About the same time with Origen lived St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. He was born about the year 200, and had been long famous as a professor of heathen learning, when he was converted at the age of forty-five. He then gave up his calling as a teacher, and, like the first Christians at Jerusalem (Acts iv.34f), he sold a fine house and gardens, which he had near the town, and gave the price, with a large part of his other money, to the poor. He became one of the clergy of Carthage, and when the bishop died, about three years after, Cyprian was so much loved and respected that he was chosen in his place (AD 248).
Cyprian tried with all his power to do the duties of a good bishop, and to get rid of many wrong things which had grown upon his Church during the long peace which it had enjoyed. But about two years after he was made bishop the persecution under Decius broke out, when, as was said in the last chapter, the persecutors tried especially to strike at the bishops and clergy, and to force them to deny their faith. Now Cyprian would have been ready and glad to die, if it would have served the good of his people; but he remembered how our Lord had said, "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another" (St. Matt. x.23), and how He Himself withdrew from the rage of His enemies, because His "hour was not yet come" (St. John viii.20, 59; xi.54). And it seemed to the good bishop, that for the present it would be best to go out of the way of his persecutors. But he kept a constant watch over all that was done in his church, and he often wrote to his clergy and people from the place where he was hidden.
But in the meanwhile, things went on badly at Carthage. Many had called themselves Christians in the late quiet times who would not have done so if there had been any danger about it. And now, when the danger came, numbers of them ran into the market-place at Carthage, and seemed quite eager to offer sacrifice to the gods of the heathen. Others, who did not sacrifice, bribed some officers of the Government to give them tickets, certifying that they had sacrificed; and yet they contrived to persuade themselves that they had done nothing wrong by their cowardice and deceit! There were, too, some mischievous men among the clergy, who had not wished Cyprian to be bishop, and had borne him a grudge ever since he was chosen. And now these clergymen set on the people who had lapsed (or fallen) in the persecution, to demand that they should be taken back into the Church, and to say that some martyrs had given them letters which entitled them to be admitted at once.
In those days it was usual, when any Christian was known to have been guilty of a heavy sin, that (as is said in our Commination Service), he should be "put to open penance" by the Church; that is, that he should be required to show his repentance publicly. Persons who were in this state were not allowed to receive the holy sacrament of the Lord's Supper, as all other Christians then did very often. The worst sinners were obliged to stand outside the church door, where they begged those who were going in to pray that their sins might be forgiven, and those of the penitents who were let into the church had places in it separate from other Christians. Sometimes penance lasted for years; and always until the penitents had done enough to prove that they were truly grieved for their sins, so that the clergy might hope that they were received to God's mercy for their Redeemer's sake. But as it was counted a great and glorious thing to die for the truth of Christ, and martyrs were highly honoured in the Church, penitents had been in the habit of going to them while they were in prison awaiting death, and of entreating the martyrs to plead with the Church for the shortening of the appointed penance. And it had been usual, out of regard for the holy martyrs, to forgive those to whom they had given letters desiring that the penitents might be gently treated. But now these people at Carthage, instead of showing themselves humble, as true penitents would have been, came forward in an insolent manner, as if they had a right to claim that they might be restored to the Church; and the martyrs' letters (or rather what they called martyrs' letters) were used in a way very different from anything that had ever been allowed. Cyprian had a great deal of trouble with them; but he dealt wisely in the matter, and at length had the comfort of settling it. But, as people are always ready to find fault in one way or another, some blamed him for being too strict with the lapsed, and others for being too easy; and each of these parties went so far as to set up a bishop of its own against him. After a time, however, he got the better of these enemies, although the straiter sect (who were called Novatianists, after Novatian, a presbyter of Rome) lasted for three hundred years or more.
PART II (AD 253-257)
Shortly after the end of the persecution, a terrible plague passed through the empire, and carried off vast numbers of people. Many of the heathen thought that the plague was sent by their gods to punish them for allowing the Christians to live; and the mobs of towns broke out against the Christians, killing some of them, and hurting them in other ways.
But instead of returning evil for evil, the Christians showed what a spirit of love they had learnt from their Lord and Master; and there was no place where this was more remarkably shown than at Carthage. The heathen there were so terrified by the plague that they seemed to have lost all natural feeling, and almost to be out of their senses. When their friends fell sick, they left them to die without any care; when they were dead, they cast out their bodies into the street, and the corpses which lay about unburied were not only shocking to look at, but made the air unwholesome, so that there was much more danger of the plague than before. But while the heathen were behaving in this way, and each of them thought only of himself, Cyprian called the Christians of Carthage together, and told them that they were bound to do very differently. "It would be no wonder," he said, "if we were to attend to our own friends; but Christ our Lord charges us to do good to heathens and publicans also, and to love our enemies. He prayed for them that persecuted Him, and if we are His disciples, we ought to do so too." And then the good bishop went on to tell his people what part each of them should take in the charitable work. Those who had money were to give it, and were to do such acts of kindness as they could besides. The poor, who had no silver or gold to spare, were to give their labour in a spirit of love. So all classes set to their tasks gladly, and they nursed the sick and buried the dead, without asking whether they were Christian or heathens.
