« EelmineJätka »
lution. The rage and insolence of a brutal populace, the scourges and tortures of legal barbarity, and the more subtle torment of promises and entreaties to save their lives by compliance in idolatrous rites, were the portion of innumerable disciples of Christ. The Jews had been the earliest enemies of the Christian faith ; but their hatred was soon forgotten, in the persecutions which, for three centuries, were inflicted by the Roman emperors.
To Nero, a tyrant whose name became proverbial, even with the heathen, for all that was abominable in impurity and fearful in cruelty, belongs the evil pre-eminence of being the first great persecutor of the
Church. Accused by the popular rumour of A.D. 64-68.
having caused a dreadful fire, which had nearly consumed Rome, in order that he might have the honour of rebuilding it with greater magnificence, Nero expended large sums of money in conciliating the populace, in adorning the city, and in sacrifices to his gods. “But,” adds the heathen historian Tacitus, “neither human assistance, nor the gifts of the emperor, nor the atonements offered to the gods, avail. ed : the infamy of that horrible transaction still adhered to him. To repress, if possible, this common rumour, Nero procured others to be accused, and punished with exquisite tortures a race of men detested for their evil practices, who were commonly known by the name of Christians. The author of that sect was Christus, who, in the rein of Tiberius, was punished with death, as a criminal, by the procurator Pontius Pilate. But this pestilent superstition, though checked for a while, broke out afresh, not only in Judæa, where the evil first originated, but even in the city (Rome,) the common sink in. to which every thing filthy and abominable flows from all quarters of the world. At first, those only were apprehended who confessed themselves of that sect; afterwards, a vast multitude discovered by them ; all of whom were condemned, not so much for the crime of burning the city, as for their en. mity to mankind. Their executions were so contrived as to expose them to derision and contempt. Some were covered
over with the skins of wild beasts, that they might be torn to pieces by dogs; some were crucified; while others, having been daubed over with combustible materials, were set up as lights in the night-time, and thus burned to death. For these spectacles, Nero gave his own gardens; and at the same time exhibited there the diversions of the circus; sometimes standing in the crowd as a spectator, in the habit of a charioteer, and at other times driving a chariot himself : until at length these men, though really criminal, and deserving ex. emplary punishment, began to be commiserated as people who were destroyed, not out of regard to the public welfare, but only to gratify the cruelty of one man.”
Such was the dreadful commencement of persecution ; such the torments under which Christians steadfastly continued in their profession of Christ. The heathen regarded this stead. fastness as obstinacy and insanity. The rejection of all the gods of the heathen, and all their worship, was stigmatised as atheism and impiety. Abstinence from the vices, the corruptions, and the vile pleasures of the world, was treated as the result of a sour and unsocial temper. But though “hated of all men” for the name of Christ, true religion only multiplied and increased under persecution. St. Paul was at this time beheaded at Rome, and St. Peter was crucified with his head downwards. The next persecution was under Domitian, dur.
A.D. 93. ing which the apostle John was immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil, at Rome, and miraculously escaping without hurt, was banished to the isle of Patmos, where he beheld the visions of the Apocalypse; and from whence he went to Ephesus, and presided over the Churches of Asia. The reigns of Trajan, Aurelius, Severus, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian, and Maximian, were also stained by persecutions of the Christians. The last of these was also the most se. vere; it continued for ten successsive years, during which innumerable martyrs attested their belief in Jesus Christ.
I shall select, as an illustration of the faith of Christians
under persecution, the following account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, who had been made bishop of Smyrna by the apostles, and was a disciple of St. John. The epistle of the Church of Smyrna, in which it occurs, and which was written A.D. 167,* commences as follows :
“ The Church of God which is at Smyrna, to that which is at Philomelium,f and to all the Churches of the Holy Catholic Church in all parts, mercy, peace, and love, be multiplied from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ." Having described the constancy of mind with which many of the martyrs in that city had borne the most dreadful tor. tures, they proceed thus :—" The admirable Polycarp, when he first heard of these things, remained undisturbed, preserving his calmness and serenity; and he had resolved to remain in the city, but being persuaded by the entreaties and prayers of his friends, he retired to a village not far off, where he continued with a few others, occupied day and night only in continual prayer, supplicating and beseeching peace for the Churches throughout the world ; for this was his continual habit. And, as he was praying, he saw a vision, three days before he was taken; and behold the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Whereupon, turning to those who were with him, he said, prophetically, that he should be . burnt alive.” He was at length discovered by the persecutors, - “ Arriving in the evening, they found him resting in an upper chamber, whence he might have escaped with ease into another house, but he would not, saying, “The will of the Lord be done;' and, having heard of their arrival, he went down and spoke to them with so joyful and mild a countenance, that they who knew him not before thought they beheld somewhat wonderful, when they saw his old age, and the gravity and constancy of his demeanour, and they mar
*[Rather, as Mr. Greswell (Suppl. Diss. on Harm. of Gosp. Vol. IV.) has satisfactorily proved, A.D. 164.-Am. Ed.]
