External conditions operating against the Church, tending to restrict its development and contributing to its decline may be designated by the general term; persecution. It is a matter of history, undisputed and indisputable, that from the time of its inception to that of its actual cessation, the Church established by Jesus Christ was the object of bitter persecution, and the victim of violence. The question as to whether persecution is to be regarded as an element tending to produce apostasy is worthy of present consideration. Opposition is not always destructive; on the contrary it may contribute to growth. Persecution may impel to greater zeal, and thus prove itself a potent factor of advancement. A proverb still in favour declares that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." But proverbs and adages, aphorisms and parables, while true as g eneralities, are not always applicable to special conditions.
Undoubtedly the persistent persecution to which the early Church was subjected caused many of its adherents to renounce the faith they had professed and to return to their former allegiances, whether Judaistic or pagan. Church membership was thus diminished; but such instances of apostasy from the Church may be regarded as individual desertions and of comparatively little importance in its effect upon the Church as a body. The dangers that affrighted some would arouse the determination of others; the ranks deserted by disaffected weaklings would be replenished by zealous converts. Let it be repeated that apostasy from the Church is insignificant as compared with the apostasy of the church as an institution. Persecution as a cause of apostasy has operated indirectly but none the less effectively upon the Church of Christ.
We have considered briefly the testimony of early church historians showing that schisms, contention, and perversion of doctrine invaded the Church immediately after the passing of the apostles; we have seen how wolves had awaited the departure of the shepherds that they might the more effectively worry the flock. It cannot be denied that the early persecutions were directed most particularly against the leaders of the people; the sharpest shafts were aimed against the officers of the Church. In the fierce battle between Christianity and its allied foes--Judaism and heathendom--the strong men who stood for Christ were the first to fall. And with their fall, the traitors within the Church, the ungodly and the rebellious, those who had crept in unawares, and whose sinister purpose it was to pervert the gospel of Christ, were relieved of restraint, and found themselves free to propagate their heresies and to undermine the foundations of the Church. Persecution, operating from without, and therefore essentially an external cause, served to set in motion the enginery of disruption within the Church, and therefore must be treated as an effective element contributing to the great apostasy.
A further purpose in introducing here a brief summary of the persecutions of which the early Church was the victim, is that of affording a basis of ready comparison between such and the persecutions waged by the apostate church itself in later centuries. We shall find that the sufferings of the Church in the days of its integrity, are surpassed by the cruel inflictions perpetrated in the name of Christ. Moreover, a study of the early persecutions will enable us to contrast the conditions of opposition and poverty with those of ease and affluence as affecting the integrity of the Church and the devotion of its adherents.
The persecution to which the Primitive Church was subjected was two-fold; viz., Judaistic and pagan. It must be remembered that the Jews were distinguished from all other nations of antiquity by their belief in the existence of a living God. The rest of the world before and at the time of Christ was idolatrous and pagan, professedly believing in a host of deities, yet with no recognition of a Supreme Being as a living personage. The Jews were bitter in their opposition to Christianity, which they regarded as a rival religion to their own; and moreover, they recognized the fact that if Christianity ever came to be generally accepted as the truth, their nation would stand convicted of having put to death the Messiah.
Opposition to Christianity on the part of those who belonged to the House of Israel was rather Judaistic than Jewish. The conflict was between systems, not between peoples of nations. Christ was a Jew: His apostles were Jews, and the disciples who constituted the body of the Church at its establishment and throughout the early years of its existence were largely Jews. Our Lord's instructions to the chosen twelve on their first missionary tour restricted their ministry to the House of Israel;--(See Matt. 10:5, 6.) and when the time was propitious for extending the privileges of the gospel to the Gentiles, a miraculous manifestation was necessary to convince the apostles that such extension was proper.--(See Acts, chapters 10 and 11.) The Church was at first exclusively and for a long time pre-eminently Jewish in membership. Judaism, the religious system founded on the law of Moses, was the great enemy of Christianity. When therefore we read of the Jews opposing the Church, we understand that Judaistic Jews are meant, defenders of Judaism as a system, upholders of the law and enemies of the gospel. With this explanation of the distinction between the Jews as a people and Judaism as a system, we may employ the terms "Jews" and "Jewish" according to common usage, keeping in mind, however, the true signification of the terms.
Judaistic opposition to the Church was predicted.
While Jesus ministered in the flesh He specifically and repeatedly warned the apostles of the persecution they would have to meet. In answering certain inquiries Christ said to Peter and others:
"But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils, and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them."--(Mark 13:9; compare Matt. 10:16-18; 24:9-13; Luke 21:12.)
