Freethought Archives > G W Foote & J M Wheeler > Crimes of Christianity
WHEN Jesus Christ had disappeared from this world, in what manner it is beside our purpose to discuss, the Jewish sect he had founded continued to assemble at Jerusalem. The infant Church was under the leadership of Simon Peter, and it observed the communistic maxims which Jesus had enjoined. Every member sold his property and paid the proceeds into the common exchequer.
One married couple, however, named Ananias and Sapphira, retained a portion of the price of their estate for their private use. This having come to the knowledge of Peter, he taxed them in succession with their offence, and each fell down dead in his presence. Their corpses were immediately buried by the godly young men who were waiting in the chamber of execution (Acts 5:1-10). No investigation into the affair appears to have been made by the authorities, but had such a thing occurred in an age of coroner's inquests, it is possible that Peter would have met another fate than leaving the world with his head downwards.
Paul's treatment of dissentients was very similar. He smote Elymas (Acts 13:10-11) with blindness as "a child of the devil," and charitably "delivered" Hymenaeus and Alexander "unto Satan" (1 Timothy 1:20), perhaps with the opinion that only the Grand Inquisitor of the Universe could adequately punish them for blasphemy and backsliding.
The other apostles were imbued with the same amiable spirit. Even in the lifetime of their Master they continually disputed who should be greatest, and were only pacified by his informing them that they should all occupy "twelve equal thrones of judgment over Israel" (Mark 9:34).
After the Master's death their differences grew more acrimonious. John, in his Revelation, scowls at Paul and his Gentile following, who "say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9). He denounces the doctrines of Nicolas, [2:6] one of the seven first deacons of the Church, as hateful; and he expresses his detestation of the Laodiceans (Rev. 2:16) by saying that the Almighty would spew them out of his mouth. Paul returns the compliment by "withstanding" Peter for his "dissimulation," (Gal. 2:11-13) and sneering at James and John (Gal. 2:9) as seeming to be pillars, the former of whom retorts that Paul is a "vain man" (James 2:20). Paul vehemently tells the Galatians: "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). Even "the beloved disciple," in his second Epistle, manifests the same persecuting spirit:
"If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds." (2 John 10-11)In the very first century Christianity was split into many petty sects, each denouncing the other as teaching false doctrine. The early Nazarenes, who adhered to the Jewish law, were called Ebionites, or contemptible people. The Ebionites denounced the Paulinists, and declared that Paul was an impostor who became a Christian because he was not allowed to marry a Jewish woman. In an epistle of Peter to James, prefixed to the Clementine Recognitions, and as genuine as any other portion of the writings ascribed to Peter, Paul is alluded to as "the enemy," and the author of lawless and foolish teachings. Of the Recognitions itself, a work ascribed to Clement, alluded to in Philippians 4:3 and undoubtedly belonging to the first era of Christian history, the author of Supernatural Religion says:
"There cannot be a doubt that the Apostle Paul is attacked in this religious romance as the great enemy of the true faith, under the hated name of Simon the Magician, whom Peter follows everywhere for the purpose of unmasking and confuting him. He is robbed of his title of "Apostle of the Gentiles," which, together with the honor of founding the Church of Antioch, of Laodicea, and of Rome, is ascribed to Peter. All that opposition to Paul which is implied in the Epistle to the Galatians and elsewhere (1 Cor. 1:11-12; 2 Cor. 11:13-20; Philip. 1:15,16) is here realised and exaggerated, and the personal difference with Peter to which Paul refers is widened into the most bitter animosity." (Vol II, p.34.)Irenaeus, in the second century, in his work against Heretics, stigmatises them with the most abusive epithets, and accuses them of the most abominable crimes. He calls them "thieves and robbers," "slippery serpents," "miserable little foxes," and so forth, and declares that they practise lewdness in their assemblies.
Tertullian, in the third century, displays a full measure of bigotry, with an added sense of exultation over the sufferings in reserve for his pagan opponents.
"What a city in the new Jerusalem! For it will not be without its games; it will have the final and eternal day of judgment, which the Gentiles now treat with unbelief and scorn, when so vast a series of ages, with all their productions, will be hurled into one absorbing fire. How magnificent the scale of that game! With what admiration, what laughter, what glee, what triumph shall I perceive so many mighty monarchs, who had been given out as received into the skies, even Jove himself and his votaries, moaning in unfathomable gloom. The governors too, persecutors of the Christian name, cast into fiercer torments than they had devised against the faithful, and liquefying amid shooting spires of flame! And those sage philosophers, who had deprived the Deity of his offices, and questioned the existence of a soul, or denied its future union with the body, meeting again with their disciples only to blush before them in those ruddy fires! Not to forget the poets, trembling, not before the tribunal of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but at the unexpected bar of Christ! Then is the time to hear tragedians, doubly pathetic now that they bewail their own agonies; to observe the actors, released by the fierce elements from all restraint upon their gestures; to admire the charioteer, glowing all over on the car of torture; to watch the wrestlers, thrust into the struggles, not of the gymnasium, but of the flames." [4:6]
The pious Father adds that, by the imaginative power of faith, he enjoys a foretaste of this moving spectacle, and flatters himself that such scenes "will be more grateful than the circus, the stadium, or the stage-box itself." This exultant rhetorician expressed the general feeling of the Christian world, in which he enjoyed a superlative reputation.
