Pliny's letter to the Emperor Trajan

by John Newton

(The following is Pliny's letter to the Emperor Trajan—written just after the commencement of the second century)

It is a rule, sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment—but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to the ages of the guilty, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or, if a man has been once a Christian, whether it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves, inherent in the profession, are punishable—in all these points I am greatly doubtful.

In the mean while, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians, is this—I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed, I repeated the question twice again, adding threats at the same time; when, if they still persevered, I ordered them to be immediately punished; for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction.

There were others also brought before me, possessed with the same Christian profession—but, being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried there. But this crime spreading, while it was actually under prosecution!

An information was presented to me, without any name subscribed, containing a charge against several people, who, upon examination, denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated, after me, an invocation to the gods; and offered religious rites, with wine and frankincense, before your statue, (which for the purpose I had ordered to be brought) and even reviled the name of Christ. I thought proper, therefore, to discharge these.

Some among those who were accused by a witness in person, at first confessed themselves Christians—but immediately after denied it. And others owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly—but had now forsaken their error. They all worshiped your statue, and the images of the gods, throwing out imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ. They affirmed, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on Sundays, before it was light, and addressed themselves in a form of prayer to Christ, as to some God; binding themselves by a solemn oath—not for the purposes of any wicked design—and never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery; never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust, when they should be called upon to deliver it up. After which, it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to eat in common a harmless meal.

After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to attend their religious functions; but I could discover nothing more than an absurd and excessive superstition.

I thought proper, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings in this affair, in order to consult with you—for it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration; more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, having already extended, and being still likely to extend, to people, of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only—but has spread its infection among the country villages! Nevertheless, it still seems possible to remedy this evil, and restrain its progress.

The heathen temples, at least, which were almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and their sacred rituals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which, for some time past, have met with but few purchasers.

From hence it is easy to imagine, what numbers might be reclaimed from this error—if a pardon were granted to those who shall repent.

REMARKS (by John Newton)

Several remarks easily offer from a perusal of this valuable monument of ecclesiastical antiquity, which I consider as affording us one of the most authentic testimonials of the natural tendency of genuine Christianity, and likewise a striking display of the unreasonableness and malignancy of the spirit by which it was then opposed, and by which it always will be opposed, (so far as the providence of God, and the circumstances of the times will permit it to act,) while the state of the world and of human nature continue as they are.

1. It appears, that the number of those who professed the Christian name, when Pliny was proconsul of Pontus and Bythynia, and particularly within the extent of his government, was very great; so great, that the heathen temples had been almost left desolate, and their sacrifices sunk into neglect. Pliny thought that such a general defection from the old religion rendered severities and punishments justifiable, and even necessary—yet, on the other hand, being a person of humanity, he was shocked and grieved when he reflected on the multitudes who were affected by such prosecutions, without distinction of rank, age, or gender.

Considering the many disadvantages to which the Christians had been exposed, especially under the reigns of Nero and Domitian, their great increase at the time of Pliny's writing, (which, at the latest, could be but a few years after the commencement of the second century,) evidently proved, that the propagation and maintenance of the gospel is no way dependent upon the rank, titles, or acquired abilities of those who profess it—for, numerous as the Christians were, they were of so little note and esteem in the world, that Pliny, who was a scholar, a philosopher, and a gentleman, a curious inquirer into everything that was thought worthy of being known—was wholly unacquainted with the Christians, until his office obliged him to procure some information concerning them. He had an extensive acquaintance in Rome, having been many years in public life, and the Christians were very numerous there; but he appears only to have known that there was such a people; and that they were a deluded and contemptible people, who deserved all that they suffered, for their obstinacy. The very name of Christian was then odious and reproachful; and when, in succeeding ages, it became general and fashionable, other disgraceful epithets were substituted to stigmatize the faithful servants of God, and to point them out to the scorn or rage of the world.

2. Multitudes, who had been willing to be thought Christians in a time of peace, renounced their profession when they could no longer maintain it without the hazard of their lives. The terms of safety were to pray to the heathen gods, to offer wine and incense to the statue of the emperor, and to blaspheme Christ—which, Pliny was rightly informed, no true Christian could be prevailed on to comply with. Yet, in fact, when the persecution was sharp, so many yielded, that the cause seemed visibly to decline. The heathen temples, which had been almost forsaken, were again frequented, the rituals revived, and the demand for victims greatly increased. It is plain, therefore, that there were, even in those primitive times, many superficial Christians, destitute of that saving faith and love which are necessary to perseverance, in the face of dangers and death.

