CHRISTIANITY NO PERSECUTOR. REV. JOHN HARRIS, D.D.

The ecclesiastical bigotry and persecution by which the history of the Christian church is disgraced, constitutes the source whence the sceptic derives his strongest objection to Christianity, and forms, according to his insinuation, the sum and substance of its annals. Having gratuitously asserted, and ostentatiously displayed, the mild and tolerant nature of ancient heathenism, he places it in invidious contrast with the contentions and persecutions which from age to age have stained the Christian name ; and then proclaims, as by sound of trumpet, the superior spirit of the former, and denounces the latter as a convicted criminal and a curse.

Now, as this is the chief, if not even the only point of superiority to the Gospel which the advocates of ancient polytheism claim for it, as the impression of its truth, by incessant repetition, is so general that even a Bacon is found unguardedly stating that " the quarrels and division about religion were evils unknown to the heathen," and as the supposed tendency of the Gospel to produce dissensions has created perhaps stronger prejudices against it than all the other cavils

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of infidelity combined, we propose to offer a few warning and corrective remarks.

1. Even allowing that the theory of the tolerant spirit of ancient heathenism had ever been carried into practice, it could not have been accounted a virtue. For if polytheism allowed the unlimited reception of new divinities, the admission of an additional god to the Olympian synod was not the tolerance of a new religion, but only a step towards the completion of that which already existed. Nor was there any more

AN ESSAY. 255

ground for praise in such admission than there is in the church of Rome on the canonization of a saint, or in the official act of registering a birth.

2. But the plausible theory of the tolerant spirit of paganism is never known to have been realised in practice. The Athenians allowed no alteration v^hatever in the religion of their ancestors ; and the lives of -^schylus, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, Protagoras, Prodicus, Socrates, and Alcibiades, decided that inno-

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vation in religion was death. The holy or sacred wars among the Grecian states — the sanguinary contests between the respective votaries of the different gods of Egypt — and the cruel extermination of the disciples of every other religion except that of Zoroaster, in Persia, conspire to prove that bigotry is peculiar to no clime, but is indigenous to our fallen nature. As to the vaunted toleration of the Roman government, we learn from Livy that about 430 years before Christ, orders were given to the iEdiles to see " that none except Roman gods were worshipped, nor in any other than the established forms :" and that about 200 years after this edict another was published, to crush certain rites which were obtaining in the city, and which enacted " that no one shall sacrifice on public or sacred ground after new or foreign rites." Indeed the same historian informs us, (b. xxxix. c. 16,) that it had been customary, in all the early ages of the republic, to empower the magistrates " to prevent all foreign worship, to expel its ministers from the forum, the circus, and the city, to search for and burn the religious books, and to abolish every form of sacrifice except the national and established form." Valerius Maximus confirms the testimony of Livy, and records the jealousy with which all foreign religions were prohibited by the Roman republic. Dio Cassius attests

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that the emperors pursued the same policy. Maximus earnestly exhorted Augustus " to hate and punish" all foreign religions, and to compel all men to conform to the national worship. Augustus and his successors literally obeyed the exhortation. Tiberius prohibited

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the Egyptian worship, banished the Jews from Rome, and restrained the worship of the Druids in Gaul. Domitian and Vespasian banished the philosophers from Rome, some of whom were confined in the islands, and others put to death. From all of which it would appear that intolerance was an original law of Rome, that this law was never repealed, and that from time to time it was let loose on the professors of other religions with terrible effect. While the history of France, during the revolution, proclaims that hot as are the fires of persecution which Paganism has often kindled. Atheism has a furnace capable of being heated " seven times hotter ;" that intolerance is inherent in our sinful nature.

3. Not only did persecution exist prior to the intro-

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duction of Christianity, it employed its utmost power for the extinction of the Gospel. " The dragon stood to devour the child as soon as it was born." The infant church was cradled in suffering ; its champions were covered with the scars of conflict ; its members dated from their persecutions. All the instruments of suffering were prepared — all the varied apparatus of torture and death were brought out and arrayed in its path to arrest its progress, and drive it from the earth. Philosophy, descending from that lofty contempt with which she had professed to view the early steps of the Gospel, joined hands with the pagan priesthood, and conferred on the church the unintentional honour of distinguishing it from all other " superstitions," by the superior activity of its deadly hate. Armed with the sword of the civil power, and marching under its banners, 300 years were spent in labouring to crush the Christian church. Yet, during all these ages of persecution, it does not appear that the emperors had occasion to enact any new penal laws. So amply was the ancient armoury of the Roman code stored with the weapons of persecution that they had only to select and to wield them at pleasure. Nor should it be forgotten that the bad pre-eminence of raising persecution from a law to a science was reserved for a pagan.

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AN ESSAY. 257

Julian it was who first taught the theory of persecution, and made it a branch of practical philosophy.