When the heathens saw these acts of love, many of them were brought to wonder what it could be that made the Christians do them, and how they came to be so kind to poor and old people, to widows, and orphans, and slaves; and how it was that they were always ready to raise money for buying the freedom of captives, or for helping their brethren who were in any kind of trouble. And from wondering and asking what it was that led Christians to do such things, which they themselves would never have thought of doing, many of the heathen were brought to see that the Gospel was the true religion, and they forsook their idols to follow Christ.
After this, Cyprian had a disagreement with Stephen bishop of Rome. Rome was the greatest city in the whole world, and the capital of the empire. There were many Christians there even in the time of the Apostles, and, as years went on, the Church of Rome grew more and more, so that it was the greatest, and richest, and most important church of all. Now the bishops who were at the head of this great church were naturally reckoned the foremost of all bishops, and had more power than any other, so that if a proud man got the bishopric of Rome, it was too likely that he might try to set himself up above his brethren, and to lay down the law to them. Stephen was, unhappily, a man of this kind, and he gave way to the temptation, and tried to lord it over other bishops and their churches. But Cyprian held out against him, and made him understand that the bishop of Rome had no right to give laws to other bishops, or to meddle with the churches of other countries. He showed that, although St. Peter (from whom Stephen pretended that the bishops of Rome had received power over others) was the first of the Apostles, he was not of a higher class or order than the rest; and, therefore, that, although the Roman bishops stood first, the other bishops were their equals, and had received an equal share in the Christian ministry. So Stephen was not able to get the power which he wished for over other churches, and, after his death, Carthage and Rome were at peace again.
PART III (AD 257-258)
About six years after the death of the Emperor Decius, a fresh persecution arose under another emperor, named Valerian (AD 257). He began by ordering that the Christians should not be allowed to meet for worship, and that the bishops and clergy should be separated from their flocks. Cyprian was carried before the governor of Africa, and, on being questioned by him, he said. "I am a Christian and a bishop. I know no other gods but the one true God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them. It is this God that we Christians serve; to Him we pray day and night, for ourselves and all mankind, and for the welfare of the emperors themselves." The governor asked him about his clergy. "Our laws," said Cyprian, forbid them to throw themselves in your way, and I may not inform against them; but if they be sought after, they will be found, each at his post." The governor said that no Christians must meet for worship under pain of death; and he sentenced Cyprian to be banished to a place called Curubis, about forty miles from Carthage. It was a pleasant abode, and Cyprian lived there a year, during which time he was often visited by his friends, and wrote many letters of advice and comfort to his brethren. And, as many of these were worse treated than himself, by being carried off into savage places, or set to work underground in mines, he did all that he could to relieve their distress, by sending them money and other presents.
At the end of the year, the bishop was carried back to Carthage, where a new governor had just arrived. The emperor had found that his first law against the Christians was of little use; so he now made a second law, which was much more severe. It ordered that bishops and clergy should be put to death; that such Christians as were persons of worldly rank should lose all that they had, and be banished or killed; but it said nothing about the poorer Christians, who do not seem to have been in any danger. Cyprian thought that his time was now come; and when his friends entreated him to save himself by flight, he refused. He was carried off to the governor's country house, about six miles from Carthage, where he was treated with much respect, and was allowed to have some friends with him at supper. Great numbers of his people, on hearing that he was seized, went from Carthage to the place where he was, and watched all night outside the house in fear lest their bishop should be put to death, or carried off into banishment without their knowledge. Next morning Cyprian was led to the place of judgment, which was a little way from the governor's palace. He was heated with the walk, under a burning sun; and, as he was waiting for the governor's arrival, a soldier of the guard, who had once been a Christian, kindly offered him some change of clothes. "Why," said the bishop, "should we trouble ourselves to remedy evils which will probably come to an end to-day?"
The governor took his seat, and required Cyprian to sacrifice to the gods. He refused; and the governor then desired him to consider his safety. "In so righteous a cause," answered the bishop, "there is no need of consideration;" and, on hearing the sentence, which condemned him to be beheaded, he exclaimed, "Praise be to God!" A cry arose from the Christians, "Let us go and be beheaded with him!" He was then led by soldiers to the place of execution. Many of his people climbed up into the trees which surrounded it, that they might see the last of their good bishop. After having prayed, he took off his upper clothing; he gave some money to the executioner, and as it was necessary that he should be blindfolded before suffering, he tied the bandage over his own eyes. Two of his friends then bound his hands, and the Christians placed cloths and handkerchiefs around him, that they might catch some of his blood. And thus St. Cyprian was martyred, in the year 258.
Valerian's attempts against the Gospel were all in vain. The Church had been purified and strengthened by the persecution under Decius, so that there were now very few who fell away for fear of death. The faith was spread by the banished bishops, in the same way as it had been in the last persecution (see page 25); and, as has ever been found, "the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church."