Shortly before His betrayal the Lord repeated the warning with solemn impressiveness, citing the persecutions to which He had been subject, and declaring that His disciples could not escape:
"If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you."--(John 15:18-20.)
The extreme of depravity to which the bigoted persecutors would sink is set forth in these further words of the Saviour:
"They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me."--(John 16:2, 3; compare 9:22, and 12:42.)
These predictions had speedy and literal fulfilment. From the time of the crucifixion, Jewish malignity and hatred were directed against all who professed a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. In the early stages of their ministry several of the apostles were imprisoned--(Acts 5:18; compare 4:3.) and the priestly leaders sought to take their lives.--(Acts 5:33.) Stephen was stoned to death because of his testimony;--(See Acts 6:8-15; 7:54-60.) and the persecution against the Church became general.--(See Acts 8:1.) James, the son of Zebedee, was slain by order of Herod,--(Acts 12:1, 2.) and Peter was saved from a similar fate only by a miraculous intervention.--(Verses 3:10.) The scriptural record informs us as to the ultimate fate of but few of the apostles; and secular history is likewise incomplete. That Peter would be numbered with the martyrs was made known by the resurrected Lord.--(See John 21:18, 19.) Paul sets forth the fact that the apostles lived in the very shadow of death--(I Cor. 4:9.) and that persecution was their heritage.--(Verses 11-13; see also II Cor. 4:8-9; 6:4- 5.)
Not only did the Jews wage relentless persecution against those of their number who professed Christ, but they sought to stir up opposition on the part of the Romans, and to accomplish this end charged that the Christians were plotting treason against the Roman government. Even during the personal ministry of the early apostles, persecution of the saints had spread from Jerusalem, throughout Palestine and into the adjacent provinces. In this evil work the Jews sought to incite their own people living in the outlying parts, and also to arouse the opposition of the officers and rulers of the Roman dominions. As evidence of this phase of the persecution, partly Jewish and partly pagan, instigated by Jews and participated in by others, the following quotation from Mosheim may suffice:
"The Jews who lived out of Palestine, in the Roman provinces, did not yield to those of Jerusalem in point of cruelty to the innocent disciples of Christ. We learn from the history of the Acts of the Apostles, and other records of unquestionable authority, that they spared no labour, but zealously seized every occasion of animating the magistrates against the Christians, and setting on the multitude to demand their destruction. The high priest of the nation and the Jews who dwelt in Palestine were instrumental in inciting the rage of these foreign Jews against the infant Church, by sending messengers to exhort them, not only to avoid all intercourse with the Christians, but also to persecute them in the most vehement manner. For this inhuman order they endeavoured to find out the most plausible pretexts; and therefore, they gave out that the Christians were enemies to the Roman emperor, since they acknowledged the authority of a certain person whose name was Jesus, whom Pilate had punished capitally as a malefactor by a most righteous sentence, and on whom, nevertheless, they conferred the royal dignity."--(Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Cent. I, Part I, 5:2.)
In the latter half of the first century, the scene of Judaistic persecution of the church had shifted from Jerusalem to the outlying provinces; and the cause of this was the general exodus of Christians from the city whose destruction had been decreed. Our Lord's predictions as to the fate of Jerusalem and His warnings to the people--(See Luke 21:5-9, 20-24.) had been very generally heeded. Eusebius--(Eusebius, "Ecclesiastical History," Book III, ch. 5.) informs us that the body of the Church had moved from Jerusalem into the provinces beyond the Jordan, and thus largely escaped the calamities of the Jews who remained.
It may be argued that, judging from the history of the re-established Church in the present dispensation, may tend to strengthen rather than to weaken the Church, and that therefore violent opposition in earlier times cannot be considered a true cause leading to final disruption. In reply it may be said that the present is the dispensation of the fullness of times,--a period in which the Church shall triumph, and during which the powers of evil are limited and restrained in their opposition; whereas the period of the apostasy was one of temporary victory for Satan. Our belief in the eventual triumph of good over evil must not blind us to the fact that evil is frequently allowed a short-lived success, and a seeming victory. The permanency of the Latter-day Church has been not less surely predicted than was the temporary duration of the Primitive Church. Satan was given power to overcome the saints in former days, and the persecutions he waged against them and the officers of the Church contributed to his passing success. It has been decreed that he shall not have power to destroy the Church in the last dispensation, and his persecution of the saints today will be futile as a means of bringing about a general apostasy in these latter times.
