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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 4. Hindrances and Helps.


For the first three centuries Christianity was placed in the most unfavorable circumstances, that it might display its moral power, and gain its victory over the world by spiritual weapons alone. Until the reign of Constantine it had not even a legal existence in the Roman empire, but was first ignored as a Jewish sect, then slandered, proscribed, and persecuted, as a treasonable innovation, and the adoption of it made punishable with confiscation and death. Besides, it offered not the slightest favor, as Mohammedanism afterwards did, to the corrupt inclinations of the heart, but against the current ideas of Jews and heathen it so presented its inexorable demand of repentance and conversion, renunciation of self and the world, that more, according to Tertullian, were kept out of the new sect by love of pleasure than by love of life. The Jewish origin of Christianity also, and the poverty and obscurity of a majority of its professors particularly offended the pride of the Greeks, and Romans. Celsus, exaggerating this fact, and ignoring the many exceptions, scoffingly remarked, that "weavers, cobblers, and fullers, the most illiterate persons" preached the "irrational faith," and knew how to commend it especially "to women and children."

But in spite of these extraordinary difficulties Christianity made a progress which furnished striking evidence of its divine origin and adaptation to the deeper wants of man, and was employed as such by Irenaeus, Justin, Tertullian, and other fathers of that day. Nay, the very hindrances became, in the hands of Providence, means of promotion. Persecution led to martyrdom, and martyrdom had not terrors alone, but also attractions, and stimulated the noblest and most unselfish form of ambition. Every genuine martyr was a living proof of the truth and holiness of the Christian religion. Tertullian could exclaim to the heathen: "All your ingenious cruelties can accomplish nothing; they are only a lure to this sect. Our number increases the more you destroy us. The blood of the Christians is their seed." The moral earnestness of the Christians contrasted powerfully with the prevailing corruption of the age, and while it repelled the frivolous and voluptuous, it could not fail to impress most strongly the deepest and noblest minds. The predilection of the poor and oppressed for the gospel attested its comforting and redeeming power. But others also, though not many, from the higher and educated classes, were from the first attracted to the new religion; such men as Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathaea, the apostle Paul, the proconsul Sergius Paulus, Dionysius of Athens, Erastus of Corinth, and some members of the imperial household. Among the sufferers in Domitian’s persecution were his own near kinswoman Flavia Domitilla and her husband Flavius Clemens. In the oldest part of the Catacomb of Callistus, which is named after St. Lucina, members of the illustrious gens Pomponia, and perhaps also of the Flavian house, are interred. The senatorial and equestrian orders furnished several converts open or concealed. Pliny laments, that in Asia Minor men of every rank (omnis ordinis) go over to the Christians. Tertullian asserts that the tenth part of Carthage, and among them senators and ladies of the noblest descent and the nearest relatives of the proconsul of Africa professed Christianity. The numerous church fathers from the middle of the second century, a Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, excelled, or at least equalled in talent and culture, their most eminent heathen contemporaries.

Nor was this progress confined to any particular localities. It extended alike over all parts of the empire. "We are a people of yesterday," says Tertullian in his Apology, "and yet we have filled every place belonging to you—cities, islands, castles, towns, assemblies, your very camp, your tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum! We leave you your temples only. We can count your armies; our numbers in a single province will be greater." All these facts expose the injustice of the odious charge of Celsus, repeated by a modern sceptic, that the new sect was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace—of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves.


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