It was a great thing for the Church that the emperor of Rome should give it liberty; and Constantine, after sending forth the laws which put an end to the persecution, went on to make other laws in favour of the Christians. But he did not himself become a Christian all at once, although he built many churches and gave rich presents to others, and although he was fond of keeping company with bishops, and of conversing with them about religion. Licinius, the emperor of the East, who had joined with Constantine in his first laws, afterwards quarrelled with him, and persecuted the eastern Christians cruelly, but Constantine defeated him in battle (AD 324), and the whole empire was once more united under one head.
After his victory over Licinius, Constantine declared himself a Christian, which he had not done before; and he used to attend the services of the Church very regularly, and to stand all the time that the bishops were preaching, however long their sermons might be. He used even himself to write a kind of discourses something like sermons, and he read them aloud in the palace to all his court; but he really knew very little of Christian doctrine, although he was very fond of talking part in disputes about it. And, although he professed to be a Christian, he had not yet been made a member of Christ by baptism, for in those days, people had so high a notion of the grace of baptism that many of them put off their baptism until they supposed that they were on their deathbed, for fear lest they should sin after being baptized, and so should lose the benefit of the sacrament. This was of course wrong; for it was a sad mistake to think that they might go on in sin so long as they were not baptized. God, we know, might have cut them off at any moment in the midst of all their sins, and even if they were spared, there was a great danger that, when they came to beg for baptism at last, they might not have that true spirit of repentance and faith without which they could not be fit to receive the grace of the sacraments. And therefore the teachers of the Church used to warn people against putting off their baptism out of a love for sin; and when any one had received |clinical| baptism, as it was called (that is to say, baptism on a sick-bed), if he afterwards got well again, he was thought but little of in the Church.
But to come back to Constantine. He had many other faults besides his unwillingness to take on himself the duties of a baptized Christian; and, although we are bound to thank God for having turned his heart to favour the Church, we must not be blind to the emperor's faults. Yet, with all these faults, he really believed the Gospel, and meant to do what he could for the truth.
It took a long time to put down heathenism; for it would not have been safe or wise to force people to become Christians before they had come to see the falsehood of their old religion. Constantine, therefore, only made laws against some of its worst practices, and forbade any sacrifices to be offered in the name of the empire; but he did not hinder the heathens from sacrificing on their own account if they liked.
Soon after professing himself a Christian, the emperor began to build a new capital in the East. There had been a town called Byzantium on the spot before; but the new city was far grander, and he gave it the name of Constantinople, which means the City of Constantine. It was meant to be altogether Christian, -- unlike Rome, which was full of temples of heathen gods. And the emperors, from this time, usually lived at Constantinople, or at some other place in the East.
There will be more to say about Constantine in the next chapter. In the mean time, let us look at the progress of the Gospel.
It had, by this time, made its way into many countries beyond the bounds of the empire. There were Christians in Scotland and in India; there had long been great numbers of Christians in Persia and Arabia. Many of the Goths, who then lived about the Danube, had been converted by captives whom they carried off in their plundering expeditions, during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus (about AD 260), and other roving tribes had been converted by the same means. About the end of the third century, Gregory, who is called the Enlightener, had gone as a missionary bishop into Armenia, where he persuaded the king, Tiridates, to receive the Gospel, and to establish it as the religion of his country: so that Armenia had the honour of being the first Christian kingdom. The Georgians were converted in the reign of Constantine; and about the same time, the Ethiopians or Abyssinians (who live to the south of Egypt) were brought to the knowledge of the truth in a very remarkable way.
