There are many different forms of relgious intolernace, and, over the centuries, many faiths have persecuted. In the Western context, however, it is the persecution of Christians, by Christians, especially in the two centuries after the Reformation, that is most important, because it still shapes relationships between peoples of different faiths and confessions today. Yet it is also often misunderstood. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the history of Christian persecution. I will show in this article that Christians first began to persecute in the late Roman Empire. However, the emergence of a persecutory mentality was not an imposition of emperors, eager to use the church’s moral authority for secular ends. Instead, it emerged out of the fervor of Christians to combat error and to spread truth.
It is vital to recognize that even though the early church rejected violence, the persecutory impulse has been present in Christianity from an early time. This does not mean that Christianity inevitably is persecutory, but it does mean it is important to understand why Christians began to persecute and why they—eventually—embraced first religious toleration and then the grander concept of religious freedom. There are lessons to be learned about our own impulse to persecute in the twenty-first century.
It is often alleged that persecution by Christians began with the conversion to Christianity of Roman emperors: especially Constantine I, “the Great” (c. 306–337). This view was expressed by some of the earliest proponents of religious liberty, including Roger Williams, the celebrated early-seventeenth-century advocate of toleration (who will be considered further later in this series). Williams argued that it was under Constantine that the church first made the fatal misstep of trying to impose personal beliefs by the sword. Constantine’s “unknowing zeal” did more damage to the church, he averred, than “the raging fury of the most bloody Neroes,” for Constantine made “the Garden of the Church, and the Field of the World to be all one” when by nature they ought to be distinct. Accordingly, Williams concluded, in order for the ecclesial “Garden” to be restored to an Edenic ideal, it was essential (as a recent biographer puts it) first to “undo what Constantine, 1, 300 years before, had done.”1
Williams was not unique in this view and it did not die with him. It persists to this day: several popular twenty-first-century books have endorsed the claim that Constantine’s reign witnessed the introduction of a new paradigm in relationships between the Christian church, the state, and other religions.2 Constantine, it is claimed, effectively “commandeer[ed] Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire,” with the result that orthodoxy and heresy became “essentially a matter of power politics.”3
An illustration from a northern Italian compendium of canon law depicts Constantine I, the
Council of Nicea, and the condemnation and
burning of Arian books.
Constantine and Freedom of Conscience
The reality is that Constantine himself opposed persecution. Although he personally converted to Christianity, changed the empire’s official religion to Christianity, and played a significant role in the theological controversies that characterized and polarized the early church, he was opposed to sanctions against those who did not convert.
Immediately on succeeding to the imperial throne in the Western Roman Empire, in 306, he “unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution” to Christians for churches that had been destroyed.4 This, though, only halted persecution; it did not actually legalize Christianity.
After Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, a rival claimant to the throne, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (A.D. 312), which Constantine believed he had won by the power of “the God of the Christians,” he wanted to go further. He was initially coemperor with Licinius, who ruled in the Eastern Empire and was a devotee of the sun god. But at a meeting at Milan, in A.D. 313, Constantine persuaded his colleague to issue a joint public declaration, providing that “anyone who chooses to observe the Christian religion may do so freely and openly without being molested.” However, while the emperors granted “free and unconditional exercise” of the Christian religion, they also explicitly accorded “the same open and free observance” of belief and worship to followers of “other religions.”5
There is no doubt that, despite being issued in the name of both emperors, the declaration reflected Constantine’s concerns. What is striking is that these included, in the religious sphere, replacing enforced conformity with individual choice. “Christians and all others” were to have an “unrestricted ability to follow whichever religion each of them chose.”6 Constantine’s willingness to allow the people of the empire the freedom to choose was unusual, because “both Roman emperors and their subjects assumed it to be both a right and a duty of emperors to ensure proper worship of divinity.”7 But the imperial declaration explains the new policy, avowing that one of the most important matters “pertaining to the general welfare and security” of the empire and “the good of mankind in general” was “the reverence of divinity”;8 the freedom of choice was conceded to all the emperors’ subjects so that “whatever divinity is seated in heaven might be gracious and propitious to us and to all under our rule.”9
In other words, Constantine was asserting that freedom to believe is not merely a prudent choice for a state that has a significant religious minority; it is in accordance with the will of the Almighty. The declaration reiterates the presumption “that the supreme deity” would “accord to all his accustomed favor and benevolence” only if “no one whatsoever should be denied the freedom to give his heart to Christian observance, or whatever religion in his own mind he thinks best.”10 This is one of the most important arguments for religious liberty, for it is itself based on religion, rather than irreligion; all faiths have produced holy men and women who have taught that, in realizing religious freedom, we are honoring the divine. The 313 declaration gives precedence in the text to Christianity, which reflects Constantine’s own priorities, for Christianity was the faith he himself now professed. Yet the declaration also made clear that all people should be able to think through what religion seemed most attractive, and then choose for themselves, and that it was this personal choice, based on individual conscience, that would determine how a person worshipped—not the emperor’s decision.
