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have exceeded the usual measure of corruption. Yet
they did not accommodate their precepts to the man-
ners of the world, but denounced the wi'ath of God
against all unrighteousness of men, against practices
which were nearly universal, and the indulgence of
passions which were esteemed innocent or laudable.
They had to combat what is generally more obsti-
nate than vice, the religious spirit of the times ; for
they commanded men " to turn from idols to serve
the living God." That reverence for public insti-
tutions which even an unbeliever may feel, that at-
tachment to received opinions, that fondness for an-
cient practices, and those prejudices of education
which always animate narrow minds, united witli
the influence of the priests, and of all the artists who
lived by ministering to the magnificence of the tem-
ples, against the teachers of this new doctrine. The
zeal of the worshippers, revived by the return of
those festivals at which the Christians refused to
partake, often broke forth with fury. The Christ-
ians were considered as atheists ; and it was thousfht


that the wrath of the gods could not be better ap-
peased than by pouring every indignity and abuse
upon men who presumed to despise their worship.
Tlie wise men in that enlightened age, who rose
above the superstition of their countrymen, although
they joined with the Christians in thinking con-
temptuously of the gods, were not disposed to give
any countenance to the teachers of this new system.
They despised the simplicity of its form, so different
from the subtleties of the schools. When at any
time they condescended to listen to its doctrines,
they found some of them inconsistent with their re-
ceived opinions, and mortifying to the pride of rea-
son. They confounded with the popular supersti-
tions a doctrine which professed to enlighten the
great body of the people, and they condemned the
prohibition of idolatry : for it was their principle,
that philosophers might dispute and doubt concern-
ing religion as they pleased, but that it was their
duty, as good citizens, to conform to the established
modes of worship. Upon these grounds, Christiani-
ty was so far from being favourably received by the
heathen philosophers, that it was early opposed and
ridiculed by them ; and they continued to write
against it after the empire had become Christian.

The unbelieving Jews were the bitterest enemies
of the Christian faith. They beheld with peculiar
indignation the progress of a doctrine, which not
only invaded the prerogative of the law of Moses,
by claiming to be a divine revelation, but even pro-
fessed to supersede that law, to abolish the distinc-
tions which it had established, and to enlighten
those whom it left in darkness. National pride,
and the bigotry of the Jewish spirit, were alarmed.


The rulers, who had crucified the Lord Jesus, con-
tinued to employ all the power left them hy the Ro-
mans in persecuting his servants ; and the sufferings
of the first Christians arose from the envy, the jea-
lousy, and fear of a state, which the prophecies of
their Master had devoted to destruction.

It was not long before the Christians felt the in-
dignation of the Roman emperors and magistrates.
The Roman law guarded the established religion
against the introduction of any new modes of wor-
ship which had not received the sanction of public
authority ; and it was a principle of Roman policy
to repress private meetings, as the nurseries of sedi-
tion. " Ab nullo genere," says M. Porcius Cato, in
a speech preserved by Livy, " non aeque summura
periculum est, si coetus, et concilia, et secretas con-
sultationes esse sinas." * Upon this principle, the
Christians, who separated themselves from the esta-
blished worship, and held secret assemblies for the
observance of their own rites, were considered as re-
bellious subjects : and when they multiplied in the
empire, it was judged necessary to restrain them.
Pliny, in the letter to which I referred, says to Tra-
jan, " Secundum tua mandata 'sraiPiag esse vetueram;"
and Trajan, in his answer, requires that every per-
son who was accused of being a Christian should
vindicate himself from the charge, by offering sacri-
fice to the gods. " Conquirendi non sunt ; si defe-
rentur et arguentur puniendi sunt ; ita tamen ut
qui negaverit se Christianum esse, idque re ipsa
manifestum fecerit, id est, supplicando deis nostris,
quamvis suspectus in praeteritum fuerit, veniam ex
poeniteutia impetret."

* Liv. xxxiv. 2.


