THE period of time, which the Volume now presented to the Reader embraces, will exhibit the Church of Christ in a very different situation from any, in which it appeared, during the whole course of the three first Centuries.
The fourth Century opens with a persecution more systematically planned, and more artfully conducted, than those which Christians had ever known. Indeed victory at first showed itself in favour of the persecutors, and Christianity seemed to be near an end. All the powers of cruelty and artifice, and of violence and calumny, associated, were exerted to the utmost in the course of these transactions; and, if the Church still survived the storm, and rose -more terrible from her losses, the only reason was, because her Defender is invincible.
We next behold the Church established and protected by civil polity, and the whole system of Paganism, which had been the pride of ages, gradually dissolved, and sinking into insignificance and contempt. Theadvantages and abuses, attendanton -Christian Establishments, display themselves, on this occasion, in a very conspicuous point of view. I have endeavoured, with faithfulness and candour, to point out both; at the same time that the regard due to truth itself, and to the characters of the most illustrious and the most exemplary Christians in past ages, seemed to require a defence of Ecclesiastical Establishments. I hope no real lover of truth and liberty will censure the attempt: for it must be owned, that the most direct attacks, in the way of argument, and I wish I could say only in that way, have repeatedly been made against them, as if they were unchristian in their whole nature. It cannot, therefore, be reckoned unfair to desire men, freely to give to others the liberty which they allow to themselves, if they would prove that their love of liberty is genuine and sincere.
The Arian controversy nearly fills the rest of the Century; it was my duty to give a faithful history of its rise, progress, and effects. And, if the personal character of Arians appear more criminal than many of my readers have been taught to imagine, I confidently refer them to the most authentic records of antiquity. I am not conscious of having disguised any one fact, or exaggerated any one enormity.
But it is with far greater pleasure, that I have contemplated the fifth Century. The history of Pelagianism I judged to be a desideratum in our language; it was necessary to lay it before the reader with some degree of circumstantial exactness, supported too by incontestible documents. If the account of the writings and labours of Augustine be thought to extend to an immoderate length, I can only say, that the importance of the doctrines of Grace, with their practical effects, will, perhaps, be considered as a sufficient apology. Nothing can be introduced more pertinent to the whole design of this History, than the revival of religion, of which he was the providential instrument: its effects remained for many centuries: and I scarcely need say to those, w ho have read the former Volume even with superficial attention, that my plan often requires me to be brief, where other historians are immoderately tedious ; and to be circumstantial, where they say little, or are silent altogether.
To search out the real Church from age to age, is indeed a work of much labour and difficulty; far more so, I apprehend, than can even be conceived by those whose studies have never been directed to this object. The ore is precious, but it must be extracted from incredible heaps of heterogeneous matter. I cannot pretend to be clear of mistakes ; but it behoved me to be as careful as I could; and I shall thankfully receive information or correction from studious persons who have carefully investigated antiquity for themselves. I cannot, indeed, expect information or correction from self-created critics, who are carried down the torrent of modern prejudices, and who know no sentiments, but those which they have imbibed from Authors of the present Century.
The encouragement which I have received from a generous Public induces me to persevere. Besides, the peculiar advantage of a work of this kind is, that it is capable of perfection, so far as it proceeds, without needing any support from subsequent parts. It is not like a connected thread of argumentation, which must be read throughout, before the full force of any particular portion of it be discerned.
What real Christianity is, I mean to exhibit historically ; and, in the execution of this plan, I hope I shall be found not altogether to have disappointed the expectations of the University of Cambridge. I reflect with peculiar satisfaction, that the University, to which I am now so much indebted for liberal support in the publication of this Work, and in which several of my earlier years were spent in useful studies, was, under Divine Providence, the principal instrument*, of spreading through these kingdoms at the Reformation, that very light of Evangelical doctrine, which it is tlie capital object of this History to explore.
• See Burnet's History of the Reformation, and Strjrpe'* Lives of the Archbishops, passim.