten persecutions; but the statement gives a very incorrect idea of its actual suffering. It would be more accurate to say that, for between two and three hundred years, the faithful were under the ban of imperial proscription. During all this period they were liable to be pounced upon at any moment by bigoted, domineering, or greedy magistrates. There were not, indeed, ten persecutions conducted with the systematic and sanguinary violence exhibited in the times of Diocletian or of Decius; but there were perhaps provinces of the empire where almost every year for upwards of two centuries some Christians suffered for the faith. [307:1] The friends of the confessors and the martyrs were not slow to acknowledge the hand of Providence, as they traced the history of the emperors by whom the Church was favoured or oppressed. It was remarked that the disciples were not worn out by the barbarities of a continuous line of persecutors; for an unscrupulous tyrant was often succeeded on the throne by an equitable or an indulgent sovereign. Thus, the Christians had every now and then a breathing-time during which their hopes were revived and their numbers recruited. It was observed, too, that the princes, of whose cruelty they had reason to complain, generally ended their career under very distressing circumstances. An ecclesiastical writer who is supposed to have flourished towards the commencement of the fourth century has discussed this subject in a special treatise, in which he has left behind him a very striking account of |The Deaths of the Persecutors.| [308:1] Their history certainly furnishes a most significant commentary on the Divine announcement that |the Lord is known by the judgment which he executeth.| [308:2] Nero, the first hostile emperor, perished ignominiously by his own hand. Domitian, the next persecutor, was assassinated. Marcus Aurelius died a natural death; but, during his reign, the Empire suffered dreadfully from pestilence and famine; and war raged, almost incessantly, from its commencement to its close. The people of Lyons, who now signalised themselves by their cruelty to the Christians, did not escape a righteous retribution; for about twenty years after the martyrdom of Pothinus and his brethren, the city was pillaged and burned. [308:3] Septimius Severus narrowly escaped murder by the hand of one of his own children. Decius, whose name is associated with an age of martyrdom, perished in the Gothic war. Valerian, another oppressor, ended his days in Persia in degrading captivity. The Emperor Aurelian was assassinated. Diocletian languished for years the victim of various maladies, and is said to have abruptly terminated his life by suicide. Galerius, his son-in-law, died of a most horrible distemper; and Maximin took away his own life by poison. [308:4] The interpretation of providences is not to be rashly undertaken; but the record of the fate of persecutors forms a most extraordinary chapter in the history of man; and the melancholy circumstances under which so many of the enemies of religion have finished their career, have sometimes impressed those who have been otherwise slow to acknowledge the finger of the Almighty.
The persecutions of the early Church originated partly in selfishness and superstition. Idolatry afforded employment to tens of thousands of artists and artisans -- all of whom had thus a direct pecuniary interest in its conservation; whilst the ignorant rabble, taught to associate Christianity with misfortune, were prompted to clamour for its overthrow. Mistaken policy had also some share in the sufferings of the Christians; for statesmen, fearing that the disciples in their secret meetings might be hatching treason, viewed them with suspicion and treated them with severity. But another element of at least equal strength contributed to promote persecution. The pure and spiritual religion of the New Testament was distasteful to the human heart, and its denunciations of wickedness in every form stirred up the malignity of the licentious and unprincipled. The faithful complained that they suffered for neglecting the worship of the gods, whilst philosophers, who derided the services of the established ritual, escaped with impunity. [309:1] But the sophists were not likely ever to wage an effective warfare against immorality and superstition. Many of themselves were persons of worthless character, and their speculations were of no practical value. It was otherwise with the gospel. Its advocates were felt to be in earnest; and it was quickly perceived that, if permitted to make way, it would revolutionize society. Hence the bitter opposition which it so soon awakened.
It might have been expected that the sore oppression which the Church endured for so many generations would have indelibly imprinted on the hearts of her children the doctrine of liberty of conscience. As the early Christians expostulated with their pagan rulers, they often described most eloquently the folly of persecution. |How unjust is it,| said they, |that freemen should be driven to sacrifice to the gods, when in all other instances a willing mind is required as an indispensable qualification for any office of religion?| [310:1] |It appertains to man's proper right and natural privilege that each should worship that which he thinks to be God....Neither is it the part of religion to compel men to religion, which ought to be adopted voluntarily, not of compulsion, seeing that sacrifices are required of a willing mind. Thus, even if you compel us to sacrifice, you shall render no sacrifice thereby to your gods, for they will not desire sacrifices from unwilling givers, unless they are contentious; but God is not contentious.| [310:2] When, however, the Church obtained possession of the throne of the empire, she soon ignored these lessons of toleration; and, snatching the weapons of her tormentors, she attempted, in her turn, to subjugate the soul by the dungeon, the sword, and the faggot. For at least thirteen centuries after the establishment of Christianity by Constantine, it was taken for granted almost everywhere that those branded with the odious name of heretics were unworthy the protection of the laws; and that, though good and loyal citizens, they ought to be punished by the civil magistrate. This doctrine, so alien to the spirit of the New Testament, has often spread desolation and terror throughout whole provinces; and has led to the deliberate murder of a hundredfold more Christians than were destroyed by pagan Rome. Even the fathers of the Reformation did not escape from the influence of an intolerant training; but that Bible which they brought forth from obscurity has been gradually imparting a milder tone to earthly legislation; and various providences have been illustrating the true meaning of the proposition that Christ's kingdom is |not of this world.| [311:1] In all free countries it is now generally admitted that the weapons of the Church are not carnal, and that the jurisdiction of the magistrate is not spiritual. |God alone is Lord of the conscience;| and it is only by the illumination of His Word that the monitor within can be led to recognise His will, and submit to His authority.