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But the fact is, in the highest degree, improbable on any principles. Had our learned Critic consulted what Philosophers, and not what Philologists, call HUMANITY, that is, the workings of our common nature, he had never fallen into so absurd a conceit, as that the inspired propagators of a Revelation from heaven should, without any reasonable cause, and only in imitation of pagan worship, affect clandestine and nocturnal meetings. For he might have seen, that so strange a conduct had not only been in contempt of their divine Master's example, who, at his arraignment before the high priest, said, I spake OPENLY to the world ; and IN SECRET have I said nothing ; likewise in defiance of his injunction, when he sent them to propagate the faith,—What I tell you IN DARKNESS, that shall you speak in THE LIGHT: and what ye hear IN THE EAR, that preach ye UPON THE HOUSE-Tops.f Had our Critic (I say) paid that attention to human nature and to the course of the moral world, which he has misapplied upon an old mouldy brass, and a set of strolling Bacchanals, I he might have understood, that the first Christians, under the habitual guidance of the Holy Spirit, could never have recourse to nocturnal or clandestine conventicles, till driven to them by the violence of persecution : he might have understood, that the free choice of such assemblies must needs be an after-practice, when churchmen had debased the truth and purity of Religion by human inventions and sordid superstitions ; when, an emulous affectation of MYSTERY, and a mistaken zeal for the tombs of the Martyrs, had made a Hierarchy of that, which at first was only a Gospel-ministry.
On the whole therefore, we need not, I think, ask leave of this learned man to continue in our opinion, that the primitive Christians held their assemblies in the night-time to avoid the interruptions of the civil power; and to esteem his CONVERSE proposition, as he affects to call it (of their meeting with molestation from that quarter, BECAUSE their assemblies were nocturnal) as a mere dream or vision.
But to hide nothing which may concern a matter of such importance as our Critic's Discoveries ; I will ingenuously confess, how much soever it may make against me, that there are instances in sacred story of meetings at midnight and before dawn of day, to which no interruption of the civil Power had driven the disciples of Christ; but which were evidently done in contempt and defiance of that Power : such, for example, was the clandestine meeting between Mary and the two Angels at the sepulchre : that between the Apostles and the Angel of the Lord in the common prison : || and that, again, between
John xviii. 20.
All these refined speculations concerning persecution, are at the end of the said book of Elements; in a dissertation on a curious ancient tablet, containing the senatorial decree against a crew of wicked Bacchanals, of the size and dignity of our modern Gypsies.
§ John xx. 11, 12. !| Acts v. 18, 19.
Peter and the same Angel : * not to speak of another famous midnight assembly between Paul, Silas, the Gaoler, and an Earthquake."
We come now to the learned person's second proposition, called by way of eminence, the CONVERSE ; which affirms, That the primitive Christians met with molestations from the civil power, because their assemblies were nocturnal. And this he assures us is true IN TAE UTMOST LATITUDE; which in his language, I suppose, signifies, true in the EXACTEST SENSE ; for his argument requires some such meaning. Now in common English-true in the utmost latitude, signifies true, in the LOWEST SENSE; for the greater latitude you give to any thing, the looser you make it. This most eloquent editor of Demosthenes, therefore, by utmost latitude may be allowed to mean, what makes most to his purpose ; though it be what an Englishman would least suspect,-utmost strictness. And now for his reasoning.–By the molestations the Christians met with, we must needs understand the FIRST molestations; all other being nothing to the purpose : for when persecution was once on foot, I make no doubt but the nocturnal assemblies, to which persecution had driven them, gave fresh umbrage to the Civil power ; it being of the nature of a persecuting spirit to take offence at the very endeavours to evade its tyranny. The question between the learned Civilian and me is, What gave birth to the first, and continued to be the general, cause of persecution ? He says it arose from nocturnal and clandestine assemblies : I suppose it to be occasioned by the Atheistic renunciation of the Gods of Paganism.
Now it seems to be a violent prejudice against the learned Critic's system, that no one of those persecutors ever assigned nocturnal assemblies as the first or general cause of persecution ; and equally favourable for my opinion, that they all concur in giving another cause ; namely, the unhospitable temper of the Christians, in refusing to have Gods in common with the rest of mankind.
