Chapter 10

CHAPTER X: CONSTANTINE THE GREAT (AD 313-337)

It was a great thing for the Church that the emperor of Rome should
give it liberty; and Constantine, after sending forth the laws which
put an end to the persecution, went on to make other laws in favour
of the Christians. But he did not himself become a Christian all at
once, although he built many churches and gave rich presents to
others, and although he was fond of keeping company with bishops,
and of conversing with them about religion. Licinius, the emperor of
the East, who had joined with Constantine in his first laws,
afterwards quarrelled with him, and persecuted the eastern
Christians cruelly, but Constantine defeated him in battle (AD 324),
and the whole empire was once more united under one head.

After his victory over Licinius, Constantine declared himself a
Christian, which he had not done before; and he used to attend the
services of the Church very regularly, and to stand all the time
that the bishops were preaching, however long their sermons might
be. He used even himself to write a kind of discourses something
like sermons, and he read them aloud in the palace to all his court;
but he really knew very little of Christian doctrine, although he
was very fond of talking part in disputes about it. And, although he
professed to be a Christian, he had not yet been made a member of
Christ by baptism, for in those days, people had so high a notion
of the grace of baptism that many of them put off their baptism
until they supposed that they were on their deathbed, for fear lest
they should sin after being baptized, and so should lose the benefit
of the sacrament. This was of course wrong; for it was a sad mistake
to think that they might go on in sin so long as they were not
baptized. God, we know, might have cut them off at any moment in the
midst of all their sins, and even if they were spared, there was a
great danger that, when they came to beg for baptism at last, they
might not have that true spirit of repentance and faith without
which they could not be fit to receive the grace of the sacraments.
And therefore the teachers of the Church used to warn people against
putting off their baptism out of a love for sin; and when any one
had received "clinical" baptism, as it was called (that is to say,
baptism on a sick-bed), if he afterwards got well again, he was
thought but little of in the Church.

But to come back to Constantine. He had many other faults besides
his unwillingness to take on himself the duties of a baptized
Christian; and, although we are bound to thank God for having turned
his heart to favour the Church, we must not be blind to the
emperor's faults. Yet, with all these faults, he really believed the
Gospel, and meant to do what he could for the truth.

It took a long time to put down heathenism; for it would not have
been safe or wise to force people to become Christians before they
had come to see the falsehood of their old religion. Constantine,
therefore, only made laws against some of its worst practices, and
forbade any sacrifices to be offered in the name of the empire; but
he did not hinder the heathens from sacrificing on their own account
if they liked.

Soon after professing himself a Christian, the emperor began to
build a new capital in the East. There had been a town called
Byzantium on the spot before; but the new city was far grander, and
he gave it the name of Constantinople, which means the City of
Constantine. It was meant to be altogether Christian,--unlike Rome,
which was full of temples of heathen gods. And the emperors, from
this time, usually lived at Constantinople, or at some other place
in the East.

There will be more to say about Constantine in the next chapter. In
the mean time, let us look at the progress of the Gospel.

It had, by this time, made its way into many countries beyond the
bounds of the empire. There were Christians in Scotland and in
India; there had long been great numbers of Christians in Persia and
Arabia. Many of the Goths, who then lived about the Danube, had been
converted by captives whom they carried off in their plundering
expeditions, during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus (about AD
260), and other roving tribes had been converted by the same means.
About the end of the third century, Gregory, who is called the
Enlightener, had gone as a missionary bishop into Armenia, where he
persuaded the king, Tiridates, to receive the Gospel, and to
establish it as the religion of his country: so that Armenia had the
honour of being the first Christian kingdom. The Georgians were
converted in the reign of Constantine; and about the same time, the
Ethiopians or Abyssinians (who live to the south of Egypt) were
brought to the knowledge of the truth in a very remarkable way.

