SAUL, A PERSECUTOR.
Sanction obtained.—Young men less apt to persecute than the old are.— Reasons for this.—Saul an exception.—Persecution at Jerusalem.—Intended persecution at Damascus.—Persecutions common to science and religion.—Causes of persecution: war of opinions; existence of vested interests; depraved passions of the human heart; natural aversion to holiness.—Effects of persecution: nothing good or true is destroyed; it serves as a test; it works out adequate results.
"And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem."
Acts ix. I, 2.
THE rage of Saul of Tarsus in persecution was 'Wvnjfc like pent-up f1res when they burst forth, or )£rjiflG$e floods that break through their barriers. No <pSffi3D< sooner could the sanction of law be obtained -Aj^ii for the persecution of Christians, than he became the most furious of persecutors. From his character, and from his conduct in regard to the death of Stephen, we have reason to believe that he never engaged in the work of persecution without the approval of those in power, and without a commission to do it. Thus, when it is said Acts viii. 3 (before he had received a sanction to prosecute the work in Damascus)) that he "made havoc of the Church, entering into every house, and, haling men and women, committed them to prison," it is fair to infer that he had obtained leave from the public authorities to do so. In fact, this is more than implied in the language used—"committed them to prison,"— since it cannot be supposed that he would do this on his private responsibility. It is certain that when he entered on his great work of persecution,—when he went forth to a foreign city to lay waste the Church formed there,—he had the express sanction of the high priest.
We are now, therefore, to contemplate Saul of Tarsus as a persecutor under the sanction and authority of law.
He was a young man. He had finished his education, and was about to enter on the public work of life. We may find something of interest in this fact itself. That a young man, an educated young man, should engage in the work of persecution strikes us at once as contrary to what we expect to find at that period of life, and in one that had been brought under the liberalizing influence of education. It is at the same time anomalous, unnatural, and shocking; and it is all the worse, when by a vigorous self-discipline such an one restrains himself from the outbreak of passion until he can give indulgence to it under the forms and the protection of law. Young men, if I apprehend human nature aright, are not as likely to be engaged in persecution for opinion's sake as those of more advanced years. In them we naturally expect a frank concession of the right of others to think for themselves, and to utter freely their sentiments. We look for generous impulses; for that which is noble and magnanimous; for a readiness to fly to the aid of the injured; for high and chivalrous deeds, even verging on disregard of law, and outside of settled creeds, if so the wronged may be rescued, and truth may be advanced. We expect to find them in the foremost ranks in the defence of great rights, and ranging freely the regions of imagination beyond the fixed boundaries of thought, if perchance beyond these limits of creeds and systems they may find new and unexplored spheres of truth,—as the young are in advance in visiting unknown lands and seas, if they may make new discoveries there,—disregarding the old barriers within which all is explored, if perchance they may lay open something new to mankind ;— as the astronomer in a clear night directs his glass into regions of space beyond the defined bounds of the universe, if perchance he may discover a planet, star, or nebula on which the eye of man has never looked.
In religion, as in other things, we are not much surprised when we find men advanced, or advancing in life, intolerant in regard to the opinions of others, or disposed to repress freedom of inquiry and of speech, even by persecution. Candour and liberality are not always taught by age; for age is conservative, and may be narrow and bigoted. The ideas of such men are fixed, and are commonly unchangeable. Their opinions have often been adopted after much examination, and when they seemed to themselves to have the whole field before them. They have grown with their growth, and strengthened with their strength. They are a part or themselves; are what they themselves are; are all that is now of value to them. Too old, or too feeble, or too much in love with ease and repose, they become incapable of pursuing inquiries into truth, or become envious of those who possess superior energy and power, and who purpose to carry the torch of inquiry into regions which their fathers never explored. Moreover, they do not keep up with the world in the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge; they fall behind; they have not before their minds the facts and principles on which a new generation is forming its opinions; and they regard that as heresy which may be only the natural result of enlarged thought, and an attempt to adjust the old forms of belief to new disclosures of truth. Pride, bigotry, obstinacy, envy, ignorance, may combine to induce them to look with distrust on new views, and to feel that such as advance those views are showing them personal disrespect, or doing them a personal wrong. They have not themselves the patience which they once had in the discussion of a new subject, or in examining opinions long held in the world; nor, as they advance in years, have they the fondness which they once had for new opinions—opinions verging on heresy or tending to paradox; nor do they now, as they once did, aim to secure a reputation for independence of thought by attacking the opinions which are commonly held by mankind. They are also more liable to be irritated by opposition or contradiction than they formerly were, for at their time of life they desire not to have the foundations of the belief which they cherish, and on which they have built their personal hopes in regard to the future, called in question. Unable, moreover, or indisposed so to apply their minds as to keep pace with the progress of all around them, or to appreciate the real advances which are being made, they look upon every new idea as a dangerous innovation, and often regard the waning of their own power, and the inevitable decline of their own influence, as an evidence that the world is going backward; while the views and feelings which spring out of these circumstances of declining years, they mistake for a love of pure and unchangeable standards of belief. Hence the almost universal opinion among aged men that the world is growing worse,—that superstition, crime, and error are more prevalent than in their early years.
