It is my object in this chapter to show the great Christian ideas which the fathers promulgated, and which have proved of so great influence on the Middle Ages and our own civilization. These were declared before the Roman empire fell; and if they did not arrest ruin, still alleviated the miseries of society, and laid the foundation of all that is most ennobling among modern nations. The early church should be the most glorious chapter in the history of humanity. While the work of destruction was going on in every part of the world, both by vice and violence, there was still the new work of creation proceeding with it, a precious savor of life to future ages. If there is any thing sublime, it is the power of renovating ideas amid universal degeneracy. They are seeds of truth, which grow and ripen into grand institutions. These did not become of sufficient importance to arrest the attention of historians until they were cultivated by the Germanic nations in the Middle Ages.
It could be shown that almost everything which gives glory to Christian civilization had its origin in the early church. Few are aware what giants and heroes were those fathers and saints whom this age has been taught to despise. We are really reaping the results of those conflicts-- conflicts with bigoted Jewish sects; conflicts with the high priests of paganism, with Greek philosophers, with Gnostic Manichaean illuminati; with the symbolists, soothsayers, astrologers, magicians, which mystic superstition conjured up among degenerate people. And not merely their conflicts with the prince of the power of the air alone, but with themselves, with their own fiery passions, and with tangible outward foes. They were illustrious champions and martyrs in the midst of a great Vanity Fair, in a Nebuchadnezzar fire of persecutions, an all- pervading atmosphere of lies, impurities, and abominations which cried to heaven for vengeance. They solved for us and for all future generations the thousand of new questions which audacious paganism proposed in its last struggles; they exposed the bubbles which charmed that giddy generation of egotists; they eliminated the falsehoods which vain-glorious philosophers had inwrought with revelation; and they attested, with dying agonies, to the truth of those mysteries which gave them consolation and hope amid the terrors of a dissolving world. They absorbed even into the sphere of Christianity all that was really valuable in the system they exploded, whether of philosophy or social life, and transmitted the same to future ages. And they set examples, of which the world will never lose sight, of patience, fortitude, courage, generosity, which will animate all martyrs to the end of time. And if, in view of their great perplexities, of circumstances which they could not control, utter degeneracy and approaching barbarism, they lent their aid to some institutions which we cannot endorse, certainly when corrupted, like Manichaeism and ecclesiastical domination, let us remember that these were adapted to their times, or were called out by pressing exigencies. And further, let us bear in mind that, in giving their endorsement, they could not predict the abuse of principles abstractly good and wise, like poverty, and obedience, and chastity, and devout meditation, and solitary communion with God. In all their conduct and opinions, we see, nevertheless, a large-hearted humanity, a toleration and charity for human infirmities, and a beautiful spirit of brotherly love. If they advocated definite creeds with great vehemence and earnestness, they yet soared beyond them, and gloried in the general name they bore, until the fundamental doctrines of their religion were assailed.
For two centuries, however, they have no history out of the records of martyrdom. We know their sufferings better than any peculiar ideas which they advocated. We have testimony to their blameless lives, to their irreproachable morals, to their good citizenship, and to their Christian graces, rather than to any doctrines which stand out as especial marks for discussion or conflict, like those which agitated the councils of Nice or Ephesus. But if we were asked what was the first principle which was brought out by the history of the early church, we should say it was that of martyrdom. Certainly the first recorded act in the history of Christianity was that memorable scene on Calvary, when the founder of our religion announced the fulfillment of the covenant made with Adam in the Garden of Eden. And as the deliverance of mankind was effected by that great sacrifice for sin, so the earliest development of Christian life was the spirit of martyrdom. The moral grandeur with which the martyrs met reproach, isolation, persecution, suffering, and death, not merely robbed the grave of its victory, but implanted a principle of inestimable power among all future heroes. Martyrdom kindled an heroic spirit, not for the conquest of nations, but for the conquest of the soul, and the resignation of all that earth can give in attestation of grand and saving truths. We have a few examples of martyrs in pagan antiquity, like Socrates and Seneca, who met death with fortitude,--but not with faith, not with indestructible joy that this mortal was about to put on immortality. The Christian martyrdoms were a new development of humanity. They taught the necessity of present sacrifice for future glory, and more, for the great interests of truth and virtue, with which good men had been identified. They brought life and immortality to the view of the people, who had not dared to speculate on their future condition. Their martyrs inspired a spirit into society that nothing could withstand; a practical belief that the life was more than meat; that the future was greater than the present: and this surely is one of the grand fundamental principles of Christianity. They incited to a spirit of fortitude and courage under all the evils of life, and gave dignity to men who would otherwise have been insignificant. The example of men who rejoiced to part with their lives for the sake of their religion, became to the world the most impressive voice which it yet heard of the insignificance of this life when compared with the life to come. "What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" became thus one of the most stupendous inquiries which could be impressed on future generations, and affected all the relations of society. Martyrdom was one solution of this mighty question which introduced a new power upon the earth, for we cannot conceive of Christianity as an all-conquering influence, except as it unfolds a new and superior existence, in contrast with which the present is worthless. The principle of martyrdom, setting at defiance the present, led to unbounded charity and the renunciation of worldly possessions. What are they really worth? Every martyr had the comparative worthlessness of wealth and honor and comfort profoundly impressed upon his mind, in view of the greatness of the Infinite and the importance of the future.
