Christian Intolerance and the Sword of PersecutionDavid J. B. Trim January/February 2023
Rethinking our assumptions about Constantine, Theodosius, and the origins of the Christian persecutory impulse.
Religious intolerance takes many different forms, and through the centuries many faiths have persecuted. Christians first began to persecute in the late Roman Empire; however, this persecutory mentality was not something forced on the church by emperors, eager to use its moral authority for their power-political ends. Instead, the persecutory mindset emerged out of the fervor of Christians to combat error and to propagate and defend truth.
Even though the early church rejected violence, the persecutory impulse has been present in Christianity since an early time. This does not mean that Christianity is inevitably 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.
It is often alleged that persecution by Christians began with the conversion of Roman emperors to Christianity, especially Constantine I (“the Great”; reigned AD 306–337). Several twenty-first-century accounts have endorsed the claim that Constantine’s reign witnessed the introduction of a new relationship between the Christian church, the state, and other religions.1 Constantine, it is claimed, effectively “[commandeered] Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire,” with the result that orthodoxy and heresy became “essentially a matter of power politics.”2 According to widely accepted accounts, most developments of the fourth and fifth centuries that Christians today would see as negative emerged because Christianity was coopted by the privileged few, who used it to govern—and often to oppress—the many. As this article will show, such a view is too simplistic.
Constantine and Freedom of Conscience
The reality is that Constantine himself largely 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, Constantine unilaterally ended all persecution of Christians in the territories he ruled. After his victory over Maxentius, a rival claimant to the imperial throne, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (AD 312), which Constantine believed he had won by the power of “the God of the Christians,” he wanted to go further. He was initially co-emperor with Licinius, who ruled in the Eastern Empire and was a devotee of the sun god. But at a meeting at Milan, in AD 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.”3
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.”4 The imperial declaration avows 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”;5 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.”6
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.”7 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. It was this personal choice, based on individual conscience, that would determine how a person worshipped—not the emperor’s decision.
Constantine and Paganism
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. Licinius banned church synods, severely restricted the circumstances in which Christian worship could be conducted, prohibited the instruction of young girls in the Christian faith, and barred Christians from imperial service. Officers in his army were required to sacrifice to the gods, and those who refused were either dismissed or put to death.8
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.”9 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 a result of 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.10
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.” He seized the “finest columns and marbles . . . bronze doors and roof tiles” of the empire’s pagan temples to adorn Christian churches.11 Constantine also seems to anticipate, or even expect, that pagans will convert; while he permitted paganism to exist alongside Christianity, he “did not think of this coexistence of two different religions as something to last indefinitely.”12
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. 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.”13
Constantine and Toleration
By the emperor’s decree, Christian worship services replaced the system of sacrifices all around the empire, and, in 321, they were made mandatory each Sunday. These laws are known to have been enforced widely around the empire, along with laws that imposed Christian morality.14
Worship was significant for the people of late classical antiquity in ways it is not today, for it was by rites that deities were mollified. Soon after becoming emperor in the West, for example, probably before he had a good understanding of Christian beliefs about God, but already certain that the Christian God was all-powerful, Constantine restored property to Christian clergy and granted them large stipends. He did this so that they “may not be diverted by any sacrilegious error or slip from the service which is owed to the Divinity, but rather may without disturbance serve . . . since their conduct of the greatest worship to the Divinity will in my opinion bring innumerable benefits to the Commonwealth.”15 In Constantine’s eyes, Christian clergy “were the ritual experts. They knew how best to conduct ‘the worship of the Most High God.’ ”16 Without constant, proper worship, he could expect to forfeit that God’s protection.
As a result, Constantine must have felt very keenly the temptation to oblige all his soldiers to take part in the Christian worship services he had now mandated. In fact, however, he allowed pagan soldiers to continue in the military profession and merely encouraged them to use the time “when the Christian soldiers were occupied with their services” to pray and worship in their own way.
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 truth, let him try as he may to convince his neighbor. But if this is not possible, he must desist.”17 Constantine’s victory message 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.”18
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 (that is, not that approved by the emperor) right until the end of the fourth century.19 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.