Young men are often sceptical, or semi-sceptical; they are often unsettled in their opinions; they question with a daring spirit the correctness of doctrines long held to be true; they employ themselves (and sometimes with a hazardous proximity to error and unbelief) in adjusting the new discoveries in science to the received articles of the creed; they start new and bold theories, and in these ways they seem to be engaged in pulling down what the world with inf1nite toil has reared. But the very nature of this process tends to make one young man liberal towards another; for he cannot deny to others the liberty he claims for himself—nor, in persecuting them, can he engage in a practical warfare with himself. Old men are confirmed believers or unbelievers; and in them is concentrated no small part of the bigotry and illiberality of the world. The Sanhedrim at Jerusalem that condemned the Saviour was composed in a great part of the "elders" of the nation—aged men. The "Council" that condemned Stephen was made up of the same old men; the General of the Inquisition, and the principal functionaries of the "holy office," were commonly men of advanced years; and, in all ages, from the same source originates most of the opposition which is made to new suggestions in theology, and most of the alarm which is expressed in view of changes in the forms of established belief.
Yet few men, young or old, have been so furious in persecution as was Saul of Tarsus; and the fact that he, so young, entered on the work of persecution in the maimer in which he did—"breathing out threatenings and slaughter"—is one of the things that strike us as most remarkable in his career. He "made havoc of the Church, entering into every house, and, haling men and women," he tore them from their homes, and "committed them to prison" (Acts viii. 3). He engaged in this work under the influence of conscience, as a service which he felt he was bound to render to God, putting forth all his energies because he thought that he "ought to do many things"—these things— "contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts xxvi. 9). He "punished" that is, scourged them "in every synagogue "—in the very places of public worship; he used every effort to make them "blaspheme" or revile the sacred name of their Redeemer; he became "exceedingly mad against them," and drove them from town to town—away from their own homes "to strange cities;" he was present when they were sentenced to death, and he "gave" his "voice against them" (Acts xxvi. 9—11). Three times the fact is especially adverted to, that his fury raged against women as well as men (Acts viii. 3; ix. 2; xxii. 4), thus making war on all that is tender and delicate in domestic relations, and spreading everywhere the terror of his name. It was not without reason that, in later years, he remembered with deep repentance how he had "persecuted the church of God and wasted it" (Gal. i. 13; 1 Tim. i. 13; 1 Cor. xv. 9).
The Sanhedrim at Jerusalem claimed jurisdiction in religious matters over the Jews in foreign climes. In Damascus the number of Jews was very great; and as the Christians on the persecution of Stephen had been scattered abroad everywhere, it was possible, nay, probable, that some of them had fled to that city; and having fled there, it was possible, nay, probable, that they would spread their sentiments there as they had done in Jerusalem. It was important to prevent this, and Saul obtained a commission to do it. Judaea and expiring Judaism had no agent who would be more likely to accomplish the task.
The manner in which new views and opinions in philosophy and religion have been received in our world is one of the most remarkable things in history. The tears, the public tears of Pericles, the dictator of Athens, were necessary to save a feeble woman, Aspasia, suspected of philosophy; but all his eloquence could not save his friend Anaxagoras, who was condemned to imprisonment (which was changed in old age to perpetual exile) for having taught that there was an intelligent Cause of all things. Socrates was persecuted, and condemned to death, for teaching the same thing, and for (as was alleged) "corrupting the youth of Athens" by his views of religion. Aristotle had difficulty in saving his own life, and fled in a stealthy manner to Chalcis, in order, as he said, to save the Athenians a new crime against philosophy. Plato was twice thrown into prison, and once sold as a slave. (Cousin, i. 305). In later times, Galileo was imprisoned for maintaining that the sun is the centre of the system of the universe, and that the earth and other planets revolve around it. The Saviour of the world was put to death on a cross, and His followers were compelled to flee from their country for announcing that fact there, and were subjected to every form of torture for announcing it in the lands to which they were driven. In Jerusalem, Derbe, Lystra, Philippi; in the Coliseum and the gardens of Nero at Rome; in the vallies of Piedmont, in the Netherlands, Spain, Venice, Italy, France, England, Scotland, Goa,—in all these places the pure religion of Christ has somehow encountered the opposition of men, and secured a triumph only as the result of a baptism of blood and fire.