Persecution as a Possible Cause of Apostasy
"Let it not be a matter of surprise that I class those persecutions as among the means through which the church was destroyed. The force of heathen rage was aimed at the leaders and strong men of the body religious; and being long-continued and relentlessly cruel, those most steadfast in their adherence to the Church invariably became its victims. These being stricken down, it left none but weaklings to contend for the faith, and made possible those subsequent innovations in the religion of Jesus which a pagan public sentiment demanded, and which so completely changed both the spirit and form of the Christian religion as to subvert it utterly. Let me further ask that no one be surprised that violence is permitted to operate in such a case. The idea that the right is always victorious in this world, that truth is always triumphant and innocence always divinely protected, are old, fond fables with which well-meaning men have amused credulous multitudes; but the stern facts of history and actual experience in life correct the pleasing delusion. Do not misunderstand me. I believe in the ultimate victory of the right, the ultimate triumph of truth, the final immunity of innocence from violence. These--innocence, truth and the right--will be at the last more than conquerors; they will be successful in the war, but that does not prevent them from losing some battles. It should be remembered always that God has given to man his agency; and that fact implies that one man is as free to act wickedly as another is to do righteousness. Cain was as free to murder his brother as that brother was to worship God; and so the pagans and Jews were as free to persecute and murder the Christians as the Christians were to live virtuously and worship Christ as God. The agency of man would not be worth the name if it did not grant liberty to the wicked to fill the cup of their iniquity, as well as liberty to the virtuous to round out the measure of their righteousness. Such perfect liberty or agency God has given man; and it is only so variously modified as not so thwart His general purposes." (B. H. Roberts, "A New Witness for God," pp. 47, 48.)
Early Persecutions by the Jews
"The innocence and virtue that distinguished so eminently the lives of Christ's servants the apostles, the purity of the doctrine they taught, were not sufficient to defend them against the virulence and malignity of the Jews. The priests and rulers of that abandoned people not only loaded with injuries and reproach the apostles of Jesus and their disciples, but condemned as many of them as they could to death, and executed in the most irregular and barbarous manner their decrees. The murder of Stephen, of James the son of Zebedee, and of James surnamed the Just, bishop of Jerusalem, furnished dreadful examples of the truth of what we here advance. This odious malignity of the Jewish doctors against the heralds of the gospel, was undoubtedly owing to a secret apprehension that the progress of Christianity would destroy the credit of Judaism, and bring on the ruin of their pompous ceremonies."
In a footnote to the foregoing, references appear as follows. "The martyrdom of Stephen is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles 7:55; and that of James the son of Zebedee, Acts 12:1, 2, and that of James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem, is mentioned by Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities, book XX, chap. 8; and by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, book II, chap. 23."--(Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Cent. I, Part I, 5:1.)
Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans
"A rebellious disturbance among the Jews gave a semblance of excuse for a terrible chastisement to be visited upon them by their Roman masters, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem, A. D. 71. The city fell after a six months' siege before the Roman arms led by Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian. Josephus, the famous historian, to whom we owe most of our knowledge as to the details of the struggle, was himself a resident in Galilee and was carried to Rome among the captives. From his record we learn that nearly a million Jews lost their lives through the famine incident to the siege; many more were sold into slavery, and uncounted numbers were forced into exile. The city was utterly destroyed, and the site upon which the temple had stood was ploughed up by the Romans in their search for treasure. Thus literally were the words of Christ fulfilled, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.--(Matt. 24:1, 2; see also Luke 19:44.)" (TalmAdge, "The Articles of Faith," Lecture 17:18.)
External Causes, Continued
As already pointed out, it is convenient to study the causes leading to the great apostasy as belonging to two classes, external and internal, or (1) causes due to conditions operating against the Church from without; and (2) causes arising from dissension and heresy within the Church itself. We have summarised external causes under the general term persecution; and we have drawn a distinction between Judaistic and pagan persecution waged against the Church. Having dealt with the opposition suffered by the early Christians at the hands of the Jews or through Jewish instigation, we have now to consider the persecution brought upon the believers in Christ by pagan nations.
The term "pagan" as here used may be taken as a synonym of "heathen," and is to be understood as referring to persons or peoples who did not believe in the existence of the living God, and whose worship was essentially idolatrous. The motives impelling non-believing Jews to oppose the establishment and spread of Christianity may readily be understood, in view of the fact that the religion taught by Christ appeared as a rival of Judaism, and that the growth and spread of one meant the decline if not the extinction of the other. The immediate motive leading to bitter and widespread persecution of the Christians by heathen peoples is not so easy to perceive, since there was no uniform system of idolatrous worship in any single nation, but a vast diversity of deities and cults of idolatry, to no one of which was Christianity opposed more than to all. Yet we find the worshipers of idols forgetting their own differences and uniting in opposition to the gospel of peace,--in persecution waged with incredible ferocity and indescribable cruelty.
