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Review of the Persecutions which took place during the Third
Century-Dreadful State of the Roman Empire about the middle of the Century-Abounding Apostacy among the Christians— Testimony of Cyprian and Eusebius-Reflections-Controversy in the Churches respecting the Lapsed-Pamphilus of Cæsarea--his exemplary Character, Learning, and Martyrdom—Internal State of the Churches-Origin of Prayers for the Dead-Fastings and Mortifications—Monks and Hermits, &c. A. D. 200 to 300,
ALTHOUGH I have had occasion in some late Lectures incidentally to mention several of the persecutions to which the Christians were exposed during the third century, while the government of the empire still continued heathen; yet there were others which I have scarcely adverted to ; and as the fall of Paganism now approximated, when an end was to be put to the suffering state of the church from that quarter, I purpose to devote the present Lecture to a review of the entire subject :-a succinct account of the several persecutions as they occurred during this third century ; after which I shall advert to some other matters connected with the subject of Church History and which belong to the same period.
At the beginning of the third century, the government of the Roman empire was vested in the hands of Severus, who had then swayed the imperial sceptre about thirteen years with great moderation, and his reign, upon the whole, had been favourable to the Christians. In the year 202, however, the scene changed, and the flames of persecution raged throughout all those countries which were subject to the Romans. To check the progress of Christianity, a law was passed by which every subject of the empire was prohibited from changing the religion of his ancestors for that of either the Christians or Jews. This law, as Mosheim tells us, was, in its effects, most prejudicial to the Christians; for though it did not formally condemn them, and seemed only adapted to put a check to the further progress of the gospel, yet it induced rapacious magistrates to persecute, even unto death, the poorer sort among the Christians, that thus the richer might be led, through the fear of similar treatment, to purchase their safety at an exorbitant rate. Hence numbers of Christians were put to death, both in Egypt and also in several parts of Asia and Africa, in consequence of this law, among whom were Leonidas, the father of Origen, those two celebrated females, Perpetua and Felicitas,* with a long list of martyrs of both sexes. It was during this persecution that Irenæus of Lyons, and Victor of Rome, among vast numbers of inferior note, sealed their testimony with their blood. This persecution induced Tertullian to publish his Apology
What is called the sixth persecution, the weight of which fell chiefly on the pastors of the churches, took place in the year 235, during the reign of the emperor Maximin, who had been instrumental in assassinating his predecessor, and consequently dreaded the resentment of the Christians, to whom he well knew such conduct must be odious, -the more so -as the victim of his cruelty had favoured and protected them in a distinguished manner, treating the bishops as his intimate friends. During this reign the Christians suffered in the most barbarous way; for not only were the leading men among them seized and put to death, but the heathen magistrates and the multitude were goaded by the Pagan priests to exercise shocking barbarities on the disciples of Christ of every rank and order. It was during this period that the celebrated Origen so much distinguished himself by his zeal and energetic exhortations of the martyrs, intreating them to become examples of patience and constancy. The storm, however, in time, subsided, and was succeeded by a calm, in which the Christians enjoyed a happy tranquillity for several years.
See p. 256.