The early martyrdoms thus brought out with immeasurable force the principle of faith, without which life can have no object,--faith in future destinies, faith in the promises of God, faith in the power of the Cross to subdue finally all forms of evil. The sacrifice of Christ introduced into the world sentiments of unbounded love and gratitude, that He, the most perfect type of humanity, and the Son of God himself, should come into this world to bear its sins upon the cross, and thus give a heaven which could not be bought by expiatory gifts. It was love which prompted the crucifixion of Jesus; and love produced love, and stimulated thousands to bear with patience the evils under which they would have sunk. The martyrdoms of the early Christians did not indeed kindle sentiments of gratitude; but they inspired courage, and led to immeasurable forms of heroism. The timid and the shrinking woman, the down-trodden slave, and the despised pauper, all at once became serene, lofty, unconquerable, since they knew that though their earthly tabernacle would be destroyed, they had a dwelling in the heavens free from all future toil and sorrow and reproach. Martyrdoms made this world nothing and heaven everything. They proved a powerful faith in the ultimate prevalence of truth, and created an invincible moral heroism, which excited universal admiration; and they furnished models and examples to future generations, when Christians were subjected to bitter trials.
We cannot but feel that martyrdom is one of the most impressive of all human examples, since it is the mark of a practical belief in God and heaven. And while we recognize it as among the most interesting among spiritual triumphs, we are persuaded that the absence of its spirit, or its decline, is usually followed by a low state of society. Epicureanism is its antagonistic principle, and is as destructive as the other is conservative. The moment men are unwilling to sacrifice themselves to a great cause, they virtually say that temporal and worldly interests are to be preferred to the spiritual and the future. The language of the Epicurean is intensely egotistic. It is: "Soul, take thine ease; eat, drink, and be merry;" to which God says, "Thou fool." Christianity was sent to destroy this egotism, which undermined the strength of the ancient world; and it created a practical belief in the future, and a faith in truth. Without this faith, society has ever retrograded; with it there have been continual reforms. It is an important element of progress, and a mark of dignity and moral greatness.
Shall we seek a connection between their martyrdoms and civilization? They bore witness to a religion which is the source of all true progress upon earth; they attested to its divine truth amid protracted agonies; they were illustrious examples for all ages to contemplate.
Perhaps the most powerful effect of their voluntary sacrifice was to secure credence to the mysteries of Christianity. Socrates died for his own opinions; but who was ever willing to die for the opinions of Socrates? But innumerable martyrs exulted in the privilege of dying for the doctrines of Him whose sacrifice saved the world. Nor to these had death its customary terrors, since they were assured of a glorious immortality. They impressed the pagan world with a profound lesson that the future is greater than the present; that there is to be a day of rewards and punishments. Amid all the miseries and desolations of society, it was a great thing to bear witness to the reality of future happiness and misery. The hope of immortality must have been an unspeakable consolation to the miserable sufferers of the Roman Empire. It gave to them courage and patience and fortitude. It inspired them with hope and peace. Amid the ravages of disease, and the incursions of barbarians, and the dissolution of society, and the approaching eclipse of the glory of man, it was a great and holy mystery that the soul should survive these evils, and that eternal bliss should be the reward of the faithful. Nothing else could have reconciled the inhabitants of the decaying empire to slavery, war, and pillage. There was needed some powerful support to the mind under the complicated calamities of the times. This support the death and exultation of the martyrs afforded. It was written on the souls of the suffering millions that there was a higher life, a glorious future, an exceeding great reward. It was impossible to see thousands ready to die, exulting in the privilege of martyrdom, anticipating with confidence their "crown," and not feel that immortality was a certitude brought to light by the Gospel. And the example of the martyrs kindled all the best emotions of the soul into a hallowed glow. Their death, so serene and beautiful, filled the spectators with love and admiration. Their sufferings brought to light the greatest virtues, and diffused their spirit into the heart of all who saw their indestructible joy. Is it nothing, in such an age, to have given an impulse to the most exalted sentiments that men can cherish? The welfare of nations is based on the indestructible certitudes of love, friendship, faith, fortitude, self-sacrifice. It was not Marathon so much as Thermopylae which imparted vitality to Grecian heroism, and made that memorable self-sacrifice one of the eternal pillars which mark national advancement. So the sufferings of the martyrs, for the sake of Christ, warmed the dissolving empire with a belief in Heaven, and prepared it to encounter the most unparalleled wretchedness which our world has seen. They gave a finishing blow to Epicureanism and skeptical cynicism; so that in the calamities which soon after happened, men were buoyed with hope and trust. They may have hidden themselves in caves and deserts, they may have sought monastic retreats, they may have lost faith in man and all mundane glories, they may have consumed their lives in meditation and solitude, they may have anticipated the dissolution of all things, but they awaited in faith the coming of their Lord. Prepared for any issue or any calamity, a class of heroes arose to show the moral greatness of the passive virtues, and the triumphs of faith amid the wrecks of material grandeur. Were not such needed at the close of the fourth century? Especially were not such bright examples needed for the ages which were to come? Polycarp and Cyprian were the precursors of the martyrs of the Middle Ages, and were of the Reformation. Early persecutions developed the spirit of martyrdom, which is the seed of the church, impressed it upon the mind of the world, and prepared the way for the moral triumphs of the Beckets and Savonarolas of remote generations. Martyrdoms were the first impressive facts in the history of the church, and the idea of dying for a faith one of the most signal evidences of superiority over the ancient religions. It was a new idea, which had utterly escaped the old guides of mankind.
