The Dark Side of the Edict of Milan (313 AD)

Posted Mar 22, 2023 by A.T. Jones in Everlasting Gospel

[note: This is an excerpt from A.T. Jones' essay, Appeal from the U. S. Supreme Court Decision Making this "A Christian Nation"It was written in 1893 in response to a Supreme Court Decision in 1891 which declared that the U.S. was a Christian nation. It is worth reading in full, but here I have excerpted some history regarding the Edict of Milan - the decree by Constantine allowing freedom to Christians - that is hugely important and I have no seen articulated anywhere else]


It will be helpful at this point to take a glance at the making and establishment of that old order of things. 

In the beginning of the fourth century there was in the Roman empire a powerful ecclesiastical organization, the leaders and managers of which were “only anxious to assert the government as a kind of sovereignty for themselves.”—Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, book VIII, chapter I. While “it was the hope of every bishop in the empire to make politics a branch of theology,” “it was the aim of Constantine to make theology a branch of politics.” In an intrigue therefore with Constantine they succeeded in bartering to him their influence and power in theology for his in politics. As one of the very first fruits of this, Constantine was established in the rulership of one half of the Roman empire. Jointly with Licinius he then issued the Edict of Milan reversing the persecuting edicts of Diocletian, and granting “liberty and full freedom to the Christians to observe their own mode of worship,” granting, “likewise, to the Christians and to all, the free choice to follow that mode of worship which they may wish;” “that each may have the privilege to select and to worship whatsoever divinity he pleases;” and commanding that the churches and church property which had been confiscated by Diocletian should be restored to “the whole body of Christians,” “and to each conventicle respectively.”—Id., book X, chapter 5. 

This was all just and proper enough, and innocent enough, in itself and on its face, if that had been all there was to it, but behind it there lay this ecclesiastical organization, ambitious to assert the government as a kind of sovereignty for itself, and that religio-political intrigue which had been entered into to feed and satisfy this ambition. This ecclesiastical organization likewise claimed to be the legitimate and only true representative and depositary of Christianity in the world—it was the Catholic Church. And no sooner had the Edict of Milan ordered the restoration of property to the Christians than it was seized upon and made an issue by which to secure the imperial recognition and the legal establishment of the Catholic Church

The rule had long before been established that all who did not agree with the bishops of the Catholic Church were necessarily heretics and not Christians at all; it was now claimed by the Catholic Church that therefore none such were entitled to any benefit from the edict restoring property to the Christians. In other words, the Catholic Church disputed the right of any others than Catholics to receive property or money under the Edict of Milan, by disputing their right to the title of Christians. And by this issue the Catholic Church forced an imperial decision as to who were Christians. And, under the circumstances, by the power and influence which she held and by what she had already done with these in behalf of Constantine, it was a foregone conclusion, if not the concerted plan, that this decision would be in favor of the Catholic Church. Consequently Constantine’s edict to the proconsul, contained these words:—

“It is our will that when thou shalt receive this epistle, if any of those things belonging to the Catholic Church of the Christians in the several cities or other places, are now possessed either by the decurions, or any others, these thou shalt cause immediately to be restored to their churches. Since we have previously determined that whatsoever these same churches before possessed should be restored to them.” 

Nor was it enough that the emperor should decide that all these favors were for “the Catholic Church of the Christians;” he was obliged next to decide which was the Catholic Church. This question was immediately raised and disputed, and in consequence an edict was drawn from Constantine, addressed to the same proconsul (of the province of Africa), in which were these words:— 

“It is my will that these men, within the province intrusted to thee in the Catholic Church over which Cecilianus presides, who give their services to this holy religion, and whom they commonly call clergy, shall be held totally free and exempt from all public offices,” etc. 

The party over which Cecilianus presided in Africa was the party which was in communion with the bishop of Rome.

The other party then drew up a long series of charges against Cecilianus and sent them to the emperor with a petition that he would have the case examined by the bishops of Gaul. Constantine was in Gaul at the time, but instead of having the bishops of Gaul examine into the case alone, he commissioned three of them to go to Rome and sit with the bishop of Rome in council to decide the case. Constantine sent a letter, with copies of all the charges and complaints which had been lodged with him, and in this letter to the bishop of Rome; with other things he said this:— 

“Since it neither escapes your diligence that I show such regard for the holy Catholic Church that I wish you, upon the whole, to leave no room for schism or division.”

This council of course confirmed the emperor’s word that the Catholic Church in Africa was indeed the one over which Cecilianus presided. The other party appealed from this decision and petitioned that another and larger council be called to examine the question. Another council was called, composed of almost all the bishops of Constantine’s dominions. This council likewise confirmed the emperor’s word and the decision of the former council. Then the opposing party appealed from the decision of the council to the emperor himself. After hearing their appeal, he sustained the action of the councils and re-affirmed his original decision. Then the opposing party rejected not only the decisions of the councils but the decision of the emperor himself

Then Constantine addressed a letter to Cecilianus, bestowing more favor upon what he now called “the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion,” and empowering him to use the civil power to compel the opposing party—the Donatists—to submit. This portion of his letter is in the following words:— 

“Constantine Augustus to Cecilianus, bishop of Carthage: 

“As we have determined that in all the provinces of Africa, Numidia, and Mauritania, something should be granted to certain ministers of the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion to defray their expenses, I have given letters to Ursus, the most illustrious lieutenant governor of Africa, and have communicated to him that he shall provide to pay to your authority three thousand folles [about one hundred thousand dollars]. 

“And as I have ascertained that some men, who are of no settled mind, wished to divert the people from the most holy Catholic Church, by a certain pernicious adulteration, I wish thee to understand that I have given, both to the proconsul Anulinus and to Patricius, vicar general of the prefects, when present, the following injunctions: that, among all the rest, they should particularly pay the necessary attention to this, nor should by any means tolerate that this should be overlooked. Wherefore, if thou seest any of these men persevering in this madness thou shalt, without any hesitancy, proceed to the aforesaid judges, and report it to them, that they may animadvert upon them, as I commanded them, when present.” 

Thus, no sooner was it decided what was “the legitimate and most holy Catholic Church,” than the civil power was definitely placed at the disposal of that church, with positive instructions to use that power in compelling conformity to the new imperial religion. Persecution was begun at once. The Donatist bishops were driven out, and Constantine commanded that their churches should be delivered to the Catholic party. Nor was this done at all peacefully. “Each party recriminated on the other; but neither denies the barbarous scenes of massacre and license which devastated the African cities. The Donatists boasted of their martyrs; and the cruelties of the Catholic party rest on their own admission; they deny not, they proudly vindicate, their barbarities; ‘Is the vengeance of God to be defrauded of its victims?’” they cried.—Milman, History of Christianity, book III, chapter 1, paragraph 5 from the end. 

And the government by becoming a partisan had lost the power to keep the peace. The civil power, by becoming a party to religious controversy, had lost the power to prevent civil violence between religious factions.

Nor was this thing long in coming. It all occurred within less than four years. The Edict of Milan was issued in the month of March, A. D. 313. Before that month expired the decision was rendered that the imperial favors were for the Catholic Church only. In the autumn of the same year—313—the first council sat to decide which was the Catholic Church. In the summer of 314 sat the second council on the same question. And in 316 the decree was sent to Cecilianus empowering him to distribute that money to the ministers of “the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion,” and to use the civil power to force the Donatists to submit to the decision of the councils and the emperor

The Edict of Milan, March, 313, named “the whole body of Christians” as the beneficiaries, without any qualification or any sectarian designation. Before the expiration of that month, the provisions of the edict were confined to “the Catholic Church of the Christians” alone. In the autumn of the same year, when the emperor wrote to the bishop of Rome, appointing the first council, he defined the established church as “the holy Catholic Church.” The following summer, 314, when he called the second council, he referred to the doctrine of the Catholic Church as embodying the “most holy religion.” And when it had been decided which party represented this “most holy religion,” then in 316 his letter and commission to Cecilianus defined it as “the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion.” 

Nor was this all. While this was going on, also about the year 314, the first edict in favor of Sunday was issued, though it was blended with “Friday.” It ordered that on Friday and on Sunday “no judicial or other business should be transacted, but that God should be served with prayers and supplications,” and in 321, Friday observance was dropped and Sunday alone was exalted by the famous Sunday-rest law of Constantine; all in furtherance of the ambition of the ecclesiastics to assert the government as a kind of sovereignty for themselves. In 323, by the direct and officious aid of the Catholic Church, Constantine succeeded in defeating Licinius and making himself sole emperor. No sooner was this accomplished than the religious liberty assured to “the Christians” by the Edict of Milan, like the provisions of the same edict restoring confiscated property to the Christians, was by a public and express edict limited to Catholics alone. This portion of that decree runs as follows:— 

“Victor Constantinus Maximus Augustus, to the heretics: Understand now, by this present statute, ye Novatians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulians, ye who are called Cataphrygians, and all ye who devise and support heresies by means of your private assemblies, with what a tissue of falsehood and vanity, with what destructive and venomous errors, your doctrines are inseparably interwoven; so that through you the healthy soul is stricken with disease, and the living becomes the prey of everlasting death.... 

“Forasmuch, then, as it is no longer possible to bear with your pernicious errors, we give warning by this present statute that none of you henceforth presume to assemble yourselves together. We have directed, accordingly, that you should be deprived of all the houses in which you are accustomed to hold your assemblies; and our care in this respect extends so far as to forbid the holding of your superstitious and senseless meetings, not in public merely, but in any private house or place whatsoever. Let those of you, therefore, who are desirous of embracing the true and pure religion, take the far better course of entering the Catholic Church, and uniting with it in holy fellowship, whereby you will be enabled to arrive at the knowledge of the truth.... 

“It is an object worthy of that prosperity which we enjoy through the favor of God, to endeavor to bring back those who in time past were living in the hope of future blessing, from all irregularity and error, to the right path, from darkness to light, from vanity to truth, from death to salvation. And in order that this remedy may be applied with effectual power, we have commanded (as before said), that you be positively deprived of every gathering point for your superstitious meetings; I mean all the houses of prayer (if such be worthy of the name) which belong to heretics, and that these be made over without delay to the Catholic Church; that any other places be confiscated to the public service, and no facility whatever be left for any future gathering; in order that from this day forward none of your unlawful assemblies may presume to appear in any public or private place. Let this edict be made public.” 

Thus in less than eleven years from the issuing of the Edict of Milan, the Catholic Church stood in full and exclusive possession of the authority of the empire both in the rights of property and the right to worship under the profession of Christianity; and with a specific and direct commission to use that power and authority to compel the submission of “heretics.” Thus was made the papacy—the beast of Revelation 13:1-10—and all that ever came in its career from that day to this has been but the natural and inevitable growth of the power and the prerogatives which were then possessed and claimed by the Catholic Church.

And it all came from the Edict of Milan bestowing governmental favors upon “the Christians.” No man can fairly deny that in the Edict of Milan and the religio-political intrigue that lay behind it, there was contained the whole papacy. No man can successfully deny that the Edict of Milan, though appearing innocent enough upon its face, contained the whole papacy, or that the things that followed in the ten years up to 323, which we have sketched, were anything else than the logical and inevitable development of the evil that lay wrapped up in that. 

Now here is a question that is worthy of the most serious consideration by the American people. If a thing appearing so just and innocent as does the Edict of Milan, could so easily be made to produce such a world of mischief in so short a time, and be a curse to the world forever after, what then can be the result of this decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to the same purpose as that, but which has not, in any sense, any appearance of justice or innocence?