In the latter half of the third century CE, the early church had been free of persecution and had not only grown in numbers but had become largely accepted as part of Roman society. So, as Alan Kreider has said, renewed persecution from 303–312 “was traumatic for the believers and their leaders” (The Patient Ferment of the Early Church [Baker Academic, 2016], 246).
What brought an end to the persecution was Constantine’s becoming emperor. Having a vision of the cross as the sign under which he would conquer, Constantine became a Christian, at least of a sort—he wasn’t baptized until near his death and he did not totally give up the use of violence as a means of military conquest or social control. But he did favor the church, sponsored the construction of church buildings, and took an interest in theological disputes.
It is for this reason, church historians from the fourth century Eusebius to at least the eighteenth century have seen God’s hand in Constantine’s conversion. One of these was John Wesley’s great contemporary, Jonathan Edwards. Following his vision of the cross, Edwards wrote, Constantine “overcame his enemies, and took possession of the imperial throne, and embraced the Christian religion, and was the first Christian emperor that ever reigned” (A History of the Work of Redemption, Sermon Twenty-One, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John F. Wilson, 19:395).
Coming “after such a dark night of affliction,” Edward says, the “church was thereby wholly delivered from persecution.” “God now appeared to execute terrible judgements on their enemies.” Moreover, “Heathenism now was in great measure abolished throughout the Roman Empire” and the “church was brought into a state of great peace and prosperity” (395–96).
Yet while Edwards was celebrating the victory of God, Wesley was incredulous that anyone could think of Constantine that way. With regard to Constantine’s coming to power, Wesley exclaims: “And this is the event which most Christian expositors mention with such triumph!” Rather than an anticipation of the “New Jerusalem coming down from heaven,” as some have claimed, it should be instead seen as “the coming of Satan and all his legions from the bottomless pit” (“The Mystery of Iniquity,” §28).
While perhaps using calmer language, many Christian scholars today agree with Wesley. Alan Kreider, for example, sees Constantinianism as a move from an early church patiently dependent on God to a church more dependent on power, less averse to violence, and whose bishops were honored guests of the emperor. These church leaders found themselves “on a journey toward sartorial splendor that pagans scorned and sensitive Christians bewailed; the bishops courted by the court, found it hard to keep their values or their habitus intact” (Patient Ferment, 279).
Wesley’s view overlaps Kreider’s. “Persecution,” Wesley says, “never did, never could give any lasting wound to genuine Christianity” (“The Mystery of Iniquity,” §27). It isn’t that the early church was free of corruption, Wesley notes. Even the apostolic church had to confront iniquity, as shown by the cases of Ananias and Sapphira, and the neglect of widows who were not Hebrews (§§12, 14) But these were flaws within churches that were also susceptible to revival (§26).
But the “grand blow which was struct at the very root of that humble, gentle, patient love, which is the fulfilling of the Christian law, the essence of true religion, was struck in the fourth century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honours, and power upon the Christians, more especially upon the clergy.” With “the fear of persecution removed, and wealth and honour attended the Christian profession, the Christians did not gradually sink, but rushed headlong into all manner of vices.” For Wesley, Constantine put the evil leaven of iniquity in the church on steroids: “The mystery of iniquity was no more hid, but stalked abroad in the face of the sun” (§27).
From then to Wesley’s day, the condition of the church had not improved. True, in Wesley’s opinion, the Protestant Reformation was more faithful in doctrine and modes of worship. But what of their hearts and lives? In that regard, Wesley sees no appreciable difference between Protestant and Catholic, Christian and non-Christian (§29). Sadly, “wherever Christianity has spread, the apostasy has spread also” (§30).
Wesley draws a number of lessons from this. The first is that the objections of non-Christians against “the lives of Christians,” is misplaced, for these are but Christians in name only. “Though they are called Christians, the name does not imply the thing: they are as far from this hell from heaven” (§32).
Other lessons include the “astonishing” extent of the fall into sin and the “baleful influence” that riches “have had in all ages upon pure and undefiled religion” (§§33–34). The danger of riches is the theme of a dozen Wesley sermons. Christians thus need to be watchful, as the influences that lead one from God are subtle and often appear benign (§35).
Wesley is not without hope. The deliverance will come not from a Constantinian enlistment of the state on behalf of the church, but from God. “God will arise and maintain his own cause,” he says “and the whole creation shall be delivered from moral and natural corruption. Sin, and its consequence, pain, shall be no more; holiness and happiness will cover the earth.” Then, Wesley says, “shall all the ends of the world see the salvation of our God. And the whole race of mankind shall know and love and serve God, and reign with him forever and ever! (§36).