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In the latter part of the third century, the Church had a long period of rest, and then indeed a great and general declension took place in doctrine and practice; and it is with difficulty that we can find for centuries, many of the genuine fruits of the Spirit. Still she had become embodied, and from many causes operating powerfully on the hopes and fears, the lusts and passions of men, she became a gigantic power in the earth. But forsaking God, she was given once more to the spoiler.
In the beginning of the fourth century she passed through a furnace seven times heated. For eight years a persecution raged, which spared neither age nor sex, in any part of the Roman world, which was unparalleled for its tortures and horrors; and which, to all human appearance would root Christianity from the earth. Satan came down in great wrath. It seemed his last and most vigorous effort to save his cause.The Church, lukewarm, engrossed with the world, and distracted with divisions and heresies, was not prepared to meet it, yet she stood the shock with amazing heroism. Some suppose that it was in the days of this persecution that John 6 saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice saying, how long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth.”
Dioclesian was at this time clothed with the imperial purple. He had an associate, Maximian, and under him two Cæsars, Galerius and Constantius. Of these, Galerius was the most savage, and did the most to instigate Dioclesian, who was himself averse to bloodshed, to the most cruel extremities. The persecution began at the feast of the Terminalia, in Nicodemia, A. D. 302, by pulling down all the churches of the Christians, burning their sacred books and writings, taking from them their civil rights and privileges, and rendering them incapable of any civil promotion. Soon after, a fire broke out in the royal palace. The Christians were accused as the incendiaries and numbers were put to torture. Some tumults also arose in Armenia and Syria, which were by the heathen priests, charged upon them. The clergy were cast into prison, and given up to the most insupportable punishments, the rulers hoping, that if the pastors renounced Christianity, the people would follow them. Vast numbers of learned and excellent men fell a prey to this stratagem. In the year 304, a new edict was published in which the magistrates, throughout the Roman empire, were directed to compel all Christians, without distinction of rank or sex, to renounce Christianity and sacrifice
to the gods, and were authorized to employ the most cruel torments in their work. The Church was now reduced to the last extremity; for the magistrates were like so many hungry tigers, let loose upon defenceless lambs. In France, less ferocity was exhibited than in other places, from the influence of Constantius, who was favorably inclined to the Christians.
A recital of their sufferings may appear to many almost incredible, but it is delivered to us by faithful eye-witnesses, and confirmed by Pagan historians. It should make us grateful to God for the blessings we enjoy.
Some were thrown to wild beasts, inclosed in vast amphitheatres, for the entertainment of the people on great festal days, and instantly torn to pieces and deyoured. Others, with their wives and children, were burned to death in their own houses. Some were beaten with clubs, rods, thongs of leather, and ropes. Nails were driven into their sides, bellies, legs, and cheeks. Some were suspended by one hand to a portico, suffering the most severe distention of all their joints. Others were bound to pillars, face to face, their feet being raised above ground. They were hung about wooden engines, having every limb of their bodies distended by certain machines. Plates of heated brass were applied to their bodies. They were seated in red hot iron chairs. They were slain by the axe and the sword. They were suspended by their feet, with their head downward, over a slow fire.
Sharp reeds were thrust under the nails into the fingers. Melted lead was poured down their backs, and into the bowels. Tongues were cut out.
Multitudes were deprived of one eye, and cauterized and debilitated in one leg by an hot iron, and sent to the mines. Seventeen thousand, it is said, were slain during one month In Egypt alone, 150,000 suffered martyrdom by the hands of their persecutors, besides 700,000 who came to their end in banishment or the public works."
“From torturing pains to endless joys,
On fiery wheels they rode.” The pagans at length thought they had accomplished their object. A medal was struck for Dioclesian, with this inscription, " Nomine Christianorum deleto." 66 The name of Christians being cxtinguished.” The Pagan worship was every where set up in great splendour. It was the darkest period which the Christian Church had seen. But He who had established her, had promised, that the gates of hell should never prevail against her. A remnant remained who wrestled with the angel of the covenant and prevailed. The time of their deliverance was at hand. The arm of Jehovah was uplifted, and Satan fell as lightning from heaven.
In the year 312, the Emperor Dioclesian died. His successor, Maximin Galerius, who had been the author of the heaviest persecution, also soon came to his end. He was horrid in death. In frantic agony he cried out, “ It was not I, but others who did it." In the West, Constantius Clorus died in Britain, A. D. 306. He had renounced idolatry, was a man of strict morals and had favored the Christians. The army forced Constantine his son to accept the purple. At the same time, Maxentius, son-in-law to Galerius, assumed the imperial dignity at Rome. A civil war ensued. In marching to battle, Constantine felt the need of some divine assistance. He had seen his father reject Polytheism, and treat with kindness the Christians. He felt anxious to know their God. Historians report that he prayed for light, and that, while marching with his forces, a miraculous croes appeared to him in the air, with the inscription - Congner by this ;"—that the same night Christ appeared to him in his sleep, with the same sign of the cross and directed him to make it his military ensign. Such a report must have had a great effect upon his enemies. True it might have been. Greater miracles have been wrought. But the age of miracles had passed away. The chief design of miracles, which was to support revelation, had, long before been accomplished. Nor was Constantine a favorite of heaven. A dream he probably had; and, from that time, the Emperor became the open advocate of Christianity, and the banner of the cross was displayed in his armies. Over all his enemies he was conqueror, and, for many years, was sole master of Rome. In the year 324 he published edicts and laws. by which the ancient religion of the Romans was abolished, and Christianity was established as the religion of the empire.
