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FROM GALLIENUS TO THE END OF
THE LAST PERSECUTION (AD 261-313)
Valerian, who had treated the Christians
so cruelly, came to a miserable end. He led his army into Persia, where he was
defeated and taken prisoner. He was kept for some time in captivity; and we are
told that he used to be led forth, loaded with chains, but with the purple robes
of an emperor thrown over him, that the Persians might mock at his misfortunes.
And when he had died from the effects of shame and grief, it is said that his
skin was stuffed with straw, and was kept in a temple, as a remembrance of the
triumph, which the Persians had gained over the Romans, whose pride had never
been so humbled before.
When Valerian was taken prisoner, his son
Gallienus became emperor (AD261). Gallienus sent forth a law by which the
Christians, for the first time, got the liberty of serving God without the risk
of being persecuted. We might think him a good emperor for making such a law;
but he really does not deserve much credit for it, since he seems to have made
it merely because he did not care much either for his own religion, or for any
And now there is hardly anything to be
said of the next forty years, except that the Christians enjoyed peace and
prosperity. Instead of being obliged to hold their services in the upper rooms
of houses or in burial-places under ground, and in the dead of night, they built
splendid churches, which they furnished with gold and silver plate, and with
other costly ornaments. Christians were appointed to high offices, such as the
government of countries, and many of them held places in the emperor's palace.
And, now that there was no danger or loss to be risked by being
Christians, multitudes of people joined the Church who would have kept at a
distance from it if there had been anything to fear. But, unhappily, the
Christians did not make a good use of all their prosperity. Many of them grew
worldly and careless, and had little of the Christian about them except the
name; and they quarreled and disputed among themselves, as if they were no
better than mere heathens. But it pleased God to punish them severely for their
faults, for at length there came such a persecution as had never before been
At this time there were no fewer than four
emperors at once; for Diocletian, who became emperor in the year 284, afterwards
took in Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius, to share his power, and to help him
in the labor of government. Galerius and Constantius, however, were not quite so
high, and had not such full authority, as the other two. Galerius married
Diocletian's daughter, and it was supposed that both this lady and the empress,
her mother, were Christians. The priests and others, whose interest it was to
keep up the old heathenism, began to be afraid lest the empresses should make
Christians of their husbands; and they sought how this might be prevented.
Now the heathens had some ways by which
they used to try to find out the will of their gods. Sometimes they offered
sacrifices of beasts, and, when the beasts were killed, they cut them open, and
judged from the appearance of the inside, whether the gods were well pleased or
angry. And at certain places there were what they called oracles, where people
who wished to know the will of the gods went through some ceremonies, and
expected a voice to come from this or that god in answer to them. Sure enough,
the voice very often did come, although it was not really from any god, but was
managed by the juggling of the priests. And the answers which these voices gave
were often contrived very cunningly, that they might have more than one meaning,
so that, however things might turn out, the oracle was sure to come true.
And now the priests set to frighten Diocletian with tricks of this kind.
When he sacrificed, the insides of the victims (as the beasts offered in
sacrifice were called) were said to look in such a way as to show that the gods
were angry. When he consulted the oracles, answers were given declaring that, so
long as Christians were allowed to live on the earth, the gods would be
displeased. And thus Diocletian, although at first he had been inclined to let
them alone, became terrified, and was ready to persecute.
The first order against the Christians was
a proclamation requiring that all soldiers, and all persons who held any office
under the emperor, should sacrifice to the heathen gods (AD 298). And five years
after this, Galerius, who was a cruel man, and very bitter against the
Christians (although his wife was supposed to be one), persuaded Diocletian to
begin a persecution in earnest.
Diocletian did not usually live at Rome,
like the earlier emperors, but at Nicomedia, a town in Asia Minor, on the shore
of the Propontis (now called the Sea of Marmora). And there the persecution
began, by his sending forth an order that all who would not serve the gods of
Rome should lose their offices; that their property should be seized, and, if
they were persons of rank, they should lose their rank. Christians were no
longer allowed to meet for worship; their churches were to be destroyed, and
their holy books were to be sought out and burnt (Feb. 24, 303).
As soon as this proclamation was set forth, a Christian tore it down, and
broke into loud reproaches against the emperors. Such violent acts and words
were not becoming in a follower of Him, "who, when He was reviled, reviled
not again, and when He suffered, threatened not" (I Peter ii. 23). But the
man who had forgotten himself so far, showed the strength of his principles in
the patience with which he bore the punishment of what he had done, for he was
roasted alive at a slow fire, and did not even utter a groan.
This was in February, 303; and before the end of that year, Diocletian put forth three more proclamations against the Christians. One of them ordered that the Christian teachers should be imprisoned; and very soon the prisons were filled with bishops and clergy, while the evildoers who were usually confined in them were turned loose. The next proclamation ordered that the prisoners should either sacrifice or be tortured; and the fourth directed that not only the bishops and clergy, but all Christians, should be required to sacrifice, on pain of torture.
These cruel laws were put in execution.
Churches were pulled down, beginning with the great church of Nicomedia, which
was built on a height, and overlooked the emperor's palace. All the Bibles and
service-books that could be found, and a great number of other Christian
writings, were thrown into the flames; and many Christians who refused to give
up their holy books were put to death. The plate of churches was carried off,
and was turned to profane uses, as the vessels of the Jewish temple had formerly
been by Belshazzar.
The sufferings of the Christians were
frightful, but after what has been already said of such things, I will not shock
you by telling you much about them here. Some were thrown to wild beasts; some
were burnt alive, or roasted on gridirons; some had their skins pulled off, or
their flesh scraped from their bones; some were crucified; some were tied to
branches of trees, which had been bent so as to meet, and then they were torn to
pieces by the starting asunder of the branches.
Thousands of them perished by one horrible death or other, so that the heathens themselves grew tired and disgusted with inflicting or seeing their sufferings; and at length, instead of putting them to death, they sent them to work in mines, or plucked out one of their eyes, or lamed one of their hands or feet, or set bishops to look after horses or camels, or to do other work unfit for persons of their venerable character. And it is impossible to think what miseries even those who escaped must have undergone, for the persecution lasted ten years, and they had not only to witness the sufferings of their own dear relations, or friends, or teachers, but knew that the like might, at any hour, come on themselves.
It was in the East that the persecution
was hottest and lasted longest, for in Europe it was not much felt after the
first two years. The Emperor Constantius, who ruled over Gaul (now called
France), Spain and Britain, was kind to the Christians, and after his death, his
son Constantine was still more favorable to them.
There were several changes among the other emperors, and the Christians
felt them for better or for worse, according to the character of each emperor;
but it is needless to speak much of them in a little book like this. Galerius
went on in his cruelty until, at the end of eight years, he found that it had
been of no use towards putting down the Gospel, and that he was sinking under a
fearful disease, something like that of which Herod, who had killed James,
died (Acts 12. 23). He then thought with grief and horror of what he had done,
and (perhaps in the hope of getting some relief from the God of Christians) he
sent forth a proclamation allowing them to rebuild their churches, and to hold
their worship, and begging them to remember him in their prayers. Soon after
this he died (AD 311).
