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THE CAUSE OF PERSECUTION
"The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9
Sections from a book entitled "Great Empires of Prophecy" by Alonzo T. Jones
Chap. XXV. 345
The controversy between the Christians and the Romans was not a dispute between individuals, nor a contention between sects or parties. It was a contest between antagonistic principles. It was, therefore, a contest between Christianity and Rome, rather than between Christians and Romans. On the part of Christianity it was the proclamation of the principle of genuine liberty; on the part of Rome it was the assertion of the principle of genuine despotism. On the part of Christianity it was the assertion of the principle of the rights of conscience and of the individual; on the part of Rome it was the assertion of the principle of the absolute absorption of the individual, and his total enslavement to the state in all things, divine as well as human, religious as well as civil.
Jesus Christ came into this world to set men free, and to plant in their souls the genuine principle of liberty, — liberty actuated by love, liberty too honourable to allow itself to be used as an occasion to the flesh or for a cloak of maliciousness, liberty led by a conscience enlightened by the Spirit of God, liberty in which man may be free from all men, yet made so gentle by love that he would willingly become the servant of all, in order to bring to them the enjoyment of this same liberty. This is freedom indeed. This is the freedom which Christ gave to man; for "whom the Son makes free, is free indeed."
In giving to men this freedom, such an infinite gift could have no other result than that which Christ intended: namely, to bind them in everlasting, unquestioning, unswerving allegiance to Him as the royal Benefactor of the race He thus reveals Himself to men as the highest good, and brings them to Himself as the manifestation of that highest good, and to obedience to His will as the perfection of conduct...
ROME — AGAINST CHRISTIANITY.
70. Therefore when Christianity had become quite generally spread throughout the empire, it seemed to such emperors as Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian emperors who most respected Roman institutions – that the very existence of the empire was at stake. Consequently their opposition to Christianity was but an effort to save the State, and was considered by them as the most reasonable and laudable thing in the world. It was only as a matter of State policy that they issued edicts or emphasized those already issued for the suppression of Christianity. In making or enforcing laws against the Christians it was invariably the purpose of these emperors to restore and to preserve the ancient dignity and glory of the Roman State. In an inscription by Diocletian, it is distinctly charged that by Christianity the State was being overturned. His views on this subject are seen in the following extract from one of his edicts
"Time immortal gods have, by their providence, arranged and established what is right. Many wise and good men are agreed that this should be maintained unaltered. They ought not to be opposed. No new religion must presume to censure the old, since it is the greatest of crimes to overturn what has been once established by our ancestors, and what has supremacy in the State. " 22
71. This is further shown by the following words from the edict of Galerius putting a stop to the persecution of Christianity : – "Among other matters which we have devised for the benefit and common advantage of our people, we have first determined to restore all things according to the ancient laws and the public institutions of the Romans. And to make provision for this, that also the Christians, who have left the religion of their fathers, should return again to a good purpose and resolution." 23
72. With persecution proceeding from these four sources, it is evident that from the day that Christ sent forth his disciples to preach the gospel, the Christians were not certain of a moment's peace.
22 "History of the Christian Religion and Church," sec. I, div. iii, under Diocletian.
23 Eusebius's "Ecclesiastical History," book viii, chap. xvii.
It might be that they could live a considerable length of time unmolested; yet they were at no time sure that it would be so, because they were subject at all times to the spites and caprices of individuals and the populace. At any hour of the day or night any Christian was liable to be arrested and prosecuted before the tribunals, or to be made the butt of the capricious and violent temper of the heathen populace.
73. Yet to no one of these sources more than another, could be attributed the guilt or the dishonor of the persecution; because each one was but the inevitable fruit of that system from which persecution is inseparable.
74. The theory which attaches blame to the emperors as the persecutors of the Christians is a mistaken one; because the emperor was but the representative, the embodiment, of the State itself. The State of Rome was a system built up by the accumulated wisdom of all the Roman ages; and to expect him whose chief pride was that he was a Roman, and who was conscious that it was the highest possible honor to be a Roman emperor, — to expect such a one to defer to the views of a new and despised sect of religionists whose doctrines were entirely antagonistic to the entire system of which he was a representative, would be to expect more than Roman pride would bear. As the case stood, to have done such a thing would have been to make himself one of the despised sect, or else the originator of another one, worthy only, in the eyes of the populace, of the same contempt as these. Of course we know now that the emperors should have done just that thing, and they were told then that they ought to do it; but the fact is nevertheless that Roman pride would not yield. Nor is this the only case of the kind in the history of Christianity.