It was not always from the profligacy or cruelty
of the emperors that the siifTeriiigs of the Christians
flowed. Some of the best princes who ever fiiied
the Roman throne, men who were an ornament to
human nature, and whose administration was a
blessing to their subjects, felt themselves bound,
by respect for the established religion, and care of
the public jjeace, to execute the laws against this
new society, the principles of whose union appeared
formidable, because they were not understood. Ac-
cordingly, ecclesiastical historians have numbered
ten persecutions before the conversion of Constan-
tine ; and an innumerable company of martyrs are
said to have sealed their testimony with their blood,
and to have exhibited amidst the most cruel suf-
ferings a fortitude, resignation, and forgiveness,
which not only demonstrated their firm convic-
tion of the truths which they attested, but con-
veyed to every impartial spectator an impres-
sion that these men were assisted by a divine
power, which raised them above the weakness of
humanity. Voltaire, Gibbon, and other enemies of
Christianity, avv'are of the force of that argument
which arises from the multitude of the Christian
martyrs, and from the spirit with which they endur-
ed the severity of their sufferings, have insinuated
that there is much exafffferation in the accounts of
this matter ; that the generous spirit of Roman po-
licy rendered it impossible that there should be an
imperial edict enjoining a general persecution ; that
although the people might be incensed against the
obstinacy and sullenness of the Christians, the ma-
gistrates, in their different provinces, were their
protectors ; that there was no wanton barbarity in


the manner of their sufferings ; and that none
lost their lives, but such as, by provoking a death in
which they gloried, put it out of the power of the
magistrates to save them.

It is natural for a friend to humanity, and an ad-
mirer of Roman manners, to wish that this apology
were true ; and it is not unlikely that the vanity of
Christian historians, indignation against their per-
secutors, and the habits of rhetorical declamation,
have swelled, in their descriptions, the numbers of
the martyrs. It is most likely that the mob were
more furious than the magistrates ; that those who
were entrusted with the execution of the Roman laws
v/ould observe the spirit of them in the mode of try-
ing persons accused of Christianity ; and that the
governors of provinces might, upon several occasions,
restrain the eagerness with which the Christians
were sought after, and the brutality and iniquity
with which they were treated. But, after all these
allowances, any person who studies the history of
the Christian church will perceive that there is much
false colouring in the apology which has been made
for the Roman magistrates ; and we can produce in-
contestible evidence, the concurring testimony of
Christian and heathen writers, that, upon the prin-
ciples which have been explained, Christianity was
publicly discouraged in all parts of the Roman em-
pire ; and that, although favourable circumstances
procured some intervals of respite, there were many
seasons when this religion was persecuted by order
of the emperors — when the Christians were liable to
imprisonment and confiscation of their estates — and
when death, in some of its most terrifying forms.



was inflicted upon those, who, being brought before
the tribunals, refused to abjure the name of Christ.
Such was the complicated opposition which the
apostles of Jesus had to encounter. Yet the measure
of their success was such as I have stated. Without
the aid of power, or wealth, or popular prejudices ;
without accommodation to reigning vices and opi-
nions ; without drawing the sword, or fomenting
sedition, or encouraging the admiration of their fol-
lowers to confer upon them any earthly honours- —
but by humble, peaceable, laborious teaching, they
diffused through a great part of the Roman empire
the knowledge of a new doctrine ; they turned many
from the idols which they had worshipped, and from
the enormities which they had practised, to serve the
living God ; and this spiritual system advanced vm-
der every discouragement, till the conversion, or the
policy, of Constantine rendered it the established re-
ligion of the Roman empire. All speculations con-
cerning the contagion of example, the zeal that is
kindled by persecution, the power of vanity, and the
love of the marvellous, are visionary, when you ap-
ply them to account for the change which Christi-
■anity made during the three first centuries. That
multitudes in every country, and of every age and
rank, should forsake the religion in which they had
been educated, and embrace one which was much
stricter, and which brought no worldly advantage,
but exposed them to the heaviest afflictions ; that
they should be thus converted by the preaching of
mean men ; and that their conversion should appear
in the reformation of their lives as well as in the
alteration of their worship, is a phenomenon of which
we require some cause, whose influence does not de-


peiid upon refined speculations, but is real and per-,
inanent : and not being able to find any such cause
in the human means that were employed, we are led
by the principles of our nature to acknowledge the
ipterposition of the Almighty.