Jerome, in the next century, exhibits a still more execrable spirit than Tertullian, exhorting the Christians to direct their bigotry against their dearest relations:
"If thy father lies down across thy threshold, if thy mother uncovers to thine eyes the bosom which suckled thee, trample on thy father's lifeless body, trample on thy mother's bosom, and, with eyes unmoistened and dry, fly to the Lord, who calleth thee." [4:7]Unfortunately this detestable advice did not flow from Jerome's natural moroseness; it was the logical result of his Savior's command to the disciples to leave all and follow him. [4:8]
The scope of our work does not permit a larger array of illustrations. We have, however, given enough to show that the hateful spirit of bigotry and persecution animated the Christian Church from the beginning. It gathered strength with the progress of time, and it was sufficiently developed, when Constantine and Theodosius sought the destruction of Paganism, to assist and applaud them in executing their design.
Our contention in this respect is powerfully supported by the following passage from Lecky:
"All that fierce hatred which, during, the Arian and Donatist controversies convulsed the Empire, and which in later times has deluged the world with blood, may be traced in the Church long before the conversion of Constantine. Already, in the second century, it was the rule that the orthodox Christian should hold no conversation, should interchange none of the ordinary courtesies of life with the excommunicated or the heretic." [5:9]
Long before Constantine, the Christian Church had employed all its resources against heretics. It possessed no power of punishing them by fines, torture or death, but it threatened them with hell in the next world and excommunicated them in this. "Heretics," says Dr. Gieseler, [5:1] "were universally hated as men wholly corrupt and lost," and the Church pronounced against them her sharpest penalties. These were indeed merely spiritual, but they were transformed into temporal punishments as soon as Christianity was able to effect the change. We shall have to treat this subject more fully when we deal with the rise of the Papacy.
Before exhibiting to our readers the first capital crime of Christianity, in establishing itself by the unscrupulous use of force on the ruins of Paganism, we think it necessary to refer to the Agape or Love-feasts, which appear to have disgraced the early Church. Even in the time of Paul the celebration of the Eucharist was the occasion of some scandal. [5:2] We learn from Justin Martyr, Minutius Felix and others, that the Pagans accused the Christians of indulging in orgies of gross licentiousness in their secret festivals, which were held at night. Justin Martyr, while repudiating the charge on behalf of the orthodox, was careful to add of the heretics: "Whether or not these people commit those shameful and fabulous acts - the putting out the lights, indulging in promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh - I know not." [5:3] Theodoret, in his work on Heretic Fables, charges them all with lewdness, "such that even stage-players were too modest to describe it, or hear it described," and he asserts that they had exceeded and eclipsed the greatest proficients in wickedness. [6:4] Clement of Alexandria says that "Carpocrates and Euphrates maintained the community of women," and adds, "of these and others of like sentiments, it is said, that they have a supper (for I cannot call it a love-feast), where men and women meet, and, having eaten plentifully, the candles are put out, and they mix together promiscuously." [6:5] Eusebius also says that the Carpocratians gave occasion of reproach to the Gospel, and that it was chiefly owing to them that Christians were charged with promiscuous lewdness and other crimes in their assemblies. Origen also puts the crimes with which Christians were charged to the account of the Ophites and Cainites. Yet the evidence of Justin Martyr proves that such charges were brought against the Christians before these sects existed. Tertullian, indeed, after becoming a Montanist, divulged the fact that in the Church which he had before so zealously defended the young men lay with their sisters in the Agape, and wallowed in wantonness and luxury. [6:6] Such accusations were made by those who had been Christians themselves, in places as far apart as Lyons, Rome, and Asia Minor. Trials took place before competent tribunals, and the Christians were punished. When we know that the Agape were prohibited by several councils because of the scandals to which they gave rise, it is difficult to exonerate the early Christians from these grave charges. Much of the persecution to which they are alleged to have been subject by the best and wisest emperors, probably arose from these secret midnight meetings. [6:7]
It is certain that the sensuality of the early Christians frequently mocked their ascetic doctrines. Gibbon remarks:
Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to the divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals; but the primitive Church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity. A few of these, among whom we may reckon the learned Origen, [7:8] judged it the most prudent to disarm the tempter. Some were sensible and some were invincible against the assaults of the flesh. Disdaining an ignominious flight, the virgins of the warm climate of Africa encountered the enemy in the closest engagement; they permitted priests and deacons to share their bed, and gloried amidst the flames in their unsullied purity. But insulted Nature sometimes vindicated her rights, and this new species of martyrdom served only to introduce a new scandal into the Church." [7:9]
Following Gibbon, Mr. Lecky pens this delectable passage, which may be commended to the attention of the "unco guid":
"In the time of St. Cyprian, before the outbreak of the Decian persecution, it had been common to find clergy professing celibacy, but keeping, under various pretexts, their mistresses in their houses; and after Constantine, the complaints on this subject became loud and general. Evagrius describes with much admiration how certain monks of Palestine, by 'a life wholly excellent and divine, had so overcome their passions that they were accustomed to bathe with women.' Virgins and monks often lived together in the same house, and, with a curious audacity of hypocrisy, which is very frequently noticed, they professed to have so overcome the passions of their nature that they shared in chastity the same bed." [7:1]Subsequent ages exhibited the same curious practice of playing with fire. Dr. Todd, in his learned Life of St. Patrick, quotes from the Lives of the Irish Saints the legend of a curious contest of chastity between St. Scuthinus and St. Brendan, in which the former eventually triumphed. Jortin tells us of one Robert D'Arbrisselles, a wild enthusiast and field preacher of the twelfth century, who "drew after him a crowd of female saints with whom he used to lie in bed, but never touch them, by way of self-denial and mortification." [8:2] The learned and sagacious Jortin remarks that "austerities of this kind seem to suit the fanatical taste." Modern history furnishes us with many examples. During the Reformation, for instance, the Anabaptists emulated the primitive costume of Adam and Eve.
While Christianity was slowly propagating itself among the Gentiles, after the fall of Jerusalem, the Pagan world did not exhibit any striking need of its salutary influence. Under a succession of wise rulers the Roman Empire flourished in peace and splendor. Gibbon justly remarks that:
"If a man were called to fix a period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." [8:3]
Now Domitian died in AD 96, and Commodus succeeded to the purple in AD 180. It was during this very period that Christianity produced its Scriptures, and made its first conquests. How utterly false and absurd, then, is the orthodox plea that Christianity, with all its faults, came to redeem mankind from intellectual darkness and moral depravity!
Lecky observes that from the death of Marcus Aurelius (AD 180), about which time Christianity assumed an important influence in the Roman world, the decadence of the Empire was rapid and almost uninterrupted. How can this fact be accounted for except on the theory that Christianity helped to destroy the existing civilisation? Metaphorically, if not literally, it made men eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven; and the energy which should have been devoted to repelling barbarism and defending the Empire was wasted on frivolous theological disputes or expended in the pursuit of priestly ambition. Even at the time of Julian, vigorous and systematic efforts might still have saved the Empire from dissolution; but the great "Apostate's" glorious career came to an untimely end, and the Persian spear which drew his life-blood ensured the triumph of the pale Galilean and the ruin of Rome.
We now approach the most critical period of the history of Christianity, when, through the patronage of Constantine, it obtained the means of forcing itself upon mankind. Christianity took three centuries to convert a twentieth of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire by the arts of persuasion [9:4]; but it converted the other nineteen-twentieths in less than a century by the unscrupulous use of bribery, imprisonment, torture and massacre.
Hobbes summarises this change quaintly but concisely in a few pregnant lines:
"When Constantine the Great, made so by the assistance and valor of the Christian soldiers, had attained to be the only Roman Emperor, he also himself became a Christian, and caused the temples of the heathen gods to be demolished, and authorised Christian religion only to be public." [9:5]Cardinal Newman expresses the Catholic view of this momentous change with equal clearness and brevity. "Constantine's submission of his power to the Church," he says, "has been a pattern for all Christian monarchs since, and the commencement of her state establishment to this day." [9:6]
Let the reader now follow us in investigating the character of Constantine, his conversion to Christianity, and the forcible imposition of his adopted creed upon his Pagan subjects.
The real founder of Christianity has been the subject of eulogy and reprobation, the former bestowed by the Christians whom he protected and favored, and the latter by the Pagans whom he deserted and oppressed. Our object will be to relate the truth, without extenuating his crimes or setting down aught in malice.