Another great idea which was promulgated by the church long before the empire fell, was that of benevolence. Charities were not one of the fruits of paganism. Men may have sold their goods and given to the poor, but we have no record of such deeds. Hospitals and eleemosynary institutions were nearly unknown. When a man was unfortunate, there was nothing left to him but to suffer and die. There was no help from others. All were engrossed in their schemes of pleasure or ambition, and compassion was rare. The sick and diseased died without alleviation. "The spectator who gazed upon the magnificent buildings which covered the seven hills, temples, arches, porticoes, theatres, baths and palaces, could discover no hospitals and asylums, unless perchance the temple of Aesculapius, on an island in the Tiber, where the maimed and sick were left in solitude to struggle with the pangs of death." But the church fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner, and lodged the stranger. Charity was one of the fundamental injunctions of Christ and of the Apostles. The New Testament breathes unbounded love, benevolence so extensive and universal that self was ignored. Self-denial, in doing good to others, was one of the virtues expected of every Christian. Hence the first followers of our Lord had all things in common. Property was supposed to belong to the whole church, rather than to individuals. "Go and sell all that thou hast" was literally interpreted. It devolved on the whole church to see that strangers were entertained, that the sick were nursed, that the poor were fed, that orphans were protected, that those who were in prison were visited. For these purposes contributions were taken up in all assemblies convened for public worship. Individuals also emulated the whole church, and gave away their possessions to the poor. Matrons, especially, devoted themselves to these works of charity, feeding the poor, and visiting the sick. They visited the meanest hovels and the most dismal prisons. But "what heathen," says Tertullian, "will suffer his wife to go about from one street to another to the houses of strangers? What heathen would allow her to steal away into the dungeon to kiss the chain of the martyr?" And these works of benevolence were not bestowed upon friends alone, but upon strangers; and it was this, particularly, which struck the pagans with wonder and admiration--that men of different countries, ranks, and relations of life, were bound together by an invisible cord of love. A stranger, with letters to the "brethren," was sure of a generous and hearty welcome. There were no strangers among the Christians; they were all brothers; they called each other brother and sister; they gave to each other the fraternal kiss; they knew of no distinctions; they all had an equal claim to the heritage of the church. And this generosity and benevolence extended itself to the wants of Christians in distant lands; the churches redeemed captives taken in war, and even sold the consecrated vessels for that purpose on rare occasions, as Ambrose did at Milan. A single bishop, in the third century, supported two thousand poor people. Cyprian raised at one time a sum equal to four thousand dollars in his church at Carthage, to be sent to the Manichaean bishops for the purposes of charity. Especially in times of public calamity was this spirit of benevolence manifested, and in striking contrast with the pagans. [Footnote: Neander, vol. i. Section 3.] When Alexandria was visited with the plague during the reign of Gallienus, the pagans deserted their friends upon the first symptoms of disease; they left them to die in the streets, without even taking the trouble to bury them when dead; they only thought of escaping from the contagion themselves. The Christians, on the contrary, took the bodies of their brethren in their arms, waited upon them without thinking of themselves, ministered to their wants, and buried them with all possible care, even while the best people of the community, presbyters and deacons, lost their own lives by their self-sacrificing generosity. [Footnote: Eusebius, 1. vii. chap. 22.] And when Carthage was ravaged by a similar pestilence in the reign of Gallus, the pagans deserted the sick and the dying, and the streets were filled with dead bodies, which greatly increased the infection. No one came near them except for purposes of plunder; but Cyprian, calling his people together in the church, said: "If we do good only to our own, what do we more than publicans and heathens." Animated by his words, the members of the church divided the work between them, the rich giving money, and the poor labor, so that in a short time the bodies which filled the streets were buried.
And this principle of benevolence has never been relinquished by the church. It was one of the foundation-pillars of monastic life in the Middle Ages, when monasteries and convents were blessed retreats for the miserable and unfortunate, where all strangers found a shelter and a home; where they diffused charities upon all who sought their aid. The monastery itself was built upon charities, upon the gifts and legacies of the pious. In pagan Rome men willed away their fortunes to favorites; they were rarely bestowed upon the poor. But Christianity inculcated everywhere the necessity of charities, not merely as a test of Christian hope and faith, but as one of the conditions of salvation itself. One of the most glorious features of our modern civilization is the wide-spread system of public benevolence extended to missions, to destitute churches, to hospitals, to colleges, to alms-houses, to the support of the poor, who are not left to die unheeded as in the ancient world. Every form of Christianity, every sect and party, has its peculiar charities; but charities for some good object are a primal principle of the common creed. What immeasurable blessings have been bestowed upon mankind in consequence of this law of kindness and love! What a beautiful feature it is in the whole progress of civilization!
The early church had set a good example of patience under persecution, and practical benevolence extended into every form of social life which has been instituted in every succeeding age, and to which the healthy condition of society may in a measure be traced.
The next mission of the church was to give dignity and importance to the public preaching of the Gospel, which has never since been lost sight of, and has been no inconsiderable element of our civilization. This was entirely new in the history of society. The pagan priest did not exhort the people to morality, or point out their religious duties, or remind them of their future destinies, or expound the great principles of religious faith. He offered up sacrifices to the Deity, and appeared in imposing ceremonials. He wore rich and gorgeous dresses to dazzle the senses of the people, or excite their imaginations. It was his duty to appeal to the gods, and not to men; to propitiate them with costly rites, to surround himself with mystery, to inspire awe, and excite superstitious feelings. The Christian minister had a loftier sphere. While he appealed to God in prayer, and approached his altar with becoming solemnity, it was also his duty to preach to the people, as Paul and the Apostles did throughout the heathen world, in order to convert them to Christianity, and change the whole character of their lives and habits. The presbyter, while he baptized believers and administered the symbolic bread and wine, also taught the people, explained to them the mysteries, enforced upon them the obligations, appealed to their intellects, their consciences, and their hearts. He plunged fearlessly into every subject bearing upon religious life, and boldly presented it for contemplation.