Unfortunately, historians differ widely in their records of persecution of Christians, according to the point of view from which each writer wrote. Thus, in a general way, Christian authors have given extreme accounts of the sufferings to which the Church and its adherents individually were subjected; while non-Christian historians have sought to lessen and minimize the extent and severity of the cruelties practiced against the Christians. There are facts, however, which neither party denies, and to which both give place in their separate records. To make a fair interpretation of these facts, drawing just and true inferences therefrom, should be our purpose.
Among pagan persecutors of the Church, the Roman empire is the principal aggressor. This may appear strange in view of the general tolerance exercised by Rome toward her tributary peoples; indeed, the real cause of Roman opposition to Christianity has given rise to many conjectures. It is probable that intolerant zeal on the part of the Christians themselves had much to do with their unpopularity among heathen nations. This subject is conservatively summed up by Mosheim as follows:
"A very natural curiosity calls us to inquire, how it happened that the Romans, who were troublesome to no nation on account of their religion, and who suffered even the Jews to live under their own laws, and follow their own methods of worship, treated the Christians alone with such severity. This important question seems still more difficult to be solved, when we consider, that the excellent nature of the Christian religion, and its admirable tendency to promote both the public welfare of the state, and the private felicity of the individual, entitled it, in a singular manner, to the favour and protection of the reigning powers. One of the principal reasons of the severity with which the Romans persecuted the Christians, notwithstanding these considerations, seems to have been the abhorrence and contempt with which the latter regarded the religion of the empire, which was so intimately connected with the form, and indeed, with the very essence of its political constitution. For, though the Romans gave an unlimited toleration to all religions which had nothing in their tenets dangerous to the commonwealth, yet they would not permit that of their ancestors, which was established by the laws of the state, to be turned into derision nor the people to be drawn away from their attachment to it. These, however, were the two things which the Christians were charged with, and that justly, though to their honour. They dared to ridicule the absurdities of the pagan superstition, and they were ardent and assiduous in gaining proselytes to the truth. Nor did they only attack the religion of Rome, but also all the different shapes and forms under which superstition appeared in the various countries where they exercised their ministry. From this the Romans concluded, that the Christian sect was not only insupportably daring and arrogant, but, moreover, an enemy to the public tranquillity, and every way proper to excite civil wars and commotions in the empire. It is probably on this account that Tacitus reproaches them with the odious character of haters of mankind, and styles the religion of Jesus as destructive superstition; and that Suetonious speaks of the Christians and their doctrine in terms of the same kind.
"Another circumstance that irritated the Romans against the Christians, was the simplicity of their worship, which resembled in nothing the sacred rites of any other people. The Christians had neither sacrifices, nor temples, nor images, nor oracles, nor sacerdotal orders; and this was sufficient to bring upon them the reproaches of an ignorant multitude, who imagined that there could be no religion without these."--(Mosheim, "Eccl. Hist.," Cent. 1, Part 1, ch. 5:6, 7.)
Persecution of the Church by Roman authority may be said to have begun in the reign of Nero (A. D. 64) and to have continued to the close of Diocletian's reign (A. D. 305.) Within this range of time there were many periods of diminished severity, if not of comparative tranquillity; nevertheless, the Church was the object of heathen oppression for about two and a half centuries. Attempts have been made by Christian writers to segregate the persecutions into ten distinct and separate onslaughts; and some profess to find a mystic relation between the ten persecutions thus classified, and the ten plagues of Egypt, as also an analogy with the ten horns mentioned by John the Revelator.--(See Rev. 17:14.) As a matter of fact attested by history, the number of persecutions of unusual severity was less than ten; while the total of all, including local and restricted assaults, would be much greater.
Persecution under Nero
The first extended and notable persecution of Christians under the official edict of a Roman emperor was that instigated by Nero, A. D. 64. As students of history know, this monarch is remembered mostly for his crimes. During the latter part of his infamous reign, a large section of the city of Rome was destroyed by fire. He was suspected by some of being responsible for the disaster; and, fearing the resentment of the infuriated people, he sought to implicate the unpopular and much-maligned Christians as the incendiaries, and by torture tried to force a confession from them. As to what followed the foul accusation, let us consider the words of a non-Christian writer, Tacitus, whose integrity as a historian is held in esteem.
"With this view, he (Nero) inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men who, under the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. For a while this dire superstition was checked but it again burst forth; and not only spread itself over Judea, the first seat of this mischievous sect, but was even introduced into Rome, the common asylum which receives and protects whatever is impure, whatever is atrocious. The confessions of those that were seized discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were all convicted, not so much for the crime of setting fire to the city, as for their hatred of human kind. They died in torments, and their torments were embittered by insults and derision. Some were nailed on crosses; others sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and exposed to the fury of dogs; others, again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of the night. The gardens of Nero were destined for the melancholy spectacle, which was accompanied with a horse-race, and honoured with the presence of the emperor, who mingled with the populace in the dress and attitude of a charioteer. The guilt of the Christians deserved indeed the most exemplary punishments, but the public abhorrence was changed into commiseration, from the opinion that those unhappy wretches were sacrificed, not so much to the public welfare as to the cruelty of a jealous tyrant."--(Tacitus, Annals, Book 15, ch. 44.)
There is some disagreement among historians as to whether the Neronian persecution is to be regarded as a local infliction, practically confined to the city of Rome, or as general throughout the provinces.--(See Note 3, end of chapter.) The consensus of opinion favours the belief that the provinces followed the example of the metropolis, and that the persecution was common throughout the Church.
This, the first persecution by Roman edict, practically ended with the death of the tyrant Nero, A. D. 68. According to tradition handed down from the early Christian writers, the Apostles Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom at Rome, the former by beheading, the latter by crucifixion, during this persecution; and it is further stated that Peter's wife was put to death shortly before her husband; but the tradition is neither confirmed nor disproved by authentic record.
Persecution under Domitian
The second officially appointed persecution under Roman authority began 93 or 94 A. D. in the reign of Domitian. Both Christians and Jews came under this prince's displeasure, because they refused to reverence the statues he had erected as objects of adoration. A further cause for his special animosity against Christians, as affirmed by early writers, is as follows. The emperor was persuaded that he was in danger of losing his throne, in view of a reputed prediction that from the family to which Jesus belonged there would arise one who would weaken if not overthrow the power of Rome. With this as his ostensible excuse, this wicked ruler waged terrible destruction on an innocent people. Happily, the persecution thus started was of but few years duration. Mosheim and others aver that the end of the persecution was caused by the emperor's untimely death; though Eusebius, who wrote in the fourth century, quotes an earlier writer as declaring that Domitian had the living descendants of the Saviour’s family brought before him, and that after questioning them he became convinced that he was in no danger from them; and thereupon dismissed them with contempt and ordered the persecution to cease. It is believed that while the edict of Domitian was in force the Apostle John suffered banishment to the isle of Patmos.
Persecution under Trajan
What is known in ecclesiastical history as the third persecution of the Christian Church took place in the reign of Trajan, who occupied the imperial throne from 98 to 117 A. D. He was and is regarded as one of the best of the Roman emperors, yet he sanctioned violent persecution of the Christians owing to their "inflexible obstinacy" in refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods. History has preserved to us a very important letter asking instructions from the emperor, by the younger Pliny, who was governor of Pontus, and the emperor's reply thereto. This correspondence is instructive as showing the extent to which Christianity had spread at that time, and the way in which believers were treated by the officers of the state.
Pliny inquired of the emperor as to the policy to be pursued in dealing with the Christians within his jurisdiction. Were young and old, tender and robust, to be treated alike, or should punishment be graded? Should opportunity be given the accused to recant, or was the fact that they had once professed Christianity to be considered an unpardonable offense? Were those convicted as Christians to be punished for their religion alone, or only for specific offenses resulting from their membership in the Christian Church? After propounding such queries the governor proceeded to report to the emperor what he had done in the absence of definite instructions. In reply the emperor directed that the Christians were not to be hunted nor sought after vindictively, but if accused and brought before the judgment seat, and if then they refused to denounce their faith, they were to be put to death.
