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Two of the most ancient monuments of ecclesiastical history, that we have, excepting the New Testament, are the accounts of the martyrdom of Ignatius and Polycarp, both disciples of St. John, written at the time of their suffering, by the churches of Antioch and Smyrna, of which they were bishops. And in those they mention, as of course, their purpose of celebrating yearly the festival of their birth-days, of their entrance into a better life, for the commemoration of their excellent graces, and the incitement of others to imitate them. Thus did they provide, that the righteous should be had in everlasting remembrance * : and observed the more particular direction, given to that intent in the Epistle to the Hebrews: Remember them which have [had t) the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God; whose faith follow, considering the end, the event, of their conversation. The rest of the primitive churches appear to have followed the same rule: and each to have honoured the more eminent of their own martyrs, who had been usually their teachers also, by anniversary assemblies for preserving the reverence due to their characters, and offering up thanks to God for their examples.
But the increase of their numbers, and the adoption of the sufferers of one church into the liturgies of others, and the admission of eminently good persons, who had not resisted unto blood I, and the frequent grants, which in subsequent ages were made, of so high a distinction, with little care of previous inquiry, multiplied the returns of these solemnities very improperly and inconveniently. Then besides, a still greater evil was, that praises and panegyrics too soon * Psalm cxii. 6. + So it should be translated, Heb. xii. 7. Heb. xii. 4.
grew to be immoderate, and afterwards impious. In the vehemence of oratorical encomiums and exclamations, the saint was called upon as present, till by degrees he was thought so: and what at first was merely a bold and moving figure of speech, became at length in good earnest a prayer ; which requested of a dead man who was unable to hear it, not only that he would intercede with God in behalf of his fellowservants, but that he would himself bestow such blessings upon them, as no creature hath in his power. Things being found in this condition at the Reformation, it was necessary, both to abolish intirely these unlawful addresses, and to limit the original sort of commemorations to a moderate list of persons, indisputably worthy of them. Accordingly no day is appointed by our church for the celebration of any other, than the principal saints, mentioned in the New Testament, it being hard to stop, if more were added. And amongst these, St. Stephen is the only one, who stands solely on the foot of being a martyr : as indeed it was fit, that the foremost, the leader, of that noble army should be distinguished, and chosen, as it were, to represent the rest. Now we shall keep his festival in a due manner, if we make use of it to place before our thoughts, I. The sinfulness of persecution for conscience
sake. II. The excellency of bearing it well.
I. The sinfulness of persecution for conscience sake.
Taking away the lives, the fortunes, the liberty, any of the rights of our brethren, merely for serving their Maker in such manner as they are persuaded they ought, when by so doing they hurt not human society, or any member of it, materially, is evidently incon
sistent with all justice and humanity : for it is punishing those, who have not injured us; and who, if they mistake, deserve only pity from us. Nor is it less inconsistent with policy and common prudence. For thus many
will be driven from amongst us, who might have been very useful: and such of the same opinion, as stay behind, will be tempted to become either open or secret enemies, in order to free themselves from the hardships which they suffer, and revenge themselves on the authors of them: from which motives have proceeded the bloodiest wars, the most shocking massacres, the most heinous barbarities, that have ever disgraced human nature. Or should men comply against their judgments, and live quietly ; from being hypocrites in the great point of their religion, they will too probably grow dishonest in others. And though their posterity may at length be sincere ; and so what we think truth be promoted in our part of the world: yet if the rest should be induced by our example to promote what they think truth, in the same way, it will by no means be a gainer on the whole. Fair argument and equitable behaviour are the natural methods of spreading it: and it will never thrive by any opposite ones. This being the case, imagining
, that God can enjoin religious cruelties, or fail to be displeased with them, is thinking so unworthily, and absurdly of him, that few things are more surprising, than the wide extent and long prevalence of so monstrous an error. And nothing distinguishes this age and nation more to its honour, than its entertaining in general so right sentiments on the subject before us.
When and where persecution began, hath been controverted. Some have charged the Jews with giving the first example of it, by extirpating the Canaanites, and punishing idolatry with death amongst their own people. But the Canaanites were extirpated, not for harmless religious opinions or observances, but for monstrous and unnatural cruelties and impurities, practised in their worship and out of it : by which, continued through many generations, their iniquity, being at length, as the Scripture expresses it, full ; God appointed the Israelites, as appeared by the evidence of numerous miracles, to execute his vengeance upon them: which command was probably designed to give them a greater abhorrence of the like enormities; and certainly they were bound to obey it. But they neither claimed any right else to punish those nations; nor any right at all to punish other nations, though guilty of the same crimes.
Nor amongst themselves were they authorized to proceed criminally against any persons on account of their faith or devotions, excepting the adorers of the neighbouring false deities; or of the true one by an image. Now such of those deities, as had been men, had been such dangerous patterns of wickedness; and the service of them all was so full of detestable abominations, that paying them any honour must be of very bad consequences: but paying them those, which they were understood to claim, worse than Atheism itself. And setting up images of the true God had so strong and immediate a tendency to lower the reverence of him, and bring him down to a level with the rest, that the mischief was only one degree removed. Besides, it no way appears, that the Hebrew idolaters held it their duty to be such : but licentiousness, or mistaken policy, or love of novelty, or some wrong inducement of that sort, led them to adopt the divinities of their neighbours: still believing in Jehovah, though practically they forsook him. And therefore, as conscience did not require their false worship, it was not injured by the prohibition of it. Nor must we forget, that God having condescended to be their supreme civil magistrate, as well as the object of their adoration; owning another God was treason, as well as idolatry: which never was the case of any one nation in the world besides.
It is therefore amongst the heathens, that we must look for the origin of real persecution. Yet, we confess, most of them tolerated, and even incorporated, a great variety of deities, and modes of worship : because they supposed, that the former might be all true, and the latter all acceptable. And therefore it was not readily concluded from a man's having a religion of his own, that he denied that of the state. But when there seemed cause to apprehend that he did, it was deemed, in some of the freest constitutions, a capital crime: as the known case of Socrates fully proves. There were indeed but few such punishments, because there were but few such offences, real or pretended : for men usually spoke and acted as the laws of their country prescribed, whatever they thought : till the Jews, in their captivities and dispersions, refusing to worship any other God, than the one invisible Maker of heaven and earth, provoked, by so doing, Pagan bigotry; and instead of being the first persecutors, were amongst the first martyrs ; indeed to true piety were the very first, Socrates having always conformed to the religion of Athens, and being unjustly condemned as rejecting it. Yet as the Jews were not commanded to propagate their faith, but only to profess it, which however did propagate it in some measure; the number of their sufferers for conscience sake, except in the