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A Key To The Knowledge Of Church History by John Henry Blunt

CHAPTER V The Primitive Church


[Sidenote: Persecution increases round the Church.]

We have already had occasion to notice the beginnings of the persecution which the Church was to undergo for the sake of her Head and Spouse, not only those of a local and unorganized character, which are spoken of in the Book of Acts, but also some of a more cruel and systematic nature under the Roman Emperors Nero and Domitian. From the death of the last of the Apostles to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, A.D.312, the Church passed through a succession of fierce trials, in which her members were called to undergo similar sufferings to those which had been borne by the holy Apostles St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John, and their fellow-martyrs.

Section 1. Causes of Persecution.

In considering the causes which led to the persecution of the Church by the heathen around her, we {58} must, of course, place first as the root and ground of all, the malice of Satan, and his hatred of God, and of the means appointed by God for saving souls. [Sidenote: Satan's enmity the great cause of persecution.] The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan must ever be at war, and the fierce and varied sufferings inflicted by the cruel heathen on all who bore the name of Christ were so many assaults of the great adversary seeking to overthrow the Church in an open and deadly struggle. But the life-giving Presence of her Incarnate Lord, and |the patience and the faith of the Saints,| were mightier weapons than |all the fiery darts of the Wicked,| and |the gates of Hell| were not suffered to |prevail against her.|

[Sidenote: Other minor causes.]

There were, however, other and secondary causes which led to the persecution of the Church. The Romans were not usually intolerant of religions which they did not themselves profess; their worship of their own false gods had come to be a form, as far as the educated classes were concerned, and what belief they had was given to philosophy rather than religion. Hence they were not unwilling that the nations they conquered should keep to their own respective creeds and religious ceremonies, so long as they did not interfere with Roman authority. But the religion of Christ required more than this. It could not be confined to any one country, nor be content with bare toleration, nor rank itself with the many forms of Pagan misbelief. It claimed to be the only True Religion, the only Way of Salvation, before which the superstitions of the ignorant, and the philosophy of the learned must alike give way. It made its way even into |Caesar's household.| Besides this, Christians, owing to the nationality of the First Founders {59} of the Church, were often confounded with, and called by the same name as the Jews, who had a bad repute under the empire for rebellious and seditious conduct, and we know how, even in the days of St. Paul, the charge of sedition had begun to be most unjustly fastened upon the followers of the Meek and Lowly Jesus. This charge of disaffection to the powers of the state received an additional and plausible colouring from the fact that the consciences of the faithful members of the Church would not suffer them to pay, what they and the heathen around them considered to be Divine honour, to the emperor or the heathen deities, by sacrificing a few grains of incense when required thus to show their loyalty to their ruler and his faith. Over and over again was this burning of incense made a test by which to discover Christians or to try their steadfastness, and over and over again was its rejection followed by agonizing tortures and a cruel death.

[Sidenote: Nero's persecution.]

The persecution in the reign of Nero is immediately traceable to the accusation brought against the Christians by the emperor, that they had caused the terrible fire at Rome, which there seems little doubt was in reality the result of his own wanton wickedness, whilst that under Domitian appears to have been connected with the conversion of some of the members of his own family, his cousin Flavius Clemens being the first martyr sacrificed in it.

Section 2. Number and Duration of Persecutions.

The following table will show how the early days of the Church were divided between times of persecution and intervals of rest.


Chronological Table of Persecutions and Intervals of Rest.


64-68. Persecution under Nero. Martyrdom of
St. Peter and St. Paul.

68-95. Time of peace.

95-96. Persecution under Domitian. Banishment of St. John.

96-104. Time of peace.

104-117. Persecution under Trajan. Martyrdom of St. Ignatius.

117-161. Time of peace. Apologies of Aristides, Quadratus, and Justin Martyr.

161-180. Persecution under Marcus Aurelius. Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, and the martyrs of Lyons.

180-200. Time of peace.

200-211. Persecution under Severus. Martyrdom of St. Perpetua and others in Africa.

211-250. Time of peace, excepting --
235-237. Partial persecution under Maximinus.

250-253. Persecution under Decius. Martyrdom of St. Fabian.

253-257 Time of peace. Disputes concerning the lapsed.

257-260. Persecution under Valerian. Martyrdom of St. Cyprian.

260-303. Time of peace, excepting --
262. Persecution in the East under Macrianus.
275. Persecution threatened by Aurelian.

303-313. Persecution under Dioclesian, Galerius, and Maximinus.


Section 3. Nature and Extent of Persecutions.

[Sidenote: Terrors of persecution.]

Words can hardly be found strong enough to express the many and varied tortures which were inflicted on the Christians of the Primitive Church by their heathen countrymen. Death itself seemed too slight a punishment in the eyes of these cruel persecutors, unless it was preceded and accompanied by the most painful and trying circumstances. It was by crucifixion, and devouring beasts, and lingering fiery torments that the great multitude of those early martyrs received their crown. Racked and scorched, lacerated and torn limb from limb, agonized in body, mocked at and insulted, they were objects of pity even to the heathen themselves. Persecuting malice spared neither sex nor age, station nor character; the old man and the tender child, the patrician and the slave, the bishop and his flock, all shed their blood for Him Who had died for them, rather than deny their Lord.

