How Christianity Conquered Rome

Famine and war had recently afflicted Caesarea, so when the plague hit in the early fourth century, the populace was already weakened and unable to withstand this additional blow. The populace began fleeing the city, one of the larger ones of the Roman Empire, for safety in the countryside.[i] However, in the midst of the fleeing inhabitants, at least one group was staying behind, the Christians. Bishop of the city and historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded that during the plague, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”[ii]

Cities in the ancient world were even more overcrowded than the densest population centers today. With few sewers existing, cities were filthy beyond imagining and became a breeding ground for disease. Major catastrophes were not uncommon, including fires, plagues, conquests by armies, and frequent earthquakes.[iii] Even though the cities were unpleasant places to live, they were the population and intellectual centers of the empire, and they provided Christians with opportunities for numerical growth and cultural influence. Indeed, Christianity eventually dominated the empire by taking root in almost all the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, from Alexandria in North Africa to Cordova in Spain.[iv]

However, the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire came not by the sword, but by the preaching of the gospel joined with acts of compassion. Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.”[v] A few decades after Eusebius, the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire to cultural ascendancy. Writing to a pagan priest, he said, “[W]hen it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.”[vi] To another, he wrote, “[They] support not only their poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”[vii] In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire.

Julian’s program failed because the polytheism of ancient Rome was unable to sustain the kind of self-sacrificial love and compassion that Eusebius observed in Caesarea. Christianity presented to the ancient world two theological truths that were not to be found in the pagan religions. The first is that the God of Jesus Christ is a God worth dying for, since He had first demonstrated His love for humanity by sending His Son. The second truth was a “new conception of humanity,” that is, the idea that all human beings have special dignity and should therefore be shown compassion.[viii] These two ideas slowly but surely transformed the culture of the Roman Empire. Today, as the West appears to be returning to paganism, the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrines of God and of man will once more stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture by Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in acts of compassion.

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Endnotes

[i] Caesarea had a population of about 45,000. There were only thirty-one cities in the empire whose populations were greater than 30,000. See Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 35-36, 60.

[ii] Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15. Eusebius records that the famine was so severe that a single measure of wheat was sold for 2,500 drachmas, one drachma being the daily wage of a skilled worker (292). Eusebius interprets the tragic events as divine punishment upon the city for its zeal in carrying out the government-sponsored persecution of the Christians initiated by Caesar Maximin. Shortly after these events Maximin died, Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was legalized throughout the empire.

[iii] Stark, Cities of God, 26-29.

[iv] See Stark, Cities of God, 35-59, for a brief overview of the Christian presence in each of the thirty-one largest cities of the empire.

[v] Eusebius, 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15.

[vi] Julian, “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 2, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 337. Julian is not referring to the specific instance that Eusebius cites, but is referring to Christian charity more generally. Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism” (“To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923], 69). He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.” Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present. He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor. As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well. Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man (“To Arsacius,” 69-71; cf. “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” 335-337).

[vii] Julian, “To Arsacius,” 71.

[viii] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 214.

The Quaint Pony Express Pledge

As Mark Twain remembered in his account of a stagecoach trip through the West,

Stamp_US_Pony_Express_25cHere he comes! Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so. In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—weaving towards us, nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs come faintly to the ear—another instant, a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but not reply, a man and a horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm.[i]

It was a Pony Express rider, one of over 200 who carried mail on the 2,000-mile route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California—men with names like Lafayette Bolwinkle and G. G. Sangiovanni, and with nicknames like “Irish Tom” and “Pony Bob.”[ii] Though it ran for little more than a year (trumped by the telegraph, which could deliver a message in seconds rather than days), it became a treasured item of American lore.

Less well known is the religious devotion of a partner in the parent firm—Alexander Majors—and his efforts to instill a high moral standard in his company.[iii] Consider the riders’ oath:

I . . . do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.[iv]

Furthermore, each rider and each way station was issued a special, calf-bound[v] edition of the Bible, supplied by the American Bible Society.[vi] Of course, riders were known to “backslide” from the pledge, the Bible was not typically at the forefront of their reading list, and enforcement was difficult in the sparsely populated wilderness,[vii] but Majors gave it his best, and it helped.

Prior to the Pony Express, Majors was a successful “freighter” in the West, with 100 wagons, 1,200 oxen, and 120 employees. Each worker had to pledge he would “treat animals in his care with kindness, use no profanity, stay sober at all times, and behave like a gentleman while in his employ.” Majors “rested his oxen and men from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, and held worship services for his men on Sunday.”[viii] He noted, “When they saw I was willing to pay them the same price as that paid for work including the Sabbath day, and let them rest on that day, it made them feel I was consistent in requiring them to conduct themselves as gentlemen.”[ix]

“Buffalo Bill” Cody, himself a rider, featured Pony Express reenactments in his “Wild West” show. Praising his former employer, Cody reported, “Every man, from wagon-boss and teamster down to rustler and messenger-boy, seemed anxious to gain the good will of Alexander Majors and to hold it, and to-day he has fewer foes than any one I know.”[x]

Of course, these quaint pledges and practices would run afoul of lawyers and stockholders today, but there are new enforced pieties in the land, legal codes normalizing homosexuality and requiring funds for abortifacients. And biblically-sensitive companies such as Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby (both of which, following Majors, honor the Lord’s Day) take a beating from the commissars of political correctness, whether the head of HHS or the mayor of Chicago. Majors may have made it tough for ruffians to get a job in his company, but now the government is making it tough for committed Christians to field a company in the first place.