CALAMITOUS STATE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
The emperor Decius ascended the throne in the year 250, when a new tempest was raised, the account of which is given us by Cyprian, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Eusebius. It seems to have been a period of very general distress and calamity to the empire at large. In the first place, the government appears to have been in a very unsettled and revolutionary state. The tyranny of Maximin, who has been emphatically designated “ a brutal savage,” was destructive to many thousands of the noblest families of Rome; and, on his own death, the sword was let loose, only to rage more widely in the hands of the contending candidates for the supreme authority. Maximus and Balbinus, who had succeeded him, were massacred in a sedition at Rome. Six princes, in the space of a few months, had been cut off by the sword. The emperor Gordian met with the same fate as his predecessors, and was succeeded by Philip, who, after a reign of four years, was also murdered. From that time to the death of Gallienus, which took place in the year 268– an interval that included the reigns of Decius, Gallus, and Valerian—there elapsed, says Gibbon, “twenty years of shame and misfortune, during which calamitous period, every instant of time was marked, every province of the Roman world was afflicted by barbarous invaders and military tyránts, and the ruined empire seemed to approach the last and fatal moment of its desolation. The whole period was one uninterrupted series of confusion and calamity : as the empire was at the same time, and on every side, attacked by the blind fury of foreign invaders, and the wild ambition of domestic usurpers.” Nineteen pretenders, or persons who aspired to the throne, are taken notice of as existing at one time ; and, as has been justly remarked, the election of these pretended emperors, their power, and their death, are equally destructive to their subjects. But this unhappy state of political anarchy was not the only evil to which the empire was exposed. “Inundations, earthquakes, uncommon meteors, preternatural darkness, and a crowd of prodigies, fictitious or exaggerated,” says Mr. Gibbon, who amuses himself with the account, “ decorated this period.” He, however, admits that “a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present, and the hope of future harvests. Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scarcity and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague, which from the year 250 to 265 raged without interruption in every province of the Roman empire.” During some considerable time, five thousand persons are said to have died at Rome daily, and many towns that had escaped the hands of the barbarians were entirely depopulated. From a document relating to the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, Mr. Gibbon is led to conjecture “ that war, pestilence, and famine had consumed, in a few years, nearly half the human race, insomuch that the wild beasts of the earth were multiplied.” It is recorded that, in one instance, five hundred wolves were known to have entered a city which was deserted of its inhabitants. Such was the truly deplorable state of the empire immediately succeeding the middle of the third century, at which we are arrived.
In all this series of diversified calamity, the Christians shared in common with their pagan neighbours. But, as hath been already said, on the accession of Decius to the throne, they had to encounter a dreadful persecution in addition to other evils. This emperor, either from an ill-grounded fear of the Christians, or from a violent zeal for the superstition of his ancestors, issued a series of terrible and sanguinary edicts, by which the prætors were commanded, on pain of death, either to extirpate the whole body of Christians, without exception, or force them by torments of various kinds to return to the idolatrous worship of the Pagans. The consequence was that, in all the provinces of the empire, multitudes of the disciples of Christ were, during the space of two years, put to death by means of the most horrible punishments which an ingenious barbarity could invent. The most unhappy circumstance, however, attending these cruelties, was the fatal influence which they had upon the faith and constancy of many of the sufferers; for, as this persecution was much more severe than all those which had preceded it, so a great number of professed Christians, dismayed, it is said, not at the approach of death, but at the aspect of those dreadful and lingering torments the barbarous magistrates had prepared to combat their constancy, fell from their profession and secured
AFFECTING INSTANCES OF APOSTACY.
themselves from punishment, either by offering sacrifices or by burning incense before the images of their gods. This state of things gave rise to some singular names, which were for some time current among them, such as Libellatici, Traditores, Sacrificati, &c. The Traditores were those that surrendered their bibles, or portions of the bible, with other books on Christianity to the Heathen officers; Sacrificati was an opprobrious name, given to such as sacrificed to the idol ; and Libellatici to those who produced certificates, of which there were various kinds; some were purchased from the judges by a fee, and were merely a permission to abstain from sacrificing : these were very com. mon and often obtained at high prices; they were a kind of letter of license to abstain from violating their consciences--while others contained a positive profession of Paganism, and were either offered voluntarily by the apostate, or were subscribed by him on being presented by the persecuting magistrate.
It appears from the letters of Cyprian, who himself fell a martyr during this trying state of things, that the Christian church, though greatly increased in number, had materially declined in genuine piety since the beginning of the century. “It must be owned and confessed,” says he, “that the outrageous and heavy calamity which hath almost devoured our flock, and continues to devour it to this day, has happened to us because of our sins, since we keep not the way of the Lord, nor observe his heavenly commands, which were intended to lead us to salvation. Christ, our Lord, fulfilled the will of his Father, but we neglect the will of Christ. Our main study is to get money and raise estates. We follow after pride: we are at ' leisure for nothing but emulation and quarrelling, and have neg
lected the simplicity of the faith. We have renounced the world in words only and not in deed. Every one studies to please himself and to displease others.”*
The picture which Cyprian has here drawn of the state of the church, in his day, led Dr. Jortin to remark that “ Cyprian has described in very strong terms the relaxation of discipline and manners which had ensued, which yet may require some abatement. His vehement temper, his indignation against vice, and
* Cypriani Opera, epist. xi.