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It is an obvious reflection from these letters, that at this early period, Christianity had made an extraordinary progress in the empire; for Pliny acknowledges that the pagan temples had become “ almost desolate." Nor should we overlook the remarkable proof which they afford us of the state of the Christian profession, and the dreadful persecutions to which the disciples of Christ were then exposed. It is evident from them, that by the existing laws, it was a capital offence, punishable with death, for any one to avow himself a Christian. Nor did the humane Trajan and the philosophic Pliny entertain a doubt of the propriety of the law, or the wisdom and justice of executing it in the fullest extent. Pliny confesses that he had commanded such capital punishments to be inflicted on many, chargeable with no crime, but their profession of Christianity; and Trajan not only confirms the equity of the sentence, but enjoins the continuance of such executions, without any exceptions, unless it be of those who apostatized from their profession, denied their Lord and Saviour, and did homage to the idols of paganism.
These letters also give us a pleasing view of the holy and exemplary lives of the first Christians. For it appears by the confession of apostates themselves, that no man could continue a member of their communion whose deportment in the world did not correspond with his holy profession. Even delicate women are put to the torture, to try if their weakness would not betray them into accusations of their brethren; but not a word nor a charge can be extorted from them, capable of bearing the semblance of deceit or crime. To meet for prayer, praise, and mutual instruction; to worship Christ their God; to exhort one another to abstain from every evil word and work; to unite in commemorating the death of their Lord, by partaking of the symbols of his
broken body and shed blood in the ordinance of the supper--these things constitute what Pliny calls the “ depraved superstition,” the “execrable crimes,” which could only be expiated by the blood of the Christians !
We should not overlook the proof which these letters afford, of the peaceableness of the Christians of those days, and of their readiness to submit even to the most unjust requisitions, rather than disturb the peace of society. According to Pliny's own representation, their numbers were so immense, that, had they considered it lawful, they might have defended themselves by the power
of the sword. Persons of all ranks, of every age, and of each sex, had been converted to Christianity; the body was so vast as to leave the pagan temples a desart, and their priests solitary. Scarce a victim was brought to the altar, or a sacred solemnity observed, through the paucity of the worshippers. The defection from paganism must have been conspicuous which could produce such striking effects. But the Christians neither abused their power to resist government, nor acted indecently in their worship. They knew the edicts that were in force against them, and to avoid giving offence, they assembled before break of day, for the worship of their God and Saviour. And when Pliny issued his edict to that effect, they, for a while yielded to the storm, and desisted from the observance of their Agapæ or feasts of charity. This view of things abundantly justifies the encomium of Hegesippus, one of the earliest Christian writers, “ that the church continued until these times, as a virgin, pure and uncorrupted.”
Considering the character which both the emperor and the proconsul sustained, for mildness of disposition and gentleness of manners, it has occasioned no small perplexity to many, and even to some of our philosophic historians, how to account for the circumstance, that
such men should be found in the list of persecutors, and at the same time to admit the unoffending deportment of the Christians. Dr. Warburton has given a very satisfactory solution of this difficulty; and, though the passage be rather long, I shall transcribe the substance of it in this place.
“ The pagan world having early imbibed this inveterate prejudice concerning intercommunity of worship, men were but too much accustomed to new revelations, when the Jewish appeared, not to acknowledge its superior pretensions. Accordingly we find, by the history of this people, that it was esteemed by its neighbours a true one; and therefore they proceeded to join it occasionally with their own; as those did whom the king of Assyria sent into the cities of Israel in place of the ten tribes. Whereby it happened, so great was the influence of this principle, that, in the same time and country, the Jews of Jerusalem added the pagan idolatries to their religion, while the pagans of Samaria added the Jewish religion to their idolatries.
« But when these people of God, in consequence of having their dogmatic theology more carefully inculcated to them, after their return from the captivity, became rigid, in pretending not only that their religion was true, but the only true one; then it was that they began to be treated by their neighbours, and afterwards by the Greeks and Romans, with the utmost hatred and contempt, for this their inbumanity and unsociable temper. To this cause alone we are to ascribe all that spleen and rancour which appears in the histories of these later nations concerning them. Celsus fairly reveals what lay at the bottom, and speaks out for them all. If the Jews, on these accounts,' says he, 'adhere to their own law, it is not for that they are to blame; I rather blame those who forsake their own country religion to embrace the
Jewish. But if these people give themselves airs of sublimer wisdom than the rest of the world, and on that score refuse all communion with it, as not equally pure -I must tell them, that it is not to be believed that they are more dear or agreeable to God than other nations.'-— Hence among the pagans, the Jews came to be distigguished from all other people, by the name of a race of men odious to the gods, and with good reason. This was the reception the Jews met with in the world.
“ When Christianity arose, though on the foundation of Judaism, it was at first received with great complacency by the pagan world. The gospel was favourably heard, and the superior evidence with which it was enforced, inclined men, long habituated to pretended revelations, to receive it into the number of the established. Accordingly we find one Roman emperor introducing it among bis closet religions; and another proposing to the senate to give it a more public entertainment. But when it was found to carry its pretensions higher, and, like the Jewish, to claim the title of the only true one, then it was that it began to incur the same hatred and contempt with the Jewish. But when it went still further, and urged the necessity of all men forsaking their own national religions, and embracing the gospel, this so shocked the pagans, that it soon brought upon itself the bloody storm which followed. Thus you have the true origin of persecution for religion; a persecution not committed, but undergone by the Christian church.
“ llence we see how it happened, that such good emperors as Trajan and Mark Antonine came to be found in the first rank of persecutors; a difficulty that hath very much embarrassed the inquirers into ecclesiastical antiquity, and given a handle to the Deists, who impoison every thing, of pretending to suspect, that there must be something very much amiss in primitive Christianity,
while such wise magistrates could become its persecutors. But the reason is now manifest. The Christian pretensions overthrew a fundamental principle of paganism, which they thought founded in nature, namely, the friendly intercommunity of worship. And thus the famous passage of Pliny the younger becomes intelligible. • For I did not in the least hesitate, but that whatever should appear on confession to be their faith, yet that their frowardness and inflexible obstinacy would certainly deserve punishment. What was the “ inflexible obstinacy?' It could not be in professing a new religion; that was a thing common enough. It was the refusing all communion with paganism,-refusing to throw a grain of incense on their altars. For we must not think, as is commonly imagined, that this was at first enforced by the magistrate to make them renounce their religion; but only to give a test of its hospitality, and sociableness of temper. It was indeed, and rightly too, understood by the Christians to be a renouncing of their religion, and so accordingly abstained from. The misfortune was, that the pagans did not consider the inflexibility as a mere error, but as an immorality likewise. The unsociable, uncommunicable temper, in matters of religious worship, was esteemed by the best of them as a hatred and aversion to mankind. Thus Tacitus, speaking of the burning of Rome, calls the Christians' persons convicted of hatred to all mankind. But how? The confession of the pagans themselves, concerning the purity of the Christian morals, shews this could be no other than a being 'convicted' of rejecting all intercommunity of worship; wbich, so great was their prejudice, they thought could proceed from nothing but hatred towards mankind. Universal prejudice had made men regard a refusal of this inte community as the most brutal of all dissociability. And the emperor Julian, who under