Page images
PDF

strength and stress of the christian evidence. It is certain that the founder of the christian religion suffered death upon the cross for the undertaking; it seems equally certain that the apostles and first of his followers underwent all manner of persecution; and many of them martyrdom, for their opinions. This is expressly stated in scripture. It is confirmed by corresponding accounts of heathen writers, who, being enemies to Christianity, cannot be suspected of giving false testimony in its favor, and who described the first Christians as resolutely undergoing stripes, imprisonment, and death, rather than renounce or impugn the truth of their religion; and these accounts come near to the times of the apostles, if not to their times. Add to which, that the thing itself was in the highest degree probable, and, morally speaking, certain, that the setters-up and maintainers of a religion which overthrew all other religions, diverse and irreconcileable to, or, as it were, directly against, the established tenets and prejudice of both Jews and Gentiles, should meet with opposition from the rulers and teachers of this world, who were all interested in the support of their own establishment. We know what fate and usage the first promoters of the Reformation met with, and there is all likelihood that the first publishers of Christianity would share the same. ‘I think,’ says St Paul, “that God hath set forth us the apostles last as it were appointed unto death ; for we are made a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men ; even in this present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace, and labor, working with our hands; being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it; being defamed, we entreat ; we are made as the filth of the world, as the offscouring of all things unto this day.” Was all this, think you, from any liking for an imposture ? for what they knew in their hearts to be a falsehood of their own contriving : The epistles, all of them, abound with exhortations to patience ; some of these were written for no other purpose than to encourage their new converts to sustain the struggle they had together ; ‘Call to remembrance,” says the epistle to the Hebrews, ‘the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions, partly whilst ye were made a gazing stock both by reproaches and afflictions, and partly whilst ye became companions of them that were so used ; for ye took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye had in heaven a better and enduring substance.’ ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or

famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword P Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him that loved us; for I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ And they not only suffered these things, but foresaw that they should suffer them. It was what might easily enough be foreseen from the nature of the undertaking they were engaged in. Besides that, they were expressly forewarned of it from the very first by their divine master; “And ye shall be betrayed both by parents and brethren, and kinsfolk and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death, and ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” Now if the fact be established, which appears to me unquestionable, that the first teachers of Christianity suffered great extremities, and some of them death in the cause, and for the sake of their religion, it carries with it the strongest possible proof of the truth of that religion. One man relates a story. It appears to me so improbable in its own nature, that I could not bring myself to believe it. Five or six others join with this man in the same agreement. This staggers, but by no means satisfies me. They protest over and over again; they declare it with every possible mark and expression of seriousness and earnestness. This also has some weight; but to come to the truth and certainty of the matter, I pretend that the relaters of this are, and treat them all as, impostors. I threaten them with imprisonment if they do not confess the truth, and retract the story. My threats have no effect; they answer they cannot but declare what they have seen and heard. I carry my threats into execution; confine them in prison, beat them with stripes, try what hunger, or cold, or nakedness, will do. Not one of them relents; spite of all I can do, or all I threatened, they persevere in their original story. I consider that perhaps these people may be mistaken; nay, but I reflect, that is impossible; what they relate is not opinions and notions, but matters of fact, and of such a nature that they cannot be mistaken ; what they tell us, they saw with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears; they must know the truth or falsehood of what they say ; either they are the most obstinate, deliberate impostors, or what they say, notwithstanding all its seeming improbabilities, must be true. I will make, however, a decisive experiment. I will make this short proposal to them; either disown and give up your story, or prepare to suffer death, to seal your asseveration with your blood. Some of them do so. What shall I now say? I can no longer refuse conviction. Now this description agrees in all its points with the case of Christianity. And upon this I rest; produce me an example of any one man, since the beginning of the world, voluntarily suffering death for what he knows to be false, and I give up the cause. If no such instance was ever heard of, I cannot see upon what grounds, or in what way, we can know right from wrong; or on what pretence we can reject the evidence of the apostles, martyrs, and first preachers of Christianity.

LXVIII.

PROPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY.

PART I.
RoMANs X. 10.

But I say, Have they not heard? Yes, verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words into the ends of the world.

