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main an undoubted fact, that the barbarians of Scythia and Germany, who afterward subverted the Roman monarchy, were involved in the darkness of Paganism; and that even the conversion of Iberia, of Armenia, or of Ethiopia, was not attempted with any degree of success till the sceptre was in the hands of an orthodox emperor/ Before that time, the various accidents of war and commerce might indeed diffuse an imperfect knowledge of the gospel among the tribes of Caledonia,' and among the borderers of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates.1 Beyond the last-mentioned river, Edessa was distinguished by a firm and early adherence to the faith." From Edessa the principles of Christianity were easily introduced into the Greek and Syrian cities which obeyed the successors of Artaxerxes; but they do not appear to have made any deep impression on the minds of the Persians, whose religious system, by the labours of a welldisciplined order of priests, had been constructed with much more art and solidity than the uncertain mythology of Greece and Rome.1
General From this impartial though imperfect survey of chTM0n of ^e progress of Christianity, it may perhaps tians and seem probable, that the number of its proselytes has been excessively magnified by fear on the one side, and by devotion on the other. According to the irreproachable testimony of Origen,T the proportion of the faithful was very inconsiderable, when compared with the multitude of an unbelieving world; but, as we are left without any distinct information, it is impossible to determine, and it is difficult even to conjecture, the real numbers of the primitive Christians. The most favourable calculation, however, that can be deduced from the examples of Antioch and of Rome, will not permit us to imagine that more than a twentieth part of the subjects of the empire had enlisted themselves under the banner of the cross before the important conversion of Constantine. But their habits of faith, of zeal, and of union, seemed to multiply their numbers; and the same causes which contributed to their future increase served to render their actual strength more apparent and more formidable.
'See the fourth century of Mosheim's History of the Church. Many though very confused circumstances, that relate to the conversion of Iberia and Armenia, may be found in Moses of Chorene, lib. 2,c. 78—89.
• According to Tertullian, the Christian faith had penetrated into parts of Britain inaccessible to the Roman arms. About a century afterward, Ossian the Son of Fingal, is said to have disputed, in his extreme old age, with one of the foreign missionaries; and the dispute is still extant, in verse, and in the Erse language. See Mr. Macpherson's Dissertation on the Antiquity of Ossian's Poems, p. 10.
i The Goths, who ravished Asia in the reign of Gallienus, carried away great numbers of captives, some of whom were Christians, and became missionaries. See Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiast. torn. 4. p. 44.
iI The legend of Abgarus, fabulous as it is, affords a decisive proof that many years before Eusebius wrote his history, the greatest part of the inhabitants of Edessa had embraced Christianity. Their rivals, the citizens of Carrhae, adhered, on the contrary, to the cause of Paganism, as late as the sixth century.
* According to Bardesanes, (ap. Euseb. Prapar. Evangel.) there were some Christians in Persia before the end of the second century. In the time of Constantine, (see his Epistle to Sapor. \ it. lib. 4. c. 13.) they composed a flourishing church. Consult Beausobre, Hist. Critique du Manicheisme, tom. 1. p. 180. ana 11.« Bibliotheca Orientalis of Assemani.
whether Such is the constitution of civil society, that whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance, and poverty. The Christian religion, which addressed itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater number of proselytes from the lower than from the superior ranks of life.
This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved into a very odious imputation, which seems to be less strenuously denied by the apologists, than it is urged by the adversaries, of the faith; that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to which they belonged. These obscure teachers (such was the charge of malice and in fidelity) are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds, whom their age, their sex, or their education, was the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors.1