Persecution under Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius reigned from 161 to 180 A. D. He was noted as one who sought the greatest good of his people; yet under his government the Christians suffered added cruelties. Persecution was most severe in Gaul (now France.) Among those who met the martyr's fate at that time, were Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and Justin Martyr, known in history as the philosopher. With reference to the seeming anomaly that even the best of rulers permitted and even prosecuted vigorous opposition to Christian devotees, as exemplified by the acts of this emperor, a modern writer has said:
"It should be noted that the persecution of the Christians under the pagan emperors sprung from political rather than religious motives, and that is why we find the names of the best emperors, as well as those of the worst, in the list of persecutors. It was believed that the welfare of the state was bound up with the careful performance of the rites of the national worship; and hence, while the Roman rulers were usually very tolerant allowing all forms of worship among their subjects, still they required that men of every faith should at least recognize the Roman gods, and burn incense before their statues. This the Christians steadily refused to do. Their neglect of the service of the temple, it was believed, angered the gods, and endangered the safety of the state, bringing upon it drought, pestilence, and every disaster. This was the main reason of their persecution by the pagan emperors."--(General History by P. V. N. Myers, edition of 1889, p. 322.)
With occasional periods of partial cessation, the Christian believers continued to suffer at the hands of heathen opponents throughout the second and third centuries. A violent persecution marked the reign of Severus (193-211 A. D.) in the first decade of the third century; another characterized the reign of Maximin (235-238 A. D.) A period of unusual severity in persecution and suffering befell the Christians during the short reign of Decius known also as Decius Trajan (219-251 A. D.) The persecution under Decius is designated in ecclesiastical history as the seventh persecution of the Christian Church. Others followed in rapid succession. Some of these periods of specific oppression we pass over and come to the consideration of the Diocletian Persecution, which is spoken of as the tenth, and happily the last. Diocletian reigned from 284 to 305 A. D. At first he was very tolerant toward Christian belief and practice; indeed it is of record that his wife and daughter were Christians, though "in some sense, secretly." Later, however, he turned against the Church and undertook to bring about a total suppression of the Christian religion. To this end he ordered a general destruction of Christian books, and decreed the penalty of death against all who kept such works in their possession.
Fire broke out twice in the royal palace at Nicomedia, and on each occasion the incendiary act was charged against the Christians with terrible results. Four separate edicts, each surpassing in vehemence the earlier decrees, were issued against the believers; and for a period of ten years they were the victims of unrestrained rapine, spoliation and torture. At the end of the decade of terror the Church was in a scattered and seemingly in a hopeless condition. Sacred records had been burnt; places of worship had been razed to the ground; thousands of Christians had been put to death; and every possible effort had been made to destroy the Church and abolish Christianity from the earth.
Descriptions of the horrible extremes to which brutality was carried are sickening to the soul. A single example must suffice. Eusebius, referring to the persecutions in Egypt, says:
"And such too was the severity of the struggle which was endured by the Egyptians, who wrestled gloriously for the faith at Tyre. Thousands, both men, and women and children, despising the present life for the sake of our Saviour’s doctrine, submitted to death in various shapes. Some, after being tortured with scrapings and the rack, and the most dreadful scourgings, and other innumerable agonies which one might shudder to hear, were finally committed to the flames; and some plunged and drowned in the sea, others voluntarily offering their own heads to their executioners, others dying in the midst of their torments, some wasted away by famine, and others again fixed to the cross. Some, indeed, were executed as malefactors usually were; others, more cruelly, were nailed with the head downwards, and kept alive until they were destroyed by starving on the cross itself."--(Eusebius, "Eccl. Hist.," Book 8, ch. 8.)
A modern writer, whose tendency ever was to minimize the extent of Christian persecution, is Edward Gibbon. His account of the conditions prevailing during this period of Diocletian outrage is as follows:
"The magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of the gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution. Instead of those salutary restraints which had required the direct and solemn testimony of an accuser, it became the duty as well as the interest of the imperial officers to discover, to pursue, and to torment the most obnoxious among the faithful. Heavy penalties were denounced against all who should presume to save a proscribed sectary from the just indignation of the gods and of the emperors."--(Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," ch. XVI.)
So general was the Diocletian persecution, and so destructive its effect, that at its cessation the Christian Church was thought to be forever extinct. Monuments were raised to commemorate the emperor's zeal as a persecutor, notably two pillars erected in Spain. On one of them is an inscription extolling the mighty Diocletian "_For having extinguished the name of Christians who brought the Republic to ruin_." A second pillar commemorates the reign of Diocletian, and honours the imperator
"for having everywhere abolished the superstition of Christ; for having extended the worship of the gods."
A medal struck in honour of Diocletian bears the inscription "The name of Christian being extinguished_."--(Milner, "Church History," Cent. IV, ch. 1:38.) To the fallacy of these assumptions subsequent events testify.