Constantine and Toleration
Almost 10 years later Licinius and Constantine went to war for sole control of the empire. The former attacked Christianity, as well as Constantine, for the latter had become identified with his faith—and vice versa! Licinius introduced new laws in the East, banning church synods, severely restricting the circumstances in which Christian worship could be conducted, prohibiting the instruction of young girls in the Christian faith, and barring “Christians from imperial service.” Officers in his army were required to “sacrifice to the gods” and those who refused were either dismissed or, in at least 40 well-known cases, put to death.11
Constantine decisively defeated Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis (324), in which he and his troops fought under the emblem of the cross, against a foe who claimed the aid of the traditional deities. As one historian notes, ‘“The defeat of the pagan emperor must have appeared to be proof of the impotence of his gods.”12 Yet this did not change Constantine’s opinion on persecution.
He no longer had to share power with anyone, anywhere in the Roman Empire—a situation he himself believed was due to the favor of the Christian God; yet he did not suddenly prohibit pagan worship. Instead, he proclaimed that the right to practice one’s faith quietly and in peace ought to be “enjoyed by those who err as much as by believers.” He provided that “those who withdraw themselves may keep the temple of their error,” for they would face sufficient punishment from God and thus need not be chastened in this world. Indeed, Constantine averred, allowing them to live in peace was the best way to “bring them to the true faith.”13
This proclamation is pejorative about pagan religion: there was nothing worthy in it, according to Constantine—the ancient shrines of traditional religion were not the foundation of Roman virtue and power, but rather were “temples of error.” Constantine also seems to anticipate, or even expect, that pagans will convert; as one scholar puts it, while he permitted paganism to exist alongside Christianity, he “did not think of this coexistence of two different religions as something to last indefinitely.”14
The emperor thus enacted religious toleration, rather than religious pluralism, for one religion took precedence, culturally and officially, over others, and there was an assumption that religious diversity would eventually become uniformity. As we shall see in subsequent articles, this was a pattern that was to be repeated: historically it has regularly been easier for Christians to accept religious toleration than pluralism or religious liberty. Crucially, though, under Constantine there was no provision for forced conversion. Indeed, the imperial proclamation could not have been clearer: “No one should molest another” on religious grounds. Instead: “Each should live according to his own persuasion.”15
Constantine’s rejection of coercion was most marked in his attitude toward religious diversity in the army. Victory and defeat could be supernaturally awarded as well as humanly achieved and so the very “security of the state” depended, pagans and Christians generally agreed, on soldiery and deity being in accord. Frequent sacrifices to the gods were an integral part of Roman military life, because generals and soldiers alike believed that they could procure celestial blessing in battle—hence Licinius’s demands during his war against Constantine that his officers sacrifice. Many of the early Christian martyrs were soldiers, for even their presence in the ranks could not be tolerated by imperial officers, “because it imperiled the sacrifices” that brought victory. A century later a Christian emperor, Theodosius II, took the logical step (from the Christian point of view) of banning pagans and heretics from the imperial army, lest their presence offend God and prevent divine intervention.16
Constantine, who attributed his own rise to the imperium to divine intervention, must have felt very keenly the temptation to oblige all his soldiers to take part in the Christian worship services that, by his decree, had replaced the system of sacrifices, and were mandatory each Sunday. However, he allowed pagan soldiers to continue in their profession and instead merely encouraged them to use the time “when the Christian soldiers were occupied with their services” to pray and worship in their own way.17
With insight infrequently matched in subsequent centuries of Christian history the first Christian emperor declared: “No one should injure another in the name of a faith he himself has accepted from conviction.” He encouraged those of his subjects who were already believers to teach and preach, in the hope of effecting conversion: “He who is quickest to understand the truth, let him try as he may to convince his neighbor. But if this is not possible, he must desist.”18 Constantine’s victory message, written to the former subjects of the defeated Licinius, which pagans might have expected to announce repression, instead concluded: “The battle for deathlessness requires willing recruits. Coercion is of no avail.”19