In every case of persecution, whether in science or religion, the CAUSES are to be sought in something peculiar in the views advanced, as bearing on received opinions and on the state of the world; but there are general principles involved, which demand only a slight modification to enable us to understand why Christianity has been, from the beginning, compelled to make its way through scenes of suffering.
(1.) There is, first, the war of opinion; the conflict of sentiments; the tenacity with which men hold their views; and the feelings which are aroused when, from any cause those views are attacked. A man's opinions are a part of himself, and they become as dear to him as life or liberty. They constitute for all valuable purposes, and in the estimation of his friends and of the world, the man. They are the measure of his reputation and of his influence. They are the result of all his experience, his studies, his observation in the world; they are what he has accumulated in his progress through life that is of special and permanent value. They are what gives him a standing among his neighbours. To attack them is, therefore, to attack himself; to overthrow tliem is to take away all which he has that constitutes his claim to notice while living, or to remembrance when dead.
In the nature of the case, therefore, all new views in philosophy or religion encounter whatever there may be in the community as the result of experience, thought, study. Hence, the progress of opinion is slow, and new sentiments make their way only by many conflicts.
This remark has additional force, if the matter in any way affects important interests, and especially if it is connected with religion, and involves our conscience and our immortal hopes. To attack such things is to assail that which must be dearest of all to the heart of man ; for to destroy or change opinions long cherished,
on which the hope of eternal happiness is founded, may be to leave man in a world indisputably wretched with no hope of a better. Religious opinions, therefore, have been among the slowest to make progress in the world; the strife in regard to these has been more bitter than in regard to any others; and freedom of speech on religious subjects has been among the last of the victories secured by the conflicts of past ages.
(2.) There are vested interests connected with opinions. There are institutions sustained by law, which are founded on forms of belief; there are endowments which are identified with modes of faith; there are orders of men whose position and influence are dependent on the received articles of a creed; there are customs and usages connected with society that grow out of forms of doctrine; there is often a connexion between Religion and the State so close that to assail the one is construed as rebellion against the other.
All the religions of ancient, as well as most of the religions of modern times, were sustained by law. One nation indeed recognized the religions of other nations, and the gods of all people might find a place in the Pantheon; but then it was a great principle that while each country recognized the religion of other lands, it allowed no attack on its own. When, therefore, Christianity, in violation of this universally admitted principle, attacked and denounced all forms of idolatry, that is, all the religions of the world,—when it refused to recognize any of the Pagan gods as entitled to homage,—when it demanded practically that every altar, Jewish and Pagan, should be overthrown,—that every temple of worship should be closed, that every lire on Jewish and heathen altars should be put out for ever, that every priest, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, should be disrobed, and be no longer acknowledged as an authorized minister of heaven,—that augurs, soothsayers, and vestal virgins should be dismissed for ever, —it arrayed against itself all the malice of an enraged and mighty priesthood, and all the power of the State; and the result is well known.
(3.) There were, and have been, few of the false religions of the world which did not, under the sanction of religion, sustain, and pander to, some of the foulest corruptions of the human heart. There is scarcely a form of human passion, however debasing or vile, which has not been countenanced by the forms of religion, and the indulgence of which has not been connected with the prevalence of an existing form of worship. One leading feature of the plan of that mighty Agent who has tyrannized over mankind—the Prince of darkness—has been to secure the sanctions of religion for the indulgence of gross and licentious passions; and to do this, so as not to shock the moral sense of mankind, has been the consummation of the highest forms of superstition that the world has known. This purpose had a foundation and a form under every Pagan system of worship; it has had its culmination in that corrupt and debased Christianity that has spread its influence over a large part of the earth. Hence to attack vice, as true Christianity always does, is to attack the system which upholds it; to endeavour to carry a pure morality over the world was to array against itself the power of all the religions of the earth.
(4.) To all this, another cause—more potent than all these, and giving strength to all these—is to be added. It is undeniable—(History will not allow us to deny it any more than will the Bible)—that there is in the human heart by nature a fixed aversion to such lwlij1ess as that which enters into the character of God, and such as He requires of man; that the scheme of salvation by a Redeemer is repulsive to the mass of mankind; that the preaching of the Cross is an "offence" to one class, and a "stumbling-block" to another; that the doctrines of human depravity, of salvation by grace, of justification by faith, of a just and changeless future retribution, grates hard on the natural feelings of mankind; that the requirement to renounce the world and to lead a holy life—a life of prayer, and self-denial, and benevolence—finds no response in the unconverted human heart; that to demand of men, as the first condition of eternal life, that they shall renounce all confidence in their own morality and good works, give up all trust in their own righteousness, and sit down humbly at the foot of the cross, depending solely for salvation on the blood of One who was crucified, is to array against those who promulgate this doctrine all that there is of accumulated self-love as derived from a life of outward integrity, or from dependence on the forms of religion, and all that there is of pride in the human heart.
