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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Christianity (History Sketch)

Sketch of its History. The Christian religion was published by its great Author in Judea, a short time before the death of Herod the Great, and toward the conclusion of the long reign of Augustus. While other religions had been accommodated to the peculiar countries in which they had taken their origin, and had indeed generally grown out of incidents connected with the history of those to whom they were addressed, Christianity was so framed as to be adapted to the whole human race; and although, for the wisest reasons, it was first announced to the Jews, who had peculiar advantages for forming an accurate judgment with regard to it, it was early declared that, in conformity to predictions which had long been known, and long interpreted, as referring to a new communication of the divine will, it was to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and was to carry salvation to the ends of the earth. Although Christianity originated in Judea, it was not long confined within the narrow limits of the Holy Land. The open manner in which it was announced, the length of time during which its Author publicly addressed his countrymen, the innumerable miracles which he performed, and, above all, the report of the resurrection under circumstances which must have been communicated to the imperial government at Rome, excited the deep attention of the numerous Jews and proselytes who, from surrounding nations, regularly went up to Jerusalem, and of whom vast numbers were actually in that city when the resurrection must have been the subject of universal discussion. They very naturally carried to the different countries in which they usually resided, the astonishing intelligence with which they had been furnished; and provision was soon made for fulfilling the prediction which Jesus had uttered, that his Gospel would, before the destruction of Jerusalem, be circulated and embraced by many through the wide extent of the Roman empire. The apostle Peter, in consequence of what he knew to be a solemn injunction from heaven, communicated to a Gentile the truths of Christianity. St. Paul, who had distinguished himself by his enmity to the Christians, and by the cruelty with which he had persecuted them, having been converted, devoted himself to lay the foundations of the Gospel through a large portion of the most enlightened part of the world; and the miraculous gift of tongues, by which humble and illiterate men found themselves at once able to speak the languages of different nations, left no doubt that they were bound to preach their faith as extensively as had been marked out to them by the last instructions which they had received from their Master. They had to struggle with the most formidable difficulties in prosecuting this undertaking; for which, had they trusted merely to their own strength, and their own natural endowments, they were wholly unqualified.