The cruelest of all the persecutors was
Maximinus, who, from the year 305, had possession of Asia Minor, Syria, the Holy
Land, and Egypt. When Galerius made his law in favor of the Christians,
Maximinus for a while pretended to give them the same kind of liberty in his
dominions. But he soon changed again, and required that all his subjects should
sacrifice-even that little babies should take some grains of incense into their
hands, and should burn it in honor of the heathen gods; and when a season of
great plenty followed after this, Maximinus boasted that it was a sign of the
favor with which the gods received his law. But it very soon appeared how false
his boast was, for famine and plague began to rage throughout his dominions. The
Christians, of course, had their share in the distress; but instead of
triumphing over their persecutors' they showed the true spirit of the Gospel by
treating them with kindness, by relieving the poor, by tending the sick, and by
burying the dead, who had been abandoned by their own nearest relations.
Although there is no room to give any
particular account of the martyrs here, there is one of them who especially
deserve to be remembered, because he was the first who suffered in our own
island. This good man, Alban, while he was yet a heathen, fell in with a poor
Christian priest, who was trying to hide himself from the persecutors. Alban
took him into his own house, and sheltered him there; and he was so much struck
with observing how the priest prayed to God, and spent long hours of the night
in religious exercises, that he soon became a believer in Christ.
But the priest was hotly searched for, and information was given that he
was hidden in Alban's house. And when the soldiers came to look for him there,
Alban knew their errand, and put on the priest's dress, so that the soldiers
seized him and carried him before the judge. The judge found that they had
brought the wrong man, and, in his rage at the disappointment, he told Alban
that he must himself endure the punishment, which had been meant for the other.
Alban heard this without any fear, and on being questioned; he declared that he
was a Christian, a worshipper of the one true God, and that he would not
sacrifice to idols, which could do no good.
He was put to the torture, but bore it gladly for his Saviorís sake,
and then, as he was still firm in professing his faith, the judge gave orders
that he should be beheaded. And when he had been led out to the place of
execution, which was a little grassy knoll that rose gently on one side of the
town, the soldier, who was to have put him to death, was so moved by the sight
of Alban's behavior, that he threw away his sword, and desired to be put to
death with him. They were both beheaded, and the town of Verulam, where they
suffered, has since been called Alban's, from the name of the first British
This martyrdom took place early in the
persecution; but, (as we have seen,) Constantius afterwards protected the
British Christians, and his son Constantine, who succeeded to his share in the
empire, treated them with yet greater favor. In the year 312, Constantine
marched against Maxentius, who had usurped the government of Italy and Africa.
Constantine seems to have been brought up by his father to believe in one God,
although he did not at all know whom this God was, nor how He had revealed
Himself in Holy Scripture.
But as he was on his way to fight Maxentius, he saw in the sky a
wonderful appearance, which seemed like the figure of a cross, with words around
it-"By this conquer!" He then caused the cross to be put on the
standards (or colors) of his army; and when he had defeated Maxentius, he set up
at Rome a statue of himself, with a cross in its right hand, and with an
inscription, which declared that, he owed his victory to that saving sign. About
the same time that Constantine overcame Maxentius, Licinius put down Maximinus
in the East. The two conquerors now had possession of the whole empire, and they
joined in publishing laws by which Christians were allowed to worship God freely
according to their conscience (AD 313).
CONSTANTINE THE GREAT (AD 313-337)
It was a great thing for the Church that
the emperor of Rome should give it liberty; and Constantine, after sending forth
the laws which put an end to the persecution, went on to make other laws in
favor of the Christians. But he did not himself become a Christian all at once,
although he built many churches and gave rich presents to others, and although
he was fond of keeping company with bishops, and of conversing with them about
religion. Licinius, the emperor of the East, who had joined with Constantine in
his first laws, afterwards quarreled with him, and persecuted the eastern
Christians cruelly, but Constantine defeated him in battle (AD 324), and the
whole empire was once more united under one head.
After his victory over Licinius,
Constantine declared himself a Christian, which he had not done before; and he
used to attend the services of the Church very regularly, and to stand all the
time that the bishops were preaching, however long their sermons might be. He
used even himself to write a kind of discourses something like sermons, and he
read them aloud in the palace to all his court; but he really knew very little
of Christian doctrine, although he was very fond of talking part in disputes
And, although he professed to be a Christian, he had not yet been made a
member of Christ by baptism, for in those days, people had so high a notion of
the grace of baptism that many of them put off their baptism until they supposed
that they were on their deathbed, for fear lest they should sin after being
baptized, and so should lose the benefit of the sacrament.
This was of course wrong; for it was a sad mistake to think that they
might go on in sin so long as they were not baptized. God, we know, might have
cut them off at any moment in the midst of all their sins, and even if they were
spared, there was a great danger that, when they came to beg for baptism at
last, they might not have that true spirit of repentance and faith without which
they could not be fit to receive the grace of the sacraments. And therefore the
teachers of the Church used to warn people against putting off their baptism out
of a love for sin; and when any one had received "clinical" baptism,
as it was called (that is to say, baptism on a sick-bed), if he afterwards got
well again, he was thought but little of in the Church.
But to come back to Constantine. He had
many other faults besides his unwillingness to take on himself the duties of a
baptized Christian; and, although we are bound to thank God for having turned
his heart to favor the Church, we must not be blind to the emperor's faults.
Yet, with all these faults, he really believed the Gospel, and meant to do what
he could for the truth.
It took a long time to put down
heathenism; for it would not have been safe or wise to force people to become
Christians before they had come to see the falsehood of their old religion.
Constantine, therefore, only made laws against some of its worst practices, and
forbade any sacrifices to be offered in the name of the empire; but he did not
hinder the heathens from sacrificing on their own account if they liked.
Soon after professing himself a Christian,
the emperor began to build a new capital in the East. There had been a town
called Byzantium on the spot before; but the new city was far grander, and he
gave it the name of Constantinople, which means the City of Constantine. It was
meant to be altogether Christian, -unlike Rome, which was full of temples of
heathen gods. And the emperors, from this time, usually lived at Constantinople,
or at some other place in the East.
It had, by this time, made its way into many countries beyond the bounds of the empire. There were Christians in Scotland and in India; there had long been great numbers of Christians in Persia and Arabia. Many of the Goths, who then lived about the Danube, had been converted by captives whom they carried off in their plundering expeditions, during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus (about AD 260), and other roving tribes had been converted by the same means. About the end of the third century, Gregory, who is called the Enlightener, had gone as a missionary bishop into Armenia, where he persuaded the king, Tridates, to receive the Gospel, and to establish it as the religion of his country: so that Armenia had the honor of being the first Christian kingdom. The Georgians were converted in the reign of Constantine; and about the same time, the Ethiopians or Abyssinians (who live to the south of Egypt) were brought to the knowledge of the truth in a very remarkable way.
There was a rich Christian of Tyre, named
Meropius, who was a philosopher, and wished to make discoveries in the countries
towards India, which were then but little known. So he set out in a ship of his
own, sailed down the Red Sea, and made a voyage to the East. On his way back, he
and his crew landed at a place on the coast of Ethiopia, in search of fresh
water, when the people of the country fell on them, and killed all but two
youths named Aedesius and Frumentius, who were relations of Meropius.
These lads were taken to the king's court, where, as they were better
educated than the Ethiopians, they soon got into great favor and power. The king
died after a time, leaving a little boy to succeed him; and the two strangers
were asked to carry on the government of the country until the prince should be
old enough to take it into his own hands. They did this faithfully, and stayed
many years in Ethiopia; and they used to look out for any Christian sailors or
merchants who visited the country, and to hold meetings with such strangers and
others for worship, although they were distressed that they had no clergy to
minister to them.
At length the young prince grew up to manhood, and was able to govern his
kingdom for himself; and then Aedesius and Frumentius set out for their own
country, which they had been longing to see for so many years. Aedesius got back
to Tyre, where he became a deacon of the Church. But Frumentius stopped at
Alexandria, and told his tale to the bishop, the great Athanasius (of whom
we shall hear more by-and-by), and he begged that a bishop might be sent into
Ethiopia to settle and govern the Church there.
Athanasius, considering how faithful and wise Frumentius had shown
himself in all his business, how greatly he was respected and loved by the
Ethiopians, and how much he had done to spread the gospel in the land of his
captivity, said that no one was so fit as he to be bishop; and he consecrated
Frumentius accordingly. To this day the chief bishop of the Abyssinian Church,
instead of being chosen from among the clergy of the country, is always a person
sent by the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, and thus the Abyssians still keep up
the remembrance of the way in which their Church was founded, although the
bishopric of Alexandria is now sadly fallen from the height at which it stood in
the days of Athanasius and Frumentius.
Constantine used his influence with the
king of Persia, whose name was Sapor, to obtain good treatment for the
Christians of that country; and the Gospel continued to make progress there. But
this naturally raised the jealousy of the magi, who were the priests of the
heathen religion of Persia, and they looked out for some means of doing mischief
to the Christians. So a few years after the death of Constantine, when a war
broke out between Sapor and the next emperor, Constantius, these magi got about
the king, and told him that his Christian subjects would be ready to betray him
to the Romans, from whom they had got their religion. Sapor then issued orders
that all Christians should pay an enormous tax, unless they would worship the
gods of the Persians. Their chief bishop, whose name was Symeon, on receiving
this order, answered that the tax was more than they could pay, and that they
worshipped the true God alone, who had made the sun, which the Persians
Sapor then sent forth a second order, that
the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Christians should be put to death, that
their churches should be destroyed, and that the plate and ornaments of the
churches should be taken for profane uses, and he sent for Symeon, who was soon
brought before him. The bishop had been used to make obeisance to the king,
after the fashion of the country; but on coming into his presence now, he
refused to do so, lest it should be taken as a sign of that reverence which he
was resolved to give to God alone. Sapor then required him to worship the sun,
and told him that by doing so he might deliver himself and his people. But the
bishop answered, that if he had refused to do reverence to the king, much more
must he refuse such honor to the sun, which was a thing without reason or life.
On this, the king ordered that he should be thrown into prison until next day.
As he was on his way to prison, Symeon
passed an old and faithful servant of the king, named Uthazanes, who had brought
up Sapor from a child, and stood high in his favor. Uthazanes, seeing the bishop
led away in chains, fell on his knee and saluted him in the Persian fashion. But
Symeon turned away his head, and could not look at him, for Uthazanes had been a
Christian, and had lately denied the faith. The old man's conscience was smitten
by this, and he burst out into lamentation-"If my old and familiar friend
disowns me thus, what may I expect from my God whom I have denied!"
His words were heard, and he was carried before the king, who tried to
move him both by threats and by kindness. But Uthazanes stood firm against
everything, and, as he could not be shaken in his faith, he was sentenced to be
beheaded. He then begged the king, for the sake of the love which had long been
between them, to grant him the favor that it might be proclaimed why he
died-that he was not guilty of any treason, but was put to death only for being
Sapor was very willing to allow this, because he thought that it would
frighten others into worshipping his gods. But it turned out as Uthazanes had
hoped; for when it was seen how he loved his faith better than life itself,
other Christians were encouraged to suffer, and even some heathens were brought
over to the Gospel. Bishop Symeon was put to death after having seen a hundred
of his clergy suffer before his eyes; and the persecution was renewed from time
to time throughout the remainder of Sapor's long reign.
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria by
whom Arius had been excommunicated, died soon after returning home from the
Council of Nicaea, and Athanasius, who was then about thirty years of age, was
chosen in his stead, and governed the Alexandrian church for six-and-forty
years. Every one knows the name of Athanasius, from the creed, which is
called after it. That creed, indeed, was not made by Athanasius himself;
but, as the Prayer book says, It is "commonly called" his, because it
sets forth the true Christian faith, of which he was the chief defender in his
day. And we are bound to honor this learned and holy bishop, as the man by whom
especially God was pleased that His truth should be upheld and established
against all the craft of Arius and his party, and even against all the power of
the emperors of Rome.
For, although Arius had been sent into
banishment, he soon managed to get into favor at the emperor's court. One of his
friends, a priest, gained the ear of Constantine's sister, and this princess,
when she was dying, recommended the priest to the emperor. Neither Constantine
not his sister understood enough of the matter to be on their guard against the
deceits of the Arian, who was able to persuade the emperor that Arius had been
ill-used, and that he did not really hold the opinions for which the council had
condemned him. Arius, then, was allowed to return from banishment, and
Constantine desired Athanasius to receive him back into the Church, saying that
he was not guilty of the errors, which had been laid to his charge. But
Athanasius knew that this was only a trick; and he answered that, as Arius had
been condemned by a council of the whole Church, he could not be restored by
anything less than another such council.
The Arians, on finding that they could not
win Athanasius over, resolved to attack him. They contrived that all sorts of
charges against him should be carried to the emperor; and in the year 335, a
council was held at Tyre for his trial. One story was, that he had killed an
Egyptian bishop, named Arsenius, that he had cut off his hand, and had used it
for magical purposes (for, among other things, Athanasius was said by his
enemies to be a sorcerer!), and the dried hand of a man was shown, which was
said to be that of Arsenius. But when the time came for examining this charge,
what was the confusion of the accusers at seeing Arsenius himself brought into
the council! He was dressed in a long cloak, and Athanasius lifted it up, first
on one side, and then on the other, so as to show that the man was not only
alive, but had both his hands safe and sound. The leaders of the Arians had
known that Arsenius was not dead, but they had hoped that he would not appear.
But, happily for Athanasius, one of his friends had discovered Arsenius, and had
kept him hidden until the right moment came for producing him.
Athanasius was able to answer the other charges against him, as well as that about Arsenius; and the Arians, seeing that they must contrive some new accusation, sent some of his bitterest enemies into Egypt, to rake up all the tales that they could find. Athanasius knew what he might expect from people who could act so unfairly; he therefore resolved not to wait for their return, but got on board a ship, which was bound, for Constantinople. On arriving there, he posted himself in a spot outside the city, where he expected the emperor to pass in returning from a ride; and when Constantine came up, he threw himself in his way.
The emperor was startled; but
Athanasius told him who he was, and entreated him, by the thought of that
judgment in which princes as well as subjects must one day appear, to order that
the case should be tried before himself, instead of leaving it to judges from
whom no justice was to be looked for. The emperor agreed to this, and was very
angry with those who had behaved so unjustly in the council at Tyre.
But after a time some of the Arians got about him and told him another
story-that Athanasius had threatened to stop the sailing of the fleet which
carried corn from Alexandria to Constantinople; This was a charge which touched
Constantine very closely, because Constantinople depended very much on the
Egyptian corn for food, and he thought that the bishop, who had so much power at
Alexandria, might perhaps be able to stop the fleet, and to starve the people of
the capital, if he pleased. And-whether the emperor believed the story, or
whether he wished to shelter Athanasius for a while from his persecutors by
putting him out of the way-he sent him into banishment at Treves, on the banks
of the Moselle, in a part of Gaul which is now reckoned to belong to Germany.
Except for the separation from his flock, this banishment would have been no
great hardship for Athanasius, for he was treated with great respect by the
bishop of Treves, and by the emperor's eldest son, who lived there, and all good
men honored him for his steadfastness in upholding the true faith.
But, although Athanasius was removed, the
Alexandrian Church would not admit Arius. So, after a while, the emperor
resolved to have him admitted at Constantinople, and a council of bishops agreed
that it should be so. The bishop of Constantinople, whose name was Alexander,
and who was almost a hundred years old, was grievously distressed at this; he
desired his people to entreat God, with fasting and prayer, that it might not
come to pass, and he threw himself under the altar, and prayed very earnestly
that the evil which was threatened might be somehow turned away: or that, at
least, he himself might not live to see it.
At length, on the evening before the day,
which had been fixed for receiving Arius into the Church, he was going through
the streets of Constantinople, in high spirits, and talking with some friends of
what was to take place on the morrow. But all at once he felt himself ill, and
went into a house, which was near, and in a few minutes he was dead! His death,
taking place at such a time and in such a way, made a great impression, and
people were ready enough to look on it as a direct judgment of God on his
impiety. But Athanasius, although he felt the awfulness of the unhappy man's
sudden end, did not take it on himself to speak in this way; and we too shall do
well not to pronounce judgment in such cases, remembering what our Lord said as
to the Galileans who were slain by Pilate, and as to the men who were killed by
the falling of the tower of Siloam (Luke xiii. 1-5). While we abhor the
errors of Arius, let us leave the judgment of him to God
Although Constantine in his last years was
very much in the hands of the Arians, we must not suppose that he meant to favor
their heresy. For these people (as I have said already, and shall have occasion
to say again) were very crafty, and took great pains to hide the worst of their
opinions. They used words which sounded quite right, except to the few persons
who, like Athanasius, were quick enough to understand what bad meanings might be
disguised under these fair words. And whenever they wished to get one of the
faithful bishops turned out, they took care not to attack him about his faith,
but about some other things, as we have seen in the case of Athanasius. Thus
they managed to blind the emperor, who did not know much about the matter, so
that, while they were using him as a tool, and were persuading him to help them
with all his power, he all the while fancied that he was firmly maintaining the
Constantine, after all that he had done in
religious disputes, was still not baptized. Perhaps he was a
"catechumen", which (as has been explained before, see page 18) was
the name given to persons who were supposed to be in a course of training for
baptism; but it is not certain that he was even so much as a catechumen. At
last, shortly after the death of Arius, the emperor felt himself very sick, and
believed that his end was near. He sent for some bishops, and told them that he
had put off his baptism because he had wished to receive it in the river Jordan,
like our Lord Himself; but as God had not granted him this, he begged that they
would baptize him. He was baptized accordingly, and during the remaining days of
his life he refused to wear any other robes than the white dress, which used
then to be put on at baptism, by way of signifying the cleansing of the soul
from sin. And thus the first Christian emperor died at a palace near Nicomedia,
on Whitsunday in the year 337.
At Constantine's death, the empire was
divided among his three sons. The eldest of them, whose name was the same as his
father's, and the youngest, Constance, were friendly to the true faith. But the
second son, Constantius, was won ever by the Arians; and as, through the death
of his brothers, he got possession of the whole empire within a few years, his
connection with that party led to great mischief. All through his reign, there
were unceasing disputes about religion. Councils were almost continually sitting
in one place or another, and bishops were posting about to one of them after
another at the emperor's expense. Constantius did not mean ill, but he went even
further than his father in meddling with things, which he did not understand.
The Arians went on in the same cunning way as before. I may mention, by way of example, the behavior of Leontius, bishop of Antioch. The catholics (that is to say, those who held the faith which the Church throughout all the world held (the word "catholic", which means "Universal", is not to be confounded with "roman-catholic")), used to sing in church, as we do- "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;" but the Arians sang, "Glory be to the Father, by the Son, in the Holy Ghost"-for they did not allow the Second and Third Persons to be of the same nature with the First.
Leontius, then, who was an Arian, and yet did not wish people to know
exactly what he was, used to mumble his words, so that nobody could make them
out, until he came to the part in which all parties agreed; and then he sang out
loudly and clearly- "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen." He was an old man, and sometimes he would point
to his white hair, and say, "When this snow melts, there will be a great
deal of mud," meaning that after his death the two parties would come to
open quarrels, which he had tried to prevent during his lifetime by such crafty
behavior as that which has just been mentioned.
The three young emperors met shortly after
their father's death. It was agreed between them that Athanasius should be
allowed to return to Alexandria; and for this favor he was chiefly indebted to
young Constantine, who had known him during his banishment at Treves. The bishop
returned accordingly, and was received with great rejoicing by his flock. But in
about three years his enemies contrived that he should be again turned out (AD
341), and he was in banishment eight years. He was then restored again (AD 349);
but his enemies watched their time and spared no pains to get rid of him. One by
one, they contrived to thrust out all the chief bishops who would have been
inclined to take part with him; and at length, in the beginning of 356,
Constantius sent a general named Syrianus to Alexandria, with orders to drive
The Alexandrians were so much attached to their great bishop that there
was a fear lest they might prevent any open attempt against him. But Syrianus
contrived to throw them off their guard, and one night, while Athanasius was
keeping watch with many of his clergy and people, in one of the churches (as the
Christians of those days used to do before their great festivals and at other
times), Syrianus suddenly beset the church with a great number of soldiers, and
a multitude made up of Arians, Jews and the heathen rabble of the city.
When Athanasius heard the noise outside the church, he sat down calmly on
his throne, and desired the congregation to chant the hundred and thirty-sixth
psalm, in which God's deliverances of His people in old times are celebrated;
and the whole congregation joined in the last part of every verse, "For His
mercy endures for ever." The doors were shut, but the soldiers forced them
open and rushed in; and it was a fearful sight to see their drawn swords and
their armor flashing by the lamplight in the house of God. As they advanced up
the church, many of the congregation were trodden down or crushed to death, or
pierced through with their darts.
Athanasius stood calm in the midst of all the terrible din. His clergy,
when they saw the soldiers pushing on towards the sanctuary (as the part of the
church was called that was railed off for the clergy), entreated him to save
himself by flight; but he declared that he would not go until his people were
safe, and waited until most of them had made their escape through doors in the
upper part of the church. At last, when the soldiers were pressing very close to
the sanctuary, the clergy closed round their bishop, and hurried him away by a
secret passage. And when they had got him out of the church, they found that he
had fainted, for although his courage was high, his body was weak and delicate,
and the dreadful scene had overcome him.
But he escaped to the deserts of Egypt, where he lived in peace among the
monks for six years, until the death of Constantius. His enemies thought that he
might perhaps, seek a refugee in Ethiopia, and Constantius wrote to beg that the
princes of that country should not shelter him, and that the bishop, Frumentius
(see page 41), might be sent to receive instruction in the faith from the Arian
bishop who was put into the see of Alexandria. But Athanasius was safe
elsewhere, and Frumentius wisely stayed at home.