What a grand theatre for the development of mind, for healthy instruction and commanding influence, was opened by the Christian pulpit. There was no sphere equal to it in moral dignity and force. It threw into the shade the theatre and the forum. And in times when printing was unknown, it was almost the only way by which the people could be taught. It vastly added to the power of the clergy, and gave them an influence that the old priests of paganism could never exercise. It created an entirely new power in the world, a moral power, indeed, but one to which history presents no equal. The philosophers taught in their schools, they taught a few admiring pupils; but the sphere of their teachings was limited, and also the number whom they could address. The pulpit became an institution. All the Christians were required to assemble regularly for public instruction as well as worship. On every seventh day the people laid aside their secular duties and devoted themselves to religious improvement. The pulpit gave power to the Sabbath; and what an institution is the Christian Sabbath. To the Sabbath and to public preaching Christendom owes more than to all other sources of moral elevation combined. It is true that the Jewish synagogue furnished a model to the church; but the Levitical race claimed no peculiar sanctity, and discharged no friendly office beyond the precincts of the temple. In the synagogue the people assembled to pray, or to hear the Scriptures read and expounded, not to receive religious instruction. The Jewish religion was as full of ceremonials as the pagan, and the intellectual part of it was confined to the lawyers, to the rabbinical hierarchy. But the preaching of the great doctrines of Christianity was made a peculiarly sacred office, and given to a class of men who avoided all secular pursuits. The Christian priest was the recognized head of the society which he taught and controlled. In process of time, he became a great dignitary, controlling various interests; but his first mission was to preach, and his first theme was a crucified Saviour. He ascended the pulpit every week as an authorized as well as a sacred teacher, and, in the illustration of his subjects, he was allowed great latitude in which to roam. It is not easy to appreciate what a difference there was between pagan and Christian communities from the rise of this new power, and we might also say institution, since the pulpit and the Sabbath are interlinked and associated together. Whatever the world has gained by the Sabbath, that gain is intensified and increased vastly by public teaching. It placed the Christian as far beyond the Jew, as the Jew was before beyond the pagan. It also created a sacerdotal caste. The people may have had the privilege of pouring out their hearts before the brethren, and of speaking for their edification, but all the members were not fitted for the secular office of teachers. Christianity claims the faculties of knowledge, as well as those of feeling. Teaching was early felt to be a great gift, implying not only superior knowledge, but superior wisdom and grace. Only a few possessed the precious charisma to address profitably the assembled people, [Greek: charisma didaskalias], and those few became the appointed guides of the Christian flocks, [Greek: didaskaloi]. Other officers of the new communities shared with them the administration, but the teacher was the highest officer, and he became gradually the presbyter, whose peculiar function it was to discourse to the people on the great themes which it was their duty to learn. And even after the presbyter became a bishop, it was his chief office to teach publicly, even as late as the fourth and fifth centuries. Leo and Gregory, the great bishops of Rome, were eloquent preachers.
Thus the church gradually claimed the great prerogative of eloquence. Eloquence was not born in the church, but it was sanctified, and set apart, and appropriated to a thousand new purposes, and especially identified with the public teaching of the people. The great mysteries, the profound doctrines, the suggestive truths, the touching histories, the practical duties of Christianity were seized and enforced by the public teacher; and eloquence appeared in the sermon. In pagan ages, eloquence was confined to the forum or the senate chamber, and was directed entirely into secular channels. It was always highly esteemed as the birthright of genius--an inspiration, like poetry, rather than an art to be acquired. But it was not always the handmaid of poetry and music; it was brought down to earth for practical purposes, and employed chiefly in defending criminals, or procuring the passage of laws, or stimulating the leaders of society to important acts. The gift of tongue was reserved for rhetoricians, lawyers, politicians, philosophers; not for priests, who were intercessors with the Divine. Now Christianity adopted all the arts of eloquence, and enriched them, and applied them to a variety of new subjects. She carried away in triumph the brightest ornament of the pagan schools, and placed it in the hands of her chosen ministers. The pulpit soon began to rival the forum in the displays of a heaven-born art, which was now consecrated to far loftier purposes than those to which it had been applied. As public instruction became more and more learned, it also became more and more eloquent, for the preacher had opportunity, subject, audience, motive, all of which are required for great perfection in public speaking. He assembled a living congregation at stated intervals; he had the range of all those lofty inquiries which entrance the soul; and he had souls to save--the greatest conceivable motive to a good man who realizes the truths of the Gospel. All human enterprises and schemes become ultimately insipid to a man who has no lofty view of benefiting mankind, or his family, or his friend. We were made to do good. Take away this stimulus, and energy itself languishes and droops. There is no object in life to a seeker of pleasure or gain, when once the passion is gratified. What object of pity so melancholy as a man worn out with egotistical excitements, and incapable of being amused. But he who labors for the good of others is never ennuied. The benevolent physician, the patriotic statesman, the conscientious lawyer, the enthusiastic teacher, the dreaming author, all work and toil in weary labors, with the hope of being useful to the bodies, or the intellects, or the minds of the people. This is the great condition of happiness. There is an excitement in gambling as in pleasure, in money-making as in money-spending; but it wears out, or exhausts the noble