« VorigeDoorgaan »
diffusion throughout all countries, of an innumerable body of Christians in distant provinces, of the strange revolution of opinion of men of the greatest genius, orators, grammarians, rhetoricians, lawyers, physicians, having come over to the institution, and that also in the face of threats, executions, and tortures.* And not more than twenty years after Constantine's entire possession of the empire, Julius Firmicus Maternus calls upon the emperors Constantius and Constans to extirpate the relics of the ancient religion; the reduced and fallen condition of which is described by our author in the following words : “ Licèt adhuc in quibusdam regionibus idololatriæ morientia palpitent membra; tamen in eo res est, ut à Christianis omnibus terris pestiferum hoc malum funditùs amputetur:" and in another place, “ Modicum tantum superest, ut legibus vestris-extincta idololatriæ pereat funesta contagio.”+ It will not be thought that we quote this writer in order to recommend his temper or his judgment, but to shew the comparative state of Christianity and of Ileathenism at this period. Fifty years afterward, Jerome represents the decline of Paganism in language which conveys the same idea of its approaching extinction : “Solitudinem patitur et in urbe gentilitas. Dii quondam nationum, cum bubonibus et noctuis, in solis cul. minibus remanserunt.”I Jerome here indulges a triumph, natural and allowable in a zealous friend of the cause, but which could only be suggested to his mind by the consent and universality with which he saw the religion received. “ But now (says he), the passion and resurrection of Christ are celebrated in the discourses and writings of all nations. I need not men. tion Jews, Greeks, and Latins. The Indians, Persians, Goths, and Egyptians, philosophize, and firmly believe the immortality of the soul, and future recompenses, which, before, the greatest philosophers had denied, or doubted of, or perplexed with their disputes. The fierceness of Thracians and Scythians is now softened
* Arnob. in Gentes, 1. i. p. 27. 9. 24. 42. 44. edit. Lug. Bat. 1650.
+ De Error. Profan. Relig. c. xxi. p. 172, quoted by Lard. ner, vol. viii. p. 262.
Jer. ad Lect. ep. 5. 7.
by the gentle sound of the Gospel ; and every where Christ is all in all."* Were therefore the motives of Constantine's conversion ever so problematical, the easy establishment of Christianity, and the ruin of Heathenism, under him and his immediate successors, is of itself a proof of the progress which Christianity had made in the preceding period. It may be added also, “that Maxentius, the rival of Constantine, had shown himself friendly to the Christians. Therefore of those who were contending for worldly power and empire, one actually favoured and flattered them, and another may be suspected to have joined himself to them, partly from consideration of interest : so considerable were they become, under external disadvantages of all sorts.”+ This at least is certain, that throughout the whole transaction hitherto, the great seemed to follow, not to lead, the public opinion.
It may help to convey to us some notion of the extent and progress of Christianity, or rather of the character and quality of many early Christians, of their learning and their labours, to notice the number of Christian writers who flourished in these ages. Saint Jerome's catalogue contains sixty-six writers within the first three centuries, and the first six years of the fourth; and fifty-four between that time and his owu, viz. A. D. 392. Jerome introduces his catalogue with the following just remonstrance :-“Let those who say the church has had no philosophers, nor eloquent and learned men, observe who and what they were who founded, established, and adorned it : let them cease to accuse our faith of rusticity, and confess their mistake.”I Of these writers, several, as Justin, Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Bardesanes, Hippolitus, Eusebius, were voluminous writers. Christian writers abounded particularly about the year 178. Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, founded a library in that city, A. D. 212. Pamphilus, the friend of Origen, founded a library at Cesarea, A. D. 294. Public defences were also set forth, by various advocates of the religion, in the course of its first three centuries. Within * Jer. ep. 8. ad Heliod. + Lardner, vol. vii. p. 380.
