Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

chap. admire than imitate, the fervour of the first Chris

[ocr errors]

tians, who, according to the lively expression of Sulpi-
cius Severus, desired martyrdom with more eagerness
than his own contemporaries solicited a bishopric."
The epistles which Ignatius composed as he was car-
ried in chains through the cities of Asia, breathe
sentiments the most repugnant to the ordinary feel-
ings of human nature. He earnestly beseeches the
Romans, that when he should be exposed in the
amphitheatre, they would not, by their kind but
unseasonable intercession, deprive him of the crown
of glory; and he declares his resolution to provoke
and irritate the wild beasts which might be employed
as the instruments of his death." Some stories are
related of the courage of martyrs, who actually per-
formed what Ignatius had intended; who exasperated
the fury of the lions, pressed the executioner to hasten
his office, cheerfully leaped into the fires which were
kindled to consume them, and discovered a sensation
of joy and pleasure in the midst of the most exquisite
tortures. Several examples have been preserved of a
zeal impatient of those restraints which the emperors
had provided for the security of the church. The
Christians sometimes supplied by their voluntary de-
claration the want of an accuser, rudely disturbed the
public service of Paganism,” and rushing in crowds
round the tribunal of the magistrates, called upon them
to pronounce and to inflict the sentence of the law.
The behaviour of the Christians was too remarkable to
* Certatim gloriosa in certamina ruebatur; multique avidius tum martyria
gloriosis mortibus quaerebantur, quam nunc Episcopatus pravis ambitionibus
appetuntur. Sulpicius Severus, l. ii. He might have omitted the word nunc.
* See Epist. ad Roman. c. 4, 5, ap. Patres Apostol. tom. ii. p. 27. It suited
the purpose of Bishop Pearson (see Vindicia. Ignatianae, partii. c. 9) to justify,
by a profusion of examples and authorities, the sentiments of Ignatius.
P The story of Polyeuctes, on which Corneille has founded a very beautiful
tragedy, is one of the most celebrated, though not perhaps the most authentic,
instances of this excessive zeal. We should observe that the 60th canon of the

council of Illiberis refuses the title of martyrs to those who exposed themselves to death, by publicly destroying the idols.

escape the notice of the ancient philosophers; but CHAP.

they seem to have considered it with much less admiration than astonishment. Incapable of conceiving the motives which sometimes transported the fortitude of believers beyond the bounds of prudence or reason, they treated such an eagerness to die as

the strange result of obstinate despair, of stupid in-,

sensibility, or of superstitious phrensy." “Unhappy men l’exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the Christians of Asia; “unhappy men l if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?” He was extremely cautious (as it is observed by a learned and pious historian) of punishing men who had found no accusers but themselves, the imperial laws not having made any provision for so unexpected a case : condemning therefore a few, as a warning to their brethren, he dismissed the multitude with indignation and contempt." Notwithstanding this real or affected disdain, the intrepid constancy of the faithful was productive of more salutary effects on those minds which nature or grace had disposed for the easy reception of religious truth. On these melancholy occasions, there were many among the Gentiles who pitied, who admired, and who were converted. The generous enthusiasm was communicated from the sufferer to the spectators; and the blood of martyrs, according to a well-known observation, became the seed of the church.

XVI.

But although devotion had raised, and eloquence Gradual

continued to inflame, this fever of the mind, it in

* See Epictetus, l. iv. c. 7 (though there is some doubt whether he alludes to the Christians); Marcus Antoninus de Rebus suis, l. xi. c. 3; Lucian in Peregrin. * Tertullian ad Scapul. c. 5. The learned are divided between three persons of the same name, who were all proconsuls of Asia. I am inclined to ascribe this story to Antoninus Pius, who was afterwards emperor; and who may have governed Asia, under the reign of Trajan. * Mosheim, de Rebus Christ. ante Constantin. p. 235.

relaxation.

CHAP.
XVI.

Three methods of escaping martyrdom.

sensibly gave way to the more natural hopes and
fears of the human heart, to the love of life, the ap-
prehension of pain, and the horror of dissolution. The
more prudent rulers of the church found themselves
obliged to restrain the indiscreet ardour of their fol-
lowers, and to distrust a constancy which too often
abandoned them in the hour of trial." As the lives
of the faithful became less mortified and austere,
they were every day less ambitious of the honours of
martyrdom; and the soldiers of Christ, instead of
distinguishing themselves by voluntary deeds of he-
roism, frequently deserted their post, and fled in con-
fusion before the enemy whom it was their duty
to resist. There were three methods, however, of
escaping the flames of persecution, which were not
attended with an equal degree of guilt: the first
indeed was generally allowed to be innocent; the
second was of a doubtful, or at least of a venial,
nature; but the third implied a direct and criminal
apostasy from the Christian faith.
I. A modern inquisitor would hear with surprise,
that whenever an information was given to a Roman
magistrate, of any person within his jurisdiction who
had embraced the sect of the Christians, the charge
was communicated to the party accused, and that

a convenient time was allowed him to settle his do

mestic concerns, and to prepare an answer to the crime which was imputed to him." If he entertained any doubt of his own constancy, such a delay af. forded him the opportunity of preserving his life and honour by flight, of withdrawing himself into some

obscure retirement or some distant province, and of patiently expecting the return of peace and security. CHAP.

