Pliny to the Emperor Trajan

Pliny to the Emperor Trajan.

IT is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, * to refer myself to you in all my doubts ; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance ? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacqnainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their- punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to the ages of the guilty, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult ; a later repentance entitles them to a pardon; or, if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error ; whether the profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves, inherent in the profession, are punishable : in all these points I am greatly doubtful. In the mean while, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians, is this ; I interrogated them whether they were Chris-tians ? if they confessed, I repeated the question twice again, adding threats at the same time ; when if they still persevered, I ordered them to be immediately punished ; for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved cor

reetion. There were others also-brought before me, possessed with th« same infatuation ; but, being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither. But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred. An information was presented to me, without any name sub. scribed, containing a charge against several persons, who, upon, examination, denied they were Christians, or had ever been, so. They repeated after noe an invocation to the gods ; and offered religious rites, with wine and frankincense, before your statue (which for the purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled* the name of Christ; whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are Really Christiana, into a compliance with any of these articles. I thought proper, therefore, to discharge taem. Some among those who were accused by a witness in person, ait first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it;: whilst the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) forsaken the error. They alt worshipped your statue, and the imag«» oi gods, throwing out imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ. They affirmed, the whole oS their guilt, or their error, was,that they met on a certain stated day, before it was light, and addressed themselves in a form of prayer to Christ, as to some God ; binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but, never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery ; never to falsify their word, or deny a trust, when they should be; called upon to deBver it up; after which, it was" their custom to separate, and then re-assembl'e, to eat in common a harmless meal. From this custom,

however, they desisted, after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavour to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to administer in their religious functions; but I could discover nothing more than an absurd and excessive superstition. I thought proper, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings in this affair, in order to consult with you : for it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration ; more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, this inquiry having; already extended, and being still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the, cities only, but has spread its infection among the country villages: nevertheless, it still seems possible to remedy this evil, and restrain its progress. The temples, at least, which were almost deserted, begin now to be frequented ; and the sacred solemnities, after along intermission, are again revived : while there is a general demand for the victims, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy toimagine, what numbers might be reclaimed from this error, if a pardon were granted to those who shall repent..


Several remarks easily offer from a perusal of thisvaluable monument of ecclesiastical antiquity, which. I consider as affording us one of the most authentic testimonials of the natural tendency of genuineChristianity, and likewise a striking display of thfij unreasonableness and malignancy of the spirit by which it was then opposed, and by which it always will be opposed (so Jar as the providence of God, and the circumstances of the times will permit it to act), while the state of the world and of human nature continue as they are.

I. It appears, that the number of those who professed the Christian name, when Pliny was proconsul of Pontus and Bithynia, and particularly within the extent of his government, was very great; so great, that the heathen temples had been almost left deso late, and their sacrifices sunk into neglect. Pliny thought that such a general defection from the old religion rendered severities justifiable, and even necessary : yet, on the other hand, being a person of humanity, he was shocked and grieved when he reflected on the multitudes who were affected by such prosecutions, without distinction of rank, or age, or sex. Considering the many disadvantages to which the Christians had been exposed, especially under the reigns of Nero and Domitian, their great increase at the time of Pliny's writing (which, at the latest, could be but a few years after the commencement of the second century) evidently proved, that the propagation and maintenance of the Gospel is no way dependent upon the rank, titles, or acquired abilities of those who profess it: for, numerous as the Christians were, they were of so little note and esteem in the world, that Pliny, who was a scholar, a philosopher, and a gentleman, a curious inquirer into every thing that was thought worthy of being known, was wholly unacquainted with the Christians, till his office obliged him to procure some information concerning them. He had an extensive acquaintance in Rome, having been many years in public life, and the Christians were very numerous there ; but he appears only to have known that there was such a people; and that they were a deluded and contemptible people, who deserved all that they suffered, for their obstinacy. The very name of Christian was then odious and reproachful; and when, in succeeding :'.h-s it became general and fashionable, other disgraceful epithets were substituted to stigmatize the faithful servants of God, and to point them out to the scorn or rage of the world.

