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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Second Century Persecutions

Cushing Hassett

From Church History, 1886

The persecutions of the second century were unabated, and formed a continuous commentary on the Savior's words: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves;" "I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword."

No merely human religion could have stood such a fire as did the religion of Christ during the first three centuries.' It not only suffered, but expanded and became more diffused among the nations, and went directly on towards victory over Judaism and heathenism, without physical force, but by the moral power, patience and perseverance of its votaries, and the omnipotent work of the Holy Spirit, thereby proving to the world the divinity and indestructibility of its nature.

In order to show the bitter persecution endured by Christians early in the second century, and the innocency and purity of their lives, we shall refer to a scene, presented by William Jones in his valuable History of the Christian Church, as having occurred about the year 107.

Says Jones:

"Trajan ascended the throne of the Caesar's in the year 98, and soon afterwards conferred the government of the province of Bithynia upon his friend, the ingenious and celebrated Pliny. The character of the latter is one of the most amiable in all Pagan antiquity.

“In the exercise of his office as proconsul, the Christians, against whom the severe edicts which had been issued by preceding emperors seen to have been still in force, were brought before his tribunal. Having never had occasion to be present at any such examination before, the multitude of the criminals, and the severity of the laws against them, seemed to have greatly struck him, and caused him to hesitate how far it was proper to carry them into execution without first consulting the emperor upon the subject.”

The letter which he wrote to Trajan upon this occasion, as well as the answer of the letter, are happily preserved, and are among the most valuable monuments of antiquity, on account of the light which they throw upon the state of the Christian profession at this splendid epoch.

The letter is as follows:

C. Pliny to the Emperor Trajan,

Wishes, Health,

Sire! It is customary with me to consult you upon every doubtful occasion; for where my own judgment hesitates, who is more competent to direct me than yourself, or to instruct me where uninformed? I never had occasion to be present at any examination of the Christians before I came into this province; I am therefore ignorant to what extent it is usual to inflict punishment or urge prosecution.

I have also hesitated whether there should not be some distinction made between the young and the old, the tender and the robust; whether pardon should not be offered to penitence, or whether the guilt of an avowed profession of Christianity can be expiated by the most unequivocal retraction, whether the profession itself is to be regarded is a crime, however innocent in other respects the professor may be; or whether the crimes attached to the name must be proved before they are made liable to punishment.

In the meantime, the method I have hitherto observed with the Christians, who have been accused as such, has been as follows: I interrogated them, Are you Christians? If they avowed it, I put the same question a second and a third time, threatening them with the punishment decreed by the law; if they still persisted, I ordered them to be immediately executed; for of this I had no doubt, whatever was the nature of their religion, that such perverseness and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved punishment. Some that were infected with this madness, on account of their privilege as Roman citizens, I reserved to be sent to Rome, to be referred to your tribunal.

In the discussion of this matter, accusations multiplying, a diversity of cases occurred. A schedule of names was sent me by an unknown accuser; but when I cited the persons before me, many denied the fact that they were or ever had been Christians; and they repeated after me an invocation of the gods and of your image, which for this purpose I had ordered to be brought with the statues of the other deities. They performed sacred rites with wine and frankincense, and execrated Christ; none of which things, I am assured, a real Christian can ever be compelled to do.

These, therefore, I bought proper to discharge. Others, named by an informer, at first acknowledged themselves Christians, and then denied it, declaring that though they had been Christians, they had renounced their profession some three years ago, others still longer, and some even twenty years ago. All these worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and at the same time execrated Christ.

And this was the account which they gave me of the nature of the religion they once had professed, whether it deserves the name of crime or error; namely, that they were accustomed on a stated day to assemble before sunrise, and to join together in singing hymns to Christ as to a deity; binding themselves as with a solemn oath not to commit any kind of wickedness; to be guilty neither of theft, robbery nor adultery; never to break a promise, or to keep back a deposit when called upon.

Their worship being concluded, it was their custom to separate, and meet together again for a repast, promiscuous indeed, and without any distinction of rank or sex, but perfectly harmless; and even from this they desisted, since the publication of my edict, in which, agreeable to your orders, I forbade any societies of that sort.

For further information, I thought it necessary, in order to come at the truth, to put to the torture two females who were called deaconesses. But I could extort from them nothing, except the acknowledgment of an excessive and depraved superstition; and, therefore, desisting from further investigation, I determined to consult you; for the number of culprits is so great as to call for the most serious deliberation.

Informations are pouring in against multitudes of every age, of all orders, and of both sexes, and more will be impeached; for the contagion of this superstition hath spread not only through cities, but villages also, and even reached the farm houses.

I am of opinion, nevertheless, that it may be checked, and the success of my endeavors hitherto forbids despondency; for the temples, once almost desolate, begin to be again frequented the sacred solemnities, which had for some time been intermitted, are now attended afresh; and the sacrificial victims, which once could scarcely find a purchaser, now obtain a brisk sale. Whence I infer that many might be reclaimed, were the hope of pardon, on their repentance, absolutely confirmed.


My Dear Pliny,

You have done perfectly right, in managing as you have, the matters which relate to the impeachment of the Christians. No one general rule can be laid down which will apply to all cases.

These people are not to be hunted up by informers; but, if accused and convicted, let them be executed; yet with this restriction, that if any renounce the profession of Christianity, and give proof of it by offering supplications to our gods, however suspicious their past conduct may have been, they shall be pardoned on their repentance.

But anonymous accusations should never be attended to, since it would be establishing a precedent of the worst kind, and altogether inconsistent with the maxims of my government.