But this is the very conclusion to which we were
formerly conducted. It is said in their books that
God bare witness to the apostles by signs, and won-
ders, and divers miracles and gifts of the Holy
Ghost. And there is as clear historical evidence as
the nature of the case admits of, that this assertion
is true. The change, then, which we have been con-
templating, is no longer unaccountable. Miracles
wrought by the first teachers of Christianity \vere
sufficient to rouse the attention of the world even in
the most superstitious age, and the argument em-
ployed in them was so plain as to be level to every
understanding, and so powerful, that we are not sur-
prised at its overcoming, in the breasts of those who
beheld them, all considerations of prudence and ex-
pediency. The eye-witnesses of the miracles, yield-
ing to the demonstration of the Spirit, gave glory to
God by receiving his servants ; and when the signs
done by the hands of the apostles were transmitted
to succeeding ages, attested by an innumerable cloud
of witnesses, the certain knowledge that they Iiad
been M^rought produced in the minds of numbers a
full conviction, that the religion of Jesus was intro-
duced into the world by the mighty power of God.

Thus, then, stands the argument arising from the
propagation of Christianity. The human means ap-
pear wholly inadequate to the effect. But there is
positive evidence of a divine interposition ; and if
that be admitted, the effect may easily be explained^


The two parts of the argument illustrate one another.
The miracles, which we receive upon a strong con-
curring testimony, enable us to assign the cause of
the propagation of Christianity ; and the knowledge
of that propagation, which we derive from history,
reflects additional light and credibility upon the mi-
racles. The discrimination between the success of
Mahomet and the establishment of Christianity is so
clear and striking, that we may with perfect fairness
apply the reasoning of Gamaliel to the latter, although
we do not admit that it has any force when applied
to the former.

These are the principles upon which you may safe-
ly argue from the success of the gospel that it is of
divine origin. But although the argument, when
thus stated, apjjroves itself to every candid mind as
sound and conclusive, there are still several difficul-
ties respecting the propagation of Christianity.


I MENTION, first, an objection, which a celebrated
part of the writings of Mr. Gibbon has suggested, to
the account given in the preceding Section. The
15th chapter in his first volume professes to be a
candid, but rational inquiry into the progress and
establishment of Christianity. " Our curiosity is
naturally prompted to inquire by what means the
Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over
the established religions of the earth. To this in-


qiiiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be re-
turned ; that it was owing to the convincing evidence
of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling Providence
of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom
find so favourable a reception in the world, and as
the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to
use the passions of the human heart and the general
circumstances of mankind as instruments to execute
its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with
becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were
the first, but what were the secondary causes of the
rapid growth of the Christian church."

The soundest divine might have used this lan-
guage. We acknowledge that the Providence of God
condescends to employ various instruments to exe-
cute his purpose ; and therefore, while we affirm that
the manifestation of the power of God was the great
mean of overcoming those prejudices, which prevent-
ed the easy admission of truth and reason into the
minds of the first hearers of the gospel, we admit
that there were also means prepared by the provi-
dence of God to facilitate the progress of this reli-
gion. But it happens that Mr. Gibbon is doing the
office of an enemy, while he speaks the language of
a friend. His object is to show, that the joint ope-
ration of the five secondary causes, which he enume-
rates, is sufficient to account for the propagation of
Christianity ; and the influence v/hich the whole'
chapter tends to convey to the mind of the reader,
although it be nowhere expressed, is this, that there
is not any occasion for having recourse, in this mat-
ter, to the ruling providence of God. The five se-
condary causes enumerated by Mr. Gibbon are these,
1, " The inflexible and intolerant zeal of the Christ-

'230 riiorAGATioN of Christianity.

iaiis, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion,
but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit
which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles
from embracing the law of Moses." 2. " The doc-
trine of a future life, improved by every additional
circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to
that important truth." 3. " The miraculous powers
of the primitive church." 4. " The virtues of the
2:)rimitive Christians." 5. " The union and discipline
of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an
independent and increasing state in the heart of the
Roman empire."