II. Multitudes, who had been willing to be thought Christians in a time of peace, renounced their profession when they could no longer maintain k without tee hazard of their lives. The terms of safety were, to invocate the gods, to offer wine and incense to the statue of the emperor, and to blaspheme Christ, which Pliny was rightly informed, no true Christian could be prevailed on to comply with : yet, in fact, when the persecution was sharp, so many yielded, that the cause seemed visibly to decline. The temples, which had been almost forsaken, were again frequented, the solemnities revived^ and the demand for victims greatly increasedIt is plain, therefore, that there were, even in those primitive times, many superficial Christians, destitute of that faith and love which are necessary to perseverance in the face of dangers and death. Of course It is no new thing for men to desert the profession of the truth, to which they have formerly appeared to be attached ; through the fear of man, or the love of the. world. These are the stony-ground hearers; and our Lord has assured us, that such would be found, wherever his Gospel should be preached. But there were others, who, having experienced this Gospel tot be the power of God unto salvation, were faithful witnesses, and could neither be intimidated nor flatter? ed into a compliance with evil. It is the same at., thj* day : for though we are mercifully exempted from the terror of penal laws, yet the temptations arising from Worldly interest, and the" prevalence and force of evil customs, will sooner or later be too hard for all professors who have not received that faith which' is of the operation of God, which, by communicating a sense of the constraining love of Christ, is alone able to purify the heart from selfish and sinful principles, and to overcome the world with all its allurements and threatenings.

III. We have, in this epistle, an honorable testimony to the conduct and practice of the Christians irt Pliny's time. Though the information of enemies and apostates was admitted, and tven sought for, and those who were inclined to speak in their favour were put to the torture, we see, that in the declaration of a heathen, nothing is laid to their charge which was in any degree deserving of just blame. Though their meetings were accounted an offence against the state, they are acquited of any crifflinnl trsncsctions. On the contrary, it is said, that they bound themselves by the strictest obligations against the commission of immorality, and to the faithful discharge of relative duties. An engagement of this kind, amongst any other people, Pliny would have approved and admired. But the nature of their religious worship, which he censures as a dangerous and immoderate superstition, he thought sufficiently criminal in itself, notwithstanding its influence upon their conduct was confessedly commendable. To such inconsistencies are the wisest men reduced, who discover the least degree of candour in their opposition to the people of Christ. While they ignorantly condemn their principles, they are compelled to bear witness in favour of their general deportment which is formed upon those principles, and which, experience shows, no other principles can uniformly produce. It is true, the Christians were often indiscriminately charged with the greatest immoralities, but not by persons of reputation and judgment like Pliny, who were careful to inquire into the truth of what they related. At present, we who know what foul aspersions are propagated against the despised professors of the Gospel, do not think it necessary to attempt a formal refutation of them ; because as we fear the authors of such slanders are incorrigible, so we are persuaded with regard to others, that there are very fewr persons (however they may mistake our sentiments) so ignorant or credulous, as seriously to think them worthy of credit.

IV. The object of divine worship, in their assemblies, was the Lord Jesus Christ. On a stated day, that is, on the day which upon this account has, from the apostle's time, been styled the Lord's day, they met early in the morning to sing hymns to his praise: not in commemoration of a mortal benefactor or lawgiver, but as to Goa^jTacknowiedging, by this practice, their firm persuasion of that great mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh, and that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. That they rate before it was light, was most probably to avoid the notice and fury of their persecutors. The enemies of Christ may put those who know and love him to mnny difficulties and inconveniences; but they cannot wholly prevent them from assembling in his name, utiles* they confine them in prisons or chains. The reason is, they honor him as God, and are assured that he is present where two or three are met in bis name, at all times and in all places. Their dependence for sup-, port, direction, and deliverance, is etrtirtly upon hiw ; and when they worship him according to his will, he manifests himself unto them as he does not onto the world. This they bebove, experience, and profess-: and the hardships they will submit to, rather than be deprived of such opportunities, is a proof that they are not disappointed in their expectations from him ; especially if it be considered, that there have been few been in which a succession of his people have not ages pressed with the like trials for adhering to him. But no power of policy could ever effectually prevent associations to honor and serve him, amongst those who were fully persuaded that he is their God and their Saviour. Bishop Bonner (in queen Mary's reign), who was better versed in the arts of persecution than in the history of the church, mistook these Christians, whom Pliny describes, for heretics, and charged Philpot with being altogether like them ; a charge which the good man received as a great, though an unde. signed honor.

