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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 19 - Christianity enters Britain

We pause in this rapid narration of events to take note of the entrance of two mighty forces into Britain. These two powers were to find in our country the main theatre of their development, as well as a centre of propagation and a basis of action upon the nations of the world. So intimate is the alliance betwixt them, and so reciprocal the help they tender to each other, that they may be regarded as not twain, but one. These two forces are Religion and Liberty. Their rise, and their steady, onward progress, till at last they culminate in the creation of a State which exhibits to the world the model of a more perfect liberty than it has seen anywhere else, is one of the most delightful studies to which history can address herself, and one of the most ennobling spectacles on which one’s attention can be fixed. To recount the kings that fleet past us, as if they were so many shadows, and of whom some, it may be, are simply the creations of the chronicler’s pen;’ to describe in stately rhetoric the fends that convulsed barbarous ages, and paint the battles in which the men of those times delighted to shed one another’s blood, were a task which would bring with it much labour to the writer, and but small profit to the reader. History has a much higher function. It is or ought to be, occupied mainly with the life of a nation. And by the life of a nation is meant that predominating intellectual and moral quality which gives it corporate identity and substantive being, and in virtue of which it performs its allotted share of the world’s work, and tenders its special contribution towards the accomplishment of the grand plan of Him who has assigned to each of the nations its time, and its place, and its mission.

Two thousand years ago, Scotland was a land of painted men. Why is it not a land of painted men still? Why is it at this day a land of civilised men? What has taken the darkness from the face of the savage, quenched the demon-fire in his eye, and kindled there the light of intelligence and kindliness? "Twenty centuries," some will say, deeming it a sufficient explanation of the amazing transformation Scotland has undergone, "Twenty centuries have passed since the day when Pict and Scot roamed their moors as savages; and it is impossible that these many ages should pass over them and leave them unchanged." This is an explanation that deceives us with a show of meaning which it does not contain. The same twenty centuries have passed over the Zulus of Africa, and at the end of them they are precisely where they were at the beginning. Not a foot-breadth have they advanced. The first explanation only calls for a second. Why have the twenty centuries, which have proved themselves such powerful civilising agencies in Scotland, shown themselves so devoid of all civilising power in Africa? More than time and opportunity is needed for progress. The principle and the capacity of progress must first be implanted. It may be said that Scotland, surrounded with the civilisations of Europe, could hardly fail receiving an impulse from without, and becoming inoculated with the principles that were stirring in its neighbourhood; whereas Zululand lay remote and isolated. There was nothing to give it a start. This might be accepted as the solution so far, were it the fact that the civilisation of Scotland is simply a copy of the civilisation of its neighbours. But it is not so. It is a civilisation which is peculiar to Scotland, and is unique among the civilisations of the world. It has sprung up on its own soil; it is of a higher type, and had given to the people among whom it has taken root and developed a strongly-marked and sharply-defined individuality of national life—a richer and broader life, ever ready to expand and overflow, yet ever ready to call back its current within the embankments of right and law.

We trace progress in the stone age, we trace progress in the bronze age, especially do we trace progress in the iron age; but the civilisation of these epochs is not the civilisation of the Scotland of to-day. Nor would the civilisation of those eras ever have risen into the same type with the Scottish civilisation of our own era, however much it might have improved the Scots as cultivators, or as artizans, or as soldiers, it would have left them barbarians at the core, liable to be dominated at times by the beast within them; and to break out into those awful excesses which ever and anon deform the fair and tranquil surface of Oriental civilizations, and some civilisations nearer home. The civilisation of Scotland is not aesthetics, it is not art, it is not science, it is not even law; it is diviner than these. It is conscience.

How came it? An influence descended on our wild country when no man was aware. It came unheard amid the din caused by the conflict of Roman with Briton. It found for itself a home in the hearts of the people, and from this deep seat it began to work outwards. It changed first of all, not the land, but the men who inhabited it; not their faces, but their hearts; extinguishing with quiet but omnipotent touch, the passions that raged there, and planted in their room feelings altogether new. From this day forward there was a new race in the country. There had been breathed into its sons a new moral life, and all who partook of that new life became one, being knit together by a stronger bond than the "one blood," even the "one heart." The tribes and the races which had hitherto parted Scotland amongst, them, now began to be fused into one nation. Of these "stones of the wilderness," to use the metaphor of the Great Teacher, this power raised up children to Abraham." Or, in plain language, out of Picts and Scots it formed, in process of time, jurists and legislators, philosophers and orators, champions of liberty and martyrs for the truth.

