Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter V. The Imperialized Church

On the 27th of October in the year 312 of the Christian era Constantine, son of Constantius Chlorus, was on the eve of a battle that was to decide the destinies of the Roman Empire. His enemy was Maxentius, a rival for the imperial power, who held the Malvian bridge and barred the way of Constantine to Rome. Maxentius was a believer in the ancient Roman religion, and was using all the means prescribed by the ancient ritual to win the favor of the gods, and to secure their aid in the coming battle. Constantine, knowing that his enemy was thus engaged, was greatly disturbed in his mind. He knew that his fate and the fate of the Roman world was to be decided on the morrow, "and, being convinced," says the historian Eusebius, "that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, Maxentius, he began to seek for divine assistance, and while he was thus [100/101] praying with fervent entreaty a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it may have been difficult to receive with credit had it been related by any other person; but, since the victorious Emperor himself long afterward declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed it with an oath, who could hesitate to credit the relation, especially since the testimony of after times has established its truth. He said that at midday, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw, with his own eyes, the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens above the sun, and bearing the inscription, 'By this conquer.'

At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which happened to be following him on some expedition, and witnessed the miracle. He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be; and while he continued to ponder and to reason on its meaning, night imperceptibly drew on, and in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to procure a standard [101/102] made in the likeness of that sign, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements against his enemies." Thus in courtly phrase does the historian Eusebius tell us of one of the most important events in the history of the world. With the conversion of Con-stantine the revolution was consummated by which the ancient Greek and Roman world was carried from the worship of the gods of nature, to the worship of God in Christ. That Constantine thought he saw the sign of the cross in the sky is certain. And it is also a matter of fact that he was obedient to his supposed heavenly vision. He made a standard on which he placed the sign of the cross, and, following this standard, he not only defeated Maxentius at the battle of Malvian bridge, but by an uninterrupted course of good fortune he made himself master of the Roman world and reunited the Empire in his own person. Immediately after the battle of Malvian bridge Constantine and his then eastern colleague, Licinius, issued the famous Edict of Milan, granting liberty to all Romans to worship, according to the dictates of their reason and conscience. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, bk. 10, chap. v.] This Edict was made in favor of the Christians, and its effect was to make Christianity [102/103] the religion of the Empire. Twelve years after the Edict of Milan Constantine, then sole Emperor of the Roman world, presided at the opening of a great council of Christian bishops and doctors held in the city of Nicaea, and at the death of Constantine, in 337, the Christian religion was firmly established as the state religion of the Roman world. Then it was that the adherents of the ancient religions were called pagans, from the word "pagus" which means country; for only rude rustics believed any longer in the gods of the hills and the groves.

But this triumph of Christianity was not an unqualified victory for the religion of Jesus. If Jesus did, indeed, inspire Constantine with the hope of success on the eve of his battle with Maxentius, then Jesus in heaven must have utterly forgotten the teaching of Jesus on earth. He who said, "Resist not evil," could hardly be the same as the one who said, make of my cross a standard, and by means of its magic power go out and conquer your enemies. The moral distance between the saying of Jesus and the vision of Constantine is the distance that organized Christianity had traveled from the [103/104] death of Jesus on the cross to the conversion of the Roman Emperor by the cross. In those three hundred years the imperial state had been profoundly influenced by the democratic church, and the church in turn had been influenced and modified by the imperial state.

In the second century, immediately after the fall of Nero, the moral reaction, of which the Christian church was the embodiment, made itself felt in every section of Roman society, and in every department of Roman life. The state still looked upon the Christian faith as a deadly superstition, hostile to the life of the Empire. Yet the state itself was stirred to its depths by that doctrine of righteousness which was preached by Christian apostles in the lanes and byways of every city in the Empire.

The fear of God and the enthusiasm for humanity which were generated in the church kindled a fire that spread far and wide throughout the Roman Empire. Everywhere men began to bethink themselves, and to amend their lives. Emperors began to use their power, not to glut their own lust and cruelty, but to promote the wellbeing of the people. After a short period of disorder the death of [104/105] Nero was followed by the accession of Vespasian, a rude soldier, but a just man, who ruled the Empire with wisdom and moderation for the space of nine years, and was succeeded at his death, in the year 79, by his son, Titus, the conqueror of Jerusalem, a man greatly beloved by the army and the people. Titus reigned only twenty-six months, when he was carried off by a fever that was then devastating the world. In the person of his brother, Domitian, the Roman world fell once more into the hands of a madman and a tyrant. For fifteen years Rome repeated, in the reign of Domitian, son of Vespasian, the cruelty and licentiousness of the reign of Nero. Gloomy, superstitious, and cruel, this Emperor sacrificed the leading members of the Senate to his own fears, and terror ruled in Rome until the death of Domitian, who was murdered by his attendants in the year 96.