Of course, it is no new thing for men to desert the profession of the truth, to which they have formerly appeared to be attached; through the fear of man, or the love of the world. These are the stony-ground hearers; and our Lord has assured us, that such would be found, wherever his gospel should be preached. But there were others, who, having experienced this gospel to be the power of God unto salvation, were faithful witnesses, and could neither be intimidated nor flattered into a compliance with evil.

It is the same at this day—for, though we are mercifully exempted from the terror of penal laws—yet the temptations arising from worldly interest, and the prevalence and force of evil customs, will sooner or later be too hard for all professors who have not received that faith which is of the operation of God, which, by communicating a sense of the constraining love of Christ—is alone able to purify the heart from selfish and sinful principles, and to overcome the world with all its allurements and threatenings!

3. We have, in this epistle, an honorable testimony to the conduct and practice of the Christians in Pliny's time. Though the information of enemies and apostates was admitted, and even sought for, and those who were inclined to speak in their favor, were put to the torture—we see, that in the declaration of this heathen Pliny—that nothing is laid to their charge which was in any degree deserving of just blame. Though their meetings were accounted an offence against the state, they are acquitted of any criminal transactions. On the contrary, it is said, that they bound themselves by the strictest obligations against the commission of immorality, and to the faithful discharge of family duties. An engagement of this kind, among any other people, Pliny would have approved and admired. But the nature of their religious worship, which he censures as a dangerous and immoderate superstition, he thought sufficiently criminal in itself, notwithstanding its influence upon their conduct was confessedly commendable.

To such inconsistencies are the wisest men reduced, who have the least degree of frankness in their opposition to the people of Christ. While they ignorantly condemn their principles, they are compelled to bear witness in favor of their general deportment which is formed upon those principles; and which, experience shows, no other principles can uniformly produce. It is true, the Christians were often unjustly charged with the greatest immoralities—but not by people of reputation and judgment like Pliny, who were careful to inquire into the truth of what they related.

At present, we who know what foul aspersions are propagated against the despised professors of the gospel—do not think it necessary to attempt a formal refutation of them; because, as we fear the authors of such slanders are incorrigible, so we are persuaded with regard to others, that there are very few people (however they may mistake our sentiments) so ignorant or credulous, as seriously to think them worthy of credit.

4. The object of divine worship, in their assemblies, was the Lord Jesus Christ. Every Sunday, they met early in the morning to sing hymns to his praise; not in commemoration of a mortal benefactor or lawgiver—but as to God; acknowledging, by this practice, their firm persuasion of that great mystery of godliness, God manifested in the flesh, and that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. That they met before it was light, was most probably to avoid the notice and fury of their persecutors. The enemies of Christ may put those who know and love him to many difficulties and inconveniences; but they cannot wholly prevent them from assembling in his name, unless they confine them in prisons or chains! The reason is, they honor him as God, and are assured that he is present where two or three are met in his name, at all times and in all places. Their dependence for support, direction, and deliverance, is entirely upon him. And when they worship him according to his will, he manifests himself unto them as he does not unto the world. This they believe, experience, and profess—and the hardships they will submit to, rather than be deprived of such opportunities, is a proof that they are not disappointed in their expectations from him; especially if it is considered, that there have been few ages in which a succession of his people have not been pressed with the like trials for adhering to him.

But no power or policy could ever effectually prevent meetings to honor and serve him, among those who were fully persuaded that he is their God and their Savior. Bishop Bonner, in Queen Mary's reign, who was better versed in the arts of persecution than in the history of the church, mistook these Christians, whom Pliny describes, for heretics, and charged Philpot with being altogether like them; a charge which the good man received as a great honor.

5. The severity with which the persecution was carried on under Trajan, appears from the doubt proposed by Pliny, whether he was at liberty to make any allowance in particular cases—or must punish all alike who were guilty of bearing the Christian name, without paying the least regard to gender, age, rank, or circumstance. Though desirous to show lenity—he did not think himself authorized to reject the most invidious or private accusations; nor even to accept of a recantation, without the emperor's express warrant. It is plain that he considered the mitigations he proposed, as a deviation from the ordinary course of proceeding against them.

History scarcely affords an instance of such undistinguished rage exerted against any people, upon any occasion, except against those who have been punished for righteousness' sake, though they indeed have often been exposed to similar treatment, both from heathens, and professed Christians. In cases of sedition, or even rebellion against civil government, though many perhaps suffer, the greater number usually obtain mercy. The devouring sword of war seldom preys upon the defenseless, upon tender youth, or hoary old age, or women. Some bounds are set by the feelings of humanity, to the carnage of a field of battle—but when the native enmity of the heart, against those of whom the world is not worthy, is permitted to act without restraint—it acknowledges no distinctions, it feels no compassion—but, like the insatiable fire, consumes whatever it can reach!