1 Origen contra Cclsum, lib. 8. p. 424.
Some ex- This unfavourable picture, though not devoid ceptions of a famt resemblance, betrays, by its dark co
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pad to louring and distorted features, the pencil of an nim8' enemy. As the humble faith of Christ diffused itself through the world, it was embraced by several persons who derived some consequence from the advantages of nature or fortune. Aristides, who presented an eloquent apology to the emperor Hadrian, was an Athenian philosopher." Justin Martyr had sought divine knowledge in the schools of Zeno, of Aristotle, of Pythagoras, and of Plato, before he fortunately was accosted by the old man, or rather the angel, who turned his attention to the study of the Jewish prophets.6 Clemens of Alexandria had acquired much various reading in the Greek, and Tertullian in the Latin, language. Julius Africanus and Origen possessed a very considerable share of the learning of their times; and although the style of Cyprian is very different from that of Lactantius, we might almost discover that both those writers had been public teachers of rhetoric. Even the study of philosophy was at length introduced among the Christians, but it was not always productive of the most salutary effects; knowledge was as often the parent of heresy as of devotion; and the description which was designed for the followers of Artemon may, with equal propriety, be applied to the various sects that resisted the successors of the apostles. They presume to alter the Holy Scriptures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their opinions according to the subtile precepts of logic. The science of the church is neglected for the study of geometry, and they lose sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth. Euclid is perpetually in their hands. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the objects of their admiration; and they express an uncommon reverence for the works of Galen. Their errors are derived from the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels; and they corrupt the simplicity of the gospel by the refinements of human reason.1 with re- Nor can it be affirmed with truth, that the adrank and vantages of birth and fortune were always sepafortnne- rated from the profession of Christianity. Several Roman citizens were brought before the tribunal of Pliny, and he soon discovered that a great number of persons of every order of men in Bithynia had deserted the religion of their ancestors.*1 His unsuspected testimony may, in this instance, obtain more credit than the bold challenge of Tertullian, when he addresses himself to the fears as well as to the humanity of the proconsul of Africa, by assuring him, that if he persists in his cruel intentions, he must decimate Carthage, and that he will find among the guilty many persons of his own rank, senators and matrons of noblest extraction, and the friends or relations of his most intimate friends." It appears, however, that about forty years afterward the emperor Valerian was persuaded of the truth of this assertion, since, in one of his rescripts, he evidently supposes, that senators, Roman knights, and ladies of quality, were engaged in the Christian sect/ The church still continued to increase its outward splendour as it lost its internal purity; and in the reign of Diocletian, the palace, the courts of justice, and even the army, concealed a multitude of Christians, who endeavoured to reconcile the interests of the present with those of a future life.
1 Minm-ins Fcelix, c. 8. with Wowerus's notes. Celsua aii. Origen. lib. 3. p. 138—142. Juliim ap. Cyril. lib. (.. p. 206. Edit. Spanhmrn. * Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 4. 3. Hieronyrn. Epist. 83.
* The story is prettily told in Justin's Dialogues. Tillemont, (Mern. Ecelemi*. tom. t, p. 324.) who relates it after him, is sure that the old man was a disguised angel.
c Eusebius, 5. 28, It may be hoped that none, except the heretics, gave occasion to the complaint of Census, (ap. Origen. lib. 2. p. 77.) that the Christians "were perpetually correcting and altering their gospels.
'1'lin. Epist . 10. 97. Fuenrnt aJii similis atnuntiir, cius Romani.... Multi i rum omni s aetati s omnis ardinis, utriusque sexus, etiam vocantur in periculum et vocatrantur.
- * Tertullian ad Scapularn. Yet even his rhetoric rises no higher than to claim a tenth part of Carthage. 'Cyprian, Epist. 79.
And yet these exceptions are either too few in
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ity most number, or too recent in time, entirely to remove abiy"e- the imputation of ignorance and obscurity which thepoor7 has keen so arrogantly cast on the first proselytes »?"* of Christianity. Instead of employing in our defence the fictions of later ages, it will be more prudent to convert the occasion of scandal into a subject of edification. Our serious thoughts will suggest to us, that the apostles themselves were chosen by Providence among the fishermen of Galilee, and that the lower we depress the temporal condition of the first Christians, the more reason we shall find to admire their merit and success. It is incumbent on us diligently to remember, that the kingdom of heaven was promised to the poor in spirit, and that the minds afflicted by calamity and the contempt of mankind cheerfully listen to the divine promise of future happiness; while, on the contrary, the fortunate are satisfied with the possession of this world; and the wise abuse in doubt and dispute their vain superiority of reason and knowledge.
We stand in need of such reflections to comfort by some us for the loss of some illustrious characters,
which in our eyes might have seemed the most the first worthy of the heavenly present. The names of second Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of
Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human nature. They filled with glory their respective stations, either in active or contemplative life; their excellent understandings were improved by study; philosophy had purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular superstition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth, and the practice of virtue. Yet all these. sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern).