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I. The sight of miracles in those ages, a further confirmation of Pagan philosophers in the Christian faith.
II. The credibility of such miracles.
III. A particular instance.
IV. Martyrdom, why considered as a standing miracle.
V. Primitive Christians thought many of the martyrs were supported by a miraculous power.
VI. Proved from the nature of their sufferings.
VII. How martyrs further induced the Pagans to embrace Christianity.
I. THERE were other means which I find had a great influence on the learned of the three first centuries, to create and confirm in them the belief of our blessed Saviour’s history, which ought not to be passed over in silence. The first was, the opportunity they enjoyed of examing those miracles, which were on several occasions performed by Christians, and appeared in the church more or less during these first ages of Christianity. These had great weight with the men I am now speaking of, who, from learned Pagans, became fathers of the church; for they frequently boast of them in their writings, as attestations given by God himself to the truth of their religion.
II. At the same time that these learned men declare how disingenuous, base, and wicked it would be, how much beneath the dignity of philosophy, and contrary to the precepts of Christianity, to utter falsehoods or forgeries in the support of a cause, though never so just in itself, they confidently assert this miraculous power which then subsisted in the church; nay, tell us, that themselves had been eye witnesses of it at several times, and in several instances; nay, appeal to the Heathens themselves for the truth of several facts they relate; nay, challenge them to be prefect at their assemblies, and satisfy themselves if they doubt of it; nay, we find that Pagan authors have in some instances confessed this miraculous power.
III. The letter of Marcus Aurelius, whose army was preserved by a refreshing shower, at the same time that his enemies were discomfited by a storm of lightning, and which the Heathen historians themselves allow to have been supernatural, and the effect of magic; I say, this letter, which ascribed this unexpected assistance to the prayers of the Christians, who then served in the army, would have been thought an unquestionable testimony of the miraculous power I am speaking of, had it been still preserved. It is sufficient for me in this place to take notice, that this was one of those miracles which had its influence on the learned converts, because it is related by Tertullian, and the very letter appealed to. When their learned men saw sickness and frenzy cured, the dead raised, the oracles put to silence, the demons and evil spirits forced to confess themselves no gods, by persons who only made use of prayer and adjurations in the name of their crucified Saviour, how could they doubt of their Saviour’s power on the like occasions, as represented to them by the traditions of the church, and the writings of the evangelists?
IV. Under this head, I cannot omit that which appears to me a standing miracle in the three first centuries I mean, that amazing and supernatural courage or patience which was shewn by innumerable multitudes of martyrs, in those slow and painful torments that were inflicted on them. I cannot conceive a man placed in the burning iron chair at Lyons, amid the insults and mockeries of a crowded amphitheatre, and still keeping his seat; or stretched upon a gate of iron, over coals of fire, and breathing out his soul among the exquisite sufferings of such a tedious execution, rather than renounce his religion or blaspheme his Saviour. Such trials seem to me above the strength of human nature, able to overbear duty, reason, faith, conviction, nay, and the most absolute certainty of a future state. Humanity, unassisted in an extraordinary manner, must have shaken off the present pressure, and have delivered itself out of such a dreadful distress, by any means that could have been suggested by it. We can easily imagine, that many persons, in so good a cause, might have laid down their lives at the gibbet, the stake, or the block but to expire leisurely among the most exquisite tortures, when they might come out of them, even by a mental reservation, or an hypocrisy, which was not without a possibility of being followed by repentance, and forgiveness, has something in it so far beyond the force and natural strength of mortals, that one cannot but think there was some miraculous power to support the sufferer.
V. We find the church of Smyrna, in that admirable letter, which gives an account of the death of Polycarp, their beloved bishop, mentioning the cruel torments of other early martyrs for Christianity, are of opinion that our Saviour stood by them in a vision, and personally conversed with them, to give them strength and comfort during the bitterness of their long continued agonies: and we have the story of a young man, who, having suffered many tortures, escaped with life, and told his fellow Christians that the pain of them had been rendered tolerable, by the presence of an angel who stood by him, and wiped off the tears and sweat which ran down his face whilst he lay under his sufferings. We are assured at least, that the first martyr for Christianity was encouraged in his last moments, by a vision of that divine person for whom he suffered, and into whose pretence he was then hastening.
VI. Let any man calmly lay his hand upon his heart, and, after reading these terrible conflicts in which the ancient martyrs and confessors were engaged, when they passed through such new inventions and varieties of pain as tired their tormentors, and ask himself, however zealous and sincere he is in his religion, whether, under such acute and lingering tortures, he could still have held fast his integrity, and have professed his faith to the last; without a supernatural assistance of some kind or other. For my part, when I consider that it was not an unaccountable obstincy in a single man, or in any particular set of men, in some extraordinary juncture; but that there were multitudes of each fact, of every age, of different countries and conditions, who, for near 300 years together, made this glorious confession of their faith in the midst of tortures, and in the hour of death; I must conclude, that they were either of another make from what men are at present, or that they had such miraculous supports as were peculiar to those times of Christianity; when without them the very name of it might have been extinguished.
VII. It is certain that the deaths and sufferings of the primitive Christians had a great share in the conversion of those learned Pagans who lived in the ages of persecution, which, with some intervals and abatements, lasted near three hundred years after our Saviour. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius, Arnobius, and others, tell us, that this first of all alarmed their curiosity, roused their attention, and made them seriously inquisitive into the nature of that religion which could endue the mind with so much strength, and overcome the fear of death, nay, raised an earnest desire of it though it appeared in all its terrors. This they found had not been effected by all the doctrines of those philosophers whom they had thoroughly studied, and who had been labouring at this great point. The sight of these dying and tormented martyrs engaged them to search into the history and doctrines of him for whom they suffered. The more they searched, the more they were convinced; till their conviction grew so strong, they themselves embraced the same truths, and either actually laid down their lives, or were always in readiness to do it, rather than depart from them.
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