Theodosius and the Persecutory Impulse
The first emperor to use the power of the state to constrain people’s consciences was Theodosius I (reigned 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 “should live in accord with the religion which the Apostle Peter committed to the Romans . . . and . . . shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians.” However, all those who followed “heretical dogmas” would “be smitten” by the emperor’s “retribution . . . in accordance with the divine judgment.”20
Initially Theodosius persecuted heretics but allowed pagan worship to continue. Later, however, he imposed severe sanctions against any form of pagan worship whatsoever.21 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” which prompted his laws and persecution.22
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. In Beroea in Syria, in 386, 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.23
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.24
Theodosius was particularly relentless in his attitude to heretics: no fewer than 18 laws “directed by him against them are preserved in the [Theodosian] Code.” In some cases he barred their meetings and mandated confiscation of their churches or their homes, if they held religious meetings in them. Against some sects, however, “he enjoined utterly ruthless measures; they were to be hunted down and executed. He was also the first emperor to penalise Christians who reverted to paganism.”25
Finally, although in 325 Constantine had “used immoderate language about . . . Jews,” he did not impose “legal disabilities on his Jewish subjects.” Theodosius enacted legislation that did so.26
The laws first imposed in the late fourth century were not as effective as they were intended to be. As one historian writes: “Despite severe penal laws paganism survived, and was in some areas overtly practised for two centuries and more after it had been officially banned.” In addition, many heretical sects “stubbornly resisted the extinction decreed by the imperial government. One reason for this failure was probably that the provincial governors, on whom the execution of the laws depended, had not their hearts in the task, and offered passive resistance.”27 But when this became apparent, it evoked great wrath in emperors. Certainly, from the late fourth century, the official policy of the Roman Empire, both in the West and in the East, was persecution of those who defied officially defined Christianity, whether from outside the church or within it.
A Dangerous Contempt
This is a sobering note on which to conclude, as it highlights that the impulse to persecute is not alien to Christianity and 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 by 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. Theodosius’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, we also cannot 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. Certainty of Christianity’s truth was married to belief that truth could be spread only by persuasion, not persecution—that conversion could never involve compulsion.
However, it is essential to recognize that for more than 1,000 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. There is a powerful lesson here for the twenty-first century. Respect for those of other faiths and none is essential if religious freedom is to be sustained.
1 E.g., 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); Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh S. Pyper, eds., The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), s.v. “religious liberty.”
2 Cox, The Future of Faith, p. 5; Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009), p. 204.
3 Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, chap. 48, in J.–P. Migne, ed., Patrologiæ cursus completus, Ser. I, Patrologia latina, Vols. VI–VII, Lucii Cæcillii Firmiani Lactantii Opera Omnia (Paris: Sirou and Vrayet, 1844), vol. 2, 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, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.html, accessed August 20, 2022.
4 Lactantius, col. 268.
5 Ibid., cols. 267, 268.
6 Ibid., col. 268.
7 Ibid. (italics supplied).
8 Noel Lenski, “The Reign of Constantine,” in Noel Lenski, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 75.
9 Herman Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, trans. Roland H. Bainton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 25.
10 Quoted in English translation in Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, pp. 25, 26.
11 Ibid., p. 28; A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284–602 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), vol. 1, p. 84.
12 Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, p. 28.
13 Quoted in English translation in Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, p. 26.
14 Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (New York: Knopf, 2007), pp. 520, 521.
15 Quoted in Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284–602, vol. 1, p. 80. See p. 81 for the ambiguity of Constantine’s early beliefs—he may initially have identified Christ with the “Unconquered Sun,” but from 312 he clearly “regarded himself as a worshipper” of Christ.
16 Quoted in ibid., vol. 1, p. 83; Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth,
the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 33.
17 Quoted in English translation in Stephen Williams and Gerard Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 56.
18 Quoted in English translation in Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, p. 26.
19 See Williams and Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, pp. 47–51.
20 Quoted in Edward Peters, ed., Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), pp. 44, 45.
21 See Williams and Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, pp. 52–60, 119–124.
22 Ibid., p. 120.
23 Henry Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 256; Williams and Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, pp. 44, 45, 122, 123.
24 Williams and Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, p. 56.
25 Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284–602, vol. 1, p. 166.
26 Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society, pp. 256, 257.
27 Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284–602, vol. 1, p. 407.