This new life created two great necessities. The first necessity was liberty. The man who was inspired by this new life must be free; for the life must needs act according to the laws of its nature, otherwise, it must cease to exist. The second necessity was law—freedom under rule. The new life being moral, brought with it a moral sense, in other words, conscience. But conscience does not more imperatively demand that it be free from human control than it demands to be free to obey divine authority. These two necessities—contradictory in appearance, but entirely harmonious in their working—conferred on the individual to whom this new life came the capacity for freedom, by combining therewith the capacity for obedience. That capacity passed over with the individual into the state. The nation felt the same need of liberty as the individuals composing it, and it felt equally with them the obligation to use this liberty within those great landmarks which the new life which had originated the necessity for it had reared around it. The first and fundamental virtue of a nation is obedience. Obedience is essential not simply to the welfare, but to the existence of society. But the only faculty capable of rendering obedience is conscience. Where there is no conscience there can be no obedience. Society may be held down or held together by force, but that is not by obedience. But conscience being the strongest power in man, and by consequence the strongest power in society, can be governed only by the strongest or highest authority—that is, by the Divine; but in order to render obedience to the Divine authority it must be emancipated from the undue interference of human authority. Hence it is that the two things order and liberty, are bound up together. They who cannot obey cannot be free. And thus it is that the moral sense or conscience of a nation must, in every instance, be the measure of its liberty. The one can be neither more or less than the other. Not less because less would constitute an invasion upon the domain which conscience claims as its own. And not more, because more would be equally a trespass upon the domain where law reigns: a breaking through the limits which the moral sense has set to the exercise of liberty.

It is because these two necessities—the necessity for order and the necessity for freedom—have been so fully developed and so evenly balanced in Scotland, that this country has attained so perfect and symmetrical a liberty, deeply founded in a sense of law, buttressed by intelligence, and crowning itself with noble achievement. Therefore, of all historical studies, that of Scotland is the most instructive. It is eminently so at this hour when the nations are in a state of transition, and are looking out for models. Where in all history is there a finer example or better school? We are here taken down to where the first springs of national liberty have their rise. We are here shown that the creation of a moral sense is the deepest foundation-stone of States if they aspire to become great. Arms, arts, science, law, liberty, in their order, but first CONSCIENCE..

Let us follow the entrance of the new life into our country so far as the dim and fragmentary traces it has left in history enable us to do so.

From what we know of the state of the world at the beginning of our era, we conclude that Christianity would, in no long time, reach the boundary of the Roman Empire, and even the barbarous tribes beyond it. The deep slumber of the Pagan world had been broken. There was a universal expectation among the nations that a great personage was to appear, who was to give a new touch to humanity, and recall it from the tomb to which it seemed hastening. There were facilities for intercourse and the rapid communication of thought such as no former age had enjoyed. Armies were coming and going to the ends of the earth. Many of the subordinate officers in the Roman legions were converts to the Gospel, and soldiers of Jesus not less than of Caesar. The merchants of the wealthy cities of Asia Minor were diligently seeking out new channels for their commerce. The flourishing trade carried on betwixt the Levant and Britain had found new routes over the Alps in addition to the ancient road by the Pillars of Hercules. The wealthy traders of Ephesus, Corinth, Antioch, and other cities, the seats of flourishing churches, as well as of skillful craftsmen, often visited Rome, and at times extended their journey to Gaul, and crossing the Channel to Britain, went on to London a city even then well known to merchants. Among these visitors were, doubtless, some earnest and zealous Christians who were intent on higher objects than gain, and who would gladly avail themselves of the opportunity not put in their power of communicating the "great tidings" to those with whom they came in contact. Trade and war opened the way of the Gospel into many countries. It follows the victories of Trajan beyond the Danube into Eastern Europe. "At this epoch" (close of second century), says Philip Smith, "there is good reason to believe that the faith of Christ had been received in every province of the Roman Empire, from the Tigris to the Rhine, and even in Britain, and from the Danube and the Exude to Ethiopia and the Lybian desert; that it had spread over a considerable portion of the Parathion Empire, and the remoter regions of the East; and that it had been carried beyond the Roman frontiers to the barbarous tribes of Europe."1