This great and astonishing revolution in the religious world. great, as it was unexpected, to those who, a few years before, saw Christianity almost extinct amid the flames of persecution, appears to have been clearly predicted by John, in the opening of the sixth seal. Then, indeed, the idolatrous heaven, filled with Jupiter, and a thousand deities, departed as a scroll when it is rolled together, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places."
That gigantic power which had hitherto been employed to crush Christianity, and which would, ages before, have driven every vestige of it from among men, had not God been its helper, was now engaged to demolish the kingdom of darkness, and to exalt Christ in the earth. The Heathen temples were pulled down; images of gold and silver were melted and coined into money; great idols, curiously wrought, were brought to
THROUGHOUT THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
Constantinople and drawn with ropes through the principal streets for the scorn of the people. The heathen priests were cast out, dispersed and banished. Every place of power and trust in the state and army, which had before been filled by heathen, was now occupied by professed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Immense and splendid Christian temples were every where erected and richly endowed; and the greatest honor was put upon all preachers of the Gospel. Constantine put an end to pagan rites; to sorcery and divination, those great supports of false religion; publicly exposed the mysteries which had been kept secret; stopped the savage fights of gladiators ; ordered the strict observance of the Lord's day ; furnished the churches with copies of the sacred scriptures; stood up with respectful silence, to hear the Gospel from Eusebius of Cesarea; dedicated Christian temples himself with great solemnity; yea, made Christian orations, one of which of considerable length, is preserved to us; and taught all the soldiers in his army, to pray to the God of the Christians.
The religious sincerity of the man, who, in a short period, effected such amazing changes in the religious world, is best known to Him who searches the heart. Certain it is, that his subsequent life furnished no evidence of conversion to God. He waded without remorse through seas of blood, and was a most tyrannical prince. If it be asked, Why he so patronized Christians ? The answer may be found in the state of the world. Paganism had nearly expired. Christianity had gained deep root in the earth, and how could he with the least worldly policy do otherwise than he did, especially as all his opposers were the supporters of Paganism.
But with him, we have but little concern. The work was the Lord's. He was indeed the distinguished instrument of effecting it. Happy for him, if he had a saving interest in that Redeemer, whose cause he so illustriously upheld. But every circumstance shows the mighty power of God. That little sect which three centuries before sprang up in Judea, and seemed in the eyes of the world, too contemptible for notice, now filled the earth with its glories. That little seed which was then planted, had sprang up and became a great tree, under whose branches the nations reposed for comfort. The success was in strict accordance with prophecy, and proved to the nations tbat it was the Lord God that had set up his kingdom on the ruins of the kingdom of Satan, and would ultimately triumph from the river to the ends of the earth.
The joy felt by Christians throughout the Roman empire, at this unexpected revolution, was beyond the power of language to express. They had hitherto been only suffered to live. Few privileges were theirs. Few enjoyments but those which sprang from communion with God;—while they were often obliged to hide in the rocks and caves of the earth, from whence they were dragged forth to suffer the most cruel deaths. Could the truly pious among them have looked forward to the issue, and seen all this worldly magnificence operating as poison to the very vitals of the Church, they would have lamented the change, and preferred the endurance of further trials; but all were impressed with the belief that now Christ was coming to take to himself the kingdom, and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven. The worldly minded among them, saw every thing in the change to gratify their pride and ambition; rushed with avidity into all places of power and dominion, and hailed Constantine as the greatest of human benefactors.
At the change, Satan gnawed his tongue for pain. The heathen priests and vast crowds of subordinate officers, who had gained their subsistence in the idol worship, saw their darling gods trampled in the dust; their own consequence at an end, and their means of support entirely cut off. Great multitudes, indeed, were mere warriors and courtiers who were attached to the heathen superstition because it was the religion of the state and were zealous in it because zeal gained them promotion. Such readily renounced it and became Christians when they saw their emperor fighting successfully under the banner of the cross. Others, more intelligent and reflecting, had long, in their hearts despised the whole system of idol worship, while they had prostrated themselves with apparently the profoundest reverence. Such rejoiced to see the establishment of ages overturned, though they knew not what would arise in its stead. But others, some from interest, and some from sincere attachment, struggled vehemently for the expiring cause. They be. held with indignation and grief the destruction of their temples and gods. They aspersed the Emperor in the foulest language, and predicted the greatest calamities to his family and kingdom. They were never again able to persecute the Christians as they had done, but they occasionally rallied, and grew terrible for a season, until at length through the excellency of Christianity and the power of the state, and the contempt into which their own gods and rites had sunk, they dwindled away and were found no more.