We have no possible means of estimating the number of this vast |cloud of witnesses,| but authentic accounts have come down to us which prove that some places were almost depopulated by the multitude of martyrdoms; and when we remember the length of time over which the persecutions extended, the blood-thirsty rage of the persecutors, and the firm perseverance with which the immensely large majority of Christians kept the Faith to the end, we may form some idea as to the |multitude| of this noble army of martyrs |which no man could number.|

[Sidenote: Persecution did not check the growth of the Church,]

So widely did the Church spread during the age {62} of persecution, in the face of all the fierce opposition of her enemies, that it was found at times to be impossible to carry out in their fulness the cruel laws against Christians, on account of the numbers of those who were ready to brave all for the sake of Christ. As has been often said, |The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.|

[Sidenote: nor revive decaying heathenism,]

Paganism was gradually dying away in the Roman world, notwithstanding all the craft and power of Satan, whilst no number of martyrdoms seemed to check the growth of the Body of Christ. Vain and short-sighted, indeed, was the boast of the Emperor Dioclesian during the last and most bitter of all the persecutions, that he had blotted out the very name of Christian. No sooner had the conversion of Constantine brought rest to the Church, than she rose again from her seeming ruins, ready and able to spread more and more through |the kingdoms of this world,| that they might |become the kingdoms of Christ.|

[Sidenote: and thus helped to prove the Divine origin of the Church.]

We may well believe that no institution of human appointment could have stood firm against such terrible and reiterated shocks. Nothing less than a Divine Foundation, and a strength not of this world could have borne the Church through the ages of persecution, not only without loss of all vital principle, but even with actual invigoration and extension of it.


Section 4. Effects of Persecution on the Worship and Discipline of the Church.

The fierce trials of the age of persecution were not without their influence on the inner life of the Church, both as regarded Worship and Discipline.

The cruel oppressions to which they were constantly liable, drove Christians to conceal their Faith from the eyes of the heathen world whenever such concealment did not involve any denial of their Lord, or any faithless compliance with idolatrous customs. [Sidenote: Seeking martyrdom forbidden.] Indeed, it was a law of the Church that martyrdom was not to be unnecessarily sought after, and the wisdom of this provision was more than once shown by the failure under torture of those who had presumptuously brought upon themselves the sufferings they had not strength to bear, and which did not come to them in the course of God's Providence.

[Sidenote: Holy Rites and Books kept hidden.]

The strictest secrecy was enjoined upon Christians as to the religious Rites and sacred Books of the Church, and we read of many martyrs who suffered for refusing to satisfy the curiosity of their Pagan judges respecting Christian worship, or for persisting in withholding from them the Christian writings.

[Sidenote: Church ritual temporarily checked.]

Another natural effect of persecution was to check for a time the development of the ritual of the Church, and to render necessary the use of the simplest and most essential forms even in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The immense subterranean excavations at Rome, known by the name of the Catacombs, are an abiding {64} proof to us of the straits to which the primitive martyrs and their companions were reduced, when these sand-galleries were at once their Church and their burying-place, and in some instances the scene of their martyrdom also.

[Sidenote: Church discipline very severe]

The discipline of the Church was made extremely strict by the lengthened continuance of severe persecution. In those days when so many gave proof of the strength and reality of their Faith by their persevering endurance of unspeakable agonies, any shrinking back was looked upon as very unworthy cowardice, and as an almost hopeless fall, to be hindered if possible by the merciful severity of the Church as shown in warnings and punishments. Even those who had so far succumbed to trial as to give up the Sacred Books were called |Traditores,| and considered as very criminal; those who had consented to pay Divine honours to the emperors or to the heathen gods, fell under still more severe censure, whilst such Christians as led sinful and immoral lives were considered most worthy of blame and punishment. Very heavy penances were laid upon all who thus fell away, in proportion to their guilt, before they were again admitted to the Communion of the Church; and in some extreme cases the punishment was life-long, and only allowed to be relaxed when the penitent was actually in danger of death. [Sidenote: for a time.] But this very severe discipline was temporary in its nature, as was the danger to the Church which called it forth, and was somewhat modified by the Letters of Peace which martyrs and confessors were allowed to give to excommunicated persons, authorizing their readmission to Church privileges.

[Sidenote: Church government modified also for a time.]

A temporary modification in the government of the {65} Church was also brought about by these times of suffering. Bishops, under the pressure of persecution, were sometimes forced to leave their flocks, or were first tortured and then banished, and their places had to be filled as far as they could be by the presbyters, with the advice of the distant Bishop; whilst at Rome, in the middle of the third century, there was a year's vacancy in the see after the martyrdom of Fabian, on account of the impossibility of bringing neighbouring Bishops into the midst of a storm which was raging with especial fury against the rulers of the Church.

St. John was a martyr in will, though not in deed, being miraculously preserved from injury in the caldron of boiling oil, into which he was plunged by order of Nero or Domitian.

From Dr. Steere's |Account of the Persecutions of the Early Church under the Roman Emperors.|


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