It follows that some considerable time before the Roman eagle had taken its final departure from Britain, the dove, with the olive branch of the Gospel, had lighted upon our shores. The first footsteps of Christianity are recorded in the book of "Acts," and following the track of its first missionaries, as there recorded, we are led over the various countries of Asia Minor, across the Egean, and onward to the two great capitals of Europe—Athens and Rome. But there the history leaves us. We cannot gather from the inspired record that apostolic feet ever touched our remote shores. If we would follow Christianity to Britain, we must seek other guides. Secular historians, engrossed with other matters, have found no time to chronicle the progress of a kingdom, the nature of which they did not understand, and the future greatness of which they could not foresee. Their allusions to Christianity are only incidental, often depreciatory, and at times bitterly hostile. Even Tacitus has no other name to give it than "a pernicious superstition." Still their brief and uncomplimentary references enable us to infer that the Gospel entered our country at an early period; but in what year, or who was its first missionary, or who, of all the Britons, was the first to embrace it and to be baptized in the name of Christ, we have no information. One would like to trace the links of that chain which led to a result at the moment apparently so trivial, but in its consequences so unspeakable important and grand, as the conversion of our poor country. Who would have thought of enrolling the despised and barbarous Britain, in the brilliant procession of cities and kingdoms then crowing to the feet of the "Crucified"—Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Carthage? Who would have presumed to add the name of our little country to that of these four great trophies of the Cross, much less foreseen that the day it would be accounted the greatest trophy of the five? The Gospel will receive lustre from the philosophy of the Greek; it will derive prestige and help from the arms of the Romans; but what can the painted Briton do for it? But the Gospel came not to borrow aid, but to give it. The philosophy of Greece, no more than the barbarism of Scotland, could help the Gospel till first the Gospel had helped it. But this was a truth not then understood; and so Britain entered the pale of Christian states with hardly a line from any historian of the period to notify the fact or tell posterity when it occurred.

But though we know not who was the first of the nation of the Britons to forsake the altars of the Druid and to pray in the name of Jesus, our imagination can picture the scene. We see the skin-clothed man withdrawing from his tribe, forgetting the excitements of the chase and of the battle, and seating himself at the feet of the missionary. Entranced by the story of the Cross, he drinks in the words so new and strange, and he asks to be told them again and again. He listens till the ruggedness of his nature is melted, and the tears are seen coursing down his cheeks, What a power to subdue is shown to lie in that simple story! The barbarian hears it, and he is a barbarian no longer. He rises up from the feet of the missionary, another heart within him, and a new world around him. He has been raised all at once into a higher sphere than that of mere civilisation. He straightway becomes a member of a holy society, and from that moment his name stands enrolled in a citizenship more illustrious than that of Athens or of Rome. No wisdom known to Greece, no power wielded by Rome, could have so changed the man and lifted him up to where he looks down not only upon his former barbarism, to which he can never more return, but even upon the lettered and polished civilisations of the world, which till now had looked down upon him.

But though we know neither the day nor the hour when the Gospel entered Britain, there is a vast amount of proof for the supposition that it entered early. There is a great concurrence of testimony—scattered allusions in the classic writers, and numerous direct statements in the Christian fathers--all going to show that in the course of a few decades after the crucifixion, the "great tidings" had reached the extremities of the Roman world, and had passed beyond them. The nations had become, in a sense, of one language, and the world, in a sense, but one country, by the network of roads constructed for the passage of the legions, and which opened easy intercourse and communication from Damascus to Cadiz, and from the Tigris to the Tweed. Along these highways sped the heralds of Christianity, conquering in years nations it had taken Rome centuries to subdue.

