May 14, 1896
THE contest between Christianity and the Roman Empire, which began with the proclamation of the gospel and ended only when Rome acknowledged the inalienable right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, affords one of the most impressive object lessons that the world has ever seen.
The measure of religious liberty which we enjoy to-day is largely due under God to the self-sacrifice and heroic endurance of those men and women, yea, and even children, who fearlessly offered themselves upon the altar of principle, scorning to save their lives by a denial of Him who has said: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.”
A Contest Between Principles.
The controversy between the Christians and the Romans was not a dispute between individuals, or a contention between sects or parties. It was a contest between antagonistic principles—between Christianity and Rome, rather than between Christians and Romans.
On the part of Christianity this contest was the assertion of the principles of the rights of conscience and of the individual; on the part of Rome it was the assertion of the principle of the absolute absorption of the individual, and his total enslavement to the State in all things, divine as well as human, religious as well as civic.
Jesus Christ came into the world to set men free, and to plant in their souls the genuine principle of liberty—liberty actuated by love,—liberty too honorable to allow itself to be used as an occasion to the flesh, or for a cloak of maliciousness,—liberty led by a conscience enlightened by the Spirit of God,—liberty in which man may be free from all men, yet made so gentle by love that he would willingly become the servant of all, in order to bring them to the enjoyment of this same freedom.
What Rome Claimed.
The Roman Empire then filled the world,—“the sublimest incarnation of power, and a monument the mightiest of greatness built by human hands, which has upon this planet been suffered to appear.” That empire, proud of its conquests, and exceedingly jealous of its claims, asserted its right to rule in all things, human and divine.
Man with all that he had was subordinated to the State; he must have no higher good than that which the State could bestow. Thus every Roman citizen was a subject, and every Roman subject was a slave. “The more distinguished a Roman became,” says Mommsen, “the less was he a free man. The omnipotence of the law, the despotism of the rule, drove him into a narrow circle of thought and action, and his credit and influence depended on the sad austerity of his life. The whole duty of man, with the humblest and greatest of the Romans, was to keep his house in order, and be the obedient servant of the State.”
To Acknowledge Christ Was to Deny Rome
It will be seen at once that for any man to profess the principles and the name of Christ, was virtually to set himself against the Roman Empire; for him to recognize God as revealed in Jesus Christ as the highest good, was but treason against the Roman State. It would not be looked upon by Rome as anything else than high treason, because as the Roman State represented to the Roman the highest idea of good, for any man to assert that there was a higher good, and thus make Rome itself subordinate. And this would not be regarded in any other light by Roman pride than as a direct blow at the dignity of Rome, and subversive of the Roman State. Consequently the Christians were not only called “atheists,” because they denied the gods, but the charge against them before the tribunals was for the crime of “high treason,” because they denied the right of the State to interfere with men’s relations to God. It was held that in this they were “irreverent to the Cesars, and enemies of the Cesars and of the Roman people.”
The Roman idea of the State was not merely the State as a civil institution, but as divinity  itself. Rome was the supreme deity. Thus the idea of the State as the highest good was the religious idea; consequently religion was inseparable from the State.
The Roman State being the chief deity, the gods of Rome derived their dignity from the State rather than the State deriving any honor from them. And though Rome allowed conquered nations to maintain the worship of their national gods, these as well as the conquered people were considered only as servants of the Roman State. Every religion was held subordinate to the religion of Roman, and though “all forms of religion might come to Rome and take their places in its pantheon, they must come as the servants of the State.”
A fundamental maxim of Roman legislation was,—
No man shall have for himself particular gods of his own; no man shall worship by himself any new or foreign gods, unless they are recognized by the public laws.
“What the Law Says is Right”
The Roman State being the supreme deity, the Senate and people were but the organs through which its ideas were expressed; hence the maxim, Vox Populi, vox Dei,—the voice of the people is the voice of God. As this voice gave expression to the will of the supreme deity, and consequently of the highest good; and as this will was expressed in the form of laws; hence again the Roman maxim, “What the law says is right.”