Jer. Prol. in Lib. de Scr. Eccl.
one hundred years after Christ's ascension, Quadratus and Aristides, whose works, except some few fragments of the first, are lost; and, about twenty years afterward, Justin Martyr, whose works remain, presented apologies for the Christian religion to the Roman emperors; Quadratus and Aristides to Adrian, Justin to Antoninus Pius, and a second to Marcus Antoninus. Melito, bishop of Sardis, and Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis, and Miltiades, men of great reputation, did the same to Marcus Antoninus, twenty years afterward :* and ten years after this, Apollonius, who suffered martyrdom under the emperor Commodus, composed an apology for his faith, which he read in the senate, and which was afterward published. Fourteen years after the apology of Apollonius, Tertullian addressed the work which now remains under that name to the governors of provinces in the Roman empire ; and, about the same time, Minucius Felix composed a defence of the Christian religion, which is still extant; and, shortly after the conclusion of this century,copious defences of Christianity were published by Arnobius and Lactantius.
SECT. II. Reflections upon the preceding account. In viewing the progress of Christianity, our first attention is due to the number of converts at Jerusalem, immediately after its Founder's death; because this success was a success at the time, and upon the spot, when and where the chief part of the history had been transacted.
We are, in the next place, called upon to attend to the early establishment of numerous Christian societies in Judea and Galilee ; which countries had been the scene of Christ's miracles and ministry, and where the memory of what had passed, and the knowledge of
* Euseb. Hist. lib. iv. c. 26. See also Lardner, vol. ij. p. 666.
+ Lardner, vol. ii. p. 687
what was alleged, must have yet been fresh and cer. tain.
We are, thirdly, invited to recollect the success of the apostles and of their companions, at the several places to which they came, both within and without Judea; because it was the credit given to original witnesses, appealing for the truth of their accounts to what themselves had seen and heard. The effect also of their preaching strongly confirms the truth of what our history positively and circumstantially relates, that they were able to exhibit to their hearers supernatural attestations of their mission.
We are, lastly, to consider the subsequent growth and spread of the religion, of which we receive successive intimations, and satisfactory, though general and occasional, accounts, until its full and final establishment.
In all these several stages, the history is without a parallel : for it must be observed, that we have not now been tracing the progress, and describing the prevalency, of an opinion, founded upon philosophical or critical arguments, upon mere deduction of reason, or the construction of ancient writings (of which kind are the several theories which have, at different times, gained possession of the public mind in various departments of science and literature; and of one or other of which kind are the tenets also which divide the vari. ous sects of Christianity); but that we speak of a system, the very basis and postulatum of which was a supernatural character ascribed to a particular person; of a doctrine, the truth whereof depends entirely upon the truth of a matter of fact then recent. “To establish a new religion, even amongst a few people, or in one single nation, is a thing in itself exceedingly difficult. To reform some corruptions which may have spread in a religion, or to make new regulations in it, is not perhaps so hard, when the main and principal part of that religion is preserved entire and unshaken; and yet this very often cannot be accomplished without an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances, and may be attempted a thousand times without suc
But to introduce a new faith, a new way of
thinking and acting, and to persuade many nations to quit the religion in which their ancestors have lived and died, which had been delivered down to them from time immemorial, to make them forsake and despise the deities which they had been accustomed to reverence and worship ; this is a work of still greater difficulty.* The resistance of education, worldly policy, and superstition, is almost invincible.”
If men, in these days, be Christians in consequence of their education, in submission to authority, or in compliance with fashion, let us recollect that the very contrary of this, at the beginning, was the case. The first race of Christians, as well as millions who succeeded them, became such in formal opposition to all these motives, to the whole power and strength of this influence. Every argument, therefore, and every instance, which sets forth the prejudice of education, and the almost irresistible effects of that prejudice (and no persons are more fond of expatiating upon this subject than deistical writers), in fact confirms the evidence of Christianity.
But, in order to judge of the argument which is drawn from the early propagation of Christianity, I know no fairer way of proceeding, than to compare what we have seen on the subject, with the success of Christian missions in modern ages. In the East India mission, supported by the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, we hear sometimes of thirty, sometimes of forty, being baptized in the course of a year, and these principally children. Of converts properly so called, that is, of adults voluntarily embracing Christianity, the number is extremely small. “Notwithstanding the labour of missionaries for upwards of two hundred years, and the establishments of different Christian nations who support them, there are not twelve thousand Indian Christians, and those almost entirely outcasts.”+
# Jortin's Dis. on the Christ. Rel. p. 107. ed. iv.
+ Sketches relating to the history, learning, and manners, of the Hindoos, p. 48;quoted by Dr. Robertson, Hist. Dis. concerning ancient Indía, p. 236.