The new Arian bishop of Alexandria was a
Cappadocian named George. He was a coarse, ignorant, and violent man, and
behaved with great cruelty to Athanasius friends-even putting many of them to
death. But Athanasius from his quiet retreat, kept a watch over all that was
done as to the affairs of the Church, both at Alexandria and elsewhere; and from
time to time he wrote books, which reached places where he himself could not
venture to appear. So that, although he was not seen during these years, he made
himself felt, both to the confusion of the Arians, and to the comfort and
encouragement of the faithful.
Constantius had no children, and after his
death (AD 350), his nearest male relation was a cousin named Julian. The emperor
gave his sister in marriage to this cousin, and also gave him the government of
a part of the empire; but he always treated him with distrust and jealousy, so
that Julian never loved him. And this was not the worst of it; for Julian, who
had lost his father when he was very young, and had been brought up under the
direction of Constantius, took a strong dislike to his cousin's religion, which
was forced on him in a way that a lively boy could not well be expected to
He was obliged to spend a great part of his time in attending the
services of the Church, and was even made a reader, (which was one of the lowest
kinds of ministers in the Church of those times,) and, unfortunately, the end of
all this was, that instead of being truly religious, he learned to be a
hypocrite. When he grew older, and was left more to himself, he fell into the
hands of the heathen philosophers, who were very glad to get hold of a prince
who might one day be emperor. So Julian's mind was poisoned with their opinions,
and he gave up all belief in the Gospel, although he continued to profess
himself a Christian for nine years longer. On account of his having thus
forsaken the faith he is commonly called the "Apostate."
At length, when Julian was at Paris, early
in the year 361, Constantius sent him some orders which neither he nor his
soldiers were disposed to obey. The soldiers lifted him up on a shield and
proclaimed him emperor; and Julian set out at their head to fight for the
throne. He marched boldly eastward, until he came to the Danube; then he
embarked his troops and descended the great river for many hundreds of miles
into the country, which is now called Hungary. Constantius left Antioch, and was
marching to meet Julian's army, when he was taken ill, and died at a little town
in Cilicia. Like his father, he was baptized only a day or two before his death.
Julian now came into possession of the
empire without further dispute, and he did all that he could to set heathenism
up again. But in many parts of the empire, Christianity had taken such root that
very few of the people held to the old religion, or wished to see it restored.
Thus, we are told that once, when the emperor went to a famous temple near
Antioch, on a great heathen festival, in the hope of finding things carried on
as they had been before Constantine's time, only one old priest was to be seen;
and, instead of the costly sacrifices which had been offered in the former days
of heathenism, the poor old man had nothing better than a single goose to offer.
Julian knew that in past times Christians
had always been ready to suffer for their faith, and that the patience of the
martyrs had always led to the increase of the Church. He did think it wise,
therefore, to go to work in the same way as the earlier persecuting emperors,
but he contrived to annoy the Christians very much by other means, and sometimes
great cruelties were committed against them under his authority. Yet, with all
this, he pretended to allow them the exercise of their religion, and he gave
leave to those who had been banished by Constantius to return home, -not that he
really meant to do them any kindness, but because he hoped that they would all
fall to quarrelling among themselves, and that he should be able to take
advantage of their quarrels. But in this hope he was happily disappointed, for
they had learnt wisdom by suffering, and were disposed to make peace with each
other as much as possible, while they were all threatened by the enemies of the
Savior's very name.
The first thing that the heathens of
Alexandria did when they heard of the death of Constantius had been to kill the
Arian bishop, George; for he had behaved in such a way that the heathens hated
him even more than the catholics did. Another Arian bishop was set up in his
place; but when Julian had given leave for the banished to return, Athanasius
came back, and the Arian was turned out.
The Alexandrians received Athanasius with
great joy and he did all that was in his power to reconcile the parties of
Christians among themselves. For, although no one could be more earnest than he
in maintaining every particle of the faith necessary for a true Christian, he
was careful not to insist on things, which were not necessary. He knew, too,
that people who really meant alike were often divided from each other by not
understanding one another's words; and he was always ready to make allowance for
them, as far as he could do so without giving away the truth. But Julian was
afraid to let him remain at Alexandria, and was greatly provoked at hearing that
he had converted and baptized some heathen ladies of rank. So the emperor wrote
to the Alexandrians, telling them that, although they might choose another
bishop for themselves, they must not let Athanasius remain among them, and
banishing the bishop from all Egypt.
Athanasius, when he heard of this, said to his friends, "Let us
withdraw; this is but a little cloud which will soon pass over;" and he set
off up the river Nile in a boat. After a while, another boat was seen in pursuit
of him; but Athanasius then told his boatmen to turn round, and to sail down the
river again; and when they met the other boat, from which they had not been seen
until after turning, they answered the questions of its crew in such a way that
they there allowed to pass without being suspected of having the bishop on
board. Thus Athanasius got safe back to the city, and there he lay hid securely
while his enemies were searching for him elsewhere. But after a little time he
withdrew to the deserts, where he was welcomed and sheltered by his old friends
In his hatred of Christianity, Julian not
only tried to restore heathenism, but also showed favor to the Jews. He sent for
some of them, and asked why they did not offer sacrifice as their law had
ordered? They answered that it was not lawful to sacrifice except in the temple
of Jerusalem, which was now in ruins, and did not belong to them, so that they
could no longer fulfill the duty of sacrificing. Julian then gave them leave to
build the temple up again, and the Jews came together in vast numbers from the
different countries into which they had been scattered.
Many of them had got great wealth in the lands of their banishment, and
it is said that even the women labored at the work, carrying earth in their rich
silken dresses, and that tools of silver were used in the building. The Jews
were full of triumph at the thought of being restored to their own land, and of
reviving the greatness of David and Solomon. But it was not to be. An earthquake
scattered the foundations which had been laid; balls of fire burst forth from
the ground, scorching and killing many of the workmen; their tools were melted
by lightning; and stories are told of other fearful sights, which put an end to
Julian indeed, meant to set about it once more after returning from a
war, which he had undertaken against the Persians. But he never lived to do so.
Athanasius was not mistaken when he said that his heathen emperor's tyranny
would be only as a passing cloud, for Julian's reign lasted little more than a
year and a half in all. He led his army into Persia in the spring of 363, and in
June of that year he was killed in a skirmish by night.
Julian left no child to succeed him in the
empire, and the army chose as his successor a Christian named Jovian, who soon
undid all that Julian had done in matters of religion. The new emperor invited
Athanasius to visit him at Antioch, and took his advice as to the restoration of
the true faith. But Jovian's reign lasted only eight months, and Valentinian,
who was then made emperor, gave the empire of the East to his brother Valens,
who was a furious Arian, and treated the catholics with great cruelty. We are
told, for instance, that when eighty of their bishops had carried a petition to
him, he put them on board a ship, and when it had got out to sea, the sailors,
by his orders, set it on fire, and made their escape in boats, leaving the poor
bishops to be burned to death.
Valens turned many "orthodox"
bishops (that is to say, bishops "of the right faith") out of their
sees, and meant to turn out Athanasius, who hid himself for a while in his
father's tomb. But the people of Alexandria begged earnestly that their bishop
might be allowed to remain with then, and the emperor did not think it safe to
deny their request, lest there should be some outbreak in the city. And thus,
while the faith of which Athanasius had so long been the chief defender, and for
the sake of which he had borne so much, was under persecution in all other parts
of the eastern empire, the great bishop of Alexandria was allowed to spend his
last years among his own flock without disturbance. He died in the year 373, at
the age of seventy-six.
