Sometimes when a person nears death and stares into the face of eternity, he or she becomes more religious or makes moral changes, perhaps hoping to influence his or her future beyond the grave. That seems to have been the case with Roman Emperor Galerius when he issued an Edict of Toleration on this day, April 30, 311.
Galerius was the son of a Greek shepherd who became a Roman soldier. He rose in power and authority to become a junior ruler with Diocletian. When Emperor Diocletian began his great persecution of Christians in 303, Galerius instigated the action, convincing Diocletian that Christians were dangerous enemies of the empire.
Galerius himself issued another edict in 304 requiring everyone in the empire to sacrifice to the gods of the empire on pain of death or forced labor. Persecutors imprisoned churchmen, destroyed precious Bible manuscripts, and executed hundreds of Christians.
When Diocletian abdicated, Galerius became senior emperor in 305. He continued his cruel persecution, which was so widespread and intense that it became known as "the great persecution". However, Christianity simply would not go away. Even Galerius recognized the impossibility of snuffing out the illegal religion.
Then he became ill. A Christian writer named Lactantius said that Galerius' body rotted and was eaten by maggots while he writhed in agony. Apparently Galerius' conscience connected his persecution of Christians with his present misery. He seems to have seen his illness as a judgment from the Christian God. At any rate, his edict mentioned only Christians.
The edict began by justifying his murder. "Amongst our other measures for the advantage of the Empire, we have hitherto endeavored to bring all things into conformity with the ancient laws and public order of the Romans. We have been especially anxious that even the Christians, who have abandoned the religion of their ancestors, should return to reason."
Noting that some Christians had betrayed their faith out of fear while others endured torture, Galerius decided illogically that "we, with our wonted clemency, have judged it wise to extend a pardon even to these men and permit them once more to become Christians and reestablish their places of meeting..."
Galerius added that "...it should be the duty of the Christians, in view of our clemency [mercy], to pray to their god for our welfare, for that of the Empire, and for their own, so that the Empire may remain intact in all its parts, and that they themselves may live safely in their habitations."
Prayer seems to be the point of the edict. Galerius wanted Christian prayers. Did he hope for a miracle? If so, he was disappointed. He died a week after issuing the edict.
His successor, Emperor Maximinus, tried to counteract the edict but did not succeed to any great extent in his short rule. The Great Persecution of Christians had ended.
The Edict of Toleration
Among other arrangements which we are always accustomed to make for the prosperity and welfare of the republic, we had desired formerly to bring all things into harmony with the ancient laws and public order of the Romans, and to provide that even the Christians who had left the religion of their fathers should come back to reason ; since, indeed, the Christians themselves, for some reason, had followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity, which perchance their own ancestors had first established; but at their own will and pleasure, they would thus make laws unto themselves which they should observe and would collect various peoples in diverse places in congregations. Finally when our law had been promulgated to the effect that they should conform to the institutes of antiquity, many were subdued by the fear of danger, many even suffered death. And yet since most of them persevered in their determination, and we saw that they neither paid the reverence and awe due to the gods nor worshipped the God of the Christians, in view of our most mild clemency and the constant habit by which we are accustomed to grant indulgence to all, we thought that we ought to grant our most prompt indulgence also to these, so that they may again be Christians and may hold their conventicles, provided they do nothing contrary to good order. But we shall tell the magistrates in another letter what they ought to do.
Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.
This edict is published at Nicomedia on the day before the Kalends of May, in our eighth consulship and the second of Maximinus.
From Lactantius, De Mort. Pers. ch. 34, 35.