An illustration from a northern Italian compendium of canon law depicts Constantine I, the Council of Nicaea, and the condemnation and burning of Arian books.
Future generations of believers have rarely matched the first Christian emperor’s insight that the Gospels present salvation and eternal life (“deathlessness”) only as the product of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is itself the fruit of deep inward conviction and what we call conversion. Conversion is not the same thing as conformity.
Constantine: An Overview
There is no doubt that Constantine’s own conversion, and the institutionalization of Christianity in the halls of imperial power, induced many people to convert—particularly those seeking careers in the civil and military bureaucracies. But the first Christian emperor did not compel anyone to convert, or to change the nature of their Christian belief. Instead, there are many examples of prominent civil and military officials who either maintained pagan faith, or whose Christianity was heretical (i.e., not that approved by the emperor), right until the end of the fourth century.20 Rather than deserving the obloquy that has so often been heaped upon his head, Constantine deserves praise for his clear-sighted and exemplary attitude toward two of the Christian’s cardinal duties—to witness vigorously and enthusiastically, but never to cross the line into pressure or compulsion.
Archbishop Ambrosius prevents Emperor Theodosius I from entering the Cathedral of Milan and orders him to do penance for the murder of the populace of Thessalonica.
Theodosius and the Persecutory Impulse
Constantine’s policies were continued by his successors for some 50 years after his death. The first emperor to use the power of the state to constrain people’s consciences was Theodosius I (c. 379-395).
Like Constantine, Theodosius desired that his subjects embrace his religion; unlike Constantine, he was willing to use force in pursuit of his desire of religious uniformity. In 380 he decreed “that all the peoples” under his rule “shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans” and that those who do “shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians.” But all those who followed “heretical dogmas” would “be smitten” by the emperor’s “retribution . . . in accordance with the divine judgment.”21 Initially, Theodosius persecuted heretics but allowed pagan worship to continue. Later, however, he imposed severe sanctions against any form of pagan worship whatsoever.22 Even historians sympathetic to Theodosius and the devout Catholic faith that inspired him observe: “It is possible, but difficult, to find greater examples of intolerance and fanaticism than in the spirit” that prompted his laws and persecution.23
However, the emperor’s use of threatened and real violence to force heretics to abandon their heterodox beliefs and embrace orthodoxy, and compel pagans to convert to Christianity, went in step with similar use of violence by ordinary Christians. Beginning in Antioch in 387, then in Alexandria in 391, large mobs of ordinary believers, with the blessing of their bishops, sacked and desecrated pagan places of worship and the homes of those who opposed them, beating those who resisted them. Other Christians copied them and similar outbreaks quickly spread to cities across Egypt and then to cities in Gaul.24 It was these activities that prompted Theodosius to his persecution of pagans. He was himself personally devout, more so than “any previous [Christian] emperor”; when he imposed state persecution he did so because both ordinary Christians and their spiritual leaders “expected the emperor to use the full weight of the law” against those who were not true believers.25
This is a sobering note on which to conclude, because it shows that Roger Williams misunderstood the nature of early persecution. The impulse to persecute is not alien to Christianity and was not imposed on it from without. Instead, it goes back very early in the history of Christianity. It was an impulse felt—and acted on—at all levels, including ordinary believers, rather than being imposed on the church from above by secular-minded emperors. It is important to recognize the actual chronological progression and that the first emperor to legalize persecution by Christians was not Constantine but Theodosius. That emperor’s actions reflected a wider consensus among Christians: that diversity should be done away with, and uniformity imposed, by force.
