Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

but never possessed by it, can be deemed a satisfactory reason for the rapid increase of the votaries of Christianity.

The argument, I apprehend, may be thrown, for the joint sake of brevity and precision, into the following syllogism.

Men are easily and naturally persuaded by the real working of miracles. The power of working miracles was ascribed to the primitive Church, but no miracles were ever performed. Therefore men were easily and naturally persuaded by the non-performance of miracles.

This syllogism, I confess, is a very bad one : but I am unable to frame a better out of the materials, with which Mr. Gibbon has furnished me. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church, says he, constitute a satisfactory reason for the rapid diffusion of Christianity; though, all the while, no miraculous powers were ever either possessed or exercised by it. How can this be? We naturally ask. If miraculous powers were ascribed to the Church, without being really possessed; would not such a circumstance produce a directly opposite effect to that propounded by Mr. Gibbon? A claim of working miracles is made by the primitive Church, as a likely mode of gaining proselytes. In effect, however, no miracles are wrought. What follows from this shameful failure of establishing such a claim ? Will it gain proselytes, or excite ridicule? Will

it enlarge the boundaries of Christianity, or utterly destroy Christianity itself?

It is a whimsical circumstance, that Mr. Gibbon's zeal to throw discredit upon the primitive miracles produces the necessary and inevitable effect of completely stultifying his third reason.

4. The fourth reason is the pure and austere morals of the primitive Christians.

That the holy lives of the early believers had a natural tendency to recommend their doctrines, we may safely and readily allow : at least we may allow it with certain limitations ; for strictness and severity and purity, though they may sometimes gain veneration when they are fortunate enough to escape ridicule and contempt, are far from being always popular virtues. We allow then, to a certain extent, that the pure and austere morals of the primitive Christians had a natural tendency to recommend their doctrines : but, in this case, according to Mr. Gibbon's own statement, the wonder is, how such exact holiness should happen to be the leading characteristic of a set of shameless impostors. A bad tree does not commonly produce good fruit. Whát the tree of Paganism bore, is indignantly set forth by a Christian apostle * : and, though our learned historian celebrates the elegant mythology of the Greeks ; those, who are acquainted with

* Rom. i. 18-32.

the classical works of the ancients, well know, that St. Paul's account is perfectly accurate *. How then are we to solve the problem of the eminent piety and strict morality of this knot of impostors; who, cheats and liars as they were, shone nevertheless as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation ? Mr. Gibbon himself pretends not to charge them with hypocrisy: their virtues he allows to be real; their desire of moral perfection to be sincere. A certain degree of ridicule he strives indeed to throw upon them: but still their sincerity is not controverted by him f.

Could the tree be bad,

It were easy to verify the apostle's statement by express references to the classical writers : but I designedly withhold them.

+ When the Christians of Bithynia, says Mr. Gibbon, were brought before the tribunal of the younger Pliny, they assured the proconsul, that, far from being engaged in any unlawful conspiracy, they were bound, by a solemn obligation, to abstain from the commission of those crimes which disturb the private or public peace of society, from theft, robbery, adultery, perjury, and fraud. Near a century afterwards, Tertullian, with an honest pride, could boast, that very few Christians had suffered by the hand of the executioner, except on account of their religion. Their serious and sequestered life, averse to the gay luxury of the age, inured them to chastity, temperance, economy, and all the sober and domestic virtues. As the greater number were of some trade or profession, it was incumbent on them, by the strictest integrity and the fairest dealing, to remove the suspicions which the profane are too apt to conceive against the appearances of sanctity. The contempt of the world exercised them in the habits of humility, meekness, and

which produced such fruits ? Truly Christianity, if an imposture, must at least have been a most beneficial imposture; since purity and holiness and meekness and temperance and justice and patience were, by the acknowledgment even of an enemy, its invariable consequences.

5. The fifth reason, assigned by Mr. Gibbon, is the union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.

With respect to this reason, we may freely allow to it, as we have already allowed to the fourth, its full weight and influence. Order and union and discipline are capable, no doubt, of producing very considerable effects: and, in truth, without them, no great or permanent results can be expected. Let Mr. Gibbon's fifth reason therefore avail, as far as it can avail. The primitive Christians, it seems, were prudent and intelligent men. Though they confidently expected the blessing of heaven upon their labours; yet they knew, that God usually works through the intervention of second causes: nor did they blindly dream of success, without rationally employing such means as lay within

Hence they formed themselves

their power.

patience. The more they were persecuted, the more closely they adhered to each other. Their mutual charity and unsụspecting confidence has been remarked by infidels, and was too often abused by perfidious friends. Hist, of the Decline. chap. xv. vol. ii. p. 318, 319.

into a regularly organized and well disciplined body: and, doubtless, by so judicious an arrangement, their efforts would be facilitated and their object would be promoted. In the way of natural cause and effect, the union of the Christian republic would have a tendency to further its prosperity.

II. We have now gone through the five reasons, assigned by Mr. Gibbon for the success which attended the early propagation of the Gospel: to judge correctly of their sufficiency, we must consider the aspect, under which Christianity would first present itself to the heathen world.

By the Pagans, the Jews were alike hated and despised. Their vile institutes, says Tacitus, became prevalent only through an excess of depravity. Every worthless character, despising the religion of his forefathers, contributed his share to the common stock. Hence the Jewish republic gradually increased : and their obstinate fidelity to each other, united with domestic good offices to themselves and hostile hatred toward all the rest of mankind, had a similar tendency to advance their prosperity. Separated in their banquets, severed in their beds, this race, though most detestably prone to lust, carefully abstain from all commerce with foreign women. Among themselves, however, no abomination is counted unlawful. The first lessons, which they learn, are, to contemn the gods, to renounce their native country, to hold equally cheap both parents and children and

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »