IN rudest outline suffer me rapidly to sketch what the progress of Christianity has been, and when you have heard it, judge for your own selves whether men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles ; judge whether Error would thus have had a healing influence, and Imposture a regenerative power; and if you believe that there is indeed a Divinity in the affairs of men, judge whether He who is the True, the Faithful, the Righteous, the Unchangeable, would have deceived His own truest children, and falsified His own inmost nature, by thus giving blessing to an hallucination, and triumph to a lie !
When that one word was uttered on the Cross which told that the great work was done,—nay, even when the Twelve had seen the risen Christ,—nothing could have appeared more deplorable than the weakness of the new religion. It numbered but a handful of timid followers, of whom the boldest had denied his Lord with blasphemy, and the most devoted had forsaken Him and fled. They were poor, they were ignorant, they were helpless. They could not claim a single synagogue, or a single sword. If they spoke their own language, it bewrayed them by its mongrel dialect; if they spoke the current Greek, it was despised as a miserable patois. And of their two doctrines—the Crucifixion and the Resurrection—the one inspired indignant horror, the other unbounded scorn. But when they were weak, then were they strong. They had been consecrated for their mighty work by no earthly chrism; they had been baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire; each faithless heart had been dilated with celestial courage; each lowly forehead mitred with Pentecostal flame !
Well might they have shuddered at that conspiracy of hatred with which they were confronted. So feeble were they and insignificant, that it would have looked like foolish partiality to prophesy for them the limited existence of a Galilaean sect. Had any one seen Paul the aged as, in all the squalor of poverty and disease, he sat chained to some coarse soldier in the praetorium at Rome; or that Galilaean fisherman, who, under the shadow of the great Temple of Artemis, ministered to a handful of poor converts in the splendid capital of Asia— would it not have seemed the very fanaticism of cre dulity to prophesy that their names should be honoured tor ever by the inhabitants of cities more magnificent than Ephesus, and empires more vast than Rome ? St. Paul died; they dragged, it may be, his corpse from the arena, and—sprinkling the white dust over the stains of his feeble blood—looked for a more interesting victim than the aged and nameless Jew; St. John died we know not where or how, and no memorial marks his forgotten tomb; yet, to this day, over the greatest of modern cities, towers the vast dome of the cathedral dedicated to the name of Paul; and the shapeless mounds which once were Ephesus bear witness, in their name of Agiotzeologo, to no other fact than that they once were trodden by the weary feet of him who saw the Apocalypse, and whose young head had rested on the bosom of his Lord !
Consider how colossal were the powers arrayed against this nascent faith—how vast the forest trees which overshadowed with their dense umbrage, and well-nigh crushed under their deciduous leaves, this smallest of all seeds. First, Judaism both within and without the fold. Judaism within,—half suggesting to the minds of more than one Apostle that, unless they conformed to its outward observances, they were little better than a schismatic sect; Judaism without, with its fifteen hundred years of gorgeous worship and holy faith. The Jewish Rabbi might, with plausibility, taunt them as traitorous apostates, as he recalled to some young proselyte that long and splendid history, rolling back from the heroic Asmonaean struggles to the magnificence of Solomon,—nay, backward to the day when, with uplifted spear, Joshua had bidden the sun to stand still upon Gibeon, and Abraham, obeying the mysterious summons, had abandoned the gods of his fathers in Ur of the Chaldees. The rod of Moses, the harp of David, the ephod of Samuel, the mantle of Elijah, the graven gems on Aaron's breast,—all these were theirs; theirs, too, the granite tables of Sinai, theirs the living oracles of God; and who were these children of yesterday, these miserable Galilaeans with their crucified Nazarene, in whom none of the rulers or the Pharisees had believed ? were they not beneath contempt ? a people that " knew not the law," and were accursed ? It needed no mean force of character, no ordinary intensity of conviction,—it needed, let us say, the Divine vision of a Peter, and the inspired eloquence of a Paul, to burst the intolerable yoke of these long-venerated observances, and to plant the standard of Christian freedom upon the ruins of Levitical form. And Jews as they were by birth, Jews as they were in great measure by religion, keeping as they did the Jewish Sabbath, worshipping in the Jewish Temple, venerating the Jewish books, the struggle against Jewish detestation might have been far longer and more terrible but for a Divine interposition. Forty years after the imprecation of priests and people, the blood of the King whom they had crucified fell like a rain of fire from heaven upon them and on their children. The storm of Roman invasion consumed Jerusalem to ashes, and shook the whole fabric of Judaism into the dust. The race became despised and persecuted, wanderers with the brand of God upon their brow. The frantic hatred of a false Messiah at length taught the Pagan world that Christians were something more than a Jewish sect; but when Bether had been taken, and Akiba slain in prison, and Barkokeba had fallen before the sword of Julius Severus, the material power of the Jews, and therewith the main hopes of the Semitic race, were broken for ever; and, without an effort of its own, the first great obstacle to the spread of Christianity had been irrevocably swept away.
Harder, deadlier, more varied, more prolonged was the contest of Christianity with Paganism. From the first burst of hatred in the Neronian persecution till the end of the third century the fierce struggle continued; fierce, because—meek, unobtrusive, spiritual as the Christians were—they yet roused the hatred of every single class. Paganism never troubled itself to be angry with mere philosophers who aired their elegant doubts in the shady xystus or at the luxurious feast, but who with cynical insouciance did what they detested, and adored what they despised. They were unworthy of that corrosive hatred which is the tribute paid to the simplicity of Virtue by the despair and agony of Vice. But these Christians, who turned away with aversion from temples and statues, who refused to witness the games of the amphitheatre, who would die rather than fling into the altar-flame a pinch of incense to the genius of the Emperors; who declined even to wear a garland of flowers at the banquet, or pour a libation at the sacrifice; whose austere morality was a terrible reflection on the favourite sins which had eaten, like a spreading cancer, into the very heart of the nation's life; these Christians, with their unpolished barbarism, their unphilosophic ignorance, their stolid endurance, their detestable purity, their intolerable meekness, kindled against themselves alike the philosophers whose pride they irritated, the priests whose gains they diminished, the mob whose indulgences they thwarted, the Emperors whose policy they disturbed. Yet, unaided by any, opposed by all, Christianity won. Without one earthly weapon she faced the legionary masses, and, tearing down their adored eagles, replaced them by the sacred monogram of her victorious labarum; she made her instrument of a slave's agony a symbol more glorious than the laticlave of consuls or the diadem of kings; without eloquence she silenced the subtle dialectics of the Academy, and without knowledge the encyclopaedic ambition of the porch. The philosopher who met a Christian Bishop on his way to the Council of Nicaea, stammered into a confession of belief, and the last of Pagan Emperors died prematurely in the wreck of his broken powers, with the despairing words, "Vicisti Galilae ! " " Oh, Galilæan, thou hast conquered !"