Before appealing to Gibbon, Mosheim, Jortin, Schlegel, and other authorities, we may perhaps venture to give a rapid summary of Constantine's worst characteristics by the master-hand of Voltaire:
"He had a father-in-law, whom he impelled to hang himself; he had a brother-in-law, whom he ordered to be strangled; he had a nephew twelve or thirteen years old, whose throat he ordered to be cut; he had an eldest son, whom he beheaded; he had a wife, whom he ordered to be suffocated in a bath. An old Gallic author said that 'he loved to make a clear house.'" [10:7]
These atrocious crimes were perpetrated after Constantine became a Christian, or at least after he extended his patronage to the Church. Before he embraced or patronised Christianity, his character was less sullied, and he appeared incapable of such enormities. The following is Gibbon's description of Constantine at this period:
"The person, as well as the mind, of Constantine, had been enriched by nature with her choicest endowments. His stature was lofty, his countenance majestic, his deportment graceful; his strength and activity were displayed in every manly exercise, and, from his earliest youth to a very advanced season of life, he preserved the vigor of his constitution by a strict adherance to the domestic virtues of chastity and temperance. He delighted in the social intercourse of familiar conversation; and though he might sometimes indulge his disposition to raillery with less reserve than was required by the severe dignity of his station, the courtesy and liberality of his manners gained the hearts of all who approached him... In the dispatch of business his diligence was indefatigable... In the field he infused his own intrepid spirit into the troops, whom he conducted with the talents of a consummate general." [10:5]
Let us now behold Gibbon's picture of the hero in his decline, after he had presided at Church councils and worshipped the divinity of Christ:
"In the life of Augustus we behold the tyrant of the republic converted almost by imperceptible degrees into the father of his country and of human kind. In that of Constantine we may contemplate a hero, who had so long inspired his subjects with love and his enemies with terror, degenerating into a cruel and dissolute monarch, corrupted by his fortune, or raised by conquest above the necessity of dissimulation. The general peace which he maintained during the last fourteen years of his reign was a period of apparent splendor rather than of real prosperity; and the old age of Constantine was disgraced by the opposite yet reconcilable vices of rapaciousness and prodigality. The accumulated treasures found in the palaces of Maxentius and Licinius were lavishly consumed; the various innovations introduced by the conqueror were attended with an increasing expense; the cost of his buildings, his court and his festivals required an immediate and plentiful supply; and the oppression of the people was the only fund which could support the magnificence of the sovereign. His unworthy favorites, enriched by the boundless liberality of their master, usurped with impunity the privilege of rapine and corruption. A secret but universal decay was felt in every part of the public administration, and the emperor himself, though he still retained the obedience, gradually lost the esteem, of his subjects. The dress and manners which, towards the decline of his life, he chose to affect, served only to degrade him in the eyes of mankind. The Asiatic pomp which had been adopted by the pride of Diocletian assumed an air of softness and effeminacy in the person of Constantine. He is represented with false hair of various colors, laboriously arranged by the skilful artists of the times: a diadem of a new and more expensive fashion; a profusion of gems and pearls, of collars and bracelets; and a variegated flowing robe of silk most curiously embroidered with flowers of gold. In such apparel, scarcely to be excused by the youth and folly of Elagabalus, we are at a loss to discover the wisdom of an aged monarch and the simplicity of a Roman veteran. A mind thus relaxed by prosperity and indulgence was incapable of rising to that magnanimity which disdains suspicion and dares to forgive. The deaths of Maximian and Licinius may perhaps be justified by the maxims of policy as they are taught in the schools of tyrants, but an impartial narrative of the executions, or rather murders, which sullied the declining age of Constantine, will suggest to our most candid thoughts the idea of a prince who could sacrifice, without reluctance, the laws of justice and the feelings of nature to the dictates either of his passions or of his interest." [11:9]
It cannot be doubted that the character of Constantine deteriorated rather than improved under the influence of Christianity. Our greatest master of grave and temperate irony says that -
"He pursued the great object of his ambition through the dark and bloody paths of war and policy; and, after the victory, he abandoned himself, without moderation, to the abuse of his fortune. Instead of asserting his vast superiority above the imperfect heroism and profane philosophy of Trajan and the Antonines, the mature age of Constantine forfeited the reputation which he had acquired in his youth. As he gradually advanced in the knowledge of truth, he proportionally declined in the practice of virtue; and the same year of his reign in which he convened the Council of Nice was polluted by the execution, or rather murder, of his eldest son." [12:1]
This is Gibbon's way of saying that as Constantine became a better Christian he became a worse criminal.
The reader is probably anxious to be informed of the details of these crimes. The father-in-law that Constantine strangled was the Emperor Maximian, whom, in February, AD 310, he defeated and captured at Marseilles. The brother-in-law whom he punished with the same fate was his rival Licinius, who fell into his hands after the siege of Byzantium, in AD 324, and who was secretly executed after being publicly pardoned. The deaths of these relatives may be explained by the rules of statecraft, but no such excuse can be offered with respect to the other victims of Constantine's cruelty. In July, AD 325, he publicly disgraced and privately murdered his eldest son Crispus, for no other crime than his virtues and his reputation. The Caesar Licinius, a nephew of Constantine, was involved in the ruin of Crispus and shared his fate, notwithstanding his youth and amiable manners, and the tears and entreaties of his mother. The first Christian emperor soon afterwards completed the list of his domestic murders by suffocating his wife Fausta in "the steam of a bath, which, for that purpose, had been heated to an extraordinary degree." This unfortunate lady was accused of adultery, and "her condemnation and punishment," says Gibbon, "were the instant consequences of the charge." After the commission of these atrocious crimes, it is no wonder that the people were discontented, and that satirical verses were affixed to Constantine's palace-gate, comparing him with the bloody and ferocious Nero.