 

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Endnotes

[i] Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872 (New York: Airmont Books, 1967), 39.

[ii] “Pony Express Riders,” Pony Express Museum Website, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-riders/ (accessed February 4, 2013).

[iii] “A Calvinist, Majors was a deeply religious man, a fundamentalist who read the Bible daily” [Christopher Corbett, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 22].

[iv] “Pony Express Historical Timeline,” Pony Express Museum Website, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-historical-timeline/ (accessed February 4, 2013).

[v] Alexander Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors’ Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border, ed. Colonel Prestiss Ingraham, with a Preface by “Buffalo Bill” (General W. F. Cody) (Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1893), Kindle edition, location 2732, 58%.

[vi] “Did ABS Print a Special Pony Express Bible?” Record Online: Digital Magazine of the American Bible Society, http://record.americanbible.org/content/bible-qa/did-abs-print-special-pony-express-bible (accessed February 4, 2013).

[vii] Corbett, Orphans Preferred, 101.

[viii] Anthony Godfrey, Historic Resource Study: Pony Express National Historic Trail (United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service, August 1994), 32.

[ix] Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier, Kindle edition, location 989, 21%.

[x] William Cody, Foreword to Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier. Kindle edition, location 89, 2%.

All the (Future) President’s Men—John Adams (1735-1826)

John AdamsIn 1774, as Britain and the American colonies verbally sparred over the issues of taxation, representation, and national identity, John Adams wrote a chronology of the conflict entitled Novanglus: A History of the Dispute with America from Its Origin to the Present Time. The future President of the United States realized that a corrupt people could never sustain a moral debate with King George III, much less a civilized society. Directing his comments specifically to his local context, Adams called upon the obvious source of rescue: he called upon pastors of his day to address the sins of both the state and individuals while simultaneously calling them to articulate a vision for public virtue.

It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example,—if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, how much soever it may move the gall of Massachusetts?

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Endnote

John Adams, “Novanglus: A History of the Dispute with America, from Its Origin in 1754, to the Present Time”; cited in Norman Cousins, ed., “In God We Trust”: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 89-90.

Losing the Faith in One Generation

7 And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. . . 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.

Judges 2:7-12 (ESV)

ParentingGertrude Himmelfarb’s Marriage and Morals among the Victorians traces the abandonment of Christianity by certain descendants of the evangelical Clapham Sect, whose members included Henry Thornton and Hannah More. Indeed, so far did their offspring move from Christ that within two generations, Thornton’s great-grandson and More’s goddaughter’s great-nephew, E. M. Forster was a member of the socially dissolute Bloomsbury Set, which included Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.

Israel knew all about the failure to pass on God’s ways across several generations. Having brought the people into the promised land of Canaan, led them through many victories, and set a good example of trust in God, Joshua died when he was 110 years old (v. 8). After his death, other contemporaries lived on for a while, but then they too died out (v. 10a). God’s people served God faithfully as long as these eye-witnesses of God’s goodness to Israel preserved the memory of God’s greatness (v. 7). But when Joshua’s generation died out, their descendants lacked that personal knowledge of God and promptly forgot all that the Lord had done for their nation (v. 10b).

The new generation’s ignorance led them into idolatry that kindled God’s anger against them (v. 11-12), beginning a cycle repeated throughout Judges (cf. 2:14-19). Somehow Joshua’s generation failed to keep the record of all that God had done for them alive. They had forgotten that the first responsibility of parents after loving God is to store God’s word in their hearts and pass it on to their children (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-19). Hence, the parents’ failure to pass on to their children a testimony to the reality of God’s grace and power (cf. Joel 1:3) resulted in a “generational gap.”

If God’s people do not constantly ponder and pass on the good news of salvation, their children’s faith will last no longer than the morning dew. The Bible contains no guarantee that salvation automatically transfers from parent to child, a fact that should sober even Christ’s most faithful servants. Certainly, a mother or father’s life of holiness and biblical instruction are means by which boys and girls come to know the Lord. But family religion alone is not enough. One becomes a Christian by faith and grows as a Christian only through a deeply personal walk with Jesus, and a life that is hidden in God. It is a lesson so obvious that it is easy to forget. And it most definitely is a leading reason why Europe—once a thoroughly Christian continent—now copes with the emptiness of secularism’s spectre and countless young people who embrace no belief save nihilism.