The first indication we have that the Christian day had broken in Britain is of a touching kind. It comes from the prison of Paul and is contained in the last lines his pen ever traced. Writing to Timothy, the aged apostle, now waiting martyrdom, sends from Rome the salutations of Pudens and Claudia 2 to his former companion and fellow-labourer. Who are these two whose names Paul inscribes in his letter and lays down his pen for ever? Pudens is the son of a Roman senator, and Claudia is his wife. But of what country was the lady? It cannot be affirmed as an established fact, but there is strong grounds for believing that she was a Briton, and the daughter of a British King. The proofs that strongly lead to this conclusion are as follows. First, Marital has left us two epigrams, written at Rome at a date coinciding with Paul’s last imprisonment, in the first of which he celebrates the marriage of a Roman of rank, named Pudens, with a foreign lady named Claudia. In the later epigram, he tells us that this Claudia was a Briton. So far the information of Martial. Next comes Tacitus, who mentions that certain territories in the south of Britain were ceded to King Cogidunus as a reward for his steadfast allegiance to Rome.3 This occurred while Tiberius Claudius was emperor. But third, in 1723 a marble was dug up at Chichester, with an inscription in which mention is made of a British king, who bore the title of Tiberius Claudius Cogidunus. In the same inscription occurs the name of Pudens. According to a usage prevalent among the Romans, the daughter of this king would be named Claudia. Here we have a remarkable concatenation. It is made up of very diverse parts, and these parts come from very opposite quarters, yet they all perfectly fit in together, and form a consistent body of proof. First, we have the Pudens and Claudia of Paul’s letter; next, we have the Pudens and Claudia of Martial’s first epigram. Then comes his second, telling us that Claudia was a Briton. Next we have the casual statement of the Roman historian, that in the reign of Claudius there was a king in south Britain named Cogidunus, a favourite with the emperor. And last of all comes the marble slab exhumed in England in the eighteenth century, with the names of Tiberius Claudius Cogidunus and Pudens upon it; the link between King Claudius and Pudens being, most probably, the marriage which Martial celebrates betwixt Pudens and a British lady of the name of Claudia, the very name which the daughter of King Cogidunus must have borne. These facts shut us up to the conclusion either that there were two couples named Pudens and Claudia living at Rome at the date of Paul’s last imprisonment, and that both couples moved in the circle of the Roman aristocracy, or that the Pudens and Claudia of Paul’s Epistle to Timothy and the Pudens and Claudia of Martial’s epigrams were the same persons. The last alternative appears to us by much the more probable. How interesting to think that we should have at least one British name on the page of the New Testament, and that of a lady who has won the praise of the noblest constancy in Christian friendship. When others forsook the apostle, scared away by the shadow of that doom which was now gathering over him, this daughter of Britain stood his friend to the last, and was neither ashamed of the chain of Paul nor terrified by the wrath of Nero.4 The incident gave happy augury of what Britain would become when the day now breaking in its sky should have fully opened upon it.

The next notice which we meet with of British Christianity is on the page of Tacitus. It is of a like kind with the preceding, and strengthens it. The historian tells us that Pomponia Graecina, a noble lady, the wife of the Aulus Plutius, who returned from Britain to receive a triumph at Rome, was accused of having embraced a "foreign superstition." This reference can hardly be to anything else than to Christianity. For this is the word which Tacitus usually employs to denote the Christian religion. No other religion would then have formed matter of accusation against any one. Every other religion was at the time tolerated at Rome, and the deities of all nations were admitted into the Pantheon, side by side with the gods of the empire. There was but one faith which it was a crime to profess, and but one worship which was stigmatised as superstition, and that was Christianity. This, in all probability, was the "foreign superstition" of which this noble lady was accused: she had brought it with her from Britain, and if our inference be correct, the Gospel had reached our shores before A.D. 56, while Paul and others of the apostles were still alive.

There is historic evidence in existence amounting to a presumption that the Apostle Paul made a journey to Britain and there preached the Gospel. It is true that recent ecclesiastical historians have dismissed this idea as one hardly deserving consideration; but the evidence that satisfied Usher and Stillingfleet is not to be lightly set aside. In the course of his long life and his incessant journeyings, Paul doubtless crossed seas and visited countries which have received no mention in the brief narrative of his missionary travels in the "Acts." We trace briefly the chain of testimony, leaving to the reader his own conclusions. The supposition that Britain was one of the unnamed countries to which the Apostle’s labours extended, takes its rise in Paul’s own declared intention to visit Spain.5 Next comes the testimony of Paul’s fellow-labourer, Clemens Romanus. He of all men, best knew the extent of the apostle’s travels. Clement says that Paul, in preaching the Gospel, went to the "utmost bounds of the West."6 This, replies Dr. Hales, is a rhetorical expression. But those who regard Paul as the pioneer of the Gospel in Britain contend that "the utmost bounds of the West" is the usual designation of Britain among the early Christian fathers, and that the "West" was a general term comprehending Spain, Gaul, and Britain. Theodoret, for example, speaks of the inhabitants of Spain, Gaul, and Britain as dwelling in the utmost bounds of the West. Nicephorus, speaking of the progress of the Gospel, says that it "has reached the western ocean, and the British islands have been evangelised." Other passages are adduced by Stillingfleet to show how common it is to include Britain in the "utmost bounds of the West,"’ And that the phrase is not rhetorical but descriptive.7

In the second century (A.D. 179), Irenaeus speaks of Christianity as having been spread to the utmost bounds of the earth by the apostles and their disciples, and particularly specifies the churches planted in Spain and among the Celtic nations. By the Keltae, Irenaeus had in his eye, most probably, the people of Gaul and Britain.8 In the end of the second and beginning of the third century (A.D. 193-220), Tertullian commemorates Spain and the places in Britain inaccessible to the Roman arms among the countries conquered by the Gospel.9 In the fourth century (A.D. 270-340), Eusebius says that some of the apostles "passed over the ocean to the British Isles." And Jerome, in the same century (A.D. 329-420), says that the apostle who did so was Paul, who, after his imprisonment, went to Spain, and thence passing over the ocean, preached the Gospel in the western parts.10 Those who believe that by "western parts" Jerome meant Britain, found upon the passage in his epistle to Marcella in which he speaks of "the Britains, who live apart from our world, if they go on pilgrimage, will leave the western parts and seek Jerusalem."11

In the fifth century (423-460), Theodoret bears his testimony to the fact that Paul, after his release from his first imprisonment at Rome, carried out his long meditated purpose of visiting Spain, and thence carried the light of the Gospel to other nations.12 He states also that Paul brought salvation to the islands that lie in the ocean.13 By "the islands that lie in the ocean," Chrysostom understands Theodoret to mean the British islands, and so, too, does Cave in his "Life of St. Paul." The ocean was put in contradistinction to the Mediterranean, the sea of the ancients. It is now generally admitted that Paul spent two years (64-66) in Spain betwixt his two imprisonments at Rome.14 From Cape Finisterre to the coast of South Wales is no great extent of sea. The apostle was used to longer voyages; and there would be no difficulty in obtaining a passage in one of the many trading vessels employed in that navigation.

The reader may not be prepared to concur with Usher and Stillingfleet in thinking that these testimonies are conclusive as to Paul’s personal ministry in Britain. He may still hold it a doubtful point. But he will admit, we think, that these testimonies establish the fact that it was Paul who planted Christianity in Spain, and that, of all the members of the apostolic college, it was this apostle, eminently, who laid the foundations of the Western Church. There are messages which may be enhanced by the dignity of the messenger. But the Gospel is not capable of being so magnified. It matters not whether it was an apostle or a deaconess, like Phoebe, who first carried it to our island. We must be permitted to say, moreover, that it is not British writers, but early fathers of the Eastern and Western Church who have claimed as the first preacher of Christianity in our country, one of the apostolic rank

The rapidity with which the Gospel spread in the first age is what we have had no second experience of. In all history there is no other example of a revolution so great accomplished in so short a time. The nearest approach to it is the Reformation in the sixteenth century, which, in the course of fifty years, spread over Europe, and had enrolled the half of its nations beneath its standard. But even that movement was slow and laborious compared with the rapid onward march of Christianity at the beginning of our era. No figure can express the celerity of its triumphant advance through the cities, provinces, and nations of an empire which was the world, but the figure under which its Divine Founder had foretold its conquests, even the lightning which suddenly darts forth from the cloud, and in one moment fills east and west with its blaze. For no sooner had the apostles and the disciples begun to proclaim the Gospel, till lo! The earth, in a manner, was lightened with its glory. Let us listen to Tertullian. The language may be that of the rhetorician, but the statements are those of open, undeniable truth and fact, otherwise the orator, instead of compelling the conviction and acknowledgment of those whom he addressed, and serving the cause for which he made his appeal, would have drawn upon himself the contempt and laughter of his hearers, and lowered, instead of raising, Christianity in the eyes of men. "We are but of yesterday," he says, "yet we fill all places of your dominions, your cities, islands, castles, corporations, councils, armies, tribes, the palace, senate, and courts of judicature; we have left to the heathen only their temples. We are able and ready to fight, but we yield ourselves to be killed for our religion. Had we a mind to revenge ourselves, we are numerous enough to take up arms, having adherents not in this or that province, but in all quarters of the world. Nay, should we agree to quit our homes, what a loss would our exodus be to the empire! The world would be amazed to see the solitude we should leave behind us. You would then have more enemies than friends, for now almost all of our friends and best citizens are Christians. It would be more than a sufficient revenge to us that your city, if we were gone, would be an empty possession of unclean spirits. Therefore Christianity is not to be reckoned a pest to your cities, but a benefit; nor ought we to be accounted enemies to mankind, but only adversaries of human errors." These were eloquent and weighty words, nor can we doubt that they were true, seeing they were no harangue spoken to a popular and sympathising assembly, but a formal and earnest appeal in behalf of his brethren to the Roman governors.16 But if such was the power of Christianity at the centre, we may imagine the rapidity and force with which the waves of its influence were then propagating themselves all throughout the empire, and amongst the barbarous tribes in the regions beyond, and Britain amongst the rest.