The death of Domitian was followed by one of the happiest periods, not only in the history of the Roman Empire, but also in the history of the world. "If," says the historian Gibbon, "a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most [105/106] happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm, but gentle, hand of four successive Emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect." [Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, E. Gibbon, chaps, iii., iv.] The Emperors to whom the historian refers in this passage are Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. On the death of Domitian, Marcus Cocceius Nerva was proclaimed Emperor by the Pretorian Guards and confirmed by the Senate. The new Emperor was an aged senator of blameless life, but too feeble to bear the cares of Empire. Of this no one was more conscious than Nerva himself. With the approbation of the Senate and people the Emperor adopted as his son and successor Trajan, a Spaniard distinguished as a general and a statesman. Trajan shared the imperial power with his father during the lifetime of Nerva, and at his [106/107] death became the master of the world. Trajan was renowned no less for administrative ability in civil affairs, than he was for martial ambition and military success. He was the last of the Romans to extend the boundaries of the Empire. He added Dacia, beyond the Danube, and Arabia Petra to the imperial domain, and penetrated with his armies beyond the Euphrates and the Tigris. He died at Selinus, in Cilicia, as he was returning in triumph to Rome, in the year 117, after a glorious reign of nineteen years. The relation of Trajan to the Christian religion was that of a wise and good man who was troubled by the presence in his Empire of a people who stubbornly refused to conform to ancient customs or to recognize the divine authority of the government. Trajan used every effort to find out what the new religion really was and the secret of its power over the people. He instructed his friend, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, to examine the Christians by torture, and to ascertain, if he could, the doctrines which they taught and the nature of their secret rites. On the evidence thus obtained, the Roman philosopher "could detect nothing further than a culpable and extravagant superstition. The only facts he could discover were, that [107/108] they had a custom of meeting together before daylight and singing a hymn to Christ as God. They were bound together by no unlawful sacraments, but only under mutual obligation not to commit theft, robbery, adultery, or fraud. They met a second time in the day, and partook together of food, but that of a perfectly innocent kind. The test of guilt to which he submitted the most obstinate delinquents was adoration before the statues of the gods and of the Emperor and the malediction of Christ. Those who refused he ordered led to execution." Under the circumstances, Trajan could do nothing but sentence the Christians to death for treason against the state. In denying the divinity of the Empire, they denied the Empire itself. If the authority, the Empire, were not divine, it was brutal. If it had not the sanction of the gods, its only sanction was the brute strength of the soldier. In studying the relation of church and state during the anti-Christian period we must always remember that we are reading the history of a religious conflict. The city of Rome, as we have already learned, was intensely religious. Its foundations were laid in the fear of the gods. To the gods [108/109] it looked for favor, for protection, and for victory; and its calamities it ascribed to the anger of the gods. The Christians were guilty of the crime of dishonoring and denying the gods. In the estimation of their generations they were atheists, and as such deserved no better fate than to be thrown to the lions and burned at the stake. It was the wise and good Emperor Trajan who sent the holy bishop Ignatius from Antioch to be cast to the wild beasts in the amphitheater at Rome.

Trajan was succeeded in the Empire by his cousin, Hadrian, who, lacking the military genius and ambition of his predecessor, withdrew the legions from beyond the Tigris, abandoned the conquests of Trajan, and gave to the Empire the blessing of peace. Hadrian was restless by nature, and spent his time in journeying from place to place, investigating the administration of the Empire, and punishing those who were guilty of corruption in office, and so delivering the people from oppressive rule. Hadrian, following the example of Nerva, adopted as his son and successor the best and wisest of the living Romans, the senator Titus Antoninus, called Antoninus Pius, on condition that he would in turn adopt Marcus Annius Vcrus, afterward called Marcus Aurelius.