If we have mainly relied on Gibbon for our portrait of Constantine, it is only because that greatest of historians was an artist as well as a scholar. Instead of presenting a mass of confused details, he gives us a finished picture; and his accuracy, no less than his skill, is the wonder and admiration of succeeding writers. Although he was himself a disbeliever in Christianity, his treatment of Constantine is "remarkably just, and he is more generous to the first Christian emperor than Niebuhr or Neander." [13:2] A hasty glance at the cruel and sanguinary laws which Constantine introduced into the Roman code will prove that, however zealous for religion, the first Christian emperor showed a scandalous contempt for humanity.
Constantine made a law against the gladiatorial shows, which, however, continued until Honorius suppressed them in AD 403. We may well suspect his sincerity in enacting this law when we remember that during his administration in Gaul, after a signal victory over the Franks, he exposed several of their princes to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre of Treves. He also abolished the cruel punishment of breaking the legs of criminals and branding their faces; and he prohibited crucifixions, probably out of deference to the sentiment of his Christian subjects. But he ordered informers' tongues to be cut out, and molten lead to be poured down the throats of those who connived at the abduction of virgins, the principal offenders being cast to the beasts or burnt alive. "He appointed this punishment," says Jortin, "for various offences. To burn men alive became thenceforward a very common punishment, to the disgrace of Christianity. At last it was thought too cruel for traitors, murderers, poisoners, parricides, etc., and only fit for heretics." [13:3]
Never before, in the history of civilised peoples, had this devilish punishment been inflicted judicially. Tradition or legend affirmed that Phalaris roasted men in a brazen bull, but this was the act of a ferocious tyrant, who tortured men for his sport. It was reserved for the first Christian emperor to deliberately insert this cruelty in the Roman code. The Church in subsequent ages took ample advantage of the opportunity which Constantine created, and remorselessly burnt heretics at the stake for the glory and honor of God.
Constantine's conversion to Christianity has been fixed at various dates. Cardinal Newman rashly asserts that he was converted by his vision of the luminous cross on his march to Rome to attack Maxentius in A.D. 312, and his subsequent victory over the emperor at the Milvian Bridge. But this famous "vision" is merely a myth. It is derived from Eusebius, who in his Life of Constantine, alleges that the emperor, in a private conversation, related to him the following story of this wonderful apparition, which he confirmed with an oath:
"About the middle hours of the day, as the sun began to verge towards its setting, he saw in the heavens, with his own eyes, the sun surmounted with the trophy of the cross, which was composed of light, and had a legend annexed, saying, By this conquer. And amazement seized him and the whole army at the sight, and the beholders wondered as they accompanied him in the march. And he said he was at a loss what to make of this spectre, and as he pondered and reflected upon it long, night came on him by surprise. After this, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him, together with the sign before seen in the heavens, and bade him make a representation of the sign that appeared in the heavens, and to use that as a protection against the onsets of his enemies. And as soon as it was day, he arose, related the wonder to his friends; and then assembling the workers in gold and precious stones, he seated himself in the midst of them, and describing the appearance of the sign, he bade them imitate it in gold and precious stones. This we were once so fortunate as to set our eyes upon." [14:4]
Eusebius then gives a full description of this sacred standard, called the Labarum. The shaft was a long spear, surmounted by a crown of gold, bearing "the mysterious monogram, at once expressive of the figure of the cross and the initial letters of the name of Christ;" and the silken veil, depending from a transverse beam, "was curiously inwrought with the images of the reigning monarch and his children."
According to Voltaire, some authors pretend that Constantine saw this vision at Besançon, others at Cologne, some at Treves, and others at Troyes. Cardinal Newman is silent on the matter, but he allows that there were disputes among early Christian writers whether the apparition was that of the monogram without the cross, or the cross without the monogram.
But more serious difficulties remain. Constantine's "vision" is not mentioned by a single Father of the fourth and fifth centuries, none of whom appears to have been acquainted with the work in which Eusebius relates it. Eusebius himself says nothing about it in his Ecclesiastical History, written twelve years after the event. Why did Eusebius first hear of it in a private conversation with Constantine twenty-five years after it occurred, when it was seen by the whole army as well as by the emperor? And what necessity was there for Constantine to "confirm with an oath" a fact of such publicity?