faculties, and ends in ennui or self-reproach and bitter disappointment. It is not the condition of our nature, which was made to be useful, to seek the good of others. They are the happiest and most esteemed who have this good constantly at heart. There can be no unhappiness to a man absorbed in doing good. He may be poor and persecuted like Socrates; he may walk barefooted, and have domestic griefs, and be deprived of his comforts--but he is serene, for the soul triumphs over the body. Now, what motive so grand as to save the immortal part of man. This desire filled the ancient Christian orator with a preternatural enthusiasm, as well as gave to him an unlimited power, and an imposing dignity. He was the most happy of mortals when led to the blazing fire of his persecutors, and he was the most august. The feeling that he was kindling a fire which should never be quenched, even that which was to burn up all the wicked idols of an idolatrous generation, unloosed his tongue and animated his features. The most striking examples of seraphic joy, of a sort of divine beauty playing upon the features, are among orators. In animated conversation, a person ordinarily homely, like Madame de Stael, becomes beautiful and impressive. But in the pulpit, when the sacred orator is moving a congregation with the fears and hopes of another world, there is a majesty in his beauty which is nowhere else so fully seen. There is no eloquence like that of the pulpit, when the preacher is gifted and in earnest. Greece had her Pericles and Demosthenes, and Rome her Hortensius and Cicero. Many other great orators we could mention. But when Greece and Rome had an intellectual existence such as that to which our modern times furnish no parallel, in our absorbing pursuit of pleasure and gain, and amid the wealth of mechanical inventions, there were, even in those classic lands, but few orators whose names have descended to our times; while, in the church, in a degenerated period, when literature and science were nearly extinct, there were a greater number of Christian orators than what classic antiquity furnished. Yea, in those dark and miserable ages which succeeded the fall of the Roman empire, there were in every land remarkable pulpit orators, like those who fanned the Crusades. There was no eloquence in the Middle Ages outside the church. Bernard exercised a far greater moral power than Cicero in the fullness of his fame. And in our modern times, what orators have arisen like those whom the Reformation produced, both in the Roman Catholic church, and among the numerous sects which protested against her? What orator has Germany given birth to equal in fame to Luther? What orator in France has reached the celebrity of Bossuet, or Bourdaloue, or Massillon? Even amid all the excitements attending the change of government, who have had power on the people like a Lacordaire or Monod? In England, the great orators have been preachers, with a very few exceptions; and these men would have been still greater in the arts of public speaking had they been trained in the church. In our day, we have seen great orators in secular life, but they yield in fascination either to those who are accustomed to speak from the sacred desk, or to those whose training has been clerical, like many of our popular lecturers. Nothing ever opened such an arena of eloquence as the preaching of the Gospel, either in the ancient, the mediaeval, or the modern world, not merely from the grandeur and importance of the themes discussed, but also from the number of the speakers. In a legislative assembly, where all are supposed to be able to address an audience, and some are expected to be eloquent, only two or three can be heard in a day. Only some twenty or thirty able speeches are delivered in Congress or Parliament in a whole session; but in England, or the United States, some thirty thousand preachers are speaking at the same time, many of whom are far more gifted, learned, and brilliant than any found in the great councils of the nation. Nor is this eloquence confined to the Protestant church; it exists also in the Roman Catholic in every land. There are no more earnest and inspiring orators than in Italy or France. Even in rude and unlettered and remote districts, we often hear specimens of eloquence which would be wonderful in capitals. What chance has the bar, in a large city, compared with the pulpit, for the display of eloquence? Probably there are more eloquent addresses delivered every Sunday from the various pulpits of Christendom than were pronounced by all the orators of Greece during the whole period of her political existence. Doubtless there are more touching and effective appeals made to the popular heart every Sunday in every Christian land, than are made during the whole year beside on subjects essentially secular. Then what an impulse has pulpit oratory given to objects of a strictly philanthropic character! The church has been the nurse and mother of all schemes of benevolence since it was organized. It is itself a great philanthropic institution, binding up the wounds of the prisoner, relieving the distressed, and stimulating great enterprises. For all of this the pulpit has been called upon, and has lent its aid; so that the world has been more indebted to the eloquence of divines than to any other source. Who can calculate the moral force of one hundred and fifty thousand to two hundred thousand Christian preachers in a world like ours, most of whom are arrayed on the side of morality and learning. It may be said that these benefits may more properly be considered to flow from Christianity as revealed in the Bible; that the Bible is the cause of all this great impulse to civilization. We do not object to such an interpretation; nevertheless, in specifying the influence of the church, even before the empire fell, the creation of pulpit eloquence should be mentioned, since this has contributed so much to the moral elevation of Christendom. Christianity would be shorn of half her triumphs were it not for the public preaching of her truths. Paganism had no public teachers who regularly taught the people and stimulated their noblest energies. It was a new institution, these Sabbath-day exercises, and has had an inconceivable influence on the progress and condition of the race. The power of the Gospel was indeed the main and primary cause; but the church must have the credit of appropriating what was most prized in the intellectual centres of antiquity, and giving to it a new direction. Christian oratory is also an interesting subject to present in merely its artistical relations. Its vast influence no one can question.
