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been singularly welcome - that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it -- we may now, by the experience of more than seventeen hundred years, understand, how far it has been, and how likely it is, in the full 'extent of the words, to be fulfilled.
But, to see a little more distinctly what this experience is, and what presumption arises out of it for the truth of our holy 'religion, let us call to mind, if you please, the more remarkable of those attacks, which have been made, at different times, on the church of Christ, and yet how constantly and successfully they have been repelled.
I. No sooner had the foundations of the church been laid on the rock of this testimony --- that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God — than the storins of persecution arose, and beat - violently upon it. Nor was it, indeed, strange, that this new doctrine, published every where, with great boldness, by men who had been eye-witnesses of what they'affirmed, and calculated to overturn all the favourite maxims and usages of the world, should meet with the fiercest opposition. And how easy did it seem for that world to crush the infant society, now struggling for life in the hands of twelve poor, illiterate, and friendless men, if the decree of Heaven had not gone forth - that the gates of hell should not prevail against it !
I know, indeed, that this violence of persecution was, in the end, of advantage to the Christian cause; and, from the nature of the human mind, when once persuaded of any thing, true or false, might be expected to be
For cruelty, in such cases; only excites an unconquerable firmness and perseverance. But what was persuasion in succeeding converts to the gospel of Christ, was knowledge, or rather the infallible evidence of sense, in the first publishers of it. The Apostles witnessed a'matter of fact, when they made known the resurrection of Christ, on which their whole doctrine résted. And it is not in nature for any single man, much less for twelve men,
, to suffer, and to die, for a false fact, not taken upon trust from others, but asserted on their own proper and personal experience. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, they neither saw, nor felt, nor conversed with him after his resurrection, that is, they had no persuasion for force to harden into obstinacy, but a consciousness of falshood in their attestation, which could not have held out against the rage of their persecutors f.
If it be said, that criminals are often supposed, and not without reason, to die with a falshood in their mouths, I answer, it is very possible: but, besides that the Apostles gave no signs, in the rest of their conduct, of a want of principle, by declaring the truth, in this case, they might have saved their lives, whereas a criminal, for the most part, is but the more likely to lose his, by a true confession,
Or, if, lastly (for suspicion, I am aware, is not easily satisfied, if) the perseverance of the martyred apostles be accounted for from a false point of honour, I admit, that this strange principle sometimes overpowers conviction ; but rarely, in any number of men confederated in the same cause, and, least of all, in a number of men of so plain and artless characters, as the Apostles.
f An ancient apologist for Christianity seems to think, that, if a sect. of philosophy had been persecuted, as Chris. tianity was, it would presently have vanished out of the world. His words are –την μεν φιλοσοφίαν την Ελληνικήν εάν ο τυχών άρχων κωλύση, οϊχέλαι παραχρήμα [Clemens Alexandr. Strom. L. vi. p. 827. Oxon. 1715.] Perhaps, the learned father was mistaken.. But a religion, founded on facts, not on opinions, and persecuted from the beginning, could not have supported itself, if those facts had been false. This is the case of Christianity. The subsequent persecutions, when the truth of Christianity was admitted on the credit of the first martyrs, might tend to advance this religion, even though it had been originally án imposture. The difference of the two cases is palpable. The Apostles shewed, by their sufferings, that they knew what they attested to be a true fact : Succeeding sufferers showed, that they believed it to be so.
On the whole, we have reason to conclude, that, if Christianity had not been true, it must have perished with its first preachers : at least, it cannot be denied, that in outliving the violence, with which it was assaulted, both by Jew and Gentile, on its appearance in the world, this religion has thus far verified the remarkable prediction of its author.
II. The external peace of the church was scarce settled under Constantine, when internal commotions shook its frame, and with a violence, which 'was likely to bring on, and that in no long time, its entire dissolution. By these commotions, I mean the heresies, that sprung up in abundance, and distracted the Christian world for several centuries. The zeal, or rather fury, with which these disputes were carried on, was unappeasable; and, if it be true, that a house divided against itself cannot stand, there was reason to expect that the houshold of Christ would exeinplify this maxim: While, at the same time, the Christian name was so dishonoured by these contentions, and the lives, as well as the faith, of Christians, so polluted by them, that believers therselves were almost tempted to renounce a profession, which laboured under so much infamy; and the rest of the world could scarce fail to contract an incurable aversion to it.
This, indeed, was so much the case, and the advantage, given to the enemies of our faith, by these scandalous abuses of it, so great, that one is not surprised to find
III. A third, and still more alarming danger
of the Christian church, in the sudden rise and propagation of the Mahometan religion.
For, it was the corruption of Christianity, that gave.occasion, or success, at least, to this daring imposture. And now it might seem, that the gates of hell were set wide open, and destruction ready to rush upon, and seize, its defenceless
the Christian church, disheartened and disabled by its own vices. The uncontroulable spirit of this ruthless seet was, indeed, alarming to the last degree; when a secret providence, first, softened its ferocity, and, then, put a stop to its successes.