« PreviousContinue »
A. D. 200 to 250.-The effects of thus corrupting the purity of the Christian religion, shortly became conspicuous, as might be expected, first in the lives and conduct of the clergy, and then of the laity also. A rapid decline of the piety and zeal, of the meekness and humility which distinguished the teachers of the apostolic age is stated to have soon taken place. During the first and second century, a bishop was a person, who acted not so much with the authority of a master, as with the zeal and diligence of a faithful servant, performing divine worship, instructing the people, attending the sick, . . . and while his office was not only laborious, but in those times singularly dangerous, its revenues were extremely small, the church having no fixed income, but depending on the gifts or oblations of the multitude, which though inconsiderable, were however to be divided among the bishops, prelates, deacons, and the poor.'
But the synods or councils, which began to be assembled about the middle of the second century, afforded them an opportunity of extending the limits of their authority, of túrning their influence into dominion, and led to the institution of metropolitans and patriarchs, thus opening a way to the gratification of pride and ambition. They had moreover, (as Mosheim sarcastically observes,) the good fortune to persuade the people, that they were
entitled to all the rights and privileges of the Jewish priesthood, which was a new source of honor and profit to them.' At length in the third century, he describes the bishops as having in many places assumed a princely authority; as having appropriated to their evangelical function, the splendid ensigns of temporal majesty- A throne surrounded with ministers, exalted above his equals, the servant of the meek and humble Jesus, and sumptuous garments dazzled the eyes and minds of the multitude into an ignorant veneration for their arrogated authority. The example of the bishops was ambitiously imitated by the presbyters, who neglecting the sacred duties of their station, abandoned themselves to the indolence and delicacy of an effeminate and luxurious life. The deacons beholding the presbyters deserting their function, boldly usurped their rights and privileges; and the effects of a corrupt ambition were spread through every rank of the sacred order.'
But luxury and ambition were far from being the only vices of the clergy at this early period. Many, to please the people, and obtain the reputation of superior sanctity, continued in a life of celibacy, but at the same time formed connections with those women who had made vows of perpetual chastity; and it was an ordinary thing for an ecclesiastic to admit one of these fair saints to his bed.'
Such testimony, reluctantly given by the Ecclesiastical historian, speaks volumes in proof of the utter extinction of piety and morality in this age;
and shews that the spirit at least of Paganism was fast gaining ground in the church, if the outward form and profession of it were not yet established.
THIRD CENTURY, CONTINUED.
A. D. 250 to 312.-One circumstance must at least have had a salutary tendency, though it was not adequate to the purpose of checking altogether the career of pride and profligacy in these unworthy ministers of the gospel; and that was the uncertain tenure by which they held the means of gratifying these passions, seeing the storms of persecution from their Pagan rulers, which continually threatened them, and not unfrequently burst over their heads.
There are indeed writers who maintain that the histories of the earlier persecutions have been much exaggerated, and perhaps the maxim of ' medio tutissimus' may be applicable here.
If the Christians suffered along with others in the first century, under a Nero and a Domitian, it is what might be expected from such monsters as these; but the senate annulled the cruel edicts of Nero, and Nerva abrogated the sanguinary laws of his predecessor Domitian. And there were, at the beginning of the second century, no laws in force against the Christians. But still the custom of persecuting them prevailed, and their destruction not unfrequently followed from the rage of the populace, instigated by the priesthood. This hap
pened even under the reign of Trajan, as we gather from the letters of Pliny, who was instructed by his master to abstain from seeking after the Christians, and to punish with death such only as refused to return to the religion of their ancestors. This edict afforded the precarious means of escape by secrecy; but had not the custom of persecuting them continued to prevail, a renewal of this edict would not have been called for under Adrian; who farther prohibited their being put to death, unless convicted of crimes committed against the laws. This edict was rendered still more favorable to them under Antoninus Pius, who made it a capital offence to accuse them falsely, or without bringing sufficient proof of their guilt; but it was suffered to slumber again under Marcus Aurelius, for this prince forgot, with regard to the Christians, those principles of justice and clemency, which regulated his conduct towards others. Under Commodus they suffered very little; but most rigorous edicts were issued against them under Severus. From his death to the reign of Maximin, their condition was every where supportable, and in many places prosperous. But with Maximin their sufferings were renewed; till at length this storm also was followed by a calm, in which they enjoyed for many years a happy tranquillity.
But on the accession of Decius Trajan, in the year 249, the storm fell upon them with ten-fold violence; and compared with this, all their former sufferings may be considered as light and trivia!.
For this prince resolved upon extirpating all the Christians without exception, or compelling them to return to the profession of Paganism; and charged his prætors with the execution of laws to this effect, under pain of death. The flame of this persecution was at length beginning to burn with somewhat less fury, when it was reanimated by the successors of Decius, Gallus and his son Volusianus, and not suffered to decline until the accession of Valerian, in the year 254. But this intermission lasted only three years, when the sufferings of the Christians were renewed under the influence ofMacrianus, a bigoted Pagan, who had gained the ascendancy over the mind of Valerian. Under his son Gallienus, peace was once more restored to the church, and continued with only occasional interruptions, to the end of this century; but the beginning of the next presents the most horrible of all the persecutions, which began in the reign of Dioclesian, at the instigation of his son-in-law Galerius, and raged almost without intermission, for ten years together. During this period, every kind of torture that cruelty could devise was employed, to force them to renounce their religion; and such were the extent and success of these endeavours, that they are represented as having nearly proved fatal to the cause of Christianity.
Their sufferings, however, from Pagan persecution at least, were now drawing to a close; for early in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine, either from conviction or policy, embraced