Parents and pastors know within their own families and churches how easily people presume to live on their parents’ spiritual capital. While the Clapham evangelicals are praiseworthy for their gospel stand on many social ills in Victorian England, not least child labor and the slave trade, their descendants stand as reminders that Christ cannot be received by osmosis.

The Compromised Church of Balaam

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.

Revelation 2:14 (ESV)

Patriotism and nationalism can quickly slide into idolatry. Throughout history, emperors and dictators, from the Caesars to Napoleon, have demanded they be worshipped. Today, many ruthless states demand unthinking devotion and allegiance from their citizens. Those who resist are brutalized or executed. In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of the nations. When the Church turns its nation’s culture into an idol or adopts a “my country right or wrong attitude,” God goes to war against the Church.

PulpitThe church in Pergamum lapsed into such cultural idolatry. Pergamum was proud of its civil religion. They erected the first temple to worship Augustus Caesar in Asia Minor (“Satan’s throne” in v. 13). Imperial worship included animal sacrifice to honor the supposedly-divine Caesar, as well as such Greek deities, Zeus, Asclepius, Demeter, and Dionysus. Sexual intercourse accompanied these pagan rituals. Apparently, the Christians in Pergamum joined in the activities, revealing the decline in courage since the days of Antipas, the faithful witness who became a martyr because of his faith (v. 13).

Christ refers to this cultural compromise as the work of Balaam, the ancient, pagan prophet who led Israel astray to serve Baal and engage in sexually immoral practices with the Moabites (v. 14; Num. 25:1-3, 31:8). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus observed that Balaam knew that if he could corrupt Israel’s morals, God would surely judge them. The church compromised their worship and sexual ethics by living and abiding by the customs of their pagan neighbors. Deluded and confused, they thought they could view God and Caesar as relative equals. By the sword of His mouth—His Word—Jesus promised a battle against those inside the church, namely the Nicolaitans, who preached harmony with compromise and wickedness (vv. 15-16).

In certain quarters today, the Church has reached a concord with Balaam’s spiritual descendents. Sexual immorality runs rampant in both pulpit and pew. Self-described tolerant Christians and denominations countenance pagan ritual alongside the worship of the one true God—most notably in “interfaith” gatherings. Others confuse national identity with vital Christianity when in fact all earthly kingdoms will recede and collapse before the kingdom of our God and Christ (Rev. 11:15). When forced to choose, will the Church deny its cultural Caesars or the Lord Jesus Christ? As the opening words of the letter to the church at Pergamum states, Christ bears the “sharp two-edged sword.” Churches which toy with the idolatry of Balaam are forewarned.

The Bureaucratic Beast

8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 (ESV)

capitalAnyone inclined to romanticize government needs only to spend a few hours at the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), obtaining a driver’s license—first one line and then another, a form here, a test there, a photo here, and a check there. The veteran knows to bring outside reading material, for there is usually plenty of time to work through a book or a magazine or two while sitting on a hard plastic chair, if a chair is to be found at all. Somewhere in the process, the licensee is tempted to wonder if things would be this slow if it were handled by a commercial enterprise seeking to build customer loyalty and to earn a profit.

The writer of Ecclesiastes feels our pain. In verse 8, he explains how the needs of people can get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. As each layer of administration asserts its prerogatives, inserts its requirements, and takes its due, the humble citizen finds his life more complicated and his prosperity (and even survival) more problematic. In trying to satisfy the officials’ ideals, he suffers at the point of his own actualities.

Scarcely a day passes without the local newspaper reporting a citizen’s grievance against the government—whether over multiple tax audits, interminable road construction, falling test scores in public schools, or erratic postal delivery. The affluent can usually find a way to cope, but the poor, blue-collar worker is often stuck. When the city temporarily closes his subway stop, he may not have money for a cab or a payment for a reliable car, so his job is in jeopardy. How disappointing it is to hear that the station repairs could have been done earlier and without interrupted service if only a legislator had not held funds hostage until he gained a special dispensation for park improvement in his district.

Someone who cares for righteousness and justice may be tempted to despise government itself, counting it something of an “anti-Christ,” unsavory for church-going saints. But the writer of Ecclesiastes is quick to add that rulers are beneficial (v. 9). If a farmer is tempted to be bitter over environmental accounting or marketing regulations, he needs to consider the alternative. Without government, there would be no security for his boundaries, no roads for transporting his produce, and no system of monetary exchange. He would be reduced to bartering and sleepless nights sitting watch over his property.

Of course, a Christian may complain over government’s missteps, but there is no place for believers to dismiss the state itself. Unless the Church wants to get into the business of bridge construction, neighborhood crime patrols, currency printing, inter-state commerce regulation, establishment of safety standards for the genetic engineering of hardier crops, oversight of pesticides, and the licensure of drivers, then she should pay the state due respect.

Government can be a pain, but that pain is nothing compared to the suffering that comes with anarchy. This is why the Church should not only intercede for her officials, she should also give thanks for the very existence of officials, as hard as that might be after a trip to the DMV.