[110] The joint reigns of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, covering a period of forty-seven years, are without doubt the twilight hours of the ancient world. In these two Emperors Roman virtue manifested itself in all the beauty and pathos of a sunset glow. Antoninus, the sage, and Marcus Aurelius, the saint, were men who would have done honor to any religion. They ruled in righteousness, and had hearts to pity the miseries of the people. Marcus Aurelius is recognized by men of all creeds as one of the great spiritual leaders of mankind. He lived a life of austere virtue without hope of other reward than the approval of his own conscience. He was a saint in a palace, a humble soul with the world at his feet. That he should have missed the secret of Jesus was his misfortune, and not his fault. He was the last of the ancients; the victim of a dying world. With the death of Marcus on the 17th of March in the year 180, the sun of Roman greatness went down into a night of gloom. Commodus, the son of Marcus, was a tyrant of the worst type, vie-ing with Nero and Domitian for the palm of infamy among the rulers of the world. From Commodus, who was murdered in 190, to the accession of Diocletian in 284, twenty-three Emperors rose and fell. [110/111] Thirteen of these were slain by their own servants or soldiers. Only three, Severus, Aurelian, and Probus, have left names worthy of remembrance. Diocletian, a Dalmatian peasant, made one last effort to destroy Christianity, revive the ancient faith, and to re-establish the authority of the empire. He swept away the last vestige of the ancient Roman liberties, and made the government an oriental despotism, pure and simple. His scheme of dividing the Empire into four grand divisions under two Emperors and two Caesars was a failure from the first, and, wearied in his effort to hold together the falling state, Diocletian resigned the Empire in the fifty-ninth year of his age and turned his attention to raising cabbages. The retirement of Diocletian was followed by a period of confusion until Con-stantine re-established the imperial power in his own person, and reconstituted the Empire on a Christian basis. Whether Constantine was converted by miracle or by reason, his course was dictated by far-seeing wisdom and consummate statesmanship. In the Christian religion he found the only remaining [111/112] faith by which men could live and in the Christian churches the only centers of order in the Empire.

For three-hundred years the churches had been increasing their numbers and perfecting their organization. They had gathered into their membership nearly all the moral worth of the Empire. Men who wished to live clean, sober, industrious lives turned to the Christian church as to a place of safety; for it was the first principle of the church that men should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world. The church attracted to its fold by the powerful magnet of holiness. We wonder what brought men into the Christian church and what kept them there. The whole world was against them. Christianity was not fashionable in those days. To become a Christian meant to become an outcast. The very name was an accusation. If a man entered the church he did it at the hazard of his life; he severed the noblest ties of humanity; he became an object of hatred to his own father and mother; his wife and his children looked on him with horror. Yet, for all this, men and women crowded into the church by the thousand, and there they stayed in spite of entreaty, of [112/113] persecution, and death. Now the power that brought men to the church and kept them there was the power of holiness. It was the longing to be clean that caused men to come and be washed in the waters of baptism.

Men were drawn to the Christian church, not only by this power of holiness, but also by the sense of brotherhood. Christianity defined religion in terms of social service as well as in terms of personal purity. "Pure religion and undented before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." The sense of brotherhood gave to the Christian church that unity which is strength. While all the outside world was groaning under a system of class and cast, the Christian church was inspired by the spirit of equality, which made of every man a person, with the force of a personality to do and to dare for Christ and the church. That is a great age in any community, when every man counts for one, stands for what he is, and contributes what he has to the common cause.

The primitive Christian churches were not simply [113/114] congregations; they were communities having a common faith and sharing in a common life. While we cannot say that community of goods was the practice of the primitive church for any length of time, yet we can say that community of life was the characteristic of the first age of Christianity. Every Christian had the right to share in the average prosperity of the Christian world. Vast wealth and abject poverty could not dwell side by side under the shadow of the cross. The wealth was unhappy until it had emptied itself to supply the wants of the needy. Thus there was, by the end of the third century, in every town of the Roman Empire a Christian church bound together by a common belief, inspired by a common hope, and living a common life.