In the story of Athanasius, monks have been more than once mentioned, and it is now time to give some account of these people and of their ways.
The word "monk" properly means
one who leads a "lonely" life; and the name was given to persons who
professed to withdraw from the world and its business that they might give
themselves up to serve God in religious thoughts and exercises. Among the Jews
there had been whole classes of people who practiced this sort of retirement:
some, called "Essenes", lived near the Red Sea; and others, called
"Therapeutae," in Egypt, where a great number of Jews had settled.
Among the heathens of the East, too, a like manner of living had been common for
ages, as it still continues to be; and many of them carry it to an excessive
strictness, as we are told by travelers who have visited India, Tibet, and other
countries of Asia.
Nothing of the kind, however, is commanded
for Christians in the New Testament; and when Scripture warrant for the monkish
life was sought for, the great patterns who were produced were Elijah and St
John the Baptist-the one of them an Old Testament prophet; the other, a holy man
who lived, indeed, in the days when our Lord Himself was on the earth, but who
was not allowed to enter into His Church, or to see it fully established by the
coming of the Holy Ghost at the day of Pentecost.
But still it was very natural that the notion of a life of strict
poverty, retirement from the world, and employment in spiritual things, should
find favor with Christians, as a means of fulfilling the duties of their holy
calling, and so it seems that some of them took to this way of life very early.
But the first who is named as a "hermit" (that is to say, a dweller in
the wilderness) was Paul, a young man of Alexandria, who, in the year 251, fled
from the persecution of Decius into the Egyptian desert, where he is said to
have lived ninety years. Paul, although he afterwards became very famous, spent
his days without being known, until, just before his death, he was visited by
another great hermit, Antony. But Antony himself was a person of great note
and importance in his own lifetime.
He was born in the district of Thebes, in
Egypt, in the very same year that Paul withdrew from the world. While a boy, he
was thoughtful and serious. His parents died before he had reached the age of
twenty, and left him considerable wealth. One day, when in church, he was struck
by hearing the story of the rich young man who was charged to sell all that he
had, give to the poor, and follow our Lord. At another
time he was moved by hearing the charge to "take no thought for the
morrow". And in order to obey these commands (as he
thought), Antony parted with all that belonged to him, bade farewell to his only
sister, and left his home, with the intention of living in loneliness and
He carried on this life for many years, and several times changed his abode, that he might seek out some place still wilder and more remote than the last. But he grew so famous that people flocked even into the depths of the wilderness to see him. A number of disciples gathered around him, and hermits or monks began to copy his way of life in other parts of Egypt. Anthonyís influence became very great; he made peace between enemies, comforted mourners, and gave advice to all who asked him as to spiritual concerns; and when he took the part of any oppressed person who applied to him, his interference was always successful. Affairs of this kind sometimes obliged him to leave his cell (as the dwellings of the monks were called); but he always returned as soon as possible, for he used to say, "a monk out of his solitude is like a fish out of water."
Even the emperors, Constantine and his sons, wrote to him with great
respect, and asked him to visit their courts. He thanked them, but did not
accept their invitation, and he wrote more than once to them in favor of Athanasius, whom he steadily supported in his troubles on account of the faith.
On two great occasions he visited Alexandria, for the purpose of strengthening
his brethren in their sufferings for the truth. The first of these visits was
while the last heathen persecution, under Maximinus, was raging. Antony stood by the martyrs at their trials and in their death,
and took all opportunities of declaring himself a Christian; but the persecutors
did not venture to touch him: and, after waiting till the heat of the danger was
past, he again withdrew to the wilderness.
The second visit was in the time of the Arian disturbances, when his appearance had even a greater effect than before. The catholics were encouraged by his exhortations, and a great number of conversions took place in consequence. Antony died, at the age of a hundred and five, in the year 356, a few days before the great bishop of Alexandria was driven to seek a refuge in the desert.
antony, as we have seen, was a hermit,
living in the wilderness by himself. But by-and-by other kinds of monks were
established, who lived in companies together. Sometimes they were lodged in
clusters of little cells, each of them having his separate cell, or two or three
living together; sometimes the cells were all in one large building, called a
monastery. The head of each monastery, or of each cluster of cells, was called
"abbot", which means, "father". And in some cases there were
many monasteries belonging to one "order", so that they were all
considered as one society, and there was one chief abbot over all. Thus the
order founded by Pachomius, on an island in the Nile, soon spread, so that
before his death it had eight monasteries, with three thousand monks among them;
and about fifty years later, it had no fewer than fifty thousand monks.
These monks of Pachomius lived in cells,
each of which contained three. Each cluster of cells had its abbot; the head of
the order, who was called the "archimandrite" (which means chief of a
sheepfold), went around occasionally to visit all the societies which were under
him, and the whole order met every year at the chief monastery for the festival
Eeaster, and a second time in the month of August. The monks of Pachomius
prayed many times a day. They fasted every Wednesday and Friday, and
communicated every Sunday and Saturday. They took their meals together and sang
psalms before each of them.
They were not allowed to talk at table, but sat with their hoods drawn
over their faces, so that no one could see his neighbors, or anything but the
food before him. Their dress was coarse and plain; the chief article of it was a
rough goat-skin, in imitation of the prophet Elijah. They slept with their
clothes on, not in beds, but in chairs, which were of such a shape as to keep
them almost standing. They spent their time not only in prayers and other
religious exercises, but in various kinds of simple work, such as laboring in
the fields, weaving baskets, ropes, and nets, or making shoes. They had boats in
which they sent the produce of their labor down the Nile to Alexandria; and the
money which they got by selling it was not only enough to keep them, but enabled
them to redeem captives, and to do such other acts of charity.
This account of the monks of Pachomius
will give some notion of the monkish life in general, although one order
differed from another in various ways. All that the monks had was considered to
belong to them in common, after the pattern of the first Christians, as was
supposed; and no one was allowed to have anything of his
own. Thus we are told that when a monk was found at his death to have left a
hundred pieces of silver, which he had earned by weaving flax, his brethren, who
were about three thousand in number, met to consider what should be done with
the money. Some were for giving it to the Church some, to the poor. But the
fathers of the society quoted Peter's words to Simon the sorcerer, "Thy
money perish with thee", and on the strength of this text
(which in truth had not much to do with the matter), they ordered that it should
be buried with its late owner. Jerome, who tells the story, says that this
was not done out of any wish to condemn the dead monk, but in order that others
might be deterred from hoarding.
These different kinds of monks were first
established in various parts of Egypt; but their way of life was soon taken up
in other countries; and societies of women, who were called "nuns"
(that is to say "mothers"), were formed under the same kind of rules.
One thing, which had much to do with making monkish life so common, was, that when persecution by the heathen was at an end, many Christians felt the want of something, which might assure them that they were separate from the world, as Christ's true people ought to be. It was no longer enough that they should call themselves Christians, for the world had come to call itself Christian too. Perhaps we may think that it would have been better if those who wished to live religiously had tried to go on doing their duty in the world, and to improve it by the example and the influence of holy and charitable lives, instead of running away from it.