2. The Roman empire at the period of their commencing the attempt, comprehended almost the whole of the civilized world, and thus included within it nations whose habits, customs, and sentiments essentially differed, and whom it required the most dexterous policy to unite in one community, or to subject to one government. The most effectual method by which, during the commonwealth, and at the rise of the empire, this had been accomplished, was a politic respect to the religious opinions which all these nations entertained. Not only were their modes of worship treated with scrupulous reverence, but their gods, in conformity with the genius of Paganism, were incorporated or associated with the deities of Rome, and they were thus joined to their conquerors by the strongest ties by which the affections can be secured. At all times religion had been an object of prominent interest with the Romans: at the foundation of the city, Romulus had professed to be directed by Heaven; during the whole period of the republic, the most sacred attention had been paid to the rites and ceremonies sanctioned by the prevailing superstition, the prosperity of the state was invariably ascribed to the protection of the gods, and the most impressive solemnities, combined with the richest splendour and magnificence, cast around polytheism a mysterious sanctity, which even the philosophers affected to revere. Precautions accordingly had been early taken to prevent innovations upon the established ritual; foreign rites were prohibited till they had obtained the sanction of the senate; and when the solicitation of this sanction was neglected, the persons guilty of the neglect were frequently punished. From the nature of Paganism, it was perfectly consistent with its spirit to conjoin, with any particular mode of it, the forms which elsewhere prevailed. These additions left all which had been previously honoured in unimpaired vigour and influence, and, in fact, only increased the appearance of profound regard for religion, which the Romans so long assumed. But this part of the political constitution, lightly as it affected other religions, at once struck at the root of Christianity, which, unlike the prevailing modifications of idolatry, prohibited the worship of all the deities before whose altars mankind had for ages bent, and required, as essential for obtaining the divine favour, that they who believed in it should pay undivided homage to the one God, whose existence it revealed. The extension of the Gospel thus necessarily carried with it opposition to the most ancient and most revered law of the empire, and it was impossible for those who judged of it merely from this circumstance, without investigating its nature and tendency, to hesitate in directing against it the statutes which the zeal of their fathers had provided, to prevent such a revolution as would be produced by so thorough and so alarming a change in their religious principles. No sooner, however, had the message of salvation been addressed indiscriminately to all men, and, from the evidence by which it was accompanied, had brought numbers to acknowledge the heavenly source from which it is derived, than the detestation of it previously entertained burst forth in all its violence; and it is apparent that this had been widely and openly expressed before any imperial edicts were directed against the Christians. Tacitus, in the celebrated passage in which he mentions the disciples of Jesus, and which refers to a period not more than thirty years distant from the ascension, represents it as notorious in Rome, that Christ, during the reign of Tiberius, had been put to death as a criminal; he asserts that his adherents had long been odious on account of their enormities; he laments that their destructive superstition had found its way to the capital of the empire; and he attributes the melancholy fate to which they were condemned to the general persuasion, that they were actuated by hatred to the whole human race. It is necessary to keep this fact steadily in view, to form an accurate idea of that opposition which Christianity had to encounter. This opposition is not to be estimated merely by reference to particular statutes, or even to be considered as fully exhibited when we have gathered together the public proceedings which have been recorded in history, or deplored in the writings of those who sought to avert them. It is to be remembered that even when the laws which the frantic zeal of some of the emperors had enacted were repealed, the general law of the empire was still in force; that it was competent for every one who had the cruelty to do so, to turn it against the Christians; and that the firm, though mistaken, conviction that the Christian profession involved in it the most revolting impiety, the most tremendous guilt, and the most dangerous hostility to the best interests of the state, would lead numbers to indulge their antipathy, when little notice was taken of the sufferers, and would keep the disciples of the hated faith in a state of unceasing alarm. ( See PERSECUTION. ) What was the effect of this depressing situation? Did it check the dissemination of the Gospel, or confine it to the men by whom it was preached? So far was this from being the case, that from the period of the death, and, as it must here be termed, the alleged resurrection of Jesus, it was embraced by immense numbers in all the countries to which it was conveyed; and even while they were contemplating the sacrifices and the trials to which, by attaching themselves to it, they would be exposed, they did not hesitate to relinquish the religion in which they had been educated, and to exchange for misery and death all the comforts which the strongest feelings and propensities of our nature lead men to value and to pursue. Finally, imperial Rome bowed to the religion it had persecuted, and the emperor Constantine became a Christian.

3. The propagation of Christianity assumes a new aspect after it became the religion of the empire, and was guarded by the protection and surrounded by the munificence of imperial power. The causes which, in the first stage of its existence, had most powerfully acted against it, were now turned to its support; and all the motives by which men are usually guided led them to enter with, at least, apparent conviction into its sanctuaries.

Not only was persecution, after the reign of Constantine, at an end, but with the exception of the short reign of Julian, who, having apostatized from Christianity, and become intoxicated with the fascinating speculations of the Platonic philosophy, was eager to raise the temples which his predecessor had laid in ruins, promotion and wealth and honour could be most effectually secured by transferring to the Gospel the zeal which had been in vain exhausted to preserve the sinking fabric of Paganism and idolatry. The emperors, who had displayed their zeal and their attachment to the religion of Jesus, by forcing their own subjects to profess it, conceived it to be their duty to communicate so great a blessing to all the nations which they could influence; and when they found it necessary to declare war against the savage tribes which pressed upon the frontiers, or forced themselves within the precincts of the empire, they carried on hostilities with the view of rendering these instrumental no less to the diffusion of their religious tenets, than to the vindication of their authority, and the security of their dominions. The vanquished invaders felt little reluctance to purchase the forbearance or the clemency of their conquerors, by submitting to receive their religion; and this species of conversion, so little connected with the great objects which revelation was designed to accomplish, leaving, in fact, all the gross superstitious practices and all the immoral abominations which had previously existed, was boastfully held forth as a decisive proof of the triumph of the Gospel.