4. If Christianity has practised persecution, she learned the dreadful art from her own personal sufferings at the hands of her pagan tormentors. Long instructed in the maxims of intolerance, and accustomed to the spectacle of persecution, it was hardly possible that Christians should suddenly forget the lessons of their pagan oppressors, or support with perfect equanimity the sudden transition they experienced, from being treated as the " ofFscouring of all things," to becoming the lords of the world. But to the honour of the Christian name be it remembered, that universal toleration was first taught, and taught by one professedly Christian, even at the time of that transition. Constantino, whatever his motives, and however inconsistent his subsequent conduct, enacted, in his edict of Milan, universal toleration, protecting alike pagan and Christian ceremonies.

5. The greatest waste of human life has been oc-

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casioned, not by religion, true or false, but by causes purely political. What ancient empire was not founded in or cemented by blood ? What but war fills the pages of ancient history ? What do we know of Sesostris, but that he led out armies of above 700,000 men, and coloured the Mediterranean with blood ? What do we know of Semiramis, but that she armed three millions for a single war with India, and conducted every other contest on the same gigantic scale ? What do we know of the Assyrian, Median, and Persian monarchies, or of the Grecian and Roman states, but that each had, in every age, its own Aceldama, or field of blood ?

" War," says Machiavel, " ought to be the only study of a prince." While Hobbes, judging from the past, imagines that war is the state of nature. " Political society," says Burke, " has slaughtered upwards of seventy times the number of souls this day on the globe." So that if the quarrels and bloodshed occasioned by a nominal Christianity is to be employed as 17

258 CHRISTIANITY NO PERSECUTOR:

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an argument against the Gospel, the greater evils arising from civil society supply a still stronger argument for returning to a state of savage nature.*

6. Many of the contentions, v^ars, and massacres professedly religious have, in their origin, been really and simply political. The crusades themselves, or, as they v\rere called to serve a purpose, the holy wars, unquestionably originated, not in any reverence for the land they wasted, but in the rapacity and ambition of two of the most turbulent popes that ever filled the pontifical throne. And in the same way, the wars of the league, commonly ascribed to a religious origin, took their rise in the personal resentment and ambitious projects of the leaders of factions and the princes of the blood. Political causes having drawn the sword, a corrupt religion was only employed to poison its edge, that the wound inflicted might be the more difficult to heal.

7. All those persecutions and wars which have professedly originated in religious motives, have been undertaken in direct opposition to the spirit of the Gospel, and are denounced by it. Popery may have been to blame, human nature may have been to blame, (for

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every man has more or less of the priest in his heart, as far as that term is associated with the idea of bigotry,) but the Gospel never. So far from this, it proclaims " peace on earth, good- will towards men." To every individual who would draw a material sword in its defence, its language is, " Put up thy sword again into its place." And if the sword be not quickly sheathed, it flies from the place as from an uncongenial element ; so that in every scene of intolerance, the presence of the Gospel has always been felt like a burden and a restraint. Nor was it till men had succeeded in forgetting or defying it, that persecution felt itself at full liberty to kindle its fires and indulge its hate ; and often, alas ! at such times, the Bible has been the first martyr cast into the flames.

* See that admirable piece of irony by Burke, " A. Vindication of Natural Society."

AN ESSAY. 259

8, In proportion as the Gospel triumphs, persecutions cease, and a spirit of forbearance and charitysucceeds. To take the character of Christianity from

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its stagnant and corrupted form in the middle ages, is as inconsistent as to judge of the mountain stream of the Jordan from an analysis of the bituminous waters of the Dead Sea, in which they are lost. To judge of them fairly, they should be traced to their fountain, and examined in their purity. If ever benevolence was made visible in human form, it was in the person of the Divine Founder of Christianity. In accordance with these representations, excommunication was the earliest, and, for ages, the only weapon the church employed. Though burning with zeal against erroneous opinions, the apostolical fathers, like the apostles themselves, neither authorised nor hinted any severity on the persons of those opposed to them. The only panoply they wore was an armour of character ; their only weapons, the love that attracts, the patience that endures, and the union that gives strength. The victories they achieved were all bloodless — the moral conquest of revolted minds. And now again, after Christianity has, for ages, been overlaid by the accumulated errors and oppressions of the world, it is rising and shaking the mountain weight from its giant breast, and resuming its celestial character. Unlike the Jordan, it is not only pure at its fountain, but is gradually purifying the element of corruption which had neutralised and absorbed it. Like the waters of prophetic

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vision, — its own appropriate type, — it is " going down into the desert and into the sea, to heal the waters. And it shall come to pass, that the waters shall be healed, and every thing shall live whither the river comes."

Wherever the light of the Gospel comes, the spectre of intolerance shrinks and retires from its presence, while the Divine principle of charity lifts up its head and feels reassured. The splendid hope which some entertain, — that the Gospel will ultimately unite the whole Christian church in every article of faith and

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practice, in inward sentiment as well as in outward form, — is only, it is to be feared, a visionary scene ; though the fact that it should be able to awaken such an expectation proclaims abroad its conciliatory spirit. There is, however, an union which its members pray for and its promises secure — an union of affection, which, linking heart to heart, shall leave the judgment free, and which, out of the varying tones of many minds, shall form an harmonious whole.

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