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The martyrdom of Polycarp took place in the early part of the second century, when Christianity was yet in the freshness and purity of its first love.
At the close of the second century, Christianity, by the simple force of its inherent virtue, was spreading far and wide in every direction. It was felt as a power, not only in Rome, the capital of the empire, but in Africa on the one hand, and Gaul on the other. It had made its way beyond the confines of Arabia and Syria, as far as Hither India; nay, more, it had penetrated, with more or less success, among the barbarians of the British Isles. We do not indeed mean to affirm, that in these countries polytheism was not the recognized and predominant faith ; but we do mean to say, that Christianity was gradually taking its place, undermining its strength, and preparing its overthrow. The night
, of superstition was still deep and portentous, but the sunlight was piercing its depths, and glancing upwards and afar amid its broken shadows.
This was the age of conversion and proselytism, of struggle and self-sacrifice; consequently of simplicity, purity, and love. The might of the gospel was felt in the hearts of men; Jesus Christ was recognized as 6 Head over all to the church;” pastors and people, united by fraternal ties, had one Lord, one faith, one baptism ; in a word, freedom and brotherhood united the whole, and made them one in Christ.*
* In the Appendix, note G, will be found some interesting testimonies from Bunsen, Guizot, Ranke, Gibbon, and others, touching the organization and government of the primitive church.
SAME SUBJECT CONTINUED.
The third century, in the history of Christianity, was one of struggle and transition, of partial corruption and splendid triumph. Embodied among men, it partook somewhat of their imperfections, and of the imperfections of the age. The times were evil, changing, and tumultuous. Corruptions the most horrible invaded the heart of Roman society. The old civic virtue was entirely lost. Scepticism and cruelty, luxury and lust, reigned among the patricians; discontent and greed, selfishness and disloyalty, among the people. Rome grew weaker and weaker at the centre, more feverish and disturbed at the extremities. Now and then a good and able emperor ruled well for a few years, but the good he accomplished was obliterated by some weak or wicked successor. The army ruled the state, controlled the emperor, made and unmade the laws. Occasionally the Christians were tolerated, but oftener persecuted. Indeed, this was preëminently the age of persecution. Blood flowed in torrents. Thousands were thrown to the wild beasts, or murdered by the frantic populace.
Christianity, however, made rapid progress. It numbered nobles and philosophers among its followers. It was preached among the Goths, and, in some degree, softened their ferocity. In Gaul and in Germany, far and near, churches were multiplied. Tours, Arles, Treves, Paris, Mentz, and other places, became the strongholds of its power. It occasionally invaded the palace of the Roman emperors, and exerted some influence even upon its most furious persecutors. When the monster Galerius was dying, he abated his persecution of the Christians, and asked their prayers on his behalf.
Christianity, however, in the hands of many, had lost something of its simplicity. Superstitions were ingrafted on its simple usages. Power was concentrated in the hands of metropolitan bishops. Vain speculations were indulged by some Christian philosophers. Philosophy, indeed, with all its treasures, was rapidly flowing into the bosom of the church. Plato and Philo were incorporated into the Alexandrian school, and much error was mingled with sublimest truth. In Clement and Origen, the highest speculative thought was combined with the profoundest piety; but in the end, while philosophy was exalted, piety suffered. All this, however, was inevitable, in the process of human thought. Offences must come, heresies and divisions, vain jangling, and foolish speculation. The converts to Christianity were from all nations, of all sorts of education and temperament. Many of them were men of vigorous intellects and rooted prejudices, who, though converted to Christ, retained many of their errors and defects. Hence, in their views of the Deity, and of religion, they followed their first, or their most popular instructors. Now they were of one school of philosophy, then of another. Few, if any, had just views either of secular or of ecclesiastical government.
All were accustomed to centralization and despotism. They misconceived the free, expansive genius of Christianity. Hence, as Beausobre has remarked, “ An Epicurean who embraced the faith was disposed to clothe the Divinity in a human form, and to define it, like Epicurus, to be an immortal and happy animal. A Platonist, on the contrary, according to his master's views, maintained God to be incorporeal.* A Pythagorean, a follower of Empedocles, or of Heracleitus, considered the Deity as an intelligent fire or light," &c.
We may add that some of them were pantheists, and so represented the creation of all things as an emanation, and thus confounded matter
* And yet Plato himself represented “ the manifested God,” or the God of the outward universe, as “an animal ; ” — not an animal in the inferior sense, sometimes attached to the term, - but a live ing being, with a body as well as a soul.