Again, who can estimate the debt which civilization, in its largest and most comprehensive sense, owes to the fathers of the early church, in the elaboration of Christian doctrine. They found the heathen world enslaved by a certain class of most degrading notions of God, of deity, of goodness, of the future, of rewards and punishments. Indeed, its opinions were wrong and demoralizing in almost every point pertaining to the spiritual relations of man. They met the wants of their times by seizing on the great radical principles of Christianity, which most directly opposed these demoralizing ideas, and by giving them the prominence which was needed. Moreover, in the church itself, opinions were from time to time broached, so intimately allied with pagan philosophies and oriental theogonies, that the faith of Christians was in danger of being subverted. The Scriptures were indeed recognized to contain all that is essential in Christian truth to know; but they still allowed great latitude of belief, and contradictory creeds were drawn from the same great authority. If the Bible was to be the salvation of man, or the great thesaurus of religious truth, it was necessary to systematize and generalize its great doctrines, both to oppose dangerous heathen customs and heretical opinions in the church itself. And more even than this, to set forth a standard of faith for all the ages which were to come; not an arbitrary system of dogmas, but those which the Scriptures most directly and emphatically recognized. Christian life had been set forth by the martyrs in the various forms of teaching, in the worship of God, in the exercise of those virtues and graces which Christ had enjoined, in benevolence, in charity, in faith, in prayer, in patience, in the different relations of social life, in the sacraments, in the fasts and festivals, in the occupations which might be profitably and honorably carried on. But Christianity influenced thought and knowledge as well as external relations. It did not declare a rigid system of doctrines when first promulgated. This was to be developed when the necessity required it. For two centuries there were but few creeds, and these very simple and comprehensive. Speculation had not then entered the ranks, nor the pagan spirit of philosophy. There was great unity of belief, and this centered around Christ as the Redeemer and Saviour of the world. But, in process of time, Christianity was forced to contend with Judaism, with Orientalism, and with Greek speculation, as these entered into the church itself, and were more or less embraced by its members. With downright Paganism there was a constant battle; but in this battle all ranks of Christians were united together. They were not distracted by any controversies whether idolatry should be or should not be tolerated. But when Gnostic principles were embraced by good men, those which, for instance, entered into monastic or ascetic life, it was necessary that some great genius should arise and expose their oriental origin, and lay down the Christian law definitely on that point. So when Manichaeism, and Arianism, and other heretical opinions, were defended and embraced by the Christians themselves, the fathers who took the side of orthodoxy in the great controversies which arose, rendered important services to all subsequent generations, since never, probably, were those subtle questions pertaining to the Trinity, and the human nature of Christ, and predestination, and other kindred topics, discussed with so much acumen and breadth. They occupied the thoughts of the whole age, and emperors entered into the debates on theological questions with an interest exceeding that of the worldly matters which claimed their peculiar attention. It is not easy for Christians of this age, when all the great doctrines of faith are settled, to appreciate the prodigious excitement which their discussion called forth in the times of Athanasius and Augustine. The whole intellect of the age was devoted to theological inquiries. Everybody talked about them, and they were the common theme on all public occasions. If discussions of subjects which once had such universal fascination can never return again, if they are passed like Olympic games, or the discussions of Athenian schools of philosophy, or the sports of the Colosseum, or the oracles of Dodona, or the bulls of mediaeval popes, or the contests of the tournament, or the "field of the cloth of gold," they still have a historical charm, and point to the great stepping-stones of human progress. If they are really grand and important ideas, which they claimed to be, they will continue to move the most distant generations. If they are merely dialectical deductions, they are among the profoundest efforts of reason in the Christian schools of philosophy.
We cannot, of course, enter into the controversies through which the church elaborated the system of doctrines now generally received, nor describe those great men who gave such dignity to theological inquiries. Clement was raised up to combat the Gnostics, Athanasius to head off the alarming spread of Arianism, and Augustine to proclaim the efficacy of divine grace against the Pelagians. The treatises of these men and of other great lights on the Trinity, on the incarnation, and on original sin, had as great an influence on the thinking of the age and of succeeding ages, as the speculations of Plato, or the syllogisms of Thomas Aquinas, or the theories of Kepler, or the expositions of Bacon, or the deductions of Newton, or the dissertations of Burke, or the severe irony of Pascal. They did not create revolutions, since they did not labor to overturn, but they stimulated the human faculties, and conserved the most valued knowledge. Their definite opinions became the standard of faith among the eastern Christians, and were handed down to the Germanic barbarians. They were adopted by the Catholic church, and preserved unity of belief in ages of turbulence and superstition. One of the great recognized causes of modern civilization was the establishment of universities. In these the great questions which the fathers started and elaborated were discussed with renewed acumen. Had there been no Origen, or Tertullian, or Augustine, there would have been no Anselm, or Abelard, or Erigena. The speculations and inquiries of the Alexandrian divines controlled the thinking of Europe for one thousand years, and gave that intensely theological character to the literature of the Middle Ages, directing the genius of Dante as well as that of Bernard. Their influence on Calvin was as marked as on Bossuet. Pagan philosophy had no charm like the great verities of the Christian faith. Augustine and Athanasius threw Plato and Aristotle into the shade. Nothing more preeminently marked the great divines whom the Reformation produced, than the discussion of the questions which the fathers had systematized and taught. Nor was the interest confined to divines. Louis XIV. discussed free will and predestination with Racine and Fenelon, even as the courtiers of Louis XV. discussed probabilities and mental reservations. And in New England, at Puritan firesides, the passing stranger in the olden times, when religion was a life, entered into theological discussions with as much zest as he now would describe the fluctuations of stocks or passing vanities of crinoline and hair dyes. Nor is it one of the best signs of this material age that the interest in the great questions which tasked the intellects of our fathers is passing away. But there is a mighty permanence in great ideas, and the time, we trust, will come again when indestructible certitudes will receive more attention than either politics or fashions.
The influence of the fathers is equally seen in the music and poetry which have come down from their times. The church succeeded to an inheritance of religious lyrics unrivaled in the history of literature. The Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis were sung from the earliest Christian ages. The streets of the eastern cities echoed to the seductive strains of Arius and Chrysostom. Flavian and Diodorus introduced at Antioch the antiphonal chant, which, improved by Ambrose, and still more by Gregory, became the joy of blessed saints in those turbulent ages, when singing in the choir was the amusement as well as the duty of a large portion of religious people. So numerous were the hymns of Ambrose, Hilary, Augustine, and others, that they became the popular literature of centuries, and still form the most beautiful part of the service of the Catholic church. Who can estimate the influence of hymns which have been sung for fifty successive generations? What a charm is still attached to the mediaeval chants! The poetry of the early church is preserved in those sacred anthems. They inspired the barbarians with enthusiasm, even as they had kindled the rapture of earlier Christians in the church of Milan. The lyrical poets are immortal, and exert a wide-spread influence. The fervent stanzas of Watts, of Steele, of Wesley, of Heber, are sung from generation to generation. The hymns of Luther are among the most valued of his various works. "From Greenland's icy mountains"--that sacred lyric--shall live as long as the "Elegy in a Country Church-yard," or the "Cotter's Saturday Night," yea, shall survive the "Night Thoughts," and the "Course of Time." There is nothing in Grecian or Roman poetry that fills the place of the psalmody of the early church. The songs of Ambrose were his richest legacy to triumphant barbarians, consoling the monk in his dreary cell and the peasant on his vine-clad hills, speaking the sentiment of a universal creed, and consecrating the most tender recollections. So that Christian literature, in its varied aspects, its exegesis, its sermons, its creeds, and its psalmody, if not equal in artistic merit to the classical productions of antiquity, have had an immeasurable influence on human thought and life, not in the Roman world merely, but in all subsequent ages.