It is very evident that in such a system there was no place for individuality. The State was everything, and the majority was in fact the State. What the majority said should be, that was the voice of the State, that was the voice of God, that was the expression of the highest good, that was the expression of the highest conception of right;—and everybody must assent to that or be considered a traitor to the State. The individual was but a part of the State. There was therefore no such thing as the rights of the people; the right of the State only was to be considered, and that was to be considered absolute.
Christianity was diametrically opposed to this. It proclaimed the right of the individual to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience, while Rome asserted the duty of every man to worship according to the dictates of the State. Christianity asseted the supremacy of God; Rome asserted the supremacy of the State. This was the contest, and these were the reasons of it, between Christianity and the Roman Empire.
Christianity Not Anarchistic.
Yet in all this Christianity did not deny to Cesar a place; it did not propose to undo the State. It only taught the State its proper place; and proposed to have the State take that place and keep it. Christianity did not dispute the right of the Roman State to be; but it did deny the right of that State to be in the place of God.
In the emperor was merged the State. He alone represented the divinity of the Roman Empire. The Christians’ refusal to recognize in him that divinity or to pay respect to it in any way, was held to be open disrespect to the State. The Christians’ denial of the right of the State to make or enforce any laws touching religion or men’s relationship to God, was counted as an undermining of the authority of government. As it was held that religion was essential to the very existence of the State, and that the State for its own sake, for its own self-preservation, must maintain proper respect for religion; when Christianity denied the right of the State to exercise any authority or jurisdiction whatever in religious things, it was held to be but a denial of the right of the State to preserve itself.
They Sought to Preserve the State.
Therefore when Christianity had become quite generally spread throughout the empire, it seemed to such emperors as Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian—emperors who most respected Roman institutions—that the very existence of the empire was at stake. Consequently their opposition to Christianity was but an effort to save the State, and was considered by them as the most reasonable and laudable thing in the world. And it was only as a matter of State policy that they issued edicts or emphasized those already issued for the suppression of Christianity. In making or enforcing laws against the Christians it was invariably the purpose of these emperors to restore and to preserve the ancient dignity and glory of the Rome.
“The immortal gods,” said Diocletian, “have, by their providence, arranged and established what is right. Many wise and good men are agreed that this should be maintained unaltered. They ought not to be opposed…. It is the greatest of crimes to overturn what has been once established by our ancestors, and what has supremacy in the State.”
The Conscience above the Magistrate.
As before remarked, Christianity and the Roman theory of the nature and sphere of the State were antagonistic. The State assumed to be supreme in all things; Christianity set the Creator above the State, and the individual conscience above the civil magistrate.
Every means known to the Romans for the punishment of crime was invoked against the Christians. The emperors, governors, and magistrates felt it to be their duty to maintain the dignity of the empire by enforcing the “law” because is was “law.” They felt that the very existence of civil society was at stake, and unflinchingly did they discharge their “sworn duty.”
They Gave Their Lives for a Principle.
Imprisonment, banishment, torture and death were invoked against the Christians, but without avail. Whole families were condemned and executed, or given to the wild beasts in the arena; but the followers of Christ faltered not. The hoary-headed grandsire, the middle-aged father, the loving wife and mother, the affectionate daughter just merging into womanhood, and even the innocent children, strengthened by that mysterious power given by God in answer to humble faith, alike unflinchingly awaited the onslaught of the fierce Numidian lions about to be let loose upon them, and which they knew would presently feast upon their flesh and drink their life blood.
Two hundred and fifty years this contest continued, and then as the outcome of the longest, the most wide-spread, and the most terrible persecution that ever was inflicted by the Roman State, that empire was forced officially to recognize the right of every man to worship as he pleased. Thus was Christianity acknowledged to be victorious over all the power of Rome. The rights of conscience were established, and the separation of religion and the State was virtually complete.
But how brief was the triumph. No sooner had the cloud of intolerance lifted than it again settled upon the world, and even to-day in our own “free” land men suffer fines, imprisonment and chain-gangs for daring to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and for denying the right of the State to exact from them a service due only to God and to be rendered only to him.
What shall the end be?