It is not difficult, therefore, to account for the fact of persecution as pertaining to the history of the world; it is not difficult to see how all these things were concentrated in such a mind as that of Saul of Tarsus.
It is a very interesting and material inquiry in regard to the real progress which the world has made in morals, in liberty, in philosophy, in religion,—What has, on the whole, been the EFFECT of persecution on these great interests? Has it, on the whole, tended to retard the progress of society, or has it been connected with its advancement? Would the world have been in as good a condition now, if persecutions had never occurred, as it actually is at the present time? Has persecution, with all that there has been of pain, and sorrow, and tears, and scenes of horror, been really a calamity to mankind—to the race at large—for which there has been no adequate compensation? Could those things which have been secured by it have been as soon or as well secured, if secured at all, -without it? Has the world gained enough in liberty and religion to be an equivalent for all the cost?
The world is now old enough, and the results have been sufficiently marked, to enable us, in part at least, to answer these questions.
(1.) It has become, as the result of these trials, a settled principle that nothing which is good and true can be destroyed by persecution, but that the effect ultimately is to establish more firmly, and to spread more widely, that which it was designed to overthrow. There is, manifestly, some principle in human nature which leads men to look with attention and favour on that which is persecuted and opposed; there is a deep conviction that a right has been violated; there is that which awakens the original sympathies of our nature in favour of the suffering and the wronged; there is something in the patient endurance of the persecuted which leads men to inquire in regard to the sentiments held; there is something, be it what it may, which makes the persecuted more firmly attached to their principles, and more eloquent in their defence. It is not known that any opinions on any subject have been driven from the world by persecution; or that any doctrine, on the whole, has spread less extensively as the consequence of an attempt to suppress it by violence. It has long since passed into a proverb that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." In a special manner the principle has been settled in regard to Christianity, that it cannot be driven from the world by persecution. Imperial power has done all that it could do to destroy it; every device of human ingenuity has been resorted to in order to extinguish it; there can be no new engines to prolong torture, or to render it acute, more ingenious and effective than those which have already been employed; and it may be assumed now—it is assumed— that if Christianity 1s to become extinct in the world, it must be by some other means than by persecution.
(2.) In like manner, persecution becomes a test of the reality of religion; of its reality as a system; of its reality in regard to the sufferers. It is not, indeed, a direct demonstration of the truth of religion. It is undeniable that the advocates of other systems than Christianity have borne persecution patiently. Pagans, Philosophers, Mohammedans, Buddhists, sceptics, infidels, atheists, have adhered to their opinions on the rack or at the stake. Does this prove that their opinions were well founded, and that they were suffering for the truth, or that all other systems were false but theirs? These questions may be answered in the negative; and yet it may be still true that the mass of men will somehow see in the endurances of Christian martyrs an argument for the Divine origin of their religion. It was no forced or unphilosophical utterance, when the Roman centurion said, in view of the sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth, "Truly this was the Son of God." His manner of suffering was so in accordance with what might be expected in a favourite of the Most High; His sufferings were so in unison with His teachings and His life, that the impression was one which would force itself upon a candid and liberal mind, that all this could be accounted for only by the supposition that He was what He claimed to be. The history of the Christian martyrs has impressed the world with the same conviction in regard to the truth of their religion. The number has been so great,—they have borne their sufferings so patiently,—they have been persons of so varied character, rank, age, sex, condition, yet all manifesting the same spirit,—they have met death so calmly,— so many of them have been distinguished for intelligence, —and so many of them, in the early stages of martyrdom, were simple witnesses of what they affirmed to be true, and bore testimony to what is properly the subject of testimony (facts which they said they had observed— that the general impression on mankind is, and must be, that sufferings so varied, so protracted, so meekly borne, could be only in the cause of truth, and that beneath all this there was truth.
(3.) Once more; the results of persecution are worth all which they cost. The results of the imprisonment of Galileo are more than a compensation for all that he suffered. The results of the discovery of America are more than a compensation to the world for all that Columbus endured in arousing the world to a belief that there might be such a "new world;" for all the perils of a voyage in unknown seas; for his struggling with sailors in mutiny; for the denial of his rights; and for his neglect and poverty, after he had disclosed the new continent to mankind. The sacrifices made at Bunker Hill, at the Valley Forge, and in all the perils and privations of the war of Independence, have been already more than repaid in the prosperity of this great nation Thus, also, the happiness which has been conferred on the world by Christianity since the fires of persecution were first kindled against it, and that which the world will yet enjoy when it shall be diffused over all the earth —the blessings which it scatters here, and the bliss of heaven hereafter—have been and will be, more than a compensation for all the sufferings of all the martyrs.