This early dawn of the Christian day in our country is borne testimony to by numerous historians. Eusebius says that "the faith of Christ began to be preached in the Roman part of Britain even in the apostles’ times."17 Gildas, the oldest of British historians, places this in the reign of Nero. Doubtless the disciples of the Gospel were few in number, and in humble station. We can look for no organised church at that early stage. Those who had received the faith, fed upon it in secret, hardly daring to avow it, it may be, amid the troubles of the times, and the ignorance and barbarism of their country, but when the wall of Antonine was built, and the government of the Romans was extended to the Forth, and comparatively settle order of things was established, there followed, Bede informs us, a corresponding extension of the Gospel, which had another period of revival and growth about a century later, under Marcus Aurelius.18 In these comparatively tranquil days the disciples would begin to show themselves openly; they would draw to one another; the Christian legionary and the native convert would blend their voices in the same psalm would kneel together in the same prayer, and thus small communities or churches would spring up in Britain by the same gradual and natural process by which the Campagna round Rome was at that very time being covered with societies of believing men. Those of their number whom they deemed the fittest for the post they would appoint to preside in their worship, and when it happened that the little flock was visited by an ordained pastor, he would confirm their choice of instructor, and give the object of it more formal admission into office.

The wall of Antonine, which, as the reader knows, extended betwixt the firths of Forth and Clyde, set limits to the empire, but it could not bound the progress of the Gospel. In A.D. 196, we find that the day has fairly risen on Scotland. It is Tertullian who so unmistakably announces that the last watch of the long night was past, and that the morning had come. In that year his father published his treatise against the Jews, and in it, while arguing with them that Jesus is the Messiah on the ground that in Him had been fulfilled what the psalm foretold, even, that "the uttermost ends of the earth would be given him for his possession," he adduces it as an undeniable fact that "those parts of Britain which Caesar could not conquer have been subdued to Christ."19 So, then, we behold the Christian missionary passing the sentinel on the Roman wall, the limit where the legions were compelled to halt, going on his way and penetrating the moors and mountains beyond, and spreading the triumphs of the Cross among the Caledonians of the north. Origen says of his time (A.D. 212), "the land of Britain has received the religion of Christ." These averments have the greater weight from the circumstance that they occur not in rhetorical but in controversial works, where every fact was sure to be sifted, and if in the least doubtful, was certain to be challenged. We know of no contradiction that ever was given to any of these statements.

A century after (A.D. 302) came the persecution under Dioclesian, which pushed Christianity outwards beyond its former limits. Of all the terrible tempests that burst upon the early church, this was the most frightful. It raged with a violence which threatened for a while to leave not one disciple of the Gospel alive, nor a single vestige of Christianity upon the fact of the earth. Hundreds of thousands of confessors perished by every kind of cruel death; the flourishing churches of Asia and Africa were laid in ruins. The destructive sweep of that tempest was felt in Britain. The previous nine persecutions had not touched our shore, but this, the tenth and greatest, smote it with terrible force. "By this persecution," says Gildas, "the churches were thrown down, and all the books of the Holy Scriptures that could be found were burned in the streets, and the chosen priests of the flock of our Lord, with the innocent sheep, murdered; so as in some parts of the province no footsteps of the Christian religion did appear."20

Of the Christians, some sought refuge in caves and woods; but many fled beyond the wall of Antonine, where they found among the Picts the safety denied them within the empire. Their presence gave additional strength to the Christianity of these northern regions. The storm passed; with Constantine came a period of peace, the sanctuaries which had been destroyed were rebuilt; from the blood of the martyrs sprang a numerous army of confessors, and the consequences was that in Britain, as in lands where the blow had fallen with more crushing force, and the ruin was more complete, the Christian Church rose stronger than ever, and filled limits wider than before. We may accept as the tokens of its prosperity the historic fact, that three of its chief pastors were present in the council of Arles, A.D. 314. This council was summoned by Constantine, and the three British pastors who took their seats in it, were Eboreus, from the city of York; Restitutus, from the city of London; and Adelfius, from the city of Caerleon. The last was accompanied by a deacon. The Chronicle that records the fact gives the delegates the name of bishop, but is still regarding the extent of their dioceses, the powers of their jurisdiction, and the mode in which they were deputed to the council. A church just emerging from a terrible persecution was not likely to concern itself about rich sees and lofty titles for its ministers. Words change their meaning and titles expressive of high office and great magnificence in one age, may, in another, especially in a thinly-peopled and semi-barbarous country as England then was, designate only the humblest rank, and the most limited powers. The three British bishops of the Arles Council were, in all probability, the simple shepherds of single flocks, each in his own city. It is observable that they brought with them a deacon but no presbyter; an omission for which it is not easy to account, save on the supposition that they themselves were presbyters, and that in the British Church of those days the same simple classification obtained as in the Philippian Church, where the only distinction among the clergy was that of "the bishops and deacons." We trace the continued existence of the British Church, and her recognition by the sister churches of the empire, in the presence of three British bishops in the subsequent Council of Sardica (A.D. 347). But we fail to trace any increase of influence and wealth on the part of the British pastors, for the three "bishops" who served in the council of Sardica were so poor that they were indebted for their maintenance, during the period of their attendance, to the public exchequer, and had to endure the gibes of their southern brethren, who had already begun to ape the state of grandees of the empire.

Certain writers of the legendary school have affirmed that Britain sat in darkness till Rome, compassionating our doleful plight, was pleased to send the light to us, and that it was the monk Augustine, the missionary of Pope Gregory, who, in A.D. 596, first kindled the lamp of the Gospel in our island. The inference, of course, is that we are bound in all coming time to follow the guidance of her who was the first to lead us into the right road. The facts we have stated show how little foundation there is for that fond boast. Four hundred years before Augustine set foot on our soil, there had been Christians and a Christian Church in Britain. The fact is attested by a chain of evidence so conclusive as to leave not a shadow of doubt upon the point. When those fathers, whose testimony we have quoted, wrote, the condition of the remote Britain was well known: the legions were continually going and returning; the ships of the Levant were constantly voyaging to and fro, and had the land been still Pagan, and the altar of the Druid still standing in it, the first legionary, or the first ship that returned from Britain, would have proclaimed the fact, that in that land, said to have its Christian sanctuaries and its Christian congregations, there was as yet neither church nor discipline; and what would the consequence have been? Undoubtedly, the opponents of Christianity, so watchful and malignant, would speedily have silenced its apologists by convicting them of the crime of propping up their cause by falsehoods. The Christian fathers maintained openly in their writings that the light of the Gospel had travelled as far as to Britain, and that from the mountains of the farthest north had come back echoes of the song sung at midnight in the vale of Bethlehem, and not one of the many vigilant and bitter enemies of Christianity dared to contradict them. Founding on the silence of foe, as well as on the testimony of friend, we conclude that there were disciples of the Gospel in Britain certainly by the middle of the second century, and probably before the end of the first.

It remains to be asked by what route did the first "light-bearer" arrive on our shore? Or setting out from the Levant, did he sail through the Pillars of Hercules, and coast along by Spain? By whatever road the herald travelled, or in whatever guise, whether that of the soldier, or of the merchant, or of the missionary, thrice blessed the feet that first carried thither the "good news!" There were three channels, apart from the direct missionary agency, by which the Gospel may have entered our land. It may have come to us in the ships employed in the commerce carried on betwixt Britain and Phoenicia. Or the legions who came to conquer our country for Caesar may have brought thither tidings of one who was greater than Caesar—a Saviour as well as a King. Or Britain may have been envangelised by its own sons. Its natives were beginning to be drafted off to serve in Italy and Greece, and on their return to their native land, what so natural as that they should inform their countrymen of what they had heard or seen of new and strange abroad. It is not necessary that we should suppose that by one only of these channels did the waters of life enter our country. It is much more probable that they flowed into our land by all three. Let us look at them again.

Had we taken our stand on St. Michael’s Mount, off the coast of Cornwall, any time during the first and second centuries of our era, we should have seen, approaching from the south, long lines of ships steering in the direction of the English shore. In these bottoms the tin of the Cornish mines was transported to the Levant. The crews that manned these vessels were from the trading towns of Phoenicia, and the seaports of Egypt and Greece, the very regions where the Gospel was then being preached, and where congregations were being formed. Aboard these ships were, doubtless, disciples of the Gospel, and it is not conceivable that they would visit this dark land and traffic with its natives without seeking to dispel their ignorance by speaking to them of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus would they convey to our shore a richer treasure than any they carried away from it. What greatly strengthens this view is the fact that our early Christianity bore unmistakable the stamp of the East. The great church festival of those days was Easter, and the manner in which this observance was kept was the main point of distinction between the Eastern and the Western church. The Church of Asia Minor observed Easter according to a mode of reckoning which made the festival fall on the fourteenth day of the month, whatever the day of the week. The Church of Italy, on the other hand, observed Easter by a mode of reckoning which made the feast always fall on a Sabbath, whatever day of the month that might chance to be. The Christians of Britain, following another custom than that of Italy, always observed Easter on the fourteenth day of the month. On this great testing question they were ruled by the authority of the Eastern Church, and in this they plainly showed that their first christianisation came not from the City of the Caesars, but from the land which was the cradle of the Gospel and the scene of the ministry of the apostles.