* See the Epistle of the Church of Smyrna, ap. Euseb. Hist. Eccles. l. iv. c. 15.

* In the second apology of Justin, there is a particular and very curious instance of this legal delay. The same indulgence was granted to accused Christians in the persecution of Decius: and Cyprian (de Lapsis) expressly mentions the “Dies negantibus praestitutus.”

A measure so consonant to reason was soon authorized by the advice and example of the most holy prelates; and seems to have been censured by few, except by the Montanists, who deviated into heresy by their strict and obstinate adherence to the rigour of ancient discipline.” II. The provincial governors, whose zeal was less prevalent than their avarice, had countenanced the practice of selling certificates (or libels as they were called), which attested, that the persons therein mentioned had complied with the laws, and sacrificed to the Roman deities. By producing these false declarations, the opulent and timid Christians were enabled to silence the malice of an informer, and to reconcile in some measure their safety with their religion. A slight penance atoned for this profane dissimulation." III. In every persecution there were great numbers of unworthy Christians, who publicly disowned or renounced the faith which they had professed; and who confirmed the sincerity of their abjuration by the legal acts of burning incense or of offering sacrifices. Some of these apostates had yielded on the first menace or exhortation of the magistrate; whilst the patience of others had been subdued by the length and repetition of tortures. The affrighted countenances of some betrayed their inward remorse, while others advanced with confidence and alacrity to the altars of the gods.” But the disguise, which fear had im

* Tertullian considers flight from persecution as an imperfect, but very criminal, apostasy, as an impious attempt to elude the will of God, &c. &c. He has written a treatise on this subject (see p. 536—544. Edit. Rigalt.), which is filled with the wildest fanaticism and the most incoherent declamation. It is, however, somewhat remarkable, that Tertullian did not suffer martyrdom himself.

* The Libellatici, who are chiefly known by the writings of Cyprian, are described with the utmost precision in the copious commentary of Mosheim, p. 483—489.

* Plin. Epistol. x. 97. Dionysius Alexandrin, ap. Euseb. 1. vi. c. 41. Ad prima statim verba minantis inimici maximus fratrum numerus fidem suam

[ocr errors]

posed, subsisted no longer than the present danger. As soon as the severity of the persecution was abated, the doors of the churches were assailed by the returning multitude of penitents, who detested their idolatrous submission, and who solicited with equal ardour, but with various success, their re-admission into the society of Christians.” IV. Notwithstanding the general rules established for the conviction and punishment of the Christians, the fate of those sectaries, in an extensive and arbitrary government, must still, in a great measure, have depended on their own behaviour, the circumstances of the times, and the temper of their supreme as well as subordinate rulers. Zeal might sometimes provoke, and prudence might sometimes avert or assuage, the superstitious fury of the Pagans. A variety of motives might dispose the provincial governors either to enforce or to relax the execution of the laws; and of these motives the most forcible was their regard not only for the public edicts, but for the secret intentions of the emperor, a glance from whose eye was sufficient to kindle or to extinguish the flames of persecution. As often as any occasional severities were exercised in the different parts of the empire, the primitive Christians lamented and perhaps magnified their own sufferings; but the celebrated number of ten persecutions has been determined by the ecclesiastical writers of the fifth century, who possessed a more distinct view of the prosperous or adverse fortunes of the church, from the age of Nero to that of Diocletian. The ingenious parallels of the ten plagues of Egypt, prodidit: nec prostratus est persecutionis impetu, sed voluntario lapsu seipsum prostravit. Cyprian. Opera, p. 89. Among these deserters were many priests, and even bishops. y It was on this occasion that Cyprian wrote his treatise De Lapsis, and many of his epistles. The controversy concerning the treatment of penitent apostates does not occur among the Christians of the preceding century. Shall

CHAP.
XVI.

Alterna

tives of severity and toleration.

The ten

persecutions.

we ascribe this to the superiority of their faith and courage, or to our less intimate knowledge of their history?

« ForrigeFortsett »