4. The foundation of the empire, not long after the days of Constantine, began to be shaken: and it experienced numberless assaults and convulsions, till it was finally divided into the eastern and western empires.

The luxury and wealth which had enervated their possessors, and destroyed the heroism and intrepidity by which their ancestors had been distinguished, presented the most powerful temptations to the lawless bands which, driven from the sterile regions of the north of Europe, had pressed forward to seek for new and more favoured habitations. The feeble attempts to turn aside, by bribery, these ferocious barbarians, increased the danger which they were intended to remove; and the history of Europe presents, for several ages, the disgusting spectacle of war, conducted with an atrocity eclipsing the stern virtues which sometimes were strikingly displayed. But although the insubordination of this turbulent and sanguinary period was little favourable to the mild influence of genuine Christianity, it did not prove so fatal to it as might have been apprehended; and it was even instrumental in extending its nominal dominion. Mankind, when scarcely emerged from barbarism, and attached to no particular country, but seeking wherever it can be found the food necessary for themselves and the flocks upon which they in a great measure depend, although they entertain those sentiments with regard to religion which seem almost interwoven with our nature, feel little attachment to any one system of superstition, and are open to the reception of new doctrines, which an association with what they value may have led them to venerate. When, accordingly, the tribes which finally overran the Roman empire had ceased from the destructive contests by which they got possession of the regions that had long been blessed with civilization and enlightened by science, they surveyed with amazement and with admiration the people whom they had conquered; they were delighted with the luxuries which abounded among them; they were charmed with their manners and customs; and they eagerly conformed to institutions from which they hoped that they should reap what the original inhabitants of their settlement had enjoyed. The religion of the vanquished they contemplated with reverence; they connected it with the wealth, the refinement, and the power which they saw spread around them; and they easily exchanged the rude and careless worship of their native deities, for the polished and splendid devotional rites, which, with the most imposing solemnity, were celebrated by the Christians. Hence, they soon embraced the religion by which it was believed that these rites were prescribed; and they communicated it to the nations with whom they still maintained an alliance. There is no doubt that motives very little connected with the conviction of the understanding led to the progress of Christianity now described; and, in fact, that progress was occasioned by causes so different from those which should have produced it, that, had circumstances been changed, and had the religion of Jesus been continued to be persecuted by the most powerful states, multitudes who affected to revere it would, upon the same ground on which their veneration rested, have exerted themselves to deride its tenets, and to exterminate its professors.

5. But it was not the secular arm alone that was stretched forth to lead men to the reception of Christianity. The church, after it had been firmly established, and had, amidst the riches and honours with which it was endowed, forgotten that it should not have been of this world, conceived it incumbent, as an evidence of its zeal, or, as was too often the case, for extending its power and its influence, to make attempts to substitute the cross of Christ for the emblems of Paganism. In accomplishing this object, it employed different means. But although the conversions which took place, from the establishment of Christianity till the restoration of learning, or the reformation, which forms a new aera in the dissemination of the Gospel, were often unfortunately very far from planting the word of life in the hearts of those to whom it was conveyed, they were very extensive. They reached to almost every country in Europe; to Arabia, China, Judea, and many other parts of Asia; and the obscure tribes, to whom no missionaries were despatched, gradually conformed to the religion of those more powerful states upon which they depended, or to which they looked with respect or veneration.

6. Mohammedanism, however, arrested the progress of Christianity in some of these countries, and humbled it and oppressed it in others; but since the reformation, and especially within the last century, it has been extended, not so much by conquest, as by the legitimate means of colonization, and by missions and education, to the most distant and important parts of the world, to China, India, Africa, the American Islands, and those of the Pacific Ocean. The zeal, self-denial, and successes, of those missionaries, who have been sent forth within a few years by various Protestant societies, and their great successes form, indeed, a splendid section in the modern history of the church. They have sown the seed in almost every land, and the fruit has spread itself throughout the world.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Christianity (History Sketch)'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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