And they were certainly much mistaken if they fancied that by hiding
themselves in the desert they were likely to escape temptations. For temptations
followed them into their retreats, and we have only too many proofs, in the
accounts of famous monks, that the effect of this mistake was often very sad
indeed. And we may be sure that if the good men who in those days were active in
recommending the life of monks had been able to foresee how things would turn
out, they would have been much more cautious in what they said of it.
It was not every one who was fit for such
a life, and many took it up without rightly considering whether they were fit
for it. The kind of work, which was provided for them, was not enough to occupy
them thoroughly, and many of them suffered grievously from temptations to which
then idleness laid them open. It was supposed, indeed, that they might find the
thoughts of heavenly things enough to fill their minds; and, when a philosopher
asked antony how he could live without books, he answered that for him the whole
creation was a book, always at hand, in which he could read God's word whenever
he pleased. But it was not every one who could find such delight in that great
book, and many of the monks, for want of employment, were tormented by all sorts
of evil thoughts, nay, some of them were even driven into madness by their way
The monks ran into very strange mistakes
as to their duty towards their kindred. Even antony himself, although he was
free from many of the faults of spiritual pride and the like, which became too
common among his followers, thought himself bound to overcome his love for his
young sister. And, as another sample of the way in which monks were expected to
deaden their natural affections, I may tell you how his disciple pior
behaved. pior, when a youth, left his father's house, and vowed that he would never again
look on any of his relations-which was surely a very rash and foolish and wrong
vow. He went into the desert, and had lived there fifty years, when his sister
heard that he was still alive. She was too infirm to go in search of him, but
she contrived that the abbot, under whose authority he was, should order him to
pay her a visit. pior went accordingly, and, when he had reached her house, he
stood in front of it, and sent to tell her that he was there.
The poor old woman made all haste to get to him; her heart was full of
love and delight at the thoughts of seeing her brother again after so long a
separation. But as soon as pior heard the door opening, he shut his eyes, and he
kept them shut all through the meeting. He refused to go into his sister's
house, and when he had let her see him for a short time in this way, without
showing her any token of kindness, he hurried back to the desert.
In later times monks were usually ordained
as clergy of the Church. But at first it was not intended that they should be
so, and in each monastery there were only so many clergy as were needed for the
performance of Divine Service and other works of the ministry. And in those
early days, many monks had a great fear of being ordained clergymen or bishops,
because they thought that the active business in which bishops and other clergy
were obliged to engage, would hinder their reaching to the higher degrees of
holiness. Thus a famous monk, named Ammonius, on being chosen for a bishopric,
cut off one of his ears, thinking that this blemish would prevent his being made
a priest, as it would have done under the law of Moses (Lev. xxi. 17-23), and
when he was told that it was not so in the Christian Church, he threatened to
cut out his tongue.
It was not long before the sight of the
great respect, which was paid to the monks, led many worthless people to call
themselves monks for the sake of what they might get by doing so. These fellows
used to go about, wearing heavy chains, uncouthly dressed, and behaving roughly,
and they told outrageous stories of visions and of fights with devils which they
pretended to have had. By such tricks they got large sums of money from people
who were foolish enough to encourage them; and they spent it in the most
But besides these vile hypocrites, many
monks who seem to have been sincere enough ran into very strange extravagances.
There was one kind of them called "Grazers", who used to live among
mountains, without any roof to shelter them, browsing, like beasts, on grass and
herbs, and by degrees growing much more like beasts than men. And in the
beginning of the fifth century, one Symeon founded a new sort of monks, who were
called "Stylites" (that is to say, pillar saints), from a Greek word,
which means a pillar. Symeon was a Syrian, and lived on the top of one pillar
after another for seven-and-thirty years. Each pillar was higher than the one
before it; the height of the last of them was forty cubits (or seventy feet),
and the top of it was only a yard across.
There Symeon was to be seen, with a heavy iron chain round his neck, and
great numbers of people flocked to visit him; some of them even went all the way
from our own country. And when he was dead, a monk named Daniel got the old cowl
which he had worn, and built himself a pillar near Constantinople, where he
lived three-and-thirty years. The high winds sometimes almost blew him from his
place, and sometimes he was covered for days with snow and ice, until the
emperor Leo made him submit to let a shed be built round the top of his pillar.
The fame and influence, which these monks gained, were immense. They were
supposed to have the power of prophecy and of miracles; they were consulted even
by emperors and kings, in the most important matters; and sometimes, on great
occasions, when a Stylite descended from his pillar, or some famous hermit left
his cell, and appeared among the crowds of a city, he was able to make
everything bend to his will.
We must not be blind to the serious errors
of monks; but we are bound also to own that God was pleased to make it the
means of great good.
The monks did much for the conversion of the heathen, and
when the ages of darkness came on, after the overthrow of the Roman empire in
the West, they rendered inestimable service in preserving the knowledge of
learning and religion, which, but for them, might have utterly perished from the
BASIL AND GREGORY OF NAZIANZUM; COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE, (AD 373-381)
Although Athanasius was now dead, God
did not fail to raise up champions for the true faith. Three of the most famous
of these were natives of Cappadocia-namely, Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa,
and his friend Gregory of Nazianzum. But although Gregory of Nyssa was a very
good and learned man, and did great service to the truth by his writings, there
was nothing remarkable in the story of his life; so I shall only tell you about
the other two.
Basil and Gregory of Nazianzum were both
born about the year 329. Basil was of a noble Christian family. Gregory's father
had belonged to a strange sect called Hypsistarians, whose religion was a
mixture of Jewish and heathen notions, but he had been converted from it by his
wife, Nonna, who was a very pious and excellent woman, and, before his son's
birth, he had risen to be bishop of Nazianzum.
The two youths became acquainted at school
in Cappadocia, and, when they were afterwards sent to the famous schools of
Athens, they grew into the closest friendship. They lived and read and walked
together: Gregory says that they had all things common, and that it was as if
they had only one soul in two bodies. Athens was an excellent place for learning
all that the wise men of this world could teach, and therefore students flocked
to it from distant countries. But it was a dangerous place for Christian young
men; for the teachers were heathen philosophers, and knew well how to entangle
them in arguments, so that many of the pupils, who did not rightly understand
the grounds of their faith, were deceived into giving it up.
Thus, at the very time when Basil and Gregory were at Athens, Julian was
also there, sucking up the heathen notions, which led to so much evil when he
afterwards became emperor. But the two Cappadocians kept themselves clear from
all the snares of "philosophy and vain deceit"; and
although they were the foremost of all the students in Athens for learning, and
might have hoped to make a great figure in the world by their talents, they
resolved to give up all worldly ambition, and to devote themselves to the
ministry of the Church.
So they were both ordained to be
clergymen, and their friendship continued as warm as ever. (Gregory did many
kind offices to Basil, and at length, when the archbishopric of Caesarea, the
chief city of Cappadocia, fell vacant, Gregory had a great share in getting his
friend chosen to it. Basil was now in a very high office, with many bishops
under him; and he had become noted as one of the chief defenders of the catholic
faith. And when the emperor Valens set up Arianism in all other parts of his
dominions, Basil remained at his post, and kept the Church of Caesarea free from
the heresy. Valens came into Cappadocia, and was angry that, while his wishes
were obeyed everywhere else, Basil should hold out against them: so he sent an
officer named Modestus to Caesarea, and ordered him to require the archbishop to
submit, on pain of being turned out.