The Diocletian oppression was the last of the great persecutions brought by pagan Rome against Christianity as a whole. A stupendous change, amounting to a revolution, now appears in the affairs of the Church. Constantine, known in history as Constantine the Great, became emperor of Rome A. D. 306, and reigned 31 years. Early in his reign he espoused the hitherto unpopular cause of the Christians, and took the Church under official protection. A legend gained currency that the emperor's conversion was due to a supernatural manifestation, whereby he saw a luminous cross appear in the heavens with the inscription, 'In hoc signe vinctus' [By this sign thou shalt conquer]. The genuineness of this alleged manifestation is doubtful, and the evidence of history is against it. The incident is here mentioned to show the means devised to make Christianity popular at the time.
It is held by many judicious historians that Constantine's so-called conversion was rather a matter of policy than a sincere acceptance of the truth of Christianity. The emperor himself remained a catechumen, that is, an unbaptized believer, until shortly before his death, when he became a member by baptism. But, whatever his motives may have been, he made Christianity the religion of state, issuing an official decree to this effect in 313. "He made the cross the royal standard; and the Roman legions now for the first time marched beneath the emblem of Christianity." (Myers.)
Immediately following the change there was a great competition for church preferment. The office of a bishop came to be more highly esteemed than the rank of a general. The emperor himself was the real head of the Church. It became unpopular and decidedly disadvantageous in a material sense to be known as a non-Christian. Pagan temples were transformed into churches, and heathen idols were demolished. We read that twelve thousand men and a proportionate number of women and children were baptized into the Church of Rome alone within a single year. Constantine removed the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, which city he re-named after himself, Constantinople. This, the present capital of Turkey, became headquarters of the state Church.
How empty and vain appears the Diocletian boast that Christianity was forever extinguished! Yet how different was the Church under the patronage of Constantine from the Church as established by Christ and as built up by His apostles! The Church had already become apostate as judged by the standard of its original constitution.
The Cause of Pagan Opposition to Christianity
"The whole body of Christians unanimously refused to hold any communion with the gods of Rome, of the empire, and of mankind. It was in vain that the oppressed believer asserted the inalienable rights of conscience and private judgment. Though his situation might excite the pity, his arguments could never reach the understanding, either of the philosophic or of the believing part of the pagan world. To their apprehensions, it was no less a matter of surprise that any individuals should entertain scruples against complying with the established mode of worship, than if they had conceived a sudden abhorrence to the manners, the dress, or the language of their native country. The surprise of the pagans was soon succeeded by resentment; and the most pious of men were exposed to the unjust but dangerous imputation of impiety. Malice and prejudice concurred in representing the Christians as a society of atheists, who, by the most daring attack on the religious constitution of the empire, had merited the severest animadversion of the civil magistrate. They had separated themselves (they gloried in the confession) from every mode of superstition which was received in any part of the globe by the various temper of polytheism; but it was not altogether so evident what deity or what form of worship they had substituted to the gods and temples of antiquity. The pure and sublime idea which they entertained of the Supreme Being escaped the gross conception of the pagan multitude, who were at a loss to discover a spiritual and solitary God, that was neither represented under any corporeal figures or visible symbol, nor was adored with the accustomed pomp of libations and festivals, of altars and sacrifices." (Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," chap. XVI.)
As to the Number of Persecutions by the Romans"
The Romans are said to have pursued the Christians with the utmost violence in ten persecutions, but this number is not verified by the ancient history of the church. For if, by these persecutions, such only are meant as were singularly severe and universal throughout the empire, then it is certain that these amount not to the number above mentioned. And, if we take the provincial and less remarkable persecutions into the account, they far exceed it. In the fifth century, certain Christians (were) led by some passages of the holy scriptures and by one especially in the Revelations (Rev. 17:14), to imagine that the church was to suffer ten calamities of a most grievous nature. To this notion, therefore, they endeavoured, though not all in the same way, to accommodate the language of history, even against the testimony of those ancient records, from whence alone history can speak with authority." (Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Cent. I, Part I; ch. 5:4.)
Speaking on the same subject, Gibbon says:
"As often as any occasional severities were exercised in the different parts of the empire, the primitive Christians lamented and perhaps magnified their own sufferings; but the celebrated number of ten persecutions has been determined by the ecclesiastical writers of the fifth century, who possessed a more distinct view of the prosperous or adverse fortunes of the church from the age of Nero to that of Diocletian. The ingenious parallels of the ten plagues of Egypt and of the ten horns of the Apocalypse first suggested this calculation of their minds; and in their application of the faith of prophecy to the truth of history they were careful to select those reigns which were indeed the most hostile to the Christian cause." (Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," ch. XVI.)
Extent of the Neronian Persecution
"Learned men are not entirely agreed concerning the extent of this persecution under Nero. Some confine it to the city of Rome, while others represent it as having raged throughout the whole empire. The latter opinion, which is also the most ancient, is undoubtedly to be preferred; as it is certain that the laws enacted against the Christians were enacted against the whole body, and not against particular churches, and were consequently in force in the remotest provinces." (Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Cent. I. Part I, 5:14.)
Correspondence Between Pliny and Trajan
The inquiry of the younger Pliny, governor of Pontus, addressed to Trajan, emperor of Rome, and the imperial reply thereto, are of such interest as to be worthy of reproduction in full. The version here given is that of Milner as appears in his "History of the Church of Christ," edition of 1810, Cent. II, ch.
"Pliny to Trajan, Emperor:
"Health.--It is my usual custom, Sir, to refer all things, of which I harbour any doubts, to you. For who can better direct my judgment in its hesitation, or instruct my understanding in its ignorance? I never had the fortune to be present at any examination of Christians, before I came into this province. I am therefore at a loss to determine what is the usual object either of inquiry or of punishment, and to what length either of them is to be carried. It has also been with me a question very problematical,--whether any distinction should be made between the young and the old, the tender and the robust;--whether any room should be given for repentance, or the guilt of Christianity once incurred is not to be expiated by the most unequivocal retraction;--whether the name itself, abstracted from any flagitiousness of conduct, or the crimes connected with the name, be the object of punishment. In the meantime, this has been my method, with respect to those who were brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians: if they pleaded guilty, I interrogated then twice afresh with a menace of capital punishment. In case of obstinate perseverance I ordered them to be executed. For of this I had no doubt, whatever was the nature of their religion, that a sudden and obstinate inflexibility called for the vengeance of the magistrate. Some were infected with the same madness, whom, on account of their privilege of citizenship, I reserved to be sent to Rome, to be referred to your tribunal. In the course of this business, informations pouring in, as is usual when they are encouraged, more cases occurred. An anonymous libel was exhibited, with a catalogue of names of persons, who yet declared that they were not Christians then, nor ever had been; and they repeated after me an invocation of the gods and of your image, which, for this purpose, I had ordered to be brought with the images of the deities. They performed sacred rites with wine and frankincense, and execrated Christ,--none of which things I am told a real Christian can ever be compelled to do. On this account I dismissed them. Others named by an informer, first affirmed, and then denied the charge of Christianity; declaring that they had been Christians, but had ceased to be so some three years ago, others even longer, some even twenty years ago. All of them worshiped your image, and the statues of the gods, and also execrated Christ. And this was the account which they gave of the nature of the religion they had once professed, whether it deserves the name of crime or error,--namely--that they were accustomed on a stated day to meet before daylight, and to repeat among themselves a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, with an obligation of not committing any wickedness;--but on the contrary, of abstaining from thefts, robberies, and adulteries;--also of not violating their promise or denying a pledge;--after which it was their custom to separate, and to meet again at a promiscuous harmless meal, from which last practice they however desisted, after the publication of my edict, in which, agreeably to your order, I forbade any societies of that sort. On which account I judged it the more necessary to inquire, by torture, from two females, who were said to be deaconesses, what is the real truth. But nothing could I collect except a depraved and excessive superstition. Deferring, therefore, any further investigation, I determined to consult you. For the number of culprits is so great as to call for serious consultation. Many persons are informed against of every age and of both sexes; and more still will be in the same situation. The contagion of the superstition hath spread not only through cities, but even villages and the country. Not that I think it impossible to check and correct it. The success of my endeavours hitherto forbids such desponding thoughts; for the temples, almost once desolate, begin to be frequented, and the sacred solemnities, which had long been intermitted, are now attended afresh; and the sacrificial victims are now sold everywhere, which once could scarcely find a purchaser. Whence I conclude that many might be reclaimed were the hope of impunity, on repentance, absolutely confirmed."
The emperor's reply follows:
Trajan to Pliny:
"You have done perfectly right, my dear Pliny, in the inquiry which you have made concerning Christians. For truly no one general rule can be laid down, which will apply itself to all cases. These people must not be sought after. If they are brought before you and convicted, let them be capitally punished, yet with this restriction, that if any one renounce Christianity, and evidence his sincerity by supplicating our gods, however suspected he may be for the past, he shall obtain pardon for the future, on his repentance. But anonymous libels in no case ought to be attended to; for the precedent would be of the worst sort, and perfectly incongruous to the maxims of my government."
[Source: James E Talmadge "The Great Apostasy"]