Nevertheless, if we cannot blame politicians for creating the Christian persecutory society, neither can we charge Christianity with being a natural incubator of persecution. The church of the first, second, and third centuries had steadfastly rejected any use of force in its relations with pagans or officials. Moreover, just as much as Theodosius, Constantine, too, reflected the church of his day. For him, certainty of Christianity’s truth was married to belief that truth could only be spread by persuasion, not persecution—that conversion could never involve compulsion.
However, it is essential to recognize that, for over a thousand years, Christians have often been eager persecutors. Certainty of truth and absolute love for God can lead believers into contempt for those who think differently. This tendency will become especially apparent in the next article in this series, when we look at the medieval paradigm of persecution. But it is important to acknowledge that there has been a persecutory impulse in Christianity since at least the late fourth century, for it is only if we are aware of intolerant tendencies that we can resist them.
This is Part One in a series. Click here for Part Two, "The Medieval Not Quite Reformed."
1 Williams quoted in Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 203; see Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 98-100 at 99.
2 E.g., see Zagorin, op. cit.; James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001); Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
3 Cox, p. 5; Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009), p. 204.
4 Hans A. Pohlsander, “Constantine I (306–337 A.D.),” in De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors (1999, rev. 2009): www.roman-emperors.org/conniei.htm [accessed Aug. 24, 2010].
5 Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chap. 48, in J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae cursus completus, ser. I, Patrologia latina, Vols. VI–VII, Lucii Caecillii Firmiani Lactantii Opera Omnia, 2 vols. (Paris: Sirou & Vrayet, 1844), vol. ii, cols. 268-269 (all translations are mine). A full English translation of the imperial declaration (sometimes called the “Edict of Milan”) is in the online Internet Medieval Sourcebook: www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.html [accessed Aug. 20, 2010].
6 Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chap. 48, in Opera Omnia, vol. ii, col. 268 (my italics).
7 H. A. Drake, “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity,” in Noel Lenski, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 117.
8 Lactantius, ed. cit., cols. 267, 268.
9 Lactantius, col. 268.
10 Ibid. (my italics).
11 Noel Lenski, “The Reign of Constantine,” in his Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, p. 75; Michael DiMaio, Jr., “Licinius (308-324 A.D.),” in De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors (1996, rev. 1997): www.roman-emperors.org/licinius.htm [accessed Aug. 17, 2010]. Cf. E. G. Ryan, “Forty Martyrs,” in New Catholic Encylopedia (1967), vol. 5, pp. 1036, 1037.
12 Hermann Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, Roland H. Bainton, trans. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 25.
13 Quoted in English translation in Doerries, pp. 25, 26.
14 Doerries, p. 28.
15 Quoted in English translation in Doerries, p. 26.
16 Doerries, p. 38.
18 Quoted in English translation in Stephen Williams and Gerard Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 56.
19 Quoted in English translation in Doerries, p. 26.
20 See Williams and Friell, pp. 47-51.
21 Theodosian Code, XVI.I.2, in Edward Peters, ed., Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), pp. 44, 45.
22 See Williams and Friell, pp. 52-60, 119-124.
23 Williams and Friell, p. 120.
24 Ibid., pp. 44,45, 122, 123.
25 Ibid., p. 56.