PLINY, in doubt how to act with the Christians of his district, writes to his master for instructions. His embarras, he tells the emperor, was occasioned by his never having been present at their examinations; which made him incapable of judging what, or how he was to prosecute. “Cognitionibus de Christianis interfui nunquam : ideo nescio quid et quatenus aut puniri soleat aut quæri.” He wanted to know, whether the very NAME was not criminal; either for itself, or for some mischief hid under it—"Nomen ipsum etiam si flagitiis careat, an flagitia cohærentia nomini puniantur.”
But could a Roman Magistrate, when at a loss for a pretence to persecute, overlook so fair a one as voluntary, unforced clandestine assemblies, and hunt after a mormo hid in the combination of four syllables ? Not that he wanted a Precedent for proceeding on these visionary grounds ; but the very Precedent shows that the Persecutors wanted • Acts xii. 7, 8.
† Acts xvi. 25.
better. TERTULLIAN assures us, that the Christians had been actually persecuted for the name only: “Non scelus aliquod in causa, sed NOMEN ; Christianus, si nullius criminis reus, nomen valde infestum, si solius nominis crimen est--si nominis odium est, quis nominum reatus : quæ accusatio vocabulorum ? nisi si aut barbarum sonat aliqua vox nominis, aut infaustum, aut maledicum, aut impudicum,” &c. From whence, by the way, allow me to conclude, that when a harmless NAME becomes so odious as to occasion the Sect which bears it, to be persecuted, the aversion must arise from some essential principle of that Sect, and not from a casual circumstance attending their religious practice.-But to return to Pliny; at last he discovers something worthy of animadversion. It was their FROWARD AND INFLEXIBLE OBSTINACY :-"neque dubitabam, qualecumque esset quod faterentur, pervicaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri.” Now is it possible, if the Christians were first persecuted, and continued to be persecuted, for holding their assemblies in the night-time, that Pliny, after so much experience of it, should not know the crime, nor how to proceed against the offenders ? What is still more unaccountable, TRAJAN, in answer to this application, is unable to deliver any general rule for the direction of his Minister :-"Neque enim in universum aliquid, quod quasi certam formaṁ habeat, constitui potest.” But the assembling in a clandestine manner by night, if this was the Crime which gave offence, is an action that admits of few modifications in a Court of Justice; and so might be commodiously submitted to a general rule. On the other hand, if what the author of The Divine Legation says, be true, that they were persecuted for opposing the principle of INTERCOMMUNITY, we see plainly why no general rule could be delivered. They expressed this opposition in various ways and manners; some more, some less, offensive :-by simply refusing to worship with the Pagans, when called upon ; by running to their tribunals uncalled; by making a profession of their faith, unasked; or by affronting the national religion, unprovoked. Now, so just and clement a prince as Trajan might well think, these different modes of expressing their abhorrence of intercommunity deserved different degrees of animadversion.
When Nero, in a mad frolic, set Rome on fire, and then threw that atrocious act upon the Christians, it is highly probable that the nocturnal assemblies of the Faithful (which, by this time, persecution had introduced amongst them) first started the happy thought, and encouraged him to pursue it. Now, if this, which is very probable, and our Critic's hypothesis, which is very improbable, be both truth, I cannot see how it was possible for Tacitus, when he acquits them of this calumny, and at the same time expresses the utmost virulence against them, to omit the mention of their nocturnal assemblies, had
they been begun without necessity, and obstinately continued after the civil magistrate had forbidden them. Instead of this, all he had to object to the Christians, was their odium humani generis : of which, indeed, he says, they were convicted; convicti sunt : an expression, without either propriety or truth, unless we suppose he understood their refusal of intercommunity to be a conviction : other proof there was none : for when examined on the rack concerning this hatred of mankind,* they constantly denied the charge; and appealed as well to their principles as their practice; both of which declared their universal love and benevolence to all the creatures of God. But to reprobate the Gods of Rome, the Orbis Romanus, (of which our Critic can tell us wonders) was proclaiming hatred and aversion to all the world. Hence it is that Quintilian, speaking of the topics of dispraise, says that the Author of the Jewish Religion (equally reprobating, with the Author of the Christian, the universal principle of intercommunity) was deservedly hated and held ignominious as the founder of a superstition which was the BANE of all other Religions—“ Et parentes malorum odimus : Et est conditoribus urbium infamiæ, contraxisse aliquam PERNICIOSAM cæteris gentem, qualis est primus Judaicæ superstitionis Auctor.” But why pernicious and baleful to the rest, if not by accusing and condemning all other institutions of error and imposture ?
Marcus Aurelius and JULIAN were vigilant and active; well instructed in the rights of Society; and not a little jealous of the interests of the Magistrate. Yet neither of these princes ever accuse the Christians of running to nocturnal assemblies unprovoked, or of persisting in the practice against imperial edicts. What a field was here for Aurelius, who despised them, to urge his charge of brutal obstinacy; and for Julian, who feared them, to cry aloud of danger to the state; their two favourite topics against these enemies of their Religion and Philosophy!
But sacred story may help us out where the civil fails : let us see then how this matter stands represented in Scripture : for I make our Critic' cause my own, as supposing we are both in the pursuit of Truth.
I have already given a brief account of the Assemblies of the infantchurch, as they are occasionally mentioned in the history of the Acts of the Apostles.
Our Critic's converse proposition, which we are now upon, only requires us to shew in what light the persecutors of the Apostles considered this matter ; and whether nocturnal assemblies, when any such were held, either gave advantage to their Jewish accusers, or umbrage to the pagan Magistrate, before whom the propagators of the Gospel were convened.
• i. e. Concerning their principles and their practice, from whence the Pagans inferred their hatred of mankind.
The persecutions recorded in the history of the Acts were almost all of them raised, or at least, fomented, by the Jews. Their several accusations against those they called apostate brethren are minutely recorded : and yet the crime of assembling by night is never brought into account. In the mean time, their point was to make the unwilling Magistrate the instrument of their malice : for this reason, they omitted nothing which might tend to alarm the jealousy of the State ; as when they accused the Christians of setting up another king, against Cæsar. Had their nocturnal assemblies therefore been held out of choice, they would not have neglected this advantage, since nothing could more alarm the civil Magistrate than such assemblies. The truth is, the Jews could not be ignorant of the advantage this would afford them. But conscience and humanity are not to be overcome at once. To accuse those they hated, of what they themselves had occasioned, required a hardiness in vice which comes only by degrees ; and after a long habit of abusing civil justice and the common rights of mankind.
Our Critic, perhaps, may be ready to say, “ That it is probable the Jews did accuse the Christian Church of this misdemeanor, though the historian, in his succinct history of the Acts, hath omitted to record it.”
But this subterfuge will never pass with those who consider how unwilling the Roman Magistrate always was to interfere in their contests, as clearly apprehending, the subject of them to be of certain matters concerning their law : so that, under this disposition, nothing could be more effectual to quicken his jealousy and resentment, than the charge of clandestine assemblies ; of which, doubtless, the Romans were very jealous, as contrary to their fundamental Laws, though not so extravagantly umbragious as our Critic's hypothesis obliges him to suppose.
But it will be said, “Were clandestine meetings never objected to the primitive Christians ?” Yes, very often. Celsus objected such meetings to them, as things contrary to law.* But Origen's reply will set matters to right. He says, the Church was driven upon this obnoxious measure to avoid the unjust persecution of its enemies. Nay Celsus, in a more ingenuous humour, confesses, they had reason for what they did : there being no other way to escape the severest punishments. I At least then, I have the honour of finding this reverend Epicurean on my side, against our Civilian and his converse proposition.
These meetings, therefore, it is confessed, subjected the Church to
“Όσαι κατά νόμους γίγνονται.-ORIGENES Contra Cels. + 'Aπό του κοινού κινδύνου. . 1 Ου μάτην τούτο ποιούσιν, άτε διωθούμενοι την επηρτημένην αυτοίς δίκην του θανάτου.