If there are some exceptions, a few people of gentle natural dispositions, who are unwilling to shed blood, and rather express their dislike by a contemptuous pity—this is chiefly to be ascribed to the power of God over the heart of man; and he sometimes makes use of these to check the violence of the others. Such a one was Pliny; he had no esteem for the Christians, he despised them as deluded enthusiasts, and he was angry with them for what he deemed their obstinacy—yet the greatness of their sufferings, and the number of the sufferers, gave him some concern, and made him interpose in their favor, so far as to prevent them from being industriously sought out, or punished without witnesses or proof.

6. The chief or only crime of the Christians, in the judgment of Pliny, was, their steadiness in maintaining a cause which the emperor did not approve, and continuing their Christian assemblies after they had been prohibited by his edict—for this audacity and presumption, he counted them deserving of the heaviest punishment, however blameless they were in other respects.

It must be allowed, that, as the edicts of the Roman emperors had at that time the force of law—that the profession of Christianity, when forbidden by those edicts, was illegal, and, if the penalties they suffered were prescribed by the edict, and they were tried and condemned under the same forms as were usually observed in other criminal processes, they suffered according to law.

Thus it appeared to Pliny; and though, in his private capacity, he might pity the offenders—yet, as a governor and a judge, he thought it his duty to give sentence according to the rule prescribed to him.

At this distance of time, and while we keep in view that the persecutors were heathens, we can readily plead in behalf of the Christians. The obstinacy they were charged with, was no other than a commendable regard to the superior authority of God. In all things not inconsistent with their duty to their supreme Lord—they were peaceable and obedient subjects to the emperor. But, to agree to the worship of idols, to burn incense to the statue of a man, to abjure the name of Jesus who had redeemed them from hell, or willfully to neglect his commands—these things they could not do without sin—and therefore they choose to suffer.

We approve their determination, and admire their constancy. But a question naturally arises upon this subject, namely, Whether God is the Lord of the conscience under a heathen government only? Or whether any man, or set of men, who own the Christian name, can have a better right than Trajan had, to compel men to act contrary to the light of their minds, or to punish them for a refusal?

As true Christians have always, by the influence of his grace, extorted from the more sober part of their adversaries, a confession in favor of their moral and peaceable conduct, they have been usually proceeded against, upon the principle which influenced Pliny—not so much for the singularity of their religious tenets and usages, which are pretended to be so weak and absurd as to excite contempt rather than anger; but for their pertinacity in persisting to maintain them, contrary to the laws and injunctions which have been contrived for their suppression.

There have been men, in most ages of the church, whose ambition and thirst of power have been gratified by thus tyrannizing over the consciences of their fellow-creatures, or (if they could not prevail over conscience) over their liberty, fortunes, and lives; and they have, by flattery or misrepresentation, had but too much success in engaging the authority of the government to support their evil designs. How many instances might we quote, from the history of kings and rulers, who in other respects have sought the welfare of their people, who—yet being misled to esteem it as a branch of their prerogative, to dictate in what manner God shall be worshiped, and what points shall be received as articles of faith—have crowded the annals of their reigns with misery, in the calamities which their ill-judged measures have brought upon their subjects.

A uniformity of modes in religion has been enforced, as though it were the most desirable object of government; though it may be proved, that to prescribe, under the severest penalties, a uniformity of rituals, would hardly be more unreasonable in itself, or more injurious to the peace and rights of society. Sometimes the servants of God have been traduced as people hostile to the government, because they cannot adopt or approve such institutions as are directly subversive of the faith and obedience they owe to the Lord! Thus the prophet was charged by Amaziah, the high-priest of Bethel, "Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent a message to King Jeroboam: Amos is hatching a plot against you right here on your very doorstep! What he is saying is intolerable. It will lead to rebellion all across the land!" Amos 7:10.

At other times, new laws have been enacted, purposely to ensnare or distress them. Thus, when the enemies of Daniel were convinced that they could find no crime against him, except concerning the law of his God; by flattering the pride of Darius, they obtained a decree, which, according to their expectation, gave Daniel up into their power as a criminal against the state. May we be duly thankful to God, and to the government under which we live, for the valuable privilege of religious liberty, and that we can worship him according to the light of our consciences, and assemble together in His name where and when we please, none being permitted to persecute us!