Mr. Gibbon's illustration of these five causes is not
a logical discussion of their influence upon the pro-
■ pagation of Christianity, such as might have been
expected from his manly understanding. But it is
filled with digressions, which, although they often
detract from the influence of the causes, serve a pur-
pose more interesting to the author than the illustra-
tion of that influence, by presenting a degrading
view of the religion which these causes are said to
promote. It is filled with indirect sarcastic insinua-
tions, with partial representations of facts and argu-
ments, and with very strained uses of quotations and
authorities. I consider the fifteenth chapter of Mr.
Gibbon's history as the most uncandid attack which
lias been made upon Christianity in modern times.
The eminent abilities, the brilliant style, and the
high reputation of the author, render it particularly
dangerous to those whose information is not exten-
sive : and therefore I recommend to you, not to ab-
stain from reading it. Such a recommendation would
imply some distrust of the cause which Mr. Gibbon
has attacked, and a compliance with it would be very


imbeconiing an inquirer after truth. But I recom-
mend to you to read along with this chapter some of
the answers that have been made to it. I know no
book that has been so completely answered. The
author, indeed, continues to discover the same viru-
lence against Christianity in the subsequent volumes
of his work, upon subjects of less importance than
the causes of its propagation, and where the inde-
cent controversies amongst Christians give him the
appearance of a triumph in the eyes of those, who
confound true religion with the corrujDtions of it.
But any person who has examined the fifteenth chap-
ter with due care, and with a sufficient measure of
information, must, I think, entertain such an opinion
of the inveteracy of Mr. Gibbon's j^rejudices against
Christianity, and of the arts which those prejudices
have made him stoop to employ, as may fortify his
mind against any inclination to commit himself to a
guide so unsafe in every thing which concerns reli-

When you attend to the nature of the five second-
ary causes, you are at a loss to conceive how they
come to be ranked in the place which Mr. Gibbon
assigns them. If by the intolerant and inflexible zeal
of the first Christians be meant their ardour and ac-
tivity in promoting a religion which they believed
to be divine, we readily admit that the labours of
the apostles and their successors were an instrument
by which God spread the knowledge of the gospel.
But this cause is so far from accounting for the con-
viction which the first teachers themselves had of the
facts which they attested, that their ardour and ac-
tivity is incredible, unless it proceeded from this
conviction ; and the kind of inflexibility and intole-


ranee of the idolatry and the vices of the world,
which was necessarily connected with their convic-
tion of the great facts of Christianity, was more
likely to deter than to invite men to embrace it. If
by the doctrine of a future life be meant the hope of
life eternal, which is held forth with assurance in
the gospel to the penitent, this is so essential a
branch of the excellence of the doctrine, that it can-
not, with any propriety, be called a secondary cause ;
and those adventitious circumstances which Mr.
Gibbon represents as connected with this hope, he
means the speedy dissolution of the world, and the
reign of Christ with his saints upon earth for a thou-
sand years, commonly called the Millennium, appear
to every rational inquirer to have no foundation in
Scripture, and never to have formed any part of the
teaching of the apostles. If by the miraculous pow-
ers of the primitive church be meant the demonstra-
tion of the Spirit, which accompanied the first preach-
ing of the gospel in the signs and wonders done by
the hands of the apostles, this is manifestly a part of
the ruling providence of its great Master. It is not
denied that the miracles, which rest upon unexcep-
tionable historical evidence, were succeeded by many
pretensions to miraculous powers after this gift of
the Spirit was withdrawn. But it is not easy to
conceive how these pretensions obtained any credit in
the Christian church, unless it was certainly known
that many real miracles had been wrought ; and
it is obvious that the multitude of delusions which
were practised tended to discredit the gospel in the
eye of every rational inquirer, and, instead of pro-
moting the success of the new religion, was most
likely to confound it with those Pagan fables M^hich