[Another copy has “ at Philadelphia :" the epistle was no doubt a cir. cular, addressed to several neighbouring or cognate Churches.-Am. ED.]
velled why suchi diligence was used to take an aged man like this. He immediately offered to them refreshment, and requested permission from them to pray in freedom for one hour; which being granted, he arose and prayed, being so full of the grace of God, that those who were present, and heard him pray, were amazed, and many of them repented that they had taken só venerable and holy a man.
“ When he had ceased his prayer, in which he made men. tion of all whom he had ever known, whether small or great, eminent or obscure, and of all the Catholic Church throughout the world; the hour of departure being come, he was placed on an ass, and brought into the city, that being the great Sabbath. Here the Irenarch Herod, and his father Ni. cetas, met him, who placed him in their chariot; and seated beside him, persuaded him, saying, “What is tħe harm to say, Lord Cæsar, and to sacrifice, and so to save your life ?' And he at first answered them not; but when they continued, he said, “ I will not do what you counsel me.' Then hav. ing failed to persuade him, they uttered reproaches, and threw him violently down, so that in falling from the chariot he hurt his thigh-bone. Unmoved, as if he had not thus suffered, he went with alacrity and speed to the amphitheatre, whither he was led. And when the tumult there was so great that few could hear, a voice from heaven came to Polycarp, as he entered the amphitheatre, “Be strong, and quit thee like a man, Polycarp.' No one beheld the speaker, but many of us heard the voice.
“ When, therefore, he was brought forth, there was a great tumult among those who heard that he was taken. Moreover, the proconsul asked, as he approached, if he were Polycarp ? and when he had assented, he persuaded him to deny (Christ,) saying, “Have pity on thine old age,' and such other things as are customary with them; as, “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent ; say, Away with the godless!' (Christians.) Then Polycarp, looking constantly on all the crowd in the amphitheatre, stretching forth his hand toward
them, groaning, and looking up to heaven, said, “Away with the godless! But when the proconsul pressed him, and said, Swear, and I will release thee-reproach Christ;' Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years do I serve him, and never hath he injured me; and how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour ?
When the proconsul continued to urge him, saying, “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar;' Polycarp saith, . Since thou art so vainly urgent that I should swear by the fortune of Cæsar, and feignest not to know what I am, hear me declare it with boldness, I am a Christian. If thou desirest to hear the reasons for our faith, grant me a day, and hear them.' The proconsul said, “Persuade the people.' Polycarp replied, Thee 1 have thought worthy to hear the reasons for our faith, for we are taught to render unto pow. ers and authorities constituted of God the honour which is fitting, and which is not injurious to us; but for these (people,) I have not thought them worthy to hear my
defence.' The proconsul said, “I have wild beasts, and will cast thee unto them, except thou repentest.' He replied, "Call them; I cannot change from good to evil; it is good to change from sin to righteousness. The proconsul, 'I will cause thee to be devoured by fire, since thou despisest the beasts, unless thou repentest.' Polycarp, • Thou threatenest fire which burneth but for a time and is then extinguished, for thou knowest not the fire of future judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the wicked. But why tarriest thou ? Bring what thou wilt.' Having said this, and much more, he was filled with courage and joy, and his countenance was full of grace; so that not only he failed not with terror at what was said unto him, but the proconsul was amazed, and sent his crier to proclaim thrice in the midst of the amphitheatre, Polycarp has confessed himself a Christian.'
“When this was proclaimed, all the crowd of Gentiles and Jews at Smyrna cried aloud, with irrepressible fury, "This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the de. stroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or to