No unbiased observer could have been sanguine about their prospects. They were the latest adherents to one of those "magical" and "superstitious" cults always emanating from the East to trouble the kingdom. At several points, Newman conveys the atmosphere under which they labored by offering the words of some of the most cultivated minds of the day:
The primâ facie view of early Christianity, in the eyes of witnesses external to it, is presented to us in the brief but vivid descriptions given by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, the only heathen writers who distinctly mention it for the first hundred and fifty years.
Tacitus is led to speak of the Religion, on occasion of the conflagration of Rome, which was popularly imputed to Nero. "To put an end to the report," he says, "he laid the guilt on others, and visited them with the most exquisite punishment, those, namely, who, held in abhorrence for their crimes (per flagitia invisos), were popularly called Christians. The author of that profession (nominis) was Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was capitally punished by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition (exitiabilis superstitio), though checked for a while, broke out afresh; and that, not only throughout Judæa, the original seat of the evil, but through the City also, whither all things atrocious or shocking (atrocia aut pudenda) flow together from every quarter and thrive. At first, certain were seized who avowed it; then, on their report, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much of firing the City, as of hatred of mankind (odio humani generis)."
After describing their tortures, he continues:
"In consequence, though they were guilty, and deserved most signal punishment, they began to be pitied, as if destroyed not for any public object, but from the barbarity of one man."
Suetonius relates the same transactions thus: "Capital punishments were inflicted on the Christians, a class of men of a new and magical superstition (superstitionis novæ et maleficæ)."
When Pliny was Governor of Pontus, he wrote his celebrated letter to the Emperor Trajan, to ask advice how he was to deal with the Christians, whom he found there in great numbers. One of his points of hesitation was, whether the very profession of Christianity was not by itself sufficient to justify punishment; "whether the name itself should be visited, though clear of flagitious acts (flagitia) or only when connected with them." He says he had ordered for execution such as persevered in their profession, after repeated warnings, "as not doubting, whatever it was they professed, that at any rate contumacy and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished." He required them to invoke the gods, to sacrifice wine and frankincense to the images of the Emperor, and to blaspheme Christ; "to which," he adds, "it is said no real Christian can be compelled." Renegades informed him that "the sum total of their offence or fault was meeting before light on an appointed day, and saying with one another a form of words (carmen) to Christ, as if to a god, and binding themselves by oath, (not to the commission of any wickedness, but) against the commission of theft, robbery, adultery, breach of trust, denial of deposits; that, after this they were accustomed to separate, and then to meet again for a meal, but eaten all together and harmless; however, that they had even left this off after his edicts enforcing the Imperial prohibition of Hetæriæ or Associations." He proceeded to put two women to the torture, but "discovered nothing beyond a bad and excessive superstition" (superstitionem pravam et immodicam), "the contagion" of which, he continues, "had spread through villages and country, till the temples were emptied of worshippers."