But the great truths which the fathers proclaimed in reference to the moral and social relations of society are still more remarkable in their subsequent influence.
The great idea of Christian equality struck at the root of that great system of slavery which was one of the main causes of the ruin of the empire. Christianity did not break up slavery; it might never have annihilated it under a Roman rule, but it protested against it so soon as it was clothed with secular power. As in the sight of heaven there is no distinction of persons, so the idea of social equality gained ground as the relations of Christianity to practical life were understood. The abolition of slavery, and the general amelioration of the other social evils of life, are all a logical sequence from the doctrine of Christian equality,--that God made of one blood all the nations of the earth, that they are equally precious in his sight, and have equal claims to the happiness of heaven. All theories of human rights radiate from, and centre around, this consoling doctrine. That we are born free and equal may not, practically, be strictly true; but that the relations of society ought to be viewed as they are regarded in the Scriptures, which reveal the dignity of the soul and its glorious destinies, cannot be questioned; so that oppression of man by man, and injustice, and unequal laws militate with one of the great fundamental revelations of God. Impress Christian equality on the mind of man, and social equality follows as a matter of course. The slave was recognized to be a man, a person, and not a thing. Whenever he sat down, as he did once a week, beside his master, in the adoration of a common Lord, the ignominy of his hard condition was removed, even if his obligations to obedience were not abrogated. As a future citizen of heaven, his importance on the earth was more and more recognized, until his fetters were gradually removed.
From the day when Christian equality was declared, the foundations of slavery were assailed, and the progress of freedom has kept pace with Christian civilization, although the Apostles did not directly denounce the bondage that disgraced the ancient world. It was something to declare the principles which, logically carried out, would ultimately subvert the evil, for no evil can stand forever which is in opposition to logical deductions from the truths of Christianity. Moral philosophy is as much a series of logical deductions from the doctrine of loving our neighbor as ourself as that great network of theological systems which Augustine and Calvin elaborated from the majesty and sovereignty of God. Those distinctions which Christ removed by his Gospel of universal brotherhood can never return or coexist with the progress of the truth. A vast social revolution began when the eternal destinies of the slave were announced. It will not end with the mere annihilation of slavery as an institution; it will affect the relations of the poor and the rich, the unlucky and the prosperous, in every Christian country until justice and love become dominant principles. What a stride from Roman slavery to mediaeval serfdom! How benignant the attitude of the church, in all ages, to the poor man! The son of a peasant becomes a priest, and rises, in the Christian hierarchy, to become a ruler of the world. There was no way for a poor peasant boy to rise in the Middle Ages, except in the church. He attracts the notice of some beneficent monk; he is educated in the cloister; he becomes a venerated brother, an abbot, perhaps a bishop or a pope. Had he remained in service to a feudal lord, he never could have risen above his original rank. The church raises him from slavery, and puts upon his brow her seal and in his hands the thunderbolts of spiritual power, thus giving him dignity and consideration and independence. Rising, as the clergy did in the Middle Ages, in all ages, from the lower and middle classes, they became as much opposed to slavery as they were to war. It was thus in the bosom of the church that liberty was sheltered and nourished. Nor has the church ever forgotten her mission to the poor, or sympathized, as a whole, with the usurpations of kings. She may have aimed at dominion, like Hildebrand and Innocent III., but it was spiritual domination, control of the mind of the world. But she ever sympathized with oppressed classes, like Becket, even as he defied the temporal weapons of Henry II. The Jesuits, even, respected the dignity of the poor. Their errors were trust in machinery and unbounded ambition, but they labored in their best ages for the good of the people. And in our times, the most consistent and uncompromising foes of despotism and slavery are in the ranks of the church. The clergy have been made, it is true, occasionally, the tools of despotism, and have been absurdly conservative of their own privileges, but on the whole, have ever lifted up their voices in defense of those who are ground down.
The elevation of woman, too, has been caused by the doctrine of the equality of the sexes which Christianity revealed; not "woman's rights" as interpreted by infidels; not the ignoring of woman's destiny of subservience to man, as declared in the Garden of Eden and by St. Paul, but her glorious nature which fits her for the companionship of man. Heathendom reduces her to slavery, dependence, and vanity. Christianity elevates her by developing her social and moral excellences, her more delicate nature, her elevation of soul, her sympathy with sorrow, her tender and gracious aid. The elevation of woman did not come from the natural traits of Germanic barbarians, but from Christianity. Chivalry owes its bewitching graces to the influence of Christian ideas. Clemency and magnanimity, gentleness and sympathy, did not spring from German forests, but the teachings of the clergy. Veneration for woman was the work of the church, not of pagan civilization or Teutonic simplicity. The equality of the sexes was acknowledged by Jerome when he devoted himself to the education of Roman matrons, and received from the hand of Paula the means of support while he, labored in his cell at Bethlehem. How much more influential was Fabiola or Marcella than Aspasia or Phryne! It was woman who converted barbaric kings, and reigned, not by personal charms, like Eastern beauties, but by the solid virtues of the heart. Woman never occupied so proud a position in an ancient palace as in a feudal castle. When Paula visited the East, she was welcomed by Christian bishops, and the proconsul of Palestine surrendered his own palace for her reception, not because she was high in rank, but because her virtues had gone forth to all the world; and when she died, a great number of the most noted people followed her body to the grave with sighs and sobs. The sufferings of the female martyrs are the most pathetic exhibitions of moral greatness in the history of the early church. And in the Middle Ages, whatever is most truly glorious or beautiful can be traced to the agency of woman. Is a town to be spared for a revolt, or a grievous tax remitted, it is a Godiva who intercedes and prevails. Is an imperious priest to be opposed, it is an Ethelgiva who alone dares to confront him even in the king's palace. It is Ethelburga, not Ina, who reigns among the Saxons--not because the king is weak, but his wife is wiser than he. A mere peasant-girl, inspired with the sentiment of patriotism, delivers a whole nation, dejected and disheartened, for such was Joan of Arc. Bertha, the slighted wife of Henry, crosses the Alps in the dead of winter, with her excommunicated lord, to remove the curse which deprived him of the allegiance of his subjects. Anne, Countess of Warwick, dresses herself like a cook-maid to elude the visits of a royal duke, and Ebba, abbess of Coldingham, cuts off her nose, to render herself unattractive to the soldiers who ravage her lands. Philippa, the wife of the great Edward, intercedes for the inhabitants of Calais, and the town is spared.
