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unqualified obedience to a new master.
They avowed also that he was the person who had been foretold to the Jews under the suspected title of King. The spiritual nature of this kingdom, the consistency of this obedience with civil subjection, were distinctions too refined to be entertained by a Roman president, who viewed the business at a great distance, or through the medium of very hostile representations. Our histories accordingly inform us, that this was the turn which the enemies of Jesus gave to his character and pretensions in their remonstrances with Pontius Pilate. And Justin Martyr, about a hundred years afterwards, complains that the same mistake prevailed in his time; “ye having heard that we are waiting for a kingdom, suppose, without distinguishing, that we mean a human kingdom, when in truth we speak of that which is with God."* And it was undoubtedly a natural source of calumny and misconstruction.
The preachers therefore of Christianity had to contend with prejudice, backed by power. They had to come forward to a disappointed people, to a priesthood possessing a considerable share of municipal authority, and actuated by strong motives of opposition and resentment; and they had to do this under a foreign government, to whose favour they made no pretensions, and which was constantly surrounded by their enemies. The well known, because the experienced fate of reformers, whenever the reformation subverts some reigning opinion, and does not proceed upon a change already taken place in the sentiments of a country, will not allow, much less lead us to suppose, that the first propagators of Christianity at Jerusalem and in Judea, with the difficulties and the enemies they had to contend with, and entirely destitute, as they
were, of force, authority, or protection, could execute their mission with personal ease and safety.
Let us next inquire what might reasonably be expected by the preachers of Christianity when they turned themselves to the heathen publick. Now the first thing that strikes us is, that the religion they carried with them was exclusive. It denied without reserve the truth of every article of heathen mythology, the existence of every object of their worship. It accepted no compromise : it ad. mitted no comprehension. It must prevail, if it prevailed at all, by the overthrow of every statue, altar and temple in the world. It will not easily be credited that a design, so bold as this was, could in any age be attempted to be carried into execution with impunity.
For it ought to be considered, that this was not setting forth, or magnifying the character and worship of some new competitor for a place in the Pantheon, whose pretensions might be discussed or asserted without questioning the reality of any others. It was pronouncing all other gods to be false, and all other worship vain. From the facility with which the Polytheism of ancient nations admitted new objects of worship into the number of their acknowledged divinities, or the patience with which they might entertain proposals of this kind, we can argue nothing as to their toleration of a system, or of the publishers and active propagators of a system, which swept away the very foundation of the existing establishment. The one was nothing more than what it would be, in Popish countries, to add a saint to the calendar ; the other was to abolish and tread under foot the calendar itself.
Secondly, it ought also to be considered, that this was not the case of philosophers propounding in their books, or in their schools, doubts concerning the truth of the popular creed, or even avowing their disbelief of it. These philosophers did not go about from place to place to collect proselytes from amongst the common people ; to form in the heart of the country societies professing their tenets ; to provide for the order, instruction, and permanency, of these societies ; nor did they enjoin their followers to withdraw themselves from the publick worship of the temples, or refuse
a compliance with rites instituted by the laws.* These things are what the Christians did, and what the philosophers did not : and in these consisted the activity and danger of the enterprise.
Thirdly, it ought also to be considered, that this danger proceeded not merely from solemn acts and publick resolutions of the state, but from sudden bursts of violence at particular places, from the licence of the populace, the rashness of some magistrates, and the negligence of others, from the influence and instigation of interested adversaries, and, in general, from the variety and warmth of opinion which an errand so novel and extraordinary could not fail of exciting. I can conceive that the teachers of Christianity might both fear and suffer much from these causes, without any general persecution being denounced against them by imperial authority. Some length of time, I should suppose, might pass, before the vast machine of the Roman empire would be put in motion, or its attention be obtained to religious controversy ; but, during that time, a great deal of ill usage might be endured by a set of friendless, unprotected travellers, telling men, wherever they came, that the religion of their ancestors, the religion in which
* The best of the ancient philosophers, Plato, Cicero, and Epictetus, allowed, or rather enjoined, men to worship the gods of the country, and in the established form. See passages to this purpose, collected from their works by Dr. Clarke, Nat and Rev. Rel. p. 180, Ed. V. Except Socrates, they all thought it wiser to comply with the laws, than to contend.
they had been brought up, the religion of the state and of the magistrate, the rites which they frequented, the pomp which they admired, was throughout a system of folly and delusion.
Nor do I think that the teachers of Christianity would find protection in that general disbelief of the popular theology, which is supposed to have prevailed amongst the intelligent part of the heathen publick. It is by no means true, that unbelievers are usually tolerant. They are not disposed (and why should they ?) to endanger the present state of things, by suffering a religion of which they believe nothing, to be disturbed by another of which they believe as little. They are ready themselves to conform to any thing ; and are, oftentimes, amongst the foremost to procure conformity from others,by any method which they think likely to be efficacious. When was ever a change of religion patronised by infidels? How little, notwithstanding the reigning scepticism, and the magnified liberality of that age, the true principles of toleration were understood by the wisest men amongst them, may be gathered from two eminent and uncontested examples. The younger Pliny, polished, as he was, by all the literature of that soft and elegant period, could gravely pronounce this monstrous judgment : “ Those who persisted in declaring themselves Christians, I ordered to be led away to punishment (i. e
e. to execution), for I DID NOT DOUBT, whatever it was that they confessed, that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished.” His master, Trajan, a mild and accomplished Prince, went, nevertheless, no farther in his sentiments of moderation and equity, than what appears in the following rescript : “The Christians are not to be sought for, but if any are brought before you, and convicted, they are to be punished.” And this direction he gives, after it had been reported to him by his own presi
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dent, that, by the most strict examination, nothing could be discovered in the principles of these persons, but “a bad and excessive superstition,” accompanied, it seems, with an oath or mutual federation, “ to allow themselves in no crime or immoral conduct whatever.” The truth is, the ancient heathens considered religion entirely as an affair of state, as much under the tuition of the magistrate as any other part of the police. The religion of that age was not merely allied to the state: it was incorporated into it. Many of its offices were administered by the magistrate. Its titles of pontiffs, augurs, and flamens, were borne by senators, consuls and generals.-Without discussing, therefore, the truth of the theology, they resented every affront put upon the established worship, as a direct opposition to the authority of government.
Add to which, that the religious systems of those times, however ill supported by evidence, had been long established. The ancient religion of a country has always many votaries, and sometimes not the fewer, because its origin is hidden in remoteness and obscurity. Men have a natural veneration for antiquity, especially in matters of religion. What Tacitus says of the Jewish, was more applicable to the heathen establishment, “hi ritus, quoquo modo inducti, antiquitate defenduntur. It was also a splendid and sumptuous worship. It had its priesthood, its endowments, its temples. Statuary, painting, architecture, and musick, contributed their effect to its ornament and magnificence. It abounded in festival shows and solemnities, to which the common people are greatly addicted; and which were of a nature to engage them much more than any thing of that sort among us. These things would retain great numbers on its side by the fascination of spectacle and pomp, as well as interest many in its preservation by the advantage which they drew from it.