Each of these societies was under the presidency of a bishop chosen by itself, and was advised by a council of elders taken directly from the people. [Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, chap. lxv.] At first there was no distinction between the clergy and the laity, the minister was simply a layman in office, no more sacred than the poorest and most obscure member of the society. According to Apostolic teaching every follower of Christ was a priest [114/115] and a king. The rise of the Episcopal order to power was the natural result of the life led by the bishop. While the church was in opposition and subject to persecution the bishop was naturally the first to suffer. He, as the leader of his people, had to bear the blame for them all. His conspicuous position was the post of danger. He stood every day between his people and death. Such a discipline could produce nothing but moral heroes, and such of necessity were the bishops of the anti-Nicsean church,--men who hazarded their lives daily for the sake of the people under their charge. And their office compelled them to lives of benevolence. They were at the beck and call of the poor; they were the servants of slaves and beggars. Christian history is full of beautiful stories of Episcopal humility and Episcopal benevolence. We have just been telling our children of Santa Claus, the giver of gifts, the friend of children. But who of us know that Santa Claus is not the jolly Dutch saint of the nursery, but a gentle bishop, Saint Nicholas of Mysia, who used to steal about his city and find out secretly the needs of his people and then supply that need by putting money in the window and hiding it in chimney corners. It was men like [115/116] Nicholas and Polycarp and a host of others who won for the Episcopate its place and power in the world. And it was this government of love that grew stronger and stronger while the government of force grew weaker and weaker, until at last the government by force found its only safety in allying itself to the government by love.

The triumph of Christianity in the fourth century was the triumph of moral over physical force, and, though that triumph was partial, it was still a victory for all time and for all the world.

It is true that when Constantine established the Christian religion as the religion of the Empire the church had lost much of its primitive simplicity and purity. Its membership contained vast numbers who were Christians, not so much from choice, as from inheritance. These were lacking in that zeal which belongs only to the convert; to the man who, after struggle and sacrifice, finds God for himself. In spite of persecutions the greater number of the Christians lived at ease. They found safety in their numbers. And the virtues of the Christians were conducive to their temporal wellbeing. Sobriety and industry, honesty and frugality, produced their natural result, and the Christians became [116/117] prosperous and wealthy, and with prosperity and wealth came spiritual coldness and a love of this present world. The office of bishop, while it was a place of danger, was also the post of honor; and men aspired to the Episcopate more for the sake of the honor than for the desire for sacrifice. In spite of the teaching of Jesus, office seeking crept into the church and corrupted its simplicity.

A still more deadly evil was the spirit of theological contention, which at this time took possession of the church and changed the religion of Christ into a religion of hatred instead of a religion of love. The fierce contentions which had destroyed the unity of Christians could not but weaken the moral stamina of the community. It was the loss of simplicity by reason of theological subtilty followed by theological fury that was the secret of the church's failure in the fourth century to make the kingdoms of this world the kingdoms of God and His Christ. The church surrendered to the Emperor as truly as the Emperor submitted to the church. The concordat between Constantine and the bishops was the first of those agreements, since so common, to sacrifice the essence of Christianity to the safety of its form, and to make the worship of the person of Christ a substitute for the practice of His teaching.

[118] Constantine was a man of violent and gloomy temper. He put to death his sister's husband, his own eldest son, and his wife; and yet this was the man whom the bishops of the church fawned upon and chose as the champion of the church of Christ. But in spite of the character of Constantine and the degeneracy of the church, the establishment of Christianity was a forward movement in the history of the race. It was not so much the establishment of the church as it was the recognition of the new ideal. Men were no longer compelled to worship Caesar as divine. He was nothing but a mortal man, God's servant, and subject to the judgment of Christ. Christ crucified was and is a standing reproach to a luxurious and self-seeking world. Vast and important changes in the social state of the Empire followed hard upon the conversion of the Emperor and the peace of the church. Gladiatorial shows, the disgrace of the ancient world, disappeared. The condition of the slave was ameliorated, and slavery was discredited and put in the way of abolition. The desire for personal purity and the passion for social service were honored, not only by the church, [118/119] but by the world. The Christian type of character became the accepted type; and the Christian type was a distinct advance on that which it supplanted. And in the struggle for Christian perfection the world was saved from the corrupting ideals that were fostered by the ancient religions.

But, if the Empire became in a measure Christianized, the church to an equal degree became imperial-ized. The Episcopate was no longer the post of danger; it was a position of dignity and honor. The Christian ministry succeeded to the privileges of the ancient priesthoods. The temples of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus became Christian churches, and the Bishop of Rome assumed the title of Pontifix Maximus.

Project Canterbury