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Chapter 28

THE PROGRESS OF CHRISTIANITY.

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Waft, waft, ye winds, his story, And you, ye oceans, roll, Till, like a sea of glory, It spreads from pole to pole.--Heber.

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1. Judea became a Roman province some years before the birth of Jesus Christ, and the Jews, who had hitherto been conspicuous for their attachment to their native land, were induced, by the spirit of trade, to spread themselves over the empire. 2. The exclusive nature of their religion kept them in a marked state of separation from their fellow subjects; the worshipper of Osi'ris scrupled not to offer sacrifices to Jupiter; the Persian, the Indian, and the German, bowed before the Roman altars; but the sons of Abraham refused to give the glory of their God to graven images, and were regarded by their idolatrous neighbours at first with surprise, and afterwards with contempt. 3. The appearance of the Messiah in Palestine, and the miraculous circumstances of his life, death, and resurrection, did not fill the world with their fame, because his preaching was principally addressed to his countrymen, the first object of his mission being "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

4. The disciples, after their Divine Master was taken from them, proceeded to fulfil his last commandments, by preaching the gospel "to every nation," and an opportunity of spreading its blessings was afforded by Jewish synagogues having been previously established in most of the great cities through the empire. Independent of the sustaining providence of its Almighty Author, there were many circumstances that facilitated the progress and prepared the way for the final triumph of Christianity. 5. In the first place, Paganism had lost its influence; men secretly laughed at the fabulous legends about Jupiter and Rom'ulus, the sacrifices had become idle forms, and the processions a useless mockery. Philosophers had not scrupled to cover with ridicule the whole system of Heathenism, and there were not a few who professed themselves Atheists. 6. Without some system of religion society cannot exist; for a sanction stronger than human laws is necessary to restrain the violence of passion and ardent desires. The innate feeling that our existence is not dependent on our mortal frame, disposes men to search for some information respecting a future state; the heathen system was at once obscure and absurd; the philosophers avowedly spoke from conjecture; but by the Gospel, "life and immortality were brought to light." 7. The influence of a purer faith was discernible in the lives and actions of the first Christians; they lived in an age of unparalleled iniquity and debauchery, yet they kept themselves "unspotted from the world;" those who were once conspicuous for violence, licentiousness, and crime, became, when they joined the new sect, humble, temperate, chaste, and virtuous; the persons who witnessed such instances of reformation were naturally anxious to learn something of the means by which so great a change had been effected. 8. A fourth cause was, that Christianity offered the blessings of salvation to men of every class; it was its most marked feature, that "to the poor the gospel was preached," and the wretch who dared not come into the pagan temple, because he had no rich offering to lay upon the altar, was ready to obey the call of him who offered pardon and love "without money and without price."

9. In the course of the first century of the Christian era churches were established in the principal cities of the empire, but more especially in Asia Minor; and the progress of Christianity, which had been at first disregarded, began to attract the notice of the ruling powers. Too indolent to investigate the claims of Christianity, and by no means pleased with a system which condemned their vices, the Roman rulers viewed the rapid progress of the new religion with undisguised alarm. The union of the sacerdotal and magisterial character in the Roman policy, added personal interest to the motives that urged them to crush this rising sect; and the relentless Ne'ro at length kindled the torch of persecution. 10. But "the blood of the martyrs proved the seed of the Church;" the constancy with which they supported the most inhuman tortures, their devotion and firm reliance on their God in the moments of mortal agony, increased the number of converts to a religion which could work such a moral miracle. Persecution also united the Christians more closely together, and when the reign of terror ended with the death of Nero, it was found that Christianity had derived additional strength from the means taken to insure its destruction.

11. The successive persecutions inflicted by the policy or the bigotry of the following emperors had precisely the same results; and at length the Christians had acquired such strength, that their aid, as a body, became a matter of importance in contests for the empire.

12. The mild administration of Constantino, while he was only prefect of Gaul, the protection which he afforded to the Christians, and the favour that he showed to their religion, induced them to aid him with all their might in his struggle for the throne. Brought thus into contact with the professors of the new doctrine, Constantine was induced to examine the foundations of its high claims--perfect conviction was the result, and on his accession to the imperial purple, the Christian church was legally established. 13. During the reign of the apostate Julian, Christianity was discouraged, but not persecuted; his premature death, however, removed the last impediment to its final triumph, which was consummated in the reign of the great Theodo'sius. 14. Under that emperor the last vestiges of the pagan worship were destroyed, its idols overthrown, its altars demolished, and its temples closed. The world had become ripe for such a revolution, as the temples had been long before almost universally abandoned.

15. Since that period Christianity has prevailed in Europe, and formed the great bond of the social happiness and the great source of the intellectual eminence enjoyed in that quarter of the globe. Let us hope that the exertions now made to diffuse its blessings over the benighted portions of the earth will prove successful, and that "peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety" will prevail from pole to pole.

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Questions for Examination.

1. What was the state of the Jews at the coming of Christ?

2. How were the Jews preserved separate from other nations?

3. What probable cause may be assigned for the neglect of the Christian miracles?

4. How did the dispersion of the Jews afford an opportunity for the propagation of Christianity?

5. What was the state of paganism when Christianity was first preached?

6. What great mystery is brought to light by the gospel?

7. How did the lives of the first Christians contribute to the rapid progress of Christianity?

8. To what class of people was the gospel more particularly addressed?

9. What induced the rulers of the Roman empire to persecute Christianity?

10. Was Christianity crushed by persecution?

11. What proves the great strength early acquired by Christians?

12. By whom was Christianity legally established?

13. Under whose government did it receive a slight check?

14. When were the last vestiges of paganism abolished?

15. What have been the political effects of the establishment of Christianity?

Oliver Goldsmith