it commanded men to forsake. The virtues of the
primitive Christians were exhibited in circumstances
so trying, that they recommended the new religion
most powerfully to the world. But these virtues,
which were the native expression of faith in the
gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit, must be resolved
into the excellence of the doctrine. Mr. Gibbon,
indeed, has drawn under this head a picture of the
manners of the primitive Christians, which holds
them up to the ridicule and censure, not to the ad-
miratiouj of the world. The colouring of this pic-
ture has been discovered to be, in many places, false
and extravagant : and this glaring inconsistency
strikes every person who attends to it, that an au-
thor who assigns the virtues of the primitive Christ-
ians as a cause of the propagation of Christianity,
chooses to degrade that religion by such a represent-
ation of these virtues, as, if it were tiaie, would satis-
fy every reader that they had no influence in pro-
ducing the effect which he ascribes to them.

In stating the last cause, there is an obvious
inaccuracy, which Mr. Gibbon would not have been
guilty of upon another subject. He is professing
to account for the rapid growth of the Christian
. church. His fifth cause is the union and discipline
of the Christian republic, which gradualhj formed
an independent state ; and his account of the manner
of its formation extends through the three first cen-
turies of the Christian era. It matters not to the
subject upon which it is introduced, whether the
account be just or false ; for it is manifest that the
rapid growth of the Christian church in the first and
second centuries cannot be ascribed to the union and


discipline of the Christian republic, which was not
completed till after the third century.

You will perceive by the short specimen which I
have given, that the danger of Mr. Gibbon's book
does not arise from his having discovered five second-
ary causes of the propagation of Christianity, to
which the world had not formerly attended. It
arises from the manner in which he has illustrated
them : and the only way to obviate the danger is to
canvass his illustration very closely. There is very
complete assistance provided for you in this exei*-

Mr. White has touched upon Mr. Gibbon's five
causes shortly, but ably, in his Comparative View of
. Mahometanism and Christianity. Bishop Watson,
in his Apology for Christianity, has given, with
much animation, and without any personal abuse, a
concise clear argument upon every one of the five
causes, which aj^pears to me to show in the most sa-
tisfactory manner, that they do not answer the pur-
pose for which they are introduced, and that it is still
necessary to have recourse to the ruling providence of
the great Author of Christianity in order to account
for its i^ropagation. After Bishop Watson's Apo-
logy was published, an answer was made to this 15th
chapter, by Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, en-
titled, An Inquiry into the secondary causes which
Mr. Gibbon assigns for the rapid growth of Christ-
ianity. Sir David was peculiarly fitted for such an
inquiry. He had an acute distinguishing mind, en-
riched with a very uncommon measure of theologi-
cal reading, and capable of the most patient minute
investigation. He was a zealous friend of Christian-


ity. And he has applied his talents with great suc-
cess in hunting out every misrepresentation and con-
tradiction into which Mr. Gibbon was betrayed by
his favourite object. There is not so much general
reasoning in the Inquiry as in the Apology. But
Lord Hailes has sifted the 15th chapter thoroughly.
He treats his antagonist with decency, and yet he
triumphs over him in so many instances, and brings
conviction home to the reader in so pointed a man-
ner, that he is warranted to draw the conclusion
M'hich I shall give you in the moderate terms that
he has chosen to employ. " Mr,. Gibbon'b first j^ro-
position is, that Christianity became victorious over
the established religions of the earth, by its very
doctrine, and by the ruling providence of its great
Author ; and his last, of a like import, is, that Christ-
ianity is the truth. Between his first and his last
propositions there are, no doubt, many dissertations,

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 20 of 32)