The feudal woman gained respect and veneration because she had the moral qualities which Christianity developed. If she entered with eagerness into the pleasures of the chase or the honor of the banquet, if she listened with enthusiasm to the minstrel's lay and the crusader's tale, her real glory was her purity of character and unsullied fame. In ancient Rome men were driven to the circus and the theatre for amusement and for solace, but among the Teutonic races, when converted to Christianity, rough warriors associated with woman without seductive pleasures to disarm her. It was not riches, nor elegance of manners, nor luxurious habits, nor exemption from stern and laborious duties which gave fascination to the Christian woman of the Middle Ages. It was her sympathy, her fidelity, her courage, her simplicity, her virtues, her noble self-respect, which made her a helpmeet and a guide. She was always found to intercede for the unfortunate, and willing to endure suffering. She bound up the wounds of prisoners, and never turned the hungry from her door. And then how lofty and beautiful her religious life. History points with pride to the religious transports and spiritual elevation of Catharine of Sienna, of Margaret of Anjou, of Gertrude of Saxony, of Theresa of Spain, of Elizabeth of Hungary, of Isabel of France, of Edith of England. How consecrated were the labors of woman amid feudal strife and violence. Whence could have arisen such a general worship of the Virgin Mary had not her beatific loveliness been reflected in the lives of the women whom Christianity had elevated? In the French language she was worshiped under the feudal title of Notre Dame, and chivalrous devotion to the female sex culminated in the reverence which belongs to the Queen of Heaven. And hence the qualities ascribed to her, of Virgo Fidelis, Mater Castissima, Consolatrix Afflictorum, were those to which all lofty women were exhorted to aspire. The elevation of woman kept pace with the extension of Christianity. Veneration for her did not arise until she showed the virtues of a Monica and a Nonna, but these virtues were the fruit of Christian ideas alone.
We might mention other ideas which have entered into our modern institutions, such as pertain to education, philanthropy, and missionary zeal. The idea of the church itself, of an esoteric band of Christians amid the temptations of the world, bound together by rules of discipline as well as communion of soul, is full of grandeur and beauty. And the unity of this church is a sublime conception, on which the whole spiritual power of the popes rested when they attempted to rule in peace and on the principles of eternal love. However perverted the idea of the unity of the church became in the Middle Ages, still who can deny that it was the mission of the church to create a spiritual power based on the hopes and fears of a future life? The idea of a theocracy forms a prominent part of the polity of Calvin, as of Hildebrand himself. It is the basis of his legislation. He maintained it was long concealed in the bosom of the primitive church, and was gradually unfolded, though in a corrupt form, by the popes, the worthiest of whom kept the idea of a divine government continually in view, and pursued it with a clear knowledge of its consequences. And those familiar with the lofty schemes of Leo and Gregory, will appreciate their efforts in raising up a power which should be supreme in barbarous ages, and preserve what was most to be valued of the old civilization. The autocrat of Geneva clung to the necessity of a spiritual religion, and aimed to realize that which the Middle Ages sought, and sought in vain, that the church must always remain the mother of spiritual principles, while the state should be the arm by which those principles should be enforced. Like Hildebrand, he would, if possible, have hurled the terrible weapon of excommunication. In cutting men off from the fold, he would also have cut them off from the higher privileges of society. He may have carried his views too far, but they were founded on the idea of a church against which the gates of hell could not prevail. Who can estimate the immeasurable influence of such an idea, which, however perverted, will ever be recognized as one of the great agencies of the world? A church without a spiritual power, is inconceivable; nor can it pass away, even before the material tendencies of a proud and rationalistic civilization. It will assert its dignity when thrones and principalities shall crumble in the dust.
Such are among the chief ideas which the fathers taught, and which have entered even into the modern institutions of society, and form the peculiar glory of our civilization. When we remember this, we feel that the church has performed no mean mission, even if it did not save the Roman empire. The glory of warriors, of statesmen, of artists, of philosophers, of legislators, and of men of science and literature in the ancient world, still shines, and no one would dim it, or hide it from the admiration of mankind. But the purer effulgence of the great lights of the church eclipses it all, and will shine brighter and brighter, until the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head. This is the true sun which shall dissipate the shadows of superstition and ignorance that cover so great a portion of the earth, and this shall bring society into a healthful glow of unity and love.
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In another volume I shall present, more in detail, the labors of the Christian Fathers in founding the new civilization which still reigns among the nations. And in the creation which succeeded destruction we shall be additionally impressed with the wisdom and beneficence of the Great First Cause, through whose providences our fallen race is led to the new Eden, where truth and justice and love reign in perpetual beauty and glory.