Gibbon justly remarks that "the nicest accuracy is required in tracing the slow and almost imperceptible gradations by which the monarch declared himself the protector, and at length the proselyte of the Church." It is certain that Constantine continued in the practice of Paganism until his fortieth year. He celebrated his victory over Maxentius at Rome according to the ancient rites; and later still, as Gibbon ironically observes, "He artfully balanced the hopes and fears of his subjects, by publishing in the same year two edicts; the first of which enjoined the solemn observance of Sunday, [15:5] and the second directed the regular consultation of the Auruspices."
Constantine and Licinius, in their edict of Milan (A.D. 313) granted their subjects "the liberty of following whatever religion they please." They expressly included the Christians, but this was probably owing to their having been so recently persecuted by Diocletian.
Relying on the untrustworthy Life of Constantine by Eusebius, Gibbon says that after the defeat of Licinius (A.D. 324) the conqueror "immediately, by circular letters, exhorted all his subjects to imitate, without delay, the example of their sovereign, and to embrace the divine truth of Christianity."
Constantine's presiding at the Council of Nice (A.D. 325) does not prove that he was then a Christian. Zosimus relates that he asked the Pagan priests to absolve him from the guilt of murdering his son, his nephew and his wife, and that on their refusal he embraced the more accommodating creed of their rivals, and cleansed himself in the expiatory blood of Christ. Gibbon considers this an anachronism, but Schlegel says "there is, perhaps, some degree of truth in the story." We need not, however, discuss this point; for the Church, by permitting Constantine to preside at the Council of Nice virtually accepted him as a believer, and stood sponsor for his orthodoxy.
It is likely, nevertheless, that the motives which induced Constantine to protect the Christians, and afterwards to favor them, were such as usually animate the rulers of mankind. He first granted them toleration, as Schlegel remarks, "not from a sense of justice, or from magnanimity, and still less from any attachment to the Christian religion, but from principles of worldly prudence. He wished to attach the Christians to his party." Mosheim conjectures that "the emperor had discernment to see that Christianity possessed great efficacy, and idolatry none at all, to strengthen public authority and to bind citizens to their duty." [16:6] Gibbon expresses the same opinion in his ironical manner. "The throne of the emperor," he says, "would be established on a fixed and permanent basis if all their subjects, embracing the Christian doctrine, should learn to suffer and to obey." Voltaire, in his most impious poem, charges Constantine with making the altars of the Church a convenient footstool to his throne. The Christians, it is true, "still bore a very inadequate proportion to the inhabitants of the empire; but among a degenerate people, who viewed the change of masters with the indifference of slaves, the spirit and union of a religious party might assist the popular leader, to whose service, from a principle of conscience, they had devoted their lives and fortunes." [17:7]
Constantine naturally patronised a religion which inculcated passive obedience to princes, and maintained his divine right to rule according to the principles of despotism. Paganism never lent itself in this manner to the ambition of tyrants; its Olympus was a kind of Republic, and it was always favorable to popular liberty. The literature of Greece and Rome breathed an unquenchable spirit of freedom, which ill suited the policy of an absolute despot in an empire which had lost every vestige of its ancient independence. Constantine had the sagacity to perceive that Christianity was more adapted to his purpose. He patronised it, therefore, not as a philosopher, but as an emperor; and finding that it realised his most sanguine expectations, he eventually decided to impose it upon all his subjects and to extirpate every other faith.
It is a signal illustration of the persecuting spirit which is inherent in all theologies, that the Christian clergy, who had only a few years before bitterly complained of their proscription, joyously assisted Constantine in his suppression of Paganism. Their almost incredible arrogance is proved by the fact that Paganism was still the religion of the vast majority of their fellow subjects. Gibbon's estimate of the number of Christians at this time has never been seriously disputed, and it is passed over in silence by his two Christian editors, Dean Milman and Dr. Smith.
"According to the irreproachable testimony of Origen, 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 favorable 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." [17:8]
What an edifying spectacle to the philosopher! Behold the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus, whose yoke was easy and his burden light, forced by its professors down the throats of their Pagan neighbors, who outnumbered them by nearly twenty to one!