V. The severity with which the persecution was carried on under Trajan, appears from the doubt proposed by Pliny, whether he was at liberty to make any allowance in particular cases, or must punish all alike who were guilty of bearing the Christian name, without paying the least regard to sex, age, rank, or circumstance. Though desirous to show lenity, he did not think himself authorized to reject the most invidious or private accusations; nor even to accept of a recantation, without the emperor's express warrant. It is plain that he considered the mitigations he proposed, as a diviation from the ordinary course of proceeding against them. History scarcely affords an instance of soch undistinguishing rage exerted against any people, upon any occasion, except against those who have been punished for righteousness' sake, though they indeed have often been exposed to similar treatment both from heathens and professed Christians. In cases of sedition, or even rebellion against civil government, though many perhaps suffer, the greater number usually obtain mercy. The devouring sword of war seldom preys upon the defenceless, upon tender youth, or hoary age, or women. Some bounds are set by the feelings of humanity to the carnage of a field of battle : but when the native enmity pf the heart, against those of whom the world is not worthy, is permitted to act without restraint, it acknowledges no distinctions, it feels no compassion, but, like the insatiable fire, consumes whatever it can reach. If there be some exceptions, a few persons of gentle natural dispositions, who are unwilling to shed blood, and rather express their dislike by a contemptuous pity,—this is chiefly to be ascribed to the power of God over the heart of man ; and he sometimes makes use of these to check the violence of the others. Such a one was Pliny ; he had no esteem for the Christians, he despised them as deluded enthusiasts,' and he was angry with them for what he deemed their obstinacy : yet the greatness of their sufferings, and the number of the sufferers, gave him some concern, and made him interpose in their favour, so far as to prevent them from being industriously sought out, or punished 'without witnesses or proof.

VI. The chief or only crime of the Christians, in the judgment of Pliny, was, their steadiness in maintaining a cause which the emperor did not approve, and ' continuing their assemblies after they had been prohibited by his edict: for this audacity and presumption he supposed them deserving of the heaviest punishment, however blameless in other respects. It must be allowed, that, as the edicts of the Roman emperors had at that time the force of law, the profession of Christianity, when forbidden by those edicts, was illegal,-and if the penalties they suffered were prescribed by the edict, and they were tried and condemned under the same forms as were usually observed in other criminal processes, they suffered according to law. 1 hus it appeared to Pliny ; and though, in his private capacity, he might pity the offenders, yet, as a'governbr and a judge, he thought it his duty to give sentence according to the rule prescribed to him. At this distance of time, and while we keep in view that the persecutors were heathens, we can readily plead in behalf of the Christians. I he obstinacy they were charged with, was no other than a commendable regard to the superior authority of God. In all things not inconsistent with their duty to their supreme Lord, they were peaceable and obedient subjects to the emperor ; but, to countenance the worship of idols, to burn incense to the statue of a man, to abjure the name of Jesus who had redeemed them from hellr or wilfully to neglect his institutions ; these things they could not do without sin, and therefore they chose to suffer. We approve their determination, and admire their constancy. But a question naturally arises upon this subject, namely, Whether God be the Lord of the conscience under a heathen government only ? or, whether any man, or set of men, who own the Christian name, can have a better right than Trajan had, to compel men to act contrary to the light of their minds, or to punish them for a refusal? As true Christians have always, by the influence of his grace, extorted from the more sober part of their adversaries, a confession in favour of their moral and peaceable conduct, they have been usually proceeded against upon the'principle which influenced Pliny : not so much for the singularity of their religious tenets and usages, which are pretended to be so weak and "absurd as to excite contempt rather than ariger ; but for their pertinacity in persisting to maintain them, contrary to the laws and injunctions which have been contrived for their suppression. There have been men, in most ages of the church, whose ambition and thirst of power have been gratified by thus tyrannizing over the consciences of their fellow-creatures, or

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(if they could not prevail over conscience) over their liberty, fortunes, and lives ; and they have, by flattery or misrepresentation, had but too much success in engaging the authority of princes to support their designs. How many instances might we quote, from the history of kings and rulers, who in other respects have sought the welfare of their people, who yet being misled to esteem it a branch of their prerogative to dictate in what manner God shall be worshipped, and what points shall be received as articles of faith, have crowded the annals of their reigns with misery, and have often themselves largely shared in the calamities which their ill-judged measures have brought upon their subjects! A uniformity of modes in religion has been enforced, as though it were the most desirable object of government ; though it may be proved, that to prescribe, under the severest penalties, a uniformity of complexion or stature, would hardly be more unreasonable in itself, or more injurious to the peace and rights of society. Sometimes the servants of God have been traduced as persons disaffected to government, because they cannot adopt or approve such institutions as are directly subversive of the faith and obedience they owe to their Lord : thus the prophet was charged by Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, Amos vii. 10. At other times, new laws have been enacted, purposely to ensnare or distress them. Thus when the enemies uf Daniel were convinced that they could find no occasion against him, except concerning the law of his God, by flattering the pride of Darius they obtained a decree, which, according to their expectation, gave him up into their power as a criminal against the state. May we be duly thankful to God, and to.the government under which we live, for. the valuable privilege of religious liberty, and that we can worship him according to the light of our consciences, and assemble

together in his name where and when we please, none being permitted to make us afraid !