The same persecution in which Perpetua and her companions suffered at Carthage raged also at Alexandria in Egypt, where a learned man named Leonides was one of the martyrs (AD 202). Leonides had a son named Origen, whom he had brought up very carefully, and had taught to get some part of the Bible by heart every day. And Origen was very eager to learn, and was so good and so clever that his father was afraid to show how fond and how proud he was of him, lest the boy should become forward and conceited. So when Origen asked questions of a kind which few boys would have thought of asking, his father used to check him, but when he was asleep Leonides would steal to his bedside and kiss him, thanking God for having given him such a child, and praying that Origen might always be kept in the right way.
When the persecution began, Origen, who was then about seventeen years old, wished that he might be allowed to die for his faith; but his mother hid his clothes, and so obliged him to stay at home; and all that he could do was to write to his father in prison, and to beg that he would not fear lest the widow and orphans should be left destitute, but would be /stedfast in his faith, and would trust in God to provide for their relief.
The persecutors were not content with killing Leonides, but seized on all his property, so that the widow was left in great distress, with seven children, of whom Origen was the eldest. A Christian lady kindly took Origen into her house; and after a short time, young as he was, he was made master of the “Catechetical School”, a sort of college, where the young Christians of Alexandria were instructed in religion and learning. The persecution had slackened for a while, but it began again, and some of Origen’s pupils were martyred. He went with them to their trial, and stood by them in their sufferings; but although he was ill-used by the mob of Alexandria, he was himself allowed to go free.
Origen had read in the Gospel, “Freely ye have received, freely give” (St. Matt. x. 8), and he thought that therefore he ought to teach for nothing. In order, therefore, that he might be able to do this, he sold a quantity of books which he had written out, and lived for a long time on the price of them, allowing himself only about fivepence a day. His food was of the poorest kind; he had but one coat, through which he felt the cold of winter severely, he sat up the greater part of the night, and then lay down on the bare floor. When he grew older, he came to understand that he had been mistaken in some of his notions as to these things, and to regret that, by treating himself so hardly, he had hurt his health beyond repair. But still, mistaken as he was, we must honour him for going through so bravely with what he took to be his duty.
He soon grew so famous as a teacher, that even Jews, heathens, and heretics went to hear him; and many of them were so led on by him that they were converted to the Gospel. He travelled a great deal; some of his journeys were taken because he had been invited into foreign countries that he might teach the Gospel to people who were desirous of instruction in it, or that he might settle disputes about religion. And he was invited to go on a visit to the mother of the Emperor Alexander Severus, who was himself friendly to Christianity, although not a Christian. Origen, too, wrote a great number of books in explanation of the Bible, and on other religious subjects; and he worked for no less than eight-and-twenty years at a great book called the “Hexapla”, which was meant to show how the Old Testament ought to be read in Hebrew and in Greek.
But, although he was a very good, as well as a very learned man, Origen fell into some strange opinions, from wishing to clear away some of those difficulties which, as St Paul says, made the Gospel seem “foolishness” to the heathen philosophers (1 Cor. i. 23). Besides this, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, although he had been his friend, had some reasons for not wishing to ordain him to be one of the clergy; and when Origen had been ordained a presbyter (or priest) in the Holy Land, where he was on a visit, Demetrius was very angry. He said that no man ought to be ordained in any church but that of his own home; and he brought up stories about some rash things which Origen had done in his youth, and questions about the strange doctrines which he held. Origen, finding that he could not hope for peace at Alexandria, went back to his friend the bishop of Caesarea, by whom he had been ordained, and he spent many years at Caesarea, where he was more sought after as a teacher than ever. At one time he was driven into Cappadocia, by the persecution of a savage emperor named Maximin, who had murdered the gentle Alexander Severus; but he returned to Caesarea, and lived there until another persecution began under the Emperor Decius.
This was by far the worst persecution that had yet been known. It was the first which was carried on throughout the whole empire, and no regard was now paid to the old laws which Trajan and other emperors had made for the protection of the Christians. They were sought out, and were made to appear in the market-place of every town, where they were required by the magistrates to sacrifice, and if they refused, were sentenced to severe punishment. The emperor wished most to get at the bishops and clergy; for /he thought that, if the teachers were put out of the way, the people would soon give up the Gospel. Although many martyrs were put to death at this time, the persecutors did not so much wish to kill the Christians, as to make them disown their religion; and, in the hope of this, many of them were starved, and tortured, and sent into banishment in strange countries, among wild people who had never before heard of Christ. But here the emperor’s plans were notably disappointed, for the banished bishops and clergy had thus an opportunity of making the Gospel known to those poor wild tribes, whom it might not have reached for a long time if the Church had been left in quiet.
We shall hear more about the persecution in the next chapter. Here I shall only say that Origen was imprisoned and cruelly tortured. He was by this time nearly seventy years old, and was weak in body from the labours which he had gone through in study, and from having hurt his health by hard and scanty living in his youth, so that he was ill able to bear the pains of the torture, and, although he did not die under it, he died of its effects soon after (AD 254).
Decius himself was killed in battle (AD 251), and his persecution came to an end. And when it was over, the faithful understood that it had been of great use, not only by helping to spread the Gospel, in the way which has been mentioned, but in purifying the Church, and in rousing Christians from the carelessness into which too many of them had fallen during the long time of ease and quiet which they had before enjoyed. For the trials which God sends on His people in this world are like the chastisements of a loving Father, and, if we accept them rightly, they will all be found to turn out to our good.