Among the historical authorities who have traced British Christianity not to a Latin but an Eastern source, we can rank the great name of Neander. After setting aside the legend of King Lucius, this historian goes on to say, "The peculiarity of the later British Church is evidence against its origin from Rome; for in many ritual matters it departed from the usage of the Roman Church, and agreed much more nearly with the churches of Asia Minor. It withstood for a long time the authority of the Romish papacy. This circumstance would seem to indicate that the Britons had received their Christianity either immediately, or through Gaul, from Asia Minor--a thing quite possible and easy, by means of the commercial intercourse. The later Anglo-Saxons, who opposed the spirit of ecclesiastical independence among the Britons, and endeavoured to establish the Church supremacy of Rome, were uniformly inclined to trace back the church establishments to a Roman origin, from which effort may false legends might have arisen."21

But there is no inconsistency in supposing that, along with the traders and mariners on board the Phoenician ships, who, doubtless, were our first teachers, the Roman legionaries bore a part, though a subordinate part, in dispelling the darkness which had so long brooded over our land. Troops were continually arriving from Italy during these centuries, and among them, doubtless, were some, probably many converts of Christianity, for by this time there were numerous disciples of the Saviour in the armies of Rome. These, we may believe, would show an equal zeal to subdue the country to Christ which their fellow-soldiers displayed in conquering it for Caesar, and they would talk of that of which their own heart was full with the poor natives with whom it chanced to them to mingle in the camp or in the city, and with whom, it may be, they sat in converse at eventide on the wall which bounded the empire of Caesar, though not that of the Saviour.

And, as we have hinted, there was a third channel through which the message of life may have extended to our country. When the Briton or the Caledonian returned, at the end of his military service, from Italy, or from the more distant fields of Asia Minor, nothing more wonderful had he to carry back than the story of the "crucified." Of all the wonders he had to recount, and which he had witnessed abroad—Rome, then in its prime—the temples of Greece, as yet untouched by decay—the monuments of Egypt, not yet bowed down with age—all sank into insignificance compared with that of the Cross—the Tree on Calvary, on which the God-man had accomplished the world’s redemption. We see the worn and scarred veteran rehearsing the amazing tidings to the circle of eager and entranced listeners gathered round him, till their hearts begin to burn, and they become, in their turn, preachers of the good news to others, their countrymen, Thus would the Gospel spread. By its own divine energy it opened barbarous hearts, unlocked the fastnesses of our country, penetrating where the eagles of Rome had feared to enter, replaced the stone, circle of the Druid with holier sanctuaries, and his obscene rites with sweeter sacrifices, and in process of time, the foreign mariner, voyaging on our coast, instead of the horrid war-whoop of tribe battling with tribe, which had aforetime stunned his ear, was not regaled by the "melody of joy and praise" which, borne on the evening breeze, came wafted towards him over the waters. Justly did the fathers of the primitive church regard the conversion of Britain as a signal fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and one of the most convincing proofs of the Gospel’s power; for after the painted savages of Caledonia, what barbarism could not the Gospel tame? what darkness could it not illuminate? Although little could these fathers foresee that the day now breaking on the mountains of this poor land would gather brightness from age to age, till at last other and far distant skies would be filled with  its refluent light.


1. The History of the Christian Church, by Philip Smith, B.A., p. 78. Lond. 1884.

2.  Tim. Iv. 21.

3. Vita Agricoloe, c. 14.

4. J. Williams, M.A., Claudia and Pudens, Lond. 1848; Conybeare and Howson, Life and Writings of St. Paul, p. 780.

5. Rom. xv. 24.

6. Epi., ro, reppua rns svoews.

7. Origines Britan, p. 38.

8. Irenoeus, lib. i. Cap. 2 and 3.

9. Tert., Adversus Judoeos, cap. 7.

10. De Script. Eccles., and in Amos, cap. 5.

11. Epist. Ad Marcellam, p. 128.

12.  In 2nd. Ad Tim. iv. 17.

13. Tom. i. In Psalm cxvi.

14. Conybeare and Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul, p. 746, Lond., 1870.

15. For a full and learned discussion of this point see Tracts on the Origin and Independence of the Ancient British Church, by the Bishop of St.  David’s, Lond., 1815.

16. Apology, chap. xxxvii. p. 46; and to Scapula, Deputy of Africa, chap. xxvi. p.92.

17. Euseb., Proeparat. Evangel. lib. iii. c. 7.

18. Bede, Hist: Eccles., lib. i. c. 4.

19. Contra Judoeos, cap. vii.

20. Gillies, Hist. Col., bk. i. chap. 1

21. Neander, General Church History, vol. i. p. 117.



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