75. The theory that would make the governors responsible, is likewise a mistaken one; because the governors were simply the officers of the State, set over a particular province to conduct the affair of the government and to maintain the laws. It was not in their power to set aside the laws, although, as we have seen, some of them even went as far as possible in that direction rather than cause the Christians to suffer by enforcing the law.
76. The only theory that will stand the test at all is that which places upon the priests and the people the guilt of the persecutions. They were the ones who did it from real bitterness of the persecuting spirit. And yet to attach all the blame to these, would be a mistake; because it would have been impossible for them to persecute had it not been for the system of government of which they were a part.
77. Had the State been totally separated from religion, taking no cognizance of it in any way whatever; had the State confined itself to its proper jurisdiction, and used its power and authority to compel people to be civil and to maintain the public peace, it would have been impossible for either people, priests, governors, or emperors, to be persecutors. Had there been no laws on the subject of religion, no laws enforcing respect for the gods nor prohibiting the introduction of new religions, — even though religious controversies might have arisen, and having arisen, even had they engendered bitter controversies and stirred up spiteful spirits, — it would have been impossible for any party to do any manner of wrong to another.
78. Instead of this, however, the Roman government was a system in which religion was inseparable from the State — a system in which the religion recognized was held as essential to the very existence of the State; and the laws which compelled respect to this religion were but the efforts of the State at self-preservation. Therefore there was a system permanently established, and an instrument formed, ready to be wielded by every one of these agencies to persecute the professors of that religion.
79. Except in cases of the open violence of the mob, all that was done in any instance by any of the agencies mentioned, was to enforce the law. If the Christians had obeyed the laws, they never would have been persecuted. But that was the very point at issue. It was not right to obey the laws. The laws were wrong. To obey the laws was to cease to be a Christian. To obey the laws was to dishonor God and to deny Christ. To obey the laws was to consent that mankind should be deprived of the blessing of both civil and religious liberty, as well as to forfeit for themselves eternal life.
GROUND OF GOVERNMENTAL PERSECUTION.
80. If religion be properly a matter of State, and rightfully a subject of legislation, then there never was any such thing as persecution of the Christians by the Roman State. And what is more, that being so, there never has been in all history any governmental persecution on account of religion. If religion be properly a subject of legislation and of law, then it is the right of the State to make any laws it may choose on the subject of religion; and it is its right to attach to these laws whatever penalty will most surely secure proper respect for the religion chosen. And if the legislation be right, if the law be right, the enforcement of the law, under whatever penalty, can not be wrong. Consequently if religion be properly a matter of the State, of legislation, and of law, there never was and there never can be any such thing as persecution by any State or kingdom on account of religion, or for conscience' sake.
81. From all these evidences it is certain that the real blame and the real guilt of the persecution of the Christians by the Roman Empire lay in the pagan theory of State and government–the union of religion and the State. This was the theory of the State, and the only theory that then held sway, and this necessarily embodied both a civil and a religious despotism. And as Jesus Christ came into the world to set men free and to plant in their hearts and minds the genuine principles of liberty, it was proper that He should command that this message of freedom and this principle of liberty should be proclaimed in all the world to every creature, even though it should meet with the open hostility of earth's mightiest power. And proclaim it His disciples did, at the expense of heavy privations and untold sufferings.
82. "Among the authentic records of pagan persecutions, there are histories which display, perhaps more vividly than any other, both the depth of cruelty to which human nature may sink and the heroism of resistance it may attain. ... The most horrible record instances of torture were usually inflicted either by the populace or in their presence in the arena. We read of Christians bound in chairs of red-hot iron, while the stench of their half-consumed flesh rose in a suffocating cloud to heaven; of others who were torn to the very bone by shells or hooks of iron; of holy virgins given
over to the lust of the gladiator, or to the mercies of the pander; of two hundred and twenty seven converts sent on one occasion to the mines, each with the sinews of one leg severed by a red-hot iron, and with an eye scooped from its socket; of fires so slow that the victims writhed for hours in their agonies; of bodies torn limb from limb, or sprinkled with burning lead; of mingled salt and vinegar poured over the flesh that was bleeding from the rack; of tortures prolonged and varied through entire days. For the love of their divine Master, for the cause they believed to be true, men, and even weak girls, endured these things without flinching, when one word would have freed them from their sufferings. No opinion we may form of the proceedings of priests in a later age, should impair the reverence with which we bend before the martyr's tomb."– Lecky.
83. All this was endured by men and women, and even weak girls, that people in future ages might be free — free to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences — free both civilly and religiously. All this was endured in support of the principle, announced to Israel before they entered Canaan; to Nebuchadnezzar and all his officers and people; to Darius the Mede and all his presidents, princes, and people; and now to all the world for all time; — the divine principle that with religion civil government can of right have nothing to do.