There was a rich Christian of Tyre, named Meropius, who was a
philosopher, and wished to make discoveries in the countries towards
India, which were then but little known. So he set out in a ship of
his own, sailed down the Red Sea, and made a voyage to the East. On
his way back, he and his crew landed at a place on the coast of
Ethiopia, in search of fresh water, when the people of the country
fell on them, and killed all but two youths named Aedesius and
Frumentius, who were relations of Meropius. These lads were taken to
the king's court, where, as they were better educated than the
Ethiopians, they soon got into great favour and power. The king died
after a time, leaving a little boy to succeed him; and the two
strangers were asked to carry on the government of the country
until the prince should be old enough to take it into his own hands.
They did this faithfully, and stayed many years in Ethiopia; and
they used to look out for any Christian sailors or merchants who
visited the country, and to hold meetings with such strangers and
others for worship, although they were distressed that they had no
clergy to minister to them. At length the young prince grew up to
manhood, and was able to govern his kingdom for himself; and then
Aedesius and Frumentius set out for their own country, which they
had been longing to see for so many years. Aedesius got back to
Tyre, where he became a deacon of the Church. But Frumentius stopped
at Alexandria, and told his tale to the bishop, the great St.
Athanasius (of whom we shall hear more by-and-by), and he begged
that a bishop might be sent into Ethiopia to settle and govern the
Church there. Athanasius, considering how faithful and wise
Frumentius had shown himself in all his business, how greatly he was
respected and loved by the Ethiopians, and how much he had done to
spread the gospel in the land of his captivity, said that no one was
so fit as he to be bishop; and he consecrated Frumentius
accordingly. To this day the chief bishop of the Abyssinian Church,
instead of being chosen from among the clergy of the country, is
always a person sent by the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, and thus
the Abyssinians still keep up the remembrance of the way in which
their Church was founded, although the bishopric of Alexandria is
now sadly fallen from the height at which it stood in the days of
Athanasius and Frumentius.

Constantine used his influence with the king of Persia, whose name
was Sapor, to obtain good treatment for the Christians of that
country; and the Gospel continued to make progress there. But this
naturally raised the jealousy of the magi, who were the priests of
the heathen religion of Persia, and they looked out for some means
of doing mischief to the Christians. So a few years after the death
of Constantine, when a war broke out between Sapor and the next
emperor, Constantius, these magi got about the king, and told him
that his Christian subjects would be ready to betray him to the
Romans, from whom they had got their religion. Sapor then issued
orders that all Christians should pay an enormous tax, unless they
would worship the gods of the Persians. Their chief bishop, whose
name was Symeon, on receiving this order, answered that the tax was
more than they could pay, and that they worshipped the true God
alone, who had made the sun, which the Persians ignorantly adored.

Sapor then sent forth a second order, that the bishops, priests, and
deacons of the Christians should be put to death, that their
churches should be destroyed, and that the plate and ornaments of
the churches should be taken for profane uses, and he sent for
Symeon, who was soon brought before him. The bishop had been used to
make obeisance to the king, after the fashion of the country; but on
coming into his presence now, he refused to do so, lest it should be
taken as a sign of that reverence which he was resolved to give to
God alone. Sapor then required him to worship the sun, and told him
that by doing so he might deliver himself and his people. But the
bishop answered, that if he had refused to do reverence to the king,
much more must he refuse such honour to the sun, which was a thing
without reason or life. On this, the king ordered that he should be
thrown into prison until next day.

As he was on his way to prison, Symeon passed an old and faithful
servant of the king, named Uthazanes, who had brought up Sapor from
a child, and stood high in his favour. Uthazanes, seeing the bishop
led away in chains, fell on his knee and saluted him in the Persian
fashion. But Symeon turned away his head, and could not look at him;
for Uthazanes had been a Christian, and had lately denied the faith.
The old man's conscience was smitten by this, and he burst out into
lamentation--"If my old and familiar friend disowns me thus, what
may I expect from my God whom I have denied!" His words were heard,
and he was carried before the king, who tried to move him both by
threats and by kindness. But Uthazanes stood firm against
everything, and, as he could not be shaken in his faith, he was
sentenced to be beheaded. He then begged the king, for the sake of
the love which had long been between them, to grant him the favour
that it might be proclaimed why he died--that he was not guilty of
any treason, but was put to death only for being a Christian. Sapor
was very willing to allow this, because he thought that it would
frighten others into worshipping his gods. But it turned out as
Uthazanes had hoped; for when it was seen how he loved his faith
better than life itself, other Christians were encouraged to suffer,
and even some heathens were brought over to the Gospel. Bishop
Symeon was put to death after having seen a hundred of his clergy
suffer before his eyes; and the persecution was renewed from time to
time throughout the remainder of Sapor's long reign.