CHAPTER XIV. THE LEGACY OF THE EARLY CHURCH TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.
Shall we seek a connection between their martyrdoms and civilization? They bore witness to a religion which is the source of all true progress upon earth; they attested to its divine truth amid protracted agonies; they were illustrious examples for all ages to contemplate.
Perhaps the most powerful effect of their voluntary sacrifice was to secure credence to the mysteries of Christianity. Socrates died for his own opinions; but who was ever willing to die for the opinions of Socrates? But innumerable martyrs exulted in the privilege of dying for the doctrines of Him whose sacrifice saved the world. Nor to these had death its customary terrors, since they were assured of a glorious immortality. They impressed the pagan world with a profound lesson that the future is greater than the present; that there is to be a day of rewards and punishments. Amid all the miseries and desolations of society, it was a great thing to bear witness to the reality of future happiness and misery. The hope of immortality must have been an unspeakable consolation to the miserable sufferers of the Roman Empire. It gave to them courage and patience and fortitude. It inspired them with hope and peace. Amid the ravages of disease, and the incursions of barbarians, and the dissolution of society, and the approaching eclipse of the glory of man, it was a great and holy mystery that the soul should survive these evils, and that eternal bliss should be the reward of the faithful. Nothing else could have reconciled the inhabitants of the decaying empire to slavery, war, and pillage. There was needed some powerful support to the mind under the complicated calamities of the times. This support the death and exultation of the martyrs afforded. It was written on the souls of the suffering millions that there was a higher life, a glorious future, an exceeding great reward. It was impossible to see thousands ready to die, exulting in the privilege of martyrdom, anticipating with confidence their "crown," and not feel that immortality was a certitude brought to light by the Gospel. And the example of the martyrs kindled all the best emotions of the soul into a hallowed glow. Their death, so serene and beautiful, filled the spectators with love and admiration. Their sufferings brought to light the greatest virtues, and diffused their spirit into the heart of all who saw their indestructible joy. Is it nothing, in such an age, to have given an impulse to the most exalted sentiments that men can cherish? The welfare of nations is based on the indestructible certitudes of love, friendship, faith, fortitude, self-sacrifice. It was not Marathon so much as Thermopylae which imparted vitality to Grecian heroism, and made that memorable self-sacrifice one of the eternal pillars which mark national advancement. So the sufferings of the martyrs, for the sake of Christ, warmed the dissolving empire with a belief in Heaven, and prepared it to encounter the most unparalleled wretchedness which our world has seen. They gave a finishing blow to Epicureanism and skeptical cynicism; so that in the calamities which soon after happened, men were buoyed with hope and trust. They may have hidden themselves in caves and deserts, they may have sought monastic retreats, they may have lost faith in man and all mundane glories, they may have consumed their lives in meditation and solitude, they may have anticipated the dissolution of all things, but they awaited in faith the coming of their Lord. Prepared for any issue or any calamity, a class of heroes arose to show the moral greatness of the passive virtues, and the triumphs of faith amid the wrecks of material grandeur. Were not such needed at the close of the fourth century? Especially were not such bright examples needed for the ages which were to come? Polycarp and Cyprian were the precursors of the martyrs of the Middle Ages, and were of the Reformation. Early persecutions developed the spirit of martyrdom, which is the seed of the church, impressed it upon the mind of the world, and prepared the way for the moral triumphs of the Beckets and Savonarolas of remote generations. Martyrdoms were the first impressive facts in the history of the church, and the idea of dying for a faith one of the most signal evidences of superiority over the ancient religions. It was a new idea, which had utterly escaped the old guides of mankind.