Let us also reflect that Christianity introduced the systematic persecution of heresy and unbelief. Such a principle was entirely foreign to Paganism. The Roman law tolerated every form of religion and every system of philosophy. Its impartiality was so absolute that the Pantheon of the eternal city afforded niches to all the gods of the empire; yet when Tiberius was asked to allow the prosecution of a Roman citizen for blaspheming the deities he replied: "No, let the gods defend their own honor." We do not deny that the Christians were persecuted, although we challenge their exaggerated account of their sufferings. But their partial and occasional persecutions were prompted by political motives. They were regarded as members of a secret society, at once offensive to their Pagan neighbors and dangerous to the State; and although they were sometimes punished, their doctrines were never proscribed. The principle of persecution was first infused into the Roman law by Constantine. According to Renan:
"We may search in vain the whole Roman law before Constantine for a single passage against freedom of thought, and the history of the imperial government furnishes no instance of a prosecution for entertaining an abstract doctrine." [18:9]
Christianity inaugurated a new era of mental slavery. By forcibly suppressing dissent and establishing an Inquisition for detecting heretics, she carried tyranny into the secret recesses of the mind. "She thus," as Draper says, "took a course which determined her whole future career, and she became a stumbling-block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years." [18:1]
Constantine's policy manufactured Christians wholesale, for the masses of such an age were easily seduced or driven. The discreet Mosheim, while not attributing "the extension of Christianity wholly to these causes," allows that "both the fear of punishment and the desire of pleasing the Roman emperors were cogent reasons, in the view of whole nations as well as of individuals, for embracing the Christian religion." [19:2] Jortin likewise remarks that "along with those who were sincere in their profession there came a multitude of hypocrites and nominal Christians." [19:3] Gibbon tells us how the people were bribed:
"The hopes of wealth and honors, the example of an emperor, his exhortations, his irresistible smiles, diffused conviction among the venal and obsequious crowds which usually fill the apartments of a palace. The cities which signalised a forward zeal by the voluntary destruction of their temples were distinguished by municipal privileges and rewarded with popular donatives; and the new capital of the East gloried in the singular advantage that Constantinople was never profaned by the worship of idols. As the lower ranks of society are governed by imitation, the conversion of those who possessed any eminence of birth, of power, or of riches, was soon followed by dependent multitudes. The salvation of the common people was purchased at an easy rate, if it be true that in one year twelve thousand men were baptised at Rome, besides a proportionable number of women and children, and that a white garment, with twenty pieces of gold, had been promised by the emperor to every convert." [19:4]
Concurrently with these bribes, Constantine devoted much of his energy and wealth to increasing the power and splendor of the Church. "He gave to the clergy," says Schlegel, "the former privileges of the Pagan priests, and allowed legacies to be left to the churches, which were everywhere erected and enlarged. He was gratified with seeing the bishops assume great state; for he thought the more respect the bishops commanded, the more inclined the Pagans would be to embrace Christianity." [19:5] Jortin remarks that the Emperor was possessed with the building spirit, and spent immense sums on palaces and churches, which obliged him to burden his people with taxes. [19:6] Gibbon satirically says that "Constantine too easily believed that he should purchase the favor of Heaven if he maintained the idle at the expense of the industrious, and distributed among the saints the wealth of the republic." [20:7] He gave to the bishops the privilege of being tried by their peers, and their episcopal brethren were their judges even when they were charged with a capital crime. He originated the notion that clerical impunity was better than a public scandal, and declared that if he surprised a bishop in the act of adultery, he would cast his imperial mantle over the holy sinner. Montesquieu alleges that Constantine even ordained that, in the legal courts, the single testimony of a bishop should suffice, without hearing other witnesses. [20:8]
Constantine's penal laws in favor of Christianity were still more influential. He condemned those who should speak evil of Christ to lose half their estates. His laws against various heresies may be seen in the Justinian code. So far did he advance in true godliness, under the inspiration of the bishops and clergy, that he issued a decree for the demolition of all heretical temples in the following elegant strain:
"Know ye, Moravians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulinians, and Cataphrygians, that your doctrine is both vain and false. O ye enemies of truth, authors and counsellors of death, ye spread abroad lies, oppress the innocent, and hide from the faithful the light of truth … That your pestilential errors may spread no further, we enact by this law that none of you dare hereafter to meet at your conventicles, nor keep any factious or superstitious meetings, either in public buildings or in private houses, or in secret places; but if any of you have a care for the true religion, let them return to the Catholic Church … And that our careful providence for curing these errors may be effectual, we have commanded that all your superstitious places of meeting, your heretical temples (if I may so call them), shall be, without delay or contradiction, pulled down or confiscated to the Catholic Church." [20:9]Such is the language, and such are the acts, which made Constantine "a pattern to all succeeding monarchs." These oppressive acts were grateful to the Christian clergy; and Eusebius, as Lardner remarks, relates them "with manifest tokens of approbation and satisfaction." [21:1]
The reign of the first Christian Emperor was distracted by the famous Arian controversy. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and his presbyter Arius, had a fierce and bitter dispute about the Trinity, the former contending that the Son was equal, and the latter that he was inferior, to the Father. According to Jortin:
"Alexander wrote a circular letter to all bishops, in which he represented Arius and his partisans as heretics, apostates, blasphemers, enemies of God, full of impudence and impiety, forerunners of Antichrist, imitators of Judas, and men whom it was not lawful to salute or bid God speed." [21:2]
This is merely the language of bigotry, for Sozomen acknowledges that these reprobates were learned, and to all appearance good men. As the quarrel grew inflamed the soldiers and inhabitants joined in it, and much blood was shed in and about the City. Constantine wrote Alexander and Arius a long letter, bidding them be more peaceable. But as the controversy spread through the empire, he at length resolved (A.D. 325) to summon a Council of the Church at Nice, in Bythinia, to determine between them. After much wrangling, which Constantine peremptorily ended, the bishops and ecclesiastics discussed the subject of the Trinity. It was finally resolved by a majority that the Father and the Son were of the same substance, and not of like substance. The famous Nicene Greed was drawn up for subscription, with an addendum declaring that -
"The Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematises those who say there was a time when the Son of God was not, and that before he was begotten he was not, and that he was made out of another substance or essence, and is created or changeable or alterable." [21:3]The Council of Nice only envenomed the dispute, for, as Gibbon observes, the emperor "extinguished the hope of peace and toleration from the moment that he assembled three hundred bishops within the walls of the same palace." Constantine ratified the Nicene Creed, and issued the following edict against the minority:
"Since Arius hath imitated wicked and ungodly men, it is just that he should undergo the same infamy with them. As, therefore, Porphyrius, an enemy of godliness, for his having composed wicked books against Christianity, hath found a fitting recompense in being infamous and having all his impious writings quite destroyed, so also it is now my pleasure that Arius and those of his sentiments shall be called Porphyrians, so that they may have the appellation of those whose manners they have imitated. Moreover, if any book composed by Arius shall be found, it shall be delivered to the fire, that not only his evil doctrine may be destroyed, but that there may not be the least remembrance of it left. This also I enjoin, that if anyone shall be found to have concealed any writing composed by Arius, and shall not immediately bring it and consume it in the fire, death shall be his punishment: for as soon as ever he is taken in this crime, he shall suffer capital punishment. God preserve you." [22:4]
God preserve you! is a fine piece of irony, coming after a menace of death for reading an heretical book. Let it also be noticed that the first great Council of the Christian Church resulted in the first promulgation of the death penalty against heretics. [22:5]
Ten years afterwards Constantine veered round and favored the Arians. He repeatedly commanded Athanasius, the Archbishop of Alexandria, to receive Arius into the Catholic communion, but that extraordinary man refused to comply with the emperor's will. At the Council of Tyre (A.D. 335) an Arian majority condemned Athanasius to degradation and exile for having, as they alleged, whipped or imprisoned six bishops, and murdered or mutilated a seventh; and the great Archbishop found shelter for nearly two years in the Court of Treves.
Meanwhile Arius came to an untimely end. Constantine ordered Alexander, the Athanasian bishop of the capital, to receive the heresiarch into communion on the following Sunday. On the Saturday the bishop fasted and prayed, and in his church he besought God to avert the evil, even by taking Arius away. [23:6] The next day, as Arius was on his way to the church, he entered a house to attend to a call of nature, where, according to Athanasius, his bowels burst out. He was at any rate found dead, and the Athanasians saw a divine judgment in his sudden fate. "But when Alexander's party," says Draper, "proclaimed that his prayer had been answered, they forgot what that prayer must have been, and that the difference is little between praying for the death of a man and compassing it." [23:7]
Gibbon says that "those who press the literal narrative of the death of Arius must make their option between poison and miracle." He evidently inclines to the former choice, and he is followed in this by Draper. Cardinal Newman, however, regards the death of Arius as a Church miracle. "Surely it is not impossible," says Jortin, "that amongst his numerous enemies there might be one who would not scruple to give him a dose, and to send him out of the way." [23:8] The cautious Mosheim adopts the same view. "When I consider," he says, "all the circumstances of the case, I confess that to me it appears most probable, the unhappy man lost his life by the machinations of his enemies, being destroyed by poison. An indiscreet and blind zeal in religion has, in every age, led on to many crimes worse than this." [23:9]
Constantine himself died in the following year (May 22nd, A.D. 337) at Nicomedia. His body was laid in state for several days, and finally interred with gorgeous rites. According to Jortin, he had the honor of being the first Christian who was buried in a church. The true believers paid almost divine honor to his name, his tomb, and his statue, and called him a saint equal to the apostles. And as the clergy had bestowed upon him, during his life, the most fulsome praise even when he was committing the most flagitious crimes, so now, after his death, they had the effrontery to declare that God had endued his urn and statue with miraculous powers, and that whosoever touched them were healed of all diseases and infirmities. [24:1]
Constantine did so much for Christianity that the apologists and
historians of that creed have always striven to whitewash his
memory. Their efforts are futile, but they had good reason for the
attempt. Not only did Constantine establish Christianity as the
religion of the empire, but by sanctioning and promoting its
endowment he gave a permanency to its institutions. His removal of
the seat of empire to Constantinople gave free play to the ambition
of the Western Church, which centred in the eternal city, and was
invested with the glamor of the name of Rome. Antioch is now but a
name, Constantinople is a Mohammedan capital, and Alexandria is
ruled by a dependent of the Sultan; while Rome is still the centre
of Christendom, the home of infallibility, and the obstinate enemy
of liberty and progress.