Modestus told Basil his errand, and threatened him with loss of his
property, torture, banishment, and even death, in case of his refusal. But Basil
was not at all daunted. "Think of some other threat," he said,
"for these have no influence on me. As for loss of property, I run no risk,
for I have nothing to lose except these mean garments and a few books. Nor does
a Christian care for banishment, since he has no home upon earth, but makes
every country his own, or rather, he looks on the whole world as God's, and on
himself as God's pilgrim upon earth. Neither can tortures harm me, for my body
is so weak that the first blow would kill me; and death would be a gain, for it
would but send me the sooner to Him for whom I live and labor, and to whom I
have long been journeying."
Modestus returned to his master with an
account of what had been said, and Valens himself soon after came to Caesarea.
But when he went to the cathedral on the festival of the Epiphany, and saw Basil
at the head of his clergy, and witnessed their solemn service, he was struck
with awe. He wished to make an offering, as the custom was, but none of the
clergy went to receive his gift, and he almost fainted at the thought of being
thus rejected from the Church, as if he had no part or lot in it. He afterwards
sent for Basil, and had some conversation with him, and the end of the affair
was, that he not only left Basil in possession of his see, but bestowed a
valuable estate on a hospital, which the archbishop had lately founded.
While Basil had risen, by Gregory's help,
to be an archbishop, Gregory himself was still a presbyter. He would not have
taken even this office but that his father ordained him to it almost by force;
and he had a great dread of being raised to the high and difficult office of a
bishop. But Basil, for certain reasons, wished to establish a bishop in a little
town called Sashimi, and he fixed on his old friend, without, perhaps, thinking
so much as he ought to have thought, whether the place and the man were likely
to suit each other. The old bishop of Nazianzum did all that he could to
overcome his son's unwillingness, and Gregory was consecrated; but he thought
himself unkindly used, and complained much of Basil's behavior in the matter.
After a time, Basil and other leaders of
the "orthodox" (that is, of those who "held the right
faith") urged Gregory to undertake a mission to Constantinople, and he
agreed to go, in the hope of being able to do some good (AD 378). The bishopric
of that great city had been in the hands of Arians for nearly forty years, and
although there were many people of other sects there, the orthodox were but a
handful. Gregory, when he began his labors, found that there was a strong
feeling against him and his doctrine. He could not get the use of any church,
and was obliged to hold his service in a friend's house.
He was often attacked by the Arian mob; he was stoned; he was carried
before the magistrates on charges of disturbing the peace; the house, which he
had turned into a chapel, was broken into by night, and shocking outrages were
committed in it. But the good Gregory held on notwithstanding all this, and,
after a while, his mild and grave character, his eloquent and instructive
preaching, and the piety of his life, wrought a great change, so that his little
place of worship became far too small to hold the crowds which flocked to it.
While Gregory was thus employed, Basil died, in the year 380.
Both parts of the empire were now again
under orthodox princes. Valens had lost his life in wars without leaving any
children (AD 378, so that Valentinian's sons, Gratian and Valentinian the
Second, were heirs to the whole. But Gratian felt the burden of government too
much for himself, a lad of nineteen, and for his little brother, who was but
seven years old; and he gave up the East to a brave Spaniard, named Theodosius,
in the hope that he would be able to defend it.
Theodosius came to Constantinople in the
year 380, and found things in the state, which has just been described. He
turned the Arian bishop and his clergy out of the churches, and gave Gregory
possession of the cathedral. Gregory knew that the emperor wished to help the
cause of the true faith, and he did as Theodosius wished; but he was very sad
and uneasy at being thus thrust on a flock of which the greater part as yet
refused to own him.
Theodosius then called a council, which
met at Constantinople in the year 381, and is reckoned as the second General
Council (the Council of Nicaea having been the first). One act of this council
was to add to the Nicene Creed some words about the Holy Ghost, by way of
guarding against the errors of a party who were called Macedonians after one
Macedonius, who had been bishop of Constantinople, for these people denied the
true doctrine as to the Holy Ghost, although they had given up the errors of
Arius as to the Godhead of our blessed Lord.
But afterwards, some of the bishops who
attended the council fell to disputing about the choice of a bishop for Antioch;
and Gregory, who tried to persuade them to agree, found that, instead of heeding
his advice, they all fell on him, and they behaved so shamefully to him that he
gave up his bishopric, which, indeed, he had before wished to do. Theodosius was
very sorry to lose so good a man from that important place; but Gregory was glad
to get away from its troubles and anxieties to the quiet life, which he best
loved. He took charge of the diocese of Nazianzum (which had been vacant since
his father's death, some years before), until a regular bishop was appointed to
it; and he spent his last days in retirement, soothing himself with religious
poetry and music. One of
the holiest men of our own Church, Bishop Ken (the
author of the Morning and Evening Hymns), used often to compare himself with Gregory of Nazianzum; for Bishop Ken, too, was driven from his bishopric in
troubled times, and, in the poverty, sickness, and sorrow of his last years, he,
too, used to find relief in playing on his lute, and in writing hymns and other
Theodosius was resolved to establish the
right faith, according as the council had laid it down. But it seems that at one
time some of the bishops were afraid lest an Arian, named Eunomius, should get
an influence over his mind, and should persuade him to favor the Arians. And
there is a curious story of the way in which one of these bishops who was a
homely old man, from some retired little town, tried to show the emperor that he
ought not to encourage heretics. On a day when a number of bishops went to pay
their respects at court, this old man, after having saluted the emperor very
respectfully, turned to his eldest son, the young emperor Arcadius, and stroked
his head as if he had been any common boy.
Theodosius was very angry at this behavior, and ordered that the bishop
should be turned out. But as the officers of the palace were hurrying him
towards the door, the old man addressed the emperor, and told him that as he was
angry on account of the slight offered to the prince, even so would the Heavenly
Father be offended with those who should refuse to His Son the honors which they
paid to Himself. Theodosius was much struck by this speech; he begged the
bishop's forgiveness, and showed his regard for the admonition by keeping
Eunomius and the rest of the Arians at a distance.
The emperor then made some severe laws,
forbidding all sorts of sects to hold their worship, and requiring them to join
the catholic Church. Now this was, no doubt, a great mistake; for it is
impossible to force religious belief on people; and although Christian princes
ought to support the true faith by making laws in favor of it, it is wrong to
make men pretend a belief which they do not feel in their hearts. But Theodosius
had not had the same opportunities which we have since had of seeing how useless
such laws are, and what mischief they generally do; so that, instead of blaming
him, we must give him credit for acting in the way which he believed most likely
to promote the glory of God and the good of his subjects. And, although some of
his laws seem very severe, there is reason to think that these were never acted
But about the same time, in another part
of the empire, which had been usurped by one Maximus, an unhappy man, named
Priscillian, and some of his companions, were put to death on account of heresy.
Such things became sadly too common afterwards; but at the time the punishment
of Priscillian struck all good men with horror. Martin, Bishop of Tours, who
was called "The Apostle of the Gauls", did all that he could to
prevent it. Ambrose (of whom you will hear more in the next chapter; would
not, on any account, have to do with the bishops who had been concerned in it;
and the chief of these bishops was afterwards turned out of his see, and died in
banishment. We may do well to remember that this first instance of punishing
heresy with death was under the government of a usurper, who had made his way to
power by rebellion and murder.