THE spreading and propagation of Christianity has always been deemed a proof of its truth; because it is said that a false or fabulous religion could not, under the same circumstances, have so sped and gained credit in the world. To do the argument justice, it will be necessary just to state the fact how Christianity did really spread and make its way, though it will be necessary to take notice of the circumstances under which Christianity was practised, whether they were such as that no imposture could have made its way under the same. When this is done, you will judge for yourselves of the degree of weight and credit which the argument deserves.

The account of the preaching and spreading of Christianity must set off from the ascension of Christ into heaven; for it was from that time that the apostles were commissioned to publish and teach it to the world ; and before that time the world could not be said to know perfectly what it was.

Now a few days after Christ's ascension, we find the disciples assembled in Jerusalem to the number of one hundred and twenty. Acts i. 15. “And in those days, Peter stood in the midst of the disciples; the number of the names being about a hundred and twenty.’ This number will appear to you extremely small; but I think it is not to be supposed to be the whole number of those who believed in Christ. For first, you will observe, this was only in one city, of Jerusalem. Secondly ; it was the number of those who where assembled; and it is not necessary to suppose, nor probable, that all should be collected upon that occasion who believed in Christ. Thirdly; these were not yet formed into any regular society, so as to be known to, or associate much with, one another. It was not yet either settled or known that the believers in Christ were to meet, or where, or when, or how. The one hundred and twenty, the little knot and association who had gathered themselves together, and joined themselves to the apostles, were probably not merely met together as believers in Christ, but as personally known to and connected with the apostles and one another; all the believers in Jerusalem it could not be, if it was true what St Paul asserts, that Christ appeared to five hundred brethren at once. I can very well conceive that the death of Christ had staggered many of his followers; not that they distrusted the reality of the miracles which they had seen or been informed of, but because they did not see what it tended to ; what was to be done, or what was to be the end and event of all these extraordinary appearances. It did not as yet appear that a new religion was to be set up in the world, or how the professors of that religion were to act, or to be distinguished from the rest of mankind; so that they ceased to be his disciples, because his departure out of the world left them nothing more to do, and nothing more to hope. This assembling of one hundred and twenty was held a few days after his ascension; for forty days after that event was the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost descended upon the apostles, accompanied with miraculous effects; the appearance of fire resting upon them, and the speaking in the audience of the people in a variety of languages, which it was known they understood nothing of before. Upon this memorable day, three thousand were added to the church. But here, as before, I would remark, that it is not to be taken that these three thousand were converted by this single miracle, but rather that many who were before believers in Christ became now professors of Christianity; that is, when they found that a religion was to be established, a society formed and set up in the name of Christ, governed by his laws, professing belief in his name, united amongst themselves, and separated from the rest of the world by many visible distinctions, as baptism, the Lord's supper and the like ; when they found such a community established there, by virtue of their former conviction of what they had seen and heard and known of Christ whilst on earth, they declared themselves members of it. A very little after this, we read in the fourth chapter of Acts, that the number of the men was about five thousand; so that here is an addition of two thousand in a very little time. Christianity continued to advance at Jerusalem by the same progress; for in the next chapter we read “ that believers were the more added to the Lord ; multitudes both of men and women.” In the sixth chapter we meet with another instance of the increase of the disciples; for we read that “the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly, and that a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” This I call the first period in the propagation of Christianity. It contains scarcely more than one year from the ascension of Christ; during which year the preaching of the gospel was confined, so far as we learn, to Jerusalem. And how did it prevail there? They set off with one hundred and twenty; in one day three thousand were added ; in a short time after that they were increased to five thousand; multitudes, both of men and women, continued to be added; disciples multiplied greatly, and many of the Jewish priesthood, amongst others, became obedient to the faith. This was the first year’s increase, and this was upon the spot where the things were transacted upon which the religion rests. Christianity now began to spread. By reason of a great persecution against the Christians of Jerusalem, they were all, except the apostles, driven from thence, and scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria; and wherever they went they carried their religion with them. “They that were scattered abroad, went every where preaching the word.” We read that the gospel was preached with great success in Samaria; first by Philip, and then by Peter and John. Some time after this, namely, three years from Christ's ascension, Paul was converted, and found many others professing Christianity at Damascus; three years after which, that is, six years after the ascension, the churches throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria, were multiplied in the comfort of the Holy Ghost. This I call the second period; and contains four years, as the first did. First; during the first period, Christianity was confined to Jerusalem; in the second, we hear of

« PreviousContinue »