There was a rich Christian of Tyre, named Meropius, who was a philosopher, and wished to make discoveries in the countries towards India, which were then but little known. So he set out in a ship of his own, sailed down the Red Sea, and made a voyage to the East. On his way back, he and his crew landed at a place on the coast of Ethiopia, in search of fresh water, when the people of the country fell on them, and killed all but two youths named Aedesius and Frumentius, who were relations of Meropius. These lads were taken to the king's court, where, as they were better educated than the Ethiopians, they soon got into great favour and power. The king died after a time, leaving a little boy to succeed him; and the two strangers were asked to carry on the government of the country until the prince should be old enough to take it into his own hands. They did this faithfully, and stayed many years in Ethiopia; and they used to look out for any Christian sailors or merchants who visited the country, and to hold meetings with such strangers and others for worship, although they were distressed that they had no clergy to minister to them. At length the young prince grew up to manhood, and was able to govern his kingdom for himself; and then Aedesius and Frumentius set out for their own country, which they had been longing to see for so many years. Aedesius got back to Tyre, where he became a deacon of the Church. But Frumentius stopped at Alexandria, and told his tale to the bishop, the great St. Athanasius (of whom we shall hear more by-and-by), and he begged that a bishop might be sent into Ethiopia to settle and govern the Church there. Athanasius, considering how faithful and wise Frumentius had shown himself in all his business, how greatly he was respected and loved by the Ethiopians, and how much he had done to spread the gospel in the land of his captivity, said that no one was so fit as he to be bishop; and he consecrated Frumentius accordingly. To this day the chief bishop of the Abyssinian Church, instead of being chosen from among the clergy of the country, is always a person sent by the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, and thus the Abyssinians still keep up the remembrance of the way in which their Church was founded, although the bishopric of Alexandria is now sadly fallen from the height at which it stood in the days of Athanasius and Frumentius.
Constantine used his influence with the king of Persia, whose name was Sapor, to obtain good treatment for the Christians of that country; and the Gospel continued to make progress there. But this naturally raised the jealousy of the magi, who were the priests of the heathen religion of Persia, and they looked out for some means of doing mischief to the Christians. So a few years after the death of Constantine, when a war broke out between Sapor and the next emperor, Constantius, these magi got about the king, and told him that his Christian subjects would be ready to betray him to the Romans, from whom they had got their religion. Sapor then issued orders that all Christians should pay an enormous tax, unless they would worship the gods of the Persians. Their chief bishop, whose name was Symeon, on receiving this order, answered that the tax was more than they could pay, and that they worshipped the true God alone, who had made the sun, which the Persians ignorantly adored.
Sapor then sent forth a second order, that the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Christians should be put to death, that their churches should be destroyed, and that the plate and ornaments of the churches should be taken for profane uses, and he sent for Symeon, who was soon brought before him. The bishop had been used to make obeisance to the king, after the fashion of the country; but on coming into his presence now, he refused to do so, lest it should be taken as a sign of that reverence which he was resolved to give to God alone. Sapor then required him to worship the sun, and told him that by doing so he might deliver himself and his people. But the bishop answered, that if he had refused to do reverence to the king, much more must he refuse such honour to the sun, which was a thing without reason or life. On this, the king ordered that he should be thrown into prison until next day.
As he was on his way to prison, Symeon passed an old and faithful servant of the king, named Uthazanes, who had brought up Sapor from a child, and stood high in his favour. Uthazanes, seeing the bishop led away in chains, fell on his knee and saluted him in the Persian fashion. But Symeon turned away his head, and could not look at him; for Uthazanes had been a Christian, and had lately denied the faith. The old man's conscience was smitten by this, and he burst out into lamentation -- |If my old and familiar friend disowns me thus, what may I expect from my God whom I have denied!| His words were heard, and he was carried before the king, who tried to move him both by threats and by kindness. But Uthazanes stood firm against everything, and, as he could not be shaken in his faith, he was sentenced to be beheaded. He then begged the king, for the sake of the love which had long been between them, to grant him the favour that it might be proclaimed why he died -- that he was not guilty of any treason, but was put to death only for being a Christian. Sapor was very willing to allow this, because he thought that it would frighten others into worshipping his gods. But it turned out as Uthazanes had hoped; for when it was seen how he loved his faith better than life itself, other Christians were encouraged to suffer, and even some heathens were brought over to the Gospel. Bishop Symeon was put to death after having seen a hundred of his clergy suffer before his eyes; and the persecution was renewed from time to time throughout the remainder of Sapor's long reign.