Spread of Christianity in the Heathen Empire

Chapter II: Struggle of Christianity with Heathenism

WITH the freshness and vigor of a divine youth Christianity made its way in the world. Weak in all outward respects, it had that matchless strength which comes from newness of life. Hence, we find it growing in spite of every obstacle, establishing its new creation on the decaying empire of heathenism. The generation succeeding the apostles had hardly passed away before Christian apologists could appeal to the world-wide extension of Christianity as a token of its divine origin. "There is not one single race of men," said Justin Martyr, about the middle of the second century, "whether barbarians; or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads, or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus." [Dial. cum Tryph., cxvii.] "We are but of yesterday," exclaimed Tertullian, "and we have filled every place among you, cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods." [Apol., xxxvii.] The religion of Christ, he states in another place, has invaded "the varied races of the Gætulians, and manifold confines of the Moors, all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons, and of the Sarmatians and Dacians and Germans and Scythians, and of many remote nations, and of provinces and islands, many to us unknown, and which we can scarce enumerate." [Adv. Judæos, vii. Compare ad Nationes, i. 1.] These rhetorical passages contain, indeed, an element of hyperbole; still, they supply a clear indication of the remarkable rapidity and energy of Christian evangelism in the first centuries. Another evidence in the same direction is found in the action of the Roman Government. That the most prudent and enlightened emperors of the second century deemed it necessary to repress Christianity in order to guard the integrity of the Empire, shows that the new religion was already looked upon as 8 formidable power.

The large cities were the first to receive the gospel. This accorded with the obvious demands of missionary enterprise. The Greek language, the language of the first missionaries to the Gentiles, was much more prevalent in the large cities than in the country districts, at least in the West. These cities, moreover, were the centres of communication in the different provinces, and were naturally fixed upon as missionary headquarters, from which Christian laborers were to be sent forth in every direction. The gospel was, no doubt, preached very soon to the rural population; but its progress was less rapid among this class, both because they were less accessible and received less attention, and because they were more stubbornly attached to the old heathenism. Among the evidences of their relative backwardness to receive Christianity is the name of "pagans," which became ultimately a current designation of the heathen party.

During the first three centuries the proper seat of Christianity in Asia was Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. In other countries of the continent, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Media, Persia, and Bactria, it obtained only a sporadic existence. Its introduction into India within this period, though possible, is more matter of tradition than of history. The indefinite geographical sense in which the ancients used the name India adds much to the uncertainty of the subject. Little or no reliance can be placed upon the report that the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew labored in India proper, and doubt may also be entertained whether Pantænus reached that country in the eastward tour which he made near the end of the second century. [Euseb., Hist. Eccl., v. 10.]

The Church in Egypt was founded in the apostolic age; Alexandria, with its inquiring and cultured population, naturally serving as the starting-point and headquarters. Tradition is unanimous in naming the evangelist Mark the pioneer in this region. Of the introduction of Christianity into North, or proconsular, Africa, no exact account can be given. The connection of the province with Rome points to the latter as the probable source of the first missionary efforts. In no region, probably, was a more rapid advance made by the Church than in this. As early as 258, Cyprian was able to assemble a North African council of eighty-seven bishops, and in 330 the schismatic Donatists alone held a council of two hundred and seventy bishops.

In Europe the labors of Paul extended Christianity into Macedonia and Greece, strengthened its position at Rome, and, according to an early belief, helped also to introduce it into Spain. Of the early stages of Christian history in Spain, no definite information is at hand; but the references of Irenæus [Cont. Hær., i 10. 2.] and Tertullian, [Adv. Judæos, vii.] and the fact that the council of Elvira, in 305 or 306, was able to convene nineteen bishops, show that the gospel won early trophies in that land.

Gaul was probably evangelized from Asia Miller, near the middle of the second century. Flourishing churches existed at Lyons and Vienne in the time of Marcus Aurelius. According to Gregory of Tours, about the middle of the third century seven missionaries from Rome came into Gaul, one of whom, Dionysius, became Bishop of Paris. From Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, we learn that Christianity won converts from the Germans. [Cont. Hær., i. 10. 2.] He probably referred, however, to Germans under Roman rule, and not to the tribes beyond the Rhine.

Christianity came to Britain soon after its establishment in Gaul; at least, Tertullian in his day, as we have seen, was able to witness that it was already to be found in the British Isles. The account of the Anglo-Saxon historian Beda indicates that missionaries from Rome were the evangelizing agency. He says: "Whilst Eleutherus presided over the Roman Church, Lucius, king of the Britons, sent a letter to him, entreating that by his command he might be made a Christian. He soon obtained his pious request; and the Britons preserved the faith which they had received, uncorrupted and entire, in peace and tranquillity, until the time of the Emperor Diocletian." [Book I., chap. iv.] Beda'a narrative, however, is founded on unreliable documents, [Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, I. 25, 26] and lacks historical probability. The connection between the early British Church and Rome was by no means intimate.

Thus Christianity in the first three centuries penetrated into every corner of the Roman Empire, and in some directions passed beyond its bounds. What proportion of the population of the Empire it numbered among its adherents at the beginning of the fourth century cannot be stated with any degree of satisfaction. Estimates vary widely, from the "one-twentieth" of Gibbon to the "one-half" of Stäudlin. The latter is probably much too high, the former somewhat too low. Forbearing to name exact figures, we may content ourselves with the indubitable fact that the real strength of the Christians was much in excess of their relative numbers. Already, in confidence and hope, in moral and intellectual strength, they had become the rightful masters of the Empire.

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